Southern Pacific System

By: George C. Werner

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

The Southern Pacific Transportation Company, commonly called the Southern Pacific, operates several transcontinental railroad routes connecting the Pacific Coast with the gateway cities of Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. The company was originally chartered in California on December 2, 1865, as the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Between that date and March 10, 1902, a total of seven Southern Pacific Railroad companies were chartered and operated, the last of which was merged with the Southern Pacific Company on September 30, 1955. The present company was chartered in Delaware on February 20, 1969, as a subsidiary of a new Southern Pacific Company, which was also chartered on the same date. Although originally independent, by September 1868 the Southern Pacific had come under the control of Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker. The "Big Four," as they were known, also controlled the Central Pacific Railroad Company, which built the western end of the original transcontinental railroad. In 1876 the Southern Pacific completed a line through the San Joaquin Valley of California, connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Act of Congress incorporating the Texas Pacific Railroad (later Texas and Pacific) authorized the Southern Pacific to connect with that company at Fort Yuma, Arizona Territory. When the Southern Pacific crossed the Colorado River to Yuma in September 1877, the Texas and Pacific was still bogged down at Fort Worth. Seizing the opportunity, Huntington and his associates built east along the Texas and Pacific survey and reached El Paso about May 19, 1881. Two existing Texas railroads, the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway running between Houston and San Antonio and the Texas and New Orleans Railroad from Houston to Orange, fit into Huntington's plans. Although Huntington did not acquire an interest in either company until July 1, 1881, he and Thomas W. Peirce of the GH&SA had reportedly been working together since 1878 on plans to construct a line between San Antonio and El Paso. Thus, when the Southern Pacific forces reached El Paso they continued building eastward under the GH&SA charter. Late in May 1881 the GH&SA resumed track laying westward from San Antonio. At this time the revitalized Texas and Pacific under Jay Gould was also building across West Texas toward El Paso. Both companies were racing to occupy the best route through the mountains east of El Paso, a race won by the GH&SA, which reached Sierra Blanca on November 25, 1881. The Texas and Pacific was still ten miles to the east. The following day in New York Huntington and Gould signed an agreement which, among other provisions, granted the Texas and Pacific trackage rights between Sierra Blanca and El Paso. In turn the Texas and Pacific agreed not to build west of El Paso and relinquished its survey across New Mexico and Arizona to the Southern Pacific. The two fronts of the GH&SA met in January 1883, and on the 12th Peirce drove a silver spike to signify the completion of the railroad. Huntington had also acquired control of the Louisiana Western Railroad Company, and in early 1883 the Southern Pacific controlled a southern transcontinental line from California to Vermillionville, Louisiana. By mid-1883 the "Big Four" and Peirce had bought Morgan's Louisiana and Texas Railroad and Steamship Company (see MORGAN, CHARLES), thus extending the railroad to New Orleans and completing the present Sunset Route of the Southern Pacific. The Gulf, Western Texas and Pacific and the Houston and Texas Central Railway companies were owned by the Morgan company and included in the sale to the Southern Pacific. These two railroads along with the lines comprising the Sunset Route in Texas all had their roots in the antebellum period and include the oldest components of the Southern Pacific system.

In 1840 work began on a railroad from Harrisburg to the Brazos River that was later chartered as the Harrisburg Rail Road and Trading Company. Although this company subsequently failed, and its charter lapsed, this was the first attempt to build a railroad over a route that later became a part of the Southern Pacific. The decade of the 1850s, however, saw the construction of five railroads that were later acquired by the Southern Pacific. Work on the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway began in 1851, and by late 1860 the line was open from Harrisburg to Alleyton. The BBB&C was not only the first railroad to operate in Texas, but also the first component of the Southern Pacific to begin operating. It is also generally considered to have been the second railroad west of the Mississippi River. By early 1861 the Houston and Texas Central (originally the Galveston and Red River Railway Company) was operating between Houston and Millican, while the Texas and New Orleans (originally the Sabine and Galveston Bay Railroad and Lumber Company) was completed between Houston and Orange. The Washington County Rail Road between Hempstead and Brenham and the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railroad from Port Lavaca to Victoria were also built during this period. Although all five suffered from a lack of capital, the companies had constructed over 300 miles of track during the decade, and only the outbreak of the Civil War halted further construction. In 1867 work resumed on the Houston and Texas Central. The company reached Dallas on July 8, 1872, and, on March 15, 1873, Red River City, where connection was made with the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway. This connection was the first between the rail system of Texas and the expanding national network. The Houston and Texas Central acquired the Washington County in 1869 and extended the line to Austin, where the last spike was driven on 2:30 P.M. on Christmas Day 1871. The Texas and New Orleans became the western end of the first all-rail route to New Orleans when the connecting Louisiana Western was completed on August 26, 1880. The Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado was renamed the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio on July 27, 1870. Construction of the San Antonio extension began in 1873, and rails reached the Alamo City on February 7, 1877. Work on the Mexican and Pacific extension between San Antonio and El Paso was underway when the GH&SA passed into the control of the Southern Pacific in July 1881. The last of the antebellum railroads, the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf, was combined with the Indianola Railroad Company on April 22, 1871, to form the Gulf, Western Texas and Pacific.

The Southern Pacific system in Texas was expanded by the acquisition of a number of additional companies as well as new construction. Among the larger railroads gathered into the system were the Houston, East and West Texas Railway Company; the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway Company; and the Austin and Northwestern Railroad Company. With the completion of the line into the Rio Grande valley in 1927 and the purchase of the Texas Midland Railroad in 1928, the Southern Pacific system in Texas totaled 3,966 miles serving all sections of the state except the Panhandle and South Plains. Subsequent line sales and abandonments have reduced Southern Pacific's mileage in Texas to 2,484 at the end of 1987. Except for the period between 1885 and 1889 when the GH&SA and the T&NO were included in the Omnibus Lease to the Southern Pacific Company, the Texas subsidiaries of the Southern Pacific were operated by their own organizations. By 1927 most of the smaller companies had either been leased to or merged with the GH&SA, T&NO, or the H&TC. These three railroads, along with the HE&WT, comprised virtually all of the Southern Pacific Lines in the state. On March 1, 1927, the major Texas and Louisiana subsidiaries were leased to the T&NO, with which they were merged on June 30, 1934. The T&NO continued to operate until November 1, 1961, when it was merged into the Southern Pacific Company. Historically, the lines comprising the Southern Pacific ran from Ogden, Utah, to the San Francisco area and from Portland, Oregon, through California, and across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana. The Southern Pacific Steamship Company, "the Morgan Line," extended the company's operations to the East Coast. In July 1941 ship operations were discontinued, and they were not resumed after World War II. The Southern Pacific also owned several railroads in Mexico, the longest of which was the Southern Pacific Railroad of Mexico, which ran from Nogales on the Arizona-Sonora border to Guadalajara. This line was sold to the Mexican government in 1951. In 1932 the Southern Pacific acquired control of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway Company and its subsidiaries. Although the Cotton Belt, as this line was known, continued to be operated separately, the acquisition gave the system access to the Memphis and St. Louis gateways. With the demise of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company in 1980, the St. Louis Southwestern acquired the Golden State Route between Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and Kansas City as well as the Rock Island line between Kansas City and St. Louis. Subsequent purchase of a line between St. Louis and Chicago and trackage rights from Kansas City to Chicago have expanded the system to the rail center of Chicago.

During the early 1980s the rapid changes in the United States economy and mergers among other western railroad companies made it increasingly difficult for the Southern Pacific Transportation Company and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company to compete as independent railroads. On December 23, 1983, the parent companies merged to form the Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corporation (now Santa Fe Pacific Corporation), and an application was filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission to merge the two railroads. However, in July 1986 the ICC refused to allow the merger and ordered the holding company to sell one of the carriers. This resulted in the sale of the SPTC to Rio Grande Industries, parent company of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Company, on October 13, 1988. A new system consisting of the SPTC, Rio Grande, and Cotton Belt was thus formed. Initially each company continued to operate under its own name, but in 1992 operations of the Rio Grande and Cotton Belt were consolidated with those of the SPTC, and the system became known as the Southern Pacific Lines. On April 30, 1993, the name of Rio Grande Industries was changed to Southern Pacific Rail Corporation. From the days of the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado and the Galveston and Red River, the Southern Pacific system in Texas has been centered in the Houston area. The new system continues to operate major terminals, shops, and a regional office in Houston, only a few miles from where the first rail was laid, not only in Texas but also on what is now the Southern Pacific. See also RAILROADS and ATCHISON, TOPEKA AND SANTA FE RAILWAY SYSTEM.

James P. Baughman, Charles Morgan and the Development of Southern Transportation (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968). Donald C. Everett, "San Antonio Welcomes the Sunset-1877," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 65 (July 1961). Donovan L. Hofsommer, The Southern Pacific, 1901–1985 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986). Andrew Forest Muir, "Railroad Enterprise in Texas, 1836–1841," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 47 (April 1944).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

George C. Werner, “Southern Pacific System,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 05, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996