A busy day at Santa Ana's original Southern Pacific depot, ca 1888 (courtesy Gladys Reeves).

A busy day at Santa Ana's original Southern Pacific depot, ca 1888 (courtesy Gladys Reeves).

The Southern Pacific – Orange County’s First Railroad

In the early 1870s, the Southern Pacific railroad announced plans to build a line from San Francisco down to the Colorado River at Yuma, connecting the new transcontinental railroad with a proposed southern route. Hemmed in by the mountains and the sea, Los Angeles was not on the natural route for the line, but the SP offered the county a deal – they would build through Los Angeles in return for a subsidy to help cover the added expense.

“Subsidy” was the polite term used in those days for the railroads’ demands for cash and property in order to help them decide just where the tracks would go. The Southern Pacific’s demands were steep. They wanted a cash subsidy equivalent to 5% of Los Angeles County’s total assessed valuation (which included what is now Orange County) and full ownership of the recently completed Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad – the first and only railroad in the county. To sweeten the deal, they also proposed a branch line to Anaheim, to serve the growing Santa Ana Valley.

The subsidy measure was included on the general election ballot in November 1872. Anaheim wasn’t actually all that excited about being at the end of a branch line. They preferred a more direct connection to the sea at Wilmington or San Diego. Santa Ana and the other communities at the southern end of the county also saw little value in the idea, and so when the ballots were tallied, the Santa Ana Valley voted down the proposal. But – as was always the case in local elections at the time – the Los Angeles vote overwhelmed the outlying precincts, and the subsidy was approved.

Work on the Anaheim branch of the Southern Pacific railroad began in the summer of 1873, and the tracks inched towards the Mother Colony all through 1874. The line ran down from Norwalk much as the Santa Ana (I-5) Freeway does today. The last spike was driven on the last day of the year, and scheduled service began on January 14, 1875. A depot was soon built on the west side of town (later renamed West Anaheim). It would be another year and half before the Southern Pacific completed its line down from San Francisco over the famed Tehachapi Loop, finally giving both Los Angeles and Anaheim a direct link to the transcontinental railroad.

Almost as soon as construction began on the Anaheim branch, there were calls to extend the line across the Santa Ana River. Once again, a subsidy was demanded. This time, Santa Ana founder William H. Spurgeon rounded up a group of local investors who put up a reported $10,000 cash, plus a right-of-way, and nearly 90 acres of land on the east side of town, which was deeded to the Western Development Company (the real estate development arm of the SP) in October 1877. Work on the Santa Ana extension began that same month, with mostly Chinese laborers on the job, and the first scheduled train arrived in Santa Ana on December 17, 1877.

The Western Development Company laid out a new townsite along the tracks they called Santa Ana East. The lots were small, and the east-west streets ran parallel to the tracks, meeting the existing streets of Santa Ana at an odd angle.

The old story is that Spurgeon and his partners tried to lure all the downtown businessmen to the new tract with an offer of free building lots, but somehow failed to speak to one of the biggest merchants, Levi Gildmacher, and since he stayed put, everyone else decided not to move either. The tale makes more sense if it was in fact the Western Development Co. that tried to shift Santa Ana closer to the tracks, for how could Spurgeon have possibly forgotten to speak to Gildmacher, who he would have seen on the street most every day?

Santa Ana historian Charles Swanner adds that Jacob Ross – who owned most of the land on the west side of town – also worked against the plan. “He even employed men to meet the trains, carrying signs that the passengers could read, ‘This is only our depot, come down and see our town.’”

Orange seems to have believed the railroad would naturally come to their town, but either would not, or could not offer a subsidy. So the SP by-passed Orange by three miles. When there were complaints, “Bion,” Santa Ana’s feisty correspondent to the Anaheim Gazette, defended his town’s investment – “If Orange had have had enough live men with energy and means, they would have done precisely what the people here have done,” he wrote.

In 1880, almost as an afterthought, the Southern Pacific established an Orange station out in the country where La Veta and Flower Street once crossed (now lost under the concrete maze of the Orange Crush). They did not even build a depot until six years later. More than a few passengers stepped off the train there thinking they had reached Orange and found themselves in the middle of nowhere. Occasional stages brought the mail and lucky passengers into town; others had to walk. Later the station was renamed West Orange.

But if Orange was disappointed, the Southern Pacific was downright angry. They had expected to continue south from Santa Ana down the coast to San Diego. But unfortunately, one of the local landowners didn’t want to sell them a right-of-way. And to make matters worse, that landowner’s name was James Irvine.

For James Irvine, it was personal. He had a longstanding dislike of Collis P. Huntington of the “Big Four” (who owned the Southern Pacific), dating back to the Gold Rush days, when they had both come to California on the same ship.

To try to force their way across the Irvine Ranch, the SP sued to overturn the patent to the land, but Irvine won the trial. With no way to get across or around the Irvine Ranch, the SP came to a stop in Santa Ana, leaving poor little Tustin out in the cold. It was not until 1887 that the rival Santa Fe railroad laid the first rails across the Irvine.

Stung by competition from the Santa Ana Fe, in 1888, the Southern Pacific built a branch line from Anaheim which round along the foothills through the little communities of Olive, Villa Park (Wanda Station), McPherson, and El Modena to Tustin, where once again it ran up against the Irvine Ranch. The Santa Fe’s better connections made it the leading railroad line in early Orange County, but the SP continued to play a role in local development on into the 1950s.

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Anyone interested in the history of railroads in Orange County will want to read Stephen E. Donaldson and William A. Myers two volume history, Rails Through the Orange Groves, A Centennial Look at the Railroads of Orange County (1989-90).