Much like the Pennsylvania Railroad was to Pennsylvania so
was the Southern Pacific to the State of California, an institutional
icon. Also just like the Pennsy the railroad (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 company. 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! Today, given the road's size and scope most of its principal lines remain in regular service under Union Pacific such as the Shasta Route, Sunset Route, and Overland Route.
The final batch of locomotives ever purchased by the Espee was its large order of nearly 300 new AC4400CWs from General Electric in 1995. Seen here is #372 leading an eastbound coal drag into the siding at Granite, Colorado as a westbound freight led by #178 and #220 await for the train to clear on September 29, 1996.
The Espee 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.
Being such a large railroad, the history of the Southern Pacific is
quite long and complicated. However, the Espee’s beginnings can be
traced all of the way back to the State of California’s beginnings, in
1850. Around that time, railroad moguls Collis P. Huntington, Charles
Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford set about to finance
the famous Central Pacific to complete the first transcontinental
railroad, which was accomplished when the CP connected with the Union
Pacific at Promontory, Utah in May, 1869. The SP would come about in the 1860s when was chartered
to build from the San Joaquin Valley to the Southwest, and Arizona. By
the late 1870s the railroad was sprawling out across Southern
California and served the state’s largest markets
including its line through the Southwest, which reached El Paso, Texas
by the early 1880s.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century the Espee
continued to spread throughout the West and Southwest, reaching northern
Oregon and serving most of that state’s largest cities by the late
1880s. By the 20th century the railroad continued to expand and was by this time well entrenched into the Southeastern markets
of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (it also leased the CP in the 1920s,
eventually merging the railroad into its system with its main line
becoming the Overland Route). By mid-century it owned a stunning
15,000 miles of track, stretching from the warm and sunny beaches of
Southern California and Gulf of Mexico to the deserts of Arizona and
mountains of the Sierra Range.
A tired and worn Southern F7A #6303, still clad in the road's venerable Black Widow livery, leads a perfect A-B-B-A set of covered wagons across Stockton Avenue in San Jose, California during August of 1966.
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 Espee was by
far one of the most respected railroads, if not the industry standard, in terms of size and scope. However, around this time things began to change drastically for
the Espee. Passenger operations had long since been in a downward
spiral and the railroad sought to rid itself of as much of such services
possible during the 1960s. Except for a few principle routes and
trains it was able to achieve this and many of its most famous names
went the way of the stagecoach and into history, much to the dismay of
historians and loyal riders.
(Of note, this map does not include the Espee-owned St. Louis
Southwestern. To view a map of the Cotton Belt and history of the
railroad please click here.)
For all of the railroad’s wealth and prosperity up to this time traffic pattern shifts and poor management
would prove costly to the Southern Pacific. During the 1970s the
lucrative automotive traffic and industrial base in San Francisco began
to disappear. Where once the SP dispatched several trains in and out of
the city daily, in just a few years much of this traffic had dried up
as industry there closed its doors to either move elsewhere or take
operations overseas. It was also during this time that another rich
source of traffic, produce, grown in the fertile valleys of California
began to move their business to trucks. This was partly due to SP’s
ever-worsening transit time for the delicate product, which must make it
to market extremely quickly
before it begins to rot. At one time the SP had a
sprawling network of branch lines and spurs that seemingly reached every
field and farm in the region. However, by the 1970s and especially the
1980s these were either rusted over or pulled up as the business had
Espee SD40R #7342 sports the road's Daylight livery as nod to its heritage, leading a westbound freight into Houston's Englewood Yard during December of 1982.
As the 1980s unfolded the railroad was able to regain its footing but a
much weaker road than prior to that time. It attempted during the
decade to merge with the Santa Fe and the two were even so sure the
union would be approved by the ICC that they began repainting units in
the now-famous red and yellow livery, which sported the bold letters “S
P” across the nose and flanks of locomotives. Of course, the merger
failed to pass ICC approval and the repainted units served as a subject
of what was not to be. With the failed merger a stunning about face took place. Rio Grande Industries, the holding company
for the Denver & Rio Grande Western offered to purchase the Espee and it passed not only the board’s approval at SP but
also that of the ICC in 1988.
GP9 #3491 still looks like new in its Black Widow livery as it is about to depart San Jose with its train during April of 1966 (note the blue flag on the cab window).
However, in one of the rare events in
railroading, Rio Grande Industries chose to merge the D&RGW into SP,
rather than the other way around as is usually the case, mostly because
the SP was much larger and better recognized than the smaller Rio
Grande. While the newly owned SP never quite became as large, profitable,
and powerful as it had been prior to the 1970s it did rather well over
the next eight years. It was at this time that the Union Pacific, which
had been gobbling up western railroads since the 1980s motioned to
purchase the SP in the early 1990s. After much deliberation the ICC
approved the merger and UP officially took over its larger neighbor in
However, the SP did not go out quietly following the merger. All
mergers have their hiccups and it typically takes a few years before
their successes can clearly be seen.
Due to the railroad's size it's not surprising that the Espee owned a multitude of 4-6-2s. Seen here is preserved Class P-7 Pacific #2472 leading the famous 4-8-4 #4449 as both participate in Railfair 1991 leading an excursion through Benicia, California during March of that year.
H24-66 (Train Master)
Impressive and captivating to see in service, a Cab Forward, Class AC-5 4-8-8-2 #4125, is seen here in Los Angeles on December 13, 1935.
It wasn't until later years that Espee began to purchase GE products in increasing numbers. However, in the late 1960s it did acquire a large batch of U33Cs from the builder, such as #8640 seen here paused at Cuesta, California with its freight train during March of 1972.
However, the SP was so large that
the UP was clearly not equipped, or ready, to handle the merger which
nearly brought the Union Pacific to its knees as yards clogged and
transit time and operating ratios soared (an eerily similar situation
which happened nearly 30 years before on merger day of the Pennsylvania
Railroad and New York Central). Unlike the Penn Central disaster,
however, UP was able to right itself and as the 20th century closed it
began to smooth out operations and lower operating ratios. Today the Southern Pacific continues to live on in its main lines
which remain as important arteries under UP as well as Amtrak operating
its famous Sunset Limited. The Union Pacific also recently paid
homage to several of its predecessors, including the Espee, by painting
one of its new EMD SD70ACe locomotives into a version of the railroad’s
famous Daylight passenger livery and numbered 1996 in honor of the year the railroad joined the UP system.