Sunday, March 11, 2012

A History of the Golden Gate Packing Co.

[Continuation of article that started with the analysis of old freight car arrival postcards for the Golden Gate Packing cannery.]

Now, the Golden Gate Packing Co. isn't on my Vasona Branch layout, but it's still a point-of-interest for me because it's on that little shelf layout of the Market Street Station area that I started several years back. That layout models San Jose's main passenger station, which occupied the site at Market St. and Bassett St. north of downtown til December 1935. That area north of downtown also was the site of many fruit-related industries - dried fruit packing houses, can recyclers, canning equipment manufacturers, vegetable packers, cold-storage warehouses, and grain importers. Most either located there when the railroad arrived in the 1860's, preferred the presence on the main line, or stayed as the rents got cheaper on the old and worn out buildings.

As much as we think of San Jose as a cannery town, the old warehouse district around the Market Street station didn't have much of a cannery presence. There were canneries on the other side of the Guadalupe River near Cinnabar and Little Montgomery, there were canneries further north by Japantown, but the only cannery close to the station was the cannery first known as the Golden Gate Packing Company.

Golden Gate Packing was one of the early fruit processing companies, incorporated in 1877 by W. S. Stevens, the brother-in-law of James M. Dawson who'd started the canning business in San Jose. Dawson had started canning in his basement on the Alameda, then started the San Jose Fruit Packing Company out by 21st and Julian. (Basements and the corners of orchards were the garages for the fruit start-ups of the time.) San Jose Fruit Packing Company company prospered and grew, went through various mergers, and constructed a cannery off Auzerais St. which eventually became Del Monte Plant #3, the largest cannery in the world.

For whatever reason, Stevens didn't stay with his brother-in-law's company, but set out on his own, got funding, and built his own cannery. Golden Gate, located their plant right on the railroad, right where the line from San Francisco split east of the depot. One track headed south towards Gilroy on 4th Street through San Jose; the other curved northward through today's Japantown heading for Oakland, Omaha, and points east. Golden Gate's location at 361 North Fourth Street (between Julian and Hensley) had some impressive brick buildings and a line of palms lining the Fourth Street frontage. George Bowman, the superintendent, was enough of a mover and shaker that he was also a vice-president for Garden City National Bank.

Bowman's bio highlights that the company sold canned vegetables and fruits, and their Golden Gate brand apricots were well-respected in England. In 1888, they were canning 1.975 million cans, and had 450 employees. The December 7, 1906 Montreal Gazette's ad from Fraser, Viger & Co., Italian Warehouse, called out their source of fruit. "Just in time for our Christmas trade, a shipment of selected extra quality canned fruits from the Golden Gate Packing Company, San Jose, California." Apricots, white cherries, greengage plums, golden drop plums, egg plums, damson plums, lemon cling peaches, yellow crawford peaches, white heath peaches, and bartlett pears were all listed by name - quite a variety for those of use used to exactly one kind of canned peach or plum. By 1922, it was one of the largest fruit packing plants on the West Coast, selling to the East Coast and to Europe.

On the back side, the spur tracks pointed straight towards the passenger station three blocks away, and the congested tracks kept crews working the cannery from being able to throw the switches into the cannery at will. Instead, each employee timetable into the 1930's indicated the whistle signal the engineer would need to blow to get the Fourth Street tower operator to change the switches.

SAN JOSE-Fourth Street
Limits extend from signals just west of First Street to signal at Fourth Street.
Whistle signals governing routes as follows:
For trains to Freight Yards, one long, one short, one long.
For Passenger Station, one short, two long, one short.
For Security warehouse spur, one long, one short, one long, one short.
For Hunt Bros. Plant No. 2; two short, one long, one short.
For Niles Line; two short, two long, two short.
For Borchers Spur; three short, one long, one short.
For Hunt Bros. Plant No. 1; one short, one long, two short.

For the cannery managers living within a couple blocks of the train tracks, those whistle blasts day and night must have been as much an annoyance as a sign of their prosperity. Requiring a tower operator to listen for whistle signals might be a cute trick for a model railroad, too.

Golden Gate also had attracted the attention of the Hunt Brothers, another pioneering canning company, who bought Golden Gate in 1917. Golden Gate's superintendent at the time, Elmer Chase, took the opportunity to leave the company after the purchase and start his own packing company, Richmond-Chase, which turns up in other canning stories.

Hunts owned the Golden Gate Packing property from 1917 to at least the early 1940's. In the early forties, Hunts was taken over by Val Vita Foods (started by Norton Simon, now known for his Pasadena museum). Richmond Chase used the property in 1945 and was listed as the occupant on the 1950 Sanborn map, but I suspect the end was becoming near for this turn-of-the-century cannery.

The buildings were still there in 1958, but by 1968, the buildings had been torn down, and if you go out to North Fourth Street, you'll find a Goodwill facility on the site. You can still see the palm trees lining the Fourth Street in front of the cannery site, and if you look carefully on the south side of the property, you can see where the line to Los Angeles curved its way onto Fourth Street.

And if you head up to First Street and Bassett and look east, you'll see a different panorama than that 1906 one. The railroad tracks up to Oakland are still there, as they were when the line was first built in the late 1860's. The new construction on the right replaced the Borcher Brothers building supply yard, and the Fourth Street tower would have been two blocks east of this photo. The palms in front of Golden Gate are still there.

[Excerpt from George Lawrence San Jose aerial panorama taken from the Library of Congress scan. SP valuation map from California State Railroad Museum, Sanborn excerpt from the 1950 Sanborn fire insurance map of San Jose. Modern photos are mine, and date from June 2003.]

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