Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

The Coming of the Transcontinental Railroad, May 10, 1869

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The Coming of the Transcontinental Railroad, May 10, 1869

“There has never been any sustained attack on the idea that the steam railroad was the most significant invention or innovation in the rise of an industrial society.” So wrote historian Albro Martin in 1992 (12). Califorrnia History editor Richard Orsi (2000a) is more geographically specific, labeling the railroad the most important factor in California’s history and landscape. Invented in Britain, the railroad came to America when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company was chartered in 1827 and became fully operational in 1830. California’s first line ran from Sacramento to Folsom in 1856 (Holiday 1999, 170; Vance 1995, 25-31). However, it was completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869 that brought a major corporate carrier, substantial land grants, and profound economic, social and geographical change to the state. Through establishment of transport routes and towns, development of land, water resources and tourism, economic impacts on mining, agriculture, and forestry, and direct formation of both the urban and rural landscape, the railroads, led by the Southern Pacific (SP), drove California into the industrial age. Today 30 railroads, most of them local, still operate on 6341 miles of track in the state. The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, and the Union Pacific, two national carriers, own the majority of the track (Association of American Railroads 2000).

The spatial array of transportation and settlement in California owes much of its pattern to railroad planning and construction. The Central Pacific line over Donner Pass bisected the Sierran mining region amidst a general and largely irreversible economic decline. It galvanized agriculture and service businesses, creating a growth corridor. Major wagon and auto roads followed, as did Interstate 80 (Dilsaver 1982, 184-190, 380-395). Elsewhere, the railroads also laid a tra nsport network over the state. Interstate 5 in the Sacramento Valley, State Iiighway 99 in the San Joaquin, and large portions of I-10, I-15, and I-40 in the desert closely parallel the tracks (figure 10).

Figure . National forests, railroads, and interstates (plus Highway 99) in California. The forests cover the mountainous one fifth of the state. Many highways followed the routes of the railroads. Cartography by Margarita M. Pindak.

Along these lifelines, the railroads established or encouraged numerous towns to serve as passenger and freight entrepots. The Central Pacific and, later, the Southern Pacific developed Lancaster and Palmdale in the Antelope Valley, Livermore and Tracy near the Bay Area, Mojave and Coachella in the desert southeast, and dozens of market centers in the San Joaquin including Modesto, Merced, Fresno,Tulare, and Hanford. Wherever the railroad built towns, businesses and farmers followed.

In order to sell their government granted land and provide customers for their trains, the railroads did everything possible to encourage settlement. The Southern Pacific operated elaborate planning and marketing departments, both relying on the latest scientific data. It also organized and bankrolled irrigation, farming cooperatives, forestry programs, and tourism development. One profound impact on California’s modern landscape is the preponderance of orchards, vineyards, and horticultural fields in the state’s lowlands. Although many of these crops arrived with the Spanish, farmer and customer inexperience hindered their popularity and proliferation. The Southern Pacific provided settlement assistance, crop research and education, marketing in the eastern U.S. and Europe, and the nation’s largest refrigerated rail car system. The latter was particularly important with the railroad’s successful program to generate cantaloupe production in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. The SP located and dug the first wells, researched the cantaloupe as both crop and popular food, built its tracks and towns in the two valleys, installed refrigeration facilities, taught farmers to grow the strange crop, and heavily marketed it in eastern cities (Rice et. al. 1996, 282-283, 286-288; Orsi 2000b, Chap. 9; Orsi 1991, 51).

The railroads also exerted a strong impact on California’s forested landscape. On one hand, railroads deforested some areas for construction materials and, before 1880, fuel. Additionally, narrow gauge independent or spur lines spread lumbering and mining especially in the Sierra Nevada. Yet the Southern Pacific, with its long-term planning and research programs, quickly embraced forest conservation for watershed protection. SP executives believed both agriculture and tourism revenues depended on it. The company played a significant political role in the establishment of national forests in the state and a technical one through its organization of the first effective fire suppression system. The SP also pursued a vigorous program of research, education, and quarantine during the pine-rust-beetle infestation of the 1900s and 1910s (Orsi 2000b, chap. 11).

The important influence of the railroads on national parks and western tourism is well established (Rothman 1999; Runte, 1990a; Wyckoff and Dilsaver 1999). Encouragement of tourism was a source of passengers

and profit. California was no exception. Southern Pacific manipulation, much of it hidden from the public, led directly to the establishment of Sequoia, General Grant (now Kings Canyon), and Yosemite National Parks in 1890 (Dilsaver and Tweed 1990; Runte 1990b). Promotion of mountain recreation and the wilderness experience contributed to more preservation and tourism development during the ensuing thirty years. It is no overstatement to say that without the railroads’ influence the wild areas of California would be quite different today.

Urban areas too were impacted by the railroads. Some cities, like Oakland, owe their form and function to them. Older industrial landscapes

Figure . Oakland, like other significant California cities, has a large and impenetrable railroad yard that shapes the geography of other urban functions. Photograph provided by California Department of Transportation.
cling to their former lifeline, often near city centers. Many are now depressed and crim-ridden neighborhoods. Planning for transportation and redevelopmen t in railroad cities can be a challenge. Immovable tracks and traffic congestion during train crossing force adjustments in any spatial plan (Figure 11). Yet, the sprawl of California’s major urban areas owes its origins to suburban rails. With the functional, if not financial, success of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and light rail sytems in San Jose, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego, urban rails are becoming more prevalent after years of decline (Figure 12).

Finally, as we travel through the state, there are the remnant visual scenes at every turn. In the countryside, amid the orchards and specialty crops, grid pattern town centers orient along the tracks rather than cardinal directions. Loading facilities and silo, many abandoned, still loom beside the tracks. The rails themselves impart a linear pattern that disrupts the geometry of the Township and Range and the polymorphous natural landcape. Lines of trees, planted by the Southern Pacific for shade, wood, and adornment, can be found on former rail road lands, along tracks, and at stations extant or remcmbered. They include eucalyptus, tamarisk. black locust, and palms. Some abandoned railroad rights-of-way now serve as recreation trails. Overpasses and the occasional tunnel mark the intersection of the rail and auto networks (Rademacher 1999).

Entering the dense buildup of the cities a clustering of indutry and warehouses follows each rail corridor. Large rail yards create impenetrable impediments to intra-urban flows of cars and people. The periodic traffic jams that accompany a passing train, added to these other impacts at all scales, demonst rate the enduring legacy of the golden spike on May 10, 1869.

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