Friday, November 1, 2019

Railroads: Southern Pacific Railroad

There are two points that all histories of the Southern Pacific Railroad will make sure to inform anyone interested: first, that there were actually several Southern Pacific Railroads; and second, that legally Southern Pacific took over Union Pacific in 1996. And while both of these facts are technically correct, they do not actually clarify anything. For the Southern Pacific Railroad was not just a company, it was a movement that began in the dark years before the Civil War and continues to today. In many ways, the history of the railroad is a history of the United States itself.

Replica art deco-style Southern Pacific advertisement promoting the Coast Daylight by H. L. Scott.
In the 1850s, railroads were spreading across the East Coast of the United States like ivy along a brick wall. Vines stretched in every direction, but they were quickly reaching the unsettled frontiers of western Missouri and Texas. Several railroads were operating in Texas by the start of the Civil War including the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railway (incorporated 1850, operating from 1853), Galveston & Red River Railway (incorporated in 1848, operating from 1856 as the Houston & Texas Central Railway), and the Texas & New Orleans Railroad (operating from 1858).

Map showing the existing railroad routes in the United States in 1860. [Gayle Olson-Raymer]
At the same time, talk in Congress increasingly touched upon the idea of a transcontinental railroad to link the gold-rich West Coast, including the new states of California and Oregon, to the East Coast. From 1853 to 1855, several surveys were conducted to find the best possible path for such a route across the Rocky Mountains, Great Basin, and Sierra Nevada. It was the duty of future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, then acting as Secretary of War for the United States, to determine the best route.

Routes mapped by surveyors between 1853 and 1855. [The Map Archive]
Four eventual paths were determined to reach the West Coast. The Northern Pacific path ran just south of the Canadian border along the 47th parallel, from St. Paul, Minnesota to near the future site of Seattle, Washington. The Central Pacific route ran from St. Louis, Missouri to Oakland, cutting through some of the harshest terrain in the unsettled territories along the 38th parallel. Jefferson, being a Southerner, surveyed two paths that would benefit southern states. The first ran from Indiana Territory (Oklahoma) to San Gabriel (Los Angeles) following the 35th parallel. The second ran along the Mexican border between El Paso, Texas and San Diego, California, a predicted move that had prompted the United States to purchase land from the Mexican government in 1854.

Central Pacific Railroad-ferry transhipping point at Oakland, 1868. [Library of Congress]
When the Pacific Railway Act was finally passed in 1862 by Congress, it determined that the Central Pacific route was the most viable and least political of the three. With the country embroiled in civil war with the rebellious southern states, there was no compelling reason to build a railroad that would benefit them. Meanwhile, it was agreed that a northern route would not cater to enough clientele, although a survey between Seattle and San Diego had been conducted in case such a route was agreed upon. Thus, the Central Pacific project was begun, with the Central Pacific Railroad building from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad constructing the route from the east. After several delays due to the war, financing, and other issues, it would finally be completed on May 10, 1869, linking the nation together for the first time at Promontory Summit, Utah.

San Francisco & San Jose Railroad locomotive #5, San Mateo, at Belmont Station, 1866.
[Tom Gray – San Francisco & San Jose Railroad Facebook page]
The construction of one transcontinental line, however, did not necessarily negate the need or desire for a second line. And with the Civil War effectively ending at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, plans to build a Southern Pacific route could finally resume in earnest. Timothy Guy Phelps felt that he was in just such a position to complete this route. A career politician, Phelps was very active in the San Francisco South Bay and fought hard for the people of the Central Coast. He was one of the chief promotors for the creation of San Mateo County in 1857 when he was serving as a state senator. He also ran for California governor in 1861 but was defeated in the primaries by Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific Railroad. He did, however, get elected to the House of Representatives that year and served one term. At the same time, Phelps was promoting a local railroad.

San Francisco & San Jose Railroad locomotive #11, Menlo Park, 1870.
[San Francisco & San Jose Railroad Facebook page]
Plans to built a railroad from San Francisco to San José and beyond had been discussed since the incorporation of the Pacific & Atlantic Railroad in 1851. Despite several surveys and reincorporations, no progress was made and the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad was incorporated in 1859 in an attempt to build the initial part of the route. This company dissolved the next year due to lack of funds, but was reincorporated on August 18, 1860 with new financial backers that were less likely to pull out. Despite war in the west, the railroad succeeded in opening to Menlo Park in October 1863. On January 16, 1864, the full route to San José was opened, signalling the start of what would become one of the most important railroad lines in California.

Newspaper illustration showing the Big Four of Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads, c. 1875.
Phelps was not content to let this relatively short-line railroad remain isolated. On December 2, 1865, Phelps and several of his associates incorporated the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Its goal was not the construct a route to the East, but to build down to Southern California—initially Los Angeles and eventually San Diego—with the hope that this line could one day connect to the East via a transcontinental route. And perhaps this really was all the potential he saw in the line, but the Big Four of the Central Pacific—Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—heard the name and immediately thought that they could use the line to bypass their own transcontinental line, which they shared with the Union Pacific Railroad, and reach the East Coast themselves. They promptly bought a controlling interest in the Southern Pacific at the end of 1867 and put their plans into action.

Gilroy Depot, c. 1880s. [Gilroy Museum]
The Big Four were not entirely certain what they wanted to do when they first took over. Their initial plan saw them build an extension of the existing railroad line south to Gilroy via the Santa Clara & Pajaro Valley Railroad Company, incorporated on January 2, 1868. This route being completed in March 1869, the California Southern Railroad was incorporated to purchase a right-of-way south through Hollister and across the Diablo Range into the San Joaquin Valley. But the Big Four had a change of heart and never built anything beyond Tres Pinos south of Hollister. Instead, they reincorporated all of these railroads into...the Southern Pacific Railroad Company on October 12, 1870. It was not the last consolidation that would occur with Southern Pacific.

The original Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad depot in Los Angeles, c. 1870s. [KCET Los Angeles]
Shortly after the consolidation, work began on a railroad line from Gilroy to Salinas via Pajaro Gap. It reached Salinas on November 1, 1872. By this point, though, the railroad was reconsidering its options. On December 23, it established a short-line railroad to reach Soledad but the company then reincorporated again on August 19, 1873 and shifted its focus inland through a new route down the San Joaquin Valley. To facilitate its eventual dominance of the San Gabriel Valley, it began buying every pioneering railroad line that was operating—or attempting to operate—anywhere in central or southern California, including the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad and the Stockton & Copperopolis Railroad. And as more railroads were purchased by the Big Four, Southern Pacific reincorporated repeatedly to consolidate all of its acquisitions. This happened in December 1874, May 1888, April 1898, March 1902, and October 1955. As the years went on, though, the need to consolidate decreased since Southern Pacific shifted from a policy of buying out its competition to simply signing long-term leases with them. And when the railroad did buy out a rival, it simply folded the newly-acquired company into an existing entity. The end result was that Southern Pacific came to dominate most of California railroading.

A colorized postcard of the Sante Fe Station in Los Angeles, c. 1890s. [Loyola Marymount University]
The only real rival to ever permanently break into the California railroading scene was the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, which through strong-arming and a lot of luck managed to forge a route from Atchison, Kansas to the Southern Pacific line at Deming, New Mexico in 1881, thereby establishing the second transcontinental route, albeit one that did not match any of the surveys. This arrangement did not satisfy either railroad, so as the Southern Pacific continued east toward Texas, the ATSF Railway purchased the failed Atlantic & Pacific Railroad's right-of-way and began constructing a new route to Needles, California, where it again met with the Southern Pacific. Again it fought off its competition and managed to forge a route, largely through acquiring several struggling independent lines such as the California Central Railway in 1888, to Barstow, San Diego, and Los Angeles, crossing several Southern Pacific lines in the process. Similar moves were made elsewhere along the network granting the railroad access to several locations in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Its final coup was when it purchased and upgraded the San Francisco & San Joaquin Valley Railway in 1898, which finally gave the railroad access to the San Francisco Bay, a region considered the heart of the Southern Pacific empire.

The silver spike ceremony over the Pecos River outside Langtry, Texas, January 12, 1883. [Public domain]
The Southern Pacific's chief goal throughout the 1880s remained connecting its trackage together in such a way as to form a new transcontinental route that cut out the competition. Several engineering feats had to be overcome south of Bakersfield to break out of the San Joaquin Valley and access the Mojave Desert. The Tehachapi Loop was the solution, which was completed in August 1876. This also allowed access into Los Angeles, providing the first link between Northern and Southern California. While initial plans were for the Southern Pacific to stop at the Colorado River at Yuma, where another route from the east would meet it, the railroad decided to forge on in 1877 and continue east. As part of this plan, they purchased the Houston & Texas Central Railway, making the route significantly shorter. Over the next two years, the Chinese railroad crews graded and laid track across the sands of the Sonora Desert through Tucson and El Paso. To further speed its effort, the railroad also purchased the Texas & New Orleans Railroad in 1881, further expanding its empire in the South. On January 12, 1883, Southern Pacific met the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway near Langtry, Texas, establishing the third transcontinental railroad and the first to run completely along a southern route. Within a few years, the railroad purchased and built its own line directly into New Orleans, bypassing the need to use a third-party to reach an East Coast port.

Advertisement for Santa Cruz by Southern Pacific Railroad, 1930. [Foxglove Prints]
The Southern Pacific corporate logo, showcasing
the famous Sunset Route setting sun iconography.
The completion of the southern route was the most important milestone in Southern Pacific history but it was not the only major coup. In 1887, the company bought the Oregon & California Railroad, which expanded trackage through Oregon to Portland. In that same year, it also leased its narrow-gauge rival in the Bay Area, the South Pacific Coast Railroad, which operated a direct line through the Santa Cruz Mountains to Santa Cruz. Six years earlier, it had purchased the bankrupt Santa Cruz Railroad to grant the company access to Santa Cruz, but this new line proved more popular and direct. Meanwhile, south of Soledad construction continued in fits and starts over the next twenty years in the hope of eventually forging a route from Salinas to Los Angeles along the coast. Like other routes undertaken by Southern Pacific, several engineering feats were required including a substantial loop outside of San Luis Obispo and several tunnels. The long-sought Coast Line was finally completed on March 20, 1904.

E. H. Harriman stepping outside an automobile, c. 1900s. [George Grantham Bain – Library of Congress]
One fact that is often overlooked or ignored is that Union Pacific wholly acquired Southern Pacific in 1901 after Henry E. Huntington sold his controlling interest in the company to Edward H. Harriman. As the decade rolled on, Southern Pacific increasingly began to operate and act like its one-time rival and the two firms became a monolith in American life. But this merger also prompted harsh criticism by many competitors and the United States government, which ruled in 1913 that Southern Pacific had to be sold off to avoid a monopoly on western railroading. However, Southern Pacific was allowed to retain control of the Central Pacific Railroad, which owned much of the Central California and Great Basin trackage.

Southern Pacific Railroad lines and subsidiaries in 1918, following the separation from Union Pacific.
Even as Southern Pacific came to be seen as a monopoly, it doubled down on these claims by expanding north and south. In 1909, Southern Pacific Railroad of Mexico was founded after acquiring several Mexican railroad lines. Its routs south eventually reached from Nogales to Guadalajara. Southern Pacific finally sold the company to the Mexican government in 1851. Meanwhile in 1907, Southern Pacific partnered with its rival the ATSF Railway to create the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, which came to dominate the railroading scene in northern California. ATSF sold its interest in this line to Southern Pacific in 1929. Similar acquisitions in Texas and Louisiana solidified the railroad's control over most aspects of the Southwest's railroad networks.

Northwestern Pacific Railroad locomotive #144 at Camp Meeker in Sonoma County, 1907.
[Sonoma County Historical Society]
On February 20, 1969, the railroad was incorporated as the Southern Pacific Transportation Company, a reflection of the company's evolution from just railroads to trucking, busing, telecommunications, and many other industries. But this year also marked the peak for the railroad, although many of its passenger lines had already shut down and several older lines had been bypassed or abandoned. Most of its remaining passenger routes were taken over by Amtrak in 1971. In 1972, notably, much of its telecommunications was sold for use as by private companies, once of which was SPRINT (Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Telephony), which eventually became the cellular provider.  Throughout the 1980s, Southern Pacific began selling off unprofitable portions of railroad lines to third parties, thereby streamlining its core network and saving money. But the end for the company was in sight.

Southern Pacific locomotives #4449 and 3208 at Bray, California, April 26, 1981. [Drew Jacksich]
In 1984, Santa Fe Industries, which was formed as a parent company for the ATSF Railway, acquired Southern Pacific to form the Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corporation. The Interstate Commerce Commission refused to accept the merger of the railroads so Santa Fe retained all of the company's non-railroad assets and then divested itself of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Another rival line, Rio Grande Industries, purchased the railroad in 1988 but then turned its own Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad into a subsidiary of Southern Pacific, in effect combining the two railroads into one company called the Southern Pacific Rail Corporation.  Over the next eight years, Southern Pacific consolidated most of its remaining subsidiaries and reached its geographically furthest reach, finally connecting to Chicago in the northeast.

A mixed Southern Pacific-Union Pacific train after the merger, c. 1998. Note the Union Pacific number (UP 1996)
 on the cab of the lead locomotive. [Jake Miille]
Southern Pacific finally ceased to exist, at least publicly, on September 11, 1996, although it took two years for the paperwork to be finalized and some rolling stock under the old branding is still in circulation. The confusion regarding the merger is in the details. Union Pacific purchased the Southern Pacific Rail Corporation, which included the Southern Pacific Transportation Company, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, and the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. However, as Rio Grande had done before, Union Pacific decided that the Southern Pacific Transportation Company was the senior railroad in this agreement and therefore merged all the other companies and then made itself a subsidiary of Southern Pacific. Once the legalities of this agreement were finalized, the new entity was reincorporated in 1998 as the Union Pacific Railroad Company, officially the direct successor in a long line of purchases, acquisitions, and mergers of the Southern Pacific Railroad founded by Timothy Phelps in 1865. The last obvert vestige of the former company, the Southern Pacific Rail Corporation, finally ceased to exist in 2015 when it was merged into Union Pacific.

Citations & Credits:
  • Robertson, Donald B. Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History, Volume IV: California. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1998.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Coast. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, pending publication.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, pending publication.

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