Photos: L.A.'s First Railroads Connected the Region to the Global Economy

The tiny San Gabriel was the first steam locomotive to haul freight and passengers between Los Angeles and San Pedro. It was later replaced by two larger engines. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

In December, the city's Bureau of Street Services announced that it would remove the railroad tracks running down Alameda Street's center lane between First and Seventh streets. Lying dormant for years, the rails--tormentors of automobile suspensions--represent one of the last remnants of Southern California's first railroad: the Los Angeles & San Pedro.

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Built between 1868 and 1869, the 21-mile line connected Los Angeles with the nascent shipping harbor on San Pedro Bay. The railroad was the brainchild of Phineas Banning, an entrepreneur and political operator. It was Banning who made some of the first improvements to the harbor, dredging a channel and building a wharf, and who developed the port town of Wilmington. As a California state senator, Banning sponsored a bill authorizing the City and County of Los Angeles to finance construction of the railroad. The city and county obliged--and then awarded Banning the contract to construct the line. When it opened on October 26, 1869, a crowd of 1,500--roughly one-quarter of L.A.'s population at the time--converged on the rail depot at Alameda and Commercial to celebrate Banning's triumph.

The railroad was one of Los Angeles' first modern links with the global economy; while an ox-cart and wagon road had connected the city to the harbor for decades, the railroad slashed the cost of transporting goods and passengers to and from the ships at San Pedro. Local merchants and farmers--not to mention port operators like Banning--benefited almost immediately. The railroad charged $6 per ton to transport inbound dry goods to the city. Outbound grain cost $2.50 per ton to ship, and passengers could buy a one-way ticket to the port for $1.50. Total commerce at the harbor more than doubled from 26,000 net tons of freight in 1869 to 55,000 in 1871.

The global economy further tightened its embrace of Los Angeles on September 5, 1876, when the city became the southern terminus of the transcontinental railroad. L.A. paid a dear price for that distinction; after pitting the city against San Diego, which with its excellent natural harbor might have become Southern California's commercial capital, the Southern Pacific Railroad extracted $610,000 from Los Angeles County for the construction of 50 miles of trunk line. (Part of this fee was paid with stock in the Los Angeles & San Pedro, which the Southern Pacific later acquired.) But ultimately, the transcontinental link was a boon to L.A.'s business elite. It guaranteed that commercial freight would be routed through Los Angeles, made possible the region's extensive citriculture industry, and fueled the speculative land bubble--and the associated population boom--of the 1880s.

The legacy of L.A's early railroads still reverberates today. Much of the nation's freight traffic moves through Los Angeles on its way to points inland--a cause for concern among those who breathe the polluted air near the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The sunken tracks of the Alameda Corridor freight expressway, meanwhile, trace the path of Banning's Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad.

Now, as work crews dig up the defunct tracts on Alameda Street, revisit L.A.'s early days as a railroad city below in selected images from our region's photographic archives, many of which are members of L.A. as Subject.

1869 advertisement for the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

1872 photo of the two larger steam locomotives that replaced the San Gabriel on the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Circa 1870s view of the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad depot at Alameda and Commercial. Courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Phineas Banning's wharf at Wilmington, the southern end of the line for the Los Angeles & San Pedro. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

In this 1876 photograph, three Chinese laborers work to link Los Angeles to the transcontinental railroad outside of Lang Station. Thousands of Chinese constructed the Southern Pacific's line through the San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountains, laboring under dangerous conditions for $1 per day. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

On September 5, 1876, Southern Pacific president Charles Crocker drove the final, golden spike to complete L.A.'s link with the transcontinental railroad. In this 1926 photo, Crocker's son William reenacts the event. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Detail of an 1876 Southern Pacific map, showing the railroad's lines through Southern California. Courtesy of the Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Southern California's transcontinental connection made it possible for citrus growers to ship their produce across the nation. 1905 stereo photo courtesy of the David Boule Collection. Boule writes: 'William Wolfskill, a former trapper from Kentucky, planted the first commercial orange grove in California in 1841, in an orchard near what today is Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. In 1877, his son Joseph arranged for the first boxcar of oranges to be shipped east from California.  Although a month in transit, it arrived in St. Louis in good condition. The first train loaded exclusively with oranges left Los Angeles on February 14, 1886, via the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railways.  The following year, ventilated boxcars were carrying oranges across the country to New York, and by the 1908-09 growing season over 15 million boxes of citrus were shipped by rail to markets in the east.'

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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