Railroad and Birth of Progressives in California

By Carl M. Cannon

Good morning. It’s February 5. And on this date in 1883, Southern Pacific Railroad opened its train service from New Orleans to California. The railroad dubbed the service the “Sunset Route,” but passengers took to calling it “Stormy” for the summer thunderstorm that often occurred along the way.

Weather was the least of the issues when it came to Southern Pacific. With a monopoly not just on passenger trains but, more importantly, on all the freight moving by land in and out the state, SP soon came to dominate California’s economic and political life in a way difficult to comprehend today.

The railroad’s tentacles reached into wheat farmers' pockets in the Imperial Valley and politicians' war chests in Sacramento. Indeed, the title of Frank Norris’ influential 1901 novel explaining California’s turn-of-the century politics was called “The Octopus.”

Southern Pacific’s rise to power was preceded, and made possible, by its relentless push to acquire land and railroad easements in the 1880s. “The Octopus” is a fictional account of the events leading up to a very real confrontation between settlers and “railroad men” that took place on May 11, 1888 at a homestead belonging to Henry D. Brewer, who lived near a town called Hanford.

The standoff turned into a gunfight, and when it was over, seven men lay dead. Dubbed the Mussel Slough Tragedy, this event galvanized muckraking journalists, reform-minded politicians, and voters. Foremost among the California reformers was Hiram Johnson, who won the governorship in 1910 as a liberal Republican crusading against Southern Pacific’s influence.

Two years later, Johnson helped found the Progressive Party, and was Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate in the three-way presidential race of 1912, in which a divided GOP handed the presidency to Woodrow Wilson. Hiram Johnson ran for governor again in 1914, winning in a landslide and two years later he left Sacrament for Washington as a U.S. senator.

Looking back today, it was Hiram Johnson’s first campaign that proved a harbinger of what California’s future would look like. Partly to show that he was a man who embraced science and technology – and partly because he was running against the railroads – Johnson often eschewed rail travel in 1910, preferring to campaign in new-fangled mode of transport.

It was, of course, the automobile.

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