Burning Coal On The San Pedro

This page was last added on September 9, 2021.

(Return to Union Pacific Steam Locomotives)

(First published to the UtahRails.net blog on on April 24, 2011)

Union Pacific's line between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles operated for most of its history as a subsidiary known as the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. That was the company's name from 1916 until it was formally merged with Union Pacific in December 1987. A name change in August 1916 did away with the original name of San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. By 1916, the district in Los Angeles known as San Pedro, near today's Long Beach, had been annexed into the City of Los Angeles, and the separate name became redundant. Railroaders, being a conservative lot, seeming to avoid change at almost all cost, continued to refer to the Salt Lake Route as the "San Pedro", and at times just the "Pedro", a name that is still occasionally heard today among the operating crews. (Read about San Pedro on Wikipedia)

Many non-railroad observers, when they see the "SP" part of the SPLA&SL abbreviation for San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake, are often confused, thinking that it denotes Southern Pacific, a much better known western railroad. Southern Pacific was a fierce competitor to Union Pacific for a large part of the Twentieth Century. The similarity of SP for San Pedro, and SP for Southern Pacific may have resulted in some confusion among investors and customers. So the name was changed, dropping the SP part of the Union Pacific-affiliated company.

The first oil well in Los Angeles County started producing in 1892, and within a few short years, oil was the local fuel of choice. In the 1920s, the Wilmington Field was opened, and remains today the third largest source for oil in the United States. Many of the oil wells were on railroad-owned land, making it the fuel of choice for southern California railroads, instead of burning coal, which was by far the fuel of choice for most of the nation's railroads. The LA&SL burned oil in its steam locomotives, and oil refueling stations were provided at every locomotive fueling station between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. (Read about the Wilmington Oil Field on Wikipedia)

A recent question via email asked about photographs of San Pedro steam locomotives that obviously show that at least a few burned coal rather than oil. A bit of research found that the coal burning locomotives were assigned to SPLA&SL's lines in Utah, north of the large division point at Milford, Utah. This was a holdover from the fact that LA&SL did not build any mainline tracks in Utah.

The Utah lines of Los Angeles & Salt Lake, as well as its predecessor San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake, were built by a different Union Pacific subsidiary, Oregon Short Line Railroad, usually known simply as O.S.L., or the "Short Line." The OSL itself has a varied and rich history, but for this part of the story, the railroad is best known as owner of Union Pacific's predecessor rail lines in Utah. These railroads were built by the Mormon roads, railroad companies organized and initially constructed by interests of the LDS church, and almost immediately sold to Union Pacific-controlled companies. In 1889, Union Pacific consolidated all of its lines in Utah and Idaho under the single name of Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern Railway.

With Union Pacific's bankruptcy in 1893, and its subsequent release from receivership in 1898, it lost control of its subsidiaries, including OSL&UN, which itself was reorganized as the Oregon Short Line Railroad. Like its earlier parts, the new OSL was a coal-burning railroad, including its parts south from Salt Lake City, down to the end-of-the-line at Milford. At various times, Union Pacific sought to extend itself south and west from Milford, but as its financial fortunes waxed and waned, so too did its dreams to reach California. By 1898, California was just starting to become the economic powerhouse that it was throughout the Twentieth Century. Union Pacific wasn't the only railroad that wanted to reach the region.

One of Utah's top industrialists at that time was David Eccles. Working with other Utah investors, in 1898 Eccles organized the Utah & Pacific Railroad to build south from Milford, using the most modern and up-to-date materials and construction engineering, building on the abandoned grades started by earlier railroad companies that had tried to reach the mines of southern Nevada. Research today shows a definite connection and association between Eccles and OSL's W. H. Bancroft, both in Utah, and Union Pacific's E. H. Harriman on the national level.

Down in Los Angeles, a local road known as the Los Angeles Terminal Railroad, controlled by W. A. Clark, was growing rapidly, first south from Los Angeles to San Pedro harbor, then eastward across the Los Angeles Basin. In 1900 the Clark interests announced that they would build to Salt Lake City. This of course got Harriman's attention, and the race was on. The story of how Utah & Pacific became UP's projected line to California, as well as the battle between Clark and Harriman for rights through southern Nevada is one of the most interesting stories of western railroads, but is far too complex and lengthy to be covered here. In 1903 a compromise was reached that resulted in Harriman selling his OSL lines south of Salt Lake City to Clark's San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. In return, Harriman took half ownership of Clark's San Pedro line.

Coal vs. Oil

As for oil-burning locomotives versus coal-burning locomotives on the San Pedro, the simple explanation is that coal was burned on the former OSL lines in Utah, and the practice was continued when San Pedro took over in 1903. According to a story in the Deseret News newspaper in late March 1905, when the San Pedro was first completed, Las Vegas was designated as the division point of for coal as a fuel and oil as a fuel; coal-burning locomotives to the east and oil-burning locomotives to the west.

In later years the division was moved eastward to Caliente, with coal facilities being located at Milford, Modena (in 1905), and Caliente (in 1905), and as far south as Carp for coal-burning helpers. There is a photo showing a coal dock at Caliente, but it was likely destroyed during the floods of 1910. The ICC valuation records, dated 1914, show that the change from coal burning locomotives, to oil burning locomotives took place at Milford.

By about 1918, to make train operations and locomotive assignments easier, all of San Pedro's locomotives were converted to burn oil, and the locomotive fueling facilities in Utah were converted to furnish oil. Although seldom used after that, the limited coal facilities at Caliente and points north, remained in place until the entire LA&SL was fully dieselized in 1948. I have added this small bit of new research to the SPLA&SL Steam Notes page, as well as to the notes for the locomotives that were coal burners in their early years.

More Information

Coal Burning Note for SPLA&SL steam locomotives

San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad

Union Pacific Steam Locomotives