Growing up near an orange packing plant, one could often hear the whistle and low rumble of a freight train passing by late at
night, transporting boxcars of fruit to destinations far and wide.

That romantic sound has been replaced by the air horns of commuter trains, but at one time the railroads were the lifeline of the farmers and ranchers selling their products to the world at large.

The coming of the railroad to Orange County wasn’t an easy task, however.  It was a classic 19th century power struggle
between a seemingly omnipotent railroad company and a stubborn ranch family.

The Southern Pacific Railroad was the first line to enter the farm fields and towns that would become Orange County.  It
arrived at Anaheim in 1874, linking the area to Los Angeles, San Francisco and the recently completed transcontinental railroad, allowing farmers to sell their oranges, walnuts and other produce to markets around the country.

Collis P. Huntington, founder of the Southern Pacific, had great hopes of extending the line to San Diego along a coastal route
through part of the 110,000 acre Irvine Ranch.  However, James Irvine, Sr., owner of the ranch that stretched from the Santa
Ana Mountains to the ocean, refused to allow the tracks on his land.
According to legend, Irvine’s feud with the Southern Pacific began in 1849 when he met Huntington on a Gold Rush steamship
from the East Coast.  Both were young men looking to make their way in the world.
The two apparently took an instant dislike to each other after a disputed poker game. Irvine felt Huntington had cheated in
winning a small sum, and remembered it the rest of his life.  Incredibly, the two would meet only once again, as middle age men –
one a successful cattle rancher, the other heading a powerful railroad company.
When Irvine refused to negotiate whatsoever with Southern Pacific, Huntington sued in federal court saying part of the ranch’s
boundaries were still under federal domain.
Although a court ruling in 1856 had upheld the boundaries, the Southern Pacific convinced the federal government to reopen
the case in 1876.  A ruling in his favor would give Huntington large chunks of coastal land on each side of the tracks for
Despite Huntington’s influence in Washington, the case was decided in favor of the Irvines in 1878 and the ranch remained
intact.  It was one of the few times when the political power of a railroad company did not win the day in the 1800’s.
A little more than a decade later, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe arrived in Santa Ana from Riverside and was threatening
to take much of Southern Pacific’s business from its Orange County line.
Southern Pacific Railroad in Anaheim c. 1960

Before the Santa Fe’s arrival, the Southern Pacific was reportedly taking advantage of its railroad monopoly and price gouging its customers in Orange County.

Many county residents protested the high rates, calling the railroad monopoly “the Octopus” with its “cold, steely tentacles.”


A war ensued that brought hordes of
visitors and prospective home buyers
to the county. Southern Pacific saw
the to secure the line to San Diego
as the county’s population boomed.
The Irvine family continued to refuse to negotiate with the company.  Using a bullying tactic common to railroad companies of
the era, Southern Pacific planned to simply lay tracks on the Irvine land without the ranch family’s permission.
The rail workers started from the line’s end in Tustin to the edge of the Irvine property one weekend in 1888.  They planned to
lay as much track as possible across Irvine property while the courts were closed.
Huntington and the Southern Pacific, however, underestimated the moxie of the Irvine ranch hands.
At the edge of the ranch, the track gang was met by angry, gun toting ranch workers who threatened to open fire if any track
crossed Irvine property.  They never had to use their guns – the track layers quickly abandoned their chore.
On the following Monday, the Irvines obtained a court order blocking any encroachment on their ranch.  The tracks which lead
to nowhere remained in place until 1910.
As a result of the confrontation, the Irvines quickly struck a deal with the Santa Fe.  For $4,500 and the right to build roads over
the railroad at the Irvine’s discretion, Santa Fe got its right of way to construct a line to San Diego.
The line was completed in 1889 and still carries Amtrak commuter trains through Orange County to this day.
The Southern Pacific never did get its railroad through Irvine land.  It finally reached San Diego by a winding route through
Colton, Beaumont and Yuma, Arizona, finally crossing into the city via El Centro – and that didn’t happen until the 1930’s.