Mt. Diablo Coal and the Fight Between The Railroads

By The Honorable A. F. Bray
Contra Costa County, California Broadcast Station
KLX, Oakland, California Number 119
August 22, 1938

Reminiscent of an industry that in the 1860's was a very important one in the Bay Area, and which now no longer exists is a case brought by the Contra Costa Railroad Company against the Mount Diablo Railroad Company and others. On the northerly slopes of Mount Diablo today there exists the ghost towns of Nortonville and Somersville. Nothing is left of them but the ruins of old stores and homes and mine shafts, but in the 1860's these were thriving communities for there were located the coal mines which supported the early Oaklander and San Franciscan with the fuel to keep his factories going and his home and store warm. Ton after ton of coal was mined there, placed upon flat cars and transported by railroad to the bay at what was then known as New York Landing, but is now known as Pittsburg, transferred to barges and brought by water to Oakland and San Francisco.

Coal mining was a very thriving industry and hundreds of men were employed in it. These mines never were exhausted of the supply of coal, but it was of a rather low grade and when the transcontinental railroad was built coal of a better grade from Utah, Wyoming and other states was brought in and drove the low grade Mount Diablo coal off the market, forced the closing down of the mines and the change of prosperous communities to abandoned ghost towns. But it was at the beginning of the coal mining in that region that the following law suit took place.

It seems that in 1861 the legislature granted a railroad franchise to the Contra Costa Railroad Company to construct and maintain a railroad from these coal mines in Contra Costa County located on the slopes of Mount Diablo to a point on the San Joaquin River or Suisun Bay that would admit of the delivery of the coal directly from the railroad cars into vessels which could then transport the same down the bay. Immediately the company commenced the construction of its railroad.

When it arrived at the land of a man name Moss it ran into trouble. He did not want any steam trains running through his property and frightening his cattle and horses, so he refused to either give or sell a right of way across his land. Thereupon the company brought suit to condemn a right of way for their purposes. Then along came another railroad company known as the Mount Diablo Railroad Company which appeared in the proceeding and stated that it had also been given a franchise by the legislature to build a railroad from the coal mines to the water and that there was only room for one railroad along the canyon on Moss' property leading to the mines, and that it should be given the right of way rather than the other company. There then ensued a merry scrap.

Two railroad companies, each wanting a right of way across a farmer's property, and the farmer asking the court not to give it to either one claiming that there was no law in California which required a farmer to give up any of this land to any railroad company. But, after considerable difficulty, the Court decided that the farmer would have to listen to the noise of a train of coal cars running over his farm, and that as the Contra Costa Railroad Company had received its franchise a month or so before the Mount Diablo Railroad Company received its and had actually started building its road before the latter by about a week, the Court would give the right of way to the company that was first before the legislature and first on the ground.

It might be interesting to call attention to the fact that in Nortonville, one of the former thriving coal mining towns just mentioned there is a cemetery in which were buried the miners who lost their lives in working in the coal, and where most of the tombstones are inscribed in Welsh. It is a quaint and interesting place and well worth a visit.


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