The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe's Cajon Pass was a vital link to the railroad's connection with Los Angeles and remains an important artery under successor BNSF Railway's enormous system that stretches throughout the West. The pass's second line once contained two tunnels but today they have been "daylighted" with large cuts. While the original route was built in the 1880s numerous upgrades and projects have been carried out over the years to lower the ruling grade, straighten curves, and generally improve Cajon's operational efficiency. Despite these efforts the line remains a very difficult route to navigate and one of the steepest main lines in the country. For this reason and the region's breathtaking scenery, railfans continue to flock to area each year. Cajon (pronounced, "KA-HOAN," which means box in Spanish) is located just northwest of San Bernardino, California and less than 65 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The pass is the result of the San Andreas Fault, which splits two mountain ranges, the San Bernardino Mountains and San Gabriel Mountains.
By the 1870s the Santa Fe was looking to expand westward and into California. The railroad was racing westward at the time intent on opening a coveted transcontinental system to California. The company's history began humbly as the Atchison & Topeka Railroad, chartered in 1860, with hopes of connecting its namesake towns in Kansas and New Mexico. It was later renamed as the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe in 1863. While the company's sights were set on the Pacific Coast, reaching that point was not easy. It nearly went to actual war with the Denver & Rio Grande for use of northern New Mexico's Raton Pass during the 1870s, which eventually went to the Santa Fe through an agreement between the two companies. After overcoming this obstacle the AT&SF pushed into Needles, California by 1883 and through ownership of the California Southern Railroad sought entrance into Los Angeles, although to do so meant crossing the rugged mountains which lay to the east of the city. The California Southern was organized in July, 1880 to begin building north from just south of San Diego and eventually connecting to Barstow.
While that railroad never reached Los Angeles it was able to breach the San Bernardino Mountains and San Gabriel Mountains at Cajon Pass determined by engineers as the lowest available grade in the rugged region we now know as Southern California (in actuality the route had already been surveyed earlier by the Los Angeles & Independence Railroad). Work to build the route over Cajon was overseen by Jacob Nash Victor who was general manager of the California Southern. To conquer the steep grades Victor, who was also an engineer, used long, sweeping curves and deep cuts to complete the original route. Near the summit is a long, horseshoe-like curve which featured a tortuous, nearly 3% grade (quite steep for a main line railroad), and was over 2% on both sides of the mountain sloop.
The original route opened for rail traffic on November 9, 1885 and, as Richard Steinheimer notes in his article from the September, 1974 issue of Trains Magazine entitled "Cajon Pass Revisited," in 1905 the Los Angeles, San Pedro & Salt Lake Railway, a Union Pacific predecessor, was looking for a means through the mountains. Instead of trying to cut its own way the railroad gained trackage rights over Santa Fe's route and this agreement remained following UP ownership. As a result, not only could one witness famous trains such as the Chief, Super Chief, and El Capitan working their way over Cajon Pass but also some of Union Pacific's best remembered trains including the City of Los Angeles, Challenger, and Gold Coast.
One of the first significant improvement projects occurred in 1913 to help accommodate growing traffic levels when a second line was built over the pass, which originally featured two tunnels. However, over the years to help curb maintenance costs both of Cajon's tunnels were "daylighted," meaning they were dug out into deep cuts. This second line is not as steep and features only a 2.2% maximum grade but the original line, now known as the westbound track, remains a real challenge with its 3% grade. During the steam era watching the iron horse tackle these grades was truly a sight to behold. One could witness 4-8-2s double-head passenger consists such as the Pacific Limited while 2-10-2 Santa Fes fought heavy freights over the pass, sometimes double-headed, and others cut in mid-train.
And that wasn't all; even into the early diesel days the AT&SF's gorgeous 4-8-4s could be seen assisting the silvery, sleek Super Chief through Sullivan's Curve, a location made famous by Herb Sullivan who captured several stunning photos thanks to its wide open vistas. The sweeping curve, which now bears the photographer's name, also became the backdrop for a number of publicity scenes while artists such as John Winfield and Andrew Harmantas have immortalized the spot in oils. Steam, of course, offered the most dramatic action. However, interesting lashups could still be witnessed during the early diesel era when Santa Fe FTs, F3s, F7s, and beautiful Alco PAs worked their way over the pass. Also, Union Pacific's gargantuan DD35's and DDA40X's ("Centennials") tackled Cajon's grades.
In 1967 the AT&SF received competition when Southern Pacific completed its Palmdale Cutoff through the area, which sits a bit to the east and features a somewhat stiffer gradient. However, it remains in use by owner Union Pacific. Also, today, owner BNSF has constructed a third track along the original AT&SF grade to further help keep up with growing traffic demands. Because of the route's steep grades it has been the scene of many runaways, the most famous of which occurred in May, 1989 when a Southern Pacific freight train lost control and hit a residential area of San Bernardino, killing two civilians as well as the engineer and conductor. Today, with the breathtaking scenery, numerous daily trains, and tough work required to move freight over the pass it is a big attraction for those who like to watch and film trains (aka, "railfans").