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Sunset Unlimited (2007 paper)

Earlier this month, I happened to be visiting a Barnes & Noble store in the San Francisco Bay Area, and ran across the 2007 paperback edition of this book (hardcover 2005) by Cal State East Bay Professor Emeritus Richard J. Orsi.  The book takes its name from the Southern Pacific Railroad Co.’s luxury train that traveled between San Francisco and New Orleans, and is a history of SP from 1850 to 1930.  It is meticulously documented (210 of the books 615 are devoted to source materials, notes and a comprehensive index).

The book does not focus–as do others such as Oscar Lewis’ The Big Four –on the lives of the principal investors in western railway expansion (Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins), and clearly casts a more neutral and accurate picture than Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World (2000), which demonizes the financial principal’s and erroneously overstates the contribution of engineers such as Theodore D. “Crazy” Judah, first engineer of the Central Pacific (CP), which later took over the first Southern Pacific railway operation.

Orsi devotes masterful attention to the lower-level executives who did the most to create the long-standing successes of CP/SP (which in the 1990s was subsumed within the railroad infrastructure of the Union Pacific (Central Pacific’s original partner in the building of the transcontinental railroad celebrated in American history books as culiminating in the driving of the “golden spike” in Promontory Summit, Utah; actually Stanford missed when attempting to hit the spike but the telegraph went out anyway: “It is done.”).

He also concentrates on the themes that made SP one of the principal contributors to California’s historical development: its understanding that it had to be partners with agriculture (why else have a railroad if you didn’t have to move goods in addition to people), the need to develop safe and reliable sources of water, the lifeblood of agriculture in a arid and semi-arid West, and the partnership between John Muir and SP to obtain national park status for Yosemite.  As Orsi point out, the fact that CP/SP as a railroad was managed from the perspective of those in the West (the only railroad in the country built from west to east). It develop regional partnerships because it had western interests at the heart of its customer base.

The book doesn’t cover everything, as the author points out.   And because of its focus on the SP’s history through 1930, it cannot explain the effect of the development of the interstate highway system (and local streets and roads as well) on the demise of rail passenger service. In a period in which dependence on foreign oil is a national political issue, it is important to remember that moving goods and even people long distances would be far less energy consuming than trucks and automobiles.  The decline of the railroads is our own fault.

Orsi, Richard J., Sunset Unlimited (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007).

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