All who heard the whistle, felt the vibration and saw the clouds of white and dark smoke knew — business owners' goods would soon be loaded; loved ones would soon see their relatives returning from war; transportation to see another place would be granted — it was the railroad.
Let’s take a look back through the years at how the railroad came to the area and what major events are noted through time.
More than 130 years have passed since the railroad came to Tehachapi. It initially began with a series of Pacific Railway Acts, in which the federal government provided loans and land grants for a transcontinental railroad across sections of the U.S. starting in 1862, according to britannica.com.
The Southern Pacific Railroad, in 1867, filed a map of the general route the company would take starting at San Francisco and coming into the San Joaquin Valley. The path would then turn south and into the Tehachapi mountains toward Mojave. The railroad passed into Bakersfield on the north bank of the Kern River, and established the terminal of Sumner in 1874. The location was ideal since Bakersfield was subject to flooding in downtown Chester Avenue from the Kern River, said the "Southern Pacific-Santa Fe Tehachapi" book by John R. Signor.
Then, in 1875, a temporary railroad track line reached Caliente, where the railroad recruited more than 3,000 Chinese laborers to continue the line all the way to Tehachapi. Business and land deals boomed in Caliente as the railroad made profits of hauling freight that passed by the mines of Havilah, Cerro Gordo and Panamint, added the book.
“Construction of the line was not difficult until the barrier of the Tehachapi range was met. Here engineers faced the problem of rising 4,000 feet to traverse 46 miles,” said a bulletin from "The Story of the San Joaquin Division," By F.M. Worthington, superintendent of the Southern Pacific Railroad, dated 1920.
The Tehachapi Pass and Loop
Laborers used pick and shovel, horse-drawn carts and more than 600 kegs of blasting hercules powder per week to cut through solid and decomposed granite through the Tehachapi pass, said the "Southern Pacific-Santa Fe Tehachapi" book by John R. Signor.
The Loop was “completed in 1876 under the direction of William Hood, Southern Pacific Railroad Engineer. In gaining elevation around (the) central hill of loop a 4,000 foot train will cross 77 feet above its rear cars in (the) tunnel below,” said a plaque placed at the site in 1953 by the Kern County Historical Society.
The Loop is located between Keene and the city of Tehachapi on Woodford-Tehachapi Road and can be partially viewed from Broome Road off of Highway 58.
The work resulted in 18 tunnels, 10 bridges, numerous water tunnels for steam locomotives, all completed in just two years, starting in 1874, said another plaque dedicated in 1998 at the Loop’s viewing site. The plaque was dedicated by the History and Heritage Committee of Los Angeles Section and Southern San Joaquin Branch of America, American Society of Civil Engineers.
“This feat of civil engineering genius was the crowning achievement of civil engineer William Hood of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. It is one of the seven wonders of the railroad world,” added the plaque.
The completion of the railroad didn’t come without cost.
More than 300 Chinese workers were buried in a basin east of Caliente. Their bodies were exhumed several years later and returned to China, said the book, "The Chinese of Kern County 1857-1960," by William Holland Boyd.
The Tehachapi Loop is labeled by some to be an engineering marvel.
Rufus Thomas, a Tehachapi resident and former conductor of 40 years for the Southern Pacific, remembers traveling through the Loop.
The Loop was engineered so the trains could easily climb and go down the steep elevation and rest or prepare the brakes, said Thomas.
Thomas said the fastest speed the trains would go at the Loop was 25 mph or, “if you went faster, you would fall off."
Eyewitness accounts of its construction are recorded in written form in the early 1900s.
Mary Kessing of Tehachapi said in a personal account in 1920, “My husband and I joined the Southern Pacific construction forces at Caliente to keep a boarding house for the men who were on the big work... The work was rather monotonous, nothing, but hard work day-after-day. The laborers were Chinamen who hauled dirt in little two wheeled carts.”
The living conditions were far from ideal.
“While we were camped where the Loop is now, my daughter Jennie was born. From there we moved on up the canyon to about where tunnel No. 14 is now. There was a big storm the night we moved and our house was blown down, so we had to hunt the shelter of a tent,” said Kessing.
As the work continued, they were transferred up toward Tehachapi.
She added, “There were no houses there then, only a stage depot and post office called Greenwich. The valley was range land for the cattle owned by the cattlemen whose ranches were out in the foothills.”
Formation of the Tehachapi area
The railroad changed the settlements in the Tehachapi area.
Residents in the town of Greenwich, four miles west of the Tehachapi Summit, moved their homes and businesses closer to where the railroad line came through the area. Greenwich soon became known as Old Town in 1876, said the "Southern Pacific-Santa Fe Tehachapi" book by John R. Signor.
Pat Gracey, a local historian who has lived in Tehachapi for many years, said in an interview, residents literally “brought their house with them on log rollers” to different places near where downtown Tehachapi is now, when the railroad came to the top of Tehachapi.
In 1899, the Southern Pacific railroad granted rights for the Santa Fe railroad to use the tracks over the Tehachapi mountains, said a plaque at the Tehachapi Railroad Depot.
The Tehachapi Railroad Depot
The original Tehachapi depot burned down in February 1904, sparked by an oil leak on a Santa Fe passenger train engine. It was rebuilt in the summer of 1904 and used until 1971, said information at the Tehachapi Depot.
Locals were able to grow and procure a profit from hay, potatoes, lumber, wheat, barley, apples and pears in the areas of Brite Valley, Cummings Valley and Bear Valley and load the sold goods at packing houses near the railroad tracks.
“The railroad is what built this county and the same thing applies to Tehachapi,” said Doug Pickard, adviser to the board of the Friends of the Tehachapi Depot and one of founding members, in an interview. He added, “They could only grow those up here if they could only ship them out and they prospered because of the railroad.”
The station was then discontinued for public use in 1971, when the last passenger service train operated at Tehachapi.
The Tehachapi Heritage League, a group of local residents who wanted to preserve the depot for a museum inquired to the Union Pacific for permission, although the railroad said they were still using it as a maintenance office. In 2005, the city of Tehachapi and the Union Pacific Railroad formed an agreement for the depot to be leased by the city of Tehachapi and plans were made to restore the depot into a railroad museum, said a letter by local historian Del Troy.
Friends of the Tehachapi Depot, a nonprofit organization, was formed to help restore the building and just as the restored depot was about to be opened, it again burned to the ground. As the city of Tehachapi had insurance on the building, it was rebuilt using the original No. 23 plans. On June 5, 2010, a ribbon-cutting was held for the rebuilt depot, added Troy.
The depot located at 101 W. Tehachapi Blvd. is open free to the public Thursday though Monday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.