The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2000, Volume 46, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Where Rails Meet the Sea: America’s Connections Between Ships & Trains
By Michael Krieger. New York: Friedman/Fairfax Publishers, 1998. Photos, map, index, 176 pp. $22.98 Hardcover.

Reviewed by Theodore Kornweibel, Professor of African American History, San Diego State University, author of Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy (1998)

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American port cities underwent two transportation revolutions, one each in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tragically, San Diego missed the boat in both cases.

The first revolution was the marriage of steam powered land transportation to steam powered ocean transportation. Seaports which became termini for long-distance railroads also became magnets for steamship lines, some of which would be railroad-owned. Whoever controlled inland shipping had an enormous edge in trans-oceanic commerce. New York became America’s premier seaport in part because it was the end point for half a dozen fiercely competitive railroads. Steam also increased the efficiency (and profitability) of rail-to-ship commerce. Although some goods were still carried by hand into the nineteen twenties — this reviewer’s immigrant father’s first job was unloading lumber schooners stick by stick in San Pedro — many other commodities were mechanized by the late 1800s. “Marine legs” — buckets on conveyors — moved grain from waterfront elevators into the holds of ships, eliminating sacks, hand trucks, and raw labor. “Whirlies” — self-propelled cranes running on dockside rails — likewise speeded up the transfer of cargo from freight cars to ships.

Where Rails Meet the Sea tells these stories better through pictures than text. More than two hundred photographs and paintings illustrate this integrated commerce. Captions are usually informative and complete, but the narrative often digresses into who built what railroad where. The book is organized by geographical region, which permits mention of most important ports, although there are some important omissions. Coverage of New England focuses on the “boat trains” which until 1937 took rail passengers out of Boston from Fall River, Massachusetts, to New York City. The author groups Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York into another chapter, but in fact there is no text concerning the first two cities and not even a photograph of Philadelphia. New York Harbor is the star, and in fact was America’s greatest port. Passengers from eight railroads crossed the Hudson from New Jersey on railroad ferries, and all of the major railroads operated “railroad navies,” tugboats and car floats (barges) which carried railroad cars from one pier to another.

Analysis of Great Lakes shipping is likewise spotty. Chicago was the region’s busiest port, but no photographs illustrates its ship-rail link with Duluth, Milwaukee; and Cleveland get better coverage. Major railroads owned bulk freighters (e.g., grain and coal) as well as package freighters. Several railroads lacking routes into Chicago operated rail-car ferries across Lake Michigan. The railroads had another impact on lake commerce: by the late nineteenth century their speed advantage had scuttled most maritime passenger traffic.

Passenger traffic between railroads and steamships was well developed in the South. Travelers from New York took steamships to Norfolk, thence further south by rail. Henry Flagler built the Florida East Coast Railway from Jacksonville to Key West, with steamers to Havana. Completed in 1912, the line was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935 and never rebuilt. Another entrepreneur, Henry Plant, owned Gulf-state railroads which fed freight and passengers onto his ships sailing to the Caribbean and Central America. The South’s greatest port was Galveston, until it was devastated by a storm in 1900. Construction of a ship canal to Houston then guaranteed that port’s primacy. Inexplicably, the author includes no photographs of Houston.

Coverage of the West will most interest Journal readers. San Diego rates two photographs, one of a steam “dummy” pulling an open passenger coach at the Pacific Coast Steamship wharf, the other a scene of the Santa Fe railroad freight wharf. Discussion of the Santa Fe’s efforts to connect San Diego to the East is very brief, omitting important details which explain why the city withered as a commercial port. San Pedro gets much better coverage. The San Francisco region is depicted in greatest detail because each transcontinental railroad operated passenger ferries and car floats from the east bay to the city itself. Two color photographs show the Southern Pacific ferry Berkeley, now preserved at the San Diego Maritime Museum, shortly before trans-bay service ended in 1958.

Several western transcontinentals, including those which terminated in the Northwest, controlled steamship lines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, funneling huge amounts of oceanic cargo onto their trains. By 1900 the Southern Pacific owned America’s largest steamship-railroad network. Its “Sunset Route” from California to New Orleans spliced two ocean routes on which a fleet of more than thirty vessels sailed westward to East Asia and eastward to New York.

The second rail-to-sea revolution, only sketched by Krieger in a four-page epilogue, has again left San Diego high and dry. Nearly all trans-oceanic commerce since the mid-1960s, except bulk cargoes like grain and coal, has moved in containers. Today’s most typical railroad scene is a “double stack” intermodal (container) train operating on express schedules. This revolution has required huge new port facilities capable of unloading many vessels per day, each carrying 1,000 or more containers. Can San Diego become a major player in this game? San Pedro and Long Beach harbors have three railroad main lines to the east, but both are currently clogged with ships waiting to be unloaded. Here is business for San Diego. But it sits at the end of a branch line, and it makes no sense to re-open and modernize a more direct eastern route, the old San Diego & Arizona line to El Centro, unless there is the political and civic will to develop San Diego harbor into a true commercial port. Don’t hold your breath.

Where Rails Meet the Sea, even given San Diego’s cursory treatment, is a visually delightful volume. Photographs are clearly reproduced, and the pages are brightened with color reproductions of steamship brochures and skillful paintings of railroad tugs and ferries. As history, the volume falls short, telling stories but not developing themes as well as it should. Its greatest failure is in not addressing labor issues. Until containerization, rail-to-sea commerce was labor intensive, but readers learn nothing about workers’ (including many African Americans on railroad docks in the South) struggles for decent wages and union protection. But given the book’s modest price and quality production, it should delight those who love both ships and trains.