Wednesday, October 19, 2011

WP and SP: Like Cats and Dogs, or Best Friends Forever?

After the discussion a while back about the 'Friendly' Southern Pacific and Western Pacific's fight over Valley Wholesale Grocery's spur in Sacramento back in 1935, I'd have assumed that the two railroads would never get along, and certainly wouldn't encourage customers on their line to use the competitor even a bit.

Then we get photos like this one, again from the John C. Gordon collection at San Jose State. Go off and look at the full photo for a moment, then come back here; it's worth examining in detail.

Now, the photo's pretty innocuous - brick warehouse, lots of Western Pacific cars, non-specific industry name, some late 1920's color (like billboards and probably a Model A). My first guess would be that it's some random industry on the WP in San Jose, but a quick glance through Track and Time's track diagrams don't hint at any likely sites around San Jose... nor in Oakland.

But let's stare at that photo a little closer. The far right shows a long straightaway, and a masonry building off in the distance (along with a flat car full of lumber or telephone poles.) The isolated passenger cars suggest we're near a station, but the only passenger station on the WP would be over on the east side of San Jose near Santa Clara Ave. and 26th Street, and there's no signs of any industries over there. That building looks a bit like the PG&E generating plant just off Montgomery Street in San Jose, next to the Santa Cruz branch (and eventually just south of Diridon Station), but... nah, can't be - why would WP boxcars be there?

The warehouse itself gives us no clues, so let's look on the left side of the photo. Hmmm... gas holder - there were the ones at the current site of the HP Pavilion, but unless this warehouse sat on the eventual location of Plant 51, there's no way a railroad track would be in line with the gas holder. There's a building in front: "Henry Cowell B... and Cement". A quick check of an old city directory shows Cowell Cement's retail operation was at 583 West Santa Clara Street... right where HP Pavilion and the Shark Tank is now. Zoom in on the building, and see the number "591" suggesting that we've got the address right.

And if we look carefully to the extreme left, we see a *tiny* bit of wood trim that might match the original South Pacific Coast's West San Jose station. In fact, photos of that station in "South Pacific Coast: A Centennial" show the billboards behind the station.

So what we really have here is a photo of a warehouse along the former Cahill Street just south of the Alameda / Santa Clara Street and north of San Fernando Street. These warehouses would be disappearing in a few years, torn down so Diridon Station can be built on this exact location. If I could read that truck license plate towards the right of the photo, I might even be able to guess at the year of the photo, or perhaps the "Kopp's Transfer" gives another detail.

The warehouses appear on a 1915 Sanborn map, which correctly notes that the two side structures are 25 feet high, but the central warehouse section is 31 feet high. Sanborn also labels all as owned by the SP at the time. The Sanborn maps completely ignore the spur track in front of the warehouses, though. Behind the photographer would be the bulk of California Packing Corporation's Plant 51.

I still have no clue why Material Supply Corp. is receiving so many WP cars. Maybe the SP was remarkably friendly during the 1920's about spotting cars for the WP. Maybe those ICC reciprocal switching rules were iron-clad, even when the cars needed to be delivered to an SP-owned building. Or maybe Material Supply was getting most of its incoming supplies from the WP...

But the photo does highlight what the West San Jose area looked like before Diridon Station went in, and it almost convinces me to backdate my layout a couple years. I've modeled this area as if the construction and track raising for Diridon Station had started in 1932 or 1933, but the area for these warehouses is just an underused siding and a temporary station in a passenger car up on blocks. If I was willing to get rid of the Alameda underpass and the slightly raised ground level, I could get a lot of traffic from that warehouse... and I'd also get the advantage of the insane traffic levels that would be prototypical in the late 1920s.

Got ideas why there's so many WP boxcars spotted here, see something interesting in the picture, or got an opinion on whether I should move my layout back a few years? Add a comment and throw in your two cents!


  1. Three observations:
    1) The reweigh dates are all around 1923.
    2) The car at the left is probably a Model T, not a Model A.
    3) I thought the white dots on each car door were dabbed on the photo, but I think they actually read "cement". If the cement was coming from an industry on the WP, that might explain the density of WP cars here.

  2. Robert,

    I need to follow you blog more often....

    For the past year, I have worked as an intern at History San Jose in their collection center (the former Beechnut factory). One of the results of my HSJ involvement is the transportation exhibit in the Diridon Depot lobby.

    During my research for the exhibit, I came across a bound book of a 60 plus images taken by SP along the proposed mainline rerouting. The images are of nearly every proposed road crossing from differing vantage points. The images were taken in the late 1920s starting about Taylor Street and continuing south to about Curtner.

    Nonetheless, I was surprised at the number of on-line customers near the West San Jose depot, including this structure in the Gordon image.

    The images may be useful for your research.

    Ken Middlebrook

  3. Hi, Ken,

    Thanks for the lead! I'd definitely be interested in checking those photos out - is the book in the display right now, or is it available for examination in the HSJ archives?

  4. The album is available at the HSJ archives. Catalog #1997-221-2. The associated 82 images were taken September 1928.

  5. Looks I need to find a free day and wander over to the HSJ archives. Thanks for the pointer!

  6. Side note: the 1891 Sanborn maps available from U.C. Santa Cruz labels these warehouses as the "Brown and Barker's Grain Warehouse / SPCRR owner. It's easy to forget how big the grain business was in the Santa Clara Valley til you realize how many of the railroad-related buildings were for the grain trade.

  7. The picture of Kopp's transfer suggests that's the company's only truck, and the guy standing next to the truck is Mr. Alfred Kopp himself.

    Kopp's Transfer is Alfred Kopp, living south of downtown at 430 2nd Street. Kopp was in the 1925 and 1928 city directories with occupation listed as "drayman", but by 1930 listed his occupation as salesman.

    The truck appears to be a Model T or one of its variants, and the license plate seems to say it's a 1923 plate. The 1923 city directory lists Kopp as an expressman.