The Southern Pacific (SP) can trace its lineage back directly to the Central Pacific Railroad, one of the most important railroads of the 1800s, and one of the two directly involved with the first American transcontinental railroad (the other being Union Pacific).
The Central Pacific (CP) was the result of the vision of Sacramento merchants Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, who became known as the “Big Four”. In 1857, a young civil engineer, T.D. Judah released his “Practical Plan for Building the Pacific Railroad.” The Big Four immediately became interested in the project, and even though none of the men had any construction or railroad experience, they marched forward. Against the advice of their friends and in the face of strong opposition and ridicule, they threw their entire resources and personal credit into the project.
Prior to gaining the interest of the Big Four, Judah had brought his plans to Congress on several occasions, made preliminary surveys over various routes through the Sierra, and had received support from small mountain towns along the proposed routes. However, he had failed to gain any traction with his plans until Stanford, Huntington, Crocker, and Hopkins believed in the plans enough to throw everything they had at achieving vision of the Pacific Railroad.
In 1861, Judah took four teams of engineers into the mountains. The reports that came from these engineers led to incorporation and organization of the Central Pacific. Stanford was president, Huntington was vice-president, Hopkins became treasurer, and Crocker became a director. On the back of this organization and the engineering surveys, Judah again went to Washington. This time he accomplished the passage of the Pacific Railroad bill, which extended federal funding to the project.
One major hurdle for federal funding arose, the railroad needed to lay the first forty miles of track before they saw any federal money. Even though the founders of the CP were wealthy, they could not come close to financing those forty miles. Though the four men were not able to woo investors with the potential of the investment, they did impress them with their high credit rating and reputations. The four associates personally guaranteed the interest on a limited number of Central Pacific bonds for ten years, and were able to raise enough money to begin.
The first rail was laid in Sacramento on October 26, 1863, the first locomotive, “Governor Stanford,” went into service on November 10, 1863, and the first 31 miles of railroad were in operation to Newcastle by June 10, 1864.
The remaining 9 miles needed to receive the federal funds proved more difficult. The money raised by Huntington had been exhausted. Work never came to a complete stop, but there were days when there was not one cent in the company’s treasury. They then turned to the public for support. Aid became available in 1865, and the forty mile mark was passed later that year. Federal funding meant that serious construction could begin.
Construction over the Sierras was treacherous and slow. Due to the shortage of funds, there was no construction during the mild winter of 1864-1865, and by the fall of 1865 winter had returned in full to the Sierras. Heavy snows fell on the mountains through the winter of 1865 to 1867, but the team made progress. The first locomotive crossed the California-Nevada border on December 13, 1867. By the end of that year, there remained only a seven-mile gap at the Sierra Summit, 7,017 above sea level.
Due to the heavy snowfall, it was very difficult to keep the railroad free from snow. The builders became convinced that this problem must be solved before the railroad could be successful through the region, so it was decided that snowsheds would be built over the tracks. The first experimental sheds were built in 1867. These sheds were a success, and it allowed construction to speed along. Forty miles of sheds were eventually erected in the high Sierras.
With the help of the snowsheds, the CP was able to lay down more than a mile of track a day through the mountains. The tough work in solid rock above Donner Lake was completed in the spring of 1868, and at last, the Sierra had been defeated. On June 19 of that year, the line was opened from Sacramento to Reno, Nevada.
Once the Sierras were dealt with, track laying went into high gear, peaking with ten miles and 56 feet laid on April 28, 1869. They were just a few miles from Promontory.
On May 10, 1869, the Golden Spike was laid. Telegraph lines at Promontory were connected to a specially prepared hammer and spike so that the whole world could hear Leland Stanford hammer in that last spike at 12:45 pm, Promontory time.
Two days after this momentous occasion, transcontinental passenger service was inaugurated. The first daily passenger train between Sacramento and Omaha was known as the “Atlantic Express” eastbound and the “Pacific Express” westbound. Passengers completed the 3,167 mile Sacramento to New York trip in seven days flat.
The CP kept expanding, acquiring several smaller railroads in Central California into the CP, and finally gained access to the San Francisco Bay area through these acquisitions. One of these companies was the small Southern Pacific Railroad based out of San Francisco. During restructuring done in the 1870s and 1880s, the Central Pacific became the Southern Pacific.
Now a footnote in history, the Southern Pacific was founded in San Francisco in 1865 by a group of businessmen led by Timothy Phelps with the aim of building a rail connection between San Francisco and San Diego. With the entire might of the Central Pacific, this vision was met, and more. With the CP, the Southern Pacific extended through Oregon, much of California, and the Southwest.