Sunday, March 06, 2005

CP/SP Coal History

I have been working on the topic of SP's coal to oil conversion for some time. In an early draft of material for a still to be published an article for SP Trainline (this portion new considerably reduced in length), I assembled quite a bit of information information that I give below. My footnotes have been inserted within brackets. Some of this information may have been corrected by our ongoing CP discussion, but by and large it is fairly accurate.

CP/SP Coal History to 1900

In the 1860s, the sight of locomotive tenders piled high with cordwood was commonplace along the lines of the Central Pacific Railroad. Wood fuel was inexpensive and easily harvested from Sierra Nevada railroad lands. But as the railroad built across the Nevada and Utah deserts, reliance on wood fuel became increasingly problematic, and by January 1870 a large-scale conversion of many of its engines from wood to coal was underway. Within two years, virtually all locomotives operating on the 554 miles of track between Wadsworth, Nevada and Ogden, Utah had been changed to coal burning with fuel supplied by the CP affiliate, the Rocky Mountain Coal and Iron Company near Evanston, Wyoming. [San Francisco Daily Alta California, January 6 1870. Correspondence, AN Towne to CP Huntington, August 13, 1873.]

A similar transformation took place on the Pacific slope where by the mid 1870's all Central Pacific lines and its subsidiaries, with the exception of the overland route from Sacramento to Wadsworth, and the CP's Sacramento to Redding line were either fully changed over to coal burning, or in the process of conversion. The changeover from wood to coal fuel over the Sierras did not begin until late 1886, and wood continued in use into the 1890's at least in the Sacramento area. [Report to the Department of the Interior, October 29, 1870; Report of AN Towne to CP Huntington, August 8, 1873. Sacramento Division, 1883 plat maps (CSRM). San Francisco Morning Call, September 15, 1886; January 11, 1887 (John Sweetser research). Sacramento to Redding does not appear to have been converted from wood to coal until 1883. Plat maps showing installation of coal bunkers, CSRM.]

Throughout this period, access to quality coal on the Pacific Coast remained a problem. Northern California lines were able to obtain some local coal from the flank of Mt. Diablo near the San Francisco Bay, and a mine in the Ione Valley, 30 miles southeast of Sacramento. Limited fuel supplies were also available from Coos Bay, Oregon. Unfortunately, this coal was poor-burning lignite, and as SP Vice-President CP Huntington noted in 1877, "the engineers and firemen are all against it." [CP Huntington to D Colton correspondence, December 17, 1877.] As a result, much of the coal used by the railroad as late as the 1890s was imported from Wales and Australia. [Dunscomb and Dunscomb, II, p. 168.] The railroad however periodically resorted to lignite or to a mix of lignite and bituminous coal to prevent coal shippers from raising market rates. "While the coal is not as good as we would like it, we are able to protect ourselves against high prices," CP President Leland Stanford explained. ["A great deal of the coal consumed` is foreign coal," CP President Leland Stanford acknowledged in 1887. US Pacific Railway Commission, p. 2794.]

Significant portions of other Big Four routes were designed as coal burning from their inception. Among these was the SP's mainline south from Goshen in the San Joaquin Valley, and through Southern California during the 1870s on which all engines were coal-fired. By 1878 eleven coaling stations were in operation between Tulare and Yuma. [US Railroad Commissioner reports]. Similar fueling sites were established as the line was built across Arizona and New Mexico.

The search for a secure supply of good coal continued to occupy SP managers through the next two decades. In 1888, the Southern Pacific extended a branch line in the San Joaquin Valley from Huron to Alcalde to access coal that unfortunately proved low in thermal energy and easily ignited when stored. A year later, coal purchased from Mexican mines to fuel locomotives on the Tucson Division proved similarly unsatisfactory. "Almost every freight train, ever since we began using this coal, has been more or less delayed," complained SP General Superintendent JW Fillmore. [JW Fillmore to HJ Small (SP Superintendent of Motive Power) correspondence, Feb. 28, 1899. Stanford University Special Collections, M317, Box 1, Folder 2.] By the early 1890s, the railroad was taking delivery of coal from SP-owned mines at Carbonado in Washington's Puget Sound area, and from Namaino and Comox in British Columbia. In 1893, the coal sources for the SP's operations out of Los Angeles were Australia and the state of Washington. [Railroad Gazette, September 22, 1893, p. 701]. During a twelve-month period beginning July 1, 1895 over 128,000 tons of coal was delivered to Port Los Angles near Santa Monica. The fuel was destined for SP engines from Mojave as far to the east as Gila Bend, Arizona. Beyond this point fuel was provided from Deming, New Mexico and sources east of El Paso. ["Cost of Coal`Pacific System, Port of Los Angeles to El Paso, April 1, 1897." Maintenance of Way document #110B, Southern Pacific Engineering Collection, Oregon Historical Society. ] By the early 1900s, coal from Utah fueled operations on the Salt Lake and Sacramento Divisions. [Ashland Tidings, November 15, 1900.]

Closing Note: The transition from coal to oil was primarily driven by market prices and prospects of secure long-term reserves. Although the SP burned oil in some of its locomotives beginning in 1895, it was a least five years till they seriously began converting to oil, with the lines through Nevada and Utah among the last to be converted. Even after the changeover began, coal remained in use far longer than is often realized.