Southern Pacific Railroad in San Antonio
and South Central Texas - Part 1
Sunset Station in San Antonio
The museum is indebted to the Institute of Texan Cultures, the San Antonio Conservation Society, The Daughters of the Texas Republic, and the public libraries in San Antonio, Marion and Seguin for their generous assistance with this project. Each of these organizations maintain phenomenal archives and perform sterling service towards honoring the history of San Antonio and South Texas.
The museum is furthermore indebted to the generous cooperation of Ford, Powell & Carson, the architectural firm engaged to renovate the depot, and who ensured that this major landmark will continue into its second century in wonderful condition. Jeff Fetzer, who was involved in the project from the beginning, went out of his way to provide resources, perspective and insightful assistance, probably with the same spirit of enthusiasm, thoroughness and enjoyment he and the company brought to the whole endeavor.
In addition, we can hardly begin to express our thanks to the current custodians of the depot, The Sunset Station Group, LLC. This company has took on the responsibility of renovating the depot and poured untold millions of dollars into the project. They were extraordinarily respectful of the depot's history and are finding creative ways to expand on its heritage and not only keep the complex in its currently fully restored condition but to continue its use as a place for the whole city to use and be proud of. We are particularly obligated to Bruce Spencer, the indefatigable facilities manager, who brings an energy to his work that will ensure that the depot will be in public use for many years to come.
Early Days - The Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio
Very early Southern Pacific "Sunset Route" advert
Original souvenir cloth given to passengers on the first train out of San Antonio in 1877, a tourist special to Marion and back. The text reads as follows: "CELEBRATION, FEB 19, 1877. Sunset Route G.H. & S.A.R. WELCOME to the Governor & Staff, The Lt. Gov. & Officers of the "Lone Star" State: To the Judiciary, To The Queen City of the Gulf, The Commercial Portal of Texas, To the Bayou City: The Pioneer of Texas Railways: To the City of Hills: The Capital of our Great State: To all her Sister Cities and Towns and TO ALL HER GUESTS "THE CITY OF THE ALAMO" EXTENDS A HEARTY WELCOME!
Very early Southern Pacific "Sunset Route" advert
G.H. & S.A. immigrant guide book
G.H. & S.A. advert
VeG.H. & S.A. advert in the 1885 San Antonio city directory
Ad for GH & SA while still 30 miles outside S.A.
Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio tourist guide
Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio (G.H. & S.A.) pass
For a long time it was thought this somewhat fuzzy image was the only one of the original San Antonio GH&SA depot built in 1877. It comes from a 1934 San Antonio Express article, ironically bemoaning the fact that there was nothing left at the site to mark its presence, which was coincided with a time of huge growth for the city.
1903 image of original Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio depot in San Antonio. Courtesy of the Witte Museum, this rare image took years to find
On February 16, 1877, rail service began in San Antonio. The celebrations that occurred in the city were magnificent. City leaders knew the future of the city depended on the railroad. The decline in San Antonio's population had been precipitous. Most developments were happening in the coastal cities and San Antonio's fortunate position as a crossroads on routes to the north, south, east and west would fade if the railroad could not amplify its significance. Over 8,000 people turned out to welcome the arrival of the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad, including the governor, Richard B. Hubbard and Lt. Governor, Wells Thompson, along with the mayors of San Antonio, Austin, which had received rail service in 1871, and Galveston. The marching band of the 10th US Infantry, plus the US Cavalry and the Alamo Rifles also took part. It was noted during a speech that San Antonio was perhaps the largest city on the continent that had remained for so long without rail connections. The future of the city would now be infinitely brighter and secure.
Some late 1880's San Antonio maps, 1893 & 1941 GH&SA timetables
1885 Sanborn Insurance maps (large & detail). showing location of the original G.H. & S.A. depot. Its replacement, Sunset Station, is eleven blocks south, at Commerce Street.
Sanborn map detail of the depot. You can see the layout of the depot itself, and the types of businesses on the other side of the road. Note the railroad tracks are "behind" the depot, and the street is in front. You cannot tell from the map but the depot was about ten feet at least above road level on a built up embankment that carried the several rail tracks.
A more stylized map and a detail, showing the original Southern Pacific depot in San Antonio. Widened tracks occupy the space once used by the depot. In addition, today, most of the buildings on the other side of the street are gone and a huge embankment exists, going up to a raised section of HWY 281. The turn off to IH 35 follows the curve of the tracks.
1893 Southern Pacific Sunset Route timetable.
1941 Southern Pacific Sunset Route timetable.
Within a few weeks of service beginning, San Antonio's first depot was completed. It was a two story structure and was located on Austin Street, between Sherman and Milam Street. Almost immediately this part of town became very busy as all kinds of service businesses flocked to take care of the needs of travellers. Restaurants, grocers, barbers, bars, pharmacies, hotels, laundries can all be seen on the 1885 Sanborn Insurance map. The area became known as the "Levee," because of the tall embankment that was created to support the tracks. Located some distance from the main downtown area, the depot was soon served by street cars. The tracks of the street cars are still there along Jones Street, although Grand Avenue, which became Sherman at the tracks, and along which these tracks were laid, has long since lost its grandeur and is just plain old Jones Street now. All this was long before Avenue C was widened and renamed Broadway, but Milam Park is still there. The depot was a focal point for a huge amount of activity. Two US presidents alit from trains there, as did C.P. Huntington, the president of Southern Pacific.
The site of the old depot today
Aerial view of the first Southern Pacific depot's location, some eleven blocks away from the "new" depot.
Site of the original Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio depot as seen from HWY 281. Notice the sharp curve of the tracks. There remains only one building from the area's "Levee" hey-day, and it is boarded up. The maintenance shops are privately owned.
Looking along the tracks towards the disused Hays Street bridge, which is the subject of frequent renovation attempts. The dark line across the road under the white vehicle is the new tarmac where the only recently removed tracks along Jones Street were. These tracks were part of the "Texas Transportation Company," which served Pearl Brewery, itself closed, for over a century. The barriers to the tracks are somewhat of a mystery.
Looking up the tracks along Austin Street towards where Sherman crosses the tracks. The 'X' marks where the first San Antonio Southern Pacific depot was. All the buildings once opposite the depot are gone, too, save one, which is no longer in use. The embankment is for the IH35 ramp from HWY 281.
Looking along Jones Street from where Sherman crosses the tracks. The section of the street to Broadway used to be called Grand Avenue. The old street car tracks are still in place, leading to the site of the old depot.
By 1900, and for the next 30 years, San Antonio was the largest city in Texas. Galveston lost the number one position after a great storm inundated the entire island and caused immense loss of life and property destruction. Houston was yet to be developed and Dallas would not be a major city for several decades. More railroads were now serving San Antonio. The International & Great Northern came just a few years after the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio, providing service to the north, as did the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. Although both the I & GN and the MKT were briefly under the common control of Jay Gould's Missouri Pacific, the M-K-T used the G.H. & S.A. station(s) until 1917, when they opened one of their own. In addition, a local railroad, the San Antonio and Aransas Pass was started and within a few years had reached Corpus Christi, allowing access to another deep water port. Business of all kinds was booming. Agricultural production was stimulated, older, smaller towns, and new ones too, were growing wherever the railroads built a depot. The population of San Antonio doubled from 1870 to 1880 to 31,000 people. The number of farms in the area quadrupled. Wool production alone climbed from 700,000 lbs. in 1870 to 7,000,000 labs by 1884. Factor in livestock, fruits and vegetables, plus other local production and you have an explosive growth in the economy, mainly created and supported by the railroads.
Very early Sunset Station postcard.
The Southern Pacific depot, Sunset Station It has been lovingly restored and operates as an entertainment complex.
Sunset Station in 1907.
Sunset Station on fire, 1907.
Old postcard view of Sunset Station.
Rear view of Sunset Station around 1930
Not wanting to lose their pre-eminent position, the G.H. & S.A. decided to build a newer, grander station. A site was chosen eleven blocks to the south at Commerce Street. Not only was the building larger and infinitely grander, it was also much nearer down town. Most of the businesses that had grown up with and supported the old depot were offered preferential treatment to relocate near Sunset Station and most did. Before long, the old depot was demolished, and the whole area sank back to being just another quiet neighborhood. More tracks at this still sharp bend in the rails were added and the levee strengthened, obliterating any traces of the old depot. In the late 1950's, HWY 281 was built and now on the other side of Austin Street from the rail road tracks is another, even higher, embankment, for the freeway.
Sunset Station, San Antonio - postcard
Sunset Station, San Antonio postcard view, 1910.
Sunset Station, San Antonio postcard view, 1914.
Sunset Station, San Antonio postcard view, 1930.
Sunset Station, San Antonio postcard view.
But what a magnificent station had taken its place. From its very first days in 1903, it was simply stunning. It was given the name of the route it served, the Sunset Station. Long before the route through San Antonio reached from Los Angeles to New Orleans, the line was known as the Sunset Route. It was based on a derogatory description of the old BBB&C's Service. It was said that if a person got on board the train in Houston at sunrise, you'd be lucky to get to Columbus on the Colorado rive by sun set. And the SP's logo was most likely based on a doodle by a bored office boy! The very first train to arrive in San Antonio years later in 1877 was already called the Sunset Limited, and the name grew with the route, extending all the way to California. Sunset Station was, and is still is, a masterpiece. Little expense was spared. The fore-runners to today's San Antonio Chamber Of Commerce, then known as the Business Club, supported the new station wholeheartedly. If this was going to be the first major building that many people saw in San Antonio, they would be sure to get a magnificent impression.
Very old wide angle shot of Sunset Station, San Antonio
Sunset Station, San Antonio postcard view.
Taxis await Sunset Station, San Antonio passengers.
Early photograph of Sunset Station, San Antonio
Old postcard view of Sunset Station, San Antonio
Interestingly, the station was designed by Southern Pacific personnel, not a "hired gun," as was the case with the I & GN / Missouri Pacific and the M-K-T depots. John D. Isaacs, an architect whose official title was Assistant Engineer of Maintenance-of Way for the Southern Pacific Company in San Francisco, California, can take the lion's share of the credit, along with his assistants D.J. Patterson and W.E. Milwain. Isaacs described the building as, "Worthy of note as being the best recent adaptation of the Mission style of architecture to modern requirements." He further stated that the Alamo had been his key point of reference. The station opened to the public on January 31, 1903, following an elongated period of construction that began in November 1901. Difficulties in acquiring all the needed materials for construction hampered progress. The total cost was $115,000.00, which is equivalent to $2,300,000.00 in today's (2002) money.
Early picture of Sunset Station.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, postcard.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, postcard.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, postcard.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, advert.
The two story main building contained the general waiting room, a smoking room or men's waiting room, a white women's waiting room, presumably non-smoking, and a colored people's waiting room at the rear with a separate entrance. The colored rest room facilities were enlarged in 1942. Also on the ground floor were trainmaster, ticket and telegraph offices, a parcel window and a newsstand. The main waiting area measures 40 X 80 feet. On the upper floors were offices for the Superintendant, dispatchers, clerks, the resident engineer, draftsmen and conductors. The upper floor could be accessed by the main grand staircase or an ancillary staircase tucked away in one corner. A walkway went around three sides of the upper floor with an ornate railing. The building is made of brick on a concrete foundation, mainly stuccoed except for exposed brick arches and jambs. The roof tiles are of red clay. When it was opened, the building was painted a soft yellow, or ochre, but this was changed to a soft pink somewhere around 1950.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, restoration blueprint - Front.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, restoration blueprint - West.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, restoration blueprint - South.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, restoration blueprint - East.
One of the most notable features of the very ornate and colorful interior are the hundreds upon hundreds of original and restored incandescent lighting fixtures. What a stunning impression they must have made back in 1903, when most people did not have electricity. Both the front window which has the magnificent Sunset medallion and the rear window which has the Seal of the State of Texas are surrounded by these lights. In addition to electricity, there was also gas lighting. Some people have speculated it was the early electrical wiring that led to an almost catastrophic fire in 1907. The roof was destroyed and its steel trusses collapsed into the main waiting area. Damage was estimated at $25,000. The robustness of the original structure was proven, and the structure needed little in the way of repairs. The palm trees that decorated the interior and the exterior flower beds were not so lucky, of course. Repairs took longer than expected, due once again, to the shortage of appropriate materials. Other spaces such as the dining room were pressed into alternative service until the repairs were complete.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, 1902 blue print frontage detail.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, 1902 blue print image - ground floor.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, 1902 blue print image - upper floor.
Sunset Station, San Antonio. 1942 Blue print showing enlargement of colored rest rooms. Note the white men's waiting room has been greatly reduced to accommodate a telephone room. In other early drawings the larger space is also named a smoking room.
The main building, also known as the head house, had a one story extension that contained the dining room, service room, baggage rooms, plus offices for Wells Fargo, the post office and the Pullman Company. Wells Fargo relocated to an additional building some 70 X 100 feet, built at the south end on the extension in 1909. This building, intended for heavy express freight, was doubled in size sometime between 1931 and 1938. Other than that, alterations and additions to the building have been minimal. A projecting shade canopy was added along the entire extension on the non-track side around 1922. Air conditioning and additional offices were installed around the time AMTRAK took over the building in 1970, as A/C had never been an original feature of the depot. Pictures show a variety of landscaping around the front of the building but there always was a driveway right up to the front door for taxis and other vehicles.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, 1902 Rose Window exterior & interior construction details.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, 1902 Ticket window detail.
Sunset Station, San Antonio. Electrical diagram showing location of ceiling lighting. The depot was known as "The building with a Thousand Lights." All of these lights are original to the building and must have seemed spectacular in 1902.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, 1902 light fitting drawings.
The Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad, the first railroad to arrive in San Antonio, has a wonderful pedigree and history all of its own. It is also prudent to mention even here its association with the Southern Pacific is almost as old as the company itself. The G.H. & S.A. began, logically enough, in Galveston, which was then the largest city in Texas and which was keen to see its port facilities grow. Connecting to the rest of the world via rail was the only expedient way to go in the 1850's and any number of railroad companies were formed, many of which were very successful. You would have difficulty finding Harrisburg on a modern map today, but the Harris name lives on as the name of the county, while the city itself was absorbed by Houston and is now just one of it's many districts. In 1870, the G.H. & S.A. arose like a phoenix from the post civil war ashes of the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway Company which was chartered in 1850 and was the first railroad to operate in Texas. The BBBC was founded by General Sidney Sherman, who is credited with coining the phrase, "Remember the Alamo!" at the battle of San Jacinto. The first locomotive owned by the BBBC was named, "The General Sherman." If you cannot find the Buffalo Bayou on a modern map, look instead for the Houston Ship Canal, which is what it was developed into. In 1870, Thomas W. Pierce gained control and the company was renamed. While other railroads were setting off for Louisiana, Dallas and Austin, the G.H. & S.A. set its sights on San Antonio.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, 1902 blue print - exterior building.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, restoration blue print - North warehouse.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, Restoration blue print - South warehouse.
New construction from Columbus, 125 miles east of San Antonio, which the railroad had already reached via its own construction and the acquisition of other railroads, began in 1873, under the leadership of Major James Converse, after whom one of the towns that would spring up along the way would be named when he acquired land there for himself. Stops along the route from Houston were Pierce Junction, after 8 miles, Stafford, another 20 miles, Walker, 5 miles on, then Richmond, 6 miles, Random, 10 miles, East Bernard, 10 miles, New Philadelphia, 16 miles, Eagle Lake, 8 miles, Alleyton, 12 miles, to Columbus, another 4 miles. Progress continued to Borden, 10 miles, Weimar, 6 miles, Schulenburg, 9 miles, which was reached by the summer of 1874. Then onto Flatonia, 12 more miles, Waelder, 13 miles, Harwood, 13 miles, Luling, 9 miles, and Kinsbury, another 12 miles, which was reached by the summer of 1875. Then onto Seguin, 9 more miles, Marion, 7 miles, by the spring of 1876. Then onto Converse, whose second depot is now located at the museum, another 18 miles, then Upson, another 8 miles and finally, on February 5, 1877, San Antonio, another 5 miles on.
Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio train crossing the Guadalupe River in February, 1877.
G.H. & S.A. train at Guadalupe river. You can just make out the letters on the caboose.
G.H. & S.A. switcher, # 1197.
Very early Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio locomotive.
By now Pierce was in sole charge of the G.H. & S.A. The line to San Antonio was already called the Sunset route, although it was often also called the Pierce Line as well. With foresight, he had acquired the rights to continue building west, all the way to El Paso. This was done in collaboration with Collis P. Huntington, of the Southern Pacific, who had been showing interest in the line for several years. The Southern Pacific's goal was very simple. They wanted to build a second transcontinental line to New Orleans, Louisiana, the nearest Atlantic port to the fledgling State of California. It is worthwhile to note that when California became a state, it had no other states around it, only territories, and the Panama Canal was yet a dream. Establishing a more direct route solely under their control would be of enormous benefit to both the S.P. and the whole state of California, and work towards the east through what is now Arizona and New Mexico had already begun by 1880, when the G.H. & S.A. began to survey a route to El Paso. Although work had hardly begun west of San Antonio on what was being called the Sunset Extension, the S.P., building eastward from California, had already reached El Paso by May of 1881. Lacking permission to continue working towards San Antonio, the same crews continued on across Texas, with the simple expedient that they were now employees of the G.H. & S.A. In case you had forgotten just how big Texas is, the crews working from both directions did not meet up until January, 1883, at a point just west of the Pecos river, some 225 miles west of San Antonio. Pierce drove home a ceremonial spike on January 12, 1883. The route would be shortened and the original Pecos bridge replaced, creating the highest rail bridge in the USA. Sections of the old route, that involved descending much further to cross the river, are well marked within a state park near the river.
Southern Pacific agricultural demonstration train.
Cotton being loaded onto a Southern Pacific freight train in Hondo, TX.
Southern Pacific "Sunset Limited" advert.
Southern Pacific "Sunset Limited" advert, 1912
The S.P. had officially acquired an interest in the G.H. & S.A. in July of 1881. As well as building towards El Paso, the G.H. & S.A. was building a variety of branch lines, to La Grange, and Eagle Pass, plus others. Some of the terrain to be traversed was very difficult for railroading but such was the spirit of the times and what, anyway, was the alternative? The G.H. & S.A. was officially leased to the Southern Pacific by mid-1889, although it continued to be independently controlled, As well as continuing to build its own lines, it also acquired and merged with five other local carriers, such as the San Antonio and Gulf. Although it too had been effectively part of the S.P. for decades, the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad was not officially merged into the G.H. & S.A. until January 1, 1925. On March 1, 1927, the G.H. & S.A. was leased to the Texas & New Orleans Railroad Company, which had become the S.P.'s main railroad division in Texas. At that point the G.H. & S.A. actually controlled 1,345 miles or 40% of the S.P.'s holdings in Texas in comparison to the T. & N.O.'s 20%, but the latter, operating out of Houston, was seen by the S.P. as its central point of control for the state. In all the S.P. took over some one hundred railroad companies in Texas, and its web spread out across the entire state. As its California business grew and the Panama canal made sea access to California much faster, relations with the eastern part of the empire were not always easy, but the system was very robust and had an enormous economic impact wherever it went.
Ceremonial completion of the Southern pacific transcontinental route, near Pecos, Texas. The private car on the left belongs to C.P. Huntington
C.P. Huntington at the Pecos river. He and his wife are the two on the left of the car. The occaision is the ceremony for the completion of the Southern Pacific's "Sunset Route" from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans
The second railroad bridge across the Pecos river. The original was much lower. The new bridge allowed much faster, and easier, passage.
The third railroad bridge across the Pecos, built to accommodate heavier trains in anticipation of World War Two, is still in use. It is the highest railroad bridge in North America
As stated, the Southern Pacific empire took over some one hundred independent railroad companies in its desire to reach New Orleans. Texas law mandated that railroads operating in Texas must be owned and controlled from within Texas. Before 1927, most of the former independents had been consolidated into three main companies, which were the Texas & New Orleans, which would be chosen as the predominant company and headquarters for S.P. operations within the state, the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio, which had built most of the lines between Houston and El Paso, the Houston and Texas Central, which has reached Dallas in July of 1872. Each of these three were composites of any number of smaller companies by 1927. The T & N.O. leased the G.H. & S.A. and the H. & T.C. in 1927 and everything was completely merged in 1934. By 1928 the system comprised of 3,966 miles. With the acquisition of more railroads, such as the Cotton Belt, formally known as the St. Louis Southwestern Railway Company, in 1932, the system's reach had assumed truly vast proportions.
Grade crossing at Sunset Station on East Commerce, San Antonio, circa 1940.
The 'Sunset Limited" leaving Houston.
Southern Pacific passenger train in San Antonio.
Southern Pacific locomotive 709 at Sunset Station
Passenger in fur wrap at Sunset Station, San Antonio?