Last Friday at Promontory Summit in Utah was a red-letter day for retracing the history of the Transcontinental Railroad.
It was the reenactment of the driving of the golden spike through a railroad log by Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, 150 years ago — May 10, 1869. His blow celebrated the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad with the meeting of Union Pacific construction crews starting from Omaha, Nebraska, in the east, and Central Pacific crews starting from Sacramento in the west.
But when the Transcontinental Railroad was described in news reports as “linking the Atlantic to the Pacific,” that was a stretch — actually by 40 miles, the distance between Sacramento and San Francisco.
We have to look closer to home, not far by any means — to the Mossdale railroad bridge over the San Joaquin River some 7 miles east of Tracy and now within the city limits of Lathrop — to pinpoint the location of where the “link” was actually joined some four months later.
The rail line constructed in 1869 from Sacramento south to Lathrop was to turn west and cross the river toward the Altamont Pass and the Bay Area. Only completion of the Mossdale bridge was needed to put that route into service.
But when the golden spike (or spikes) was driven on May 10, 1869, in Utah, work on the Mossdale bridge was still underway. For several months, passengers heading from Sacramento to San Francisco got off the train on the east side of the river and were transported across the river on a ferry to a waiting train that headed west across the Altamont Pass to Niles and then to the Alameda ferry slip, crossing the bay to San Francisco.
It was on Sept. 8, 1869, that the Mossdale bridge was put into service. It created the last link to make it possible for train travelers, using several railroad lines in the process, to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific.
We have to remember that in 1869 there was no Tracy. That had to wait eight years. In the meantime, the westbound trains from Lathrop heading over the Altamont Pass passed by the village of Banta and the coaling station known as Ellis, 3 miles west of what would become Tracy in 1878.
Historical reports have noted that the same Mossdale bridge opened in 1869 is still in use today — 150 years later. But Tracy native Jeff Pribyl, a retired San Francisco architect, corrects that.
“Actually, the current bridge is the third bridge on the site. The first 1869 bridge was a single-track wood truss,” he wrote me in an email. “It lasted until 1895 when the railroad (then renamed the Southern Pacific) replaced it with a steel-truss bridge.”
Jeff went on to report that in 1910-11, when Tracy was becoming a division point for the S.P., the railroad double-tracked the line between Tracy and Stockton — except for the Mossdale bridge.
“As a war measure (WWII), the railroad built the bridge we see today in 1942, a double-track Warren Through-truss vertical-lift bridge. The second track between Tracy and Stockton was removed in the early 1960s.”
But alas, that second track across the bridge may be reinstalled in the next couple of years. The proposed Valley Link light rail system wants to lay track alongside existing Union Pacific tracks on the same right of way used by the Tracy-Stockton line.
If that works out, the Mossdale bridge could again become an important final link, this time connecting two major California geographic areas — the Central Valley and the Bay Area.
And by the way, how about a 150-year (sesquicentennial) bridge-opening celebration this coming Sept. 8 at River Islands, the next-door neighbor to the Mossdale bridge? No spike this time. How about Ron and Susan Dell’Osso smashing a pumpkin?