Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Railroad Paper Caper


Executing Phase I of my retirement plan, I sold my Silicon Valley home and moved to El Dorado County, the land of my gold rush ancestors. I planned to telecommute until I could officially retire. On an evening late in May 1996, I was supporting local agriculture by sipping a glass of Boeger’s Zinfandel, reflecting on how satisfied I was by the move. I loved everything about the area, the landscape, the produce, the history.
From my recliner, I saw a young man approach my front door. Setting down my glass, I got up and opened the door in anticipation of his knock. Casually dressed in khakis and a plaid shirt, he carried a large envelope under his arm. “Mrs. Moore.” He said it assertively; it was not a question.
I acknowledged that I was Mrs. Moore. He handed me the package and when I had it in my hands, he identified himself as a process server for El Dorado County and told me to sign the summons he held before me.  I signed with an unsteady hand. I had never been served a summons before. Frenzied crazy thoughts began racing through my mind. Did this have something to do with the sale of my house in San Jose? Was someone suing me? Before I could ask the young man anything, he had turned and was headed back to his car. His job was done and I was on my own with whatever I held.
Retrieving my glass of wine, I moved to the dining room table. I picked up the bottle for good measure; it was a very thick envelope.
Using the blade on my corkscrew, I slit the envelope open and spilled its contents on the table. I quickly determined it had nothing to do with my real estate dealings, but it did have something to do with land. The State of California, Department of Transportation (DOT), had summoned me to a hearing scheduled for August 1 in Placerville. No longer worried, but increasingly intrigued, I put the wine aside and began to sift through the documents. The official complaint, property descriptions and copies of old maps were spread out on the table. Ancient handwritten property records gave the documents the appearance of a treasure map. My great-grandfather’s name, James Blair, came into focus and my interest grew.
I learned some property near Forni Road had been condemned to build a freeway overpass. The State was now trying to determine who should receive the $33,700 held in escrow. I first thought, why me? And then, why not me? Could it really be mine?
The papers spread out before me hinted at the answers. I learned the new overpass would be anchored on property that had served as a railroad bed in 1888 and for many years after. The 1887 records revealed three parcels of land had been transferred from their previous owners to the partnership of James Blair, H. S. Morey, and A. Meirson of Placerville. The partners paid each of the sellers $1 for adjoining parcels creating a long strip of land 100 feet wide. The deeds carried the condition that the land was to be used for the construction of a railroad to be completed by the first of June 1888 or else title to the land would revert to the sellers.
My first reaction was one of bemusement and mild interest. I loved hearing from my great-grandfather in this way. I knew he had owned a lot of property and was very active in the development of Placerville. As far as I knew he had founded Sportsman’s Hall and operated it during the Pony Express and Civil War Days, owned and managed a lumber business, held a partnership in a hides and tallow business, and kept a ranch in Galt. And now a railroad. Could it be that fate had protected some of his wealth from his profligate children?
I was curious about the other two men. I knew their names from Placerville’s history. Morey was a banker and Meirson was a foundry man. The partnership seemed logical: supplying lumber for ties would benefit Blair, while Meirson could provide the rails and spikes, and Morey could put the deal together.
My mind lept ahead. How long was this railroad? How many parcels were there? The DOT was only concerned with a small portion of it, but surely it was much longer than that. Frankly, $33,700 divided among God knows how many heirs wasn’t really worth going after, but the railroad probably reached all the way to Sacramento or at least Folsom. I knew it extended down through Latrobe. And how many heirs are there? If the DOT thought three parcels belonged to the heirs, then we probably owned the whole railroad line! What could it be worth? Maybe I would be able to retire soon. I needed some advice.
I calmly waited until the next day to call my friend Ralph, an attorney for CalTrans. He suggested I call the DOT right-of-way agent in Marysville and gave me her phone number. She was familiar with the situation and cheerfully provided the information I sought. She told me they found one Morey heir and three Blair heirs. No Meirsons. She also volunteered that the Morey heir was an old woman near death in Rancho Murieta. Her only child decided they would not pursue the matter. Okay, I thought, more for me.  I began to plan a second story addition to my home, and possibly a new car.
I was obliged to respond formally through an attorney if I planned to attend the August hearing. By this time, I determined to go for it. So, I contacted my Blair co-heirs, a cousin in Placerville, and an uncle in Southern California. We agreed to a partnership and planned to split attorney’s fees, up to $1,000 each, and see what we could learn.
I attended the first hearing in August in a feebly air-conditioned conference room in the El Dorado County court house on Main Street. Also attending were my cousin, our attorney, and the presiding judge. The DOT and Southern Pacific participated by telephone. SP stated they felt they had a claim to the money because they had bought the railroad. Our attorney countered his opinion that they probably had an easement on the land and that the easement expired when the railroad ceased to function and the land reverted to the heirs of the Placerville partners. That sounded logical to me.  We could hear indistinct mutterings from the Southern Pacific contingent. They then asked for an extension to get the facts together. The matter was continued to November.
In November, I showed up at the courthouse and the meeting lasted five minutes. SP asked for a continuance. My confidence and spending plans grew. Clearly we had them on the run, they were scrambling. I dreamed of a family vacation in Hawaii.
By this time, I had calculated the strip of land in question was probably 33 miles long and 100 feet wide. What was it really worth? A million, three million? What could be done with it? The longest strip mall in the world? Another railroad? Didn’t the Sacramento Placerville Transportation Corridor Joint Powers Authority think it was theirs? Had SP sold it to them? Would they buy us out? What about the property owners around it? How about recreational use? Bike trails, equestrian trails, skateboard parks? Now I was becoming altruistic. We would think of some noble cause to honor my great-grandfather’s memory.

February’s hearing was rescheduled till April. In April, the Southern Pacific lawyers produced a deed that appeared legitimate. It conveyed forty-six parcels to the Northern Railway Company. Following our attorney’s advice, we gave up, and I returned home to a new bottle of zinfandel and dreams of Lotto winnings.

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