David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
California’s Railroad Era, 1850-1911. By Ward McAfee. San Marino: Golden West Books, 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 256 pages. $8.95.
Reviewed by Richard H. Tullis, M.D., Assistant Professor of Surgery, University of California, San Diego; associated with Railway Historical Society, and Pacific Southwest Railway Museum.
It is too bad to have to refer to the dynamic period of railroading as ancient history, but it’s a fact. Movies of yesteryear showed a puffing locomotive, or the grinding clash of wheels on tracks to indicate travel. Now AMTRAK and deficit budgeting are all that is keeping passenger traffic alive.
In the period under discussion, railroads were imperious instruments of economic warfare, and the essence of progress. Nor was the potential bounty of Washington overlooked. “Californians agreed that the federal government owed their state the subsidization of the project (a transcontinental railroad) which would fulfill the promise of progress in a country and century supposedly dedicated to that ideal,” says Professor McAfee.
The welter of schemes, proposals, and beginnings fills several chapters. Obstructionists were not lacking. Elaborate editorial rhetoric was common. San Francisco tabloids howled, “Nature has marked this city as the emporium of the Pacific.”
Was San Diego interested in a railroad? Do cats stalk birds? Frank Kimball of National City led the group which offered some cash, thousands of acres, and undying devotion to successive prospective builders. Finally the Santa Fe did it all in 1883.
Repair shops were built at National City, per specification. In spite of the danger of torrential washouts, the rails of the California Southern were laid in the very bottom of Temecula Canyon. For a year or so, the Southern Pacific refused to yield right-of-way on their tracks through San Bernardino. This meant that passengers from the east on Santa Fe lines had to disembark, walk, or take a buggy across the Southern Pacific tracks, to board the cars of the California Southern for San Diego and National City.
Despite these inconveniences, San Diegans breathed a collective sigh of relief at being the western terminus of a transcontinental railroad. Nature had other plans. Temecula Canyon disgorged its unwanted boarder twice in a few years, with railroad timbers being sighted as far as twenty miles at sea. The route was abandoned, the Santa Fe built a spur from Los Angeles to San Diego, moved the shops to San Bernardino, and laid the California Southern to rest for all time.
The Octopus, a novel written by Frank Norris in 1902, presaged the hope that the Southern Pacific control of geography and government could not endure forever. The mortality of the Big Four, and the discovery by communities that it did not pay to mortgage their futures to promote railroad development signaled the decline of the era.
Ward McAfee’s long interest in railroads, and his formal “train-ing” in history have produced a remarkable volume. The chapter headings allow easy reference to various aspects of the railroad era, in addition to the specifics catalogued in the index.
Professor McAfee believes that conditions were ripe for the railroad era, and the emergence of railroad tycoons was secondary to this. Rivalry produced wealth and power for the victors, and rapid “development” of the west. Controls were abhorrent, and were long delayed.
Modern California will be incompletely appreciated without the historical background furnished in this highly recommended book.