Our beginnings

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From The Dessert Sun.

The transcontinental railroad opened the doors to America, especially those lightly traveled areas where Herculean efforts were required to cross hundreds of miles of remote wilderness, steep mountains, and endless desert.

Discovery of gold in 1848 focused world attention on California and the Pacific Coast region. At the time, early settlers had few options in cross country travel: An arduous overland journey across the plains by oxen or mules, or long ocean voyages via Panama or around Cape Horn.

A growing sentiment in the west and east favored a railroad that would bind the nation closer together.

The roots of Southern Pacific Railroad’s path through the Coachella Valley can be traced to the country’s pre-Civil War days and the creation of the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, incorporated June 28, 1861.


The brainchild of Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, the corporation was formed to build the western portion of the Pacific Railroad — a transcontinental link from Sacramento, east over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Construction began in Sacramento in 1863 followed by authorization of Congress in 1863. The line traversed 690 miles over the mountains and across Nevada to meet the Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah, where the last spike was driven on May 10, 1869.

In 1865, the Southern Pacific Railroad was organized to build lines from San Francisco to San Diego and eastward to rails being proposed to reach westward from New Orleans.

The surveyors for the Southern Pacific route reached the site of Indio, known as Indian Wells at the time, on March 25, 1872. They reported that this point was halfway between Los Angeles and Yuma, Ariz. A perfect spot for a train depot.

Southern Pacific acquired a 22-mile railroad from Los Angeles to Wilmington, opened in October, 1869 and construction began during 1873 on lines north and east out of the city.

Trains were operated to Colton on July 16, 1895 and to Indio on May 29, 1876.

indio cottages


After the railroad’s arrival in 1876, Indio really started to grow. The first permanent building was the craftsman style Southern Pacific Depot station and hotel. Southern Pacific tried to make life as comfortable as it could for their workers in order to keep them from leaving such a difficult area to live in at the time. It was the center of all social life in the desert with a fancy dining room. Dances were hosted on Friday nights.

While Indio started as a railroad town, it developed into an agricultural area shortly thereafter. Onions, cotton, grapes, citrus and dates thrived in the arid climate due to the ingenuity of farmers finding various means of attaining water — first through artesian wells.

The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad would leave an indelible mark on the Palm Springs-based Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and shaped the future of the tribe. In the 1860s, the Federal government granted the railroad ten miles of odd-numbered sections of land on each side of the railroad right-of-way.

In 1876, when President Ulysses S. Grant established the present Agua Caliente Indian Reservation by executive order, only the even-numbered sections were still available. This created the reservation’s “checkerboard” pattern.

In 1875, the Cahuilla Indians began working on the construction of the railroad. The tracks ran about six miles north of the Palm Springs Way Station, which served as a stagecoach stop from 1865 until the rail line was completed in 1887.

The Southern Pacific built a Spanish-styled railroad station in the 1930s, located in North Palm Springs on Tipton Road off Highway 111.

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By this time, Palm Springs had already become a popular tourist destination and was known as a world famous winter playground for Hollywood stars. The Southern Pacific, traveling on what became known as the Sunset Route, now delivered travelers right at the doorstep of this thriving desert community.

the sidewinder

A 1914 brochure touting the Southern Pacific Sunset Route as the “Best Route to the California 1915 Expositions” — the Panama-Pacific Exposition was being held in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition was taking place in San Diego — provided colorful descriptions of the stops along the route, which originated in New Orleans.

This is how the railroad’s literature depicted the desert 100 years ago:

“Yuma, the Colorado River and California is reached 1,754 miles west from New Orleans … the route is through a region that is peculiar and interesting. At Imperial Junction, a branch line of the Southern Pacific runs south to the celebrated Imperial Valley, which has sprung into a wonderful existence in a night, almost, because of its splendid fertility, its varied, almost tropical products, freedom from frosts, great volume of water for irrigation, taken from the Colorado, and its rapid development and adaptability for all forms of agriculture, yet in the heart of the desert.”

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That year, 1914, the valley shipped more than 4,000 cars of cantaloupes alone, to all sections of the United States. From a waste only a few years ago, the Imperial Valley now has a population of 25,000 with fine towns, street cars, clubs, newspapers, excellent hotels and a high class civilization.


The journey is then through the Salton Valley and along the northern shores of the Salton Sea made by an overflow of the Colorado Rivers some years ago. Here the train runs for miles below the sea level, at Salton reaching the bottom of a great depression at a depth of 253 feet. This condition is peculiar and unequaled and is not even approximated by any other railroad in the world. The route through the California desert passes through Thermal, Coachella and Indio, all below sea level, and climbs the divide, reaching the apex at Beaumont, California.”

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Next week: Southern Pacific Railroad History in the Coachella Valley, Part II.

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Sources: City of Palm Springs, Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Historian Pat Laflin, Coachella Valley Water District, Central Pacific Railroad website, Michael L. Grace (Palm Springs Rail Heritage blog)


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