in collaboration with The Spatial History Project

Seeing Space in Terms of Track Length and Cost of Shipping

This visualization based on 1876 rate tables for the Southern Pacific Railroad in the San Joaquin Valley and for the Central Pacific Railroad in the Sacramento Valley provides a graphic demonstration of how the railroads constructed and manipulated space.

The first class rate was for manufactured goods such as empty crates and barrels, machinery or tinware. The second class was for potatoes and vegetables, wool, and furniture. The third class covered assorted household goods, brick and cement. Fourth class rates included lime, gypsum and crude borax.
The railroad set these rates to maximize their traffic and to try to get the highest rates that the traffic would bear. They were constrained by competition from steamboats along the Sacramento River and along the San Joaquin to the practical head of navigation at Stockton. By manipulating the map you can see the role river competition played on the rate structure. On the San Joaquin they arranged rates to virtually eliminate the alternative of using a combination of steamboat and rail transportation limiting the utility of steamboats to those along the river below Stockton.
Note how the special wheat rate pushes stations in the San Joaquin Valley closer to San Francisco while the flrst class rate pushes them farther away. This allowed the railroad to extend the wheat growing region far to the south by allowing farmers relatively low rates to shipping points on San Francisco Bay. The first class rates out of San Francisco allowed the railroads to recoup on goods farmers consumed from San Francisco wholesales. The combination of low through rates from the East to San Francisco with the shipment of goods by sea made San Francisco the wholesaling center of the West Coast. When farmers and merchants in California felt they were at the mercy of Southern Pacific officials, they meant that those officials had vast power over the spatial relations that were central to their economic well being.