The very first "inter-oceanic" railroad which affected California was built in 1855 across the Isthmus of Panama, the Panama Railway. The Panama Railway reduced the time needed to cross the Isthmus from a week of difficult and dangerous travel to a day of relative comfort. The building of the Panama Railroad, in combination with the increasing use of steamships (instead of sailing ships) meant that travel to and from California via Panama was the primary method used by people who could afford to do so, and was used for valuable cargo, such as the gold being shipped from California to the East Coast.
California's symbolic and tangible connection to the rest of the country was fused at Promontory Summit, Utah, as the last spike was driven to join the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, thereby completing the First Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869 (before that time, only a few local rail lines operated in the State, the first being the Sacramento Valley Railroad). The 1,600 mile (2,575-kilometer) trip cross-country would now take mere days. The Wild West was quickly transformed from a lawless, agrarian frontier to what would become an urbanized, industrialized economic and political powerhouse. Of perhaps greater significance is the unbridled economic growth that was spurred on by the sheer diversity of opportunities available in the region.The Golden Spike ceremony held at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869. Photograph by Andrew J. Russell.
The four years following the Golden Spike ceremony saw the length of track in the U.S. double to over 70,000 miles (nearly 113,000 kilometers). By the turn of the century, the completion of four subsequent transcontinental routes in the United States and one in Canada would provide not only additional pathways to the Pacific Ocean, but would forge ties to all of the economically-important areas between the coasts as well. Virtually the entire country was accessible by rail, making a national economy possible for the first time. And while federal financial assistance (in the form of land grants and guaranteed low-interest loans, a well-established government policy) was vital to the railroads’ expansion across North America, this support accounted for less than eight percent (8%) of the total length of rails laid; private investment was responsible for the vast majority of railroad construction.
As rail lines pushed further and further into the wilderness, they opened up huge areas which would have otherwise lain fallow. The railroads helped establish countless towns and settlements, paved the way to abundant mineral deposits and fertile tracts of pastures and farmland, and created new markets for eastern goods. It is estimated that by the end of World War II, rail companies nationwide remunerated to the government over $1 billion dollars, more than eight times the original value of the lands granted. The principal commodity transported across the rails to California was people: by reducing the cross-country travel time to as little as six days, men with westward ambitions were no longer forced to leave their families behind. The railroads would, in time, provide equally-important linkages to move the inhabitants throughout the state, interconnecting its blossoming communities.J. D. Spreckels drives the "golden spike" to ceremonially complete the San Diego & Arizona Railway on November 15, 1919.
"Transportation determines the flow of population," declared J. D. Spreckels, one of California's early railroad entrepreneurs, just after the dawn of the twentieth century. "Before you can hope to get people to live anywhere...you must first of all show them that they can get there quickly, comfortably and, above all, cheaply." Among Spreckels' many accomplishments was the formation of the San Diego Electric Railway in 1892, which radiated out from downtown to points north, south, and east and helped urbanize San Diego. Henry Huntington, the nephew of Central Pacific founder Collis P. Huntington, would develop his Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles and Orange Counties with much the same result. Spreckels' greatest challenge would be to provide San Diego with its own direct transcontinental rail link in the form of the San Diego and Arizona Railway (completed in November 1919), a feat that nearly cost the sugar heir his life. The Central Pacific Railroad, in effect, initiated the trend by offering settlement incentives in the form of low fares, and by placing sections of its government-granted lands up for sale to pioneers.
When the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad charted its own solo course across the continent in 1885 it chose Los Angeles as its western terminus, and in doing so fractured the Southern Pacific Railroad's near total monopoly on rail transportation within the state. The original purpose of this new line was to augment the route to San Diego, established three years prior as part of a joint venture with the California Southern Railroad, but the Santa Fe would subsequently be forced to all but abandon these inland tracks through the Temecula Canyon (due to constant washouts) and construct its Surf Line along the coast to maintain its exclusive ties to Los Angeles. Santa Fe's entry into Southern California resulted in widespread economic growth and ignited a fervent rate war with the Southern Pacific, or "Espee" as the road was often referred to; it also led to Los Angeles' well-documented real estate "Boom of the Eighties." The Santa Fe Route led the way in passenger rate reductions (often referred to as "colonist fares") by, within a period of five months, lowering the price of a ticket from Kansas City, Missouri to Los Angeles from $125 to $15, and, on March 6, 1887 to a dollar! The Southern Pacific soon followed suit and the level of real estate speculation reached a new high, with "boom towns" springing up literally overnight. Free, daily railroad-sponsored excursions (complete with lunch and live entertainment) enticed overeager potential buyers to visit the many undeveloped properties firsthand and (hopefully) invest in the potential of the land.A streetcar of the Pacific Electric Railway makes a stop at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, circa 1905.
Unfortunately, as with the Comstock mining securities boom of the 1870s, Los Angeles' land boom attracted an unscrupulous element that often sold interest in properties whose titles were not properly recorded, or in tracts that did not even exist. Major advertising campaigns by the SP, Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and other major carriers of the day not only helped transform southern California into a major tourist attraction but generated intense interest in exploiting the area's agricultural potential. Word of the abundant work opportunities, high wages, and the temperate and healthful California climate spread throughout the Midwestern United States, and led to an exodus from such states as Iowa, Indiana, and Kansas; although the real estate bubble "burst" in 1889 and most investors lost their all, the Southern California landscape was forever transformed by the many towns, farms, and citrus groves left in the wake of this event.
Historians James Rawls and Walton Bean have speculated that were it not for the discovery of gold in 1848, Oregon might have been granted statehood ahead of California, and therefore the first Pacific Railroad might have been built to that state, or at least been born to a more benevolent group of founding fathers. This speculation lacks support, however, when one considers that a significant hide and tallow trade between California and the eastern seaports was already well-established, that the federal government had long planned for the acquisition of San Francisco Bay as a western port, and that suspicions regarding England's intentions towards potentially extending their holdings in the region southward into California would almost certainly have forced the government to embark on the same course of action.
While the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad would rightfully be remembered as a major milestone in America's history, it would also foster the birth of a railroad empire that would have a dominant influence over California's evolution for years to come. Despite all of the shortcomings, in the end the State reaped innumerable and unprecedented benefits from its associations with the railroad companies, which helped put California "on the map."