Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Big Was the Heating Oil Tank at J. S. Roberts?

"You don't need to know how many cars could fit on the team track at the San Jose Western Pacific freight depot to build your layout. The answer is "three", by the way."
--Byron Henderson

Not every model railroader is interested in history, but there's enough so that some potential model railroad builders get stuck trying to learn every possible detail about their prototype before they ever start building. Byron's quote highlights that we don't need all those details to have fun modeling.

But his quote also highlights how obsessive some of us can get learning about particular places. I'm guilty of that; to build my model of the Vasona Branch, I've done way more research than I really need. One particular source of my obsession has been the packing house at 740 West San Carlos Street, once occupied by J.S. Roberts in the 1930's, but occupied by Abinante and Nola in the late 1940's. I've written about Abinante and Nola many times in the past, and about working on the scene as it would have looked in the 1930's.

But, hey, how could I model that packing house without knowing everything about it? What about their oil tank used for supplying steam to the dried fruit packing plant. Was it 6,000 gallons and filled by the local oil dealer, or bigger, and supplied by rail?

I can answer that sort of question now. Heck, I can even tell you what that tank looked like. You see, I went off for lunch at Paradiso's Deli on Auzerais St., just behind the former Del Monte cannery. After some tasty ravioli and meatball, I wandered off along the Los Gatos Creek trail for sightseeing, and saw a backhoe digging off on the other side of the railroad tracks.

1902-era redwood heating oil tank being dug up.

What were they digging up? Turns out they did an environmental survey on the property at 740 West San Carlos, and discovered that the old oil tank for the packing house had never been removed. Yesterday, they'd exposed it, and found it still had 9,000 gallons of heating oil in it, and pumped out the thickened oil. Today, they were pulling up the tank to check underneath for spills. Odds are the tank was placed in the ground in 1903 when the packing house was built for Ernst Luehning and his San Jose dried fruit outpost. It was in really good shape for a hundred year old *redwood* tank that had been holding something similar to diesel fuel for all these years. The joints were still tight on the tank, and was little sign of fuel leaking through.

More importantly, the Sanborn map lied; it wasn't a 6,000 gallon tank, but closer to 12,000 gallons - probably just the size to deserve a carload of heating oil a few times a year.

Now, I'm not a stranger to the idea of shoving oil in the ground - when we lived (briefly) on the east coast, we lived in two houses with heating oil; in both cases, we had to remember to call the oil company to dump a thousand gallons of oil in our front yard so we didn't freeze to death. In our last house, we didn't quite trust the landlord to compensate us for oil we left in the tank on moving, so we tried to stretch the tank for the whole season... and ran out just before a huge snowstorm hit. Ugh. After that mistake, I really can't imagine anyone moving out of the packing house without taking those 9,000 gallons with them. But I guess landlords were much nicer in San Jose back then.

If you're ever over to see the model railroad, look over just to the right of the packing house, and with luck I'll have added some piping and vents for a certain 12,000 gallon oil tank that I know occupies exactly that spot on the model railroad.

And if you're one of those folks doing the environmental impact surveys, try aiming a couple hundred feet west. The Zicovich Winery was out there in the 1890's, and with some luck you might find some barrels of wine that survived the Great San Carlos Street Fire of 1899. Much more tasty than half-century old oil.

Photo of tank being dug out of lot at 740 West San Carlos taken by me, August 19, 2015. Thanks to the crew doing the removal for talking with me about the fun of discovering an removing the old tank. Thanks to the crew doing the digging for chatting with the strange obsessive model railroader about their site.

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