U.S. STEEL AND THE "SN DETOUR"
As the years rolled by, the Sacramento Northern shrank from being a busy, high capacity electric railroad to a meandering diesel shortline. However, SN's trains to the U.S. Steel plant in Pittsburg (note that there is no "h" at the end of the name) were its most impressive service, a service that was fully up to class-1 railroading standards.
The first mention of a steel mill at Pittsburg (known as Black Diamond before 1910) was in 1908. Columbia Steel Company began construction of a mill which apparently opened around 1910. This company remelted imported pig iron and scrap to make steel with moderate success for several years. The mill was described at various times as having open-hearth furnaces, sheet and wire mills, and a foundry. In 1922, this mill and other company holdings were reorganized as the Columbia Steel Corporation and merged with the Utah Coal and Coke Company. A blast furnace near Provo, Utah, was supplied with coke, limestone and iron ore from company-owned properties in Utah. The resulting pig iron was remelted at Pittsburg and at two other mills on the west coast. The entire company was merged into the giant United States Steel Corporation in 1929.
The steel mill was not originally an SN customer. The mill was served by the Santa Fe, whose Stockton-Richmond mainline still runs past the plant. The SN reached Pittsburg from the west over a short branch off the mainline at West Pittsburg, and stopped well short of the mill and other industries east of town. In 1927, the Western Pacific proposed to extend the SN branch a little over a mile to the steel mill and other important customers. The Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific both vigorously opposed the extension, but the shippers were much in favor of additional rail service, especially Columbia Steel. The extension was finally approved, and the SN tracks were shortly linked up with the Santa Fe near the mill. The extension went into service April 1, 1930.
Beginning in 1944, U.S. Steel shipped various products to the Pittsburg mill from their new primary furnace complex in Geneva, Utah. This routing began with the Denver & Rio Grande Western at Geneva. The cars were turned over to the WP at Roper Yard near Salt Lake City for the long trip across the Utah and Nevada deserts. The SN picked up the cars in Sacramento and took them down their mainline, across Suisun Bay on the ferry Ramon, and finally via a short movement up the Pittsburg branch to the mill. Huge coils of steel were sent to Pittsburg to be rerolled into thin sheets for military vehicles and other war uses. U.S. Steel had become one of the Western Pacific's most lucrative customers, and one that was vital to the war effort.
With the return of peace in 1945, the steel traffic briefly slowed, then boomed again as civilian industries tooled up to make new consumer products. The Pittsburg works was modernized with tinplate and galvanizing units, and a cold reduction mill. It produced many steel products, but Columbia Work's most important product was tinned sheet to make cans for California's huge food processing industry. Unfortunately, the SN's deteriorating track and locomotives, now worn out after four years of heavy use during the war, were barely able to keep up with the business. Disaster struck on July 24, 1951, when the Arcade Trestle collapsed under motor 650 and a train of 21 gondolas filled with steel coils. The WP immediately made arrangements with the Santa Fe to use their line between Stockton and Pittsburg for both steel and for general freight consigned to Pittsburg and points west. The Arcade Trestle was rebuilt, but in 1954 the entire mainline between Chipps and Sacramento was reduced to an unimportant branch when the carferry Ramon was taken out of service. Trackage rights over the Santa Fe between Stockton and Pittsburg became a permanent arrangement.
The Santa Fe was not about to have one of its most important mainlines tied in knots by the SN's pokey little 44-tonners. They insisted that the SN provide mainline power for the steel trains. At first locomotives were pulled from the WP pool. The WP tried ALCO S2 and S4 switchers coupled back-to-back, but they proved too slow. FT 902A-B was also used on this train. The SN was, of course, required to provide full crews for the steel train. In addition, the Santa Fe furnished both a pilot engineer and conductor. Later these extra men were removed when the SN crews passed Santa Fe's rules examinations.
In 1957 the SN purchased three F-3A locomotives from Hyman-Michaels, scrapper of the defunct New York, Ontario & Western (NYO&W 501-503). The cost was just over $50,000 apiece, a bargain price that was repaid several times over during their 14 years of SN service. The first two became SN 301 and 302, but were soon renumbered 301A and 301D. The third, SN 303 on paper, was immediately leased to the WP as their 801D. It spent most of its life in the parent road's freight pool (despite its passenger-series number). The F-3s ran until 1971, when they were retired and traded into EMD for credit against two GP-40s. Although the SN's own GP-7s were ostensibly transfered from the WP to use on the Pittsburg run, 711 and 712 rarely were used on the steel train. Power for the later steel trains was again provided by whatever WP locomotives were available at Sacramento or Stockton. Often these were GP-20 engines, frequently 2009, until this unit became a regular on the Tidewater Southern.
The steel train, known as the "SN Detour", usually operated out of South Sacramento where the coil cars were pulled from regular WP freights. It ran south on the WP to the Stockton yard where the train went into a siding known as the "Diner Track". The locomotives would now run around their train ( to face compass direction north). This put them on the proper end facing Pittsburg for operation over the Santa Fe mainline. The the train then headed back toward Sacramento, switching over to the Santa Fe where the two lines crossed just north of the WP yard. The locomotives were usually run back-to-back and carried a caboose on each end to simplify the switching at both Stockton and Pittsburg.
At times, the "SN Detour" could have as many as 80 cars, especially if there was added general freight. The train sometimes operated as far west as Clyde, Concord, or even Walnut Creek, if there were many cars for those destinations. Local cars were more often handed off to the branchline switcher stationed at West Pittsburg. In the early days, "SN Detour" locomotives might be turned on the wye at West Pittsburg, which explains how FT 902A-B could be used on this train (WP 902-B was cabless booster, or "B-unit"). When cab locomotives were coupled back-to-back, there was no need to turn them at Pittsburg.
Much has changed since the WP's merger into the Union Pacific. All Pittsburg branch west of the steel mill as far as the West Pittsburg wye has been lifted in recent years. The SN and WP locomotives have been retired or sold. Even the mill is different. Now much modernized, it is known as USS-POSCO Industries, a joint venture with a Korean steel maker. The UP still serves the mill by the former SP's Mococo Local, which operates out of the Ozol Yard near Martinez. The steel comes from other sources, since the USS Geneva works closed several years ago.