Fullerton, Rail Town Part 1: The Southern Pacific

This is the first article in a series about the past, present and future of railroads in Fullerton and Orange County.

This May will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike at Promontory, Utah, which completed the transcontinental railroad and linked California to the rest of the nation.  For the past century and a half, railroads have a played a vital role in the Golden State. Similarly, the city of Fullerton was founded by a railroad, and today boasts the busiest train station in Orange County.

Rail transportation continues to be vitally important for Fullerton in the 21st century, as the city is located at a very strategic location along major rail lines. These railroad corridors were laid down between the 1870s and the early 1920s, yet continue to shape the region’s economy and daily life, as well as Orange County’s future.

The Southern Pacific Railroad

The first railroad to arrive in what is now Orange County was the Southern Pacific, which began serving Los Angeles in 1874, and completed a branch line to Anaheim in 1875.

Passing just south of what would later become the city of Fullerton, the line was extended to Santa Ana two years later.  The Southern Pacific (SP) Railroad planned to build this line southwards along the coast to San Diego.  However, track construction south of Santa Ana was halted due to a longstanding personal feud between SP owner Collis Huntington and major landowner James Irvine.

Huntington was one of the “Big Four” railroad barons behind the Central Pacific Railroad, which completed the first trans-continental line to California in 1869. He was also the uncle of Henry Huntington, who later would build the Pacific Electric Railway network across Southern California.

1883 Rand McNally map, before the creation of Orange County and Fullerton, showing the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad southwards from Los Angeles. The proposed “Southern Pacific R.R. San Diego Div” route, shown on this map south of Santa Ana, was never built.

Legend has it that Irvine’s dislike of Collis Huntington dated back to 1849, when he accused Huntington of cheating him out of money on a poker game they were playing as young men while on the same ship to California.  Despite Huntington’s considerable political influence, illegal track-laying, and efforts to sue Irvine and take his land for a railroad right-of-way, the courts ruled in favor of the Irvine family to keep the SP off of their land.

The corridor along SP’s Santa Ana Branch between Norwalk and Santa Ana was used in the 1950s to build the Santa Ana Freeway (Interstate 5).  Union Pacific Railroad, which merged with the Southern Pacific in 1996 and became its successor, continues to run freight trains to Anaheim on the remaining track alongside the freeway.

In the next issue of the Fullerton Observer, part 2 of this series will explore the history of the Santa Fe Railway in Orange County, and its role in the founding of Fullerton.  Future articles in this series will discuss the local history of the Pacific Electric Railway and Union Pacific Railroad. The author would like to thank Harold Benash, President of the Southern California Rail Plaza Association/Fullerton Train Museum ( ), and Elrond Lawrence – Executive Director of the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation ( ), for their historical review of the drafts of this article.