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John Charles Frémont and his short railroad tale

Public domain.

John Charles Frémont.

Last week I was invited to do a program for the Kern Historical Society about a stretch of abandoned rail line that had operated for many years between Boron and Mojave.

While doing some research into the origins and operation of that old alignment I found some rabbit trails of information that had me take a long look at a man who had made some history in the Tehachapi region, and not to mention just about every other place in the western United States.

John Charles Frémont became known as "The Great Pathfinder." Frémont made a name for himself leading several expeditions into the west to explore the regions and survey them for further expansion. In July of 1838, he was appointed a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers and led four major expeditions into the west to survey and explore the regions.

In 1844, John the path maker came into the Mojave Desert from the Tehachapi mountains on the second of his several expeditions through the West. Crossing over the Tehachapis and Oak Creek pass I wonder if he knew that in the future he would play a small part in the railroad operations that would eventually tame the mountains with steel rails.

For many years Fremont was involved with just about every aspect of the United States of America, from politics to business dealings, and the spreading of his name across the west is a testimony to all the ventures he took part in. One of those such enterprises was a desire to be a part of a transcontinental railroad. With all his understanding of the topography of the western United States he felt he knew best how to achieve that crossing, but first he needed a railroad.

Fremont and associates formed the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company (A&P) in 1866. The company received a Congressional charter and land grants the same year. The Atlantic and Pacific consisted of two disconnected sections of railroad that the company hoped to parlay into a transcontinental route.

The southwest Branch of the Pacific Railroad of Missouri, authorized in 1852, was bought up by the group from the state and few months later reorganized it as the Southwest Pacific railroad company. When Fremont's group defaulted on its bonds in 1867, the state seized the line again and sold it to investors headed by Clinton B. Fisk who reorganized it as the South Pacific Railroad Company and ownership of the A&P, and the land grants it controlled, was transferred to his group.

The Atlantic and Pacific ended up becoming a very important part of our railroad history here in the American Southwest and Kern County, and would end up creating the partnership of the Southern Pacific with the Santa Fe.

That's a story for another time.

Many do not realize that the Southern Pacific built the rail lines that joined up with the Atlantic and Pacific at Needles, California. In a business deal they gave the rail rights to the A&P to operate all the way to Mojave, and in later years to the AT&SF as it took over the A&P operations.

So, as we look back on the life of John Fremont, we find out his excursion into railroading, which was short lived, had him thinking of that route for that transcontinental railroad. This led him to remember the southern entrance into the San Joaquin Valley from the Tehachapi's and traveling up to a location he knew very well. This gave him that final location to the Pacific.

Niles Canyon, near the town that bears his name, was a part of John C. Fremont's early expeditions and would later become a portion of the first transcontinental railroad constructed in the 1860s. The rail line through Niles Canyon was amongst the earliest to be built in California and provided the first rail connection between San Francisco Bay and the rest of the nation. John Fremont was hoping that his grand vision of his own transcontinental railroad would end up in Niles Canyon, all the way from Missouri. But history had other ideas as to how the famous explorer would live out his years, always chasing the dreams that were never in short supply in the mind of the old path finder.

John C. Fremont, the Atlantic, Pacific and the beginning of the relationship that would end up operating the trains of the BNSF and the UP across the Tehachapis, was a relationship that has lasted for well over 100 years.