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The only major U.S. railroad to be operated by westerners and the only railroad built from west to east, the Southern Pacific acquired a unique history and character. It also acquired a reputation, especially in California, as a railroad that people loved to hate. This magisterial history tells the full story of the Southern Pacific for the first time, shattering myths about the company that have prevailed to this day. A landmark account, Sunset Limited explores the railroad's development and influence—especially as it affected land settlement, agriculture, water policy, and the environment—and offers a new perspective on the tremendous, often surprising, role the company played in shaping the American West.
Based on his unprecedented and extensive research into the company's historical archives, Richard Orsi finds that, contrary to conventional understanding, the Southern Pacific Company identified its corporate well-being with population growth and social and economic development in the railroad's hinterland. As he traces the complex and shifting intersections between corporate and public interest, Orsi documents the railroad's little-known promotion of land distribution, small-scale farming, scientific agriculture, and less wasteful environmental practices and policies—including water conservation and wilderness and recreational parklands preservation.
Meticulously researched, lucidly written, and judiciously balanced, Sunset Limited opens a new window onto the American West in a crucial phase of its development and will forever change our perceptions of one of the largest and most important western corporations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
BUILDING THE SOUTHERN PACIFIC COMPANY, 1850-1930
The railroad that by the early twentieth century would come to be called the Southern Pacific can be likened to a giant river system. Its broad, main corporate stream carried the outflow of many tributaries, predecessor companies that had risen in nearly every state and territory in the Far West and Southwest between the 1850s and the 1920s and had been acquired one by one by the parent line. Though by no means the oldest line associated with the Southern Pacific, the Central Pacific Railroad was the principal fork and the one into which all the other later-acquired railroad companies would ultimately merge. The Central Pacific originated during the turbulent times of the fading Gold Rush in California, the most populous and economically developing area of a vast territory acquired by the United States in 1848 as spoils of war with Mexico.
In the 1850s and 1860s, commerce in California labored under serious geographical burdens: immense distances separated the state from the outside world and its various parts from one other, the state's terrain was rugged and itswaterways and roads were limited and poor. All these conditions made the movement of goods and passengers slow, expensive, and unreliable. As a result, much of the state remained isolated and sparsely populated, its resources other than gold barely tapped. The cost, duration, and hazards of ocean and overland travel by wagon or stagecoach also discouraged immigration, particularly by women and children. Transportation problems were a major reason why, after the initial gold-rush spurt in the late 1840s and early 1850s, California's population growth and economic development settled down to a sluggish pace. As mining waned after 1852 and promoters began exploring new enterprises, agitation for improved transportation increased, especially for railroads within the state and across mountains and deserts to the Middle West and East. The Central Pacific Railroad emerged from California's quest for a solution to its transportation and related, larger economic problems.
While California was being settled, steam railroads were revolutionizing society and economy in the middle and eastern parts of the United States. Beginning as early as the 1820s, prophets of Manifest Destiny envisioned a transcontinental railroad to spread settlement and civilization across the empty plains, mountains, and deserts, secure American control of the Pacific Coast, channel the fabled Asian trade through the United States, and unify the divided nation. In the late 1840s and 1850s, conventions in eastern and western cities proposed routes and promoted transcontinental railway bills in Congress. Because laying tracks across 2,000 miles of rugged wilderness was immediately recognized as beyond the ability of private enterprise, almost all plans called for heavy government subsidies. Little resulted from these initial proposals. Despite wide agreement on the desirability of building such a line and the need for government subsidy, divergent interest groups clashed over precise routes and conditions of construction. In the East, local rivalries over the route and sectional conflict between North and South stalled the project. Even Californians, ostensibly the major beneficiaries of the railway, could not agree on its location. San Francisco, Benicia, Vallejo, Sacramento, Stockton, Los Angeles, and San Diego all claimed to be the best western terminus and attacked their rivals' proposals. Local and national politics thus doomed early Pacific railway bills.
Unable to get the national government to subsidize the Pacific railway, Californians in the 1850s and early 1860s turned to replacing existing stage, wagon, and steamboat routes with short railroads, some of which would one day become parts of the Southern Pacific system. Speculative and plagued by delay, incompetent engineering, nonexistent or corrupt financing, and scarce machinery and labor, most of these "railways" failed to advance from paper and hot air to steel and steam, and were never built. One exception, the Sacramento Valley Railroad, pushed its tracks from Sacramento's inland port twenty-three miles east along the American River into the Sierra Nevada foothills to the new town of Folsom and became the state's first working railroad in 1856. Affording quicker transport to the gold mines than the wagon roads then in use, the railway was an immediate success. Understandably, most other early railways emerged in the San Francisco Bay Area, the state's wealthiest and most populous region. Among these, the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad spanned the fifty miles between those major cities in 1864. Other short lines radiated south and east from the East Bay port towns of Oakland and Alameda. Although laboring under poor construction, crushing debts, and opposition from rival communities and transportation companies, these early railways sparked agricultural and urban booms and strengthened the Bay Area's hold on the state's economy.
Above all others, engineer Theodore D. Judah kept alive the hope that a transcontinental railroad would one day bind California and the East. Hired in 1854 by the Sacramento Valley Railroad to design and build its line, the young Judah completed the task in less than two years, a remarkable feat in those days of shaky railway ventures. Typically, however, the speculative, debt-ridden railroad halted construction at Folsom, and Judah left the company in 1856. Though naive in business matters, Judah was ambitious and persistent. Intrigued by the idea of a transcontinental railway, he became convinced that a line could be built over the seemingly insurmountable Sierra Nevada. While he scoured the mountains for a route, Judah tried to organize a new company to secure the government subsidy vital to his scheme. He authored pamphlets, addressed public meetings, harried potential investors and political figures in California, and journeyed to New York and Washington in a fruitless quest for aid from the federal government and eastern capitalists. So passionately did the young engineer pursue his dream of a railroad over the central Sierra that leery investors mocked him as "Crazy Judah." Doubting his business acumen and the feasibility of the Sierra route, they dismissed him as an impractical pest. Although Judah did succeed in keeping the transcontinental railway in the public eye, after four frustrating years he had failed to win government or private funding for his project.
The Central Pacific Railroad
By the time Judah returned from the East in 1860, the lucrative mining commerce between California and the just-discovered and booming Comstock Lode of western Nevada had increased interest in a railroad across the Sierra. Controlled by a consortium of San Francisco investors, the Sacramento Valley Railroad, hoping to monopolize the trade, rehired Judah to build another rail and wagon route from Folsom through the Sierra north of Lake Tahoe to the Nevada mines. It was while he was working for the Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1860 that Judah discovered a central Sierra rail route and secretly hatched a plan to found his own company to use that route to tap the Comstock mining trade and at the same time to build the western segment of the transcontinental railroad. He settled on a path that started at Sacramento, rose seventy miles northeastward through 7,000-foot-high Donner Pass, and plunged down the Truckee River canyon to the Nevada border. Although Judah's plan would require the railroad to scale unprecedented grades, combat huge snowfalls, and bore expensive tunnels, the Donner Pass, or Dutch Flat, route was shorter than its rivals and mounted only one summit to cross the Sierra. With a definite route now in hand, Judah and a few other Sacramento and foothill men formed the Central Pacific Railroad Company in October 1860. From their own limited resources, however, they could raise only a few thousand of the $115,000 in stock subscriptions required to incorporate the company under California law. Unwisely, Judah openly sought backing from wealthy San Francisco businessmen. Not only was he rebuffed again, but the Sacramento Valley Railroad got wind of his plan. Outraged that one of its employees was promoting a rival company, the railroad fired Judah. Its bankers attacked his scheme as poorly planned and impossible to construct, thereby undermining investor confidence in the Central Pacific for years.
At this point, Theodore Judah's railroad resembled most others in California: it existed only on paper and in the mind of its promoter, and was unlikely ever to be built. To salvage his plan, Judah turned to small investors in Sacramento and other towns along the Donner Pass route. After a string of disappointing public meetings, Judah finally interested Sacramento hardware merchant Collis P. Huntington in the venture. Huntington brought in his partner Mark Hopkins, along with other Sacramento businessmen including Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford. The group agreed to buy enough stock to incorporate the company. In April 1861, at a momentous meeting at the Huntington- Hopkins store, the Central Pacific Railroad was reorganized to admit the new investors. Later, a committee that included Judah nominated and the board of directors elected Stanford president, Huntington vice president, Hopkins treasurer, and Judah chief engineer. On June 27, 1861, the Central Pacific legally incorporated and began the struggle to convert the dream into a reality.
All former residents of the Northeast who had settled in California during the Gold Rush, Huntington, Stanford, Crocker, and Hopkins quickly emerged as the most powerful leaders of the new company. With their solid entrepreneurial backgrounds, the "Big Four," or the "associates," as they came to be called, brought essential business strength to Judah's struggling enterprise. Though by no means wealthy, they were respected, successful merchants whose word and credit were as good as gold. Because he knew eastern suppliers and financiers, Huntington was a particularly valuable addition. Members of the tiny band of militantly anti-slavery men who had founded California's Republican Party in 1856, the Big Four also had political influence that proved crucial in starting up the company during the Civil War. As leaders of the new party, the associates had ridden to victory in November 1860 with their party's successful presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln. With close ties to powerful local and national Republicans, newly elected members of Congress, and officials of Lincoln's incoming administration, the Big Four wielded the political clout that Judah lacked.
Ironically, the onset of the Civil War (prompted by the secession of southern states following Lincoln's inauguration as president in March 1861) improved the Central Pacific Railroad's prospects. Republican leaders controlling Congress and the White House already had favored federal aid for a transcontinental railway to encourage national economic development. Such a railroad became even more vital as part of the Union war effort. It would assure the allegiance of the frontier and strengthen military control of the Far West. At the same time, the secession of the Confederate states from the national government effectively ended southern obstruction of a northern route into California. Nevertheless, formidable obstacles still dimmed the Central Pacific's prospects in 1861. Practically every facet of the ambitious project-financing, engineering, construction, even administration and operation over such a vast territory-lacked precedent. Experts smugly predicted that the company would be unable to build a rail line over such a rough landscape, and if it could, locomotives would be too weak to haul cars over steep High Sierra grades. Even if it turned out that they could, critics predicted that the railroad would not operate reliably and profitably through the heavy snows and arctic winter temperatures of Donner Pass. Furthermore, most construction and operating equipment, including rails, cars, locomotives, and heavy machinery, would have to be shipped at great expense around Cape Horn. Wartime shortages of iron, railroad machinery, and shipping tonnage, along with the federal government's inflationary monetary policies, pushed prices high and caused wasteful delays. Finally, with construction workers scarce in California, the railroad would have labor shortages.
Even using Judah's sanguine estimates, the cost of building the Central Pacific, especially the Sierra segment, would far exceed the likely federal subsidies. Their own private wealth limited, the Sacramento businessmen could expect no help from San Francisco financiers, who were already committed to steamship lines or rail competitors of the Central Pacific. Moreover, in the early 1860s, risky large-scale ventures like the Central Pacific and other would-be transcontinental railroads could raise little cash by selling stocks or bonds in the tight wartime market. Symptomatic of the Central Pacific's scant resources, the first stock subscription of 1861 brought in only $10,000 in cash, which the railroad devoted to a more detailed survey of the Donner Pass route. Funds quickly ran out, however, and Judah had to halt his work prematurely. In the summer of 1861 he returned from the mountains, bearing only the disheartening news that his original survey was seriously flawed. The rail distance through the Sierra would be 140 miles, not 115, and more than three miles of tunnels would have to be bored through hard granite. To build the line as far as Nevada would take at least $13 million, or $88,000 per mile, over 50 percent more than he had originally estimated and several times the predicted federal subsidy.
To make matters worse, the Civil War's outbreak and the imminent passage of a Pacific railway subsidy act spawned a host of rival companies in California and the East vying for a share of the government's aid, including the San Francisco & San Jose and the Sacramento Valley railroads, both controlled by powerful San Francisco interests hostile to the Central Pacific. Encouraged and financed by corporate giants like the Pacific Mail Steamship, California Steam Navigation, and Wells Fargo companies, who feared losing business and federal mail subsidies to the Central Pacific, vested business interests and Sacramento's jealous rival cities joined forces to crush the city's paper railroad.
Without much support outside Sacramento, the leaders of the Central Pacific, their private fortunes now committed, turned to securing crucial federal subsidies. To assure that the state would favor their company, the associates ran Stanford for governor on the Republican ticket. In September 1861 he triumphed, carrying with him a group of sympathetic Republican legislators and congressmen. Judah, Huntington, other Central Pacific investors, and congressional Republican allies sailed for the East in the fall of 1861. The Central Pacific's powerful Republican friends, along with eastern business associates of Huntington's, secured positions on the legislative committees writing the subsidy legislation and had Judah appointed clerk of both the House and Senate railway committees. Now responsible for administering the committees' business, Judah could guard Central Pacific interests while the transcontinental bill was being shaped. Through the winter and spring of 1862 Judah and Huntington lobbied furiously. To bribe legislators and leaders of other railroads, they lavishly dispensed Central Pacific stock, still worthless since the company possessed no assets. Central Pacific partisans overcame a major obstacle when they worked out a bargain with the rival San Francisco & San Jose Railroad, which agreed to drop its opposition in exchange for the Central Pacific's promise to assign it the right to build and collect the subsidy for the transcontinental segment between San Francisco Bay and Sacramento.
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List of Illustrations
PART I: FOUNDATIONS
1. “These Mountains Look Too Ugly and I See Too Much Work Ahead”: Building the Southern Pacific Company, 18501930
2. Men of Vision: Southern Pacific Leaders, Land, Agriculture, and the Development of California and the West
PART II: LAND SETTLEMENT
3. “Stand on the Rights of the Company and Make a Square Fight of It”: Land-Grant Myths, Conflicts with Government, and Squatterism
4. The Mussel Slough Affair
5. A Land of “Well-tilled Little Farms”: Land-Grant Development
6. Promoting the Far West
PART III: WATER
7. “The Satisfactory Supply Is Yet Undiscovered”: The Southern Pacific as a Pioneer Water Developer
8. Private Irrigation
9. “This Splendid Country Is to Be Reclaimed”: Public Irrigation
10. “The Government Is Hard to Deal With”: Federal Reclamation
PART IV: AGRICULTURE
11. Promoting Scientific Agriculture
12. “The Damndest Railroading You Ever Heard Of”: Marketing the Produce of Western Farms
PART V: CONSERVATION
13. “Shall This Destruction Proceed?”: Wilderness Preservation
14. Conserving Forest and Rangeland Resources
A Note on Manuscript Sources
Abbreviations for Collections and Repositories