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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Next week: Southern Pacific Railroad History in the Coachella Valley, Part II.
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)
Members urged to call their member of Congress after BLET lobbies for two-person crew billCLEVELAND, November 22 — The BLET, working jointly with SMART-Transportation Division (formerly the United Transportation Union), made nearly 150 visits to members of the U.S. House of Representatives this week in support of H.R. 3040, the Safe Freight Act. The bill would mandate by federal law that two qualified individuals are in the cab of each freight train operating in the United States.
BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce and Vice President & National Legislative Representative John Tolman led the team of BLET lobbyists, which also included: Texas State Legislative Board Chairman Terry Briggs; Ohio State Legislative Board Chairman Tim Hanely; District of Columbia State Legislative Board Chairman Herbert Harris; Pennsylvania State Legislative Board Chairman Ken Kertesz; Illinois State Legislative Board Chairman Paul Piekarski; Director of Regulatory Affairs Vince Verna; and Director of Bylaws Administration John Fink.
President Pierce thanked all officers and members of both unions who took the time to walk the hill and get the unions’ message to the members of congress. “Although I too met with members of Congress to make our case, it was the National Vice Presidents, State Chairmen, State Directors and Staff members of both unions who did the heavy lifting on the hill. It is events like this that show the true depth and strength of our legislative department and I am proud to have been there with them”
The legislation requires that “no freight train or light engine used in connection with the movement of freight may be operated unless it has a crew consisting of at least 2 individuals, one of whom is certified under regulations promulgated by the Federal Railroad Administration as a locomotive engineer pursuant to section 20135, and the other of whom is certified under regulations promulgated by the Federal Railroad Administration as a conductor pursuant to section 20163.”
Representatives Michael Michaud (D-ME) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the legislation on August 2 in the aftermath of the tragic accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which heightened awareness of the risks of single person operations.
The BLET, along with SMART-TD, has been working to gain co-sponsors for this bill since its introduction. The organizations recently sent a joint letter to all offices of the House of Representatives refuting memos sent to the Hill by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Shortline & Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) for the purpose of dissuading possible support of the legislation.
In the joint letter sent by BLET and SMART-TD, the unions noted that “[t]wo-person crews are the norm in both the U.S. and Canada. This bill will prevent a handful of rogue operators from endangering their employees and the communities through which they pass …
“The railroad industry has become a safer place to work than ever before, in large part because of the professionals who run the trains across America. And the folks who run our nation’s trains agree that the safest way to operate a train is with at least two certified crew members. Our industry is reducing the number of fender bender accidents, but fatalities continue to be in the teens for on-duty railroad employees. H.R. 3040 — the Safe Freight Act, is a bipartisan bill that will ensure that trains are operated safely everywhere in America.”
To follow up on the lobbying effort, President Pierce is now asking BLET members, retirees, the BLET Auxiliary, and all concerned family members to contact their members of Congress to continue the effort to increase the number of co-sponsors.
“I urge all BLET members to contact their members of the U.S. House of Representatives and ask them to sign on to this vital piece of legislation,” President Pierce said. “As the railroads noted in their letters to Congress, the issue is also going through the regulatory process as a result of Federal Railroad Administration Emergency Order 28, but that process isn’t an exact science. A Congressional mandate will be the best way to ensure the safest manner of operations possible, and we believe that means having two qualified people on each freight train in this country.”
To find your member of the U.S. House, go to http://www.house.gov and enter your Zip Code.