The "Espee," The Friendly Southern Pacific

The Southern Pacific was one of America's most successful and widely recognized railroads.  Its name stands alongside other notables like the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Pennsylvania, Baltimore & Ohio, and Illinois Central.  Its heritage is tied to one of the most important events in American history, completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.  Afterwards, the so-called "Big Four" (Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins) began jockeying for total control of California's transportation network.  They created the Southern Pacific for this purpose, then set about rapidly expanding their new enterprise throughout the Golden State and points beyond.  With a multitude of celebrated subsidiaries to its name, like the Texas & New Orleans, Cotton Belt, and Pacific Electric Railway, the "Espee" eventually blossomed into the largest classic railroad by route mileage; following its 1988 merger with the Denver & Rio Grande Western it boasted more than 17,000 route miles.  Poor management in the decades following World War II greatly weakened this proud carrier; neglect and failed mergers eventually brought it under Union Pacific's control in 1996.  Today, given Southern Pacific's impressive size and scope most of its principal lines (Shasta RouteSunset Route, and Overland Route) remain in regular service.

Forming The Modern Southern Pacific

The Southern Pacific name we know so well today carries a complicated history although its immediate heritage traces back to the Transcontinental Railroad's completion.  When the Central Pacific (CP) and Union Pacific met on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah the West was opened to new means of economic development and settlement, enabling travelers to take cross-country trips in mere days instead of months.  Following this milestone, CP's "Big Four" maneuvered to dominate trade within California.  The first task involved opening service beyond Sacramento, directly into Oakland/San Francisco.  According to a 1933 piece released by the Southern Pacific Historical & Technical Society entitled, "Historical Outline, Southern Pacific Company, March 1933," the original Southern Pacific Railroad had no ties to the modern company or "Big Four."  That corporation was chartered on December 2, 1865 and, as Bill Yenne's book notes, "The History Of The Southern Pacific," it was given Congressional authority on July 27, 1866 to establish another transcontinental route from San Francisco to the Colorado River at California's southeastern border.  There, it would meet the Atlantic & Pacific Railway building east from St. Louis.

Southern Pacific's "Daylights" And Other Premier Passenger Trains

Argonaut: (Los Angeles - New Orleans)

Cascade: (Oakland - Portland)

City of San Francisco: Union Pacific's streamliner forwarded by the SP to Oakland, California.

The Daylight Fleet:  (San Francisco - Los Angeles)

Del Monte: (San Francisco - Monterey)

Golden State:  (Los Angeles - Chicago via Tucumcari in conjunction with the Rock Island)

Imperial: Operated between Los Angeles and Chicago in conjunction with the Rock Island.

Lark: (Oakland/San Francisco - Los Angeles via San Luis Obispo)

Owl: (San Francisco - Los Angeles)

Sacramento Daylight: (Sacramento - Los Angeles)

San Francisco Overland: Until 1955 operated in conjunction with UP and C&NW between Los Angeles and Chicago. Afterward operated only west to St. Louis via the Wabash Railroad.

San Joaquin Daylight: (Oakland - Los Angeles via Bakersfield)

Shasta Daylight:  (Oakland - Portland)

Starlight: (San Francisco - Los Angeles)

Sunbeam/Hustler: (Houston - Dallas)

Sunset Limited: (Originally San Francisco - New Olreans, later Los Angeles - New Orleans)

The project did not include entirely new construction.  It was greatly aided through the acquisition of the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad (February 4, 1868) which connected its namesake towns.  For a brief time it appeared the "Big Four" might actually have to share the state's transportation services with an independent railroad not under their control.  This unthinkable scenario proved short-lived when they acquired the original SP on September 29, 1869.  In a complicated series of corporate shakeups the SP then combined operations with CP in 1870 although the former did not officially lease the latter until April 1, 1885.  On November 11, 1869 the "Big Four" completed an extension from Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay at Oakland through two subsidiaries known as the Western Pacific Railroad (No relation to the well-known WP built decades later) and San Francisco Bay Railroad.  According to Brian Solomon's book, "Southern Pacific Railroad," the group then formed a new Southern Pacific Railroad on October 12, 1870 to obtain the original and others mentioned (including CP).  A further corporate layer was added on August 14, 1884 when the Southern Pacific Company was formed in Kentucky to control all properties under the "Big Four's" direction.

Building Beyond The Bay Area

The Southern Pacific began its march out of the Bay Area in March of 1869 when it opened 30 miles south of San Jose to Gilroy.  Beyond this point its line passed through the San Joaquin Valley reaching Modesto (November, 1870), Fresno (May, 1872), and Bakersfield (November, 1874) before dispatching its first train to Los Angeles (then a town of less than 10,000 residents) on September 5, 1876.   Along the way, 32 miles southeasterly of Bakersfield, the route was forced to tackle the difficult Tehachapi Mountains along the San Joaquin Valley's southern periphery.  To accomplish this the "Big Four" hired engineer William Hood who designed an impressive route containing eastbound ruling grades (compensated) of only 2.52% while westbound grades (compensated) were an even gentler 1.36%.  The line reached the summit at 4,025 feet but its most endearing feature was the sweeping loop nine miles below, which Hood employed to keep grades manageable while gaining an additional 77 feet in elevation.   Today, the fabled Tehachapi Loop remains in regular use by both Union Pacific (owner) and BNSF Railway (lessor).

After reaching Los Angeles, the SP expanded in all directions.  The first move was to continue east to the Colorado River at Fort Yuma, Arizona.  That extension was completed in May of 1877 and with the Atlantic & Pacific bogged down with financial troubles the Big Four pressed on after successfully amending their railroad's charter.  This move enabled them to build all the way into Texas where the SP was directed to meet the Texas & Pacific Railway (then under Jay Gould's control) at El Paso.  After just four years the latter point was reached on May 19, 1881 but the T&P was still 100 miles away, which prompted Huntington to continue on.  He got as far as Sierra Blanca by November 25th that a year, a move that angered Gould who took him to court for building further east than what had been stipulated under SP's charter. The fight was finally resolved when the "Gould-Huntington Agreement" was signed on November 26, 1881.  This accord gave the T&P trackage rights over the SP from Sierra Blanca to El Paso but also forfeited the former's charter and franchises west of that point (awarded to SP).  The speed at which Huntington raced across the Southwest was, indeed, quite spectacular. His railroad had seemingly only arrived in the Lone Star State when he continued his assault eastward, pushing the SP to Pecos on January 12, 1883.  There, it met the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway, another Huntington-controlled system that had been building west from San Antonio.  Through this subsidiary, and control of the Louisiana & Texas Railroad & Steamship Company, the SP began offering through service from New Orleans to Los Angeles along the newly christened "Sunset Route" (In 1881, Huntington picked up the Texas & New Orleans Railroad.  In 1927, all of SP's subsidiaries in Texas and Louisiana, except for the "Cotton Belt," were operated under the T&NO name.)

By 1884 the SP maintained a commanding 4,711-mile network, including all subsidiaries and leased properties.  It was then under Collis Huntington's complete control after the "Big Four" had slowly fragmented: Mark Hopkins died on March 29, 1878; Crocker sold out in 1871 but came back in 1873 until his death on August 14, 1888; finally, Leland Stanford and Huntington had an increasingly strained relationship over the years resulting in the former handing over the presidency to the later on February 28, 1890.  Afterwards, Huntington continued growing his empire; not only did he retain complete control of all rail service into the Golden State but also eyed expansion toward Puget Sound (Huntington would eventually lose his grip on California when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe's William Barstow Strong outmaneuvered the tycoon and broke up his monopoly.  The Santa Fe would eventually reach all of the state's major markets.) The SP accessed Redding in 1872 through a subsidiary known as the California & Oregon Railroad (C&O), which carried a history dating back to 1865 (acquired by CP in 1870).   

The independent C&O was envisioned to connect Marysville, California with Portland, Oregon but only succeeded in doing so with the "Big Four's" financial backing. After a decade of dormancy, the "Big Four" extended the C&O to Ashland, Oregon in 1887.  There it met the similarly-named Oregon & California Railroad (O&C, originally known as the Oregon Central Railroad), led by Henry Villard, which had built south from Portland.  That same year they acquired the then-bankrupt O&C and during a formal last spike ceremony (driven by Charles Crocker) on December 17th the Southern Pacific established a new corridor to Portland, better known as the Siskiyou Line which formed part of its "Shasta Route."  By 1890, SP controlled a network of 8,000 route miles and as it continued growing over the next few decades created what the classic system remembered so well today.  In 1901 it completed the fabled "Coast Line," which offered a direct route linking San Francisco with Los Angeles, via San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.  It was along this corridor, featuring breathtaking scenes of the Pacific Ocean, where the SP unveiled its wildly successful Coast Daylight streamliner on March 21, 1937.  Thanks to this train's success an entire fleet Daylights were launched in the succeeding years; names like the Sacramento DaylightSan Joaquin Daylight, and Shasta Daylight.

Collis Huntington's grip over the Southern Pacific ended with his death on August 13, 1900.  He had built an impressive empire which roughly formed a crescent moon stretching from Portland, south along the California coastline, through the American Southwest, and to New Orleans.  In 1901 another noted mogul, Edward Harriman, acquired a 45% stake in the Southern Pacific.  His reign last less than a decade following his own death on September 9, 1909 but during his brief stint he greatly improved the property by funneling millions into rebuilding bridges, double-tracking key sections of main line, and purchasing new locomotives/equipment.  Two of his most noteworthy improvements included upgrading the Shasta Route and building the Lucin Cutoff.  The former improved SP's Portland gateway by circumventing the steep, circuitous, and grade-riddled (as high as 3.3%) Siskiyou Line.  What was known as the Natron Cutoff, or Cascade Line, began during the Harriman era and heading east/southeast from Eugene.  It passed to the east of Crater Lake and through the Cascade Mountains but required over a decade to finish due to ongoing legal issues surrounding Harriman's ownership the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific (the two were eventually separated following a Supreme Court ruling in December of 1912).  Finally, there was the Modoc Line which opened in 1929 at a cost of $16 million; it acted as n inside gateway between southern Oregon and western Nevada.

The Natron Cutoff was finally completed in February of 1926 where it reconnected with the Siskiyou Line at Black Butte, California.  The original Lucin Cutoff, a 16-mile causeway and 12-mile wooden trestle, pierced the center of the Great Salt Lake, opening in 1903 at a cost of $8.4 million.  It not only reduced grades by circumventing the lake's northern shore altogether but also sliced 44 miles from the Ogden main line.  Throughout the 1920's the "Espee" continued its expansion program; on October 31, 1924 it purchased the 1,200-mile El Paso & Southwestern Railroad from the Phelps, Dodge Corporation for $64 million and then, nearly a decade later, added the much larger, 1,500-mile St. Louis Southwestern Railway on April 19, 1932.  The EP&SW largely served the same territory as SP with a main line running from Benson, Arizona to El Paso.  However, it did contain one important corridor, a north-south line connecting El Paso with Tucumcari, New Mexico where it met the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island).  This interchange proved important and became part of its Golden State Route. For many years the Rock Island and SP were close partners in handling business between Chicago and Los Angeles.  The St. Louis Southwestern, better known as the "Cotton Belt," carried even greater importance with lines linking Texas with St. Louis.

The Southern Pacific is credited with launching one of the most successful and glamorous fleets of streamliners ever put into service when the previously-mentioned Coast Daylight was launched in 1937.  However, after just twenty years the railroad became disenchanted with passenger service, dropped its beautiful two-tone orange "Daylight" livery in favor of a simplified red and grey scheme, and began cutting back until only a few train remained by Amtrak's startup on May 1, 1971.  In the postwar period, SP increasingly turned its attention to freight service.  It fully dieselized in 1957 and was an early proponent of modernization such as utilizing computers to increase efficiency and installation of electronic hump yards (the first computerized hump yards opened in 1973 at West Colton, California).  The railroad moved a wide variety of products ranging from lumber, automobiles, steel and chemicals to petroleum, copper, agriculture, and trailer-on-flatcar (TOFC) service (after 1953).  The latter transitioned into container-on-flatcar (COFC), or intermodal, which became a major source of traffic after the 1980's.  To meet this demand, SP  purchased its first double-stack containers in 1981.  Of particular note was its once highly lucrative perishable business which served California's lush San Joaquin Valley.  In 1886 the railroad developed the first refrigerator car, or reefer, for such and later worked with Union Pacific in developing Pacific Fruit Express, or PFE, to move this incredibly fragile freight.  As Mike Schafer notes in his book "Classic American Railroads," by 1962 the two carriers owned some 22,000 reefers operating as part of dedicated time freights.

For all of the railroad’s historic wealth and prosperity (it even weathered the Great Depression without experiencing bankruptcy) traffic pattern shifts, coupled with poor management, would prove costly.  Donald J. Russell, who took the helm, on January 1, 1952, was the company last great leader.  He expected a well-run and well-maintained on the cutting edge of innovation.  However, as Don Hofsommer points out in his article, "Not Only A Railroad, But An Empire: How SP Went From Mighty Octopus To Tarnished Suitor," from the March, 1998 issue of Trains Magazine, following his departure the company's fortunes took a turn for worse.  On May 17, 1972, he was replaced by Benjamin F. Biaggini who was brought in for a singular purpose, diversification.  With much of the industry struggling after the 1950's many turned to holding companies as a means of expanding their portfolios and curbing the cyclical nature of the transportation business.  While the SP was not experiencing financial difficulties at the time its board nevertheless felt the plan important for its long term future.  In 1969 a new Southern Pacific Company was formed in and branched out into several different industries, including the purchase of Sprint, a telecommunications company.

In doing so, the railroad was neglected, a common theme from the holding company era.  As service rapidly decline and the country shifted from a manufacturing to services, business swiftly evaporated.  Its once lucrative automotive traffic and San Francisco industrial base began to disappear; where the SP once dispatched several trains daily into and out of the city, in just a few years this was gone (plants either closed or moved operations overseas).  The railroad's loss of the perishables was a direct result of poor service, both of its own doing and back east where the Penn Central disaster was being felt nationwide, not just in the northeast.  Farmers could ill-afford to lose their cash crops and quickly abandoned trains for trucks.  The SP's once sprawling network of branch lines and spurs in this region, which seemingly reached every field and farm throughout the San Joaquin Valley, largely lay rusted over and quiet by the 1980's.  In just over a decade one of the industry's stars, carrying a network of 15,039 route miles (including the Cotton Belt), was merely trying to stave off bankruptcy. 

To do so and avoid receivership it sought to jump in on the mega-merger movement by consolidating with a stronger carrier.  It found one in the powerful and world-renowned Santa Fe. Steve Glischinski notes in his book, "Santa Fe Railway," the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and SP announced on May 15, 1980 they would merge to form the Southern Pacific & Santa Fe Railway.  Within months these talks ended but were renewed just three years later on September 27, 1983.  In these latest discussions a merger was approved, creating the Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corporation.  While the two railroads remained separate their holding companies (Santa Fe Industries and Southern Pacific Company) were merged into this new holding company on December 23, 1983.  In a stunning defeat, the Interstate Commerce Commission announced on July 24, 1986 that it had denied the marriage on monopolistic grounds.  The new company had recently adopted a new livery of red and yellow (dubbed the "Kodachrome"), which had already been applied to some locomotives and other equipment.  Railfans facetiously described it as "Shouldn't Paint So Fast." 

Diesel Locomotive Roster

American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S110 (T&NO), 1017-102019415
S230-71 (T&NO), 89-94 (T&NO), 1300-1309, 1330-1370, 1386-1392, 1426-14411941-1950122
S495-104 (T&NO), 1464-1485, 1514-1528, 1551-15671951-195564
PA-1200A-205A (T&NO), 200B-205B (T&NO), 6005A-6010A, 6005C-6010C1948-194924
HH-6601001-100319393
S31023-1032195110
S61033-1090, 4634-46451955-195670
C4152400-2409196610
RSD154816-481819593
C6284845-4869196525
RSD55294-5307, 5336-5339, 5445-5448, 5494-55071953-195636
RS115723-5729, 5845-58711956-195934
PB-25918-59241950-19537
PB-16005B-6010B1948-19496
PA-26019-6045, 6900-69051950-195333
RSD127000-7020196121
RS327300-7309196210
C6307800-7814196615
C6439018-902019643

Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S12105-107 (T&NO), 1442-1463, 1492-1513, 1539-15501951-195359
AS416177-184 (T&NO), 5228-52781950-195259
DRS-6-6-1500 (A)187-190 (T&NO), 5203-52261949-195028
VO-6601021-102219412
VO-10001320-1329, 1371-13851941-194425
DS-4-4-10001393-1402194810
DRS-6-6-1500 (B)522719501
DRS-6-4-15005200-520219483

Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
E2ASF119371
E2BSF2-SF319372
E6ASF419411
E6BSF5-SF619412
SW111 (T&NO), 1000, 1004-10161939-194115
SW812-16 (T&NO), 4604-46231953-195425
NW272-88 (T&NO), 1310-1319, 1403-14251941-194940
SW9108-112 (T&NO)19535
SW1200113-118 (T&NO), 123-128 (T&NO), 1597-16061954-196522
GP9240-249 (T&NO), 280-283 (T&NO), 400-410 (T&NO), 411-458 (T&NO), 5600-5719, 5730-5844, 5872-58911954-1959318
F7A338-381 (T&NO), 6140A-6169A, 6140D-6169D, 6240-6423, 6440-64451949-1953288
F7B538-553, 6140B-6169B, 6140C-6169C, 8140-83031949-1953240
E7A907A, 6000A-6004A1946-19476
E7B908B-909B, 6000B-6004B, 6000C-6004C1946-194712
SW15002450-2480, 2493-2510, 2523-2578, 2591-26891967-1969204
MP15DC2690-27011974-197512
MP15AC2702-2731, 2736-2759197554
SD38-22971-297619736
GP40P-23197-319919743
SDP453200-3209196710
TR64600-4700 (Cow-Calf), 4601-4603 (Cow), 4701-4703 (Calf)1950-19518
SW9004624-4633195410
GP38-24800-4844 (Second)198045
SD354816-4844 (First)1963-196529
SD75279-5293, 5308-5335 (First)1952-195343
SD395300-5325 (Second)196826
SD95340-5444, 5449-54931954-1956150
E8A601819501
E9A6046-605419549
F3A6100A-6139A, 6100D-6139D1947-1949280
F3B6100B-6139B, 6100C-6139C1947-1949280
FP76446-6461195316
GP207200-7237 (First)1960-196238
GP40X7200-7201, 7230-7231 (Second)19784
GP307400-740719638
GP357408-7484, 7700-77821963-1965160
GP40-27608-7627, 7640-76771978-198458
SD40T-28230-8391, 8489-85731974-1979247
DD358400-8402 (First)19643
SD408400-8488 (Second)196689
SD458800-8963, 8982-9051, 9069-91511966-1970348
SD45T-29166-9313, 9344-93701972-1975175
SD45X9500-95051970-19716
GP609600-9619, 9715-97941988-1994100
SD70M9800-9824199425

Fairbanks Morse

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
H12-441486-1491, 1529-15961952-195774
H24-66 (Train Master)4802-48151953-195414

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
50-Tonner (Narrow-Gauge)119541
AC4400CW100-3781995279
70-Tonner5100-5120 (First)1949-195521
B23-75100-5114 (Second)198015
U28B7025-702819664
U28C7150-7159196610
U25B7500-75671962-196668
B36-77754-7769198416
B30-77800-78831978-197984
U30C7900-79361968-196937
B39-88000-8039198740
C44-9W8100-82001994101
U508500-850219643
U33C8585-87961969-1975212

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A Through A-6Atlantic4-4-2
AC-1 Through AC-3 (Various), MC-1 Through MC-6Cab Forward2-8-8-2
AM-2, MM-2Cab Forward4-6-6-2
AC-4 Through AC-8, AC-10 Through AC-12Cab Forward4-8-8-2
AC-9Yellowstone2-8-8-4
B-1Berkshire2-8-4
C (Various)Consolidation2-8-0
F-1 Through F-6Santa Fe2-10-2
GS-1 Through GS-6Golden State4-8-4
M (Various)Mogul2-6-0
MK (Various)Mikado2-8-2
Mt-1 Through Mt-5Mountain4-8-2
P-1 Through P-14Pacific4-6-2
S-1 Through S-22Switcher0-6-0
SE (Various)Switcher0-8-0
SP-1 Through SP-3Southern Pacific/Overland4-10-2
T (Various)Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
TW (Various)Twelve-Wheeler4-8-0


In spite of this setback, the SP did enjoy one bright spot that decade, in 1980 it acquired the bankrupt Rock Island's Golden State Route from Tucumcari to St. Louis, via Kansas City, which was operated by subsidiary Cotton Belt.  A few years later the SP finally found a partner when it Rio Grande Industries, parent to the Denver & Rio Grande Western (Rio Grande) purchased the railroad in 1988.  Interestingly, in one of the industry's nearly unheard of decisions, Rio Grande elected to use the much more prominent Southern Pacific name instead of its own.  Combined, the two railroads formed a monstrous 17,340 mile network.  A mere seven years later, in 1995, Union Pacific announced it would acquire the entire Southern Pacific system as a counter-move to the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe merger.  The union was later approved by the new Surface Transportation Board (successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission) and a much larger Union Pacific came to be on September 11, 1996.    However, the SP was so large that UP was clearly not equipped, or ready, to handle the takeover which nearly resulted in gridlock as yards clogged, transit times greatly increased, and operating ratios soared.   Unlike the Penn Central disaster, UP managed to work out the kinks.  Today, Southern Pacific legacy lives on in its main lines and Amtrak's operation of its former passenger services. The Union Pacific also recently paid homage to several of its predecessors, including the SP, 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.

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