Eras: 1898-1914

The Southern Pacific Launches a New Vehicle to Develop Its Market

by Tomas Jaehn, Former Curator for American and British History, Stanford University Libraries

Originally published in 1998 on Stanford Libraries' web site and in Sunset Magazine: A Century of Western Living 1898 - 1998

Any discussion of late nineteenth-century development of the West, rural or urban, social, political, or economic, inevitably involves the Southern Pacific Railroad (formerly Central Pacific). This rich and powerful strictly Western enterprise conceived in Sacramento and managed from San Francisco received from the United States government over 11.5 million acres of land in California and nearly 11 million in Nevada, Utah, and Oregon. It also received funds and land from Western states, cities, and counties and thus drew on local capital and local leadership as well. Merely the profits of building the tracks of Central Pacific have been estimated at well over $200 million. (1)

To secure the continuation of revenues and profits after completion, Southern Pacific owners and their supporters turned into enthusiastic boosters and land developers. (2) While some profits were sought in ferry and passenger train services, the Southern Pacific's larger objective was to develop suburban areas and to a lesser extent urban and rural regions throughout the West.

Advertising was one way to increase visibility. Up to the 1890s, railroads typically limited advertising to running timetables in local newspapers. Railroads not only began to advertise heavily in magazines and other high-toned media, the Southern Pacific decided to publish its own magazine. (3) In 1898 the Passenger Department of the Southern Pacific Railroad created Sunsetmagazine, essentially as publicity for railroad lands and tourism. No outside advertising was accepted in the first few issues, as the Southern Pacific expected to underwrite the entire expense as part of its advertising program. (4) In its first issue, at 5 cents a copy, editors promised their readers conveniently "information concerning the [Western states and territories]--a rich and inexhaustible field over which the dawn of future commercial and industrial importance is just breaking."

Sunset directed its information primarily toward tourists who were in the late nineteenth century, above all else, potential investors and migrants (5), and secondly to Westerners seeking economic improvement or recreational diversion. (6) The magazine sold the West's best commodity, its environmental attractions and economic potentials, to thousands of men, women, and children. It was not at all surprising that in its first issue, the magazine featured Yosemite and reassured its readers "that only by actual experience can the splendor of Yosemite be realized."

In an attempt to bring people and resources west on the Southern Pacific, Sunset sweepingly promoted gold mining, harvesting, and other economic ventures in California and the West. Sunsetpublished countless promotional articles on "Thrifty Cities of the Pacific Coast" (January 1900) and on towns and valleys on the brink of development appealing to the communal senses of potential and actual Westerners. For instance, the magazine recruited the Fresno Chamber of Commerce to write an article interspersed with picturesque images about its resources and possibilities in Sunset's pages (November 1899).

Occasionally Southern Pacific used its magazine as a corporate platform to defend freighting practices or to hint at political matters. In journalistic prose, articles describe the smoothness of how freight is transported from the East to the West, how easily it is to obtain a car for shipment (March 1900), quite contrary to images so vividly described in Frank Norris's California epic The Octopus. (7)

It was because of Eastern and European clientele that Sunseteventually began to accept advertisement in July 1899. Its editors realized that "if our Eastern readers are to gain the knowledge they must have concerning a colony, resort, or any business, they must be placed in contact with whom they can “talk business” (July 1899).

Now mingling with Sunset editorials were pages of testimonials to the wonders and splendors of the great Western landscape and its wealth of natural resources. Baker City, Oregon, advertised itself as the "metropolis of the Inland Empire," and the San Jose Chamber of Commerce imposed proper pronunciation by adding "San Hosay" to its advertising. (8) Petaluma prided itself the largest poultry center on earth, and the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce praised that its "Orchadists clear from $100.00 to 350.00 per acre [and that] good fruit lands can be had from $100.00 to $200.00 per acre."

But Southern Pacific's and Chambers of Commerce's promotional and economic motives notwithstanding, by the end of the century, Sunset reflected the large political and communal responsibilities its owners and supporters had assumed. (9) Southern Pacific's political influence, though, was not unique. One might think of Sunset's parent company as robber barons or as the evil Octopus, or one might view the owners of the Southern Pacific as benevolent empire builders, but its pages now stand as a documentary of the West's development. Regardless of view, it was in large part because of railroads like the Southern Pacific and because of their policies that the Far West emerged to a mature and more balanced economy.

The magazine promoted the abundant recreational opportunities of the West with articles and photos on fiestas in Sonora, Mexico (January 1900), fishing and hunting adventures in Oregon (August 1899), and days of frolicking and folly along Santa Cruz's beautiful shoreline (March 1903). These articles suggest the strong influence the Southern Pacific exercised in shifting American recreational habits. With or without the automobile, recreational trips were likely to involve a train trip. If anglers, campers, and sightseers could not reach their desired destinations on main lines, they were likely to use one of the local lines or stagecoach connections to reach resorts, the ocean, or the mountains. In fact, by the 1890s the Southern Pacific was advertising special campers' fares and free rental of tents, stoves, and other camping equipment. (10)

The magazine made use of the climate factor in advertising and in editorials which gave zest and optimism to health seekers. A California booster once responded to a remark that California had nothing to offer but climate: "That's right, and we sell it, too--$10 an acre, for the land, $490 an acre for the climate." (11) It was often from the ranks of these health seekers and tourists that many permanent settlers came bringing along Eastern capital and income to the West.

California's and the West's development was supported by the increasing popularity of the automobile. At first it was a rich tourist's, Eastern tourist at that, amusement rather than a major means of transportation. But the Southern Pacific and Sunsetrecognized the potential of the automobile early (just as it would identify the possibilities of air travel) and thus promoted motorcar tourism. Sunset anticipated the nation's automobile fever and promoted the opportunities available for "motoring" across urban and scenic landscapes. With the automobile and road development still in their infancy, Sunset recommended in 1903 a four-day trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Opportunities for exploration grew steadily: By 1915 the Pacific Highway connected Seattle with San Diego; the Sunset Highway crossed the Cascades into Seattle, and the old Santa Fe Trail and its extension, the California Trail, were no longer paths for ox carts and burros but routes for automobiles and motor coaches which traversed the Southwest's deserts and mountains. (12) Sunset recommended to its readers to take leisurely drives along the beautiful coastline, to see the majestic mountains, and to explore the blossomed roadways of the Central Valley in California.

Appropriately, in February 1907 Sunset featured "Motoring in the West: Fast Flying Automobile in Pastime and Trade, Helping Upbuild the Far Country of Gold and Sunshine" (13) and pointed the way to the complex connection between the automobile and the West in years to come. In an attempt to gear the magazine to a feminine clientele of leisure, the magazine cover prominently featured four women in their auto motoring across landscapes exemplifying the liberating "Westering experience." (14)

Sunset addressed women in many ways in its pages. It targeted female readers by highlighting the modernity and familiarity the West had to offer. Articles covered social news that suggested community values and respectability. Editorials such as "Famous California Women" implied possibly exaggerated opportunities for women in California and the West at a time when economic as well as political opportunities for women were still limited. (15)

Sunset also provided women with information on social groups and organizations to ensure women's access to familiar institutions and amenities such as women's clubs, which were interested in a wide variety of issues, from monitoring child labor to preserving the forests.

To counter images of the West as a cultural and educational wasteland, the Southern Pacific promoted and Sunset frequently highlighted events such as world expositions, museum exhibits, and theater events. The magazine endorsed cultural achievements and opportunities and featured many stories about the University of California and, not surprisingly, Leland Stanford, Jr. University. The magazine was not shy about flaunting educational excellence at both universities.

By 1902 Sunset's pages featured regular columns such as "Books and Writers" and "Plays and Players," covering Western literary and dramatic developments. To spread the word about the quality of life out West, Sunset recruited famous writers such as Jack London (often in exchange for railroad transportation (16), whose tales of Western drama and intrigue were world-renowned and told of the West as a land for adventures and fortune seekers.

Sunset used famous and soon-to-be famous artists such as Edward Borein, who frequently contributed pictures to the magazine from its inception. Borein's rough sketches of cowboy life confirmed Southern Pacific's vested interest in evoking images of a picturesque West.

A close friend of Borein, Maynard Dixon, one of the most distinctive Western illustrators published in Overland Monthly and Harper's Weekly, designed covers for Jack London's Son of the Wolf and other works, but did his most dramatic work before 1910 for Sunset. He drew traditional Western images such as cowboys, Native Americans, landscapes, and explorers, but he simplified their forms. Dixon contributed many Sunset covers, notably the May 1906 emergency issue (see frontispiece) and the October 1905 issue picturing a Native American in a blanket standing on a mesa, his back to a vast, desolate landscape. (17)

The pages of Sunset shed light upon American attitudes concerning the environment. The magazine consistently promoted the West's natural habitat. Sunset was a major proponent of the preservation of the West's great beauty and natural environment. Even its parent company, the Southern Pacific, played a significant role in making Yosemite Valley a national park, as John Muir begrudgingly admitted. "Even the soulless Southern Pacific R.R. Co.," he conceded, "never counted on for anything good, helped nobly in pushing the bill for this park through Congress." (18) When in 1903 Theodore Roosevelt visited the Golden State, it gave Sunset the opportunity to feature a president's words that symbolized the magazine's concerns to make conservation and environmental protection a Western priority: "In California I am impressed by how great the state is, but I am even more impressed by the immensely greater greatness that lies in the future, and I ask that your marvelous natural resources be handed on unimpaired to your children and your children's children." (19)

Under the ownership of the Southern Pacific, Sunset magazine pursued a dual policy of promoting its parent company's service area as well as Southern Pacific itself. (20) It was through Sunset that readers became aware of the many opportunities of the American West. Particularly California had everything prospective tourists and actual Westerners could want: mountains, ocean beaches, seaside resorts, deserts, urban amenities, and economic opportunities. Southern Pacific recognized the importance of the West when it purchased the Portland-based Pacific Monthly (also founded in 1898) in 1912 and expanded its readership area. By 1914, Sunset: The Pacific Monthly (as it now called itself) had become a publication of national attention and circulation, and Southern Pacific felt that it had reached its limit as a promotional magazine. The Southern Pacific sold Sunset to a small group of employees whose interest was to continue the promotion of the West under a less corporate influence.


(1) Earl Pomeroy, The Pacific Slope: A History of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 96-7; Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 101.

(2) Worster, Rivers of Empire, 101-2.

(3) Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators (1984; reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 38.

(4) Charles William Mulhall, Jr., "Sunset: The History of a Successful Regional Magazine" (M.A. thesis, Stanford University, 1955), 1-2.

(5) Earl Pomeroy, In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), 131.

(6) Southern Pacific, like other railroad companies, employed agents in Europe. Ray Allen Billington, Land of Savagery, Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1981), 64.

(7) Frank Norris, The Octopus (1900; reprint, New York: New American Library, 1964).

(8) Charles Fletcher Lummis, editor of Land of Sunshine, a competitor of sorts to Sunset, fought hard. (and often losing) battles to prevent the loss or disfigurement of California place names. He found the U.S. Postal Service and the railroads to be the most flagrant offenders and his campaign focused upon them. Edwin R. Bingham, Charles F. Lummis: Editor of the Southwest (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1955), 83-4.

(9) Gerald D. Nash, The American West in the Twentieth Century: A Short Study of an Urban Oasis (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973), 45.

(10) Pomeroy, In Search of the Golden West, 125.

(11) Cit. in Oscar Osburn Winther, "The Use of Climate as a Means of Promoting Migration to Southern. California," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 33 (December 1946), 412.

(12) "The West: Looking Ahead... From 60 yearsí Experience," Sunset, 120 (May 1958), 3-6.

(13) Sunset, 18 (February 1907), 275-95.

(14) On women's relations to the automobile, see Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (New York: The Free Press, 1991).

(15) Sandra L. Myers, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), 269. See also Joan M. Jensen and Gloria Ricci Lothrop, eds., California Women: A History (San Francisco: Boyd & Fraser Publishing Company, 1987).

(16) Earle Labor et al., The Letters of Jack London, 3 vols. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 1: 502.

(17) William H. Goetzman, The West of the Imagination (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), 318-19.

(18) Quoted in Alfred Runte, "Promoting the Golden West: Advertising and the Railroad," California History no.1, vol.70 (Spring 1991), 63.

(19) Sunset, no.3, vol.11 (July 1903), 210.

(20) Donovan L. Hofsommer, The Southern Pacific, 1901-1985 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986), 67.