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The Prosperity Special

Train of Thought

If your grandfather, father or possibly an uncle had been standing on the depot platform at the right time on the right day in early June of 1922, they would have been witness to the most unusual train to pass through our town. It was dubbed 'The Prosperity Special' by the president of the Baldwin Locomotive Works when it began its cross country trek over ninety years ago. This is the story of that most unusual train.

As the second decade dawned in the twentieth century, the world was in disarray. We were collectively still licking the wounds left from the 'War to End All Wars'. Many on our fair planet were having a rough time of it. Europe was slipping into a depression that would eventually allow an upstart named Adolph and his henchmen to gain power in post WWI Germany. The job market in the post war world was dismal and America was no exception. Government contracts were nonexistent, industries that produced munitions, uniforms and vehicles for the war machine were still trying to switch over to a peace time work force that would keep people employed. We were in a recession and Americans were also dealing with a new amendment to our constitution entitled 'Prohibition'. Watching what transpired in Europe and the rest of the world, industrialists and investors in our country approached new ideas and investment opportunities with trepidation and caution.

California and the West Coast was somewhat insulated from the financial maladies that were becoming a serious problem for the rest of the country. The citrus and agriculture industries in Central and Southern California offered many jobs as did the lumber industry in all three West Coast states. In the decades prior to the birth of the interstate highway system, everything moved in and out of California primarily by rail. Shipping these products out of California required the conquering of some serious mountains. Out of Los Angeles to the east was San Gorgonio Pass and Beaumont Hill, dropping down into the low desert to Yuma and the southern route east. Access to the fertile San Joaquin Valley and north to Sacramento meant a trip up the backside of the San Gabriel range and then over the Tehachapi Mountains into Bakersfield. From Sacramento east meant battling the Sierra Nevadas through Donner Pass. As more and more freight needed shipping, trains became longer, necessitating more power to haul heavier and longer trains over these mountain ranges. The Southern Pacific Co. was very aware of the recession that the country was experiencing and early in 1921, in a move that would hopefully send a message of optimism and faith in the economy to their passengers, customers, shippers and the rest of the country, placed an unprecedented (and expensive) order to the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Pennsylvania for 50 2-10-2 locomotives specifically designed for heavy mountain terrain.

The President of Baldwin, Samuel Vauclain, had a keen sense of what this type of publicity could do for the company and the morale of the country. As the completion date of the locomotive order came near, Vauclain contacted every newspaper and radio station on the proposed delivery route to publicize the event. On May 27, 1922, half of the order of locomotives (24 of them) headed west out of the Baldwin Locomotive Plant to East St. Louis, took the Cotton Belt Line across Texas and was switched to SP tracks in El Paso. Thousands of spectators lined the tracks to see an almost half mile long train made up entirely of new locomotives cross the country bound for California. A large sign was erected on the lead locomotive that read, 'The Prosperity Special.' The special arrived at Taylor Yard in Los Angeles in early June. Half of the locomotives would stay here and run heavy freights over Beaumont Hill and Tehachapi Pass. The rest of the locos went to Sacramento for duty over the Sierra Nevadas and in early June of 1922, this most unusual train stopped here to rest and take on water before the descent into Bakersfield and the trip up the valley to their new home in Sacramento.

In memory of Bruce Gripkey, who wrote the "Train of Thought" column several years ago, The Loop newspaper is reprinting some of his articles for those who haven't had the chance to enjoy his railroad-centered stories. This article was originally printed in our Feb. 28, 2015 issue.