Shortly after cessation of hostilities of World War I the agricultural community of Merced County required more irrigation capacity. The only major river in the eastern part of the county that could be developed as a major source was the Merced River. The Merced River had been a source for relatively small irrigation project in the past. One such project was the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water irrigation system. Also, the river had also been dammed for small hydroelectric power plants for mining operations and the San Joaquin Light and Power Company.
The Merced Irrigation District, M.I.D., searched for an ideal location to build a major dam to impound water for agriculture and to produce hydroelectric power. The search resulted in the selection of the general site of the old Exchequer mining dam. At that point the Merced Canyon chokes down to a narrow gap between sides of the canyon. The Exchequer site was an ideal location for a large dam with more than ample room for a large reservoir.
The major portion of the Yosemite Valley railroad operated in the Merced Canyon. The selected area for the dam and its reservoir would cause approximately one fifth of the entire rail line to be relocated. The 1922 surveys conducted by the Merced Irrigation District resulted in a relocation plan for a "high line" rail route for the railroad so that the irrigation district build the dam at Exchequer and the reservoir. Frank Drum, president of the railroad, did not agree with all aspects of the irrigation districtís plans for the relocation of the railroad. Mr. Drum demanded one million dollars for the relocation. The M.I.D. did not even consider Drumís demand. The entire project was at a stand still for several months because of the disagreement over the relocation. In late October 1922, the two organizations entered into arbitration. The arbitration helped to get the project moving again and in July 1923 the Yosemite Valley RR and M.I.D. began calling for bid to build the "high line" section of the railroad.
In August 1923 Frank Drum suddenly died of an internal hemorrhage. He had been recovering for several months after a major surgery. Fears arose that his death may cause more delays in the relocating of the railroad, hence causing the dam to be delayed. But the fears were ill founded. All continued to move forward.
The contracts were let to the major contractors to build the dam and relocate the Yosemite Valley railroad between Merced Falls and Detwiller. The same average grade was maintained as the original route along the river. The new route would be three quarters of a mile shorter than the original line. Overall the new section was 16.75 miles.
The railroad relocation contract was given to the R. Rolandi Company. The "high line" included four tunnels whose combined length equaled 3,617 feet and major steel bridges. The longest bridge would cross the reservoir near the location of the Pleasant Valley station. Pleasant Valley would be flooded when the entire project was completed. The Rolandi Company did not build the bridges, it only did the earthwork, tunnels and concrete work. The Rolandi Company subcontracted work to the Davis, Heller, and Pearce Company.
The Bent Brothers of Los Angeles had the contract for building the dam. They along with their subcontractors gave lots of work to the Yosemite Valley Railroad Company. The Bent Brothers opened a gravel quarry near Hopeton. The Yosemite Valley railroad bought fifty used gravel cars to augment their small fleet of hopper cars to move the gravel from Hopeton to the batch mixing plants for the dam and bridge piers.
The United States Steel Products Company was awarded the contracts for the steel bridges.
In 1925 the work was at rapid pace. The Yosemite Valley railroad not only profited by moving large amounts of supplies and equipment, it operated excursion trains periodically to the dam site so that locals from Merced and the surrounding area could view the progress being made with their tax money.
Since the work on the "high line" and the dam were concurrent, it was necessary for the railroad to operate on its original line during the construction. The dam builder left a tunnel through the dam for the railroad. Upon completion of the "high line" and its acceptance in April 1926 the new line was opened for trains. At that time the tunnel was filled with concrete. The old line of the railroad was to be salvaged - but - the story has it that the spring run off was so great and fast that the reservoir filled so rapidly that all the iron rails could not be salvaged. Hence some rails are still at the bottom of the reservoir - 75 years later.
The railroad continued to have excursions to the dam site after the dam was completed. The largest was the excursion trip on the day the dam was dedicated. The large steel bridge at Barrett was also an attraction for the excursionists.
The following pictures were taken during the relocation of the railroad. These pictures are from the collection of Mr. L. A. Foster, the last general manager off the Y.V.R.R. Thanks to the late Mr. Donald Foster, his son, for the photographs
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