Colton Crossing: California's Lost Hotspot

Cotton Belt SD45 #9066 leads a U30C and an SD45T-2 on an e/b manifest in the 1970s. (Craig Walker photo)


California is a railfan magnet by any type of measure. It's a place of strong geo-physical contrasts and legendary names such as Altamont, Cajon, Donner, Feather River Canyon, and Tehachapi. As such, the Golden State generates excitement and energy, while rendering widely divergent and breath-taking scenery. There is the vast expanse of the blue Pacific Ocean, the splendor of the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains, the mystique of the Mojave Desert, and the drama of busy urban environments. And of course, there is the welcomed chorus of steel wheels rolling on the rails of commerce.

However, an important name is missing from the list of legendary locations -- it's southern California's Colton Crossing. Located east of downtown Los Angeles by some 50 or 60 miles, Colton has been long noted for heavy action. Built one or two years prior to 1920, The tower, which was a two-story, wood-framed replacement structure, provided protection for trains of the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific and Union Pacific (via trackage rights on Santa Fe) as they moved through the crossing. The two-story building was situated at the southeast corner of the SP/ATSF diamond.

A lot has changed at Colton Crossing in the last few years - The tower is gone (demolished July / August 1979), connector tracks rearranged, and now the diamond crossing itself is gone as a flyover grade separation has been constructed to cross the Union Pacific's Yuma Subdivision (the former Southern Pacific's Sunset Route) over the BNSF Railway's San Bernardino Subdivision (the former Santa Fe Third District). This change, while disappointing to those railfans who find crossings at grade of interest, has removed what had often been a choke point for rail traffic in southern California.

Please join us as we take a look at some of the reasons why Colton Crossing of old was a southern California hot spot and railfan treasure.

New: 1 May 2019


Photo Exhibits

Although Colton Tower was often busy for extended periods, this May 1958 photo depicts an uncommon moment of quiet. Looking west along the SP, the curved track in foreground belonged to SP subsidiary Pacific Electric. (Ed Von Nordeck Photo)

Minutes out of San Bernardino, ATSF's Grand Canyon slams across the diamond at Colton. The engineer of F3A #17 has the three F-units wound pretty tight so the scheduled 12:30 pm arrival in L.A. is not placed in jeopardy. (Ed Von Nordeck Photo)

Santa Fe's Train 891 the Super C blows past the tower that protects the crossing with Southern Pacific's Sunset Route at Colton on 26 December 1972. With F45 #5929 in charge, the intermodal hot shot's 2200-mile run to Chicago calls for lots of 79 mph running.

Santa Fe SD45-2 #5700 was formerly one of the railroad's five Bicentennial units, seen here passing the everpresent MOW forces working on the diamonds where the Santa Fe crosses the Southern Pacific. (Craig Walker photo in July 1977)

The early 1960s were a period of experimentation for the Southern Pacific. The railroad sampled double-engined diesels, and dabbled in hydraulic transmission technology, such as these three 4000-hp hydraulics built by Krauss-Maffei in Germany, rolling thru Colton in January 1963. (Ed Von Nordeck photo)

Cotton Belt SD45T-2 #9389, with a four-unit EMD/GE locomotive lash-up, is about to cross the ATSF diamond at Colton in December 1977. The 3600-hp EMD was the first of three Spirit of 1776 diesels on the SP/SSW system; the other patriotic-painted units were GP40P-2 #3197 and U25B #6800. (Craig Walker photo)

All trains assembled in Southern Pacific's large West Colton Yard were required to depart eastbound. Here we see SP U33C #8599 westbound negotiating the ballon track used for trains heading to Los Angeles. (Craig Walker photo, 29 July 1979)

UP GP30 #829 leads a Fast Forty SD40-2 and two Centennials (DDA40X diesels) eastbound across the SP Sunset Route at Colton Tower on 18 June 1978. The four-axle Geep spent 26 years laboring for Uncle Pete prior to being retired in 1988. It was sold and rebuilt as a BN GP39M. (Craig Walker photo)

UP SD40-2 #3160, along with another SD40-2 and a DD35 pass Colton Tower after setting out cars for the SP. The Tower, which previously survived a derailment (note the patch in the corner of the structure), could not fend off progress - within a few more years, the tower would be razed. (Craig Walker photo, 1970s)

UP Challenger #3985 leads a long train on the return leg of an Ontario to Barstow convention trip sponsored by the UP Historical Society. Built by the American Locomotive Company in 1943, the 4-6-6-4, is seen here running with a clear stack and crossing the SP's Sunset Route (Craig Walker photo on 22 May 1994)

BN SD40-2 #6805 and SP U33C #8586 lead an eastbound across the Santa Fe mainline on Christmas Eve 1976. Mid-train are three SSW SD45T-2 helpers and a BN radio control car to help SP evaluate Locotrol technology. BN SD40-2s #6340-6363 were renumbered to 6800-6823 when converted to Locotrol units. Craig Walker photo.

During 2013, Colton Crossing underwent a major facelift; the diamonds were removed, along with some interchange track, and a new flyover constructed. BNSF GEVO #7822 leads a stack train along San Bernardino Subdivision (the former Santa Fe Third District). The UP uses the flyover which carries Yuma Subdivision traffic on the former SP Sunset Route. (Craig Walker photo, 14 April 2014)

This photo essay would not have been possible without the assistance of Craig Walker. First off, it was his suggestion, and beyond making many excellent photos available, he wrote and provided info for many of the photo captions.

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