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Railroads and Railways of the Mojave Desert

Southern Pacific Railroad

Southern Pacific engine
The Southern Pacific Railroad: A Gateway to the Mojave Desert's Rich History


The Mojave Desert is a vast and enchanting landscape, encompassing approximately 47,877 square miles. Its unique beauty and rugged terrain attract explorers, adventurers, and dreamers. Among the many features that have shaped the region's identity is the Southern Pacific Railroad. This article will explore the Southern Pacific Railroad story in the Mojave Desert. We will also discuss its significant contributions to the region's development and growth.

Early Days of the Southern Pacific Railroad:

The Southern Pacific Railroad, originally known as the Southern Pacific Company, was established in 1865 to connect the western and eastern coasts of the United States. The railroad facilitated travel, trade, and communication across vast distances. As the nation expanded westward, the Southern Pacific Railroad connected major cities and towns, including those in the Mojave Desert.

The Mojave Division:

The Mojave Division of the Southern Pacific Railroad was a vital section of the larger network. It stretched from Mojave, California, to El Paso, Texas, covering approximately 880 miles of track. The division traversed the Mojave Desert, connecting various towns and cities such as Palmdale, Barstow, and Needles. It provided a lifeline for these communities, enabling goods, people, and resources to be transported.

Engineering Marvels:

Building a railroad through the Mojave Desert was no small feat. The harsh desert environment presented numerous challenges, including extreme temperatures, rugged terrain, and scarce water sources. To overcome these obstacles, the Southern Pacific Railroad employed innovative engineering techniques. The construction of tunnels, bridges, and trestles allowed the railroad to navigate mountain ranges and expansive valleys. This left a lasting mark on the Mojave Desert's landscape.

Economic Impact:

The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad brought significant economic benefits to the Mojave Desert region. The railroad facilitated the transportation of goods, such as agricultural produce, minerals, and timber, to larger markets. This access to wider distribution networks stimulated economic growth, attracting businesses, industries, and settlers to the area. The railroad also played a pivotal role in the growth of tourism, providing visitors with a convenient and scenic mode of travel.

Cultural Significance:

The Southern Pacific Railroad shaped the Mojave Desert's economy and left an indelible mark on its cultural heritage. The railroad brought diverse communities together, fostering cultural exchanges and the blending of traditions. In addition, the railroad's presence inspired the creation of iconic symbols, such as the historic Harvey House hotels, which provided accommodation and dining facilities for travelers along the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Legacy and Preservation:

Although the Southern Pacific Railroad's operations in the Mojave Desert ceased in the mid-1990s, its legacy lives on. Today, remnants of the railroad, including train stations, historic bridges, and track sections, are tangible reminders of its impact. Several organizations and preservation societies are dedicated to safeguarding and promoting the history of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the Mojave Desert, ensuring that future generations can appreciate its significance.


The Southern Pacific Railroad was pivotal to the Mojave Desert's development and growth. Its construction and operation facilitated trade and travel and shaped the region's economy and cultural heritage. The legacy of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the Mojave Desert is a testament to human ingenuity and the enduring power of infrastructure to transform landscapes and connect communities.
Historic Southern Pacific Railroad photo

Historic RR Chronology

Feature Articles and Related Pages

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By the 23d section of the act of March 3, 1871, supra, Congress made a grant of land to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, to aid in the construction of a railroad from—

Tehachapa Pass, by way of Los Angeles, to the Texas Pacific railroad at or near the Colorado river, with the same rights, grants, and privileges, and subject to the same limitations, restrictions and conditions as were granted to said Southern Pacific Railroad Company of California, by the act of July twenty-seven, eighteen hundred and sixty-six.

Source - Decisions of the Department of the Interior and the General Land ..., Volume 30 By United States. Dept. of the Interior, United States. General Land Office, page 245.

Lang Station Site
Saugus, Los Angeles County

On September 5, 1876, Charles Crocker, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, drove a gold spike here to complete his company's San Joaquin Valley Line. This was the first rail connection between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The majority of the railroad workers were Chinese Americans. Many of them were experienced in railroad construction because they had been employed in building the transcontinental line in the 1860s.

Railroad tracks, crossing signals, and equipment mark this site, which no longer has a station building.

Source - NPS
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California
A History of Chinese Americans in California: HISTORIC SITES

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