The Building of Southern Pacific Lines

Rails Were Laid Across Deserts and Over Mountains in the Face of Many Discouragements and Despite Financial Difficulties


Retired Chief Engineer, Southern Pacific Company

May, 1924

As early as 1852 the California Legislature requested its Senators and Representatives in Washington to urge the construction of a Pacific Railroad.    

The inconveniences to the business of the important Pacific Coast resulting from the inadequate transportation facilities of the time were serious, and the situation was far from safe in the event of war.  Congressional action was not prompt, and in 1861 the Central Pacific Railroad of California was organized and instrumental surveys for its route were commenced at the expense of the stockholders.  Money for construction was difficult to obtain for a project that seemed so formidable as building a railroad across the Sierra Nevadas, but persistent effort and Federal legislation of 1862-1864, some state and county aid, and the useof the entire fortunes and credit of the principal stockholders, allowed construction to commence at Sacramento on January 8, 1863.    

Progress was made under continual difficulties and discouragements, partly originated by private interests endeavoring improperly to control the route of the new railroad and two years and eight months were required to put the railroad into operation as far as Colfax, about 54 miles.                        

Construction Progress

Eastward from Colfax, owing to better financial conditions, the construction progress was relatively much faster, although the physical difficulties were greater, and the railroad was operated to Reno, a distance of about 101 miles from Colfax, in two years and nine months after the operation to Colfax.  This remarkable progress was made with the condition of suspension of other than tunnel work for several months owing to heavy snowfall.  Eastward from Reno, although there were about 57 miles of river canon construction, and about forty seven miles of moderately heavy rolling country construction, the railroad was ready for operation from Reno to Promontory in 11 months, a distance of about 532 miles from Reno.    

In addition to this work, the railroad in this period had been graded from about five miles west of Ogden to Promontory, a distance of about 48 miles, on which the track was laid and operated in place of the Union Pacific Railroad track which was first built in the same distance, except for portions on valley ground, where the two railroads were graded near together.    

At the time the Central Pacific Railroad was built there was little certainty of local business for its support east of the Sierra Nevadas, other than what the Virginia City mining region might furnish.  Truckee was little more than a stage station.  Reno was a stage station only, near a toll bridge across the Truckee River.  Oreana was a village for employes of a small smelter built in the bottom land of the Humboldt River.  Mill City consisted of a small general store and a barn.  Winnemucca was a small but very much alive town, supported by the Idaho Stage Line, teaming to Idaho, and the supplying of a number of cattle ranches.  Eastward from the vicinity of Winnemucca there were no other towns, and no stage or teaming stations, and no ranches existed near the railroad until the Mormon settlements were reached along the eastern shores of Great Salt Lake.                         

Western Connection

While the Central Pacific Railroad was being built so rapidly across Nevada and Utah, its western connection between Sacramento and Oakland was under construction, in part under the name Western Pacific Railroad, which had been built from San Jose about 20 miles via the vicinity of Niles to a point near Sunol before 1867, and had been standing idle in the meantime.    

The connecting link of the Central Pacific Railroad to Oakland diverged from the Western Pacific Railroad near the east from Niles and both railroads were first regularly operated as a through line between Oakland and Ogden via Niles and Sacramento on November 8, 1869, – the Central Railroad traffic between San Francisco and Sacramento having before been handled by river and bay steamers.    

The remarkable rapidity of construction of the Central Pacific Railroad eastward from Colfax was due in part to the desire of the Central Pacific to meet the Union Pacific as far east as practicable, and also was in response to the desire of the public, and parricularly of Californians, and also on account of the importance to the communities and to the Federal Government of an early completion of a trancontinental railroad.    

A board, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior Hon. James Harlan to determine construction standards for the Pacific Railroads, held sessions beginning February 1, 1866, and reported in part as follows:    

"In these specifications it is believed that nothing is required which may not be regarded as essential to a commodious and complete railroad.  Nothing is proposed to retard the progress of the companies.  The importance and public desire for accelearated movement have been fully appreciated, and the Board earnestly desires to favor and foster the energy and fidelity which now seems to animate those engaged in this construction."    

With labor and all purchases in California on a gold basis, and purchases in the eastern states on a high price basis, due to a depreciated currency, hastening the work by Central Pacific to the extent that was done, involved extreme risk to the stockholders.  There could be purchased in California the labor, food stuffs, hay and grain, and black powder and its fuse, and lumber and ties.  Nearly all other purchases arrived by ocean from the eastern states ports.    

The United States suspended specie payments between December 30, 1861, and January 1, 1879, and currency in the railroad construction years 1863-1869 ranged in gold, from 83.68 cents on the dollar, the highest, to 35.09 the lowest, with an average for the railroad construction years of 67.42.                 

The "Big Four"

California was settled in the gold rush days by exceptionally enterprising and adventurous men.  The Four principal stockholders of the Central Pacific Railroad, – Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins, – were possessed of these qualities in a high degree, together with mental strength and imagination and sound judgment.  The present prosperity of the Pacific Coast is largely due to the fortunate business association of these four men.  They were none of them college graduates, but were well informed and of broad vision.    

They adopted a fixed rule of conduct – complete silence – in the face of unfounded accusations inspired by jealousies or by a desire for improper gains – and hence were misunderstood by many who were not in a position to be well acquainted with them.  In business circles it was universally understood that the word of the four associates was as good as their bond; and it was well known that they countenanced nothing other than scrupulous fairness to employes and to all who had a just claim upon them.

Railroad System Planned

Before that work was finished, however, plans had been considered for the possible building of a great system of railroads to develop the Pacific Coast. Soon an ambition to do so became their controlling motive, and was held to through years of extreme discouragements and risks.

The first of these undertakings was toward Oregon from Marysville, the railroad reaching Redding in 1872. This town remained the terminous until 1883, on account of the uncertainty of the progress of the Oregon and California Railroad from Portland southerly, the two railroads being chartered to meet at the California-Oregon State boundary. The through line to Portland was finally completed early in 1888 (LDF: Opened for public traffic December 17, 1887) by the construction of the California and Oregon Railroad to the state line. The same construction force continued and built through to Ashland, completing the route from Roseville via Redding through the Sacramento river canon and the Mount Shasta divide and across the Siskiyou Mountains, a distance of about one hundred and seventy-one miles of costly railroad building for most of the distance.

*[Note: The line was opened to public traffic to Ashland from the south December 17, 1887. It was completed to Ashland from the NORTH in 1884. —LDF]

In 1871 the branch of the Central Pacific southerly from Lathrop was commenced, and ended at Goshen in the early summer of 1872. From this point the Southern Pacific was built and operated to Tipton in July, 1872, to Delano in July, 1873, and to Bakersfield in August, 1874. Between Lathrop and Bakersfield, about 211 miles, was at that time an almost unsettled region, the small town of Visalia being the only one that was much more than a cross roads, and even Bakersfield was a very small village.

Built Despite Risks

The certainty of operating the railroad for a considerable time without enough revenue to pay ordinary train and maintenance expenses, made the risk of building it a serious one and caused the slowness and hesitancy of construction. At the time the railroad reached Bakersfield it was questioned if it was best to attempt to build through to Los Angeles, which then had a small population and was well served by the Coast steamers. A rare courage was needed to undertake the heavy construction expenditure necessary for building through the mountains, but after the decision was made to do it the work was vigorously carried through, and the railroad was operated to Los Angeles in September, 1876.

In the meantime construction had been commenced in 1874 and the railroad operated between San Fernando and Indio by May, 1876. This construction was stopped at Indio until early in 1877, partly on account of Federal aid to the Texas Pacific Railroad, but it was decided to continue the railroad at least to Yuma, which was done rapidly. The operation of the railroad to Colorado, on the west bank of the Colorado river, was begun in May, 1877, while waiting for the river to be bridged, and trains were running regularly into Yuma, Arizona in September, 1877.

At about this time the final efforts were being made in Congress for getting Federal aid in funds and in lands for building the Texas Pacific Railroad via Tucson and Yuma to San Diego.  The Southern Pacific Railroad stood ready to build the railroad east from Yuma without a subsidy, and this condition caused a remarkable contest in Congress.  It was finally settled against the Texas Pacific Railroad, and late in the fall of 1878 the unusually rapid construction commenced between Yuma, Arizona and San Antonio, Trexas, a distance of about eleven humdred and eighty-three miles, which was completed ready for operation in January, 1883.  That is, this 1183 miles of railroad through a sparsely settled and mostly desert region was built and put in operation in about 50 months, which was comparable to the best records of the Central Pacific work, considering the character of the country and its difficulties in scarcity of water and lack of supplies for a construction force.    

At that time there were no towns or settlers and only stage stations between Yuma and Tucson, a distance of about 252 miles, excepting at a distance northerly there was a cross roads, store, blacksmith shop, etc., now known as Phoenix, and the small villages of Tempe and Florence.  From Tucson eastward there were stage stations only as far as El Paso, about 311 miles from Tucson, with the small towns, Silver City and Messilla at a considerable distance north of the railroad route.                 

Only Stage Stations

From El Paso eastward there were small villages in the first few miles in the Rio Grande river bottom, and then nothing but stage stations and small military posts as far as what is now Marathon, 254 miles from El Paso.  Thence to Del Rio, 197 miles from Marathon, there was no one living.  The country was entirely vacant, southward to the Mexican boundary and northward for a great distance.  It was in this region that a few years afterward, when a very few settlers had come in, "Law west of the Pecos" held sway, being entirely equity, individually judged and enforced.  From Del Rio to San Antonio, 169 miles, the country was sparsely settled with a few very small towns, now grown beyond recognition.    

It is of interest to note that the personnel of the construction force that did this rapid work was largely of men who had been engaged on the Central Pacific during its quick building from Reno to Ogden.  For instance the same tracklaying foreman and much of his gang were on the southern construction work.  This force, to a great extent, acquired habits of hard work and of a feeling of personal interest in their work from the cheerful and forceful personality of Charles Crocker, who was never a task master, and who held the esteem and almost affectionate regard of all his subordinates and of all his employes.    

The building of all these main lines of railroad, – Oakland to Ogden, Sacramento to Portland, Lathrop to San Antonio, – all accomplished between 1863 and 1888, completed the framework of the Southern Pacific lines, which were thereafter filled out with branch lines and with additional routes between principal points, to form the present large mileage operated by the Southern Pacific Company.    

Of the four original associates, three – C. P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, – lived to see Portland, Ogden, and New Orleans connected by rail.  Mark Hopkins lived only a short time after the Southern Pacific reached Yuma, Arizona.



Courtesy of the Lynn D. Farrar Collection.

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