To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Kern County’s creation, The Californian has been serializing history pieces. This piece, published by the paper for the county’s centennial in 1966, chronicles how the railroad arrived and forever changed life here.
It was on the last day of 1869, seven months after completion of the transcontinental railroad from Omaha, Neb., to Sacramento, that Central Pacific Co. started banging down track destined to pass through Kern County five years later.
Bakersfield was incredibly remote at the time. Nothing but primitive dirt wagon roads undulated monotonously down from San Francisco. To get to Los Angeles, travelers had to straggle down narrow mountain roads.
The town featured just a small collection of homes and business houses composed of two general stores, a telegraph office, a combined newspaper office and printing shop, one blacksmith shop, offices for a lawyer and a doctor, one saloon, one carpenter shop, one livery stable, one meat market, one photo gallery, two boarding houses and a school of 50 pupils.
So when the legislature proposed Bakersfield be the southern terminus of the proposed rail line, excitement mounted.
THE BACK STORY
The Kern County railroad ball had started bouncing in 1853 with the signing of a paper by U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis providing for survey of a railroad route near the 35th parallel from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
Lt. R.S. Williamson started southward from Benecia, Calif., accompanied by three officers, 25 privates, horses and provisions. Reports would be made on geology, mineralogy, plant, animal, bird, reptile and fish life in addition to mapping the rail route.
At Woodville in Tulare County, Williamson persuaded trapper-explorer Alexis Godey to guide the group because of his knowledge of Sierra Nevada passes. They examined the Walker, Tehachapi and Tejon passes, and found the second to be the lowest.
Then arrived the Civil War, and railroading progress stood still until 1867 when Union Pacific Railroad Company sent west General William J. Palmer to “ascertain the best route for extension of a company road. . . In western Kansas . . . to California.” Palmer confirmed Williamson’s conclusions that the 35th parallel route across Tehachapi Pass would be best.
Palmer referred to the “beautiful rich prairie, with fine oak groves and farm houses (Tehachapi settlement) at the summit,” and when dropping into the lower San Joaquin Valley to the west he wrote, “The plain was covered, as far as the eye could reach, with beautiful wild flowers new to us, and we found ourselves in the paradise of a California Spring.”
Palmer urged that a point near Bakersfield was the logical spot for a railroad bridge crossing the Kern River, and he envisioned Bakersfield a center for railroad shops and personnel homes.
Bakersfield learned through the June 17, 1871, Weekly Courier that Central Pacific track-layers were pushing rails toward Kern County from Modesto. On Sept. 9, Central Pacific survey members arrived in Bakersfield after plotting tracks almost exactly on the Visalia stage route.
E.A. Phelps, chief engineer In charge of surveying, charted a route up the mountains to Tehachapi and then after a 10-day stay in Bakersfield, the crew left to extend surveys to the desert and to Los Angeles, which they completed by the middle of February 1872.
Central Pacific track moved a mile a day down the valley to a point where engineers laid out a railroad town to lie known as Fresno. Optimism permeated Bakersfield.
“A palace-sleeping car soon will run between this place and San Francisco,” the Courier’s editor wrote.
Bakersfield business boomed. Building construction increased. Land began to sell faster. Farms developed. Kern River flouring mills ran full tilt.
Along main street, teams of oxen hauling sturdy wagons groaning with silver bullion from Inyo mines passed teams laden with merchandise from rails-end headed for Inyo. Stagecoach business thrived. Workers flocked into the valley, and scores decided to make Bakersfield their home.
The Courier editor proclaimed that “42 marriageable young ladies are wanted in Bakersfield at once.” To attract the right kind, he added, “They should have a proper knowledge of housewifery and brought up in habits of obedience, and could obtain first-class husbands without difficulty and at once.”
Central Pacific's right-of-way agent came to Bakersfield to select the site for station and sidings the first week in February 1873. The company proposed calling the station Kern, and suggested changing the name Bakersfield to Kern City — something met with contempt locally.
“Lively times" were expected In Bakersfield as the railroad approached. But all was not roses for the community. San Francisco hoodlums, probably escorted out of that city, rode the train and stage to Bakersfield, which acquired the reputation of “a disorderly town.”
Shiny new rails and fresh redwood ties reached Delano in 1873. Travelers could buy a ticket from Hamilton & Roberts in Bakersfield for a five-hour horse stage ride over 32 miles of “beautiful plain road” to get there.
Delano remained the end of the line for 11 months, which apparently suited the residents just fine. It meant lots of business.
“A very lively spot is Delano, the railroad terminal,” the Courier reported. “The place is constantly thronged with teams delivering and receiving freight.
“The pressure is so great that teamsters from (Bakersfield) are sometimes forced to wait two or three days before they can crowd in and receive freight in their turn ... the country is rapidly filling up with settlers ... all the best sites are not yet taken. A considerable revival in building is taking place.”
BYPASSING THE CITY?
Work started on the railroad’s extension southward from Delano on April 7, 1874. Workers spiked down one-half mile of track daily on their way to Kern River.
Then railroad agents committed a grievous error in Bakersfield, which the Courier’s editor called “the most bare-faced outrage the railroad company has ever attempted in the state.”
“They have made no less than 12 to 15 surveys to see if they could possibly leave Bakersfield some five or six miles from their line of railroad,” he wrote.
He told how they had petitioned to remove the county seat to a section of their land on the plains, meaning the desolate area that now is east Bakersfield.
“And now they are sending agents to different parts of the county to work up a subsidy. These agents promise that if the subsidy asked for is granted, a station and roundhouse shall be built in or near Bakersfield; but if denied, the company is determined to locate the station and workshops eight miles from here — a barren spot on the plaints, extremely unhealthy and destitute of water.”
That referred to present-day Edison.
He urged the people of Kern County to "have the courage to resist the hand of oppression and the tyrants’ power under any and every circumstance.”
His editorial got attention.
THE GOVERNOR INTERVENES
Gliding into Delano station one morning came a special train of plush private cars. Inside lounged some of the most impressively named individuals Central Pacific could assemble.
The black-frocked, bearded dignitaries, with high silk hats and gold-headed canes, took seats in Delano’s finest carriages. A few hours later the distinguished entourage rolled proudly and unexpectedly down Bakersfield’s main dirt street. It included California Gov. Leland Stanford.
Stanford rode and talked with city officials. He expressed a desire to have the goodwill of the community, and said he would do all in his power to promote the best interests of the people.
He disclaimed putting the depot eight miles away, causing painful inconvenience, but best of all, he soberly vowed that Bakersfield was THE most important town on the line.
The railroad ended up building its track north of town, establishing a station at Sumner.
The first Southern Pacific steam passenger train chugged up to where track ended at the north bank of the Kern River on Aug. 1, 1874. Two steam pile drivers were in operation on the bridge.
“The piles of Oregon fir are being driven in with great rapidity,” reports said.
WATCHING CARS ARRIVE, DEPART
The new short-lived station on the river bank became listed as Mesa. Residents amused themselves by taking leisurely buggy rides to the new depot, where they watched cars arrive in the morning and depart in the evening.
They watched workers unload “great quantities of merchandise” that provided local stores with “more varied assortments and better qualities than formerly.”
An annoying complication was the mounting number of dead horse and mule carcasses accumulating around the pioneer city’s perimeter that created a health problem with its flies and stench. Newcomers refused to buy lots across from where the disgusting smell hovered.
Many teams hauled building material from Mesa station to the new depot site, one mile from the easternmost business site in Bakersfield. The area is described in an 1874 account as an “entirely uninhabited plain of treeless, waterless, barren soil.”
The Courier wrote, “The location, although not so close to town as many seem to desire, is yet as near as the company could have placed it consistent with the possession of the vast elbow room they profess to require and that they represent to be indispensable.”
By the first of October, the last brace was bolted to the bridge and by Oct. 10, the first passenger train proudly crossed the Kern River to land passengers one-half mile north of Bakersfield, probably between present-day Chester Avenue and M Street.
Among them numerous arrivals from the East “haul the means and leisure to flee the icy water of the Western states to bask ... in the temperate, equable and spring-like temperature of this country.” County road equipment hastily opened up a road to this spot from town.
One rail traveler, a writer for Christian Advocate, described Bakersfield as so “far removed from other centers of traffic that it seems almost out of the world to him who has ever paid a visit.
“There are some 700 inhabitants including Spanish and Chinese. The Methodist Church has just been erected for $1,800, and is the only church publicly represented.
“There are two newspapers, bank, brass band, (a) circulating library (that) furnishes reading material at moderate cost, seven or more saloons, brewery, prices are high, board higher, money scarce, and business will be better as cool weather approaches.”
On the new depot site east of town, workers reassembled the former Tipton station building with the addition of the Mesa station structure. Flimsy shanties went up around the station and salesmen offered lots measuring 150 feet by 25 feet laid out in surrounding space.
The Central Pacific announcement that the newly surveyed town would be listed on its time tables as Sumner created a minor explosion in the Courier’s office and brought forth the statement that the railroad attempted to extinguish the name of Bakersfield throughout the state by calling “our station Sumner ... a place almost mythical.”
He recorded the surely disappointed businessmen in the new area, “led to believe business of Bakersfield would soon center around them.” With sarcasm he pointed out that excitement in Sumner “consists in arrival of a load of water from Kern Island Irrigating Canal, which is an occasion of too little excitement and constitutes quite a break in the general monotony of things.”
Summing it up, the Courier succinctly assessed “Sumner as a town, is an abortion.”
Bakersfield businesses listened with boredom to continuing rumors of a slump elsewhere in the remote United States. In the hometown, every place of accommodation was brightly lit and crowded, and merchants couldn’t attend to all the business.
Between all this fantastic commerce and the railway station at Sumner shuttled horsedrawn omnibuses to find new arrivals loaded with money.
Although the town may have been at odds with the railroad over policy, who could have ignored the prosperity inaugurated by the railroad while other portions of the country wallowed in depression?
COMING LATER: The track-laying moves east.