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Southern Pacific Railroad History Center

James C. (Jim) Mahon


James C. “The Bear” Mahon was born into the Southern Pacific way of life, being raised at Caliente, California on the San Joaquin Division.  Jim’s father, Walter G. Mahon, was a track supervisor for Southern Pacific between Bakersfield and Mohave covering the territory of the Tehachapi Mountains and the famous loop at Walong.  Growing up, Jim’s family consisted of two sisters and six brothers living in a two-story company house at Caliente.  At one time, all seven brothers would be employed by the Southern Pacific, carrying on a family tradition that would ultimately breed four generations of Mahons who worked for Southern Pacific’s Maintenance Department.


In 1952 at the age of 13, Jim hired out with Southern Pacific in response to the 7.3 magnitude Kern County earthquake of July 21.  This earthquake destroyed miles of mainline track over the Mohave Subdivision, including the collapse of several tunnels crossing the Tehachapi range.  Jim’s first job was as a track laborer working for his dad helping to put the railroad back together, restoring fills and replacing track.  He worked with the ditching gang, loading materials from banks into air dumps and repairing fills for the remainder of the summer.  Nearly three years later and immediately after completing high school, Jim went back to work on June 13, 1955 to continue his uninterrupted career with Southern Pacific.


Jim worked on his dad’s steel gang operating maintenance equipment and a burrow crane until he was assigned by Assistant Chief Engineer Godfrey Lyon to work on Southern Pacific’s system rail gang with his brother Vince as an assistant foreman.  At this time, jobs were appointed rather than bid, so Jim left the San Joaquin Division to join the system gang at Dragoon Arizona on New Year’s Eve 1957.  This rail gang was composed of outfit cars travelling the entire Pacific Lines, laying steel across Southern Pacific’s seven western states.  The gang laid 78-foot sections of rail until March 1958 when the first ribbon rail on the Southern Pacific was installed at Dateland, Arizona.  The gang then went to Shoshone, Nevada when Vince Mahon was promoted, and Jim was asked to succeed his brother as foreman of the system rail gang.  During this time, the union required the railroad to put the system rail gang up for bid and Jim was bumped down, but was still responsible for laying ribbon rail.


After four years working with the system rail gang, Jim received a promotion to track supervisor working under Roadmaster Dan O’Keefe at Bakersfield, California.  After a year, Jim was promoted to general track foreman working under Dan O’Keefe and Bill Lynch installing CTC between Bakersfield and Lathrop.  At the time he was promoted, Jim was the youngest person ever to become a general track foreman for the Southern Pacific.  When the CTC project was completed, Jim was assigned to Phoenix, Arizona with roadmaster Harry Hamrick in rehabilitating the Christmas Branch.  At this time, Division Engineer Lee Lyons requested the outfit car assigned to Mahon be placed on the Blue Streak Merchandise and moved to Tucson where Jim finished building five tracks at the Tucson Yard in just five months.  Following the job at Tucson Yard, Jim was sent to help roadmaster Carl Hogeland at Deming, New Mexico.  After three months, Jim was promoted to roadmaster at Deming on the Rio Grande Division.


Jim would again follow his brother Vince when Godfrey Lyon reassigned him to be the Roadmaster at Truckee, California in September 1963.  This would begin “The Bear’s” reputation on the Sacramento Division as the man who kept the mountain moving.  He would remain at Truckee until June 1971 when Bill Lynch assigned Jim as the roadmaster at Colfax, California.  In August 1973, Jim was promoted to Assistant Division Engineer - Track for the Sacramento Division following Hovie Kent.  He would remain in that position until the merger with the Denver & Rio Grande Western, when he replaced John Deis as Division Engineer.  During his tenure as “dash track” Jim was responsible for one of the largest emergency repair projects in the history of the Southern Pacific, being assigned to lift the Great Salt Lake Causeway fill out of the rising water and restore service to and from Ogden, Utah.  When Union Pacific acquired the Southern Pacific, Jim opted to stay with the railroad and took a demotion to Manager of Track Programs until he retired on January 31, 1999 ending a 47 year career.


During his time with the Southern Pacific, Jim’s two proudest accomplishments were the restoration of mainline track between Lordsburg, New Mexico to El Paso, Texas in just one year’s time and the achievement of keeping the Mountain District of the Sacramento Division open for winter service.  Under Jim Mahon’s watch, no passenger train was ever stranded over Donner Pass or delayed for a period of greater than four hours.  When asked what the Southern Pacific meant to Jim and his family, he is noted as saying “The SP was always good to their people.  When I was out on injury, I never missed a paycheck.”

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