Masters Thesis

The Octopus, resurfaced: California and the Southern Pacific Railroad, 1874-1894

This thesis seeks to examine the extent to which Californians and the Southern Pacific Railroad were at odds during the twenty-year span from 1874–1894 through the framing of Frank Norris’s 1901 work, The Octopus, a representational yet highly sensational piece depicting antagonisms by one of the earliest American corporations against Californians. Bookending this span are two seminal events that demarcate a change in public sentiment towards the railroad, once thought to be a harbinger of progress and prosperity for the Golden State. In 1874, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce sought to establish an oversight committee to regulate “extortionate” railroad freight rates and passenger fares. In 1894, in what has come to be known as the Pullman Strike, American Railway Union members in California brought the state to a virtual standstill in opposing the Southern Pacific’s decision to support Pullman and halt their locomotives without the sleeping cars attached. Contemporary scholarship on the Southern Pacific has shifted from a traditional narrative asserting the existence of an all encompassing and corrupt railroad “Octopus” to propel a revisionist, almost apologist position imparting the beneficial contribution made by the Southern Pacific Railroad and Company towards the state. This work argues and examines a lesser-supported position that the Octopus existed, though uniquely or differently among the varying social strata of Gilded Age California in the late nineteenth-century.

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