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History of rail transportation in California facts for kids

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Capitol Corridor Pinole
An Amtrak California train in Pinole, California, 2011

The establishment of America's transcontinental rail lines securely linked California to the rest of the country, and the far-reaching transportation systems that grew out of them during the century that followed contributed to the state's social, political, and economic development. When California was admitted as a state to the United States in 1850, and for nearly two decades thereafter, it was in many ways isolated, an outpost on the Pacific, until the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.

Passenger rail transportation declined in the early- and mid-20th Century with the rise of the state's car culture and road system. It has since undergone something of a renaissance, with the introduction of services such as Metrolink, Coaster, Caltrain, Amtrak California, and others. On November 4, 2008, the People of California passed Proposition 1A, which helped provide financing for a high-speed rail line.


The early Forty-Niners of the California Gold Rush wishing to come to California were faced with limited options. From the East Coast, for example, a sailing voyage around the tip of South America would take five to eight months, and cover some 18,000 nautical miles (33,000 km). An alternative route was to sail to the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama, to take canoes and mules for a week through the jungle, and then on the Pacific side, to wait for a ship sailing for San Francisco. Eventually, most gold-seekers took the overland route across the continental United States, particularly along the California Trail. Each of these routes had its own deadly hazards, from shipwreck to typhoid fever to cholera or Indian attack.

Transcontinental links

The very first "inter-oceanic" railroad which affected California was built in 1855 across the Isthmus of Panama, the Panama Railway. The Panama Railway reduced the time needed to cross the Isthmus from a week of difficult and dangerous travel to a day of relative comfort. The building of the Panama Railroad, in combination with the increasing use of steamships (instead of sailing ships) meant that travel to and from California via Panama was the primary method used by people who could afford to do so, and was used for valuable cargo, such as the gold being shipped from California to the East Coast.

California's symbolic and tangible connection to the rest of the country was fused at Promontory Summit, Utah, as the "last spike" was driven to join the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, thereby completing the First Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869 (before that time, only a few local rail lines operated in the State, the first being the Sacramento Valley Railroad). The 1,600 mile (2,575-kilometer) trip from Omaha, Nebraska would now take mere days. The Wild West was quickly transformed from a lawless, agrarian frontier to what would become an urbanized, industrialized economic and political powerhouse. Of perhaps greater significance is the unbridled economic growth that was spurred on by the sheer diversity of opportunities available in the region.

East and West Shaking hands at the laying of last rail Union Pacific Railroad - Restoration
The Golden Spike ceremony held at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869. Photograph by Andrew J. Russell.

The four years following the Golden Spike ceremony saw the length of track in the U.S. double to over 70,000 miles (nearly 113,000 kilometers). By around the start of the 20th century, the completion of four subsequent transcontinental routes in the United States and one in Canada would provide not only additional pathways to the Pacific Ocean, but would forge ties to all of the economically important areas between the coasts as well. Virtually the entire country was accessible by rail, making a national economy possible for the first time. And while federal financial assistance (in the form of land grants and guaranteed low-interest loans, a well-established government policy) was vital to the railroads’ expansion across North America, this support accounted for less than eight percent (8%) of the total length of rails laid; private investment was responsible for the vast majority of railroad construction.

As rail lines pushed further and further into the wilderness, they opened up huge areas which would have otherwise lain fallow. The railroads helped establish countless towns and settlements, paved the way to abundant mineral deposits and fertile tracts of pastures and farmland, and created new markets for eastern goods. It is estimated that by the end of World War II, rail companies nationwide remunerated to the government over $1 billion dollars, more than eight times the original value of the lands granted. The principal commodity transported across the rails to California was people: by reducing the cross-country travel time to as little as six days, men with westward ambitions were no longer forced to leave their families behind. The railroads would, in time, provide equally important linkages to move the inhabitants throughout the state, interconnecting its blossoming communities.

SDA Golden Spike November 15 1919
J. D. Spreckels drives the "golden spike" to ceremonially complete the San Diego & Arizona Railway on November 15, 1919.

"Transportation determines the flow of population," declared J. D. Spreckels, one of California's early railroad entrepreneurs, just after the dawn of the twentieth century. "Before you can hope to get people to live must first of all show them that they can get there quickly, comfortably and, above all, cheaply." Among Spreckels' many accomplishments was the formation of the San Diego Electric Railway in 1892, which radiated out from downtown to points north, south, and east and helped urbanize San Diego. Henry Huntington, the nephew of Central Pacific founder Collis P. Huntington, would develop his Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles and Orange Counties with much the same result. Spreckels' greatest challenge would be to provide San Diego with its own direct transcontinental rail link in the form of the San Diego and Arizona Railway (completed in November 1919), a feat that nearly cost the sugar heir his life. The Central Pacific Railroad, in effect, initiated the trend by offering settlement incentives in the form of low fares, and by placing sections of its government-granted lands up for sale to pioneers.

When the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad charted its own solo course across the continent in 1885 it chose Los Angeles as its western terminus, and in doing so fractured the Southern Pacific Railroad's near total monopoly on rail transportation within the state. The original purpose of this new line was to augment the route to San Diego, established three years prior as part of a joint venture with the California Southern Railroad, but the Santa Fe would subsequently be forced to all but abandon these inland tracks through the Temecula Canyon (due to constant washouts) and construct its Surf Line along the coast to maintain its exclusive ties to Los Angeles. Santa Fe's entry into Southern California resulted in widespread economic growth and ignited a fervent rate war with the Southern Pacific, or "Espee" as the road was often referred to; it also led to Los Angeles' well-documented real estate "Boom of the Eighties." The Santa Fe Route led the way in passenger rate reductions (often referred to as "colonist fares") by, within a period of five months, lowering the price of a ticket from Kansas City, Missouri to Los Angeles from $125 to $15, and, on March 6, 1887 to a dollar! The Southern Pacific soon followed suit and the level of real estate speculation reached a new high, with "boom towns" springing up literally overnight. Free, daily railroad-sponsored excursions (complete with lunch and live entertainment) enticed overeager potential buyers to visit the many undeveloped properties firsthand and (hopefully) invest in the potential of the land.

Old PE car at San Gabriel Mission circa 1905
A streetcar of the Pacific Electric Railway makes a stop at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, circa 1905.

Unfortunately, as with the Comstock mining securities boom of the 1870s, Los Angeles' land boom attracted an unscrupulous element that often sold interest in properties whose titles were not properly recorded, or in tracts that did not even exist. Major advertising campaigns by the SP, Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and other major carriers of the day not only helped transform southern California into a major tourist attraction but generated intense interest in exploiting the area's agricultural potential. Word of the abundant work opportunities, high wages, and the temperate and healthful California climate spread throughout the Midwestern United States, and led to an exodus from such states as Iowa, Indiana, and Kansas; although the real estate bubble "burst" in 1889 and most investors lost their all, the Southern California landscape was forever transformed by the many towns, farms, and citrus groves left in the wake of this event.

Historians James Rawls and Walton Bean have speculated that were it not for the discovery of gold in 1848, Oregon might have been granted statehood ahead of California, and therefore the first Pacific Railroad might have been built to that state, or at least been born to a more benevolent group of founding fathers. This speculation lacks support, however, when one considers that a significant hide and tallow trade between California and the eastern seaports was already well-established, that the federal government had long planned for the acquisition of San Francisco Bay as a western port, and that suspicions regarding England's intentions towards potentially extending their holdings in the region southward into California would almost certainly have forced the government to embark on the same course of action.

While the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad would rightfully be remembered as a major milestone in America's history, it would also foster the birth of a railroad empire that would have a dominant influence over California's evolution for years to come. Despite all of the shortcomings, in the end the State reaped innumerable and unprecedented benefits from its associations with the railroad companies, which helped put California "on the map."


Central Pacific Fruit Train
A special "fast fruit" train of the Central Pacific Railroad prepares to head eastward on June 24, 1886.

Even today, California is well known for the abundance and many varieties of fruit trees that are cultivated throughout the state. The only fruits indigenous to the region, however, consisted of wild berries or grew on small bushes. Spanish missionaries brought fruit seeds over from Europe, many of which had been introduced to the Old World from Asia following earlier expeditions to the continent; orange, grape, apple, peach, pear, and fig seeds were among the most prolific of the imports.

Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, fourth in the Alta California chain, was founded in 1771 near what would one day be the City of Los Angeles. Thirty-three years later the mission would unknowingly witness the origin of the California citrus industry with the planting of the region's first significant orchard, though the commercial potential of citrus would not be realized until 1841. Several small carloads of California crops were shipped eastward via the new transcontinental route almost immediately after its completion, using a special type of ventilated boxcar modified specifically for this purpose. The advent of the iced refrigerator car or "reefer" led to increases in both the amount of product carried and in the distances traveled.

For years, the overall scarcity of oranges in particular led to the general perception that they were suitable only for holiday table decoration or as indulgences for the affluent. During the 1870s, however, hybridization of California oranges led to the creation of several flavorful strains, chief among these the Navel and Valencia varieties, whose development allowed for year-round cultivation of the fruit. Substantial foreign (out-of-state) markets for California citrus would come into full stature by 1890, initiating a period referred to as the Orange Era.

As the market for agricultural goods outside the state’s boundaries increased, the Santa Fe developed a massive fleet of refrigerator dispatch cars, and in 1906 the Southern Pacific joined with the Union Pacific Railroad to create the Pacific Fruit Express. Fully half the farm products produced in California could now be exported throughout the country, with western railroads carrying virtually all of the perishable fruit traffic. The western states of California, Arizona, and Oregon would dominate U.S. agricultural production by the coming of the Great Depression; once such diverse and high-demand crops as wheat, sugar beets, olives, and lettuce were cultivated, California would become known as the nation's "produce basket."

Oil boom

Southern Pacific Lines 4-6-0 No. 2353
Restored Southern Pacific Lines No. 2353, a 4-6-0 oil-burning steam locomotive built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1912. The cylindrical tender, specifically designed to carry fuel oil, was a signature feature of the railroad.

With the expansion of agriculture interests throughout the state (along with new rail lines to carry the goods to faraway markets), new communities were founded and existing towns expanded. Agrarian successes led to the establishment of post offices, schools, churches, mercantile outlets, and ancillary industries such as packing houses. The discovery of brea, more commonly referred to as tar, in Southern California would lead to an oil boom in the early twentieth century. Railroad companies soon discovered that shipping wooden barrels loaded with oil via boxcars was not cost-effective, and developed steel cylindrical tank cars capable of transporting bulk liquids virtually anywhere. By 1915, the transportation of petroleum products had become a lucrative endeavor for western railroads.

Most oil tank cars would remain in revenue service for decades until the "Black Bonanza" had run its course. The Southern Pacific is credited with being the first western railroad to experiment in 1879 with the use of oil in its locomotives as a fuel source in lieu of coal (with substantial technical assistance from the Union Oil Company, one of the SP’s biggest accounts). By 1895, oil-burning locomotives were in operation on a number of Southern Pacific routes, and on the competing California Southern and Great Northern Railway as well. This innovation not only allowed the SP (and other railroads that soon followed their example) to benefit from the use of this abundant and economically viable fuel source, but to create new markets by capitalizing on the burgeoning petroleum industry. The conversion from coal to oil also help solved the Southern Pacific's problem of intense smoke in the tunnels of the Sierra Nevada. Thanks to the railroads, California was once again thrust into the limelight.


"Old No. 4", said to be the first engine over the Sierra Nevada, from a postcard, circa 1910

As has been previously discussed, the railroads were among the first to promote California tourism as early as the 1870s, both as a means to increase ridership and to create new markets for the freight hauling business in the areas they served. Some sixty years later, the Santa Fe would lead a resurgence in leisure travel to and along the west coast aboard such "name" trains as the Chief and later the Super Chief; the Southern Pacific would soon follow suit with their Golden State and Overland Flyer trains, and the Union Pacific with its City of Los Angeles and City of San Francisco. The immense popularity of Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel Ramona in particular fueled a surge in tourism which happened to coincide with the opening of SP's Southern California lines.

But it can be said that only the Santa Fé embraced the aura of the American Southwest so completely in its advertising campaigns as well as its operations. The AT&SF routes and the extraordinary level of service provided thereon became particularly popular with stars of the film industry in the thirties, forties and fifties, both building on and adding to the Hollywood mystique. The "golden age" of railroading would eventually end as travel by automobile and airplane became more cost-effective, and popular.


Public response to the corruption that arose from California's economic "explosion" led to the enactment of numerous reform and regulation measures, many of which coincided with the ascendancy of the Populist and Progressive movements. Early examples of railroad regulation include Granger case decisions in the 1870s, and the creation of the first (albeit ineffective) Railroad Commission via amendment of the State's Constitution of 1879, forerunner of today's California Public Utilities Commission. In 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Santa Clara County in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. The documents of the Court decision included a statement that a corporation henceforth could be considered an American citizen, with all the associated immunities and privileges (except the right to vote). The document phrasing has long made it difficult for states to pass legislation that could make corporations accountable to the people. The Stetson-Eshelman Act of 1911 provided for the fixing of shipping rates by state legislatures. In 1911, California's new Progressive government established the second Railroad Commission, more effective and less corrupted than the first one.

20th century

Passenger rail in California during the early 20th Century was dominated by private companies. The San Diego Electric Railway, founded by John D. Spreckels in 1892, was the major transit system in the San Diego area during that period. In the Los Angeles area, real estate tycoon Henry Huntington established both the Los Angeles Railway, also known as the Yellow Car system, and the Pacific Electric, also known as the Red Car system, in 1901. Business magnate Francis Marion Smith then created the Key System in 1903 to connect San Francisco with the East Bay. All four streetcar systems, and other similar rail networks across the state, declined in the 1940s with the rise of California's car culture and freeway network. They were then all eventually taken over to some degree, and dismantled, in favor of bus service by National City Lines, a controversial national front company owned by General Motors and other companies in what became known as the General Motors streetcar conspiracy.

Environmental and traffic concerns beginning in the 1970s led to a resurgence in urban passenger rail, specifically the construction light rail networks. The San Diego Trolley opened in 1981, followed by both the Sacramento Regional Transit and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority light rail systems in 1987, and the Los Angeles Metro Rail in 1990.

Planning for a modern, urban rapid transit system in California did not begin until the 1950s, when California's legislature created a commission to study the Bay Area's long-term transportation needs. Based on the commission's report, the state legislature created the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District in 1957 to build a rapid transit system to replace the Key System. Passenger service on BART then began in 1972. The Red rapid transit line of the Los Angeles Metro Rail then began construction in 1986, and its first segment opened in 1993.

One urban system that was not severely affected by the streetcar decline was the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) in San Francisco. Its five heavily used streetcar lines traveled for at least part of their routes through tunnels or otherwise reserved right-of-way, and thus could not be converted to bus lines. As a result, these lines, running PCC streetcars, continued in operation for several decades. When plans for stations in the double-decker Market Street Subway tunnel through downtown San Francisco, with BART on the lower level and MUNI on the upper level, required high platforms, it meant that the PCCs could not be used in them. Hence, MUNI ordered a fleet of new light rail vehicles, and Muni Metro began service in 1980.

Caltrans and Amtrak partnered together to form Amtrak California in 1976. The intercity service currently consists of three lines: the Capitol Corridor, connecting the Bay Area with the Sacramento area; the Pacific Surfliner, serving the coastal communities of Southern California between San Diego and San Luis Obispo; and the San Joaquin, connecting Central Valley communities, from Bakersfield and Sacramento, with the Bay Area.

In 1977, Southern Pacific petitioned the state to discontinue the Peninsula Commute, the commuter rail service connecting San Jose with San Francisco, citing operating losses. Instead, Caltrans began to subsidize the operation and eventually renamed it Caltrain in 1987. Southern Pacific later sold 175 miles (282 km) of track to the Southern California Regional Rail Authority in 1991, which became the nucleus of the Metrolink commuter rail network when it opened one year later. The Coaster commuter rail, connecting San Diego and Oceanside, then began service in 1995 on tracks formerly owned by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The Altamont Commuter Express, connecting San Joaquin County and the Bay Area, then opened in 1998.

Southern Pacific was purchased by Union Pacific and acquisition was finalized in 1996. In the same year, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway merged with the Burlington Northern Railroad to form BNSF Railway in 1996. With those two mergers, the two major railroads in California are now Union Pacific and BNSF.

21st Century

A recurring issue in California is whether the state should continue to expand its freeway network or concentrate on improving mass transit networks in urban areas. The Sprinter light rail system began service in 2008, connecting cities in northern San Diego County. In addition, several public rail expansion plans are either under construction or in the planning stages such as the Silicon Valley BART extension, LA Metro Rail's Purple Line Extension and Gold Line Foothill Extension, Muni's E Embarcadero, the San Diego Trolley's Mid-Coast extension project, and the Sacramento RT Light Rail's Blue Line extension project.

The California High Speed Rail Authority was created in 1996 by the state to implement a 700-mile (1127 km) rail system. It would provide a TGV-style high-speed link between the state's four major metropolitan areas, and would allow travel between Los Angeles's Union Station and the San Francisco Transbay Terminal in two and a half hours. In November 2008, voters approved Proposition 1A, a bond measure that allocated $9 billion to finance the project. In 2012, the California legislature and Governor Jerry Brown approved financing for an initial stage of construction for the project. The High Speed Rail Authority estimates that the initial stages will not be completed until 2021.

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