Media Life: Take a time trip back to 1911 and the Auburn trestle over I-80

By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at

or (530) 852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.      

Think about the Union Pacific railway trestle over Interstate 80 for a moment.

It’s perhaps Auburn’s most overlooked icon.

And it’s been around for a very long time – but not in the same structural formation of steel and engineering smarts that you see today.

The 1911 photo that you see shows work progressing on the trestle as construction inches over Auburn Ravine and what was then a dirt road leading from Auburn to the thriving fruit orchards of Newcastle.

The trestle would be completed that year, allowing completion of a second set of tracks through Auburn. The first tracks reached Auburn with construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1865 as it moved into the mountains.

Roger Staab, co-author of “Railroads of Placer County,” a volume in the Arcadia Publishing Images of Rail series, said that two factors drove the decision to double track through Auburn.

One had to do with the demand for freight trains along what was becoming an increasingly popular route for shipments to and from California along a ribbon of steel that stretched to Chicago and beyond.


Bottleneck breaker

Bottlenecks were common both in the Sierra and below Auburn and a second factor wasn’t helping either. The construction in 1864 was done at a less-than-steady grade. By the 20th century, trains were getting heavier and needed a smoother run through Auburn.

The new track would eventually take a circuitous route to the northwest around much of Auburn’s population base, linking with the 1864 track north of the city for a parallel run from Bowman to Clipper Gap. A single track would not appear again until past Colfax.

The 1911 photo shows the accoutrements of trestle construction at that time – most notable a “donkey” steam engine that would provide the mechanized horsepower to help lift heavy steel up to the main trestle construction from the ground with a crane boom.

The work on the second track also meant a second train station for passengers on Nevada Street. The building survived through the past decade and was used in recent years as a feed store hay storage area. Similar in architecture to the Lincoln Way passenger depot now occupied by the Placer County Gold Rush Museum, the Nevada Street station was recently replaced by a metal structure, Staab said.


Autos spur change

With the advent of the automobile and the use of the opening underneath the trestle as part of a major continental thoroughfare, the steel behemoth has been structurally tweaked to allow more autos through.

The first changes were in the late 1930s or early 1940s when Highway 40 was punched through Auburn.

The second round of adjustments was in the 1950s as Interstate 80 work made the roadway even wider.

One of the biggest changes was the removal of triangular girders and underpinnings and the addition of a stronger support system. Those changes can be seen clearly in the 2018 photo of the bridge that shows the Amtrak California Zephyr streaking over I-80 on its regular trestle pass at about noon on a recent Monday.

The trestle is one of those easy-to-ignore Auburn icons.

It’s also a “welcome home” sign for many Auburnites – whether they’re returning as commuters from a long day of work or coming back from the Sacramento Airport after a lengthier sojourn elsewhere.

And that “welcome” has been taking place for generations.

Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at or (530) 852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.