Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Hollywood Gas Station, or Robert Breaks His Unbreakable Rule Again

Final model

Robert’s Rule of Making Structures in a 3d Printer is simple: don’t make HO scale buildings with a 3d printer. Buildings aren’t particularly interesting for 3d printing; you don’t need multiple models, the models are too big for the printer, and the buildings usually have plain surfaces that are easier to make in other materials. The prohibition doesn’t hold for details - window or door castings can be used for other projects. Smaller parts that are hard to fabricate might be worth a quick 3d print. But don’t try printing a whole building.

Though even if it’s my rule… that doesn’t mean I won’t try.

The inspiring photo

The Hollywood gas station

Years ago, I’d run across this photo of an early gas station in Los Angeles. It appeared in Larry Harnisch’s “Los Angeles Daily Mirror” history blog; he’d found the photo in a back issue of the Daily Mirror from 1915, showing the filming of a new movie at D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts Studio. Griffith later filmed his silent masterpiece, Intolerance, and the sets for that movie are visible in the background of the original photo.

But between the crowd scene and the sets for the future movie, there’s this tiny little gas station. It’s the dawn of the auto revolution in Los Angeles, and cars need gasoline. This corner (Hollywood and Sunset) is on the edge of suburbia - the sets for Intolerance over there are being built in a former fig orchard. Photos of the studio behind the photographer show scattered buildings and empty lots. In a few years, this will be a very urban corner. Little gas stations like this would have been scrapped for the huge service stations that would appear in the 1920’s.

One sign of its age is the lack of any gas pumps visible in the photo; it's almost as if the pump machinery was hidden in the posts.

There's little sign of the gas station remaining. The site of this photo was almost certainly 4500 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, right where Sunset and Hollywood Blvd come together. The former movie studio is now a Von's supermarket, and the nearby Monogram Pictures is now a Church of Scientology video studio. The corner does have a small gas station, but the style doesn't match (art deco), plus it's triangular instead of square. I'm guessing our little gas station got torn down when a road was widened... or when newfangled gas pumps couldn't fit in the arch.

For a model railroad, and a model railroad set in the 1930’s, it’s a neat bit of architecture. The building itself is remarkably simple - a fifteen foot square office and similarly sized roofed porch covering the fueling area. There’s a lot of ‘teens era gas stations that appeared to be simple boxes to protect the attendant when he wasn’t checking your oil or putting air in your tires. (What a crazy time!) As a modest gas station, it’s also appropriate for the area down by the railroad tracks - this isn’t a high rent building.

However, unlike those dusty country corner gas stations, the Hollywood gas station dresses itself up by stealing details from every flavor of Spanish Revival it can. The most obvious feature are the silhouetted bell gables on each side, traditionally from Romanesque architecture. The fueling area has looks like the arched porte cocheres seen in any of the stucco spanish revival bungalows getting built out in Westwood. The wooden beams sticking out are vigas, straight from New Mexico and Pueblo Revival architecture. Floor to ceiling windows light the office; I’m guessing there are similar french doors on the front side to enter the office.

Man, I’m really a sucker for Spanish Revival. Show me a Spanish Revival gas station, and I’ll try to build a model of it.

Construction Like all my 3d printed models, I designed this in SketchUp. The model is one piece - walls, bell towers, and port-cochere. I omitted the roof - it’s easy enough to do with sheet styrene or cardboard. The viga beams are styrene, set into sockets in the walls. The posts are hollow to limit the amount of resin needed.

Beyond the issues of architecture, this was an interesting model because it reminded me of the challenges of 3d printing and manufacturing. Getting this model printed involved a chain of challenges; as easy as 3d printing seems, there’s always snags trying to make more than one.

I’d initially sketched up this model after seeing Harnisch’s photo. I’d liked the model and thought it would be a good exercise to practice in SketchUp. That initial model messed up a few angles, making the model have some minor holes in it. When we try to print a 3d model, the slicing software needs to figure out which bits are the inside of the model (where the plastic or resin goes) and which parts are outside. A good 3d model is “watertight” - all the exterior faces touch, there’s no holes that will make the software confuse the inside and outside of the model, and there’s no extraneous faces to make the software question which counts as the exterior surface. Cleaning up the holes in an existing model is always a tedious process as you try to get rid of some incorrect angle or out-of-parallel plane without tearing apart the whole model.

It's a lot like real home improvement, except with more straight lines and flat planes than reality.

The next big challenge was how to print the model. By default, the Form One wants to print models on a support structure. You take your model, choose the face-up direction, and the Form One automatically chooses how to place supports (sprues) to support the first few layers as the surface is built. Support structures are important because it lets us build items that aren’t flat; it also lets us build hollow objects without pressure from the liquid resin pushing walls out. However, support structure require a lot of material - sometimes as much resin as the model, and the bottom of models isn’t always flat.

First attempt

I’d printed an initial version of the gas station on a support structure, but it doubled the amount of resin needed, and I ended up with a not-quite flat base. If I instead printed straight on the build platform - ok for surfaces with a flat bottom large enough to hold the model to the build platform - I could cut resin use and get a flat bottom surface.

So I tried it - I printed one directly on the build platform, but fluid pressure (as the build platform peeled the part away from the tank then put it back against the tank) caused one side to blow out, and the window muntions to break. If I did things the way the manufacturer intended, and wasn't trying to cut corners to save resin and time, I'd have better results, but if I'm concerned about economics, I might try pushing the machine a bit harder than it really can take.

On a second attempt, I gave up and printed again on support structure. The windows again didn’t print perfectly, but I made new windows by drawing white lines on clear plastic using a technical drawing pen.

Failed print

That final model was good enough for me, but if I wanted to sell the models, I’d need to do a lot more work on the process so the models were perfect coming out of the printer. Making these efficiently would also mean cutting the resin needed, and that means limiting the support structure. Finishing On the first model, I used my usual trick of white glue and gesso, stippled onto the model. It dries quickly and adds a lot of texture, but I found the surface much too rough to my eyes. I ended up coating the second model with an acrylic gel with pumice (from Golden Acrylics) which was much more subdued. In both cases, I had to be careful to only coat the stucco surfaces with the fake stucco.

Just like resin building kits, cast structures are great for assembly, but frustrating to paint. My first attempt at the lanterns left black paint everywhere. For the second try, I painted the lanterns orange, then used a very fine tip to color the metal parts black. Similarly, painting the bells, inset into the walls, definitely required a bit of care.

So now, I've got two very cute 1915-era gas stations that mix up way too many architectural styles. They don't quite have a place on the layout, and I don't really need two, but they'll be great reminders not to break "Robert’s Rule of Making Structures in a 3d Printer".

Building an Interlocking Machine For West San Jose Tower

As I’ve mentioned before, I like model railroading as a hobby because of the mix of projects I can do. I’ve got a friend who’s big into wargaming figures. His photos of some of his painted miniatures shows great work, but I always wonder “what does he do when he doesn’t want to paint?” Luckily, I’ve got no such problem; when I'm tired of one kind of project, I move on to another. Lots of projects go unfinished because I’m not quite in the mindset to spend time on them. Some times the project just gets delayed, and sometimes it gets rethought. I’ll switch and do something else for a while, and eventually I’ll come back. Maybe I’ll do the project as I originally conceived it; other times, I’ll throw my old ideas away and go in a completely different direction.

Take the Western Pacific crossing on my layout, for example. The WP crossing was a key part of my track plan, not because it was an active part of switching the canneries, but because it both helped set the location, and because it tied my railroad to the larger world. I had plans years ago for how I wanted to build it, but those plans never worked out. A while back, I rethought what I was going… and ended up with a new plan that sounds like much more fun.

The Crossing as Model

The crossing of the Western Pacific and Southern Pacific tracks in West San Jose isn’t much to see - just a set of tracks crossing between the Del Monte cannery and the Standard Oil spur. There’s an interchange track that gets a couple cars switched every operating session. I built a model of the WP’s 1920’s era switch tower years back, and I keep having ideas of putting the Virden Cannery next to the tracks, just like in real life. However, for the operating crews, there’s just not much there. Littering freight cars across the crossing when switching Del Monte is quite a common occurrence, and would have infuriated the real tower man for the Western Pacific Railroad on the real railroad.

I’d had ideas to make crews better respect the crossing. Somewhere around here, there’s an Arduino with a sound card to control some animation. It would play a soundtrack occasionally - a factory whistle, some cars going by, a far away whistle, and finally the sound of a WP train approaching. Some nearby signals would change to red (to announce the arrival of the train), and LEDs in the roadbed would flash as the phantom train passed. If that wouldn’t keep crews from blocking the tracks, nothing would.

The project that didn't work out.

The plans never quite worked out; I didn’t have a place for the speakers and was never happy with the soundtrack. The idea of making the crossing obvious and important during operating sessions did linger.

History of the WP Crossing

When the Western Pacific was built in the 1910’s, the Southern Pacific already had tracks in all the obvious locations around the Santa Clara Valley. The potential business from San Jose’s fruit industry encouraged the railroad to find a way to get past the SP’s tracks. The WP’s line from Fremont and Niles to San Jose had to parallel the SP for much of its length, then swing far south of San Jose only to approach the city from the south. The route required crossings at Niles Junction, at the crossing of the SP’s Coast Line at Valbrick, and a final crossing of the San Jose - Los Gatos branch at West San Jose.

The tower - West San Jose to SP, and Tower 17 to the WP, was built in 1922. The railroad signalling trade rag commented on the construction: a Saxby and Farmer interlocking machine controlled the semaphores, with 20 levers controlling signals and switches. The crossing was quite substantial, with WP’s branch line crossing the SP’s main line and two drill tracks right in the middle of the cannery area. Like all railroad towers, the second railroad to arrive at a place paid for it all - the track crossing, the tower, and staffing the tower. The WP never got the traffic it expected from the San Jose branch, and had little interest in staffing the tower on an unused branch line. By 1938, the tower was out of use. In later years, WP trains had to stop and check the SP wasn’t coming before dashing across.

James Barriger got a decent photo of the area around the tower in the 1930’s, capturing an SP switcher right behind the Virden Cannery. Although he didn’t capture the tower, he did show the trenches for pipe rods controlling derails on the drill tracks.

The Interlocking

On a railroad, a switch tower is a manned location that controls where several tracks come together, and where the track, switches, and signals are controlled to ensure safety and minimal delays. There’s usually a person present; he sets switches and signals to allow trains to safely move through the section of track based on train schedules, dispatcher orders, and the arrival of trains. Controlling those tracks is often done by an “interlocking machine” - a mechanical computer that ensures only non-conflicting routes can be set up through the stretch of track it controls. Interlocking machines usually have levers that control switches and signals, one lever per device. For the WP crossing, that means that the signals, switches, and derails can be arranged to let an SP train to cross the WP tracks, or allow a WP train to cross the SP tracks, but not both. (It also enforces safe order - the tower man can’t set a signal to green unless the switches and derails on the through route are set correctly, and derails on the crossing track are locked down.) Interlocking machines use a set of sliding bars connected to multiple levers to ensure that if lever A is thrown, lever B cannot be thrown.

As mentioned, the WP tower’s interlocking machine had twenty levers - were there really that many things to control? From various sources, we can guess what the 20 levers in the Saxby and Farmer machine controlled. The Barriger photograph shows piping for derails, suggesting all the tracks had devices to stop a runaway car on a track that wasn’t expecting a train. Railroad valuation map shows that the SP had distant (one mile before) and nearby signals closer to the crossing. Track diagrams show one mainline track and two drill tracks on the SP to handle switching the canneries in the area. One likely guess at the purpose of the levers would be one derail, one local signal, and one distant signal on the SP and WP main tracks in each direction (3 * 4 = 12 levers) + a signal and derail on each SP drill track in each direction (2 * 4 = 8) for a total of 20 levers - just what the trade rag says.

Locking bars, tappets, and tappet blades on the interlocking machine at Santa Clara tower. Chuck's photo.

So it would be neat if I could actually model the interlocking machinery, and give my operators an appreciation for everything involved with the tower - the rules about how train crews got permission to cross the diamond, the need to communicate to the tower man where they wanted to go, and the actions the tower man needed to do to line up the crossing. That means I need to build an interlocking machine - not a standard kit at my hobby shop. I’ve seen articles on how to make an interlocking. Model Railroader had a set of articles by Paul Larson and Gorden Odegard in the January-June 1961 issues of Model Railroader, but it wasn’t quite a step-by-step project, and the suggestion that the authors needed to build a wooden mock-up beforehand to test out the logic suggested it wasn’t a project for the faint-hearted.

Building a Modratec Interlocking Machine

Luckily, there’s folks who can help. Modratec, in Australia, sells kits for making a working interlocking. The price isn’t quite an impulse buy - about US$225 for 12 levers and electrical contacts, but it’s a pretty great little kit. To get an interlocking kit, you download their SigScribe4 software for setting up the constraints, define out how you want the levers to work, then mail off the interlocking details. You’ll get a kit back - all machined and ready to be bolted together, with a bit of metalwork to set the locking machinery to match your intent. I’d been considering this kit for a few years; I’d tried a couple times to get started, but never quite got it. A couple years back, I finally took the time to understand the software well enough to describe West San Jose Tower. The interlocking turned out really nice, and gave me a much better understanding of how real interlocking machines work.

Designing the Interlocking

The biggest challenge was just getting the interlocking designed. It took me several tries over a couple years to figure out the SigScribe software to get a working interlocking. Running through the tutorials multiple times helped. Once I understood the software, designing a new interlocking for my Market Street layout took only an hour. Don’t be surprised if it feels cryptic, or if you find yourself starting from scratch multiple times.

The general steps are:

  • Research your prototype to understand how the interlocking may have been laid out. Decide on signals, switches, and derails.
  • Draw the track plan in SigScribe, mark the location of signals and switches, and describe the configuration of each signal.
  • Associate levers with signal blades or switches.
  • Define a route for each signal lever indicating what switches must be set (or locked) to allow a train to proceed through safely.

Planning the interlocking involves a bunch of choices - how far out does the interlocking go? Where did the prototype have signals? What additional safety is required, such as derails or pointing an incorrectly-proceeding train away from active routes? Doing a bit of research helps you lock down what you’re building.

Track diagram for the West San Jose interlocking I built.

For the West San Jose tower, I started by looking at photos and other documents. The Barriger photos showed that the interlocking had derails to keep an incorrectly moving train away from the crossing; representing these adds a bunch of extra levers to the interlocking, and reminds operators about all the extra machinery needed to protect the crossing. Valuation maps pointed out the need for distant signals a mile away - something I chose not to represent because of the lack of space. The California Railroad Commission documentation on the tower mentioned the 20 levers, which confirmed I’d accounted for all the devices around the real tower.

Track diagram for Fourth Street Tower in San Jose.

I also tried building an interlocking machine for the Market Street layout (though I haven’t ordered a kit for it yet.) The San Jose Market Street station had a switch tower at the east end of the station where the lines up to Oakland and down to Los Angeles diverge. For the Market Street layout, I again used valuation maps and photos to figure out the signals and switches that existed. There were no derails in the interlocking trackage. However, Modratec’s documentation did mention that sometimes particular switches would be forced to be set in a particular way to keep runaway trains out of the way of a chosen route, so there were some places where I could explicitly insist a switch had to stay pointed away from routes in use. (Specifically, I designed the interlocking so switch 6 would need to be pointed towards Oakland whenever a train was coming or going from the train shed.) For Market Street, I also had to decide which switches would be controlled by the interlocking. Southern Pacific timetables mentioned whistle signals to get access to nearby industries, suggesting these switches were under the tower’s control. A crossover just east of the station train shed, however, was outside of the track protected by the various signals according to the valuation maps, suggesting those crossovers were manually controlled. I left them out of the interlocking.

The Fourth Street tower was also complex because of the need for separate signal arms for each possible route through. I ended up making the easternmost signal (near "To LA") a three blade semaphore to control which diverging route would be chosen. I'd been curious why they needed a separate signal just west of switch 6; it provided a way to indicate whether the switch was lined for the mainline or the route into the yard without adding extra blades to the signals further east.

Once I had a handle on the track and signal arrangement, I started describing the interlocking in the SigScribe4 software. I drew the track diagram and placed symbols, connected up the levers, then set up the routes - about an hour of work now that I understand things.

Here’s some quick tips for using SigScribe4.

  • On a Mac, regular mouse clicks only do selection. You’ll need to do mouse clicks while holding down additional keys to do some of the actions. Select a square in the track diagram, and drag with the alt/option key down to draw a line. When you’ve selected a square in the track diagram (and see the multi-colored square), then shift-click on any of the eight cells to indicate the direction a track line should exit the square. Shift click in the center of the square to finish editing that cell.
  • Select a cell and press V repeatedly to show signal options for that cell, or H for derails, level crossings, and other non-signal options. For each signal, open the detail view (right click or command click and choose Detail View) and hit H and V to indicate the kind of semaphore blade in the signal or to show multiple blades when there are multiple routes available.
  • When connecting levers or routes, first select a lever, and then right click (or command click) to get the context menu and select “Connect” or “Define Route”. Connect all the switches associated with that lever or route (right click and choose "Connect" on each), then press the big button at the bottom of the screen to commit the change.
  • Make sure to define all levers and set their correct color (black for switches and derails, red for signals). If you need to change them, you're likely to lose all previous work.
  • Modratec mostly caters to English-style modelers, so it’s worth reading up a bit on either the Modratec website or british signaling website to understand their terminology.

Once I had a design, I tested it to make sure it worked correctly. I tried each route and double-checked the correct levers were locked and unlocked. I then saved out the model, checked the number of locking bars and levers needed, and got an estimate on price. Once I was ready to get the interlocking, I sent off an order and the file describing the model; Harold, the owner, sent e-mails about status, and let me know when the kit was on its way. Total time from order to kit arriving was about 6 weeks.

Assembling the Interlocking

I spent three days assembling the kit. The first day was doing the majority of the assembly. Most of the interlocking machine just needed to be assembled with screws; it all went together smoothly. The next two days were for making the locking mechanism: the tappet blades and locking bars. Finally, I completed assembly and made the track diagram to show which levers to throw.

The two non-trivial bits of work was the locking mechanism. An interlocking machine is set up so that conflicting movements can’t be made; it does this by mechanically blocking tappet blades (bars moved by the levers) with tappets in locking bars. The locking bars that set restrictions between levers are square bar-stock, and come pre-drilled where there would pegs to block the levers from movie. Brass rod needs to be pressed in and cut off to form the tappets, and filed flush with the top of the tappet blades. The tappet blades, controlled by each lever, are brass bar stock. Each tappet blade needs to be filed at the correct location to ensure the mechanism works properly. It’s straightforward but careful work; I was constantly assembling and testing to make sure I was filing in the correct location.

Next Steps

Although I’ve finished the interlocking machine, I still need to install it on the layout, attach it to signals, and tell crews how to use it.

The first step will be adding the model components; I’ll need signals to indicate when it’s clear to proceed, switch machines to control operation of switches under tower control, and derails to mark tracks that should not be crossed. The prototype signals were semaphore signals, located around 500 feet east and west of the crossing. Tall and spindly semaphore signals wouldn’t survive well in this area where people are constantly reaching in when switching; instead I’ll use dwarf lighted signals to indicate when the mainline is safe to cross. The derails are another important part of the interlocking; although I could try to build working derails, it might be easier to just add red LEDs near the track to indicate when the derail is set incorrectly.

The interlocking itself will be inset into the layout so it’s easy to reach, but won’t interfere with movement around the layout. It’s only six inches deep, so it should be easy to hide near one of the Del Monte buildings. I’ve had good luck with Team Digital’s programmable logic boards, though they all appear to have been discontinued. An Arduino board would be easy to program; each lever would throw one switch which would go to the Arduino; the Arduino could then control the signals and Tortoises.

Underside of interlocking machine with electrical switches added.

Once the interlocking is installed, switch crews will start having to work around the interlocking. Scheduled passenger trains will have it easy; the tower man would know the timetable, and could make sure that the signals were clear as the train approached. Freight trains would have a harder time without a schedule; on the real railroad, trains on the mainline would have to stop, whistle “one short and two long” to get the attention of the tower man, and get the switches set correctly. Crews on the drill track would probably need to stop, chat with the tower man, and get the switches thrown appropriately. Everyone would need to set the levers back before leaving. That leaves the WP trains; although I could automate it, I’ll probably just occasionally throw the levers to let a WP train through, preferably when a crew is about to switch in the area.


Thanks to Chuck who inspired me to build an interlocking machine, and shared stories and photos of the work he’d done restoring the interlocking machine at Santa Clara tower. I’ll miss him.

Information on the WP Tower from Jeff Asay's "Track and Time: The Operational History of the Western Pacific Railroad". I know I've seen more details in the California Railroad Commission decision allowing the WP crossings, but can't find references right now.

I have no connection with Modratec other than building this one kit.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Edith Daley Visits Campbell

One of my favorite finds for Santa Clara county history has been Edith Daley’s cannery stories. Daley was a writer for the San Jose Evening News in the ‘teens and early twenties. During a slow news summer in 1919, she spent a few weeks visiting the canneries around San Jose and writing about the people and sights in the cannery. Through her booster-ish writing, we learned about the modern, clean concrete floors and nursery at Del Monte’s Japantown cannery, Elmer Chase’s prohibition on asking canners how long they’d been in the business, Jenny Besana’s knowledge of fruit contracts at Contadina, or the size of Greco Canning’s tomato paste boiler. Daley had a large collection of non-cannery writings; she also wrote poetry and a history of World War I from San Jose eyes. However, the San Jose articles tell stories about the fruit business that we couldn’t get anywhere else.

I’ve been disappointed because Daley’s articles only focused on San Jose canneries - no dried fruit packers, and no plants outside San Jose (except for a quick visit to Pratt-Low in Santa Clara.) I’d always assumed this was local paper provincialism. However, a while back, I followed one of the classic tricks of library research - poke around at newspaper issues before and after the interesting articles, and see what turns up. (Full disclosure: I first used this research trick as a ten year old when I figured out that if I found a model railroad book at a particular place on the shelf, I ought to look at other books on the same shelf in case they were interesting.)

Pay dirt.

There’s no signs of articles by Edith Daley, but there were a pair of uncredited articles about the mood in Campbell as the fruit came in. Both articles have Daley’s voice, and read like rehearsals for the articles to come in subsequent weeks. They also match Daley’s interest in worker and child welfare which appeared in many of her articles. The first, “Many Types on Campbell Sts. as ‘Cots Start” on July 10, 1919, highlights the crowds coming to Campbell to work in the canneries. The second, “Better Living Conditions for Fruit Workers” in the July 11, 1919 issue, highlight both housing for cannery workers and conditions inside the cannery.

Daley had plenty of industry and workers to visit in Campbell. 1919 was the middle of a cannery boom in the Santa Clara valley as technology, demand, and the end of World War I coincided. Edith remarked on three canneries in Campbell: California Canneries (a new outpost for a San Francisco canner, with a new building ready for canning within two months of construction), “J. C. Ainslee” (sic), and the George E. Hyde Company. The Hyde Cannery still exists as the Water Tower Plaza office complex near downtown. The Ainsley cannery, just north of Campbell Ave., is currently townhouses. California Cannery’s sawtooth warehouses still sit just south of Fry’s Electronics.

All three were going great guns during her visit. California Canneries, like Ainsley, exported canned apricots to England, and has just announced it had sent its first 1400 cases to Liverpool. Summer heat affected the ripening; the previous day, the canneries were able to handle all their fruit by mid-afternoon “but if the hot spell had continued they soon would have been working triple time.” Speed of ripening was a huge issue in those days; “one prominent fruit man” claimed we could have lost a million dollars in fruit if the hot weather had continued for four days, for the fruit couldn’t have been canned quickly enough.

Daley commented significantly on how the canneries and the fruit rush required many more people than could be gotten from Santa Clara county, and relied on attracting temporary workers. Now, a huge influx of workers isn’t always seen as positive. There’s stories about the pea harvests in Alameda County in the 1930’s attracting harvesters before the crop started; the locals weren’t always happy with the itinerant labor turning up, especially if they didn’t have cash to live on. Daley suggests that the gathering hordes in Campbell were more welcomed.

“They say that the population of Campbell has more than doubled overnight - in less than a week at any rate - and one can well believe it as one walks around the streets of the little orchard city.

“And what a variety of them there are! There is the city girl, who takes it all as a lark, and, it is feared, is a little more afraid of spoiling her hands than the efficient worker should be. She is not averse to earning a few dollars for fall hats during the summer months, however.

“Then there is the black-eyed little Italian girl - the most efficient worker in the game. It is a matter of dollars and cents with her and she clears $5 or $6 a day without half trying when the 'cots are running good.

“There are the ex-tired businessmen of the bay cities who want to spend a few days away from the pavements and who have brought their wives and kiddies with them to enjoy the celebrated Santa Clara valley. And kiddies! There are scores of them,, of assorted sizes, shapes, and colors. All with little sunburned noses and knees, and a universally happy expression of health and pleasure.”

The idea of city folks coming to help out isn’t new; there are stories of school teachers moonlighting at Contadina in the 1940’s, and judges acting as fruit buyers in the Central Valley, but Daley makes it sound as if pulling in temporary workers from San Francisco was commonplace. It’s almost as if Apple drew ten thousand temps from around California each summer to assemble the new new iPhone.

Daley’s “little Italian girl” is an interesting counterpoint with the likely-anglo workers from the city. 1919 was at the tail end of a huge wave of Italian immigration to the U.S. between 1900 and 1920. Although the little Italian girl was likely born in the U.S., she was still a bit alien to Daley’s eyes… and like most new immigrants much more focused on earning money for the summer than the city folks out on a lark. Daley’s newspaper articles for other canneries usually comment on workers in two ways - either the longevity of the (anglo) crew (“many have been here for twenty years”) or the many languages being spoken. Daley seemed bemused and interested in the newcomers; when she visited Contadina, she commented on packing cardoni (artichoke variant cultivated for the stems), she noted the new foods being introduced. “Our every day salt-and-pepper-and-butter with an occasional bit-of-onion palates are finding new satisfactions in Italian flavorings. Maybe before long we'll find Cardoni on every menu!” I suspect Daley wouldn’t mind that her children and grandchildren are eating pizza and burrata.

It’s a bit surprising that Campbell in 1919 was still using primarily anglo workers, and that the Italian girl stood out enough to get Edith’s attention, for new immigrants were awfully common in the fruit industry. A 1919 Del Monte Lug Box newsletter included sections in Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, hinting at the numbers of new southern European immigrants filling its canneries. Edith’s later visit to Bisceglia Brothers mentioned workers from Oregon, Nevada, Watsonville, Calaveras, and Napa and Sonoma Counties - many Italian, though Daley mentioned several languages being spoken. Bisceglia Brothers rounded up their workers with letters in the spring offering work and “free rent” in their cannery village.

Daley highlighted how the crush of workers drained Campbell’s housing. Daley’s guess that Campbell’s population doubled wasn’t too far off - Campbell only had 2,000 residents in 1939, so for 1919, a few hundred workers per cannery would certainly double the population. Workers pitched tents wherever they could - army tents, pup tents, and pieces of canvas stretched around poles. Some brought camping trailers. Edith noted that California Canneries had a canning village of wood and canvas cottages (with cot, table, stove, and running water); Ainsley’s canning village exploded in size in 1919, with “little red cottages nested among the rows of cot trees with the branches bruising against the windows”, and the dirt roads along the orchard lined with more cars than “First Street on a Saturday afternoon”. (That’s First Street in San Jose, the main shopping street, not some sort of rush for margaritas at the future site of Aqui in Campbell.) Ainsley’s cottages rented for $2.50 a month, and Daley claimed she could hear Victrolas playing “Over There” from within.

That $2.50 a month wasn’t free, but it was awfully cheap. Wages averaged $3.50 a day (unless you were the extremely productive little Italian girl.) Getting fed cost 25 cents a meal at the company cafeteria. Children under fourteen went to the cannery kindergartens to be minded. The working conditions weren’t too bad either, with Ainsley installing fans driven by belt to cool the cannery.

And, in typical Edith Daley fashion, the cannery was described as a fruit slaughterhouse where an apricot entering would not be long for this world.

“Cookers, syrups, all the machines are arranged a la Ford factory, with the fruit received at the receiving door at one end of the plant and issuing into the warehouse at the other end in the form of cases of cans of 'cots - extra fine. A cot never retraces its steps after it reaches the fatal doorway. It might as well abandon hope as it enters, for its doom is sealed and it is only a few minutes before it is pitted, sorted, syruped, exhausted, cooked, canned, its lid sealed on, labelled, and stored away until some bally Britisher orders it for his breakfast and it must start its long jaunt across America and the Atlantic towards its final resting place.”

So thank you again, Edith, for the local color. I’ll be pitching a bunch of tents in my HO scale orchards, and make sure the Campbell downtown streets are packed. I’ll make sure to add the little Italian girl to the Campbell street scene. She’d be twenty years older than when Edith saw her, and might have her children in tow for a month of canning ‘cots. But just like in Edith’s day, Ainsley’s kindergarten would still be operating in 1930’s Campbell, and Campbell’s city streets would still be filled during fruit season.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

How We Work: A Reading List

One of my big themes with my modeling -- and my history -- is understanding something about what the Santa Clara Valley was like in the 1930s. What was it like to work in the canneries, or harvest an orchard, or switch boxcars of prunes? The stories I found tell me a bit about that... as well as the fun of drilling burned tomato paste out of an experimental boiler, or rolling tree stumps back up to Summit Road to avoid pissing off an angry neighbor.

I'm interested in how folks work in general, even if they weren't working in the Valley of Hearts Delight. I've come across a lot of great books about how engineers, or railroaders, or cannery workers work.

There's a lot of gems in those books I've read, so they're worth sharing. Here's my list so far. I'll add to the list as I remember more.

If you're also interested in this sort of thing, I'll point out four great reads.

First, Ignition: An Informal History of Rocket Propellants. It's not a railroad book, but it's full of explosions and toxic gases and poor choices. Although there's a fair amount of chemistry in the book, there's more about the rivalries between different research groups (Aerojet remembering to keep two chemists at different sites to avoid personality explosions), danger (grad students hiding lab apparatus to keep their advisor from blowing it up again), customer relations (Navy admirals unwilling to have fuels that react with chlorine on their ocean-going fleet), and when the best safety equipment is a pair of running shoes. Most importantly, he showed the death of an academic discipline; by 1970, every possible chemical that was energetic enough and cheap enough to serve as rocket fuel had been discovered. There was nothing left to research.

Ignition was out of print for years, and the best copy I had was a photocopied PDF. Rutgers recently re-printed it; if you like explosions, get a copy.

Second, Linda Niemann's Boomer: Railroad Memoirs. Niemann was one of the first women brakemen on the SP; when she got laid off at Watsonville Junction, she decided to become a boomer, traveling around the SP system wherever there was work. The book's a combination of her stories about working for the Friendly SP as well as her attempts to figure out her life when she was changing towns every six months and figuring out how to sleep when working insane hours expected for railroad crews. Boomer highlighted to me how little we really understand of the railroad crews when we operate a model railroad: the exhaustion, odd hours, crazy management, and isolated work sites.

Third, James Curry's Metallurgist for the Empire Star Mine and Newmont Exploration 1932-1955, Plant Manager for Calaveras Cement Company, 1956-1975. oral history about his time working at the North Star Mine in Grass Valley and running the Calaveras Cement plant at Redding. If you're curious what it's like to run a rail-served industry, Curry's stories might give you a hint.

Finally, there's Carol Lynn McKibben's book on Monterey cannery workers, Beyond Cannery Row: Sicilian Women, Immigration, and Community in Monterey, California 1915-1999. McKibben talked with many cannery workers; she heard the stories about why the women chose cannery work, which jobs were interesting, child care, and how the first generation of Italian immigrants became American.

There's plenty more on the full list; I'll add to it as I remember books worth sharing.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Cannery Crime Blotter I: Bye-Bye Buick!

This is the first in an ongoing series of true crime from the annals of San Jose canneries. This article was lifted from the editorial page of the August 10, 1919 San Jose Evening News.

F. H. Daley, is actually Fred Daley, better known as the husband of Edith Daley, San Jose News writer. In the 1920 census, he listed his job title as "cashier", but later described himself as a manager. In 1920, Fred and Edith lived at 179 9th Street, just behind San Jose State. Edith and Fred moved into the new Palm Haven neighborhood in the 1920's. If we wonder how Jack heard this story, a likely guess is straight from his spouse.

Edward. L. Perrault lists himself as a cashier at the Hunt Brothers cannery in 1920 (the actual owner of Golden Gate at the time.) He's listed as 21 years old in the 1920 census, and living in San Francisco with family by 1921.


Call the Police!

by Jack Wright.

Contrary to custom at some former times in this column, the following story is a TRUE one, but it seemed so good that even two columns in large ten-point type doesn't seem too much to give it.

Its moral is the danger of absent mindedness and its characters are local folks. It happened yesterday. Let's go!

E. L. Perrault is the efficient accountant of the Golden Gate Packing company. He has been so for years, and his mental completeness has never been questioned. Never has he come into contact with the local police, either as accused or accusing.

Yesterday, he made his first trip to the police station - two of them, in fact. The reason was as follows.

F. H. Daley, also of the Golden Gate company, is the proud owner of a new Buick. It has a self-starter, gas and electricity, side curtains, and would have hot and cold running water if those were common equipment. He is quite proud of his car - naturally.

Yesterday Perrault had to make a hurry trip to the bank. Perhaps payment for a few boxes of those worth-their-weight-in-gold 'cots had been made. What was more natural that he should borrow the resplendent new Buick for the trip?

In the machine, Mr. Daley had left a small cushion and his coat.

When Perrault left the bank for the return trip the coat and cushion were gone!

Upon his return to the packing house he went shamefacedly to the owner of the car, passed back the key, and said "Er - what did you have in the pockets of your coat?"

"I don't know; bankbooks, letters, etc. I guess." was the answer.

"W-w-was it a valuable coat?"

"About the only coat I've got. Why?"

"Well, someone must have been a fast worker because I wasn't in the bank more than five minutes and when I came out the coat and cushion were gone. I went to the police and they are working on the case."

Mr Daley didn't worry, particularly, but had occasion to go out to his car in the packing house garage a little later in the afternoon. He couldn't find the car! It was gone!! Heavens, was an organized band of thieves set on pursuing him and taking everything he possessed? He wondered if his house was still on its foundation.

He summoned Perrault hurriedly. "Well, the car's gone too." he said.

"No it isn't. I just drove it back here."

"It's not here now. They sure MUST have been fast workers."

Starting forward Perrault exclaimed "but there's your car!" He pointed to the Buick standing in the Daley compartment.

How the old bus had changed - aged! Gone were its new side curtains; gone its bright luster; the spare tire was no longer present; a crack slanted across the wind-shield and a fender was badly wrinkled.

Gradually a light commenced to dawn on F. H. Daley.

"Is this the car you drove home?" he questioned.

"Why yes. It's yours, isn't it?"

Bright day broke in the mind of Daley. "Young man you'd better hustle back to the corner of First and Santa Clara streets with that car or the police will transfer their attention from the thieves who stole the coat, to you! I don't know whose car this is. The only thing I know is that it's not mine!"

One leap carried Perrault to the seat. One motion started the car out of the garage. One dash skimmed through streets to the center of town, just in time to waylay a bewildered-looking man who was gazing where his car ought to be. One long explanation was all that was required to settle with the police.

And of course, this story has a moral: be very careful about doing silly things when your boss's wife works for the local paper.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Unleash the Scanners: Rosenberg Brothers and "Years Mature"

What can you get from a company’s self-written biography? Lots, in the case of Rosenberg Brothers "Years Mature" book celebrating their 50th anniversary in business back in 1943. While full of interesting facts - photos of the packing houses, and stories about crazy salesmen - it highlighted how I’d been missing half of the whole dried fruit industry.

When I started learning about the fruit industry, my point of view was completely focused on the product at hand. The farmers brought in fruit, the cannery or packing house put it in containers, the trains took it away. With this kind of view of the system, it’s no wonder that I only thought about the business in terms of the technology of cleaning, preparing, and boxing fruit.

Rosenberg Brothers: Abe, Adolph, and Max. From Years Mature.

But that’s a remarkably simple version of the business. Working in either canned fruit or dried fruit was just as much about finance - choosing a price for buying a future crop, and choosing a price for selling a future or current crop. The company’s buyer would talk with a farmer about buying a crop months before the crop appeared, and would have to set a price high enough to get the farmer to sign a contract, but low enough to ensure a profit could be made. We saw that in my Uncle Carl’s story - his father would act non-committal towards the buyer at 5 cents a pound, and would wait for him to return to the farm with an offer a half cent higher. Sometimes an orchardist might be having financial problems, and requires the packer to provide an advance on the crop assuming they think the farmer can deliver enough to pay back the loan.

Meanwhile, the packing house was also dealing with sales on the other end. The broker and packers were having to make sure they had sufficient money to cover the purchases they were making, had to be drumming up sufficient interest to sell fruit with a bit of a profit, and keeping track of the market enough to know when to sell futures. They had to set prices for selling the season’s fruit ahead of time, and decide how much to hold for later sale.

When you think of it this way, the fruit industry sounds a lot more like the stock market, with the buyers selling stock futures and the broker handling the day-by-day market. If it weren’t for the fact that America was relying on all four men - the orchardist, the packing house operator, the buyer, and the broker - to make sure that Santa Clara prunes were making it into breakfasts in New York... or Hamburg... or Buenos Aires. It might seem more like a casino than a drying yard. I suspect all the fruit businesses were like this to some extent, whether large firm, a co-op like Sunsweet, or a canner selling to a small number of New York wholesalers.

But that speculation on future prices was what made the fruit industry challenging. I was reminded of the complications of the real fruit industry when I was trying to track down more information on Rosenberg Brothers, “the most successful of the speculative packers.” Rosenberg Brothers was one of the largest packers and buyers, trading in almost any dried food product: rice, raisins, prunes, figs, or beans. Rosenberg Brothers operated in San Jose and Santa Clara for fifty years, and also had the dubious distinction of its packing houses being subject to the numerous fires. Their plant on Ryland Street burned down in 1905 (under George Hyde’s reign), while a fire in 1916 caused by a shifty-eyed socialist, destroyed the historic Santa Clara County Fruit Exchange plant.

Rosenberg Brothers Santa Clara packing house. From Years Mature.

Information about Rosenberg Brothers is sparse until you encounter the company’s own history. “Years Mature”, the history of Rosenberg Brothers, was written in 1943 for the company’s 50th anniversary just as World War II ended.

Along with descriptions of the company’s products and plants, it describes the early history of the company and the three founders: Abe, Adolph and Max Rosenberg. The three Rosenberg brothers were the children of a Gold Rush era general store owner. Adolph, a fresh fruit buyer, saw the promise of dried fruit selling on the east coast. He convinced his brother Abe, bookkeeper at a shoe company, to join in, and the brothers soon pulled in their youngest brother, Max. Adolph was the idea man and salesman, going to Europe to open markets for unfamiliar fruit. “Blond, jovial Adolph, always with a pad of paper in his hand, a flower in his buttonhole, was the human dynamo, the idea man. Adolph almost ran to the office every morning to be the first man there and open the mail and telegrams he constitutionally declined to answer.” Abe was the financial man and bookkeeper. Max was the buyer and broker. The description of the company’s early years talk less about the packing than the contracts: keeping their word on their contracts, being profitable with a small but well-selected staff, and expecting as much candor and trust on the part of their customers. The stories tell of help for customers needing help, but lawsuits if a buyer tried to renege on a contract.

The company’s own description mostly talks about the business. It mentions all three brothers as equals - a small and tightly knit company, profit sharing, and care with business. When quoting Mr. Abe, they noted a financial story. “Mr Abe used to say to one of his younger buyers “there are five fingers on your hand. I don’t expect you to check “right” against every one of them. But I do expect you to be right three times out of five.” Many of the wallopings that came their way were resounding, involving sums that made the “street” gasp. But usually from this month’s beating emerged next month’s reward. The brothers’ power of recuperation, their ability to turn disaster into victory, became legendary. And the rewards were plowed back in.”

The book also lists the many employees who had been with the company for many years - a mix of folks working in the back office, as buyers, or at the packing houses. 21 men and women had been with the company for at least thirty years, some at the Santa Clara and Fresno packing houses, or the Oakland warehouses, or the head office.

Rose Selene, for example, was a thirty-year veteran in the head office. She was cashier and later treasurer for Rosenberg Brothers, and a 1940’s city directory mentioned she was also working for Atlas Merchantile Co. Single, she lived at the Fairmont Hotel in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Albert Beitler was also a thirty year employee, starting off as a “car loader”, then “foreman” and eventually listed his occupation as “fruit man”. Clarey Armstrong from Fresno had similar roles in Fresno.

Box makers seemed to be tasks for senior men; both Mark Pasetta in Santa Clara and George Avakinan in Fresno had that job during their 25 year careers. George Lasater, a manager at the Oakland plant, had also been with Rosenberg for 25 years. James Wollberg, one of the salesmen in the San Francisco office had a similar tenure.

And Minnie Pacheco, a Portuguese woman from Santa Clara, had been a fruit packer at Santa Clara for 25 years, living her entire life in the Santa Clara Valley.

Rosenberg Brothers was big business. Rudolph Peterson, a long-time Bank of America employee remembered them as one of the larger buyers of grapes and raisins - large enough to require a several million dollar credit line for buying fruit each year. He also remembers them as aggressive on pricing:

Peterson: I knew them [Rosenberg Brothers] as a kid… the big buyers of grapes in the San Joaquin Valley. They were headquartered in Fresno. They had always come in and gotten their line of credit reestablished each year for several million to cover the purchase of grapes, and in due course it would be paid back.
This was in 1936, by the way. Ralph Heaton was telling me one day that someone from Rosenberg Brothers had come in and said he wanted to set up their line of credit for this year to buy grapes. Ralph Heaton asked him what he was going to pay per ton of the various types. He outlined it.
Ralph said, "Well, that's all right. Good luck to you, but you're not going to do that with our money." He asked, "What do you mean?" Ralph replied, "You know damn well that you're not paying them enough to cover grower's cost up to now on grapes, and we both know that . "
"Okay, what should we do?" "Well, let's sit down and review it," and, as Ralph said, "in due course before we were through, we had arrived at a figure that at least covered the farmer's cost and gave him a modest margin." But that story wasn't confined I'm sure to that platform. This was the key to a line of credit all through the Valley, unless he paid the rancher a fair price.

One of the Rosenberg customers, the Draper Gordon Brokerage Company in Duluth, Minnesota, even provided a congratulatory letter for the company, and gave hints about how fruit was sold. Many of the articles I’ve seen suggest that the principals of the company did most of the contact with the brokerages and grocery wholesalers buying fruit. Rosenberg, however, was large enough to have its own salesmen roaming the midwest drumming up sales. R.H. Draper described the experience of having the Rosenberg Brothers salesman blow into town:

One day we heard that a man named Frohlich, who put Steele-Wedeles on the dried fruit map, had gone with Rosenberg Brothers. We knew something about his operations but had never met him. Well, one morning he blew into our office and believe me there was plenty of breeze. We visited for a few minutes then he asked for our best stenographer, opened the window (he seemed to like fresh air) and started to work. When dictating he never sat down - paced up and down the room - talked loud and fast, with plenty of gesticulations. He went through this procedure every time he came here - he would always call for Sadie (Mrs. Cole). Duluth was usually a one night stand for Al - he was always in a rush but did a thorough job and never once drew a blank - he sold something to someone whether they wanted anything or not.”

That whirlwind of a salesman was Albert Frohlich, the sales manager for Rosenberg Brothers, who lived in Berkeley by 1920. Albert also made it into history when he was a witness in a lawsuit against lawsuit against S.F. Buffum, a New York wholesaler who wasn't able to cancel some ill-advised prune order - 2300 boxes of prunes worth $10,000. Frohlich didn't make it to the 50th anniversary; he died in 1938 at age 54.

Raisins arriving at Rosenberg Brothers' Fresno plant. From "Years Mature".

Even if the principals weren’t the ones in the packing houses, they built a huge infrastructure for packing the fruit. Rosenberg Brothers was one of the first food packers to have their own warehouse and packing house at the Oakland docks. They had 150 buyers scattered across California, and packing houses in Yuba City, Sebastopol, Biggs, Santa Clara, Brentwood, Modesto, Fresno, Orange, and Oregon; “together these and our other packing houses and mills have a capacity of 70 full cars [“70 cars normally make up a complete train”] each normal (8 hour) working day.” We don’t know exactly how big Rosenberg Brothers are - they provide many numbers on California’s exported fruit, but are awfully shy about quoting their own production - at best, quoting they handled 40-50% of the California rice crop in past years.

Written during World War II, Years Mature didn’t just talk about the business, the long-time employees, or the product. They also commented on how the world changed during World War II -when the book was published. They mentioned that all of the 1942 crop of apples, apricots, peaches, and pears were requisitioned by the U.S. government for both military and lend-lease use, feeding both soldiers and the civilians of Europe. They also listed the season for each of their crops.

Rosenberg Brothers didn’t continue for long after the war. The long-serving general manager, Arthur Oppenheimer ran the company from the early 1930s to 1947. Oppenheimer performed two rescues during the Great Earthquake and Fire,saving both the company’s books and ensuring the firemen could hose down the packing house. Shortly after Years Mature was written, the company was sold to Consolidated Grocers (better known now as Sara Lee); apparently there was no heir apparent to replace Oppenheimer. Louise Rosenberg Bransten, daughter of Abe, served on the board but apparently wasn’t willing to follow her father as a dried fruit baroness. She and her husband, whose family was involved in M.J.B. coffee, were content as directors of Rosenberg Brothers. (Louise does turn up in later history quite a bit; she and her husband were politically active in both socialist and civil rights issues; both were tossed out of the Communist Party in the 1930’s, and Louise was indicted by the House Un-American Activities Committing for refusing to divulge whether she'd donated money to the Communist Party.). A third of the company was owned by the Rosenberg Foundation, contributed from Max’s estate. The Rosenberg Foundation still exists in San Francisco, and the profits from prunes, rice, and raisins continues to support racial and economic justice in California.


“Years Mature” is scanned and available on Flickr.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Counting Cars: Model Railroad Sudoku #2

One of my big internal battles is whether model railroading is re-enactment or a game - whether I’m going to give up a bit of reality to make operations more fun, or whether I’ll sacrifice challenge and fun to make folks think about how the real trains moved. For example, do I want more timetable passenger trains to interfere with the freight trains? I chose accuracy, and model the Los Gatos commute train going to Vasona Junction and Lost Altos even though I don’t get to mess up my switching crew’s plans with another commute train to avoid. Do I model the towns as they were, or do I add fake industries or towns? Accuracy won out, though a later extension to the Moody Gulch oil fields created a single non-historic (though plausible) location. Do I do reasonable levels of freight traffic, or do I add enough work to ensure all the crews get a good workout?

Del Monte Plant #51 on the Vasona Branch layout. The two tracks are often packed with freight cars.

That question of traffic’s a big deal for me. I love model railroads that challenge me in realistic ways. When I operate, I don’t want to solve puzzles like a timesaver - I want to do work similar to what a real crew would do, and I want enough work to get into the swing of things. Switching 4 or 5 cars in one town means that the fun will end just as I’m getting familiar with the task. I want to give folks a similar experience with my model railroad - that means I want more than five or six cars to switch, I want a few places to do that switching so I can get practiced at sizing up a town, and I want the experience to last for more than 30 minutes. Most trains on my layout end up being around 10 cars, involve significant switching at multiple locations, and take around 60-90 minutes to complete. To keep traffic levels high enough to support interesting levels of switching, I operate canneries that would have been shut down or bankrupt during my time period. I pack all the sidings full of cars. I also set up the switch jobs so each job handles multiple industries. I keep people busy, even if it means not being prototypical.

That desire for a lot of switching goes against my setting - after all, I’m modeling the Santa Clara Valley in the depths of the depression. Del Monte showed it worst sales ever in the years I model. The Hyde Cannery had been dark since the late 1920’s. America wasn’t buying prunes, and co-ops paid a pittance for the fruit they took. I don’t know if crews were really switching every industry like I’m doing. And who knows if all the sidings were packed like that? I might just have a guilty conscience, but I’ve always assumed my layout is modeling insanely unrealistic levels of traffic.

But let’s back up a second. How do I know that railroad traffic wasn’t as busy as I think? There’s three questions I have to answer to understand traffic levels: knowing which industries were open, how crews switched those industries, and levels of traffic. The first question’s relatively easy - we can check newspaper and other historical documents to guess at what businesses were operating. The second’s a bit harder: we can talk with old-timers, or we can ask how switching was done in later years and assume that railroad practices didn’t change much between 1950 and 1930.

And then there’s that final question - do we know how much traffic industries generated? Do we know how many cars per month were received by a particular industry? Do we know how many boxcars were sitting on a siding? There are sources out there; they take a bit of work, but it’s possible.

For traffic levels, sometimes we can find either switchlists, railroad reports on traffic, or government groups. Angelo Figone’s book on the Northwestern Pacific, for example, tabulates the number of loads generated in each lumber town along the Eel River. Tom Campbell found a California Railroad Commission document listing the exact cars being switched at a Sacramento grocery distributor in the 1930’s. If we’re lucky, we can find photos of particular industries - though that just gives us one day, and usually only one spur.

A while back, I also found some high-resolution aerial photos of the San Jose area. At first, I looked at them only for the existence and shape of buildings, but then I realized the photos also captured the freight cars at each industry. So let’s run through them and decide on typical traffic during the 1930’s.

I’ll look at several photos.

  • 1920’s overview of Del Monte Cannery #3, taken high enough to capture some other industries. (History San Jose collection.)
  • Aerial photos taken in March 1931 by Fairchild Aerial Surveys (San Jose Public Library collection - see images 12, 22, 31.)
  • Aerial photos, with a code of 5900 on the image, appears to be from the late 1930’s - after the Market Street station had been torn down. (See image 5900-56; I didn't record the source of the image.)
  • Aerial photos from July 1939, captured by a contractor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (U.C. Santa Cruz collection, see images 284-107, 284-106.)
  • The fourth is a photo of the San Jose College Park yard in 1940. It’s at an oblique angle so we can’t see all the spurs, but we’ll get an idea about traffic. San Jose Library collection.

These images don’t necessarily say much about 1933, but they do give us several data points for the 1930’s in general.

The full tabulation is in a spreadsheet linked at the bottom of the post, but there’s the good parts.

Photo of Del Monte Plant #3, 1931.

Overall, the number of freight cars is higher than I expected - I expected a lot of empty freight docks, but most of the known-active businesses had their spurs packed with freight cars. Del Monte Plant #3, and the Security Warehouse and Cold Storage plant on First Street, the Richmond Chase cannery on Stockton Ave all were packed with cars. Del Monte Plant #51 wasn’t always full, but certainly had activity. Even lesser industries: J. S. Roberts dried fruit packing house on San Carlos St, or the PG&E generating plant south of Diridon Station - always had at least one car around.

The exceptions were the industries that probably weren’t in action. There’s no sign of cars at the former Hunts / Richmond Chase cannery on Fourth Street. That could just be that the buildings make it harder to spot cars, but it also represented an older canning plant that might not have run regularly. J. S. Roberts shows no cars in 1939, suggesting the building may not have been in use. The lumberyard at Sunol and San Carlos seems to be in active use through the 1930’s, but I’m not seeing many cars there at all.

And regardless of businesses, team tracks and freight houses were constantly packed. Both the San Jose freight depot (off San Pedro Street) and team track off the Alameda (next to the PG&E gas holder) both were constantly packed with cars. Even the Union Ice icing decks on San Fernando St. (for the WP) and the one on Stockton Ave. (for the SP) were suitably busy. The 1931 photo even captures a 60 car train threading its way around Diridon Station; I’d make a guess at the locomotive, but it’s hidden under a cloud of black smoke.

The photos also hint at other kinds of activity. The photos of the railroad yards off of San Pedro St. show declining usage through the 1930’s, with the College Park yard (on the west side of the Guadalupe River) continuing to stay busy. We also see that the Security Warehouse and Cold Storage plant on First Street continued to get traffic even as the track leading to it - the former line down Fourth Street - got pulled up. All the cars there needed to be pulled back along the one block section between Second and Third streets - an awkward move for a busy business.

Even if these businesses were very active in 1931 or 1939, that still doesn’t say anything about 1933 - about when I model. But as accurate as I’m trying to be, I’m not trying to capture a particular month or a year. I’d always intended to model some time in the early 1930’s, but focused on 1933 just because I needed the choice for a few bits of scenery. The overpass over the Alameda, the raised embankment for Diridon Station, and the hints about the new main line all required choosing a later year, but I’m perfectly fine with setting my traffic in 1930 and my scenery in 1933 if it tells a big story. As much as the Valley’s suffering during the depression tells an important story, I’d rather keep my crews busy.

So, yes, it looks like it’s quite reasonable to assume that pack all my spurs with freight cars, and force my switch crews to move all those cars. It might not be accurate for 1933, but it’s accurate for 1931, or 1936, or 1939… and I’ve got the photos to prove it.


The full list of observed cars is in a Google Docs spreadsheet. Thanks to U.C. Santa Cruz, San Jose Library, and History San Jose for sharing the aerial photos used for the data gathering.