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Southern Pacific’s Cab Forward

Southern Pacific’s signature, and most iconic locomotive was the 256 AC (Numbers 4000 to 4294) cab forward locomotives.

These were some of the largest and most unique locomotives in the United States. The AC-12 class is less than ten feet shorter than the largest steam locomotives ever built: Union Pacific’s “Big Boy”. The AC-12 locomotive and tender weighed more than a Boeing 747 and an Airbus A380, combined.

The reason the cab forwards were unique is that, as the name implies, the crew cab was in the front of the locomotive, like a modern diesel-electric locomotive, instead of the cab being in back, near the tender.

Having the cab in front gave the engineer and fireman unequalled views of the track ahead. But the real reason for the innovations was to conquers the steep grades of Sacramento’s Mountain Subdivision over the Donner Pass. This massive locomotives operated between Roseville, Ca and Sparks, Nv where a powerful locomotive was needed to tackle the steep grades and have the tractive effort to haul long freight trains over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A locomotive of this size emits of lots of steam exhaust because a 4-8-8-2 was essentially two locomotives in one.

The Donner Pass route had 40 miles of snow sheds and 39 tunnels. This meant that in a standard locomotive, the crew could suffer from asphyxiation from the steam exhaust. By putting the cab forward, the exhaust stack was behind the crew and they avoided the caustic smoke, steam, and heat that these powerful locomotives emitted.

The cab forward proved to be a very successful locomotive for SP, with 256 of these engines used on it’s rail over the period of 50 years. The railroad had the largest fleet of articulated “Malleys” in the world. As a comparison, Union Pacific fleet contained 25 Big Boy locomotives.

In the 1950s, as diesel replaced steam, cab forwards spend the rest of there working life away from the mountains on the Coast Line and the Western Division. One of the last places cab forwards worked on Southern Pacific rail was the Cal-P line between Oakland and Roseville. 1958 was the last year a cab forward rode the rails, nine of these locomotives were taken out of service on September 24, 1958.

Out of the 256 cab forwards that were built, only one survives. The AC-12 number 4294 which is also the last steam locomotive that Southern Pacific ever purchased. 4294 was in service on March 19, 1944 and was taken off the the roster on March 5, 1956. She was only in service for 12 years.

While the other cab forwards were scrapped, 4294 was put in storage and then was put on static display on October 19, 1958, in front of the Sacramento train station. When the California State Rail Road Museum was opened, 4294 became the centerpiece amongst it’s collection of locomotives and rolling stock.

I was at the museum with my father in 1981 for the official opening of the museum. SouthernPacific’s GS-4 4449 and Union Pacific’s 844 (then numbered 8444) where in attendance and I will never forget when the two locomotive stood, pilot to pilot, on the track outside of the museum!

The massive running gear of the AC-12, Cab Forward. 4294 is the only surviving example of this locomotive.

The last time I have visited the museum was in November of 2017 where I did an aborted field sketch of the cab forward. There was something about the proportions of the locomotive that I did not get right. I had planned to return to the California State Rail Museum in the early Spring of 2020 but the cases of Covid-19 were growing at an alarming rate in the state and the museum eventually closed it’s doors for an indeterminate time.

So if I could not sketch the AC-12, at least I could sketch it from an image, which really is the next best thing.

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Southern Pacific Water Tower: Elmira

I planned to sketched the water tower at Black Butte, in the shadow of Mt. Shasta in Northern California.

I wanted to sketch this Southern Pacific water tower because of it’s historical significance and also because this is one of the few water towers still in operation as Union Pacific (it’s current owner) keeps this active to water any of UP’s heritage steam engines and other steam excursions that might pass this way. (SP 4449 topped up her tank here in the summer of 1991). The tower was built in 1926.

But not all plans come to fruition. I headed up to Weed to sketch the water tower only to find that the road leading to it was gated and all the signs around the area read “No Trespassing, Do Not Enter”. This area was still very much an active Class I railroad and I’m sure UP didn’t appreciated railroad gawkers and sketchers near their tracks.

So in order not to become a headline in the local paper, I chose to turn back towards Dunsmuir.

Steam engines cannot function without water. If water runs too low in the boiler it can result in a deadly boiler explosion. Therefore railroads built water tanks or towers near railroads, spaced out so there would be water along the line, when the locomotive became “thirsty”.

But I still wanted to sketch a more accessible Southern Pacific water tower so I did some research. I found that in the State of California, there are 16 Southern Pacific water towers still in existence. While I was not able to access one of those, there were still 15 left to find.

I hade seen the 65,000 gallon restored water tower across from the passenger station in San Luis Obispo. It was built in 1940 and was retired in 1956. I did have it on my sketch list but I didn’t get to it. One down, fifteen to go.

The restored Southern Pacific water tower in San Luis Obispo. This tower was slated to be torn down but local interests intervened and saved it from destruction.

I set my sights on the Southern Pacific water tower in the small Solano County town of Elmira (population 188).

Elmira was a major railroad stop in the early part of the 20th century as it was on the Cal-P line between Vallejo and Sacramento. At Elmira, there was a spur that went to Vacaville, Winters, and Rumsey as part of the Vaca Valley and Clear Lake Railroad. It is easy to understand why a water tower was built here because of the rail traffic and the spur.

Then U.S. Route 40 (now Interstate 80) was created as one the the first Interstate Highways in 1926. It was the first major east-west route, starting in Atlantic City, New Jersey and terminating in San Francisco. The route passed west of Elmira, through the town of Vacaville. Since that time the town of Elmira never recovered. As the population and development in Vacaville grew, the town of Elmira became a rural backwater with a shrinking population.

The same growth in the Nation’s Interstate Highway system also was the death knell for many railroads across the country with trucks and cars replacing freight and passenger service.

The last freight train to run on the spur to Vacaville was in 1985. After that the rails between Vacaville and Elmira were abandoned and then later removed.

The abandoned but still standing Southern Pacific water tower at Elmira. The tower is not fenced in and there are no historic signs about the tank. It looks to be similar to the 65,000 gallon tower in San Luis Obispo and I imagine that it was built in the 1930s or 40s and used up until the mid 1950s.

The passenger station is now gone but active double tracks still pass the abandoned and rusted water tower at Elmira. The Capital Corridor passenger service runs 16 trains every weekday. The 168 mile service runs from San Jose to the state capital in Sacramento. A few trains head further north to Auburn.

Looking north towards Davis and Sacramento. Two sets of polished tracks pass through Elmira. These rails get lots of use with 16 passenger trains on a normal weekday.
Westbound train number 729 passes by Elmira’s water tower at 9:28 AM on a Saturday morning at a rapid clip. There is no longer a passenger station in Elmira. The closest station is to the south at the Fairfield-Vacaville Station. On point is an EMD F59PHI with “California styling”.
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The Transcontinental Railroad

Since visiting Promontory Summit, where the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met, thus completing the Transcontinental Railroad, I wanted to visit the location where the railroad started in California. So it was that I found myself on a Friday morning in “Old Town” Sacramento, on the banks of the Sacramento River.

A sign on the the side of the Central Pacific Railroad Freight Depot, notes, “You are standing where the First Transcontinental Railroad in America had its western origin, at Front and K Streets in Sacramento.” This location made sense because all of the materials used for the building was shipped up the Sacramento River from San Francisco and it was unloaded here. On January 8, 1863, then Governor and President of the Central Pacific, Leland Stanford, turned a shovelful of dirt, the official start of building the western leg of the Transcontinental Railway.

IMG_2777Just below this sign, is the birthplace of the Transcontinental Railway on the banks of the Sacramento River.

The other reason I found myself in Old Town was to visit the California State Railway Museum. The museum was opened in 1981 and I was there with my father to see SP’s No. 4449 and UP’s No. 8444 (now numbered 844) on the opening day. But today as these engines where back in Portland and Cheyenne and I was here to see a another very important steam engine: the Central Pacific’s No. 1 the Gov. Stanford.

This American type 4-4-0 was the first locomotive purchased by the Central Pacific at a cost of $13,688. The engine was built in Philadelphia in 1862 and then shipped on the Herald of there Morning around the horn of South America to California where it was reassembled in Sacramento. Stephan Ambrose notes of the 50,000 lb locomotive, in his book Nothing Like in the World, “the Governor Stanford [was] the biggest man-made thing in California”. This engine has many notable firsts for the Central Pacific: it hauled the first excursion train and the first passenger train on April 15, 1864 and the first freight train on March 25, 1864. It also took part in building the Transcontinental Railway with hauling supplies for the construction of the line over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The engine was slated to be scrapped in 1895 but it was saved and donated to Jane Lathrop Stanford, widow of Leland Stanford, in 1899 where it was put on display at Stanford University. It was later loaned to the California State Railway Museum where it is on display near where it first steamed to life on November 6, 1863, on the banks of the Sacramento.