From Point A to Point B Along the Sunset Route of the Southern Pacific Railroad, 1883-1888

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been noted on this blog before, the development of railroads in greater Los Angeles, as for virtually any region in the county, was essential for successful growth. While the local Los Angeles and San Pedro was completed from the town to the rudimentary harbor at Wilmington in 1869, the year the transcontinental line was finished, it was not until Congress, two years later, forced the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) to go through Los Angeles as it planned its line from San Francisco to Yuma, Arizona and points east that the situation here changed dramatically.

In fall 1872, Los Angeles County citizens voted for a subsidy amounting to 5% of the assessed valuation of property in the county and control of the Los Angeles and San Pedro to the SP, which, in turn, agreed to not only complete the line from the north to the Angel City and then east through the San Gabriel Valley and the Rancho La Puente owned by John Rowland and William Workman to Yuma, but to construct a line from Florence (South Los Angeles) to Anaheim.

Los Angeles Herald, 19 January 1883.

In the succeeding several years, these routes made an enormous impact on the area, though the SP’s monopoly was a concern for many locals and this was one reason for the formation of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, with F.P.F. Temple as its founding president and then as treasurer when U.S. Senator from Nevada, John P. Jones, who had extensive mining interests, took a majority interest in company stock and then arranged for a branch line to be built first to his new seaside resort town of Santa Monica. Yet, when the economy turned south in 1875, with the Temple and Workman bank as a prominent casualty, comprising the first major business failure in the region, the SP purchased the Los Angeles and Independence and continued its dominance of regional railroads.

While the economy continued to be sluggish well into the 1880s, there were some important developments with the SP and its efforts in greater Los Angeles, specifically the establishment in early 1883 of what became known as the Sunset Route, linking New Orleans to the Angel City through the acquisition of several railroads and continued construction of its main line eastward. On 12 January, the SP announced passenger fares from San Francisco to the Crescent City, ranging from $55 for third-class to $98.50 for first-class tickets with stay-over privileges, while it also listed rates for those traveling on to New York City.

Herald, 20 May 1885.

With service inaugurated soon after, there were local news reports of travelers using the new route, though most of the attention was focused on the shipping of goods. produce and other freight. In its edition of 17 May, the Los Angeles Herald reported that

An observer at our great busy railway station [the River Station where Los Angeles State Historic Park is located now in Chinatown] cannot fail to observe a steady increase in the number of through freight cars between New Orleans and Los Angeles and San Francisco. Every day the hurrying trains receive their burden from the steamers at the Crescent City and speed away through forest, prairie, desert and mountain chains to the Orange Grove City, and then to the metropolis of the State.

It was added that, with the shipment by sea from New York City to New Orleans and then by rail, “goods are brought to Los Angeles in thirteen days, which is about a week quicker than by the overland, via all rail,” while San Francisco got their material some two weeks faster by the Sunset Route rather than by the Union Pacific route.

Herald, 2 December 1885.

Angel City merchants were advised to note that “they are now so much nearer the eastern markets” that they could deliver goods faster than those in San Francisco and the paper asserted that “the Los Angeles merchants are ahead of all rivals in the handling of eastern goods.” More than half of such items came through the city on the way to the northern part of California and “in a short time nearly all such goods will pass this way.” Because of lower grades, faster time marked the southern route’s advantage in connections to the east “and Los Angeles is now the favored emporium and will remain so.”

While passenger service was secondary at that point, the Herald‘s 1 June edition published a short article on “Luxurious Traveling” in which it was noted that “the finest passenger coaches ever seen in this city, and which are not surpassed in the East, are being hauled daily over the Southern Pacific route.” The “palatial carriages” were 70 feet long an up to 10 feet longer than the usual first-class type. Interiors were finished in bird’s-eye maple, silver lamps and cast bronze “in the latest and most ornamental style.” The account concluded by observing that “these cars are not only real bijous [“bijou,” however, generally meaning something small, but elegant] for comfort and elegance, but are actually far more elaborate and ornamental than the Pullman and Wagner sleepers were but a few years since” and exclaimed “it is a luxury to ride in them.”

Herald, 22 December 1886.

By early 1884, though, there were excursions along the Sunset Route to Los Angeles with the Herald of 12 January reporting that “the first of the [four] Sunset Route excursions will arrive this afternoon at 4:45, railroad time [a standard time system was actually implemented in 1883 because of a widely varying condition due to railroad expansion] and consists of a large number of the solid [well-to-do] men of the Western and Southern States, nearly all from the Mississippi [River] Valley.”

Among the challenges were occasional complications with the tracks, such as in May 1884 when storms led to the weakening of the sand underlayment and causing the derailing of baggage, express, passenger and postal cars. A passenger was badly bruised, but it was remarkable that there were no other serious injuries. In September 1887, water spouts erupting from the desert in eastern California and in Arizona caused washouts, including a massive one near Tucson that not only delayed travelers but held up the delivery of goods.

Herald, 2 November 1887.

Another problem included the competition between railroads and shipping companies delivering cargo by sea and this led to the formation of “railroad pools” in which competitors banded together to arrange traffic at common points of access and to set rates that were considered equitable for all concerned. The passage, however, by Congress in 1887 of the Interstate Commerce Act put a stop to such organizations, forcing railroads to share customers and profits.

Then there was the issue of rate wars as lines competed for passenger and freight customers by cutting fares and freight fees and sometimes these conflicts could lead to ridiculously prices, such as when a one-way ticket from Kansas City to Los Angeles, during the latter’s great Boom of the 1880s, occurring mainly during the mayoral administration of William H. Workman in 1887 and 1888, reportedly got as low, very briefly, as $1. That was precipitated by the completion of a direct transcontinental line to the Angel City by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, which, from late 1885, used Southern Pacific lines before building its own through the northern San Gabriel Valley within two years.

Los Angeles Express, 28 February 1888.

That boom was of such a magnitude that, as vital as freight shipments were (and would expand later with the invention of the refrigerated box car, which allowed, for example, for the enhanced shipment of greater Los Angeles-grown oranges), the importance of passenger service for prospective settlers and for tourists (a rapidly growing middle class allowed for a huge expansion of the tourism industry) mushroomed dramatically. By late 1886, local papers began reporting on the arrival of excursions, with those of, say, 150 to 200 persons, who were usually identified by name and hometown in lists, being common but, by early 1888, larger contingents were coming.

The 28 February 1888 edition of the Los Angeles Express, for example, reported that the eleventh Southern Pacific excursion “numbers over 700 persons and [who] come in a train consisting of eighteen cars.” Included were “two carloads of ‘English maids,” imported by a Mrs. Parker who was trying to ameliorate a labor shortage of servants “by importing girls from old England” with “this party of buxom British maidens” actually bypassing Los Angeles for San Francisco, though they were expected to receive a large share of attention when arriving at the Angel City. The paper hoped that some of the women “could be induced to remain in Los Angeles, as the need for help of this kind is felt in many families in Southern California.”

Express, 23 November 1888.

The paper’s 23 November edition quoted the San Francisco Call regarding the popularity of the excursions, noting that, in fourteen months, the Boston-to-California trips “met with an unusual degree of success” because of quick travel time and well-appointed sleepers. While much of the focus was on those looking to “winter” in our region, which is why so many local hotels, whether in Los Angeles; on the coast in Santa Monica, Redondo or Long Beach; or in the San Gabriel Valley, including at Sierra Madre Villa, the Raymond at South Pasadena, and others, were established, summer travel proved very consistent, as well.

There was another looming issue when it came to freight, though, and this was the inadequacy of the rail facilities at San Pedro/Wilmington, where, even for shipping by sea, only some modest improvements were made beginning with the building of breakwater in the early 1870s as well as some dredging. But, the Los Angeles and San Pedro line was wholly in sufficient, reported the Los Angeles Times of 25 April 1888 with one report that there were up to 800 carloads of goods waiting for transport “by that little old one-horse railroad.” Part of the matter was that the SP wanted its main port to be at Santa Monica and the “Free Harbor Fight” of the following decade led the federal government to choose San Pedro/Wilmington for where its largesse (appropriations) would go. This, of course, meant a vast improvement in transport by rail.

A detail from a map in a Southern Pacific Lines timetable from 1928 showing the Sunset Route between Los Angeles and New Orleans.

Despite this problem, the Herald in its issues of 5 and 10 August trumpeted the status of the Angel City as a transportation center. For example, on the 5th, the paper proclaimed “enough data exists now for the claim that Los Angeles is going to be one of the great railway centers of the world.” With increased transcontinental rail access, port facilities “about to be greatly improved and extended, and “of local railways we have no end, the county being absolutely gridironed with them,” this was “the story of development as yet but in its infancy.”

On the 10th, the paper added,

In this section we have had our booms and reactions . . . we have had them based upon a few lines of stage coaches, supplemented by a steamer to San Francisco twice a month. Later we had a strong one based upon the completion of the Southern Pacific Railway from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Then we had a really rattling one . . . based upon the extension of the Southern Pacific Railway to Arizona. Almost coincidentally we had a slap up, bag up boom, following the connection with Los Angeles of the superb Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé system, with the Southern Pacific converted into the grand Sunset route, and the placing of Los Angeles high above San Francisco [always a goal], and every other Pacific Coast point, on the pinnacle of the railway ramifications of the west side of the American continent.

The Homestead’s collection has a few artifacts directly related to the Sunset Route, including a souvenir postcard folder; a pamphlet called “Waysite Notes along the Sunset Route” with information many stops along the line, including such local ones as Alhambra, San Gabriel, El Monte, Puente (the description of which was: “in heart of San Gabriel Valley. Walnut packing plant.”), Pomona and Ontario; and a Southern Pacific lines timetable corrected to January 1928.

The only early object we have is brief in its reference, but still interesting, and is an 11 December 1888 letter written from the terminus at New Orleans. Unfortunately, the writer’s name is only given as “Mac,” who resided between the Central City and Lower Garden District sections, while the recipient is only known by “Williams,” there being no envelope. What we do know is that both men were attorneys, went to the same law school and belonged to the same fraternity.

The correspondent, after acknowledging that “my conscience has been pricking me for the past week or ten days” for not answering a letter, stated that

There are two routes from here to Los Angeles. The one is by the Southern Pacific, commonly called the Sunset Route; the other is over the Texas and Pacific [which used the SP line from near El Paso westward]. The fare over both is the same; so are the freight charges. The fare is $67.50 . . . Now if I remember rightly, your sleeper from here to Los Angeles will cost you $7.50. To aid you in making a choice I will send on any time tables, maps, circulars, etc., that I can lay my hands on.

Williams was to make his way to the Crescent City and stay with “Mac” for several days before making a decision about whether to go to the City of Angels. Other discussion concerned finding some entertainment for Williams, but with “no dissipation;” the fraternity chapter; and a lawsuit of interest. Most intriguing, however, is that the correspondent added “Patton, one of our boys, says he has some cousins out in California. He will give you letters of introduction to them.”

Those cousins, it may be presumed, included George S. Patton (1856-1927,) a native of Charleston, West Virginia whose father was a colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was killed in battle in September 1864. After the end of the conflict, Patton’s mother, Susan, took her four children, including George, to Los Angeles to join her brother, attorney Andrew Glassell, a founder of the city of Orange and namesake of the Glassell Park neighborhood of the Angel City. George S. Patton became a lawyer in 1880 and served briefly as Los Angeles County District Attorney in 1887 before resigning because of health issues.

In 1884, he married Ruth Wilson, daughter of Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to the region with the Rowland and Workman expedition of 1841, and the couple, who had a daughter Anne and son George, Jr.—the famed World War II general—were neighbors and friends with Henry E. Huntington, who was a Southern Pacific executive working for his uncle Collis, the railroad’s president, before being cut loose in a takeover and moving to Los Angeles. Huntington’s real estate empire included Patton as one of his most trusted advisors and executives.

Whether Williams chose to go to Los Angeles (and take up the offer to be introduced to George S. Patton, Sr.) or decided against it, the letter is still interesting for its reference to the Sunset Route as our region was at the end of the major boom that was largely defined by railroad improvements.

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