Western Pacific, The Last Transcontinental Link

In the 1860s a young Scottish immigrant, Arthur W. Keddie, a surveyor by trade, dreamed of a transcontinental rail route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. With the help of San Francisco lawyer and railroad promoter Walter J. Bartnett, and behind-the-scenes assistance from financier George J. Gould, Keddie was able to realize that dream decades later.

Organized in San Francisco, California on March 3, 1903, the Western Pacific Railway Company was incorporated in the State of California on March 6, 1903, with Walter Bartnett as its first president. Financing was provided by the Denver & Rio Grande, with the WP envisioned as the “western extension” of the D&RG thus completing a transcontinental railway system long dreamt of by the Gould family. It would also serve as competition with the Southern Pacific for railway traffic into and out of California.

With important initial franchises secured, construction of the line between San Francisco and Salt Lake City began in the fall of 1905. Despite vigorous efforts by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company to prevent construction of a waterfront terminal on San Francisco Bay at Oakland, California, WP workers succeeded in their efforts which survived numerous court challenges brought by SP, and was indirectly responsible for the City of Oakland regaining control of its waterfront from the SP.

On November 1, 1909, after a series of delays and cost overruns, the last spike was driven at Spanish Creek, now known as Keddie, California. This new line, to become known as the Feather River Route, was 927 miles long and included 41 steel bridges and 44 tunnels. It was significant because it was competitive with the Southern Pacific’s Overland Route, the original transcontinental route. The Western Pacific line had several advantages over the Southern Pacific line. It crossed the Sierra’s at 5000 feet, a lower elevation than the Southern Pacific line’s 7200 foot elevation, and this lower elevation was expected to ensure fewer problems with the weather. The Western Pacific grade, at 1% with a maximum of 10 degree’s curvature, made navigation on this line easier than Southern Pacific’s. Through freight service on the Feather River Route began on December 1, 1909 and regular through passenger service commencing on August 23, 1910.

Construction costs for the WP were much higher than anticipated, and acute financial problems led to the bankruptcy and subsequent auction of the Western Pacific Railway Company on June 28, 1916. It was reorganized and renamed the Western Pacific Railroad Company. Shortly thereafter, in March 1917, the company acquired a 75% interest in the Tidewater Southern, which ran from Stockton to Turlock, California. Western Pacific began to acquire and build new branches and lines at this time. The San Jose branch was completed in 1922. In 1923, Western Pacific entered into a contract with Pacific Fruit Express, jointly owned by Southern Pacific and Union Pacific to supply refrigerator cars to WP customers.

During World War I, the federal government created the United States Railroad Administration which took control of all U.S. railroads operating in the United States, including the Western Pacific. After being placed back into private hands in March 1920, the government awarded Western Pacific nine million dollars for damage caused to the railroad while under federal control. Western Pacific used this money to buy the Sacramento Northern Railroad on July 8, 1925, which ran between Sacramento and Chico. Western Pacific acquired the San Francisco-Sacramento at the end of 1928, merging it with the Sacramento Northern to form a continuous electric interurban railway from San Francisco / Oakland to Chico.

In 1926, railroad financier Arthur Curtiss James acquired controlling interest in Western Pacific. Renovation of the Western Pacific property and facilities began almost immediately. James also authorized construction of a north-south line, from Keddie to Bieber, allowing Western Pacific to form a bridge between the Great Northern Railroad at Bieber and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway at Stockton. This through route from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California was to be competitive with a similar Southern Pacific route. On November 10, 1931, Arthur Curtiss James drove the final spike of what came to be called the “Inside Gateway” or the “Highline”.

Western Pacific experienced more financial problems during the Great Depression, defaulting on its bond interest in March 1935. After a second reorganization, Western Pacific Railroad emerged from receivership and was restored in January 1945. During World War II, freight traffic had increased substantially and passenger traffic was also up. Passenger traffic on Western Pacific received a boost when the California Zephyr was launched on March 20, 1949. A joint effort with Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, and Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, the luxurious California Zephyr provided passengers with exquisite service and the beautiful scenery of the Feather River Canyon.

In July 1949, Western Pacific came under the management of new President Frederic B. Whitman, who pursued several different policies. His management team began to replace the steam with diesel locomotive power. They continued to construct new rolling stock and upgrade existing cars. They also began a major bridge and tunnel repair program.

During the 1950s, Western Pacific began to acquire more land, particularly in the Bay Area. A finance company, Delta Finance, was created to fund Western Pacific Railroad land purchases. A holding company, Standard Realty & Development Company, was established to deal with transactions involving the sale of land and to encourage industries to expand existing facilities or locate new ones on the Western Pacific. To increase traffic, industries were located along the route and additional lines were built to accommodate businesses. The biggest success for Western Pacific was achieved when it convinced Ford Motor Company to locate its assembly plant at Milpitas, California in 1954.

Competition with the trucking industry, which brought about a decline in revenue among all railroads, led to changes in the way railroads did business. Western Pacific responded by implementing a new marketing concept. Instead of allowing the operating department to determine when to run trains, they began listening to the shippers and tailoring freight schedules and equipment to customer demands. In addition, Western Pacific was a leader in the development of special purpose cars such as gondolas with cradles for steel coils, compartmentizer cars, new Car-Pac cars, and a new design of wood chip cars.

Piggyback service was another response to the challenge presented by the trucking industry. Western Pacific began hauling trailers on flat cars (referred to as TOFC) in 1954. In 1967, Western Pacific ended its contract with Pacific Fruit Express and became a member-owner of the Fruit Growers Express Company, which provided refrigerator cars and piggyback equipment to its WP freight customers.

In the late 1960s, Western Pacific experienced financial difficulty again due to inclement weather, which damaged the Feather River Canyon route and disrupted service. Wages and prices also increased substantially. At the same time, Western Pacific’s revenues from passenger service declined primarily due to the large inroads made by automobile and air travel. At its peak, revenue from passenger service represented only 4% of revenue. Once the California Zephyr began to lose money, Western Pacific applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), asking for permission to cease its passenger service. This permission was not immediately granted. Finally, on March 22, 1970, with ICC approval, Western Pacific was relieved of its need to provide passenger service for the public.

New management arrived in December 1970. Western Pacific Railroad President Alfred E. Perlman reversed the financial picture and Western Pacific was again profitable by 1971. WP Industries, Inc. was established as a holding company for Western Pacific Railroad and other operations. President Perlman and his successor, Robert G. Flannery, worked to improve marketing, operations, service and car supply and diversified Western Pacific holdings. In 1973, Western Pacific created its own transportation company, Western Pacific Transport Company (which was renamed WPX Freight System in 1980) to increase service to shippers by providing door-to-door delivery. In 1974, in an effort to further diversify its holdings, WP Industries acquired Veeder-Root Industries, a group of companies which manufactured such things as fasteners, components, plastics, counting and recording devices. WPX and Veeder-Industries were consistently profitable for WP Industries.

A new holding company, Newrail, was formed on February 13, 1978 and Western Pacific Railroad’s assets were sold to it on January 26, 1979. Western Pacific Railroad continued to operate as before. On January 21, 1980, Western Pacific and Union Pacific announced that Union Pacific would be pursuing a purchase of the Western Pacific which WP President Robert Flannery blamed on “galloping fuel price increases, jumps in the cost of materials, contract wage costs, and increases in interest rates.” In December 1982, the Interstate Commerce Commission approved the sale, (which also included UP’s purchase of the Missouri Pacific).

When Western Pacific was taken over by Union Pacific, WP had track stretching from San Francisco Bay through California and Nevada to Salt Lake City, Utah, and North-South from the Feather River Canyon to near the Oregon line. It had given freight shippers in California and the Northwest an alternative to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, and provided travelers with comfortable and picturesque passenger trains, including the California Zephyr. At the peak of its operation, Western Pacific and its subsidiaries had 1,266 miles of mainline track, 237 miles of second mainline and 216 miles of branch line. It provided employment for thousands and actively encouraged industrial development in cities along its route.

With this sale the Western Pacific Railroad Company ceased to exist as an independent corporate entity, it is now just a memory.