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Southern Pacific Railroad
December 17, 2012, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks
The first attempt to finance a line from San Francisco to San Jose failed due to a financial depression in 1855. Another attempt was made a few years later, however, and after an initial bond-raising success by a new company named the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad, a contract was signed Oct. 24, 1860, for the actual beginning of the railroad.

The tracks to San Francisco were laid through the well-populated sandy hill area of Colma rather than the more direct and shorter route to the east of San Bruno Mountain. The Colma route was a longer one to downtown San Francisco, but the terrain was easier on which to lay tracks. The east side was rugged, hilly and steep-cliffed, and the technology to overcome the engineering obstacles was not yet available. Although construction was started early in the 1900s, this eastern route would not be conquered until after the earthquake in 1906.

In the late 1860s, a lot was happening in the young railroad industry. A transcontinental rail-line was being planned by numerous individuals — men who become known as the "Big Four” — Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington. They beat the competition, formed the Central Pacific Railroad and began the construction of it in the 1860s. It was nearing completion by the end of the 1860s and these men, wealthy and full of self-confidence and power, were planning on controlling all of the western railroads they could, regardless of what they had to do to own them. Plans were already circulating about another southern transcontinental railroad from Southern California to the middle of the continent. A power struggle resulted from this idea.

The San Francisco and San Jose Railroad acquired the Market Street Railroad (which ran trolleys down Market Street to the Mission District) and in the 1860s that combination was acquired by members of the Central Pacific Railroad. This combination of rail and trolley franchises locked up the most lucrative rail business from San Francisco to San Jose. Many other small railroads were acquired by the "Big Four” by devious methods and slowly they gained control over much of the Northern California rail traffic. In this process, Southern Pacific Railroad was formed.

The east side of San Bruno Mountain had been impassable until the San Bruno Toll Road was built in 1859. The S. B. Toll Road (San Bruno Avenue in San Francisco) opened up the eastern section and cut off the time to get to San Francisco from the Peninsula. The Southern Pacific Railroad began acquiring property east of Bernal Heights and the Potrero area where acres of reclaimed land was becoming available that the SP needed to expand its empire. Plans were made by the Southern Pacific Railroad (which now included the Central Pacific Railroad as well as many others tracks) to complete a more direct line to San Jose around the east side of San Bruno Mountain but a number of tunnels needed to be built before the tracks could be laid. This construction began toward the end of the 1900s but was interrupted by the 1906 earthquake when a tunnel was damaged. This event actually aided the SP and other businesses along the Mission Bay area because much rubble the quake created was used to fill in the many water barriers that slowed the development south of the Townsend Street/China Basin area. Railroad yards were placed south of China Basin and planned for more repair and storage yards by Brisbane when the Bay was filled in there.

After cleaning up from the earthquake, the line to the south was completed to San Bruno by Dec. 8, 1907. This became known as the Bayshore Cutoff. The former SF & SJ RR tracks from Daly City were connected with the Bayshore Cutoff in South San Francisco and San Bruno. Rail traffic to Daly City was conducted by these connections and, by the early 1940s, the rail line through the Mission District was discontinued and the rails removed. The property through the Bernal Cut was acquired by San Francisco and San Jose Avenue was constructed. With the increase in truck transportation, the commerce of the Daly City/Colma area decreased for Southern Pacific Railroad and the line from Daly City was discontinued.

By 1955, passenger traffic peaked at 16,000 passenger round trips per day (compared to Caltrain’s 11,750 round trips per day) and SP was looking for ways to cut costs. In 1953, the first diesel locomotive took over the chore of motive power. In 1957, the last scheduled steam train left San Francisco at 5:45 p.m. on its last commute trip. The completion of Bayshore Freeway in the mid-50s and the shift to the electronics industry to Silicon Valley that moved jobs south led to greatly decreased patronage and the SP continued to lose money on passenger service. Amtrak was formed in 1971 and passenger service across the United States was taken over by it. This resulted in Caltrain being formed to take over the Peninsula commute in 1980. In 1988, Southern Pacific was taken over by Rio Grande Industries. In 1992, the Joint Powers Board bought the right of way from SP for about $210 million and, by July of 1992, Amtrak was hired to run the passenger operation.

In 1996, the SP merged with Union Pacific, forming the largest railroad in the United States.


Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.


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