From Point A to Point B: The Southern Pacific Railroad Links to Los Angeles, 5 September 1876

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As Los Angeles embarked on its significant period of growth in the late 1860s, it was abundantly clear that the city could not properly develop without a vastly improved transportation network, especially with railroads.  It is no accident, then, that the first rail line in the region connected the town to the rudimentary harbor that was also poised for significant improvements.

The Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad was completed in 1869, which happened to be the same year that the national transcontinental railroad, built from the east by the Union Pacific and the west by the Central Pacific, was completed.  It was an important first step in positioning Los Angeles to become the economic hub of the American Southwest.

The town’s first direct experience with railroads actually went back more than fifteen years when planning for the transcontinental railroad line entered its first major stage.  In 1853 and 1854, just a half-dozen years after the American seizure of much of the West, exploration and surveying crews, under the auspices of the Department of War (later the Department of Defense) fanned out across the region to determine the best route for the line.

Although the routes to San Diego and to Los Angeles were considered the easiest and cheapest to build, the decision was made to direct the line to Oakland.  The reason was basic:  with the threat of secession of southern states of the Union increasing from year to year and because Jefferson Davis was the Secretary of War (and became the president of the Confederate States of America) and overseeing the preparation for the cross-country road, there was no way a southern route was going to happen.

Still, even in the early 1850s, it was clear, at least to some far-thinking people, that Los Angeles was a promising future metropolis. By the 1870s, with the Civil War over by several years, a movement was underway to build rail lines south from the Bay Area to Southern California and eventually, eastward through the southern states.

SV C P Ry Entrance To Los Angeles 2007.22.1.1
This 1880s stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection by Ormond E. Tyler of Los Angeles shows the Southern Pacific track as it hugs the hillsides near what became Griffith Park with the Los Angeles River (it must have been a heavy rain and flood year judging by the volume) very close to the tracks at the left.  This image was labeled “C.P. Ry.,” meaning the Central Pacific, the firm under which the Southern Pacific operated.

At the time, the Southern Pacific, a subsidiary of the Central Pacific, was the dominant force in California railroads, possessing a near monopoly.  When the company began planning for a line through the state and to the Colorado River, the plan was to run the road through Tehachapi Pass and bypass Los Angeles.  The company claimed it was much cheaper and easier to take this step, but Angeleno leaders were enraged.

Mobilizing their political connections with members of Congress, Los Angeles’ power brokers managed to get a law passed that forced the Southern Pacific to build their line through the city and then move east to the Colorado and Yuma.

There was, however, a price to pay for that.  The company, citing the difficulties in cutting through the rugged mountains north of Los Angeles, demanded a substantial subsidy, which was put to the voters of the county in fall 1872.  The terms included cash amounting to a small percentage of the assessed property value of the county and ownership of the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad.

Though there were many who were vociferous opponents to what was labeled an unnecessary subsidy to a wealthy and powerful corporation and loss of the only home-grown railroad line, others argued that the benefits that would accrue to the county from the deal far outweighed those concerns.

One of these was F.P.F. Temple, a prominent rancher and farmer who understood how a major rail line could be a boon to others like him and a newly minted bank owner (the Temple and Workman bank opened in fall 1871) who hoped that the Southern Pacific line would also bring financial benefit that way.  Temple served on important committees to lobby local support and to engage in direct negotiations with the railroad.

The subsidy vote was successful and subsequent plans called for immediate work to build local lines from the Los Angeles and San Pedro line at Florence southeast to Anaheim, east from Los Angeles through the San Gabriel Valley (and through Rancho La Puente with easements acquired from its owners, John Rowland and William Workman) and north toward where the line coming from the Bay Area was to enter the region.

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Brief telegraphic dispatches about the completion of the Southern Pacific line from the north to Los Angeles were published in newspapers throughout the United States, including this example from the Chicago Tribune, 6 September 1876.

By spring 1874, the San Gabriel Valley portion was finished to what was called the Puente Station, so that William Workman, who was then approaching 75 (Rowland died the prior fall), could not only ship agricultural products but also ride a train for the first time in over thirty years of living in the area.

Notably, Temple, former governor John Downey and others became competitors of the Southern Pacific over possession of the vital Cajon Pass when they formed the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad in late 1874 to run a line well over 200 miles from the City of Angels to the silver mines of Inyo County.  The LA&I actually beat the SP to the pass for surveying and claimed it as its own, but never built the line to Independence (though a short line was constructed to the new seaside resort town of Santa Monica and then taken over by the Southern Pacific in an 1877 purchase).

While the local lines were welcomed and wanted, the big prize, of course, was the completion of the line coming from the Central Valley.  The terrain was difficult and work moved slowly to work through mountains with major grading and tunnel work (including the 7,000-foot San Fernando Tunnel) into what is now the Antelope Valley and then down to modern Santa Clarita.

On 5 September 1876, at Lang’s Station, forty-three miles from Los Angeles, a golden spike (not as famous as the one at Promontory, Utah seven years earlier that marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad) was driven to finalize the completion of the grueling project.

It was reported that there were some 5,000 people present for the ceremony and that 60% of them were Chinese laborers who toiled under extremely difficult and trying conditions for very low pay to build the line.  They stood by quietly observing while Southern Pacific officials and local leaders celebrated the completion of the line.

As important as the project was, Los Angeles and the rest of California and much of the country were mired in an economic downturn, with the national depression of 1873 and the state economic collapse of 1875-76 causing significant distress.  One leader who would have attended in better circumstances was F.P.F. Temple, a main negotiator to bring the Southern Pacific to the region.

A detail of an 1890 map of railroad lines in greater Los Angeles shows the Southern Pacific’s “Wilmington Branch” (formerly the Los Angeles and San Pedro line) to the harbor; the “Santa Ana Branch” from Florence, south of Los Angeles, to the newly created Orange County; the eastern line through the San Gabriel Valley and the new town of Puente; and the northern line skirting the eastern edge of the Santa Monica Mountains and what became Griffith Park and moving north through the new community of Burbank on its way north to the Bay Area.  Note other lines including the Los Angeles and Independence to Santa Monica and the transcontinental line built by the Santa Fe above the Southern Pacific through the northern San Gabriel Valley.

Temple’s bank, however, failed earlier in 1876 and, though he was allowed to take office for a two-year term as Los Angeles County Treasurer, he was disabled by strokes, one taking place the month of the opening of the line.  His role in making this project happen eventually was forgotten.  Perhaps William Workman, the other bank owner and Temple’s father-in-law, would have gone to the ceremony, as well, but he’d taken his own life in May as a result of the bank’s collapse.

Important as the Southern Pacific line from the north was for Los Angeles, it was a direct transcontinental line built from the east by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in 1885 that really opened the floodgates for greater Los Angeles’ growth.  The resulting Boom of the Eighties, peaking in 1887-88 during the administration of Mayor William H. Workman, nephew of William Workman.

From that point forward, the region experienced ongoing major development through a series of booms (interspersed with some busts, too) that ballooned the city’s population from about 6,000 in 1870 to about 1.2 million sixty years later, with the county going from about 11,000 to roughly 2.2 million.  Transportation improvements were a major force in paving (!) the way for that remarkable transformation and the completion of the Southern Pacific line to Los Angeles on this date in 1876 was a major part of that story.

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