The Golden Empire of the Southern Pacific

No railroad is more closely associated with the Golden State than the Southern Pacific. That dynamic association was founded in 1865 when the Southern Pacific was formed as a land holding company. That early broad focus gave SP a natural advantage to maximize diversification years later. In 1885 they acquired the Central Pacific Railroad and quickly expanded the rail operation that by 1929 totaled 13,848 route miles and stretched from New Orleans to Portland. That total excluded the following subsidiaries St. Louis-Southwestern (known as the Cotton Belt), El Paso & Southwestern, Northwestern Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroad of Mexico.

The expansive presence of SP could be felt throughout the west in the Golden Age of Railroading. The core railroad was created by businessmen between San Francisco and San Diego but by 1883 the line extended to New Orleans. In between the SP leased the Central Pacific and eventually merged with it in 1959.  In 1876, Southern Pacific assistant chief engineer William Hood devised the ingenious method of 18 tunnels in 28 miles of track climbing down from the Tehachapi Mountains to the San Joaquin Valley below. One of the most difficult was the Great Tehachapi Loop. The switchback literally had the Southern Pacific train curved back on itself as it gained altitude. In 1887 Southern Pacific gained full control of the Oregon and California Railroad giving it a route through northern California all the way across Oregon to Oregon main port city of Portland. However, outright ownership of the railroad wouldn’t occur until 1927.

The latter route was characterized by steep grades through high elevations where winter weather and dense snowstorms crippled the railroad. To meet that challenge SP constructed many snow sheds to shelter the mainline from snowslides. Those wooden sheds coupled with long tunnels made operation in the days of steam challenging since crews had to attempt to see through dense smoke within those narrow confines. But the capable mechanical department of the SP designed the famous cab forward locomotives that placed the cab up front and the smokestack in the rear, in essence the reversed design for an articulated steam locomotive. Those locomotives were oil-fired, so a fireman did not need access the tender to shovel coal into the firebox and that was critical to the success of that unique design.

SP was of course a titanic among freight haulers and that emphasis was underscored with the early development of refrigerator cars. That manifested with their partnership in Pacific Fruit Express (PFE) with friendly connection Union Pacific. The image of the developing SP is well-preserved in a score of motion pictures as well. When the movie industry relocated to the west just before WWI, SP management generously worked with filmmakers and accordingly just about every aspect of the railroad was featured in a motion picture at one time or another.

SP was also passenger-friendly, and the number of schedules and quality of their expansive passenger service underscored reliable and convenient service that, at the higher end of the scale, defined luxury rail travel in the west.  In contrast to other western carriers, SP stuck with steam longer and the most celebrated member of its later-day fleet were the impressive Daylight 4-8-4 locomotives that Lima Locomotive Works built in 1936 to power the streamlined train of the same name. The San Francisco to Los Angeles Daylight streamliners, dressed in an attractive orange and scarlet paint scheme, captivated the passenger sector to the degree that the concepts used on those trains were expanded to most SP passenger routes. Much of the dynamic qualities SP displayed in that era are attributed to three presidents: Angus McDonald, Armand T. Mercier and Donald J. Russell whose collective tenure spanned 1932 to 1964.

SP performed heroic service during WWII and like most railroads, prepared for what they anticipated to be a new era of luxury, long-distance passenger trains. Accordingly, the railroad made substantial investments in new passenger equipment for the Sunset Limited, The Lark, The Shasta Daylight and the daily Daylight coach trains. Freight services also spoke to innovation and the railroad embraced diesel-electric locomotives.

The freight services of the railroad performed very well into the late 1960s, but passenger service was another matter. President Donald J. Russell and no phobias about actively getting out of the passenger business to stop the financial bleeding and began cutting money-losing services aggressively in 1958. Other cost-cutting moves included the simplified locomotive paint schemes that featured gray body and red front paint (nicknamed “bloody nose” by some) on all locomotives. Likewise the orange and scarlet Daylight colors on passenger equipment gave way to solid silver with red letter boards. Many scorned Russell for his cost-cutting efforts but financially he did a creditable job and Forbes Magazine and Time Magazine gave him high marks.

The railroad also embraced an aggressive diversification plan that Russell’s successor Benjamin F, Biagini presided over. The plan was imperfect in that SP invested in many viable businesses that were nearly as capital intensive as the railroad. One bright spot was the formation of SPRINT, a name derived from: Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network Telephony.

Between 1970 and 1990 SP also shared many of the same challenges that other carriers faced including the erosion of its once envied traffic base. Equally harmful were several mismanaged merger attempts with Chessie System-Seaboard Coast Line, Seaborad Coast Line (alone) and finally the Santa Fe.

Sadly the numbers didn’t work and the so-called “bloody nose” on the fronts of locomotives came to symbolize the SP balance sheet. When revenue continued to decline and the demand for capital became extreme, SP simply had too many mouths to feed.  Finally SPRINT was sold off and the proceeds were used to try to hold the Golden Empire together. Last ditch efforts were unsuccessful and SP was acquired by Rio Grande Industries and eventually both entities were folded into the Union Pacific.

That brief history is just a sampling of the impact and imperial presence of that once-dominant carrier. All reason to add some SP flavor to your model railroad or expand your own version of the Golden Empire. We frequently offer a wide selection of Southern Pacific equipment from all eras that cover the celebrated Daylight locomotives and cars, the massive cab-forward articulated locomotives, and most diesel classes. Our Rewards program will help support your journey was well!

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