How Railroads and Citrus Transformed Southern California
Sales Date: July 10, 2023
384 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: July 2023
- Published: July 2023
As Southern California recovered from the collapse of the cattle industry in the 1860s, the arrival of railroads—attacked by newspapers as the greedy “octopus”—and the expansion of citrus agriculture transformed the struggling region into a vast, idealized, and prosperous garden. New groves of the latest citrus varieties and new towns like Riverside quickly grew directly along the tracks of transcontinental railroads. The influx of capital, industrial technology, and workers, especially people of color, energized Southern California and tied it more closely to the economy and culture of the United States than ever before.
Benjamin Jenkins’s Octopus’s Garden argues that citrus agriculture and railroads together shaped the economy, landscape, labor systems, and popular image of Southern California. Orange and lemon growing boomed in the 1870s and 1880s while railroads linked the region to markets across North America and ended centuries of geographic isolation for the West Coast. Railroads competed over the shipment of citrus fruits from multiple counties engulfed by the orange empire, resulting in an extensive rail network that generated lucrative returns for grove owners and railroad businessmen in Southern California from the 1890s to the 1950s.
While investment from white Americans, particularly wealthy New Englanders, formed the financial backbone of the Octopus’s Garden, citrus and railroads would not have thrived in Southern California without the labor of people of color. Many workers of color took advantage of the commercial developments offered by railroads and citrus to economically advance their families and communities; however, these people also suffered greatly under the constant realities of bodily harm, low wages, and political and social exclusion. Promoters of the railroads and citrus cooperatives touted California as paradise for white Americans and minimized the roles of non-white laborers by stereotyping them in advertisements and publications. These practices fostered conceptions of California’s racial hierarchy by praising privileged whites and maligning the workers who made them prosper.
The Octopus’s Garden continues to shape Southern Californians’ understanding of their past. In bringing together multiple storylines, Jenkins provides a complex and fresh perspective on the impact of citrus agriculturalists and railroad companies in Southern Californian history.
“In Octopus’s Garden, Jenkins has fashioned a worthy contribution to the history of both railroads and agriculture. Many beautiful illustrations complement Jenkins’s thoroughly researched and well-written text, which details how railroads and citrus culture together contributed to the social and economic transformation of Southern California.”—Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, St. Louis Mercantile Library Endowed Professor of Transportation Studies, emeritus, University of Missouri–St. Louis