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Southern Pacific Railroad

With the addition of California to the territory of the United States in 1848, the question of a Pacific railroad came to be one of practical concern. The three probable routes were the northern, from the Great Lakes to the Columbia, supported by the North and East, the central, from Memphis or St. Louis to San Francisco, supported in the Central and Southern States, and the route through Texas via the Gila valley, advocated in the South.

The economic rivalry between the North and South, increased by the slavery agitation and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, made the choice of one or another of the routes a difficult one. Numerous bills for a transcontinental road appeared in Congress during the 1850s, but the securing of government aid was a hard proposition due to the opposing interests of the various sections, which were manifest as soon as any one line was urged.

In 1853 a bill for compromise, leaving the route to the President, was brought in, but no action was taken on it. In his message of this year, President Pierce said that the power and propriety of the government in building a railroad through a territory was doubtful, and that action by the general government should be incidental rather than primary. He discouraged a "reckless or indiscriminate extension" of the principle of grants to aid in railroad construction. The problem of route, however, was in reality a much more important one than the matter of constitutionality.

Jefferson Davis claimed to be the first to have advocated a southern route to California, as he had published articles in 1847 in favor of a road from the Mississippi to San Diego. In 1853 in his report attached to the President's message, Davis, then Secretary of War, urged that surveys be made to decide on the most feasible route, and expressed the hope that public opinion would be guided by the results of the surveys.

In the last days of 1853 a treaty was negotiated with Mexico; amendments were made to it by the Senate, and in turn agreed to by the Mexican President. It was not, however, until June 30th, 1854, that proper legislation by Congress was had to carry the provisions of the treaty into effect; and only on that day were the ratifications exchanged. This agreement is known as the Gadsden treaty. It settled the question of a disputed boundary with Mexico, the line agreed upon between the two countries being that now existing.' The United States gained the Mesilla valley, which was an oblong square of land containing about twenty million acres. It formed the southern part of what is now New Mexico and Arizona.

The agreement also abrogated the eleventh article of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,1 which provided that the United States should protect Mexico from the incursions of Indians. This had been found to be an onerous duty, and one almost impossible of execution. For these considerations the United States paid ten million dollars. This district was now much better known than in 1848.

No one pretended that fertile or valuable land had been acquired, but the friends of the administration urged that this valley was a very desirable and an almost necessary route for the projected Southern Pacific railroad.

In 1855 a bill for roads on all three routes was passed in the Senate but came to nothing in the House; another bill authorizing roads on the central and southern routes passed the House, in 1861, but the Senate amended it to include one on the northern route also, and there was not time for the House to act on the bill as amended.

While these efforts were being made to secure a government-aided road, some private enterprises were being launched with varying degrees of success. A congress of various railroad interests was held in New York in 1853 and a union formed to extend a trunk line through Texas on the thirty-first or thirty-second parallel to the Rio Grande. It was agreed that the Southern States greatly needed a railroad and would need one much more if the North and South should separate.

In that event a transcontinental line would be the only means by which the South could retain a foothold on the Pacific coast. It was further argued that a Pacific road on the southern route would make separation a great loss to the North and would thereby tend to maintain the union.

In this same year the state of Texas granted sixteen sections of land per mile from the Sabine to the Rio Grande to any company which would construct a road between these boundaries. The Texas Western Railroad Company was organized to build from Shreveport, Texas, to San Diego. The company was reorganized in April, 1857, and the name changed to the Southern Pacific. Twelve miles were constructed and five more graded, but due to the commercial crisis of October, 1857, the company was unable to pay its liabilities or go ahead. Loans had been secured to build fifty miles when the Civil itfar broke out and the iron so far laid was taken up and put to confederate government uses. This was the end of the Southern Pacific of Texas for a while.

A convention in San Francisco in September, 1859 passed a resolution that there should be two termini, one in Oregon and one at San Francisco. The San Diego delegates retired, and active hostility began between the advocates of a northern and southern route. When a central route was finally chosen and the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were chartered, the San Diego and Gila Company suspended operations.

At the close of the Civil War the project for a Southern railroad was revived and advocated as an aid to the South to recuperate. A new enterprise, the Memphis and El Paso, was begun under General Fremont and was going well, until Fremont, trying to enlist the aid of foreign capital, was arrested on a charge of fraud in Paris.

On December 2, 1865, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company of California filed articles of incorporation under the laws of that state, declaring that the company was formed to construct a road " from some point on the bay of San Francisco in the state of California, .... to connect with a contemplated railroad from said eastern line of the state of California to the Mississippi river." The corporation was given Congressional authority on July 27, 1866 to establish another transcontinental route from San Francisco to the Colorado River at California's southeastern border. There, it would meet the Atlantic & Pacific Railway building east from St. Louis.

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. So narrow and tortuous was the Tehachapi gorge in places that the road crossed the Caliente creek no less than eleven times in one and a half miles. A diagram of the road presented a bewildering maze of curves, angles, sweeps, detours, convolutions, and sinuousities. Beyond Tehachapi Pass the grade is again comparatively easy, the path of the road unobstructed by any formidable mountain range between that point and the Colorado.

By 1883, the line extended all the way to New Orleans. In 1885, the Southern Pacific leased the Central Pacific Railroad until eventually merging with it in 1959. Through the years, the line expanded to more than 13,000 miles of rail covering most of the southwestern United States.

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Page last modified: 05-02-2018 13:18:46 ZULU