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 That line was superceded by the current line through Brisbane and Visitation Valley around 1910, but the track continued to be used for trains at places up into the 1970s.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.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

"Hapa's Brewing Doesn't Do Things By Halves!" Says Edith Daley

It’s a crazy time in Silicon Valley right now - lots of construction and new office space, lots of traffic, lots of folks moving in. The 1970’s tilt-ups around our current office are failing to the bulldozer and getting replaced with four stories of apartments and AMD engineering cubicles. Our office manager just moved west from North Carolina, and I can’t imagine how crazy this place seems to her - wide open skies, brown hills, and too damn many verification engineers and JavaScript ninjas. Neighbors fighting neighbors over coding style conventions. French bulldogs with LinkedIn profiles. It’s a common story - if this was the turn of the century, we would have had a bunch of Italian immigrants, fresh off the boat, looking for cannery or farm work, and we would have overheard arguments about the correct way to fix a canning line without stopping the line or losing a finger. If this was the 1950’s, we’d be fighting for seats at the Burger Pit against IBM and Lockheed engineers, while a bunch of drunken Fairchild engineers argued about the best way to dope geranium. Instead, we avoid getting run down by Nvidia engineers or a Google bus, and fight for space at the bar with senior product managers with pugs on leashes.

Silicon Valley overheating means things are changing. In our neighborhood, we’ve lost a couple former orchard farmhouses that survived surprisingly long in the middle of subdivisions- the triple size lots are too valuable for a 1920s 2 bedroom house. The trendy bar out in the country by Saratoga is getting torn down for executive-level houses. The occasional 1950s strip mall goes post-modern, with a bunch of hipsters at Philz waiting for a bespoke cup of coffee to finish dripping. (Geez, just pour the d*mn coffee already!) If you're a friend of older San Jose - whether the 1920's, the 1970's, or the 1990's - this isn't a bad time to be taking a good look at the old stuff you like before it turns into a new apartment complex.

But progress also means some things are getting reused. Paradiso’s Deli, out by the former Del Monte cannery, looks like it’s been reinvented and reopened. Santa Clara is slowly working to reinvent its downtown. And in the former Salsina cannery building off on Lincoln Ave. in San Jose, redevelopment has cleaned up this underused building in what used to be San Jose's western cannery district and turned it into a bike repair, gallery, and beer hall.

Salsina Cannery, 2019

I've written about this building before. It was built in 1918 as Salsina Packing, a cannery founded by Carlo Aiello and Alfonso Lambroso to make tomato paste for the American market, though they quickly branched out into apricots and peaches. Edith Daley, my favorite San Jose Evening News columnist, visited the cannery in 1919; her story led with the headline "Workers at the Salsina Plant Smile Easily". Edith was impressed by the new and impressive building, the friendly management (William Leet bought ice cream for the entire canning staff on the day of her visit), and its well-ventilated interior - a big deal for the usually-hot cannery. She was also a mite confused by the name, asking for Mr. Salsina before being told that Salsina (tomato paste) was the product, not the producer! Salsina hit challenging times in the post-World War I recession. The company was sold to Virden Packing in 1922 to build William Virden's goals for a fruit-and-meat-packing colossus. Virden Packing, over-extended, failed in 1926 and got broken up, but the building appeared unused for quite a while after that date.

Back side of cannery - much more utilitarian

In 1935, the former cannery building appeared as the home of Saint Claire Brewing Company the first local brewery to open after the end of prohibition. Saint Claire disappeared by 1936, and the building was used for a series of businesses: warehouse space for the San Martin winery, a drayage company, and a good ten or fifteen years as a discount furniture store.

But the neighborhood's changed; the former cannery district is now mostly large apartment complexes. Salsina's well-ventilated cannery became studio and retail spaces a couple years ago.

Working end of the brewery

So here I am, sitting in the same cannery where Edith Daley saw “Billy" Leet buy ice cream for the entire cannery crew back in 1919. It’s now Hapa's Brewing. My chance to sit inside shows it's a stylish building both from a model railroad and canning perspective. Concrete floors for ease of cleaning and storing a seasons worth of tomato paste. The sawtooth roof adds interest from above. Concrete walls on the street side, worn corrugated iron on the railroad side. Huge beams holding up the roof so there’s more space for canning equipment. Light rail rolls by much more often than the "Friendly" SP ever serviced the Los Gatos branch. Today's Saturday afternoon crowd provides the background noise to hint at how active the building sounded at its birth. The Sainte Claire Brewing folks who had the building in 1935 would be pleased that the buildings still a happy provider of alcoholic beverages.

Edith’s pleasant description of the building still holds true - “The plant is sunny, well-ventilated, and a pleasant place in which to work.” Definitely true - the sawtooth roof brings in a surprising amount of light, and open loading doors keep it light and airy in today’s moderate May weather. I wouldn’t mind being stuck here in July. I'm not at all displeased about sitting at the bar today.

Freight door from original cannery

A hundred years ago when Edith visited, she found a San Jose where the cannery mostly had Anglo workers. “There’s a dignified high school professor from San Francisco happily at work on the fruit grader. There are sons and daughters of doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief, and they are making from $20 to $25 per week.” Mrs Addington was forewoman, J. Turner watched the incoming fruit and tomatoes to ensure it met Salsina’s quality. With the demographics she saw, perhaps it’s not surprising that Edith found the “little Italian girl- the most prolific of the bunch” so surprising in Campbell a few weeks before. Even for an Italian-run cannery, Italian immigrants on the line were either not easily identifiable, or not newsworthy to Edith’s eyes.

Fifteen years later when the Sainte Claire Brewing company started making local beer, a good fraction of the groceries in San Jose had Italian names... at least for the markets that wanted to sell local beer from San Jose.

(Side notes about the people Edith met in 1919: Mrs. Ludy Addington, 132 Topeka Ave. in the Burbank neighborhood, was a midwest transplant; her husband, Charles, ran a service station at Race and San Carlos in later years, though he listed his occupation as "oil and gas merchant" in 1920. Charles was a Southern Pacific brakeman in 1913. Jacob Turner, from Ohio, listed his occupation as cannery superintendent in 1920. He lived at 529 N. 19th Street with his wife and eight children. By 1930, he was running his own plumbing business. Running a cannery made one very good at quick plumbing repairs, I expect.)

And once you get to modern days, Salsina’s demographics have changed again. All the nearby apartment buildings means that the place is filled with the local twenty-somethings on a Saturday, maybe working at Splunk in Santana Row packing web log data into attractive canned formats, contracting at Google but angling for a full time role at Facebook, or maybe figuring out ways to profit from supporting the masses coming to make the Santa Clara Valley a productive bread basket of technology. The faces are the usual Silicon Valley mix - some Anglo, some Asian, some Hispanic, highlighting just how varied the Santa Clara Valley is. Like Edith, what I’m seeing doesn’t match the true demographics of Silicon Valley; it’s less Hispanic here than San Jose as a whole. The place also doesn’t look like my co-workers - the collection of chip engineers at work who may have been born in India, but decided long ago that the Santa Clara Valley would be their home. Over in Fremont, they’re replacing the Portuguese Holy Ghost parade with Indian festivals. If you show up at Holi, you might get covered in colored pigment. The stories the immigrants tell are the same - new immigrants risking it all to move to the US, the dangers of starting anew in a land without friends and family, and figuring out how to mix traditions from the old country with their new home.

Billy Leet isn’t serving ice cream in the 21st century, but at least Hapa has a taco truck, helping to keep this century’s puff piece writers well-fed.

Hapa's Brewing is at 460 Lincoln Ave in San Jose. It's a popular place, so folks other than me must think their IPA is tasty! No food in the restaurant, but they invite food trucks to stop by many days - check their events. Compare the photos from a few years ago to see how nicely the place has been fixed up. After your beer, walk around the neighborhood and check out the former Standard Oil depot at Auzerais and Sunol, and meander along the Los Gatos Creek trail beside the apartments that replaced the Del Monte cannery.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Tracking Down the Lost Cannery of Campbell

A while ago, we heard Edith Daley’s descriptions of the folks coming down to Campbell to work in the canneries. Thanks to David Pereira, we can put some faces next to those caricatures. David, you see, has quite the connection to Campbell canneries, with his great-grandfather, great-grandmother, grandmother, and grandfather all working for the least-known of the Campbell canneries.

That cannery, as all the serious Campbell historians know, is the California Canneries, located just north of the Ainsley cannery. California Canneries is often forgotten; it didn’t have a high-profile local owner like Ainsley or Hyde; it didn’t have the brand recognition of Sunsweet's dried apricot business. Its buildings didn’t survive. It didn’t host the Doobie Brothers like the Farmer's Union Packing house. California Canneries does have a Hindenburg connection, but that all happened Back East, a long way from Campbell.


California Canneries was a San Francisco-based canner, started before the turn of the century, but run during the 20th century by Isidor Jacobs. The cannery’s home office was in San Francisco, in a wooden cannery building at 18th and Minnesota. The original building survived up until last year, with the California Canneries sign still visible from the 18th St. overpass across the SP tracks. It finally lost out to UCSF’s new campus, and was torn down for student housing. There’s a couple mentions of a Napa outpost, but nothing definite. However, in the expansionist era just after World War I, Jacobs came down to Campbell to kick the tires on a cannery.

California Canneries, 18th and Minnesota, San Francisco. Torn down. (Google Street View)

The cannery that Jacobs was eyeing was the Orchard City Cannery, run by Perley Payne, son of James Payne (who Payne Ave. in San Jose is named for.) Perley had started a cannery just north of the Ainsley plant in 1910. Payne’s Orchard City Cannery suffered during World War I; while Ainsley was selling to London, Orchard City primarily sold to Germany, and all its customers were on the wrong side of trenches, barbed wire, and mustard gas... a bad way for a cannery to make a profit. So they didn't make a profit, and Payne ended up selling out to Jacobs in 1917; he ran the cannery for the new owner for a year, but washed his hands of the canning business and fell back to orchard labor. His son noted he had quite a gift for grafting walnut trees.

“Campbell, the Orchard City”, lightly notes that Perley Payne’s son played in the rafters of the cannery building “and [was] reprimanded for his escapades.” Perley Payne Jr., in his own words, told a much more realistic and bittersweet story. He highlighted the dark side of trying to hit it big in the canning business when he talked about how his father handled the business failure. Perley later attempted to organize the workers in the local canneries.

“You see, after he lost his cannery, he kind of felt he was disgraced. And I felt, and my wife too, we really felt bad about it, because, he kind of lived on his knees the rest of his life. He depended on his brothers and his sisters when he wasn’t - like one time I remember, we didn’t work for about two or three months it rained so much here that he had to ask them for money all the time to keep us going, you know. I remember he used to charge groceries at Field’s Store in Campbell and I was working and I would take my check to Field’s Store and cash it and pay so much to Fields on dad’s bill and take some down to the gas station and Fred, I forget his last name, anyway, the guy who owned the gas station - He had a charge there, and I’d pay him, too. And I had, outside of the sorry part here, my aunt and uncle, my uncle George and my aunt Aileen — after my uncle George had died, my aunt Aileen told me, "You know George and I were figuring on sending you to college, but we figured you were too irresponsible. And here I was taking all my money that I earned for five years — all of it went home, except for what I did spend to buy that Model T Ford. All of it went home to help my mother and dad with the grocery bills and whatever else they needed. The only thing I kept out was for a haircut and a little bit to go to a show once in a while, something like that. (Perley Payne, Jr.)

Jacobs, meanwhile, managed to do reasonably well with the property, running the cannery through the 1920s and early 1930’s. But the Great Depression was lethal for canners, and California Canneries declared bankruptcy in 1932. The Campbell property went to Fred Drew, who had just bought the Ainsley Cannery. The flagship San Francisco plant went to Jacob’s broker, Moritz Feibusch, who rebranded the company as Calbear Canneries. Feibusch died in the fire on the Hindenburg airship in 1937, putting an end to California Canneries.

The Place

There’s not much evidence of California Canneries. I’ve seen its name on Sanborn maps and on an SP track diagram, but I’ve never seen a photo of the cannery. There’s a corrugated iron warehouse just south of Fry’s on Salmar Ave that must have been built for the cannery, but a tin building with a linoleum dealer and an irrigation contractor is nowhere near as photogenic as Hyde Cannery’s brick buildings closer to downtown. (The Campbell Museum does have a photo of the warehouse along Salmar Ave., but we don't see the cannery in that photo.)

California Canneries, Campbell Ca. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1920

In the 1920 Sanborn map, Harrison to the left and the railroad tracks cut across the page from southwest to northeast. Ainsley Cannery is on the bottom. Perley Payne grew up in the house on the corner of Harrison and Hopkins. Hopkins no longer exists; both canneries are now under a row of townhouses.

The 1920 map shows four structures: the cannery (one story, 15’ high, corrugated iron with a wood floor), a separate boiler house, a box nailing shed, and a 10,000 gallon water tank. Southern Pacific railroad valuation maps suggest the railroad spur was installed in 1919 as part of the Jacobs improvements, and extended further to the north in 1926. The railroad map also describes the cannery building as 83 x 138 feet, but doesn’t list the size of the warehouse.

Havens-Semaira Cannery, Campbell Ca. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1928-1935

On the 1928-1935 Sanborn map, we see Havens-Semaira Cannery running the cannery; they were founded in 1935 by John Havens of Oakland and S. J. Samaira of San Francisco. Havens had run the Sebatina Canning Company in Sonoma; S. J. Semaira had been importing dried fruits and nuts. The Sunburn map shows that the cannery expanded to take more of the lot, and the turf dealer warehouse appears to the north. The boiler house has moved, and there’s several more accessory buildings including the kindergarten, and garages. The building is still wood, and the loading platforms are now on the north side.

And A Photos Turns Up

That’s awfully dry. We know the size of the building, the materials, the size of the fuel oil tank, and the size of the kindergarten. But we don’t know anything else about the cannery and the people.

Luckily, David turned up with an employee photo from 1926. Many large companies had group panoramic photos taken during the 1920’s, and the cannery photos are particularly interesting because they give us an idea about both the number of folks working at a cannery, and the ethnic groups that made it up.

David has the photo because it contained four of his family - his great grandfather and great grandmother, his grandmother, and her future husband. His great grandfather was a carpenter; his great-grandmother and her two daughters worked at the canning tables. David was also told his grandfather is somewhere in the photo; he likely met his future wife working one summer.

1926 Employee Photo, California Canneries, Campbell. Courtesy David Pereira

View the photo in high resolution here (7 MB). Spot anything interesting? Mention it in the comments!

There’s a lot in this photo - more than 200 workers (48 men, 7 women who look like office workers, and 158 women from the canning tables.) There’s a shot of the tin building that held the cannery. There’s a box car, and houses.

The People

Let’s start with the people. We’ve got five sources to tell us something about the people in this photo: the 1920 census, a 1920 San Jose City Directory, David’s family story from 1919, Edith Daley’s article from the same summer, and Perley Payne’s stories of growing up in Campbell.

The People: The Census

Census data gives us a starting point about who was living in Campbell. The 1920 census had around 1300 people in Campbell township. Most were American; if we count the families where at least the head of the household was foreign born, we find about 25% of Campbell came from immigrant households. There were 59 Italians, 52 Portuguese, 44 English, 28 Swedes, 25 Canadians, 15 Danes, 12 Germans, 12 Austrians, 10 French, 9 Japanese, 7 Norwegians, 6 Spaniards, 5 Scots, 4 Swiss, two Finns, two Russians, and one Australian, one Irish, and one Pole.

These numbers seem a bit lower than I would have expected. By 1920, immigrants were huge part of cannery workforces in other places (as evidenced by Del Monte's employee newsletter having sections in multiple languages, and the size of the Italian and Portuguese communities in San Jose and Santa Clara.) However, the group photo shows more workers that look American than I expected. I could imagine Campbell wasn't as interesting a place for new immigrants. The land was probably expensive because it was good soil and well irrigated (compared to the east side); projects like the Kirk ditch brought water from Los Gatos Creek to orchards as far away as Willow Glen. The land had also been settled early. Lesser quality land - drier land, or hillside land - might have been all that the new immigrants could afford to work. Campbell also might have been a little less welcoming of new immigrants; a 1930 editorial cartoon in the Campbell Interurban Express sounded like they still weren't terribly pleased by the newcomers, ten years after the Johnson-Reed act in 1924 limited the number of immigrants from Southern Europe, and banned Asian immigration completely.

The ethnic makeup does match Perley Payne's memories:

Interviewer: “I know there were lots of Mexicans in Campbell.” “We had no Mexicans in high school at all - or grammar school. We had Italians, Portuguese, Yugoslav, two Japanese, and that was about it. The rest of us were just uh, people…. A bunch of [cannery workers] came out of Dos Palos every year [to work at Ainsley].

(Listen to the Perley Payne Jr. interview or read the transcript.)

About a hundred of the Campbell residents listed occupations related to canning. (See this spreadsheet for a list of all the cannery workers in the 1920 census.) Most were “laborer, canning factory", with the occasional owner, superintendent, or foreman or forewoman. Those numbers are a bit skewed; the census was taken in January, so it omits temporary help. The people willing to list occupations were likely also the workers with sufficient seniority or skill to stay around Campbell during the off-season. (Still, although there's a lot of older men declaring themselves to be cannery workers, there's also still some twenty-somethings declaring that canning is in their blood.) We also only see occupations for the men. Very few women listed cannery work as their occupation.

Generally, only the professional women show up in the occupations. Of the hundreds of women who must have worked at the cutting tables, only Mary King of Sunnyside Ave. listed her occupation as “pitter”. Four women declared themselves as forewomen: Alice V. Hutchins, 55 years old; Clara B. Baldwin, 42; Lulu V. Holmes, 34; and Minnie Lewis, 65; they were responsible for managing the cutting floor - choosing where people sat, handling discipline, ensuring quality. All the other women who spoke of their canning connection were clerical. Emma Swope, 52, was a bookkeeper at Ainsley (and listed as corporate secretary in the 1920 city directory.) Elizabeth B. Hall, 18, was a bookkeeper. Charlotte Thiltgen from Meridian Road, 17, listed her occupation as “saleswoman”. Mary Miller, 36, listed herself as manager of one of the cannery cafeterias. None were recent immigrants, or even children of recent immigrants.

We’ve got Perley Payne, builder of the Payne Cannery still listing himself as owner of a canning factory, while Solomon Jacobs, operating the cannery, listed his job as “manager, canning factory.” Warren Shelly, superintendent, will eventually be the Vice President of the Ainsley cannery in 1933.

On the men’s side, most of the cannery workers are British or American. Archibald Braydon, 32, born in England, lists himself as foreman at a canning factory. So does Leigh Sauders, 49, living at 26 Rincon Ave, and Thomas Mendel, 53. Braydon and Mendel explicitly list themselves as Ainsley employees in the city directory, and Saunders certainly seems a likely Ainsley employee. (If this was modern day, I could imagine salesmen from the London office spending a year working at the cannery so they can better extol the virtues of Santa Clara valley fruit in England and Scotland.) George Sloat, 57; Claude Gard, 42; Clarence Whitney, 54 all show up as foremen. There’s a couple night watchmen; Dudley Chaffee, 61, is boarding with Solomon Jacobs, so we can guess he’s working at California Canneries; Edward P. Green, 60, from Wisconsin, is also serving as night watchman for one of the other canneries. Harry Bloom, 49, and Arthur Cramer, 48, list their occupation as stationary engineers, running the steam boilers. There’s also some hints about which occupations might be more prestigious. Frank Peterbaugh, 19, lists himself as weigher, which I assume required literacy and a certain amount of responsibility. John F. Cooper, a Scotsman living at 27 Campbell Ave., declares himself a shipping clerk. William E. Spreegle, 29, of 21 Everett Street (where’s that?) is a box maker.

The majority of laborers are Americans. Out of 58 laborers, there’s 14 that are either foreign or children of recent immigrants: 5 Portuguese, three Italian, two Irish, two Canadian, and one Russian.

The other big surprise is that most of the fruit-related processing jobs were canning. There were exactly two workers in all of Campbell who said they worked in packing houses: Frank Pererbaugh (19, weigher), and Fred Griggle (34, laborer).

The People: David's Family

So let's compare that with David's family stories.


We think of the Santa Clara Valley as primarily settlers from the rest of the U.S., with new arrivals in the 1880-1920 time range coming from Italy or Portugal. The census data suggests that Campbell was still predominantly native-born. Anton, David’s great-grandfather, wasn’t; he was born in the Ukraine. He’d been a machinist in Portland, Oregon, but he became a carpenter in the Santa Clara valley, perhaps working in box-making, or perhaps on maintenance of the cannery. His wife, Lena, was from Hungary. The family lived on Harmon Ave in San Jose (Meridian Ave. near Auzerais), just on this side of the Del Monte cannery. Lena and her daughters were working the cannery line; all three were seated in the front row for the photo. From the census data, they were a bit of outliers; there weren't a lot of chances to talk in German (which David said was their primary language.)

Lena and her daughters

David’s grandfather, a Portuguese kid, was somewhere in the crowd according to the family story; he might have been one of the overexposed faces on the right side of the photo - a mix of young and old men who might have been ferrying the fruit into the canning machines. Some of those men would have been the laborers showing up in the census (though I imagine many of the folks we see in the photo are summer workers who didn't show up in the census records at all.) Perley Payne Jr. would have had jobs like this, too.

The Laborers

 We also get a bit of story from Perley Payne, Jr. He worked in the canneries when he was a teenager, always waiting until he was 18 when he could work more than 8 hours and make 40c an hour like the men. Although Perley's father had been a business owner, Perley went straight to the socialists, organizing for the cannery unions and eventually leaving for the Spanish Civil War to fight with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. His oral history not only documents his time as a labor organizer, but hints at who lived in Campbell and who worked in Campbell’s cannery.

(Listen to the Perley Payne Jr. interview or read the transcript.)

Mostly it was Italians and Portuguese women that worked in the cannery. My grandmother worked there. My mother worked in the cannery. My sisters all worked in the cannery…
[Most of the Cannery workers] lived in Campbell, and they knew Mr. Ainsley. They knew the man who owns it. They knew who he was and he had a restaurant for them for lunch. He had a camp where people would come and stay from Dos Palos and other parts of the Valley, they could come and stay during the summer. Of course, us young guys were always down there looking for girlfriends, you know.

Perley's story definitely matches the census records. The two Japanese families, the Makadas and Jios, lived over on Leigh Ave. Wakichi Jio and Suyezo Makada were farmworkers. Portuguese and Italian families both were farmworkers and farm owners; the women of the families represent a lot of the faces in David's photo, even if they didn't explicitly refer to their work in the canneries. Perley's mother also didn't include cannery work as her occupation, but she also had four kids under the age of 7 in 1920.

The older, no-nonsense women in the front row might have been Perley's family, and perhaps floor ladies, managing the women at the cannery. Minnie Lewis or Alice Hutchins might be one of the older women in the front row.

The Floor Ladies

The Women Perley Tried to Date

The young women workers might have been the ones he was chasing after work, or might have been some of the folks from the Central Valley who came to work in the cooler Campbell climate.

Edith Daley, meanwhile, talked about the iconic and stereotypical. There was the city girl who was in Campbell for spending money. The girl with the gingham and the bow, perhaps, and the oh-so modern haircut? Or was she working in the office?

"The City Girl"

"The '80's Material Girls"

The two girls who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1980’s new wave club looks like they’re having a good summer. 

There was the San Francisco family, here as much for the change of pace as the pay. Their tent might have been the one with the Victrola.

"The City Family"

There was the little Italian girl, the hardest worker of the lot, who would make sure she’d hit 5 or 6 dollars a day. She was a new immigrant, and she was getting money to live on.

"Edith Daley's Hardest Working Italian Girl"

There were also the bookkeepers and clerks running the office, much like Jennie Besana would have been doing this season down at the Contadina cannery in San Jose. The woman with the upturned hair and the long necklace is a giveaway - that's the last thing she would have had around the fruit side of the cannery because of all the exposed machinery. Any of these women could have been the bookkeeper or saleswomen we saw in the census data.

"The Bookkeeper"


I’m torn whether this stern looking woman is a floor lady, or a woman from the business or sales side of California Canneries. The pearls are a much safer choice for cannery jewelry, and the haircut’s quite a modern length. Or perhaps this is Mary Miller, the no-nonsense queen of a cannery cafeteria?

For a final photo, here's a close up of the men on the left hand side of the photo. The leftmost kid has what appears to be a holster; at first I thought he had shears, but didn't see any other men with similar equipment. Then I remember my dad's summer job - he worked at Hunt's in Hayward one summer, and was responsible for punching a worker's ticket when she completed packing a tray of cans. I suspect this is the kid responsible for doing the punching at California Canneries that summer.

The Punch Kid

The Plant

Meanwhile, the machinery didn’t stop humming. Newspaper articles mentioned that Jacobs overhauled the plant in 1919, the peak year for many canneries. He started construction on May 13, but they were shipping apricots by July 9. The photo of the building shows the corrugated iron and simple posts for the cannery; it’s definitely designed for quick construction. For us model railroaders, the corrugated-iron buildings are very familiar; one of the long-time kit manufacturers, Campbell Scale Models, had a bunch of building kits that duplicated these sorts of structures. Campbell got most of their inspiration from the Los Angeles, area, but the California Canneries photo highlights that quick-and-dirty corrugated iron buildings were popular up here in Northern California, too.

The photo takes place on the angled loading dock along Hopkins Ave., a dead-end street paralleling Campbell Ave. that started at Harrison Ave., passed between California Canneries and the Ainsley Cannery, and quickly crossed the SP tracks to end at the cannery housing for the Ainsley cannery. Perley Payne grew up in the house at Hopkins and Harrison, hidden in the trees in the photo. Perley’s father must have hated the traffic from the cars coming to his former cannery. There's a bunch of cars all parked along Hopkins there; the cannery must have generated quite a bit of traffic and parking problems for Campbell.

The Sanborn map shows three houses along Hopkins that might have been annoyed by the traffic. The westernmost house was 80 Harrison, at the corner of Harrison and Hopkins. The Paynes still lived there in 1920, even though the records hint they no longer owned the cannery. 25 Hopkins Ave was next; George Sprague and his extended family were living there; George declared himself a cannery laborer. I'd guess he was a California Canneries employee, and he's probably one of the fifty-something men in the photo. His son-in-law, George Archibald, had the easier job; he was a salesman at a (presumably not-self-service) grocery store. The house closest to the cannery, 35 Hopkins Ave., apparently went with the cannery, for Solomon Jacobs, the manager, lived there in 1920. Dudley Chaffee, the night watchman, boarded with him.

Left side of photo towards Harrison Ave.

The location for California Canneries must have been sweet; I've heard from children of packing house owners that dealing with the line of trucks waiting to drop off fruit in season can be quite a chore; having their own dead-end street must have given California Canneries a bit more wiggle room when the trucks backed up.

By the time Havens-Semaira was running the cannery in 1935, the loading dock where this photo was taken was long gone; the cannery had built out to the edge of the street right-of-way, and the loading dock was now around back in the middle of the lot. For the houses that bordered the property along Harrison, they must have had a lot more problems with trucks idling and noisy unloading.

So now we know what California Canneries looked like. We know why Perley Payne was bitter about losing his cannery. We've got an idea about the ethnic make-up of Campbell in 1920. (I wonder how much things change in 1930?) And finally, we've also got some faces and names to put next to all those workers who canned the Santa Clara Valley's apricots in the summer of 1926. David's family stories, Edith Daley's observations, Perley Payne's memories, and the census data all give us some hints about those folks in David's photo.

Great thanks to David Pereira for sharing the photo and allowing me to include it here. The Perley Payne interview was recorded in 1999 by San Francisco State University's Labor Archives and Research Center. Census data came from, though I could have avoided a ton of typing if all the data was available in a processed way.

Spot anything interesting in the photo? Talk about it in the comments!

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Installing the Interlocking Machine at West San Jose

I'd shown the interlocking machine for the WP crossing a couple posts back. Now that I've shared it, it's given me a good kick-in-the-butt to actually install it on the layout. After a couple of weekend work sessions, I'm proud to say it's installed now. See the video above to see it in action, or read on and learn some of the details about installing it.

I've argued I need the interlocking because crews will otherwise forget the crossing is there. In case you doubt it, here's a photo from an early op session showing someone dropping cars directly across the crossing.

And finally, some details about the scene:

The Derails

The West San Jose tower was a mechanical interlocking - that is, the levers on the interlocking machine moved piping which would cause switches, derails, and signals to change position and state. Seeing the Barriger photo of the crossing from the 1930's, I really wanted to model the control devices - the derails that would push cars off the tracks, and the movable rods that would move a derail out of the way so a train could pass.

I'd thought about doing something physical to block the tracks, but the alternatives I thought about, such adding a switch point in the track or dropping a derailing device on the rail, seemed both fragile and troublesome. I chose to do something less prototypical, embedding an LED between ties. The LED glows red if the derail is set, encouraging crews not to roll through. The lights don't force crews to deal with the interlocking, but they're at least an encouragement.

I'd also considered laying out the actual rodding to control the signals and derails. That idea also ended pretty quickly; I realized most solutions wouldn't be able to stand up to the aggressive track cleaning needed for a garage layout. I'd considered using something substantial such as piano wire for the rodding, but immediately had thoughts of poking a bit of rod straight through one finger. (Perhaps I could bend right angles at each end of a section of pipe so the ends are firmly in the roadbed?) For now, there will be no piping.

The Signals

The real West San Jose crossing would have been protected by tall semaphore signals - one set of signals close to the crossing, and another about a mile back. Semaphore signals wouldn't survive last long at this point on the model railroad. The area around Auzerais Street requires a lot of reaching in to couple and uncouple cars, and the low upper deck means operators need to reach right in. Rather than watch semaphores get destroyed each session, I decided to use dwarf signals at the crossing. Like all modelers, I've usually got some interesting stuff in the scrap box for a project. The scrap box held some dwarf signal castings I'd probably bought at the Trains-Nothing-But-Trains closing sale back in 1983, but I only had two of those left.

Instead, I fell back on my favorite crutch - the 3d printer. With about an hour of work, I'd sketched up a signal and had it printing on the 3d printer. I needed to refine the design widen the holes so they'd fit my chosen LEDs, but still had usable signals within a day of changing my plan. The design may seem a bit simple, but it's got all the same detail that my 1970's era white metal signal had... and I don't need to run to the hobby store to get more.

The Switches

The interlocking machine controls a pair of track switches for the interchange track between the WP and SP. (Full disclosure: there was no such track here. When the SP and WP interchanged cars, they did so at a small yard along South Fourth Street. Switching interest won out over accurate trackage.) Like all switches on my layout, I use Tortoise switch machines to control them, both so crews don't need to reach into the scene to throw switches and so I've got electrical contacts to avoid dead frogs. The Tortoises work by reversing polarity, so the switches on the fascia are DPDT switches wired as reversing switches. That won't work with the Modratec contacts - it provides SPDT contacts for each lever.

Instead, I replaced the Tortoises with the the MP5 switch motors I'd used on the Market Street modular layout. The switch machines can be controlled via SPDT contacts. They're also easier to install - the position of the throw wire can be adjusted after the switch machine is screwed onto the layout. The MP5s do use tiny screws for mounting, but I've worked around this by mounting them to thin plywood with #2 screws at the workbench, then using larger screws to attach the plywood to the benchwork.

The Lights

The area around the Western Pacific crossing hasn't gotten a lot of attention; apart from a coat of paint soon after the track was laid, there's been little work on the area for the last... oh, ten years. I did build a model of Western Pacific's tower years ago.

Putting in the interlocking also forced me to do a few other jobs - I added dirt to hide the bare homasote, glued down a fence leading to the Del Monte cannery. I also ended up improving the lighting. When I started on the Vasona Branch, I used under-the-counter fluorescent fixtures. They worked ok, but there wasn't always enough space for the twenty inch long fixtures. I also was always a little hesitant about threading 120 volt wire through the layout just in case the wrong wire got chafed or cut. When I'd checked out LED strip lighting years ago, I found the lights weren't really bright enough for layout lighting, and the printed circuit carriers weren't easy to mount.

Last year, I'd spotted some cool LED units in Fry's electronics components aisle. These were 12 volt LED modules, with white LEDs on a plastic carrier. At $1.50 a unit, they were too pricey for an entire layout. Searching on eBay, however, I found the same modules were often used for hollow sign lighting, and that I could buy strips of a hundred of these lights for almost nothing. These are still available on Ebay (like this - search for "LED module 5050" (5050 is the part number for the bright white LEDs) and there's some that exactly match mine, and a lot of other similar fixtures. I like the waterproof ones; they've got sealed packages. I use 12 volt power supplies for laptops to power them - they're cheap ($10), come with a cord and plug, and don't cover up outlets like wall warts.

Next step: get some operators to actually test out the interlocking!

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.