Wednesday, June 7, 2023

John Signor’s new SP book

For even casual fans of the Southern Pacific, John Signor’s books about individual parts of the system are renowned for their historical content, detail on physical facilities, and for many, above all for their superb photographic coverage. And for anyone even remotely serious about SP, John’s books about the railroad are the gold standard. We now have the pleasure of receiving a new one.

His latest SP history has just been published, and it’s about San Francisco. As always, John created the cover painting, too, showing the Daylight arriving in the long shadows of late afternoon, alongside an outbound commute train behind a Train Master. The skyline of the city beyond shows how much San Francisco has changed from that day to this. 

Published by the Southern Pacific Historical & Technical Society, it’s a hard-cover, 8.5 x 11-inch upright format book, and as with all of John’s books, beautifully designed and well made. It contains 344 pages. It’s available from the SPH&TS, list price $80 (see their web page at: ).

(Incidentally, a shorter version of this review will appear in the Summer 2023 issue of the SPH&TS magazine Trainline, likely in June.)

As John likes to do, he presents the material chronologically in this book, and the chapter titles make clear what dominates each era. Chapter 1 is titled “Pre-Fire, 1860–1906,” while Chapter 2 covers “Disaster April 14, 1906,” and is followed by chapters titled “Expansion, 1907–1930; “Late Steam Era, 1930–1960,” and concludes with “Railroading to Real Estate, 1960–1996.” Obviously not every historical tidbit from a century and a quarter can be included, but the amount of information, much in considerable detail, is stunning.

The book contains over 500 photographs, about 80 in color and over 80 maps, timetables, drawings, and other graphics. And these are the kinds of images that bring the nose down to the page repeatedly.

Since a great deal of the train density into and from the City was the commute traffic, there is considerable coverage of that topic, with many intriguing photos. One I liked is shown below, depicting one stream of the river of employees coming into the City. In the early 1950s, 20 trains arrived at the Third and Townsend depot between 7:15 AM and 8:20 AM, and in this view, nearly every man wears a hat (from the San Francisco Public Library).

It’s hard to envision today, but at one time San Francisco hosted considerable manufacturing business along with lots of regional warehouses, which occasioned quite a bit of rail freight traffic. Most of it was classified and delivered from Mission Bay and Bayshore yards. The view below at Bayshore in 1943, a year when the annual number of freight cars through here was 460,000, shows some interesting wartime traffic (SP photo).

But the sheer volume of information here is just staggering when you dig into it. I’m personally interested in what businesses were rail-served in various eras, and with two fantastic maps, for 1926 and 1959, John has provided an astonishing amount of data. Though it can’t be conveyed here, you can at least get an impression of what’s involved from this double-page spread of the 1926 map, listing and locating over 250 on-line businesses.

What a book! It’s a marvelous story, a fabulous amount of information and photographs, a real treasury of lore about San Francisco and the SP. That’s why I believe it should be of interest to local as well as railroad historians. And it is of course another addition to John’s already massive legacy. Any SP fan will not only want to own this book, but to dig through it repeatedly. I know I’ll wear out my copy! I recommend it unreservedly.

Tony Thompson

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