The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1995, Volume 41, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910.
By William Deverell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 278 pages. $30.00.

Reviewed by Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., Professor of Africana Studies, San Diego State University. Author of several articles on railroad topics and creator of “Box Cars On My Mind: The African American Railroad Heritage,” a slide and lecture presentation.

In his colorful revisionist work on opposition to the Southern Pacific Railroad, UCSD historian William Deverell writes that “there is a creature lurking amidst the pages of California history, a beast stalking the good people of the state, stealing their money, threatening their political virtue, and endangering their lives. This is the dreaded Octopus, the invincible railroad in all its guises: technological menace, political fiend, corporate behemoth” (p. 172). But was the SP really so powerful, so malign? And did opposition to the SP constitute a cohesive or continuous political movement? Deverell finds that hostility to the state’s largest corporation and employer did surface from all quarters, but most critics sought not to kill it, only to make it more congruent with their own vision of California life and society. And the SP’s influence over politics and press was considerably less than the picture drawn by muckrakers and historians alike.

Californians, with the exception of writer-reformer Henry George, initially thought the transcontinental railroad would bring unlimited benefits. But as the Big Four expanded and consolidated corporate power, disillusionment and hostility to the SP emerged. But organized opposition was never monolithic or totally victorious. Dennis Rearney’s Workingman’s Party movement paved the way for an elected railroad commission in the 1870s, but that body did not curb the power of the SP. In the 1890s, public support for the Pullman strike showed the depth of hostility to the Southern Pacific, but the company turned growing frustration with the strike’s disruptions and fears of revolution to its advantage and emerged politically stronger than before.

In fact, the SP was not an invincible “Octopus.” It lost a battle to secure federal funding for a deep-water harbor in Santa Monica to the faction supporting San Pedro. (Federal financing for a Los Angeles deep-water port was disastrous for San Diego, dooming it to commercial insignificance despite its magnificent natural bay.) As for the press, the SP never controlled or manipulated it to the degree alleged by the railroad’s critics; in fact, newspaper criticism dogged the company almost from its inception.

How much continuity was there in railroad opposition? Was California Progressivism the final chapter? And was the Southern Pacific implacably opposed to reform? Deverell sees little connection between the conservative aims of Hiram Johnson and the various reforms advocated by Kearney, the Populists, and the Eugene Debs’ Pullman strikers. Different social classes had different responded to the SP. And even corporate executives could support the Progressives’ call for rate regulation in 1910. The Southern Pacific was a convenient whipping boy for almost every political faction from 1870 to 1910. Such widespread opposition, however, is hardly proof that the SP was the all-powerful “Octopus.” Rather, it is evidence of the tensions that accompanied California’s integration into the national industrial economy.

Railroad Crossing is a useful work for specialists, offering helpful historiographic anchors and sensible conclusions about the relative influence of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the press, and various political factions. The publisher, however, could have put more effort into reproducing illustrations clearly.