The original Western Pacific Railroad was formed in 1865 in order to complete the westernmost portion of the Transcontinental Railroad between San Jose, California and Sacramento, California. This company was absorbed into the Central Pacific Railroad in 1870.
The Western Pacific that we still remember today was formed in 1903 in order to form the western portion of a transcontinental into central California and break the stranglehold that Southern Pacific held on California at the time. The project was funded by the Denver and Rio Grande Railway and was originally thought of as the western extension of the D&RG completing the transcontinental railroad dreamed of by the owners of the D&RG, the Gould family.
Construction of the line between San Francisco and Salt Lake City began in 1905. Due to the WP being the only competition for SP in California, the SP made vigorous attempts to prevent construction of a waterfront terminal on the San Francisco Bay. WP succeeded in their efforts in court despite many challenges brought by SP, and this court battle was ultimately responsible for the City of Oakland regaining control of its waterfront from SP.
The WP overcame many hurdles during construction, but the railroad was completed in 1909 with the driving of the golden spike at the center of the Spanish Creek trestle at Keddie, California. This trestle is now part of the famous Keddie Wye. The WP line, known as the Feather River Route, was 927 miles long and included 41 steel bridges and 44 tunnels. This route was competitive with the SP line over Donner Pass and had several advantages over that line. It crossed at a lower elevation at 5000′ versus the 7200′ elevation passed at Donner, which was thought to give the WP line less problems due to weather. The WP grade was also capped at 1% grade with a maximum of 10 degrees curvature, which also made navigation of this line easier than Southern Pacific’s. Freight service began on December 1, 1909 and passenger service began on August 23, 1910.
However, this engineering feat did not initially translate into financial success as the railroad’s charter forbid it to open branch lines, thus keeping traffic low. In 1916, the Panama Canal was opened and due to dramatically reduced traffic, the WP went into bankruptcy. It was then reorganized and renamed the Western Pacific Railroad. After the reorganization and freed from the initial restrictions, WP acquired a 75% interest in the Tidewater Southern and began to acquire and build new branches and lines. They completed the San Jose branch in 1922, and in 1923, WP entered into a contract with Pacific Fruit Express, jointly owned by Southern Pacific and Union Pacific to supply refrigerator cars to WP customers.
In 1931, WP opened a main line north from the Feather River Canyon to meet the Great Northern Railway in Northern California. This route joined the Oakland-Salt Lake City main line at the Keddie Wye, probably the most recognized feature of WP rail. The Wye was composed of a unique combination of two steel trestles and a tunnel forming a triangle of intersecting track.
WP experienced further financial difficulty during the Depression and defaulted on its bond interest in March 1935. After a second reorganization, Western Pacific Railroad emerged from receivership and was restored in January, 1945. Fortunes turned for a while during World War II as both freight and passenger traffic was up substantially. On March 20, 1949 WP launched the California Zephyr with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad and the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. This turned out to be the most famous passenger train associated with any of these railroads and provided passengers with unmatched services and amenities in conjunction with the beautiful scenery of the Feather River Canyon.
Unfortunately even the Zephyr could not keep WP earning a profit, and by 1970, the Zephyr alone was losing nearly $1 million per year. By the late 1970s, mergers were starting to fold the smaller railroads into the larger systems, and on December 22, 1982 the WP was purchased by Union Pacific.