Where do we go from here?
Southern Pacific's ill-fated plans to conquer the Devil's mountains
E. O. Gibson,
revision of 4-1-2023: text extensively rewritten with additional data; new maps

A few historians have written that Southern Pacific built its Goshen Branch1 in California's San Joaquin Valley as part of its southwestern transcontinental railroad main line between San Jose and the Colorado River. This is true only so far as this was The Associates' initial plan. In the mid 1860's, after considering other routes, SP's original owners settled upon a route running south from San Jose through Gilroy, Paicines (later: Tres Pinos), up and over the Diablo Range's San Benito Pass to Los Gatos (later: Huron) and Goshen. There the route would turn southward towards Taheechepah (Tehachapi) Pass and ultimately, the Colorado River. This remained the plan into the first few years of The Associates' rule, but ultimately, their engineers were not able to locate a viable route over San Benito Pass. At the same time, additional investigations into alternatives to the south showed considerable promise, causing The Associates to openly drop the San Benito Pass idea several years before the Huron Branch's completion in 1887. Yet historical misconceptions persist.
When a small group of San Francisco businessmen incorporated Southern Pacific Railroad Company on December 2, 1865 with a plan to construct a transcontinental railroad from San Jose to the Colorado River, little concrete data existed about the territory where they intended to build through beyond cursory surveys performed under the auspices of the War Department during the previous decade, plus whatever information that they could glean from the few people who had any familiarity with the vast territory, which was still largely the domain of Indians and a few vaqueros.

What SP men did understand was that the Diablo Range mountains posed a major obstacle that stood in their way. The Diablo Range subset of the Coast Ranges is not particularly tall, but it does contain 130 peaks over 3000 feet and multiple parallel and steep, north-south ridges that form a series of barriers between the coastal and San Joaquin Valleys. It runs approximately 275 miles south from San Pablo Bay to an intersection with the Transverse Ranges southwest of Bakersfield. Oaks, scrub bushes, and occasional sparse pine forests live in its semi-arid, Medirerranean climate, where almost all precipitation falls in a series of Pacific storms in the dead of winter. Most of the passes through the Diablo Range are situated within its north to center portion, and only one, The Altamont near Livermore, has ever been surmounted by railroads.

As near as can be determined, Southern Pacific's original transcontinental railroad plan traced an 1859 War Department survey alignment through Santa Clara, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Tulare and Los Angeles counties towards a less clear path to San Diego County and town, from where it struck eastward the Colorado River.2

The inclusion of San Luis Obispo County and the absence of Fresno County in their plans eliminated the northern-most passes over the Coast Range, including Pacheco, Panoche and San Benito from their plans. Only the War Department's superficial survey through Chalama - later Cholame, then Polonio - Pass fit the description. From San Miguel, in the southern Salinas Valley, this alignment proceeded southwest along the Estrella River , over Chalama Pass into the Llano Estero (today's Carrizo Plain). It then followed the length of the plain to the vicinity of today's Maricopa, from where it crossed the San Joaquin Valley below Buena Vista Lake to the foot of Tehachapi Pass. From there it headed over the pass to today's Mojave, from where SP would build in a less defined route to Los Angeles, San Diego and thence eastward to the Colorado river.3 (see map at bottom right)

In July, 1866, only seven months after SP came into existence on paper, Congress passed legislation for a southern transcontinental railroad - the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad - of which Southern Pacific would constitute the portion west of the Colorado River. Congress agreed to subsidize the endeavor with 10 alternating sections of unreserved and unappropriated public lands on either side of the right of way.4.

Pursuant to the act's provisions, on January 3, 1867 SP filed a map with the U. S. Land Office describing its intended route (see map top right) that would serve as the basis for withdrawal of public lands to be awarded to the company. Inexplicably, the map threw the original route on its ear. Gone were lines to Los Angeles and San Diego, replaced by a bee line route from Mojave to the Colorado River. Although vague about the particulars of the new alignment, the map appears to show a crossing into the San Joaquin Valley at, or near San Benito Pass.5

That a competitor funded by Congressional land grants had the potential of breaking Central Pacific's hold on California was something that The Associates were not about to countenance. Beyond that, the land grants themselves were incredibly valuable. The Associates really had no alternative, but to acquire SP. When the secret negotiations began is unknown, although Leland Stanford published a statement on March 6, 1868 denying that they were underway. He was never noted for his veracity. Arguably, negotiations may have begun in earnest before then, shortly after SP agreed to purchase San Francisco & San Jose Railroad on February 6 (the state legislature authorized the purchase on March 30). On June 11, SP agreed to sale terms with The Associates6.

CP and SP both held grant land between San Francisco and San Jose, which posed a problem for citizens wishing to locate on the former public lands. While SP sale negotiations were underway, a fellow named Frederick Steele, thought to be a San Mateo farmer, complained to the Department of the Interior that the grants were "inprovidently" [sic] made and "absolutely estops" citizens from settling upon odd numbered sections, while even numbered ones required "payment at double [market?] price". He requested that the withdrawn lands be restored as public lands.

This opened Pandora's Box. The ensuing Interior Department investigation soon concluded that Southern Pacific in its entirety was not entitled to land grants, because its principles had violated an 1861 California corporate law that required a railroad company to conform as nearly as possible to the route specified in its charter.7

On July 14th, the Secretary of the Interior ordered all SP grants to be restored to their former public lands status. Seeing an opening, Atlantic & Pacific Railroad, which was to be SP's connection at the Colorado River, jumped in, asking that the land forfeited by SP be reserved for them. Their request was denied.8

But, with the sale now a done deal, this was now The Associates who were on the wrong end of the law, not a group amateurs. Their power, wealth and influence was undeniable. Likely under great political pressure, the Secretary of the Interior Secretary ordered a temporary suspension of his order on August 20th to allow SP to plead its case. Congress ultimately was sympathetic to SP's arguments and speculatively: grease, prompting it to issue a June 28, 1870 joint resolution declaring "that the Southern Pacific Railroad Company of California may construct its road and telegraph line as near as may be on the route indicated by the map filed by said company in the Department of the Interior on the 3d day of January, 1867".9 Presumably SP funds likewise lubricated the California's legislature to prevent a state investigation into the 1861 law violation.

On October 12, 1870, SP appears to have hedged its bets by consolidating SF&SJ RR, Santa Clara and Pajaro Valley RR, SP RR and California Southern RR into a new Southern Pacific Railroad Company of California. The new charter disclosed that the company purposes were to construct, own, maintain, and operate a continuous line of railroad from the City of San Francisco...through the city and county of San Francisco, the counties of San Mateo, Santa Clara,Monterey, Fresno, Tulare, Kern, San Bernardino, and San Diego to some point on the Colorado River, in the southeastern part of the State of California, a distance of seven hundred and twenty miles, as near as may be; also a line of railroad from the town of Gilroys, in the County of Santa Clara...passing through said county and the counties of Santa Cruz and Monterey to a point at or near Salinas City...a distance of forty-five miles, as near as may be; also such branches to said lines as the board of directors...may hereafter consider advantageous to said corporation and direct to be established."10

This makes it clear that The Associates had themselves adopted San Benito Pass as the arterial over the Coast Range. By that time, Pacheco Pass had already been judged as unsuitable for a railroad, but there are hints that SP did give Panoche Pass (about 20 airline miles southeast of Tres Pinos) a look-see. San Benito Pass has long been ignored as a physical place by cartographers. USGS quadrangles never depicted it, nor have any other post-1880 maps yet encountered, even though winter road conditions on the pass appeared in local newspapers into the 1920's. The Pacific Railroad surveys of the 1850's did not address San Benito Pass, so it is unknown how SP's original owners came to adopt it as a route.

William Jackson Palmer (of later Denver & Rio Grande fame) reconnoitered four passes through the Coast Range in 1867-68 for Kansas Pacific Railway, but instrumentally surveyed only one of these, Panoche Grande - today's Panoche Pass. Inexplicably, the report gave no clue about why it ranked this pass in third place in terms of desirability. Although at 1368 feet, Pacheco was the lowest in elevation, Palmer regarded it as "the most difficult of all", though practicable. Only 50 feet higher than Pacheco, the Chalama - later called Polonio - Pass route "was found to be a very excellent pass, and decidedly the best of those examined", while San Benito Pass was "the shortest good line to San Francisco, and has much to recommend it as a through route".11

Palmer's assessments may have solidified The Associates decision to run tracks over San Benito. To this end, the company began building southward out of Gilroy towards Paicines (in 1874 the original Paicines swapped names with Tres Pinos, five miles to its south) on July 13, 1871.12

But SP surveyors were spotted on Polonio Pass only six months after construction began.13

By the time that Paicines saw its first train on August 12, 1873,14 The Associates, now including David Colton, had already given up on San Benito Pass. The results of the 1872 surveys were favorable enough for SP interests to incorporate Southern Pacific Branch Railroad Company at year's end. Its stated corporate purpose began, "for the purpose of purchasing, constructing, owning, maintaining, and operating a railroad from a point on the Southern Pacific Railroad at or near Salinas City in the county of Monterey, southeasterly to a point in Kern County south of Tulare Lake...", presumably near Sumner (later Kern City, then East Bakersfield). In addition, from a junction with the Polonio route at or near San Miguel, the Branch Railroad would build through San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties to an intersection with SP between Taheechepah (Tehachapi) Pass and Fort Yuma. Eight months later, the Branch Railroad (and its corporate purposes) was consolidated with SP of California.15

The Associates now had all of their bases covered, although San Benito Pass had fallen out of favor due to "many serious engineering issues".16 Sans a lengthy tunnel at the summit, the climb on the east side of the pass along Los Gatos Creek would be particularly steep. 28 Beyond this, engineers determined that a lengthy part of the right of way would require extensive cut and fill or side-cutting.

David Colton, who had only recently come on board as an Associates partner, quickly perceived the topographical situation. He wrote to Charles Crocker proposing that SP 'build 20 or 40 miles on the east side of San Benito Pass, and then go to Congress for a change of line". Crocker responded on February 12, 1875 that, "We intend to build from Goshen to Los Gatos [Huron], close up and into the eastern base of the mountain to a coal mine there; and have never intended anything else, and no portion of the line will remain unbuilt, except that through the mountains, about fifty miles... I had supposed that you fully understood this; Huntington [Colton's confidant] does understand it."17 The "never" claim was a bit disingenuous, but the overall message was clear. By the time the Goshen Branch came along, it was intended to be just that, a branch.

Crocker and Huntington were of one mind with Colton regarding lobbying Congress to transfer land grant eligibility to the Polonio route. In fact, they had begun such a move in 1874, both directly and indirectly through a series of "popular" citizens' movements. They kept up the pressure at least through late 1877.18 The Goshen-Huron Branch finally materialized in the winter of 1876-77, the year before land grant eligibility expired on the portion between there and Tres Pinos. Congress's mood towards authorizing further grants had substantially soured by this time, so SP was on its own regarding Polonio Pass. funding.

By this time, Polonio was already on the back burner in favor of an assault on San Joaquin Valley from the north, this one with no hills to climb. In September, 1876 SP's San Pablo & Tulare began pushing a water level route eastward, thence southward from Port Costa towards a hookup with Central Pacific at Tracy. The ultimate aim was to continue southward down the West Side to Firebaugh, where the line would split in two and pass by either side of Tulare Lake to a connection with its southwest trunk line near today's Bakersfield. Nevertheless, once the tracks entered Tracy in 1878, the project joined Polonio in slumber.27

Construction on the Coast Route had stalled out at Soledad in 1873. No further advances southward took place for about 13 years, but in the meantime, SP effectively sealed the fate of any contemplated Coast Range crossing with its lease of the Mojave-Needles transcontinental line to Atlantic & Pacific Railroad in 1884. With that, the Coast lost its potential direct conduit to the east from Mojave. Instead, traffic would follow an oblique path to Los Angeles before heading towards Arizona. Polonio popped up less and less on published maps afterwards, although Poor's Manual of the Railroads continued to show it in annual editions until at least 1906, five years following the completion of the Coast Route. This may have been oversight, but perhaps in latter years, SP had re-envisioned Polonio as a feeder route from the San Joaquin's emerging oil fields until pipe lines became the better choice.

Whatever the case, SP resumed construction out of Soledad in 1886 and by 1887 had already achieved Templeton, 15 miles south of San Miguel, from where the Polonio line would have struck eastward. During the same time frame, the southern portion of the Coast Line had reached Santa Barbara.

Southern Pacific had made a clear choice. The circumstances favoring Polonio Pass had dissolved, save its potentially much lower cost of construction compared to a route down the Coast. This was not enough to win the day.
The territory near Polonio Pass was barren, empty and showed little potential except as a through corridor until the oil boom of the early Twentieth Century set in, after the Coast Route was finished and Polonio Pass was forgotten. As it all sorted out, the first survey of what would become the Southern Pacific's Coast Route wound up for the most part as the company's final choice for a railroad.

below: Tables of distances and elevations for the "Benito Pass" and "Chalama" routes.23 Chalama was an early spelling of Cholame (from the nearby rancho), the original name for Polonio Pass.

above: SP's incorporation papers of December 2, 1865 descibed a route in writing that appears to follow the same general route as the 1859 War Department map immediately below. Yet about two years later, SP filed a map with the General Land Office that depicts a radically different route that crosses from Monterey County to Fresno County at San Benito Pass, the only pass in the vicinity suitable for a railroad. The Interior Department was not pleased. This copy appeared in Stuart Daggett's 1922 Chapters in the History of the Southern Pacific.20

below: Although The Associates elected to drop San Benito Pass about 1872 the route continued to randomly show up on commercial maps into the 1880's. Hints like this that San Benito was still in contention worked in their favor by keeping land speculators guessing. Whether SP was actively encouraging the misdirection is unknown, but possible. This 1881 map shows both routes reasonably accurately, although the area around San Benito Pass is somewhat misdrawn.21 The pass is not shown on modern maps, but the Condon Creek Recreation Area location shown on Google Maps sits at the top of the pass. Los Gatos Creek Road forms the eastern approach, while Coalinga Road lies to the west of the pass. (continued below)

David Rumsey Map Collection

Letter characters appear on the maps above and below as a location finding aid. Note how closely the above map's route over Polonio Pass follows the 1859 War Department map alignment, below.22

  • A - Gilroy/Cardanero
  • B - Pacheco Pass
  • C - Pajaro (Watsonville Junction)
  • D - Tres Pinos (originally, Paicines)
  • E - San Benito Pass
  • F - Huron (originally, Los Gatos)
  • G - Goshen
  • H - San Miguel
  • I - Rancho Cholame (first namesake of Polonio Pass)
  • J - Polonio Pass
  • K - Sumner (later Kern, East Bakersfield, Bakerfield
  • L - Tehachapi Pass, mislabeled Tehon Pass
  • M - San Jose

Library of Congress

End Notes

  1. It also was known as the Huron, Coalinga or Alcalde Branch at one time or another. Currently in 2023, it again terminates near Huron.
  2. Daggett, Stuart, Chapters in the History of the Southern Pacific (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1922) , 120;
  3. Parke, John G., From San Francisco Bay to the Plains of Los Angeles: from explorations and surveys; (Washington D.C.: U.S. War Department, 1859;
  4. Daggett, 122
  5. Daggett, 124: map
  6. Dagget, 122. Southern Pacific History Center's online "The Pioneer Holding Company" gives the June 11, 1868 date of agreement
  7. U.S. Senate, 41st Congress, Ex. Doc. No 9, "Lands for the Southern Pacific Railroad" (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Gov't. Printing Office, 1869), "Letters from Department of the Interior", 1-7;
  8. see U.S. Congressional Record-House, 1876 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1876), pt. 2, v.4, pp. 1638-39, Southern Pacific Railroad, for a synopsis;
  9. Congressional Record-House, p. 1639
  10. District Court of Utah, United States of America v. Southern Pacific Company, Central Pacific Company, Et. Al., Record
    Vol. 3
    , 19 (Washington D.C.: U. S. Gov't. Printing Office, 1915), 1282-83.
  11. General William Jackson Palmer, Report of the Surveys Across the Continent in 1867-68 on the Thirty-Fift and Thirty-Second Parallels For a Route Extending the Kansas Pacific Railway to the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco and San Diego (Philadelphia: W. B. Selheimer, Printer, 1869), 41-42. This volume also contains charts that were adapted by others, including Bell.
  12. Southern Pacific History Center,
  13. San Luis Obispo Tribune, 2-10-1872, pg. 3;
  14. District Court of Utah, pg. 1642
  15. Subsidiary Pajaro & Salinas Valley had begun laying down a railroad southwest from Cardinero Junction four days after SP began work on the Paicines 'Transcontinental' route from the same spot in 1871.
  16. The Bankers' Magazine, and Statistical Register, Vol. 32; 1878 and other dates; (Boston: Wm. Crosby and H.P. Nichols,) This statement appeared in several annual volumes as an explanation of why SP had shifted its intent to Polonio Pass.
  17. This Crocker-Colton exchange found received wide notoriety after it was unearthed in David Colton's papers, appearing in, among others, the 1897 Congressional Record and The Investors review, Volume 10.
  18. among others: Los Angeles Daily Star, 12-24-74; Oakland Tribune, 12-28-1874; Daily Alta California, 9-6-1876; San Luis Obispo Tribune, 10-13-1877.
  19. Bell, Wm., New tracks in North America : A journal of travel and adventure whilst engaged in the survey for a southern railroad to the Pacific Ocean during 1867-8 (London: Chapman and Hall,1869), 164.
  20. Daggett, 126
  21. Gibbes, C.D., Holt, Warren, "California and Nevada" [map] (San Francisco: Warren Holt, 1881)
  22. Parke, John G, "From the San Francisco Bay to the Plains of Los Angeles..." [map] (Washington D.C.: U.S. War Department, 1859)
  23. Bell, pg. 309
  24. Poor's Manual of Railroads of the United States, Volume 28 (New York: H.V. & H.W. Poor, 1895), 788.
  25. "Map of the Southern Pacific Railroad Connecting With the Central Pacific R.R." (San Francisco: News Letter, 9-6-1876), 1 (author's digital collection; no online source) This map closely resembles A.L. Bancroft & Co., "Map of the Southern Pacific Railroad Connecting With the Central Pacific R.R".; published in Sacramento Daily Record-Union, 9-6-1876, page 1;
  26. removed
  27. The only part of these plans actually constructed was Tracy-Armona in 1891 by the San Pablo & Tulare Extension Railroad.
  28. Today's county road has a six percent grade on the east approach to the pass.
  29. E. McD. Johnstone and Southern Pacific Company, "Climatic Map of California" (San Francisco: Southern Pacific Company, 1888)

SP Climatic Map of California, 1920; SP Lines in black.

"Surveyors at Work" from an account of the Kansas Pacific surveys 19

Either as a measure of how undecided company executives were about which route to use, or simply as a matter of obfuscation to keep real estate speculators guessing, SP continued to spread the possibility that it would connect from the Coast to the San Joaquin Valley throughout the 1890's. By design or oversight, the two projected lines that join at Asphalto (near today's McKittrick) in this 1895 map from Poor's Manual of Railroads managed to survive the map's revision in 1900. Note that the projected line from Armona to Asphalto incorrectly shows the former to the west of Tulare Lake24

SP's 1888 Climatic Map of California shows that the company had somewhat conflicted ideas about where it would run tracks in the future. Note that the contemplated alignments on either side of Tulare Lake appear to have been drawn without any thought of how they relate to the Polonio Pass route. Note also the map's optimism: Although completed tracks are shown all the way to San Luis Obispo, SP actually did not arrive into town until 1894.29

This map from the San Francisco News Letter of September, 1876 plainly said it all: Los Gatos (name changed to Huron in 1877) shows as orphaned at the end of the soon to be built Goshen Branch, rather than as an intermediate station on the main line.25 This map is very similar to an A. L. Bancroft map that appeared in the Sacramento Union of 9-6-1876.