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The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad operated as it usually did on April 10, 1901. It ran as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. The wood burning engine proceeded along its customary route without delay or interruption, giving no indication that the line’s president and owner had passed away.
John Flint Kidder had taken charge of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad in 1884. He was a construction engineer with both the vision to maintain the line and the business sense to manage it. The twenty-five-mile route connected the gold mines in northern California to the outside world. The tracks threaded the canyons and rolling countryside between Nevada City and Grass Valley and the Central Pacific main line in Colfax. The route included steep grades, two tunnels, and several trestles, the highest being ninety-five feet above the Bear River. Kidder’s Narrow Gauge carried more gold (some $300 million) than any other short line in the state. He was well respected and admired by a community that owed its progress to him.
Concern over the economic impact Kidder’s passing would have on the area was so great it’s surprising the railroad ran at all the day he died. Business owners whom benefitted from the railroad worried there would be an interruption in service that would threaten their livelihood. Rumors about who would take John Kidder’s place as head of the rail line did not immediately set the minds of those businessmen at ease.
John Kidder’s widow, Sarah, was aware there were those who doubted she was the right one to assume control of the Narrow Gauge Railroad, but she was determined to prove she was up to the task. Less than a month after her husband’s death, stockholders chose Sarah as John’s successor. According to an article in the September 20, 1901, edition of the Oakdale Leader, when Sarah Kidder accepted the job “she had the distinction of being one of the very few women, if not the only one, who ever held such a bona fide position and title.”
Sole ownership of the railroad was left to Sarah, but that didn’t automatically mean she would be the candidate the board of directors would select to manage it. She earned the right to do the work because, for more than a year prior to John Kidder’s death, Sarah went through the process of familiarizing herself with the business affairs of the company. The Oakdale Leader article of September 20, 1901, noted that “Mrs. Kidder is not the sort of a woman who desired to taste the duties and responsibilities that usually fall to men.”
Certainly, when Sarah and John were married in 1874, she did not foresee being without her husband and becoming the head of a railroad line. Sarah was fifty-nine when she became the president of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. She’d spent the bulk of her married life in Grass Valley, California, in an ornate, three-story mansion not far from the rail yard where her husband’s office was located.
Prior to John’s death, Sarah’s focus was maintaining the family home. She had a passion for gardening and flowers, and she decorated the exterior of the house with roses of every kind. The Kidder mansion was the setting of many social events in the county, and Sarah was considered to be a most charming hostess. A number of politicians, including the governor of the state, celebrated authors, and well-known athletes spent time at the Kidder residence.
Sarah and John had no children of their own, but they did have a niece named Beatrice whom they adopted. When Sarah wasn’t busy taking care of the home and entertaining, she and Beatrice spent time together visiting friends in the neighborhood. If John hadn’t passed away, she would have been content to be a mother and maintain the Kidder mansion.
Being around the railroad business for so long, Sarah had a working knowledge of the business and was mindful of the fact that she needed to surround herself with individuals who were experts in the field. She chose her husband’s right-hand man, Charles P. Loughridge, as the general manager of the line as well as three, additionally respected executives to serve as her vice president, treasurer, and master mechanic. From the moment Sarah took over as president, she made it known to the stockholders and board of directors that she was going to run the railroad efficiently and honestly.
The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad was not without its problems when Sarah assumed control of the line. An electric railways company was expanding its interests and looking to connect Sacramento with the ranch land area of Marysville. Proponents for the Northern Electric Railway had hopes of taking the line into Nevada County, and if that happened the life of the Narrow Gauge Railroad would be in serious jeopardy. They were afraid they would lose the business of average passengers and companies depending on the Narrow Gauge to transport freight into the region might decide to transfer their accounts to Northern Electric Railway.
A company called Nevada County Traction was the money behind the Northern Electric Railway. They were anxious to compete with the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad and believed they could accomplish the goal best by first constructing an electric rail system through town. The electric train would take the place of stagecoaches used to transport people from the Narrow Gauge Railroad depot to destinations inside Grass Valley and Nevada City. Once Nevada County Traction felt they had become a firm fixture in the area, they would seek to buy land around the two towns, grade a rail line, and lay some track.
Nevada County Traction broke ground in its electric train service for Grass Valley and Nevada City on June 5, 1901. The line was completed on September 9, 1901. It proved to be a costly venture. More than $217,000 was spent. In early 1902, the executives behind the company approached Sarah with an offer to buy the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad from her. Nevada County Traction leaders thought that purchasing an existing line would be less expensive than building their own. Company stockholders believed Sarah might have discovered owning and managing a railroad to be too overwhelming and that she would be eager to sell. They were wrong. Sarah declined their offer, but it wouldn’t be the last time the company tried to buy her out. In October 1905, investors with Nevada County Traction met with Sarah to discuss the possibility again. After explaining how important Nevada County Traction had become with residents and how much their electric rail line touring cars and bus service was appreciated, former power plant owner, and one of the directors of the company, John Martin, made another offer to buy the Narrow Gauge. Sarah quoted an astronomical price, one she anticipated could not be met. She was right. Martin informed her the offer was too high and attempted to negotiate, but Sarah refused to talk further about the matter.
In the spring of 1906, Nevada County Traction made good on its promise to begin construction on new rail line. It had completed a little more than a mile when the operation was brought to a halt. The San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906, left Nevada County Traction in frail financial health. Many of the company’s investors lost money and property in San Francisco as a result of the catastrophic event. By January 1908, any capital that was to be used to acquire the Narrow Gauge or forge ahead with a competing rail line was gone.
In addition to holding her own against those who sought to take over her railroad, Sarah oversaw the continual changes and upgrades needed to be made to the line. In late 1908, all wood burning locomotives needed to be modified to burn crude oil. The Interstate Commerce Commission required automatic couplers and airbrakes to be installed, as well as new safety procedures put into place to protect rail line passengers and Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad employees.
Sarah’s duties included finding new clients to add to the rail line’s profitability. Among the many companies she negotiated with to contract with the Narrow Gauge Railroad to bring large quantities of product into the region was Pacific Gas and Electric. In 1913, Sarah helped work out a deal with PG&E to supply the sand and gravel necessary for construction of the Lake Spaulding Dam. The dam, located on the Bear River north of Emigrant Gap, was one of several sizeable hydroelectric projects planned by the growing utility company. According to historic records about the undertaking, a few details needed to be handled before the Narrow Gauge Railroad could be ready to handle such a job.
If the gravel could be loaded on standard gauge cars and pulled to Colfax, it could be transferred to the Southern Pacific’s tracks without transshipment. The Narrow Gauge Railroad decided to add a third rail between Colfax and the Bear River. To facilitate the work necessary on the right-of-way between these two points, the railroad applied to the California Railroad Commission for permission to issue $500,000 of five percent bonds. On April 9, 1913, it was announced that the firm of Shattuck and Edinger had been granted the contract to add the third rail to the Narrow Gauge line between Colfax and the Bear River. The contractors went right to work replacing short ties along the route to the river with standard thirty-five-pound-sized rails.
Business was good during Sarah Kidder’s time as president of the Narrow Gauge Railroad. So much so, she was able to pay her stockholders substantial dividends on their shares. When her husband ran the company, the highest ever paid was a five percent return. Newspapers, enamored by the woman railroad president west of the Rockies, reported on Sarah’s strength and leadership skills. “In these last days when we are hearing a great deal about the ‘gentlewoman in business’ as the phrase so gracefully puts it in describing members of the fair sex who preside over the tearoom lunch booths and the like, or design marvelous ‘confections’ as the strange hats of the moment are called, it is interesting to note that there is one woman in the West who is not only ‘in business’ in the usual sense of the word, but is by way of being a great power in the financial world,” an article in the February 27, 1912, edition of The Republic noted about Sarah. “And this, too, not because of the mere fact of millions, as in the case of Hetty Green, that lady who is even now ready to join the dance, but because she is by way of being ‘railroad queen.’ There seems to be no other way to describe Mrs. John F. Kidder. Mrs. Kidder is a real power in her own locale, where for some years now she has been ‘pulling strings’ of her little road and making it prosper.”
Sarah proved to be just as capable of dealing with the difficulties of running a lucrative rail line as she was the successes. When descendants of George Fletcher, owner of the general store in Grass Valley and one-time secretary of the Narrow Gauge Railroad when the line was first constructed, demanded shares in the railroad because they claimed George jointly owned shares with John Kidder, Sarah handled the situation fairly and smartly. George’s son, Herbert, initially claimed he was owed eight-hundred-seventy-five shares of stock, the figure changed to twelve hundred fifty-two shares, then settled at twenty-five hundred shares. Sarah informed Herbert that she would be glad to divide the stock in question if he could prove his claim in writing.
Insulted with her demand and eager to make Sarah surrender the stock, George Fletcher’s family decided to deal with Sarah via the court system. Herbert filed a suit against Sarah and the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad, claiming that both the business and the business owner “wants to defraud the George Fletcher estate.” Sarah and the company launched a countersuit stating that the complaint brought by Herbert did not state facts sufficient enough to constitute a course of action. The court agreed with Sarah, and Herbert’s claim was dismissed.
In early 1907, Sarah made the bold move to add a new locomotive to the line. The new piece of equipment ran exclusively by gasoline. A new coach was added, too. It seated fifteen persons and was designed with a view to carrying mail and baggage. The new coach took the place of the steam locomotive in operation and was used to connect with the overland limited at Colfax. It had previously been necessary to run a full train and crew to connect with the overland, and in many instances, the train had been obliged to make the run with only one or two passengers, and possibly some miscellaneous baggage and freight. The new locomotive and coach would prove to be more cost efficient.
One of the most significant decisions made by Sarah on behalf of the rail line occurred in 1904. The need for a bridge to be built along the route the Narrow Gauge Railroad traveled was presented to the board in a stockholders meeting by Sarah and her staff. The bridge would be a shortcut for the line which had to travel two miles around a rocky region to get to the other side. Construction of the Bear River Bridge began in 1908. The steel bridge was eight hundred feet long, stood one-hundred-seventy-three feet nine inches above the river, and cost $65,000 to build.
The continued improvements implemented to the rail line further benefitted the Narrow Gauge Railroad stockholders. The July 8, 1908, edition of the San Francisco Bulletin called attention to Sarah’s management style in an article titled “Woman Runs Road.”
“Few railroads anywhere revel in a dividend of ten percent, but what makes this one really remarkable is the fact that it was earned under the direction of a woman – the only woman in all the world, perhaps, who is an active steam railroad president,” the report noted. “This marvel of femininity, management, and finance is Mrs. S. A. Kidder of Grass Valley, California, and her line known as the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad, is in the northern central part of this state.
“No figurehead is Mrs. Kidder. When, after the death of her husband, she was elected president in his stead, she found the road worn to a frazzle and in debt. Mrs. Kidder mended the roadbed, put in new rails, and purchased new rolling stock. In 1903 the line began to pay. Now it is one of the most remunerative of its size in all the land.
“Connecting Nevada City and Grass Valley with the Southern Pacific system at Colfax, it does a good freight and a considerable passenger business and is the only outlet of one of the busiest gold mining sections in the west.
“Mrs. Kidder did not seek the presidency of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad: the office sought her. When her husband died in April 1901, the stockholders and directors unanimously turned to her as his successor. Together, husband and wife had battled their way to the front through the vicissitudes that so often mark life in the mining sections of the west.
“In all of Mr. Kidder’s business ventures including the management of the railroad, she had been his confidant and aid, and her ability as an executive was well recognized. In fact, no one else was suggested as the new head of the company, and she has been reelected each year since.
“When this woman president took up the reins of management, she found that she had much to do. For eighteen years, not a dividend had been declared. Moreover, the road was in debt and its physical condition all run down. Passing through a mountainous region for much of its length, with sharp curves and heavy grades, Mrs. Kidder found that the road bed was so imperfect and the rails so light as to preclude the possibility of trains of sufficient size to pay. The rolling stock, too, had to be overhauled, renewed, and increased.
“All this meant a large outlay, but Mrs. Kidder knew that sufficient business could be developed to warrant the expense. So, she procured the money and spent it. For the first time in many years, the road was equipped to handle the business offered, and then the president reached out after more business.
“Aiding a systematic attempt to boom that section through widespread advertising, she also encouraged the enlargement of mining operations, the establishment of mining operations, the establishment of new cattle ranges, the planting of more and bigger orchards, and an increase in tourist travel. All this helped to put money into the treasure of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad.”
By the summer of 1910, Sarah’s interest in the railroad had begun to wane. For more than nine years, Sarah had been focused on the Narrow Gauge. She’d chosen to be more than simply a figurehead at the company and had no regrets. She did, however, miss her adopted daughter, Beatrice, Beatrice’s husband, Howard Ridgely Ward; and their infant daughter who were living in the Northwest Artic region. On June 27, 1910, Sarah decided to embark on a cruise to Alaska to visit Beatrice and her little girl. Sarah had been struggling with her health and had undergone minor surgery just prior to the trip. She believed the time away would provide her with the rest she needed as well as lift her spirits.
Shortly after Sarah returned from her visit with Beatrice and her family, a rumor began circulating that she was planning to sell her shares in the railroad and retire from the business world. Although she did not readily admit she was divesting her stock, the rumors proved to be accurate. An article in the November 2, 1911, edition of The Evening Herald reported that “Mrs. S. A. Kidder, the Grass Valley, California, millionaire and the only woman railroad president, has disposed of her stock in the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad.” The report added that Sarah’s plan after the sale of her stock included “travel and rest.”
Walter Arnstein and Samuel L. Naphtaly, president and vice president of the Oakland, Antioch and Eastern Railroad, purchased Sarah’s stock. The price they paid was not made public, but the newspapers estimated that it approached the half-million mark. Sarah sold the Kidder mansion as well and made plans to move to San Francisco. She officially tendered her resignation from the railroad on May 16, 1913.
During Sarah’s twelve years serving as president, she had managed to pay off $79,000 in funded debt, pay $182,122 interest on that debt, declare $116,256 in dividends on the stock, and add $179,877 to the undivided surplus. During her time in office, Sarah had mended roadbeds, put in new rails, purchased new rolling stock, and begun operating the line in an up-to-date manner.
After toiling over the railroad, Sarah spent her time decorating her new home in Ingleside Terrace. According to the December 14, 1913, edition of the San Francisco Examiner, Sarah was described as a woman of means who was able to buy where conditions best suited her. “She spent months in southern California,” the article read. “She said she was attracted by the beauties of Pasadena as a home community, but she concluded to wait until she had personally inspected the beautiful home sites in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Marin County and those down the peninsula.
“Mrs. Kidder frankly states that she had not thought of San Francisco as a city of homes until she spent a day in a touring car visiting and inspecting the restricted residence parks west of Twin Peaks. She spent one afternoon in Ingleside Terrace, saw the beautiful Pueblo home on the eminence at Paloma Avenue and Mercedes Way, and a few days later informed General Manager Joseph A. Leonard that she was ready to purchase it. She is having a garage built and is furnishing the home in keeping with its elegant interior finish, and will shortly appear in the directory of the exclusive residence park.”
In addition to personalizing her house, Sarah enjoyed traveling via automobile to various cities. She was fascinated with driving and would embark on long, cross-country excursions with friends.
Sarah A. Kidder passed away on Friday, September 29, 1933. She had been suffering with ill health for several months before her death. She was laid to rest at the Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Coloma, California. Sarah was ninety-one when she died.
Twenty-nine years after Sarah retired as president of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad, the company petitioned the railroad commission to abandon the line. The old line, since its inception, had experienced countless ups and downs. Its bellowing engines had hauled ore and passengers in the days ahead of the truck and sedan, when the service was extremely important.