California railroads have their official beginning in 1856 when the
Sacramento Valley Railroad completed its 22-mile line connecting
Sacramento with Folsom, California. However, it was the completion of
the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 between the Central Pacific (which
would become part of the Southern Pacific) and Union Pacific that
actually kicked off the state’s explosion of railroads and more
importantly, its economy, as people began flocking to California in
droves. The Central Pacific Railroad got its start by the Pacific
Railroad Act of 1862, created by Congress and signed into law by
The CP was planned by Theodore Judah and financed by what became known as the "Big Four"; Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. The railroad began construction in 1863 and the rest, as they say, is history. By 1880, eleven years after the completion of the transcontinental line California featured a staggering 2,185 route miles of railroads! Today, the state holds over 6,000 miles of trackage with much of it concentrated around the its ten largest cities (the rest of which mostly fans outward north, south, east, and west in the way of key main lines).
By the early 20th century California was booming and so were its
railroads. In all the state would find itself home
to some of the most legendary and celebrated Class I railroads of all
time. These include names like the Union Pacific, Western Pacific,
Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific. Of all these classic systems, the
Southern Pacific stands far above the rest as it completely dominated
California. The “Espee” is as synonymous with the Golden State as the
Pennsylvania Railroad is with the State of Pennsylvania.
The SP served every large market in the state and likewise moved
about every type of freight imaginable heading east. Some of this
included things like perishables from the San Joaquin Valley, a once
massive operation that provided significant profits for the SP but today
is little more than abandoned spur lines and buildings dotting the
valley where the railroad used to load and ice its cargo (the service
died upon SP’s poor service in the late 1970s which today, while making a
small comeback, still almost exclusively relies on trucks to move fresh goods such as lettuce, carrots, and cabbage).
Other traffic included merchandise, intermodal, and automotive parts. While the former two are still bustling, automotive parts are another traffic source that has mostly dried up particularly in the once industrialized booming and bustling San Francisco bay area. At one time Southern Pacific dispatched several trains a day in and out of the city. However, by the 1970s this traffic began to disappear as plants in the area closed. Today, San Francisco is completely devoid of almost all freight rail service and all that remains is commuter and light rail operations. Even the Southern Pacific itself is gone. A once extremely dominate and profitable large western railroad, the Espee began to lose its way in the 1970s and by the 1980s was a mere shell of its former self.
The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad eventually purchased it in 1988, which assumed the Southern Pacific name. In 1996 both of these venerable railroads disappeared into the Union Pacific fold. Although the SP disappeared in the 1990s it left behind, and is famous for, several California railroad landmarks. These include its two famous main lines, the Overland Route connecting northern California with Ogden, Utah and its Sunset Route, connecting most of southern California with much of the Southwest and Deep South. From point to point the Sunset Route connects New Orleans with Los Angeles! In all the Southern Pacific would grow to a system of over 15,000 miles in length, almost twice the size of the Union Pacific prior to the merger movement. The SP is also noted for its Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Range and Tehachapi Loop near Tehachapi, California.
For all of its prestige in relation to California the Southern
of course, was not the only well-known railroad operating in the state.
The Western Pacific was another famed railroad to be found within
California's borders. The smallest of
California's classic large systems, its Feather River Canyon main line
between Reno and Sacramento (in all it connected the Bay Area with Salt
Lake City, Utah) is arguably the state’s most beautiful route and it is
still operated today by Union Pacific as an important main line. Prior
to the merger movement the Union Pacific did not have much of a presence
in California although its main line connecting Salt Lake City and Los
Angeles did provide the railroad with important sources of traffic and
continues to do so even today.
Last, but certainly not least, was the Atchison, Topeka &
Santa Fe Railway. It was the Southern Pacific’s main competition in
and the Southwest as the two railroads competed for much of the same
traffic. The legendary Santa Fe system was massive stretching from
Chicago to western Louisiana, as well as San Francisco and Los Angeles,
although its Californian routes were never quite as strategic as the
Espee’s. The Santa Fe’s most well known California railroad landmark is
Cajon Pass in the San Bernardino
mountain range in the southern part of the state. The ATSF is also
celebrated for its many mission-style depots and stations it built in
the southwest, including California. Today, Santa Fe’s lines in the
Golden State are operated by its successor the BNSF Railway.
California, however, also features much more than just the
large Class I systems as dozens of smaller railroads dot the state.
of these include the Amador Foothills Railroad, California Northern
Railroad, Carrizo Gorge Railway, Central California Traction, McCloud
Railway, Modesto & Empire Traction, Modoc Northern Railroad, Oakland
Railway, Pacific Harbor Line, Quincy Railroad, Richmond Pacific
Railroad, San Diego & Imperial Valley Railroad, San Joaquin Valley
Railroad, Sierra Railroad, Stockton Terminal & Eastern Railroad,
Trona Railway, and the Ventura County Railroad.
Freight railroading aside, if you are a vacationer looking for
places to visit or just a railfan who loves trains, California includes
several museums and tourist lines. Some of the
state’s most recognized museums and tourist railroads include the
California State Railroad Museum (an enormously popular museum well
known throughout the country, not just in California) located in the
former Southern Pacific’s Sacramento Shops, California Western Railroad
(The Skunk Train), Napa Valley
Wine Train, Niles Canyon Railway, Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum,
Western Pacific Railroad Museum, Shasta Sunset Dinner Train, and the
Western Railway Museum just to name a few.
non-freight railroads include California's ever-growing
commuter, transit, and light rail systems. The state is a leader in
commuter rail and one reason behind this is its attempt to find ways to
reduce its large amounts of carbon monoxide emissions, mostly from
highway traffic. The state’s commuter rail system includes the CalTrain
(the Bay Area), Metrolink (Southern California), and Altamont Commuter
Express (serving the Central valley and the Silicon valley).
the state is also home to plenty of local services like Amtrak’s Surfliner and Capitol Corridor
operations part of the passenger carrier’s and state’s Amtrak
California services as well as San Francisco’s famous trolley system. In all, California offers a multitude of things to
experience and see so my advice is to simply find what interests you the
most and start there first! Whether it is the famous engineering
marvels like Tehachapi and Cajon or railroad museums like CSRM and the
famous Napa Valley Wine Train, there really is something for everyone in
California. Most importantly, whatever you might decide to do first,
if and when you visit the Golden State, just remember to have fun!
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