You don’t need this review if you are a railroad buff. The jacket tells you all you want to know: 492 illustrations, 20 maps, route profiles, passenger train list, and documentary reproductions. The book lives up to its jacket. It’s well illustrated and there’s a lot of detail: trains; engine numbers, types, and changes; railroad facilities; maps and route changes, and railroad equipment. It is.
If you are more the generalist or with an interest in specific history, like for example, about Donner Summit, then there’s lots for you if you read what’s of interest and skip the rest.
The book is divided into four sections: Construction and Early Operation 1860-1899, The Harriman Influence 1900-1929, The Modern Steam Era 1930-1955, and Contemporary Operations 1956-1985. Each section has a large portion dedicated to old photographs.
Southern Pacific did not build the transcontinental railroad but that’s where the story starts. First there were the explorers and then the emigrants. With the Gold Rush there was a huge influx of people to California and people began to pressure for a railroad across the country. Theodore Judah wanted a railroad across the country too and he was a railroad expert. He also had the vision and energy to get the thing built. He evaluated various possibilities and settled on Donner Pass as the route. Then he started lobbying, raising money, and gathering investors. The Central Pacific was incorporated June 28, 1861. War had broken out and that made Congress disposed to supporting the building of a railroad as a way to keep California in the Union. The Pacific Railway Bill was passed in 1862 setting things up. The CPRR received a 400’ right of way, twenty alternating sections of land per mile, and a cash subsidy. The railroad would get $16,000 per mile in the flats and $48,000 per mile in the mountains. Construction started January 8, 1863 in Sacramento.
Following completion of the transcontinental railroad the CPRR expanded acquiring other railroads. The Southern Pacific was organized in 1865 and the CPRR’s Big Four acquired control in 1868. The Southern Pacific then consolidated other railroads. The Soas formed in 1884 and consolidated it all under its control.
Signor covers all of the subjects: community growth (Truckee, Cisco, Wadsworth), placement of facilities, and methods of operation. For example, Summit was 105.2 miles from Sacramento. It had a telegraph and an engine house with room for twelve locomotives. There was a turntable and the Summit Hotel. Adding to the recitations are charts such as the one listing railroad stops in the Donner Summit area: Crystal Lake, Cisco, Tamarack, Mountain Mill, Cascade, Patterson’s Summit Valley, Summit, Strong’s Canyon, Stanford, Miller’s, Donner Lake, and Truckee. All of those were railroad stops with at least facilities. Except for the Truckee stop, all are gone today.
In the text there are interesting facts. Passenger service started transcontinentally on May 15, 1869. From Sacramento to Chicago it took five days and two more days to New York. From Sacramento to Truckee it took eight hours and 35 minutes. Locomotives pulled trains over the Summit at 10 mph and as precautions to prevent runaways the downhill speed was limited to 25 mph. Signor covers accidents, snow and responses, fires, fire trains, the first telephone.
Edward Harriman had bought and modernized the Union Pacific and then acquired the Southern Pacific with a view to doing the same thing. His program resulted in “a series of improvements to the Donner Grade, which … would take this winding single-track mountain bottleneck and transform it into a modern transportation corridor.” There was new equipment, line changes, and facilities changes. Modern equipment was installed. Automatic signals went in and double tracking was installed.
Eventually as you are reading, unless you are a railroad buff, the recitation of facts, engine numbers, train numbers, schedule changes, etc. gets tedious. For example there is a discussion of locomotive changes and how much their pulling power increased. You have to be a real buff to be interested. The same goes for the list of fruit express train numbers. So skim. You’ll shortly get to another collection of photographs and more general facts that fit your interest. The facts do give the reader a sense of the importance of the line from all that was transported: granite, pulp for paper, cordwood, fruit, passengers, lumber, etc. It was integral to the economy.
There are lots of stories such as the development of the cab forward Mallet locomotives and the changes that occasioned such as the changes in snowshed design, locomotive smokestacks to dissipate the smoke and the summit turntable.
There is a description of the coming of double tracks to Donner Summit including the second Summit tunnel, #41 in 1925. Interestingly, it’s 132 feet lower than Tunnel 6 and amazingly it cut 1.29 miles off the route over the summit. It was the third longest in the U.S. With it came a concrete station, Norden, which took over from Summit.
There is a small section about the Tahoe Branch which SP bought in 1925 and abandoned in 1943. There are interesting old pictures there too including a panorama of Truckee that’s about 18” wide.
In later sections the readers gets a sense of the change in traffic over time and the effects of the Depression and the coming of the automobile to train traffic and the passenger freight mix. Interestingly the SP ferried autos from Sacramento to Reno for $15. You just drove onto the baggage car.
There is a section about the Snowball Special which took winter snow enthusiasts to Donner Summit. It became so popular that it required 60 extra trains per January-March season. WWII ended that along with plans to improve the Norden “Ski Hut,” the station where skiers left the train on Donner Summit.
The Ski Hut was 128’ long and 28’ wide. It was semi-rustic with oiled pine walls, a cement floor, ski rack, restroom, and lunch counter. Motor sleighs left every few minutes for Sugar Bowl with which SP was working. On the Snowball Special mittens, socks, and ski clothes were sold and equipment was fitted. The war stopped the Snowball Special when Donner Summit was shut down to protect the transcontinental railroad. The popularity of automobile travel prevented its return after the war.
There’s a good description of the 1952 City of San Francisco which was trapped for days in the snow. Since 1889 there had never been a need to shut down the line for an extended period of time due to weather. Then came January, 1952. On Thursday January 10, 1952 the barometer dropped. Snow fell. On the 12th the streamliner ran into a snowslide. Then a train derailed. More snow fell. A rotary plow broke so snow could not be cleared. On the 13th wind and snow accumulated at the rate of 1” per hour. The City of San Francisco streamliner became mired in the snow after an avalanche. 227 passengers were trapped. Snow kept falling. The wind rose to 80-90 mph. The highway below the train was closed. Surplus Army weasels and dog teams were called in. By the 16th road crews had gotten to Nyack from which they could launch rescue operations and passengers were walked down through the snow to the highway. On the 18th the train was freed from the snow.