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"Sunset Limited" - the book

  • July 25, 2012

“Sunset Limited:  The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West, 1850-1930”.   By Richard Orsi, professor emeritus, California State University, Hayward.  Available in print and ebook formats from Amazon and other sources. Amazon ebook priced at less than $15.00 US.

This is a book about a railroad, but it’s not a book about trains.  It’s a book about a railroad and employee health care, it’s a book about a railroad and land settlement, it’s a book about a railroad and the development of water/irrigation resources, it’s a book about a railroad and agricultural development, it’s a book about a railroad and conservation, and, importantly, it’s a book about the railroad men of vision who used their knowledge, common sense, determination, and courage to help make good things happen.

I’ve literally been fascinated by railroads since birth.  And that’s not really much of an exaggeration.  I’m now 61 years old and have been reading about and studying the North America railroads for a good part of those 61 years.  I do have a MS in transportation from Northwestern, I did work for a railroad in marketing management and I did work for a railroad supplier.  (RoadRailer/Thrall Car Manufacturing).   The result of this lifelong emersion in railroading is that I don’t get surprised by much that I read.   There are wonderful books, such as “The Iowa Pool” that fill in important details and answer a lot of open questions.  But the practice of pooling wasn’t a surprise to me.  (I am not saying that I know everything, I certainly don’t.  I am saying that I am reasonably familiar with the subject.)

In this personal context I can truthfully say that Orsi’s “Sunset Limited” was nothing less than an eye opening, jaw dropping, revelation of new facts to me.     

I am very familiar with the old paradigm of the Southern Pacific as “The Octopus”. You know, the evil corporation with its tentacles wrapped around the common people.  Squeezing the last dime from the farmers in an exercise of pure corporate greed.  The evil corporation’s tentacles reached into the state house and controlled the government.  The average man just didn’t stand a chance. 

Well, Orsi pretty much kills the whole “Octopus” concept with well documented original research.  It’s important to know that the concept of the “Octopus” came out of a work of fiction.  Frank Norris was a successful fiction writer looking for an idea for this next work of fiction.   He settled on a trilogy about wheat.  The 1stbook of the trilogy was about the production of wheat.

At the same time Norris was trying to figure out what to do next the SP was engaged in a dispute with some people who had settled on some land in California and begun growing wheat.  They hadn’t leased the land from the SP; they just moved on to the land and began farming.  The SP had clear legal title to the land and faced a dilemma.  The railroad tried to work things out.  It was, in fact, quite happy with a prosperous farm in place.  That’s what it wanted.  It offered to sell its land to the squatters on reasonable terms, but many considered it “their” land and refused to buy what they considered to be already theirs.  What to do?  So, finally, the railroad began to try to serve legal papers on the squatters.  The reasonable position of the railroad was that it wasn’t going to allow people to just take its property.

The squatters became quite good at not being home when someone tried to serve the legal papers.  But the SP kept trying.  What else could it do?  One day a party of four consisting of a deputy US Marshal, a Southern Pacific land agent, and two local men were out trying to serve legal papers.  They were met by a larger force of locals who didn’t want the papers served.  Both sides were armed.  The result was seven dead. Both local men with the Marshal-SP group died as did five men from the group trying to stop the legal paper service.  Neither the deputy marshal nor the SP land agent even drew their weapons.   This violent confrontation was the last thing the railroad wanted.

But it sure gave the novelist Frank Norris a great idea for the villain he needed for his next work of fiction.   He painted the railroad as evil incarnate.  This would have been OK if his book would have been regarded as what it was; it was a work of fiction. Instead, it was too often taken as a historical account of an evil corporate empire.    

In Norris’ book the railroad has leased the land to the farmers but won’t sell it to them as promised.  Norris’ fictional railroad is intent on holding on to the land in anticipation that the property will appreciate in value.

Orsi documents that this was the exact opposite of Southern Pacific policy and practice.  The railroad wasn’t going to give its land away, but it wanted the land in the ownership of occupying farmers as soon as possible.  Orsi documents the SP’s terms of sale to a small farmer on 80 acres of California farmland priced at $5.00/acre.   The terms were:  1) 20% down – that would be $80 upfront, 2) an interest only loan for five years on the balance.  Interest was 10%.  This seems high today, but it was below the going rate back then  - the SP was subsidizing the loan – in any event it was $32/year,  3) loan balance of $320 due at the end of five years.  This sounds quite reasonable to me.  And the SP would readily rework the loan if the farmer had a good reason for not having the $320 after five years.  The railroad understood thinks like drought. 

The head of SP’s land department, Redding, put it best when he wrote that the railroad wasn’t greatly interested in profiting from its land sales.  It was a transportation company that was interested in making money from hauling the farmers’ crops and bringing in their supplies such as coffee, tea, sugar, etc.   But such reasonableness doesn’t make a good novel.  And it especially doesn’t make a good novel that somehow has been turned into a history.  

Orsi documents some other jaw dropping facts that somehow just always get left out of the hatemonger books such as Richard White’s “Railroaded”.  These include:

The SP forerunner, the Central Pacific, was the first railroad in the world, and one of the first corporations in the world, to provide health care for its employees.  Now, health care wasn’t all that great in 1867, but the Big Four tried.  They contracted with doctors, put doctors where there were no doctors, and set up their own hospital.   All employees had $0.50/month deducted from their pay and that allowed them to access available medical care at no further charge.  If an employee retired, he kept his health coverage.   This was in 1867 and done with no government or union prodding.   The coverage was extended to SP employees and to any employee of a railroad acquired by the SP.   A lot of (all?) books trashing the SP as the “Octopus” just don’t mention this.  I guess there just wasn’t room in the book.  Yeah right. 

The SP realized that California farmland, while fertile, needed to be irrigated.  They didn’t want to be in the water business and decided that the best solution was public agency irrigation districts.  They put a lot of effort into getting these locally controlled districts set up.

The SP realized that growing cereal grains such as wheat wasn’t necessarily the best use of California farmland.   Wheat is a hardy crop and you can grow it in many marginal agricultural areas.  Heck fire, they can even grow wheat in Montana.  And, the California climate “befuddled” traditional farmers.  You could take a Mennonite farmer from Russia, pluck him down in Kansas, and he’d grow wheat to beat the band.  In agricultural terms, Kansas wasn’t that different from Russia.  But the California climate was very different.

Here’s the short and sweat on wheat.  It’s best to plant it in late summer or early fall. The wheat will germinate, sprout, and establish roots.  Then the weather turns cold and the wheat goes dormant.  Just like the grass in your yard.  In the spring the warmer weather and rains rejuvenate the wheat and, because it already has established its roots, it grows quickly. By the end of June it it’s ready for harvest.  The dry months of July and August pass with no never mind.  Then next year’s crop is planted. 

That’s great, but it’s not the way California works.  There were no killing frosts to make the wheat go dormant.  The rains came in the winter and the dry months started much too soon.  What to do?  Well, you could try to grow something else.

Enter the newfangled University of California and its agriculture school.  The SP was an ardent supporter.  Almost no one else was.  California farmers tended to think the place was useless. 

Farmer:  “Research my rear end.  I’ve been doing this all my life.  I know what I’m doing.  My father was a farmer, his father was a farmer, and his father was a farmer. What the blazes do you think you can tell me about farming?”

University Guy:  “Well, you could try this new variety of alfalfa we’ve developed.  It’s more tolerant of drought and will give you a better hay crop for your livestock.”

It took a while.  But the SP and the university worked together.  The railroad operated special trains at its expense that brought the university researchers to the farmers. They did lectures; they did demonstrations, everything they could.  The railroad established demonstration plots next to its depots so the local folks would see the wonderful variety of fruits and vegetables that could be grown in California in lieu of cereal grains.

Eventually, it worked.  The farmers and the railroad both benefitted.

As to conservation.  The Southern Pacific was the only major railroad with its roots and headquarters in the west.  They knew what they had and appreciated what they had.  The SP fought to defend Lake Tahoe when the Federal Government wanted to drain water from the lake for a Federal irrigation project in Nevada.  Seems that somehow the Feds had promised more water than they could deliver and sought to make up the difference by draining water from Lake Tahoe.  The SP was instrumental in preventing that.

The railroad also fought for the establishment of national parks such as Yosemite. There was enough land for farming and grazing without wrecking Yosemite.

All in all, Orsi documents a picture of a pretty good corporation run by responsible people.  Of course it was out to make money for its investors.  And the men in charge, the “Big Four”, did get very rich.  So what?  Good for them.  They left their homes to move to very isolated California, started successful businesses, then formed the Central Pacific and bought the fledgling Southern Pacific.  It they got rich it’s because they earned the money.

The important fact is that the interests of the corporation were aligned with the interests of the general population.  That’s what is normal.  Of course Farmer Joe would sometimes think they charged too much to move his lemons to Chicago.  And the president of the SP could get the governor on the phone when need be.  That’s all pretty normal.

But a railroad (or any corporation) does well for itself when it facilitates others doing well for themselves.  The Big Four knew that from their days as hardware merchants.  Why has the history of this great corporation been so distorted?  Why has the Southern Pacific been constantly portrayed as the fictional “Octopus” instead of the truly great and beneficial force for development that it really was?

I believe the distortions to be intentional.  See Richard White’s wretched “Railroaded” if you don’t believe me. 

"By many measures, the U.S. freight rail system is the safest, most efficient and cost effective in the world." - Federal Railroad Administration, October, 2009. I'm just your average, everyday, uncivilized howling "anti-government" critic of mass government expenditures for "High Speed Rail" in the US. And I'm gosh darn proud of that.

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