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The Southern Pacific Transportation Company (reporting mark SP), earlier Southern Pacific Railroad (1865-1885) and Southern Pacific Company (1885-1969), and usually simply called the Southern Pacific, was an American railroad. The railroad was founded as a land holding company in 1865, later acquiring the Central Pacific Railroad by lease. By 1900, the Southern Pacific Company had grown into a major railroad system which incorporated many smaller companies, such as the Texas and New Orleans Railroad and Morgan's Louisiana and Texas Railroad, and which extended from New Orleans through Texas to El Paso, across New Mexico and through Tucson, to Los Angeles, throughout most of California including San Francisco and Sacramento; it also included the Central Pacific Railroad extending eastward across Nevada to Ogden, Utah and had lines reaching north throughout and across Oregon to Portland. The Southern Pacific had noticeable social impact along its route: some towns prospered because of it and it founded a number of important hospitals in, among other places, San Francisco and Tucson. Southern Pacific's total route mileage has varied significantly over the years. In 1929, the system showed 13,848 miles (22,286 km) (on its own) of track. Before the D&RGW merger Southern Pacific's mileage remained relatively unchanged at 12,912 miles (20,780 km). This reduction in mileage was mainly due to the pruning of branches. But by combining the mileage of subsidiary, St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt), this left the SP system with around 15,092 miles (24,288 km). This was due to the fact that the Cotton Belt had almost doubled in size to 2,180 miles (3,510 km) with the purchase of the Golden State Route. The takeover of Southern Pacific by Rio Grande Industries, along with the addition of the SPCSL Corporation route from Chicago to St. Louis, swelled the combined D&RGW/SP/SSW system to 17,340 miles (27,910 km). While the Cotton Belt is the most famous of Southern Pacific's subsidiaries, SP owned many others like the Northwestern Pacific Railroad at 328 miles (528 km), the 1,331 miles (2,142 km) Southern Pacific Railroad of Mexico, and a variety of narrow gauge routes.

On August 9, 1988, the Interstate Commerce Commission approved the purchase of the Southern Pacific by Rio Grande Industries, the company that controlled the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. The Rio Grande officially took control of the Southern Pacific on October 13, 1988. After the purchase, the combined railroad kept the Southern Pacific name due to its brand recognition in the railroad industry and with customers of both constituent railroads. The Southern Pacific subsequently was taken over by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1996 following years of financial problems. The railroad is also noteworthy for being the defendant in the landmark 1886 United States Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad which is often interpreted as having established certain corporate rights under the Constitution of the United States.


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  • 1851: The oldest line to become a part of the Southern Pacific system, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway begins construction between Houston, Texas and Alleyton, Texas.
  • 1865: A group of businessmen in San Francisco, California, led by Timothy Phelps, found the Southern Pacific Railroad to build a rail connection between San Francisco and San Diego, California.
  • September 25, 1868: A group of men known as the Big Four purchase the Southern Pacific. The Big Four are Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington.
  • 1870: Southern Pacific and Central Pacific operations are merged.
  • June 1873: The Southern Pacific builds its first locomotive at the railroad's Sacramento shops as CP's 2nd number 55, a 4-4-0.
  • November 8, 1874: Southern Pacific tracks reach Bakersfield, California and work begins on the Tehachapi Loop
  • September 5, 1876: The first through train from San Francisco arrives in Los Angeles, California after traveling over the newly completed Tehachapi Loop.
  • 1877: Southern Pacific tracks from Los Angeles cross the Colorado River at Yuma, Arizona. Southern Pacific purchases the Houston and Texas Central Railway.
  • 1879: Southern Pacific engineers experiment with the first oil-fired locomotives.
  • March 20, 1880: The first Southern Pacific train reaches Tucson, Arizona.
  • 1880: The Mussel Slough Tragedy takes place in Hanford, California, a dispute over property rights with SP.
  • May 19, 1881: Southern Pacific tracks reach El Paso, Texas.
  • December 15, 1881: Southern Pacific (under the GH&SA RR) meets the Texas and Pacific at Sierra Blanca in Hudspeth County Texas to complete the nations second transcontinental railroad.
  • January 12, 1883: The Southern section of the second transcontinental railroad line is completed as the Southern Pacific tracks from Los Angeles meet the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway at the Pecos River. The golden spike is driven by Col. Tom Pierce, the GH&SA president, atop the Pecos River High Bridge. The line now extends to San Antonio and Houston along the Sunset Route.
  • March 17, 1884: The Southern Pacific is incorporated in Kentucky.
  • February 17, 1885: The Southern Pacific and Central Pacific are combined under a holding company named the Southern Pacific Company.
  • April 1, 1885: The Southern Pacific takes over all operation of the Central Pacific. Effectively, the CP no longer exists as a separate company.
  • 1886: The first refrigerator cars on the Southern Pacific enter operation; the loading of refrigerator cars with oranges, first performed at Los Angeles, California on February 14, contributed to an economic boom in the famous citrus industry of Southern California, by making deliveries of perishable fruits and vegetables to the eastern United States possible.
  • 1886: Southern Pacific wins the landmark Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad which establishes equal rights under the law to corporations.
  • 1898: Sunset magazine is founded as a promotional tool of the Southern Pacific.
  • 1901: Frank Norris' novel, The Octopus: A California Story, a fictional retelling of the Mussel Slough Tragedy and the events leading up to it, is published.
  • 1901: Union Pacific Railroad acquires control of Southern Pacific. In the following years, many SP operating procedures and equipment purchases follow patterns established by Union Pacific.
  • 1903: Southern Pacific gains 50% control of the Pacific Electric system in Los Angeles.
  • March 8, 1904: SP opens the Lucin Cutoff across the Great Salt Lake, bypassing Promontory, UT for the railroad's mainline.
  • March 20, 1904: SP's Coast Line is completed between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, CA.
  • April 18, 1906: The great 1906 San Francisco earthquake strikes, damaging the railroad's headquarters building and destroying the mansions of the now-deceased Big Four.
  • 1906: SP and UP jointly form the Pacific Fruit Express (PFE) refrigerator car line.
  • May 22, 1907: Coast Line Limited of the Southern Pacific Railroad derailed west of Glendale, California. Several deaths and injuries. Cause linked to anarchists.
  • 1907: With Santa Fe, Southern Pacific forms Northwestern Pacific, unifying several SP- and Santa Fe-owned subsidiaries into one jointly owned railroad serving northwestern California.
  • 1909: The Southern Pacific of Mexico, the railroad's subsidiary south of the U.S. border, is incorporated.
  • 1913: The Supreme Court of the United States orders the Union Pacific to sell all of its stock in the Southern Pacific.
  • December 28, 1917: The federal government takes control of American railroads in preparation for World War I
  • 1923: The Interstate Commerce Commission allows the SP's control of the Central Pacific to continue, ruling that the control is in the public's interest.
  • 1929: Santa Fe sells its interest in Northwestern Pacific to SP. NWP becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of SP.
  • 1932: The SP gains 87% control of the Cotton Belt Railroad.
  • May 1939: UP, SP and Santa Fe passenger trains in Los Angeles are united into a single terminal as Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal is opened.
  • 1947: The first diesel locomotives owned entirely by SP enter mainline operation on the SP.
  • 1947: Southern Pacific is reincorporated in Delaware.
  • 1951: Southern Pacific subsidiary Southern Pacific of Mexico is sold to the Mexican government.
  • 1952: A difficult year for the SP in California opens with the City of San Francisco train marooned for three days in heavy snow on Donner Pass; that summer, an earthquake hits the Tehachapi pass, closing the entire route over the Tehachapi Loop until repairs can be made.
  • 1953: The first Trailer-On-Flat-Car (TOFC, or "piggyback") equipment enters service on the SP.
  • 1957: The last steam locomotives in regular operation on the SP are retired; the railroad is now fully dieselized.
  • 1959: The last revenue steam powered freight is operated on the system by narrow gauge #9.
  • 1965: Southern Pacific's bid for control of the Western Pacific is rejected by the ICC.
  • 1967: SP opens the longest stretch of new railroad construction in a quarter century as the first trains roll over the Palmdale Cutoff through Cajon Pass.
  • 1976: SP is awarded Dow Chemical's first annual Rail Safety Achievement Award in recognition of the railroad's handling of Dow products in 1975.
  • 1980: Now owning a 98.34% control of the Cotton Belt, the Southern Pacific extends the Cotton Belt from St. Louis to Santa Rosa, New Mexico through acquisition of part of the former Rock Island Railroad.
  • 1984: Northern portion of subsidiary Northwestern Pacific sold to independent shortline Eureka Southern Railroad which begins operation on November 1.
  • 1984: The Southern Pacific Company merges into Santa Fe Industries, parent of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, to form Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corporation. When the Interstate Commerce Commission refuses permission for the planned merger of the railroad subsidiaries as the Southern Pacific Santa Fe Railroad SPSF shortens its name to Santa Fe Pacific Corporation and puts the SP railroad up for sale while retaining the non-rail assets of the Southern Pacific Company.
  • 1985: New Caltrain locomotives and rolling stock replace SP equipment on the Peninsula Commute, marking the end of Southern Pacific passenger service with SP equipment.
  • October 13, 1988: Rio Grande Industries, parent of the Rio Grande Railroad, takes control of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The merged company retains the name "Southern Pacific" for all railroad operations.
  • 1992: Northwestern Pacific is merged into SP, ending NWP's existence as a corporate subsidiary of SP and leaving the Cotton Belt as SP's only remaining major railroad subsidiary. Of interesting note, the Northwestern Pacific's south end would be sold off by UP, and turned into a "new" Northwestern Pacific.
  • 1996: The Union Pacific Railroad finishes the acquisition that was effectively begun almost a century before with the purchase of the Southern Pacific by UP in 1901, until divestiture was ordered in 1913. Ironically, although Union Pacific was the dominant company, taking complete control of SP, its corporate structure was merged into Southern Pacific, which on paper became the "surviving company"; it then changed its name to Union Pacific. The merged company retains the name "Union Pacific" for all railroad operations.

Anarchists were blamed for a deadly railroad accident in 1907. The Coast Line Limited of the Southern Pacific Railroad was heading for Los Angeles, California, on May 22, 1907, when it was derailed just west of Glendale, California. Passenger cars reportedly tumbled down the embankment. At least two were killed and others injured. "The horrible deed was planned with devilish accurateness," the Pasadena Star News reported at the time. It said spikes were removed from the track and hook placed under the end of the rail.

The Star's coverage was extensive and its editorial blasted the criminal elements behind the wreck. "Diabolism Incarnate" is how they headlined the editorial. It read: "The man or men who committed this horrible deed near Glendale may not be anarchists, technically speaking. But if they are sane men, moved by motive, they are such stuff as anarchists are made of. If the typical anarchist conceived that a railroad corporation should be terrorized, he would not scruple to wreck a passenger train and send scores and hundreds to instant death."

A few weeks later, an attempt to derail a Southern Pacific train near Santa Clara, California, was foiled when a pile of railway ties was discovered on the tracks. In the early hours of June 1, 1907, a work train crew found that someone had driven a steel plate into a switch near Burbank, California, intending to derail the Santa Barbara local.

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 Like most railroads, the SP painted the majority of its steam locomotive fleet black during the 20th century, but after the 1930s the SP had a policy of painting the front of the locomotive's smokebox light silver (almost white in appearance), with graphite colored sides, for visibility. 

As locomotives are being restored, some Pacific type 4-6-2 locomotive boilers are showing signs of having been painted dark green. The soft cover book "Steam Glory 2" by Kalmbach Publications (2007) has an article "Southern Pacific's Painted Ladies" which shows color photos from the 1940s and 1950s revealing that a number of SP 0-6-0 yard engines, usually assigned to passenger terminals were painted in various combinations with red cab roof and cab doors, pale silver smokeboxes and smokebox fronts, dark green boilers, multi colored SP heralds on black cab, green cylinder covers and other details pointed out in color. It is possible that some of the other SP steam passenger locomotives were also painted in these colors or at least had dark green boilers. The article indicates that these paint jobs lasted quite a while and were not special paint for a single event.

Some express passenger steam locomotives bore the Daylight scheme, named after the trains they hauled, most of which had the word Daylight in the train name. This scheme, carried in full on the tender, consisted of a bright, almost vermilion red on the top and bottom thirds, with the center third being a bright orange. The parts were separated with thin white bands. Some of the color continued along the locomotive. The most famous "Daylight" locomotives were the GS-4 steam locomotives. The most famous Daylight-hauled trains were the Coast Daylight and the Sunset Limited.

Well known were the Southern Pacific's unique "cab-forward" steam locomotives. These were essentially 2-8-8-4 locomotives set up to run in reverse, with the tender attached to the smokebox end of the locomotive. Southern Pacific used a number of snow sheds in mountain terrain, and locomotive crews nearly asphyxiated from smoke blowing back to the cab. After a number of engineers began running their engines in reverse (pushing the tender), Southern Pacific asked Baldwin Locomotive Works to produce cab-forward designs. No other North American railroad ordered cab-forward locomotives, which became a distinctive symbol of the Southern Pacific.

During the early days of diesel locomotive use, they were also painted black. Yard switchers had diagonal orange stripes painted on the ends for visibility, earning this scheme the nickname of Tiger Stripe. Road freight units were generally painted in a black scheme with a red band at the bottom of the carbody and a silver and orange "winged" nose. The words "SOUTHERN PACIFIC" were borne in a large serif font in white. This paint scheme is called the Black Widow scheme by railfans. A transitory scheme, of all-over black with orange "winged" nose, was called the Halloween scheme. Few locomotives were painted in this scheme and few photos of it exist.

Most passenger units were painted originally in the Daylight scheme as described above, though some were painted red on top, silver below for use on the Golden State (operated in cooperation with the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad) between Chicago and Los Angeles. Also, silver cars with a narrow red band at the top were used for the Sunset Limited and other trains into Texas. In 1959 SP standardized on a paint scheme of dark grey with a red "winged" nose; this scheme was dubbed Bloody Nose by railfans. Lettering was again in white. During the failed Southern Pacific Santa Fe Railroad merger in the mid 1980s, the "Kodachrome" paint scheme (named for the colors on the boxes that the film came in) was applied to many Southern Pacific locomotives. When the Southern Pacific Santa Fe merger was denied by the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Kodachrome units were not immediately repainted, some even lasting up to the Southern Pacific's end as an independent company, complete with the big letters "SPSF", which colloquially came to be referred to as "Shouldn't Paint So Fast." The Interstate Commerce Commission's decision left Southern Pacific in a decrepit state, the locomotives were not repainted immediately, although some were repainted into the Bloody Nose scheme as they were overhauled after months to years of deferred maintenance. After the 1988 purchase of Southern Pacific by Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad owner Philip Anschutz, the side lettering on repainted locomotives was changed from SP's serif font to the Rio Grande's "speed lettering" style. The Rio Grande did not retain its identity, as Anshutz felt the Southern Pacific name was the more dominant and recognizable.

Southern Pacific road switcher diesels were well-known by railfans for several distinct features beyond their paint schemes. The units often featured elaborate lighting clusters, both front and rear, which featured a large red Mars Light for emergency signaling, and often two sets of twin sealed-beam headlamps, one on top of the cab between the number boards, and the other below the Mars Light on the locomotive's nose. The Southern Pacific, starting in the 1970s, employed cab air conditioning on all new locomotives, and the air conditioning unit on top of the locomotive cab is quite visible. Southern Pacific also placed very large snowplows on the pilots of their road switchers, primarily for the heavy winter snowfall encountered on the Donner Pass route. Many Southern Pacific road switchers used a Nathan-AirChime model M3 or M5 air horn, which formed chords which were distinct to Southern Pacific locomotives in the western states.

The Southern Pacific, and its subsidiary Cotton Belt, were the only operators of the EMD SD45T-2 "Tunnel Motor" locomotive. This locomotive was necessary because the standard configuration EMD SD45 could not get a sufficient amount of cool air into the diesel locomotive's radiator while working Southern Pacific's extensive snow shed and tunnel system in the Cascades and Donner Pass. These "Tunnel Motors" were essentially EMD SD45-2's with radiator air intakes located at the locomotive carbody's walkway level, rather than EMD's typical radiator setup with fans on the locomotive's long hood roof pulling air through radiators mounted at the top/side of the locomotive's body. Inside tunnels and snow sheds, the hot exhaust gases from lead units would accumulate near the top of the tunnel or snow shed, and be drawn into the radiators of trailing EMD (non-tunnel motor) locomotives, leading these locomotives to shut down as their diesel prime mover overheated. The Southern Pacific also operated EMD SD40T-2s, as did the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.

Unlike many other railroads, whose locomotive numberboards bore the locomotive's number, SP used them for the train number until 1967, when they adopted the other railroads' "standard," except for the SP's San Francisco-San Jose commute trains, which maintained the display of train numbers for the convenience of passengers awaiting their trains. The other major railroad which used locomotive numberboards for train numbers into the late 1960s was SP's transcontinental partner, Union Pacific.

Toward the end of the railroad's corporate life, Southern Pacific locomotives were known for being very dirty. Some railfans jokingly observed that the railroad's heavily used locomotives were only washed when it rained.

Union Pacific recently unveiled UP 1996, the sixth and final of its Heritage Series EMD SD70ACe locomotives. Its paint scheme appears to be based on the Daylight and Black Widow schemes.

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Until May 1, 1971 (when Amtrak took over long-distance passenger operations in the United States), the Southern Pacific at various times operated the following named passenger trains. Trains with names in italicized bold text still operate under the Amtrak name:

Locomotives Used for Passenger Service

Steam Locomotives

Diesel Locomotives

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There are many Southern Pacific locomotives still in revenue service with railroads such as the Union Pacific Railroad, and many older and special locomotives have been donated to parks and museums, or continue operating on scenic or tourist railroads. Most of the engines now in use with Union Pacific have been "patched," where the SP logo on the front is replaced by a Union Pacific shield, and new numbers are applied over the old numbers with a Union Pacific sticker, however some engines remain in Southern Pacific "bloody nose" paint. Among the more notable equipment is: 

For a complete list, see: List of preserved Southern Pacific Railroad rolling stock.

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 The Central Pacific Railroad (and later the Southern Pacific) maintained and operated a fleet of ferry boats that connected Oakland with San Francisco by water. For this purpose, a massive pier, the Oakland Long Wharf, was built out into San Francisco Bay in the 1870s which served both local and mainline passengers. Early on, the Central Pacific gained control of the existing ferry lines for the purpose of linking the northern rail lines with those from the south and east; during the late 1860s the company purchased nearly every bayside plot in Oakland, creating what author and historian Oscar Lewis described as a "wall around the waterfront" that put the town’s fate squarely in the hands of the corporation. Competitors for ferry passengers or dock space were ruthlessly run out of business, and not even stage coach lines could escape the group's notice, or wrath. 

By 1930, the Southern Pacific owned the world's largest ferry fleet (which was subsidized by other railroad activities), carrying 40 million passengers and 60 million vehicles annually aboard 43 vessels. However, the opening of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936 initiated the slow decline in demand for ferry service, and by 1951 only 6 ships remained active. SP ferry service was discontinued altogether in 1958.

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