Friday, March 20, 2020

Rolling Back to Glenwood

Southern Pacific train #84 rolling into Glenwood around 1913.

A few weeks back, I finally started redoing scenery on a long-ignored part of the layout: Glenwood, on the upper deck. When I first built the Vasona Branch layout, I’d thrown in some temporary scenery... which has lasted for a good fifteen years now. Before I show off what I’ve been doing, though, let’s chat a bit about Glenwood.

As we read in the abandonment filing, there wasn’t a lot to do in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1930’s: little industry, few people, and a railroad line that tended to get buried in mudslides every winter. The Los Gatos-Santa Cruz branch wasn’t a happy place for a profit-focused railroad.

My Vasona Branch layout models the Santa Cruz Mountains on the upper deck, both for extra mileage and for my chance to model some classic California scenes. I chose to model three locations on the layout: Alma, Wrights, and Glenwood. I chose each for scenery and track arrangement reasons. Alma and Wrights were both on the uphill side of the climb to the summit, so they made sense for the slowly-rising upper deck. I chose Alma because I wanted its passing siding, and because I could find photos of the station. Wrights was an obvious place to include; the track comes up the narrow canyon, then makes a sweeping curve across Los Gatos creek to dive into the summit tunnel. The creek and bridge, toy station, tunnel, general store, and historic location made it photogenic and proper for the layout.

But what about the Pacific side of the line? I could have modeled Felton, with its lumber mill. I could have modeled Laurel, with its tiny station sandwiched between two tunnel portals, and side-hill trestles keeping the track from sliding down into a canyon. Glenwood, however, had a tight curve at one end of town that led to the Glenwood-Laurel tunnel, just perfect for the curve on the layout, which made the model in the garage match the real-life terrain. But in the 1930’s, Glenwood was near abandoned: a main line, two weed-infested sidings, and a closed station. So why include it?

Glenwood had been much more important in the narrow gauge days. Bruce MacGregor notes that Glenwood was nearly at the elevation of the summit tunnel; if the South Pacific Coast railroad could pull lumber and other freight to Glenwood, they could easily pull it through the tunnels and down to Los Gatos and San Jose with a single engine. As a result, Glenwood originally had multiple sidings for assembling larger trains before pulling them to the Santa Clara Valley. Glenwood also had a turntable for turning the locomotives hauling the lumber up from Boulder Creek and Felton, and a couple sidings for maintenance-of-way.

Beyond that, Glenwood wasn’t particularly exciting. Tunnel at the west end of town to Laurel and the summit, bridge over the creek at the south end (and eventually leading to the tunnel to Zayante and Felton), the depot, a general store, a winery that looked more like a barn, and a few houses. Some resorts were scattered in the trees, but it wasn’t the most cosmopolitain of places. It made up for its meekness with stories from the early settlers, including “Mountain Charlie” McKiernan, who famously fought a bear and got a dent in his skull.

The California State Railroad Museum has the station plan drawings for multiple years, giving us a chance to see the evolution of Glenwood from the railroad’s point of view for four times: November 1907, December 1907, 1913, and 1939.

A November 1907 valuation map (probably while the line was still narrow gauged) shows three 700 foot sidings, a turntable on the east and west ends of town (the west one apparently filled in), a section house. Bean Creek, awfully close to the railroad tracks, shows up as a 10 foot gully stretching along the scene. The sidings ended just east of the depot where the tracks crossed to the west side of the creek. The current Glenwood Highway doesn’t yet exist; the downhill stretch is labelled “Vine Hill Road”. The road crossed the tracks just west of the station, and proceeded across the creek and up the hill on an alignment that’s no longer a public road. We see a section house (residence) and multiple structures along the tracks.

A month later in December 1907, the SP created another map, probably showing line changes after standard gauging and reopening the line. There’s now just two sidings and the main line, with a spur in front of the depot. Bean Creek’s now been filled in with a concrete culvert.

The 1913 map shows additional changes. This map labels the building next to the Laurel tunnel as “watchman’s house”. There’s also two spurs, probably for maintenance-of-way. There’s a couple photos from about this era showing trains passing the semaphores just before the tunnel. Those photos caught maintenance of way cars - or bunk cars - sitting on the siding. On the east end of town, longer sidings both cross the new culvert to create 1100 foot sidings for longer standard gauge tracks. The maps also show the block signals at each end of town. A private road loops over the top of the tunnel portal; this will eventually be the Glenwood Highway.

The 1939 map shows that very little changed since 1913. The track arrangement’s similar; the only differences are in the roads. On this map, there’s now a section house, tool house, and signal maintainer’s tool house. The depot was torn down to give room for the state highway. There’s also a derail on the east end of town so runaway cars won’t roll all the way to Santa Cruz.

So what do I want from all these sights? I’m not changing the track layout, so we’ll still have the curve into the Glenwood-Laurel tunnel. The Glenwood Highway looping over the top of the tunnel portal is a well-known design, so I’ll need to keep that. The depot’s small-ish, photogenic, and has an appropriate location so we’ll need to keep it. (I’ve got a placeholder model based on some plastic kit, but it’s time to make an accurate version.). I hadn’t known about the section house and tool house; there’s space for both next to the depot, so those deserve to be added.

What’s already there? The old scenery has the Glenwood highway curving over the tunnel portal, but the climb out of town is jerky and doesn’t look smoothly. There’s also a house on stilts right next to the tunnel portal. It’s unprototypical; that hillside looks like it was mostly trees and bushes. It’ll need to go. I’d also cut a space for one of the abandoned turntables. Stories suggest that the turntable was filled in, but I’m willing to leave it as a hole in the ground.

Next steps: Let’s start swinging the hammer and changing some scenery, then let’s scratch build a depot!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

End of the Line, From the Editorial Pages

Eighty years ago, the last trains went along the Los Gatos-Santa Cruz line. It’s hard to remember with this bone-dry February, but January and February are usually the wet months here in California. Some of those years are wetter than average. Some years, we’ll get a couple good storms; we’ll hear about Highway 17 being closed for a day or two. Some years, storms can wash out the road to Big Sur or Half Moon Bay, and limit access for days or weeks. Some years, the rain comes down at biblical scale.

We’ve all heard the stories about how the Los Gatos line closed. There was a big storm in late February 1940 that washed out the railroad in several places. The SP didn’t want to keep the line open. The ICC abandonment decision highlighted just how little business was on the line, and how little traffic was being carried across the Santa Cruz mountains. Away goes the railroad, away goes the route between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz, away go the tunnels and bridges. Stories in various books hint at how the summit tunnel was either blown up by the army for demolition training or to get rid of a nuisance.

At best, those books cover the story in a paragraph or so. We don’t really know if the army blew up the tunnels to protect us against Japanese saboteurs, or Red Lectroids of Planet 10; we don’t know how bad the storm was. We don't know if the people of Santa Cruz fought the decision, and how bad the damage was. Luckily, here in the 21st century, we can rely on materials beyond what’s in the books in the hobby shop or sources at our local library. The University of California, Riverside’s California Digital Newspaper Collection now has copies of the Santa Cruz Sentinel from the 1940’s, so with a little bit of searching, we can easily learn more about what was really happened.

Although MacGregor’s “South Pacific Coast” quotes March 4 as the day of the last train, it looks like the storm - and the last train - was actually February 27, 1940. And this wasn’t a small storm, from descriptions the next day.

From the February 28, 1940 Santa Cruz Sentinel:

“One of the greatest river floods in the history of Santa Cruz - and undoubtedly the most destructive - smashed its way through the San Lorenzo Valley yesterday, bearing logs, branches, dead animals, furniture, and debris from ruined summer homes and bridges. With county damage conservatively estimated at $500,000, there were at least 100 Santa Cruzans rendered temporarily homeless by the swirling yellow flood.
“Fed by a cloudburst which brought 11.57 inches of ran to Ben Lomond in 24 hours, the muddy river first jumped its banks here at 2 a.m. and reached its peak about 6 o’clock last night…. An all-time record for high water was believed set with a 25 foot rise at Paradise Park.
“The thundering flood swept out 100-foot River Glen Bridge at Boulder Creek, then hurtled downstream, taking out the Zayante, Cooper, and Ocean street bridges on its path to the sea. Simultaneously slides tore out telephone connections with Boulder Creek and choked the San Lorenzo drive. Severely hit were Paradise Park [the Masonic summer cabin neighborhood on the site of the former California Powder Works], a number of resorts and auto courts on the outskirts of the city, outer River Street and the entire Ocean-Barson street where some two score families were forced to flee.

Old-timers were divided as to whether or not the flood was the greatest in history. Former Mayor Fred Swanton said it outclassed the big waters of 1898 and 1907, but redoubtable Ernest Otto swore he had seen bigger floods - the time, for instance, when driftwood was carried to the very doors of Hackley Hall. He did not deny, however, that this was the most destructive because of greater business and residential development.

For most of the day Santa Cruz was virtually isolated. All Peerless stages were forced to cancel their runs over the Los Gatos highway, and the Southern Pacific routed trains by way of Watsonville Junction. The Watsonville roads by way of Chittenden and Hecker passes were closed, as was the Ocean Shore route. For a time the only road out of the city was by way of Hunter’s hill and Salinas.”

That 11 inches of rainfall in Ben Lomond is a heck of a lot of rain; it's only been equalled forty years later on January 4, 1982. If you’re a Bay Area kid of a certain age, you probably remember the winter of 1981-1982. The San Lorenzo flooded. Brookdale Lodge’s dining room, with the creek running through it, went on a rampage in 1982, replaying the flood in 1940 that “smashed gaping holes in the rear and front of the dining room by mid-day (S.C. Sentinel, 28 Feb 1940). Ten people died near Ben Lomond when a huge section of hillside broke loose and tore through a cluster of houses in the redwoods. The same storm blocked blocked highway 101 and the Waldo Grade in Marin County for days, and flooded San Anselmo. I remember teachers living in Marin couldn’t make it to my high school for days. The 1982 storm was big enough that the USGS even wrote a report about it.

So yeah, the horrible storm of 1982 gives us an idea how extreme 1940 would have been. Thank goodness neither year coincided with the great Santa Cruz vampire infestation of 1986, though at least there would have been plenty of material for stakes on the beach.

Santa Cruz wasn’t the only place suffering from that storm. The February 28, 1940 issue of the Santa Cruz Sentinel also highlighted similar problems around California. The governor declared flood emergencies in the Sacramento Valley. The Napa river flooded town. “300 persons in a federal migrant camp [in Winters] were marooned after two feet of water swept through their temporary shelters.”

The news wasn’t any better the next day. The February 29, 1940 Santa Cruz Sentinel showed photos of the damage: logs and deadwood on all the beaches and riverside, ropes and pulleys carrying groceries across the river between Lompico and Zayante. The Old San Jose road was blocked. William Turver’s 1500 hens broke loose after their chicken house was destroyed by flood waters, “found roosting on the roofs of sheds and houses yesterday.” Boulder Creek’s water supply was lost when the pipe to the main supply tank broke. 35 homes at Paradise Park summer cabins were damaged by floodwaters, with another 10 destroyed outright. A covered bridge at Paradise Park survived, but a mattress in a nearby tree hinted at the heights of the flood waters.

There were also stories from abroad. Pescadero flooded. Marysville flooded. Shops on Hearst Ave. on Berkeley’s north side had a foot of mud dumped on their floors.

A. L. Andrews, the Santa Cruz general traffic agent for the SP, announced it would be a week before traffic could be resumed over the mountains, with significant slides at Rincon Hill (on the Santa Cruz side) and several larger slides on the Los Gatos side. Meanwhile, Southern Pacific had other worries: Gerber and Tehama flooded, and rail traffic between California and Oregon had been halted by slides and washouts.

Friday, March 1 leads off with “Santa Cruz Not Alone in Watery Disaster”, with pictures of flooding at Marysville. The Los Gatos road was “open but muddy”, with “delays at the bottleneck near Los Gatos were from 10 minutes to half an hour.” The railroad was still a week from opening.

The Railroad Isn’t Coming Back

There’s nothing else about the railroad until March 7. Below a headline about the Queen Elizabeth steamship outrunning U-boats, we find:

“S.P. Surveys Mountain Line
Deny Closing of Historic Run; May Rebuild Stretch
San Francisco, March 6 (AP) - The Southern Pacific headquarters here said today railroad engineers were surveying the Los Gatos-Santa Cruz line to determine whether to make temporary repairs - as has been done previously in slide and washout areas in that sector - or to rebuild the stretch in a manner to forestall future tie-ups.
Train service between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz was disrupted in last week’s storm. The San Jose - Los Gatos line is open, and buses now carry passengers from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. Buses also operate the S.P.’s Watsonville Junction to Santa Cruz.
The rail line office here said there was no indication that the Los Gatos-Santa Cruz strip would be abandoned. They said the engineers’ report probably wold be completed next week.
TWO LOSE JOBS HERE
Previous to the San Francisco notification above, reports were current in Santa Cruz that the mountain line might be discontinued indefinitely owing to the lack of year-around business and cost of repairs between Olympia and Los Gatos. [The precision of those endpoints makes me suspect the rumors were awfully correct.]
An informed source said it would cost between $50,000 and $75,000 to repair trouble caused by the recent storm. Near Glenwood a large section of earth sank from beneath the tracks.
Meantime, the two maintenance men at the local S. P. yard were notified that their jobs here had ended. They are Charles F. Berlin of 531 Mission street, employed here for some 13 years, and Malcolm Henderson of 75 1/2 Washington. Berlin is day engine watchman, and Henderson has had the night shift.
It was also reported that the engine pits, used for maintenance, have been filled in.
The mountain line has been closed for eight days and Greyhound buses are leaving at 7:05 am and 6:10 pm to connect with the regular train at Los Gatos. Buses take passengers from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz, arriving at 11:25 am and 6:50 pm.
The maintenance crew left the city yesterday after repairing the mountain road as far as Olympia where some 250 cars of sand for “traction” use are taken out monthly. Freight is not affected by the temporary shutoff of the mountain service, since most of this goes by way of Watsonville Junction.
Historic Old Line
The historic mountain route opened as a narrow gauge railways in the late seventies and was then known as the Dumbarton road. It was then routed to San Jose, and at Santa Clara it went up the west side of the bay by way of Alviso, Newark, Alvarado, and Agnew, across on a drawbridge to Alameda, where passengers transferred to ferry for San Francisco.
Later when the Southern Pacific took it over and widened it to broad gauge, it went up the east side of the bay and through the Mission district. In those days there were three trains daily and special additions on week-ends. They generally carried from three to eight coaches in contrast to the slight traffic of recent years. They stopped regularly at stations at Felton, Glenwood, Laurel, Wrights, Alma, and Los Gatos, Eblis, Rincon, Big Trees, Mount Hermon, Olympia, and Zayante. Most of these stations have long since vanished, although the train would stop when and if passengers requested.

Meanwhile, the San Lorenzo Valley Chamber of Commerce, rightfully worried that the S.P. had decided to drown the line, set up its own committee to talk with the S.P.

Everyone held their breath while waiting for the SP to make its decision. The March 19 paper quoted shippers complaining about rates: shipments from Seattle cost 30 cents per 100 lbs to San Jose, but cost 37 cents to Santa Cruz (with no details on exactly what was being shipped.) The local businessmen argued for a better rate.

The true “beginning of the end” occurredd on March 26: “S. P. May Abandon Historic Rail Line”:

S. P. May Abandon Historic Rail Line
Younger Heatedly Hits Long Neglect
Officials Reverse Recent Story; Now Say Storm Damage, Loss Each Year Is Mounting
Santa Cruz was stunned yesterday by announcement that Southern Pacific has placed before the Interstate Commerce Commission a request to eliminate passenger train service between this city and Los Gatos.
That this city was unprepared for the announcement may be attrabuted [sic] to the fact that the Southern Pacific officials, interviewed 10 days ago in San Francisco by an Associated Press correspondent for the Sentinel said abandonment of train service between Santa Cruz and Los Gatos was not being considered.
F. C. Lathrop, general passenger agent, and J. J. Jordan, superintendent of the coast division, flanked by other officials, hurried down from San Francisco to explain in the wake of an early morning release from the company’s publicity department.
On short notice the chamber of commerce called a special luncheon meeting of directors at the St. George hotel, where the railroad representatives fenced with the opposition of Donald Younger and Adriel Fried.
Would Save $50,000
Lathrop told the luncheon gathering of 40 that abandonment of the 15 mile branch line from Los Gatos to Olympia would save the company $50,000 a year in out-of-pocket losses, that bus service will be improved in substitution for loss of trains, that freight service will be continued between Olympia and Santa Cruz, and that the Suntan and tourist specials will be routed into Santa Cruz via Watsonville.
Mayor C. D. Hinkle said he preferred to hear a thorough analysis of Southern Pacific’s problems “before offering any criticism.”
Mrs. Rose Rostron, supervisor of Branciforte district, expressed the opinion that Santa Cruz would be stepping backwards by loss of the service, suggesting that most travelers preferred the train to busses.
Donald Younger spurred debate with the charge that the Southern Pacific has reduced its service gradually through the years with a view towards eventual abandonment. “You have done everything to discourage passenger traffic over the mountains from Los Gatos,” he said. “The line into Santa Cruz has been badly mismanaged. While we have tried to provide you with more freight in exchange for promised improvement in passenger service, you have not given us your share of co-operation. You are giving us your figures and this is a stacked meeting. The chamber of commerce should appoint a committee to make a thorough investigation prior to the hearing before the railroad commission. It is the history of the Southern Pacific that you have made progress only when forced to.
Might Save State Money
He charged the Southern Pacific had not been fair in withholding announcement of their intentions at a time when the state was spending a huge sum to erect a viaduct above the company’s tracks between the Oaks sanitarium and Los Gatos. If it had been know that the line was to be abandoned, he claimed, the highway department could have saved the expense of the span.”
“I think you have been a little severe in your charges,” answered Lathrop. “As far as the figures are concerned, you can get all the information you want from the railroad commission. We are seeking to adjust our operations and our service to changed transportation conditions and changed habits and demands of the public. In certain new phases of transportation we are making some notable progress in providing service that the public generally welcomes and by its patronage will make profitable to the railroad. We have been earning only 18 cents per train mile on passenger trains in and out of Santa Cruz as compared with a cost of $1.50 per train mile. On average no more than six persons have been riding each train on the Santa Cruz line. It would cost us about $50,000 to put the line into shape following damage by recent storms. Phases of railroad service that have long been unprofitable are a drag on the efforts of the railroad to provide fast enough modern freight and passenger service generally over the system.”
He promised that the “improved bus service” to connect with Los Gatos, in substitution for the train, would save 30 minutes time between this city and San Francisco.
Stodgy and Stuffy
Adriel Fried criticized the company’s “stodgy” trains and “stuffy station” at Watsonville Junction where Santa Cruz passengers connect with southbound trains, and insisted that the company is being badly managed. He demanded figures on freight out of Santa Cruz. C. M. Briggs, assistant general freight agent, said he was not prepared to give those figures, but would have them available at the railroad commission hearing.
“It is regrettable to come to a meeting of this kind and be insulted,” said J. J. Jordan, the rail company’s superintendent. “You will get all the information you want before the railroad commission.”

“You say we haven’t been progressive. Don’t you realize that the automobile has taken away 68% of the railroad’s business! We are trying our best to meet this transition.”
Earl Harris maintained that the company had not lived up to its word, made two years ago, to spend money on improving the line over the mountain and bring additional Eastern tourist specials into Santa Cruz.
Jordan replied that the company did spend $50,000 to improve the line.
Hits Tourist Business
James P. Leonard expressed fear that a bus connection with Santa Cruz would decrease passenger traffic to the Big Trees. “The minute a passenger agent mentions a tail-end connection by bus, you will find a strong sales resistance on the part of a prospective visitor,” Leonard said.
Lathrop said the railroad company had borrowed $22,000,000 from the RFC, and that government would insist upon a profit on all branches. He expressed belied that Santa Cruz would not be affected “one iota” by the abandonment, “inasmuch as this community does not even use the line.”
Drum Baikie was chairman of the lunch meeting.
Decision as to the chamber of commerce’s attitude will be reached at a director’s meeting next Monday.
Other Southern Pacific officials attending the luncheon were E. C. Pearce, assistant superintendent; Roy Ioas, supervisor train service; G. I. Goldsmith, assistant mail and express traffic manager; Stanley Moore, special representative passenger department; E. A. Teubner, division freight and passenger agent.
Operating Costs High
Both operating costs and maintenance costs of the line south of Los Gatos have been extremely heavy since it was acquired by the company in 1887 and changed from narrow to broad gauge in 1907, Southern Pacific officials stated. Operation is expensive due to the excessive curvature of the winding route through the mountains and grades which range from 2.5 to 2.9 per cent, making it necessary to use helper engines on trains carrying more than five cars northbound and seven cars southbound.
Maintenance of the line is relatively even more costly due particularly to recurring annual storm and flood damage. Company officials stated there is an annual expense of $48,000 per year for maintenance and storm damage repair to two and one-half miles of tunnels, to other track structures, to track, and to sub-grade in the area marked for abandonment.
The section of track which it is proposed to abandon does not include a nine-mile section from Santa Cruz to Olympia. This nine-mile section will be maintained to provide freight service from the Olympia sand pits.

The Abandonment Hearing

The first hearing on abandonment took place in Santa Cruz City Hall on Friday, April 26. The SP now claimed it would take precisely $46,220 to fix the line. The editorial on Sunday, April 28, 1940 quoted how it went:

Those who attended the railroad commission hearing Friday on Southern Pacific’s petition to temporarily discontinue passenger service on the Los Gatos-Santa Cruz line may be surprised to learn that Judge Harry Bias, who represented this community, had only two days in which to prepare his case.
He was not contacted in the manner until Wednesday afternoon, and in the brief period between that time and opening of the hearing Friday morning at 10 he studied railroad company exhibits and hurriedly assembled such information as was available through services of the chamber of commerce.
What is more, his services were gratis.
Ordinarily, in a hearing of this type the applicant, with its army of auditors, “experts”, and imposing array of cold figures, holds an advantage over the opposition of lay critics.
Judge Bias, especially effective in cross-examination, disclosed not of the handicaps which are usually imposed by hurried mobilization of opposition. He turned in one of the neatest jobs we have witnessed in many years.
Item by item, he went to the core of the subject in cross-examination of Southern Pacific representatives.
He established these major points:
Southern Pacific had planned abandonment of service for some years and seized the storm condition last February as an opportune time to take action.
Revenue from freight and special trains had not been computed by the company in arriving at the reported loss on the line of $28,578 for 1939.
Nothing of substantial nature has been done in the past 25 years to improve facilities on the regularly scheduled passenger trains operating between San Francisco and Santa Cruz.
The company has not kept pace of competition.
Facilities on the train coaches are below normal in comparison with modern transportation equipment.
In concluding his remarks Judge Bias expressed the opinion that “if the railroad company had deliberately planned to discontinue its train service on this line it could not have done a better job of discouraging public patronage."
A few of our citizens have been lulled into an attitude of non-resistance by Southern Pacific’s reported losses on this line. What we in Santa Cruz should consider of prime importance are the tremendous losses to this community as the result of what conspicuously appear to be mismanagement of an important travel artery entering this town.
We feel that the Southern Pacific has not fulfilled the obligations of its franchise. Santa Cruz, in our opinion, has suffered huge losses due to adverse operation of passenger trains entering this community. This is the finest recreation area within short distance of the San Francisco bay area of 1,000,000 population. The trip over the mountains from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz has scenic value worthy of extensive exploration by a railroad company.
Holding a monopoly these many years, Southern Pacific has not felt the pressure of rail competition on this line. It has provided comparative discomforts with little regard for a public attitude. Instead of improving its roadbeds and equipment to meet the competition of highways and buses, Southern Pacific has blamed the public solely for its loss of business. One can motor to San Francisco in a comfortable automobile on a comfortable highway in one-half the time required by the antiquated train. Many people, we believe, would prefer to leave their automobiles hat home and travel by train if Southern Pacific had shown the same enterprise on the Santa Cruz line that it had demonstrated elsewhere in attempting to meet competition.
Women in long bloomer bathing suits, bewhiskered men on “gay-ninety” bikes, and horse and buggy delegations, would not look out of place in creating the arrival of one of the regularly scheduled trains at the local SP depot.
Let us view the losses from a different perspective. This public utility, by its monopolistic operations, has denied Santa Cruz the kind of transportation facilities which are considered average in other parts of the United States. We have lost the benefits that might have come through alert, progressive management of a rail line.
“Comfort” is something we read about in the Southern Pacific ads; also we are urged “Next Time Try the Train”.
By schedule and type of equipment, SP has caused its Santa Cruz trains to try the public’s patience.

The Friendly Southern Pacific attempts damage control.

The Santa Cruz abandonment wasn’t following the path of the Boulder Creek, or Almaden, or Le Franc; the town was pissed off, and wasn’t about to roll over. The SP decided to highlight all the nice things they could do for the town. June 22, 1940, the SP argued its case. As before, they didn’t talk about closing the line, but just “closing passenger service” and replacing it with a bus. How you got to Los Gatos didn’t matter; they’d make sure the bus was attractive. The SP also attempted to assuage all the concerns. They’d continue to promote the Suntan Specials, and continue to keep the fares the same. They’d put up posters extolling Santa Cruz in stations, and highlight the destination in timetables and tourist brochures. They’d show movies of Big Trees, and make sure Santa Cruz had a central role at the SP exhibit at the 1939 World Fare in San Francisco. To comfort James Leonard, they’d continue to take tourist trains up to Big Trees. They’d lower the tariff for lumber, and wouldn’t raise rates for other commodities, and wouldn’t passenger fares. (Don’t hold your breath folks; the fares will go up in two years, regardlesss of the agreements.

You won't have a railroad, but at least you'll be in the movies!

Meanwhile, the old route rotted in the forest. There were reports of signals getting stolen later that summer. On October 31, the ICC decided: the line was to be abandoned.

Tearing Up the Line

We’ve all seen pictures of the abandonment: trains going through the canyons removing rails, bridges, and anything else salvageable. The rumors about the tunnel were less mercenary. One said the tunnels were blown up by the army to avoid saboteurs hiding in them. Another claimed the SP didn’t want the tunnels around as a nuisance. In reality, the tunnels were collapsed for the lumber. From the April 19, 1942 Santa Cruz Sentinel, courtesy of a reference in Derek Whaley’s “Santa Cruz Trains” book:


Glenwood and Wrights Tunnels Gone
The first two tunnels by which our erstwhile Los Gatos Railroad line bored through the hills are gone. Timbers which bolstered the mile-and-a-quarter Wrights tunnel have been taken out, the tunnel is caved in, its ends are closed. Another week will see the end of the mile-and-an-eighth Glenwood tunnel.
H. A. Christie, professional railroad wrecker and gambler on earth formations, bought from the Southern Pacific the right to salvage what timbers he could.
He has been trucking them down the old right-of-way to end -of-line near Felton and shipping them out.
Rock was well broken by earthquake of 1906
So dangerous is the work of yanking the ten-by-fourteen inch timbers out (by use of a team) and the resultant fall of rock that Mr. Christie’s premium on insurance against accident or death to his employees equals 34 percent of his payroll.
When the fall of rock buries unsalvaged timbers he leaves them and resumes work farther along. While working in the Wrights tunnel part of his equipment was buried - and abandoned.
The wrenching given the sand rock by the earthquake of 1906 (after which the tunnels were enlarged for the broad guage [sic] line) turned the sand rock nearly to sand.
COUNTY WANTS TIMBERS AT SCHWANN’S LAGOON BRIDGE
Because of the peril of the work the Southern Pacific sells the salvaging privileges and buys back what timbers it wants. Mr. Christie is under contract to sell back to the railroad 800,000 board feet of what he reclaims.
The timbers taken from the Wrights tunnel amounted to a little more than half a million board feet. Should there be an excess over the railroad’s requirements the county is a bidder for timbers for the proposed new Schwan’s Lagoon bridge in Twin Lakes. Timbers at the salvage price will save about a thousand dollars.

As those timbers got pulled out, the chances of the line ever opening again died completely - the Los Gatos - Santa Cruz line was no more. The storm was the last straw, but the abandonment probably would have happened any day. The salvaging and destruction of the line didn’t have saboteurs or crazy army demolition folks but a dedicated salvager with a brave team of mules. The storm also had effects beyond the route, shutting down Santa Cruz as a place for engine service. A year later, the Sentinel remarked on the boiler house being taken down to send its materials to Sacramento, and the inspection pits at the roundhouse were getting filled in. Santa Cruz would never be a big railroad town again.


Key details to remember for the model?
  • The Olympia sand pits were shipping 250 carloads of sand a month, with the SP one of the customers.
  • Passenger trains from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz required a helper for more than 5 cars... just like my model!
  • Santa Cruz was originating trains up to 1940, and had the roundhouse and personnel up until then.
  • If the model trains ever don't run, just say "oh, the line's open" and point at a passing bus.

We All Scream for Location-Accurate Buildings

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. Well, hopefully not, or the garage is going to be awfully loud.

I’ve slowly been filling out the Los Gatos scene. A few years ago, I added a shelf to cover the staging tracks, and used the space to add some much-needed houses along the railroad tracks in Los Gatos. I also had a bare spot immediately in front of the Hunt’s Cannery. Historically, the spot was some charming and quite pricey houses on University Avenue. However, expensive real estate wouldn't match the theme I'm trying to capture. I want to hint at the industrial side of town here, so the space deserved something utilitarian. My first cut was a low-slung warehouse made with board-and-batten siding. The warehouse never looked correct - too low, too plain.

I feel back to my usual tricks: look through old photos to see what was actually along the tracks. I knew there was a lumber yard along University Ave near the Old Town development which deserved a space. Looking at some of the 1940’s photos, I found what looked like a boxy cinderblock building with a strange contraption on the roof, just north of Elm Street. Captions mentioned this as the ice cream plant for Eatmore Ice Cream and Creamery at 46 N. Santa Cruz Ave. The building’s on the wrong side of the railroad tracks for me, but it’ll look fine on the University Ave. side.

The History

Eatmore Ice Cream was founded by Hans Nielsen in 1922, an immigrant from Denmark and new arrival in Los Gatos. Eatmore’s location was in the middle of downtown at 52 North Santa Cruz Ave. at Elm Street. Nielsen ran the place solo for many years, working “at night to make his ice cream and delivered it during the daytime.” The company must have done well; several of Nielsen’s helpers in the ice cream business turn up in the historic record. Eatmore also had several outposts, including a takeover of a San Jose manufacturer and an an ice cream factory in San Francisco at 1525 Union St. Eatmore lasted as an independent business for about twenty years. Nielsen finally got an offer he couldn’t refuse from Beatrice Foods in 1944 and sold out; he continued as manager for the newly rebranded Meadow Gold branded creamery. Newspaper articles describe the company as delivering 1100 gallons of ice cream a day through ice cream plants in Watsonville, Santa Cruz, San Jose, and Palo Alto. This sounds more like what Meadowgold (owned by Beatrice Foods) accomplished; census records show that Nielsen continued to live and work in Los Gatos after the takeover, so he sounds more like the small-town manager than the ice cream unicorn entrepreneur. Meadowgold lasted at least into the 1970’s, manufacturing ice cream right there in downtown Los Gatos.

The creamery on Santa Cruz Ave was a simple storefront on the main road through town. A photo from the 1930's shows a large "Eatmore" sign painted on the Elm Ave. wall of the building. (The photo also shows an Associated Gasoline station on the opposite corner - imagine trying to put a gas station on Santa Cruz Ave. today!) Sanborn maps show Eatmore sharing a building with a grocery next door. Although the creamery storefront was on Santa Cruz Ave., the ice cream manufacturing didn’t stay there for long. A cinder block building behind the creamery storefront shows up in the 1928 Sanborn map with 18’ ceilings, a two-story office at the front, and a boiler room at the rear.

The only photos I’ve found show the building from a distance; it looks blocky and unpretentious with only the cooling tower on top seeming out of the ordinary. Example photos include a 1950's shot from Charlie Givens in Arcadia Publishing's "Railroads of Los Gatos".

Meadowgold still shows up in 1950’s photos, and articles reminiscing about the old Los Gatos seem to mention Meadowgold and Eatmore more often than I’d expect.

Eatmore, 1944 Sanborn map

Manufaactured gas plant, 1930's SP Valuation Map. CSRM Collection.

The space wasn’t always an ice cream factory. Railroad valuation maps into the 1940’s still displayed the previous inhabitants - the manufactured gas plant for Los Gatos. Manufactured gas plants processed coal and oil to extract lighter-than-air hydrocarbons, and took the remaining coal tar and lampblack and either sold it or buried it out back for future generations to discover. The gas holder was at the front of the plot, facing Elm St., with a corrugated iron building at the back. PG&E shut down the plant in 1924 when a natural gas line from San Jose arrived. The ice cream plant seems to match the location and floor plan of the manufactured gas plant building; the two story office at the front appears to date from the ice cream era.

The Model

The model required a fair amount of guesswork. There were no good photos of the building, just distance shots showing a tiny featureless white box and dark cooling tower. The Sanborn map shows a bit more about heights and number of floors in the building, but I forgot to double-check the Sanborn map before I started construction. Instead, I looked at photos online for ideas about cinder block building from 1930’s. When those searches didn’t work out, I ended up searching for ice cream plants, and found some photos of Treat Ice Cream’s San Jose plant off Alum Rock Ave. Treat’s a local ice cream manufacturer that provides the store brand for our local grocery, and their plant is hidden at the back of a main street business on San Jose’s East Side. The cinderblock building and steel windows gave me the inspiration I needed.

The general construction was straightforward, but it’s definitely a 21st century project. I used styrene sheet for the walls and ceiling (using 1/16” styrene sheet from Tap Plastic - cheap and available in any size you want up to 4' x 8') and strip styrene for the front and side deck. The doors are Grandt Line parts. Rather than simulate concrete block, I fell back to a stucco look, and again used an acrylic gel with pumice from the art supply store to give the walls a slightly rough appearance.

I couldn’t find any windows I liked, so I instead fell back on the 3d printer. 3d printed windows never print as nicely as the commercial windows - tiny muntins just don’t print well. To avoid a trip to the store, I made the windows solid, with muntins and panes embossed into the solid casting. I painted the windows glossy black to simulate glass, then painted the window frames. I used a similar trick with baggage wagons in the past, making the wheels solid with raised spokes rather than trying to make spindly and open wheels.

The 3d cooling tower was another challenge. Some folks have modeled cooling towers for ice plants; Suydam’s cardboard kits have one example. The models always look a little rough, both because of the material and its toughness. Instead, I fell back on the 3d printer. I figured out my design from looking at previous HO models (such as Suydam's) and also checking old trade journals such as Refrigeration World for photos of past equipment. (For example, here's the Burhorn cooling tower.)

Although the design seems complex, it's geometric and pretty straightforward. The model's designed as two copies of the same part, each printing two sides. Real cooling towers appeared to use corrugated iron for the fins; I held off on adding that detail from impatience. If you want one of your own, the 3d model can be downloaded from Thingiverse.com.

My final touch was milk pails, a combination of 3d printed and commercial (Tichy) cast parts. Photos of Eatmore's San Jose plant showed the classic tin milk pails all over the place. Although common in industry, tin milk pails aren't a common sight on railroads in California - I've seen little evidence for milk trains in the Santa Clara Valley. Pauline Correia Stonehill's Barrelful of Memories: Stories of My Azorean Family" described life in growing up on a Central Valley dairy. She remembered her father using a wagon to carry the day's milk to the Los Banos dairy. A combination of good roads and nearby processing plants may have made remarked how many dairies delivered milk via wagon and truck. There may have been milk trains elsewhere in the Bay Area; the Niles Depot website claims two or three milk trains a day through Fremont.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Cannery Crime Blotter II: Getting Under a Canner's Skin

This is the second in an ongoing series of true crime from the annals of San Jose canneries. This article was lifted from the front page page of the March 22, 1928 San Jose Evening News.

Canning's always been a risky business: weather, greedy farmers, cheating wholesalers, and shifty-eyed socialists were always a concern. But did you ever hear about the time the Captain Kidd gang tried to break into the Greco cannery?

"The Big San Jose tunnel mystery is solved.

For a short time yesterday, it looked like a gang of bold, bad yeggs had tunneled under the Greco Cannery on Howard Street with the idea of getting a crack at the safe.

A squad of bluecoats was rushed to the scene by Chief of Police Black. They found - not a band of desperadoes but the "Captain Kidd Gang" - six lively youngsters who attacked the policemen in the "pirate cave" with its 75-foot exit.

It was a brief skirmish and not a shot was fired. The battle was waged in words, between the group of small boys who stood right up and talked straight from the shoulder to the big policemen. But the policemen won, for what can young 'pirates' do against big policemen in this day and age?

WORKMAN FINDS TUNNEL

Author's reconstruction of likely "Captain Kidd" tunnel path.

The story of the tunnel mystery is as follows: Late yesterday afternoon a workman sent under the Greco Cannery building to make some repairs came upon a heavy board trapdoor in the ground, well under the cannery. He investigated, and on giving the door a few kicks, it gave way and revealed a sloping entrance to a tunnel through which a grown man could easily crawl.

Quivering with excitement and thinking the secret entry was the work of robbers laying plans for robbing the company office, the workman rushed into the cannery office and told the story of his discovery. V. V. Greco of the canning firm crawled under the building and looked for himself. He lost no time in getting Chief of Police Black on the telephone.

THREE-ROOM DUGOUT

The officer sent Captain of Detectives John Guerin, Officer Covill, and Traffic Officer William E. Snow to the cannery. The traffic cop was sent as a committee of one to crawl through the tunnel and find where it led to. Traffic Officer Snow slid down the sloping entrance to the tunnel and crawled and crawled and crawled - about 75 feet - finally coming out into a three-room dugout.

He sought an exit and found it, coming out into the open air in the chicken yard of the Roumasset home, 374 North Autumn Street. Hurrying back to the other officers, Officer Snow told what he had found. After a hasty conference it was decided to have cannery officials and police keep a watch on the tunnel, it being the natural supposition that eggs were burrowing under the cannery in a clever plot to reach the office safe undetected and blast the strong box.

"PIRATES" ATTACK

But while the three officers were standing over the dugout they were rushed by several small boys, including the younger members of the Roumasset family. The boys indignantly demanded what the cops were doing, trying to cave in their dugout. The mystery was solved.

And then from the lips of the "culprits" poured the story. The dugout, with its three rooms, was their "fort". They had started digging the tunnel some months ago, planning it as a secret exit in the event the "army" or "gang" should become besieged in the underground fort.

MISSED BEARINGS Originally it was planned to have the tunnel open into a hidden place near a spur track in the railroad yards, but the "chief engineer" in charge of the underground workings missed his bearings and when the tunnel broke through the ground, it was right under the floor of the Greco Cannery. The boys had no intention of doing any harm and no one but the gang knew about the tunnel, although parents of some knew of the dugout in the back yard.

The police ordered them to seal the tunnel, which the boys reluctantly agreed to do, if the police would rush reinforcements in case of a raid by an opposing gang.

ancestry.com confirms that the Roumasset house was at 374 North Autumn, and a Sunburn map shows the house was right next to the tracks, just west of the Greco cannery. Charles Roumasset was the patriarch, born in New Almaden, and a meat cutter by trade. His wife was Lillian. They lived with her mother, Maria Magistretti, who was born in the italian part of Switzerland. ancestry.com also names the likely "Captain Kidd gang" members: Charles (15 at the time), John P. (12), Robert (11), and Eugene (9). Considering their father's birth in the midst of miners, I'm a bit disappointed they didn't aim their tunnel better. There's a bit on the four boys on the Internet, but they never got caught again tunneling into a cannery - apparently the Captain Kidd gang got scared straight.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

This Train Ain't Bound for Glory

Model railroads are most fun when there’s action, and that means we want to model prototypes with lots of trains moving around. I chose the Vasona Branch over other SP branches because I assumed the canneries and dried fruit packing houses along the tracks could generate that action. However, I also wanted to include the photogenic locations in the Santa Cruz mountains: redwoods, oak, chaparral, and creeks in narrow canyons. I knew that industry was sparse up in Los Gatos Canyon, but just how sparse?

There aren’t a lot of sources to tell us how busy the railroad was. Maybe we’ll find a quote in a newspaper about last year’s revenue, or maybe we’ll find some railroad paperwork or photos that suggest train length. But that sort of information is rare; I’ve never had that sort of information for the Vasona Branch, but I’ve always been curious.

Luckily, there is one potential source. When railroads wanted to shut down a branch line, they’d need to ask permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission to make sure they weren’t leaving customers in the lurch. The ICC decisions on abandonments give us at least a small view into an under-performing branch.

I’d always been curious about the abandonment proceedings, but assumed the details would be in a dusty book in a university library’s off-site storage. I’d asked around when I was visiting the California State Railroad Museum last week, but the likely books were stored off-site. Some poking around showed that some local libraries might also have some of the ICC decisions, but none of the places were easy to access. I knew rough dates of abandonments, and web sites like abandonedrails.com even provided the ICC “docket number” to help with searches - the abandonment of the Los Gatos - Olympia portion of the line in 1940 was ICC docket #12815.

It’s also the 21st century, so there’s a good chance some of those documents are on-line. So I tried a few searches with different keywords in different permutations: “interstate commerce commission”, “abandonment”, “los gatos”, “South Pacific Coast”.

Pay dirt. The abandonment decisions for SP’s Boulder Creek branch (1933), Le Franc to New Almaden (1933 also), Los Gatos to Olympia (1940), and Campbell to Le Franc all turned out to be on-line, with links below. None of these are particularly compelling reading: no stories of murders, or heroic rescues, or amusing encounters with grizzly bears, but just some dry stories: “This railroad no longer has a reason for being there, the folks living nearby don’t need it, and the railroad doesn’t want to run it.” They’re also not full of railfan facts such as locomotives and engineers. However, they still give us a sense of what the railroad was like.

From the Southern Pacific Company Abandonment of theSanta Cruz branch from Los Gatos to Olympia:

“The line proposed to be abandoned is an intermediate segment of the branch connecting San Jose… with Santa Cruz. It was built by the South Pacific Railroad in 1870-1880 and acquired by the applicant in 1937. The main track is laid with 90 pound rail. The aggregate curvature is about 3,598 degrees, with a total length exceeding 8 miles. There are approximately 13,137 feet of timber-lined and masonry-lined tunnels… Motive power is limited to the consolidated type of locomotive…. the line serves an area mainly devoted to summer homes and resorts; there are no industries except for a limited amount of fruit growing, which is not dependent on the railroad for transportation.”

But then we start getting some of the color. “As protection against embankment slides and washouts, a pilot was sent ahead of the early morning train.” As model railroaders, having a pilot train running to watch for redwoods across the track would be quite the thing for operation. Saturday excursion runs generated most of the passenger numbers, so I should run more Sunshine Specials to Santa Cruz.

And then there’s the traffic numbers. I knew that the Santa Cruz Mountains were quiet in the 1930’s, but oh how quiet! There were only six carloads of outgoing freight between 1935 and 1939. Each year, there were only 40-70 cars inbound (except for 1939, when 392 carloads came in for Highway 17 construction.) Most of the traffic was through service: thousands of passengers, mostly for the Sunshine Special excursions. The line also carried 500-1500 carloads of sand from Olympia and “oiled crushed rock” (aka asphaltic rock) from near Davenport each year. Even with the mountainous route, shipping via Los Gatos Canyon was faster and less expensive than going the long way through Watsonville and Gilroy. The Southern Pacific admitted the costs were higher on the new route, but they'd be able to handle more cars per train. The shippers were disappointed at the loss of the short route to San Francisco, but resigned to pay an extra 0.25 cents to 1.5 cents per hundred pounds to ship their product via Watsonville. That’s all model railroad scale: about five loaded cars a day across the railroad, and one car a day ending up on the railroad.

The reports also list population, highlighting how much the Santa Cruz mountains had depopulated. Only around 1300 people were living along the line in 1939, with 500 at Alma, 150 at Aldercroft Heights, 40 at Call of the Wild, 50 at Wrights, 35 at Laurel, 196 at Glenwood, and a huge 240 at Zayante. The numbers are probably larger now, but the land’s still pretty empty.

If you go and compare those freight numbers to San Jose, it’s easy to see why the SP dumped the Los Gatos canyon line. Compare with San Jose proper. A 1940 labor law case argued that several of the dried fruit packers tried to sponsor their own union to avoid the Longshoremen’s Union getting into their business. In between stories of companies directing favored employees to organize “the right way”, there’s details about fruit volume. J.S. Roberts, on my layout, generated 1,750 tons of fruit in 1939- as much as the Los Gatos - Olympia section carried in a full year. Abinante and Nola and Hamlin Fruit generated similar traffic. Sunsweet and Del Monte would have generated 300 cars a year each in dried fruit from San Jose. It’s not hard to see how SP made its money.

For me as the modeler, these facts stress how I should keep the Santa Cruz Mountains quiet: occasional freights full of sand-laden gondola, but otherwise no sizable industries generating traffic, and a bunch of rusty sidings that may not see a train again.

Oh, and I need to model that pilot train checking the line.

Raw numbers for the Los Gatos - Olympia service:

Passenger Traffic: 


YearLocal PassengersThrough Passengers
1935815,482
19361204,842
19371294410
19381354427
1939263389

Freight Traffic:

YearLocalLCLBridge Traffic
193539 carloads / 1984 tons20 tons14 carloads / 229 tons
193631 carloads / 1557 tons 8 tons0 tons
193769 carloads / 3758 tons 22 tons416 carloads / 21,075 tons
193836 carloads / 1451 tons26 tons01,133 carloads / 64,426 tons
1939392 carloads / 21225 tons37 tons1,517 carloads / 92, 554 tons

Only 6 carloads of freight originated on the line from 1935-1939. Six.

That was fun; let’s check another!

Here’s the abandonment report for theBoulder Creek to Felton branch, torn up in 1933. “The marketable timber supply in the territory has become exhausted, there is no other manufacturing industry in the territory, farming is of no importance.” Rock and stone were the main freight being shipped, but only around 100 loaded cars or so were coming off the branch. “The only inbound carload traffic of regular nature is an occasional car of coal.” The report lists that service had declined to a weekly freight, with cars, buses, and trucks taking away business that had been for the railroad.

Or the New Almaden branch. The New Almaden mines had been shut down for years; the only traffic from the line between 1931 and 1933 was “137 tons of tomato juice”. “ The weekly mixed freight just encouraged the locals to jump in the car to get around.

Or the Le Franc branch: surrounded by orchards and vineyards, but the locals all deliver their produce by truck. From 1933-1936, the SP handled less than twenty carloads a year, and handled it all with a yard locomotive.

Again, none of these documents contain essential facts for our model railroads, but they do tell a bit about how the railroad declined, and who remained to use it during its last years. When visitors come by, we can point at a tank car, look sad, and say “137 tons of tomato juice - that’s the only thing that railroad shipped in its last year.”

Pro tips for finding similar documents: try several searches, and poke through a couple pages of search results. Use quotes around groups of words such as “Interstate Commerce Commission”. If you find a book with other railroad-related legal reports, check the index or start using keywords, and you might find some interesting gems. Abandonment reports sometimes turn up in the “Finance Reports” volume, though that wasn't true for all the cases here. If you decide not to practice your Google searching skills, check for a university library with ICC reports, or visit a county law library that has access to HeimOnline - that database apparently has all the government publications. Santa Clara County's law library provides free access if you visit.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Land Law Ain't Easy

When you come right down to it, railroads are a real estate business with a transportation sideline. They own huge amounts of property, deal with lots of legal and illegal ways to get access to property, then need to track it and the dependencies on arcane law. Remember Tom Campbell’s California Railroad Commission case about whether a grocery wholesaler’s siding was a team track? Property law. Southern Pacific losing the franchise to run down Fourth Street in San Jose, but continuing to do it for fifteen years? Property law. George Patterson stopping the South Pacific Coast Railroad at gunpoint when they attempted to cross his Newark land by eminent domain? Well, that's kinda property law.

When railroads get right-of-way in the normal way (aka not laying tracks across a farmer's land in the middle of the night when no one’s looking), the records of land ownership eventually end up in the County Recorder’s office. I’ve been able to wander into the Alameda County clerk-recorder’s office and found the handwritten deed for great-grandpa’s eleven acres of ridge-top land, or down to San Jose to find who owned a cannery in the 1930’s - those records are present and accessible back to the formation of the state.

Well, in most places.

Elizabeth Creely documents the story of one of the sidings along the old main line that no longer has an owner.

Southern Pacific (and its predecessor the San Francisco and San Jose) originally got to San Francisco by the same route Caltrain currently takes - at least to San Bruno. At San Bruno, the railroad followed what eventually became the San Bruno branch, paralleling El Camino up through South San Francisco and Daly City, and eventually cutting through the Mission District. That line was superceded by the current line through Brisbane and Visitation Valley around 1910, but the track continued to be used for trains at places up into the 1970s. The line that cut across the Mission district can still be seen in the diagonally shaped infill buildings along the path. When the SP attempted to sell the old right-of-way in 1991, the adjacent buildings fought back, claiming they actually owned the land. The only problem? The original transfer of land to the Southern Pacific was in San Francisco’s Hall of Records… which burned in the 1906 earthquake. Did the SP buy the land or get an easement? Read Elizabeth’s article to find out.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Model Railroads and Technical Debt

Model railroading has taught me a lot. I can identify solvents by smell… and get nostalgic when I smell Dio-sol or Dullcoat. I learned how to repair mechanical devices, and convinced someone I might be a keeper when I fixed her CD player. Most importantly, I learned how to be kind to my future self, because I try to remember to make it easy to fix stuff on the model railroad in one year… or in ten years.

That’s a common lesson for model railroaders. Model railroads are long-term, large projects. The model railroad we build is going to last for several years, and we’re going to be expanding and repairing it along the way. The design and implementation choices we make years before will curse us years later. One badly placed switch machine is going to leave us with a sore back every time we repair it. Each time we cut corners wiring, we’re just forcing future-us to try to figure why that blue wire’s hanging loose, or remembering the wire color we used when we didn’t have black wire available. Every bit of track we can’t reach will be our bane every time a locomotive stalls or the track needs cleaning. Every model railroader has that moment of “what was this purple wire for, and where does it go?” early on in the hobby. After that we realize the benefit of using standard colors for wires, providing good access both to the track and to the mechanical and electrical parts below the layouts, the importance of labelling connectors and writing down designs - doing anything we can to avoid past-us making life difficult for future-us.

It turns out that’s a pretty useful skill in the real world, too.

I got to move some equipment I’m running into a new computer room the week before last. After I’d finished wiring it up, I asked one of the IT guys for help with something else. When he came over, he immediately commented on the state of the rack. “Wow, you’re using cable ties. And your wiring is neat - not like that other engineering rack.” He showed me the proper way to cable tie wire loops was with two ties, but he seemed pretty impressed that a software engineer was trying to keep wiring neat. The other rack, which I’d just moved my stuff from, had so many cables coming out the back that I couldn’t reach in to disconnect my machines. To be fair, the other folks in the rack were reconfiguring their stuff daily, and had a lot of connections to support; I was setting mine up for a single, long-term configuration with a much simpler configuration. Google’s original “cork board” server racks - now in the Smithsonian - highlight that you can be pretty successful even with messy wiring.

But model-railroader me was also wiring that equipment in the same way I’d want to wire the model railroad. I remembered the messy wiring on my first model railroad, and the pain I caused future-me. As a result, I made sure to steal cable ties from random benches, chose different colors for all my different cables, and neatly routed the wiring so I could get to the equipment and track down cable paths. Future-me (or future team-mate reaching in that same rack) should have an easier time, all thanks to past-me placing switch machines in inaccessible chambers between sheets of plywood, or tracking down intermittent shorts when teenage-me was splicing together wires with a couple of twists and bit of masking tape for insulation.

We worry about the short-cuts in computer programming just as we do in model railroading or in physical engineering. It’s become a popular topic in software engineering research as “technical debt” - delayed cleanup or quick-and-dirty implementations that complicate or block future changes. There’s even mini-conferences on the topic with research papers titles like “How do Software Practitioners Discount the Future?” Real engineering has technical debt too - think how commuter rail choosing to use low-level platforms (boarding at ground level) might never be able to move to high-level platforms (level surface from platform to passenger car) because of the problems transitioning from one to another. However, software tends to have more of these kinds of problems because everything’s up for grabs in software - we can build stuff any way we want, we don’t necessarily have conventions about how to do common tasks, and it’s often difficult to see those shortcuts from the outside. It’s common to tie together two bits of software with the ugliest, most fragile hack “that’s only needed temporarily”, just as I used alligator clips to temporarily tie together the power for two strips of LED lighting today. That’s less common in more traditional engineering disciplines; as far as I know, petroleum engineers never say “Joe, you sure you want to use cardboard tubes to join those two parts of the refinery while you’re testing?” (If you want a more nuanced argument about technical debt in software, read Kellan Elliot-McCrea’s argument that the term technical debt is mixing up a whole bunch of reasons why we have problems maintaining the things we build.

My current job involves writing tools to help software engineers build better programs: programs to test that the software can be built correctly, runs correctly, and has the performance we expect. Because our team has to have our infrastructure ready so that everyone else can make progress, that means we’re often building stuff as fast as we can, cutting occasional corners, and incurring technical debt so everyone else can build the things we sell. I occasionally take the same shortcuts in model railroading. Occasionally I route wires in ways that’ll make it harder to track down problems, or I’ll avoid adding a terminal strip to save on wire but minimize testing or change possibilities, or I’ll leave a switch machine near a joist where I can’t easily get to it. It’s ok in moderation, and it helps me make progress on the bigger task of building and completing the model railroad I want to build. I’ve been describing technical debt for our tools as us not trying to make future-us suffer too much, but acknowledging that some of our choices will make future-us suffer a little bit. “In ten years, we want to be laughing about the short-cuts we took and the pain it caused, not crying about a shortcut that kept us from meeting our real goals.”

That’s not a bad rule for the model railroad, too. As I was cutting in a new circuit for some LED lights for the lower deck, I wasn’t perfectly happy with how I was routing the wires, but I wanted to get everything completed and back together again tonight because keeping everything running is also a good engineering goal. And with luck, I won’t remember tonight’s short cut; if I do, I’m certain I’ll be laughing about the short cut in a few years once all the fluorescent lights are replaced by LEDs.