The St. Louis Southwestern Railway, The Cotton Belt Route

The St. Louis Southwestern Railway, fondly remembered as the Cotton Belt Route, was a southwestern/Midwest system that stretched from Texas to Missouri and St. Louis (via trackage rights with the Missouri Pacific). While the railroad was controlled by the Southern Pacific beginning in the early 1930s it maintained its own identity and operations until the early 1990s when it was finally formally merged into the SP system (the railroad also maintained its own paint scheme, although it was essentially a version of the SP livery with SSW markings). Today the former lines of the Cotton Belt Route are part of the Union Pacific’s massive system and still remains an important corridor under the UP banner.  

The St. Louis Southwestern Railway is often times forgotten about as a fallen flag, or railroad altogether, since it came under the control of the Southern Pacific in the 1930s and never had its own, true paint scheme and identity like nearly all other classic fallen flags so dearly remembered today. However, the Cotton Belt Route became an important rail artery between Memphis/St. Louis and east Texas/Arkansas when it was first created in January 1891 from several other smaller systems. While the railroad maintained a system of around 1,500 miles throughout most of its history in the early 1980s it reached its largest length of over 2,100 miles after it had acquired the Rock Island’s former main line between Chicago and eastern New Mexico, the famous Golden State Route. 

Being that the Cotton Belt connected the Southern Pacific in many locations in eastern Texas it comes as little surprised that the giant western system would eventually be interested in taking control of the railroad, which occurred in the spring of 1932. Much like the Pennsylvania Railroad was to the State of Pennsylvania so was the Southern Pacific to the State of California, an institutional icon. Also just like the Pennsy the Southern Pacific (also referred to affectionately as the “Espee” by railfans and historians after its SP reporting marks) has such a history that entire libraries of books could be written on the differing aspects of the railroad. The SP was by far our country’s single largest classic railroad (i.e., before the modern-day merger movement began in the 1950s), spanning over 15,000 miles and reaching from the stretches of northwest Oregon to southeast Louisiana!

The Southern Pacific has a whole host of renowned achievements it is credited with, far too many to go into detail here. However, to name a few it had three important main lines which continue as important arteries under Union Pacific today, the Overland Route (San Francisco to the Midwest), the Golden State Route (the Southwest to Kansas City), and the Sunset Route (the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast). The railroad also had numerous famous passenger trains bedecked in its celebrated “Daylight” livery of bright red and orange (with black and white trim), one of the all time classics in American railroading. Many of its trains shared the same name as its paint scheme, Daylights. These include such names as the Coast Daylight, Sacramento Daylight, San Joaquin Daylight, and Shasta Daylight. Other notable trains included the Lark, Sunset Limited (still operated by Amtrak), Starlight, San Francisco Overland, City of San Francisco, and the Golden State Limited just to name a few. 

Aside from its very popular and famous passenger trains its traffic base, as you might expect, was very diverse and included things such as chemicals, lumber and timber products, produce, autos and auto parts, other agricultural products, and almost any other product that could be hauled in a freight car. Through the 1970s the Southern Pacific was by far one of the most respected railroads, if not the industry standard, in terms of size and scope.  After the Southern Pacific fell onto hard times in the 1980s and was eventually purchased by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1988 its new owner slowly began consolidating all of the smaller systems into the SP banner, including the D&RGW and SSW, which disappeared in 1992. While the Union Pacific purchased the Southern Pacific in 1996 it is interesting to note that while rare, you can still catch former SSW units with UP patches, but still sporting their original livery and identity. So be on the lookout and who knows, you may run across a former Cotton Belt unit even today! 

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
FTA900A, 905A, 910A, 915A, 920A, 900D, 905D, 910D, 915D, 920D1944-194510
FTB900B, 905B, 910B, 915B, 920B, 900C, 905C, 910C, 915C, 920C1944-194510
F7A925-975 (Odds)1950-195226
F7B926-958 (Evens)1950-195216
SW15002481-2492, 2511-2522, 2579-2582, 2583-25901968-197136
GP356500-6519, 6680-66811964-196522
SD458964-8981, 9052-9068, 9152-91561968-197140
SD45T-29157-9165, 9261-9301, 9371-94041972-197584

Finally, for even more on the Cotton Belt you might be interested in the book Cotton Belt Locomotives from author Joe Strapac. The book not only covers the Cotton Belt Route’s all-time locomotive roster, from steamers to diesels, through 1977 (including its affiliated and predecessor systems) but also gives a great general history and overview of this unique system. If you have any interest in the St. Louis Southwestern or would like to learn more about it I would strongly recommend picking up a copy of Mr. Strapac’s fine book. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link above which will take you to ordering information through

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