Had it not been for the Southern Pacific Railroad, there might never have been a Tulare. The Tulare area was mostly a barren stretch of land, with only a few hardy settlers, when the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific joined forces to construct a rail line through the San Joaquin Valley. It was a foregone conclusion that Visalia, the county seat and already with a 20-year history, would be the Tulare County terminal. There was no Tulare at that time.
But, when Visalia flatly refused to grant the land subsidies the $300,000 demanded by the railroad as the price for its location, they looked elsewhere for a new route through the country’s flatlands. They found it just to the south and west of Visalia. They also found a willing provider of land for the right-of-way in Isaac Newton Wright, whose family was the first to settle in what is now the city of Tulare. On July 25, 1872, the first train huffed and puffed into Tulare over the newly-laid rails to formally signal the new little town’s birth. At the controls was engineer Andrew Neff, who would later marry Isaac Wright’s daughter, Victoria, and later built a handsome home at 457 So. H Street. The engine piloted by Neff, was identical to the C.P. Huntington.
Tulare grew slowly at first, then gathered momentum as the Southern Pacific built machine shops and a roundhouse south of what is now Inyo Avenue. The valley division headquarters were established in Tulare and remained here for 19 years. Overnight, Tulare became the hub of all rail travel in the valley. A combination passenger and freight depot was erected at the southwest corner of Tulare Avenue and J Street. It served both purposes until 1914 when a new depot for rail travelers was built just across Tulare Avenue to the north. This passenger depot was destroyed by fire in 1980.
The Southern Pacific was not only responsible for Tulare’s creation, but also its booming economy. Its payroll was by far the largest in the city. But, in 1891 the boom became a bust. With the extension of its tracks to the south and through the Tehachipis to Los Angeles, the railroad settled on Bakersfield as a better place for its roundhouse and machine shops, and moved the division headquarters to Fresno. Tulare was desolate. Its economy floundered. Many of its merchants and ordinary citizens left for greener pastures.
But other forward-looking Tulareans had already launched a vigorous movement to convert the Tulare economy from major dependence on the railroad to one with a firm agricultural foundation. Thanks to these pioneers, Tulare survived that near-death blow just as it did many others in its early years. Through the years it served as the only major county terminal for Southern Pacific travelers until the railroad discontinued passenger service in the early 1960’s. Today the endless rails carry only freight between northern and southern California. Yet the town can look back upon its often prodigal parent with gratitude if not affection because it knows that without the railroad Tulare might never have been born.