Southern Pacific's Coast Line Pictorial

by Anthony W. Thompson and John R. Signor

Full Text of Some Reviews:

Review from Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, June, 2000

"For more than a century, the Southern Pacific's Coast Line between San Francisco and Los Angeles was one of the most interesting and scenically spectacular railroad main lines in North America. Once the home of the legendary Daylight and Lark streamliners and of mile-long freight trains behind unique cab-forward articulated steam locomotives, the Coast Line conveyed a steady stream of rail traffic through the coastal mountains and fertile valleys of coastal California and, for many miles, skirted the very edge of the Pacific Ocean.

"Few rail lines in North America have been as well documented as the Coast Line, most notably in John Signor's The Southern Pacific's Coast Line, published by Signature Press in 1995. With such a comprehensive and detailed account already in print, one might think that another book about the Coast Line would be superfluous. That is not the case, however. Lavishly illustrated though Signor's first book was, many fine and historically interesting photos failed to make the cut. Then, as often happens, the book's publication brought many additional photos out of the woodwork, and still more were discovered in the course of continuing research by author Signor, publisher Tony Thompson, and other historians of the Southern Pacific. This embarrassment of photographic riches begged to be published, and Thompson and Signor's follow-on pictorial volume on the Coast Line is the result.

" Southern Pacific's Coast Line Pictorial contains only a few pages of text. As its title indicates, it is devoted almost entirely to pictures and captions; there are almost 600 photos, 140 of them in color. And what splendid photographs they are, spanning the entire period from the late nineteenth century to the 1990s (though dating mainly from the late steam and early diesel eras) and illustrating almost every part of the line. Many of these photos come from the Southern Pacific's own archives. Celebrated western railroad photographers are abundantly represented as well: Ted Benson, Gerald Best, Donald Duke, Stan Kistler, Fred Mathews, Otto Perry, Frank Peterson, John Shaw, Richard Steinheimer, Wil Whittaker, and others. Many lesser known photographers also make important contributions, some of them railroad employees whose SP connections made possible photos that outsiders wouldn't have been able to take.

"Occasionally the photos in the book are of only "snapshot" quality; when documenting the increasingly distant past, you sometimes have to take what you can get. But all are historically significant, many are superb images, and all are very well reproduced. In every other respect, too, this is a first quality book that's a pleasure to own.

"While the entire Coast Line is covered, some locations such as Cuesta Grade, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara are illustrated in the kind of depth and detail that modelers, especially, yearn for but seldom get: aerial views, night shots, scenic panoramas, structure photos, and close-ups of railroad men at work, as well as many shots of locomotives and trains. Informative maps, drawings, timetables, and personal anecdotes are also included.

" Some readers for whom the Coast Line is just another railroad may regard Southern Pacific's Coast Line Pictorial as overkill, and those whose interests lie mostly in the modern era will find little that raises their pulse rate. However, even rail buffs with only a casual interest in the subject can find much here that is absorbing and informative, and for someone who is especially interested in the history of the Southern Pacific in general and the Coast Line in particular, the book is a treasure trove. As for modelers who wish to replicate any part of the Coast Line in miniature, Southern Pacific's Coast Line Pictorial is an absolute must. Other railroad publications seldom even come close to providing such thorough and extensive photo coverage of a single rail line, the territory it served, and the trains that ran there."

-- Richard Hendrickson


Review from Model Railroad News, March 2000

"Signature Press has released a follow-up book to John Signor's earlier work, Southern Pacifics Coast Line, also published by Signature Press. This new title picks up where the earlier work left off, in adding almost 600 quality pictures to the story of the SP's mainline from San Francisco to Los Angeles--the Coast Line Route--famed for its Daylights and scenery.

"The earlier book (still available at press time from Signature Press for $65.00) covered the history and building of the railroad, both sequentially in time and in direction. This new book is a wonderful addition to the history of the line, in that it fleshes out the visual coverage, and adds small pieces of history unable to be fit into the previous book. As with all of John Signor's other works, it is a very well done piece of railroad history; and Thompson's historical touch adds measurably to it as well.

"The book is in Quarto format, and like all the Signature books I have seen, it is extremely well printed and bound. The photo reproduction is very nice, and the many color shots really are a highlight of the book. The Coast Line was known for its California scenery, and the color shots bring the area alive. The many color scenes are enhanced by a full color route map on the front and rear inside end papers, done in the inimitable style Signor has come to typify--a 3/4 aerial viewpoint that makes a map look its very best.

"There are more smaller maps inside the book, and I will freely admit to being a sucker for any book that features maps drawn by Signor. Not that the maps are the only valuable items in the book--each chapter's brief introductory text is clear and informative as well. Interspersed through the book are personal anecdotes from people who have worked the line, mainly humorous incidents that serve to remind us that for all its technology, railroading is still very much a human endeavor.

"Naturally, since the book is a pictorial supplement to an existing book, it follows that the photos are the prime focus of the work. The many pictures are of nearly everything associated with the railroad: motive power, trains, stations, yards and facilities along the line, and operations. The photos range from old shots taken when the line was built in the late 19th century, right up to 1990s operations. Scenes of locomotives and facilities are the mainstay, but passenger and freight operations run a close second.

"As with the previous work, the coverage begins at the north end in San Francisco, and works its way to the south end at Los Angeles. Sections of the mainline are broken down into chapters, and the scenes within each chapter show these areas.

"Photo reproduction is generally good overall, but there are the occasional poor pictures, and these fall into two classes--historical shots where they are the sole example to be found, or early color shots where the color emulsion has begun to fade from age. Either way, most of the serious students of railroad history know that anyphoto is better than nophoto, especially when it is an interesting scene or piece of equipment. The rest of the pictures are very well printed, and many show details a modeler would need were they to model the line--even in the background ,there are things not to be missed.

"One of the best aspects of this new book is the many pictures reproduced from the camera of Richard Steinheimer--easily the living dean of western railroad photographers. There are 85 such photos in the book, almost 15% of the total, and these really show the line from an artistic angle. A Steinheimer photo is not easily overlooked, and the experienced eye can pick them out on any page they appear on.

"As to the book itself, one section I especially liked is Cuesta; which covers that noted grade challenge. With a 2.2% climb in both directions, this has always been mountain railroading, and the many photos here show it amply. Cab Forwards, F-units, helper 2-10-2s, and Daylight GS classes are here in all their glory; but there are also scenes of defeat, various wrecks or derailments. One particularly interesting series shows one of the SP's articulated Kitchen-Diner sets, where a truck has been pulled out from the articulation point, leaving the end of the car on the ground--meanwhile the white coated diner attendants are still apparently at work in the car!

"Another area one could not bypass in such a work as this is the instantly recognizable rocks in the region of Santa Susana Pass. Anyone who has ever seen the SP's promotional shots has probably seen this area, and for those of us who grew up watching TV westerns or reruns of "The Lone Ranger," this area is instantly recognized as the West.

"No matter where one is along the line, the Pacific Ocean is never far away, and that body of water shows up often in the book. There is almost something of a perfect bond between SP Daylight orange and scarlet painted trains against a backdrop of the blue ocean, with a hint of the golden California grasses on the hills nearby. Railroads and trains just tend to look better here I suppose, that's all.

"Between this book and its predecessor, the two books together form a detailed overview of just one section of the Southern Pacific's far flung empire; as well as one of its most scenic segments. The two books mesh perfectly, and I cannot foresee someone buying one and not the other--especially an SP fan. I was not disappointed in the new title, and I have found myself coming back to it occasionally after I had finished reading it for this review. I know it will find a welcome place on my already overloaded bookshelves, as it likely will on any SP fan's as well. The teaming of Signature Press' Thompson and John Signor is one that I hope does not end anytime soon. "

-- Jeff Saxton


Review from The Lexington Quarterly, June, 2001, p. 3.

"Southern Pacific sprawled across the West from Portland to New Orleans--with Cotton Belt a 13,000-mile crescent-shaped system that featured operational or maintenance challenges from the Louisiana bayous to Donner Pass in the high Sierra. The Coast Division, with the exception of Cuesta, presented fewer problems and stretched from San Francisco through San Jose and San Luis Obispo along the Pacific Coast to Santa Barbara plus assorted branches. Scenery on [the] Coast Division, the focus..., could only be described as spectacular.

"John Signor has assigned himself the task of doing "posthole" studies of line segments that made up Southern Pacific's Pacific Lines; he already has a number of them to his credit. Signor joins Anthony W. Thompson in rendering Southern Pacific's Coast Line Pictorial which might be seen as supplement to Signor's earlier Southern Pacific Coast Line. Photographic coverage in Pictorial is predominantly from the period 1940-1965; views are grouped geographically and not chronologically. Some photographs are utterly breathtaking, especially those by Richard Steinheimer, but the quality of reproduction is spotty.

"Southern Pacific devotees will want [this book]."

-- Don Hofsommer