Wednesday, January 29, 2020

This Train Ain't Bound for Glory

Model railroads are most fun when there’s action, and that means we want to model prototypes with lots of trains moving around. I chose the Vasona Branch over other SP branches because I assumed the canneries and dried fruit packing houses along the tracks could generate that action. However, I also wanted to include the photogenic locations in the Santa Cruz mountains: redwoods, oak, chaparral, and creeks in narrow canyons. I knew that industry was sparse up in Los Gatos Canyon, but just how sparse?

There aren’t a lot of sources to tell us how busy the railroad was. Maybe we’ll find a quote in a newspaper about last year’s revenue, or maybe we’ll find some railroad paperwork or photos that suggest train length. But that sort of information is rare; I’ve never had that sort of information for the Vasona Branch, but I’ve always been curious.

Luckily, there is one potential source. When railroads wanted to shut down a branch line, they’d need to ask permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission to make sure they weren’t leaving customers in the lurch. The ICC decisions on abandonments give us at least a small view into an under-performing branch.

I’d always been curious about the abandonment proceedings, but assumed the details would be in a dusty book in a university library’s off-site storage. I’d asked around when I was visiting the California State Railroad Museum last week, but the likely books were stored off-site. Some poking around showed that some local libraries might also have some of the ICC decisions, but none of the places were easy to access. I knew rough dates of abandonments, and web sites like even provided the ICC “docket number” to help with searches - the abandonment of the Los Gatos - Olympia portion of the line in 1940 was ICC docket #12815.

It’s also the 21st century, so there’s a good chance some of those documents are on-line. So I tried a few searches with different keywords in different permutations: “interstate commerce commission”, “abandonment”, “los gatos”, “South Pacific Coast”.

Pay dirt. The abandonment decisions for SP’s Boulder Creek branch (1933), Le Franc to New Almaden (1933 also), Los Gatos to Olympia (1940), and Campbell to Le Franc all turned out to be on-line, with links below. None of these are particularly compelling reading: no stories of murders, or heroic rescues, or amusing encounters with grizzly bears, but just some dry stories: “This railroad no longer has a reason for being there, the folks living nearby don’t need it, and the railroad doesn’t want to run it.” They’re also not full of railfan facts such as locomotives and engineers. However, they still give us a sense of what the railroad was like.

From the Southern Pacific Company Abandonment of theSanta Cruz branch from Los Gatos to Olympia:

“The line proposed to be abandoned is an intermediate segment of the branch connecting San Jose… with Santa Cruz. It was built by the South Pacific Railroad in 1870-1880 and acquired by the applicant in 1937. The main track is laid with 90 pound rail. The aggregate curvature is about 3,598 degrees, with a total length exceeding 8 miles. There are approximately 13,137 feet of timber-lined and masonry-lined tunnels… Motive power is limited to the consolidated type of locomotive…. the line serves an area mainly devoted to summer homes and resorts; there are no industries except for a limited amount of fruit growing, which is not dependent on the railroad for transportation.”

But then we start getting some of the color. “As protection against embankment slides and washouts, a pilot was sent ahead of the early morning train.” As model railroaders, having a pilot train running to watch for redwoods across the track would be quite the thing for operation. Saturday excursion runs generated most of the passenger numbers, so I should run more Sunshine Specials to Santa Cruz.

And then there’s the traffic numbers. I knew that the Santa Cruz Mountains were quiet in the 1930’s, but oh how quiet! There were only six carloads of outgoing freight between 1935 and 1939. Each year, there were only 40-70 cars inbound (except for 1939, when 392 carloads came in for Highway 17 construction.) Most of the traffic was through service: thousands of passengers, mostly for the Sunshine Special excursions. The line also carried 500-1500 carloads of sand from Olympia and “oiled crushed rock” (aka asphaltic rock) from near Davenport each year. Even with the mountainous route, shipping via Los Gatos Canyon was faster and less expensive than going the long way through Watsonville and Gilroy. The Southern Pacific admitted the costs were higher on the new route, but they'd be able to handle more cars per train. The shippers were disappointed at the loss of the short route to San Francisco, but resigned to pay an extra 0.25 cents to 1.5 cents per hundred pounds to ship their product via Watsonville. That’s all model railroad scale: about five loaded cars a day across the railroad, and one car a day ending up on the railroad.

The reports also list population, highlighting how much the Santa Cruz mountains had depopulated. Only around 1300 people were living along the line in 1939, with 500 at Alma, 150 at Aldercroft Heights, 40 at Call of the Wild, 50 at Wrights, 35 at Laurel, 196 at Glenwood, and a huge 240 at Zayante. The numbers are probably larger now, but the land’s still pretty empty.

If you go and compare those freight numbers to San Jose, it’s easy to see why the SP dumped the Los Gatos canyon line. Compare with San Jose proper. A 1940 labor law case argued that several of the dried fruit packers tried to sponsor their own union to avoid the Longshoremen’s Union getting into their business. In between stories of companies directing favored employees to organize “the right way”, there’s details about fruit volume. J.S. Roberts, on my layout, generated 1,750 tons of fruit in 1939- as much as the Los Gatos - Olympia section carried in a full year. Abinante and Nola and Hamlin Fruit generated similar traffic. Sunsweet and Del Monte would have generated 300 cars a year each in dried fruit from San Jose. It’s not hard to see how SP made its money.

For me as the modeler, these facts stress how I should keep the Santa Cruz Mountains quiet: occasional freights full of sand-laden gondola, but otherwise no sizable industries generating traffic, and a bunch of rusty sidings that may not see a train again.

Oh, and I need to model that pilot train checking the line.

Raw numbers for the Los Gatos - Olympia service:

Passenger Traffic: 

YearLocal PassengersThrough Passengers

Freight Traffic:

YearLocalLCLBridge Traffic
193539 carloads / 1984 tons20 tons14 carloads / 229 tons
193631 carloads / 1557 tons 8 tons0 tons
193769 carloads / 3758 tons 22 tons416 carloads / 21,075 tons
193836 carloads / 1451 tons26 tons01,133 carloads / 64,426 tons
1939392 carloads / 21225 tons37 tons1,517 carloads / 92, 554 tons

Only 6 carloads of freight originated on the line from 1935-1939. Six.

That was fun; let’s check another!

Here’s the abandonment report for theBoulder Creek to Felton branch, torn up in 1933. “The marketable timber supply in the territory has become exhausted, there is no other manufacturing industry in the territory, farming is of no importance.” Rock and stone were the main freight being shipped, but only around 100 loaded cars or so were coming off the branch. “The only inbound carload traffic of regular nature is an occasional car of coal.” The report lists that service had declined to a weekly freight, with cars, buses, and trucks taking away business that had been for the railroad.

Or the New Almaden branch. The New Almaden mines had been shut down for years; the only traffic from the line between 1931 and 1933 was “137 tons of tomato juice”. “ The weekly mixed freight just encouraged the locals to jump in the car to get around.

Or the Le Franc branch: surrounded by orchards and vineyards, but the locals all deliver their produce by truck. From 1933-1936, the SP handled less than twenty carloads a year, and handled it all with a yard locomotive.

Again, none of these documents contain essential facts for our model railroads, but they do tell a bit about how the railroad declined, and who remained to use it during its last years. When visitors come by, we can point at a tank car, look sad, and say “137 tons of tomato juice - that’s the only thing that railroad shipped in its last year.”

Pro tips for finding similar documents: try several searches, and poke through a couple pages of search results. Use quotes around groups of words such as “Interstate Commerce Commission”. If you find a book with other railroad-related legal reports, check the index or start using keywords, and you might find some interesting gems. Abandonment reports sometimes turn up in the “Finance Reports” volume, though that wasn't true for all the cases here. If you decide not to practice your Google searching skills, check for a university library with ICC reports, or visit a county law library that has access to HeimOnline - that database apparently has all the government publications. Santa Clara County's law library provides free access if you visit.