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This website is a constant work-in-progress, with articles updated regularly throughout the site. Much of the information comes from local railroad fans such as yourselves. If you have information regarding local railroads, photographs or railroad documents, or you feel a mistake has been made or information omitted from an article, leave a comment on the appropriate page or email me at author@santacruztrains.com. This site would not be possible without your help and support. Thank you! – Derek R. Whaley

Friday, February 20, 2015

Pajaro & Watsonville Junction

Watsonville Junction on a 1915 USGS Map.
Just beyond the southeast corner of Santa Cruz County, the small town of Pajaro sits unassuming as it has since the 1870s. This place was named after the adjacent Pajaro River, which separates Santa Cruz from Monterey County. It is a relatively short, though surprisingly wide, river named by the company of Don Gaspar de Portola on October 8, 1769, after a dead stuffed California condor that was found on its banks. Portola had in fact named the river Rio de la Señora Santa Ana, but nobody has ever really called it that. For many years, the name leant itself to the communities on both sides of the river. The northern community would eventually evolve into Watsonville, but the southern town kept its name.

In 1871, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, through its subsidiary the California Southern Railroad, built a line between Gilroy and Salinas, passing through Pajaro on its journey. Since it stuck to the southern bank of the river, it never crossed into Santa Cruz County (except further to the north briefly), a fact that never changed. Indeed, even today the mainline of the former Southern Pacific Railroad passes through the town on its way down the Salinas Valley to San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles. For five years, from 1871 to 1876, the people of Watsonville were content with their railroad service across the river. Sure it was a slight bother to have to cross the river beside the railroad's bridge, but they got their goods to market without much fuss. It was the rest of Santa Cruz County that wanted railroad access, the people of Watsonville felt that they already had it.

Nonetheless, in 1876, a connection across the river was finally completed and Pajaro became the junction for the private Santa Cruz Railroad line and the Southern Pacific mainline. In 1881, the latter bought the former and they became a united track in 1883 when the Santa Cruz tracks were standard-gauged. In a brief few years, Pajaro had gone from a rural farming community to a major hub on a intra-California railway network.

Located 100.4 miles from San Francisco via Gilroy and San José, Pajaro Junction, as it was informally called, came to encompass the full spread of Southern Pacific services. It hosted a wye, a turntable, a massive water tower, a large roundhouse for engines and cars to park in, a freight and passenger depot, multiple platforms, tens of thousands of feet of siding and spur space, and telephone services. It was the largest railroad transfer station in Santa Cruz County area, even though it was technically outside the county. With the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad sending excess freight in from Watsonville and the Monterey Branch also bringing in freight from the south, the junction became the heart of the local railroading scene. Its elevation in the late 1890s eventually caused the loss of maintenance and repair facilities at Santa Cruz because there was simply more space at Pajaro and its location just warranted its relocation. Thus by 1900, Pajaro was the railroading hub of the region. Most of the lumber traffic from Aptos traveled via Pajaro, while even loads of lime from Santa Cruz was just as likely to go via Pajaro as via the mountain section. Just to give an estimate of how much space was available there, in 1911 Pajaro had 19,375 feet of siding space. Two years later, it had 34,813 feet. Maps of Pajaro are difficult to even interpret the number of sidings, with them just merging together as a black blob. Two tracks led out from Watsonville to the north to Logan, while another pair of tracks led south to Elkhorn. Only one track crossed the Pajaro River into Santa Cruz.

Watsonville Junction, two months after the closure of the mountain section, April 28, 1940. (Wilbur C. Whittaker)
The station at Pajaro was typical Southern Pacific design, with gabled ceilings, a bay window that served as the ticket office, and interior and exterior seating. The freight depot was next door in a more simple rectangular building with a short peaked roof. Tracks wrapped around the structures from all sides, with various outbuildings nearby for railroad crews and support staff. The station was never a major passenger stop, since there were no resorts nearby and few residents living in Pajaro, but passenger trains passed through multiple times daily on their runs to Santa Cruz, Monterey, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

In early 1913, Pajaro was renamed Watsonville Junction. The reason for this relabelling is not known, but it certainly boosted the status of Watsonville, which was right across the river. It may have been acknowledging that urban sprawl occurring on both banks of the river, though the area immediately around Watsonville Junction was still mostly outside the residential areas of Pajaro. Watsonville was 1.4 miles away, so it wasn't just a short crossing of the bridge, there was a distance there. Legally, the area immediately around the junction was renamed as well and registered as an unincorporated area of Monterey County, but it is generally considered a part of the town of Pajaro. Just prior to this renaming, the Mayfield Cut-Off opened, thereby shortening the distance between Watsonville Junction and San Francisco by 1.2 miles, albeit over the mountain section, which was more difficult to navigate for longer or heavier trains. The change in distance, though, may have slightly lessened the importance of Pajaro, however, since passenger trains that may have once routed through there could reroute through the mountains and arrive slightly more quickly to Santa Cruz (about 30 minutes, according to some account).

Google Maps satellite view of the freight yards at Watsonville Junction.
Unlike all the stops in Santa Cruz County, the Watsonville Junction still exists, though in a seriously reduced capacity. The end of passenger service on the Santa Cruz Branch in 1938 did not end Watsonville Junction's status as a station for trains passing between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Passenger trains still occasionally pass through the station today, though few would realize that it was ever once anything more than a freight stop. Today, five sidings, three spurs, and three track transfers, as well as the wye, remain in place, with the visible remnants of many more still imprinted behind.
All facilities, though, have been removed, including the station, the roundhouse, and the turntable. The imprint of the turntable and roundhouse can be discerned on Google Maps overhead views, a concrete platform still sits nearby. The mainline track and the Santa Cruz Branch (now owned by Santa Cruz County) still split at the site, but no local businesses require spurs nearby and the junction has today full embraced its status as just that, a meeting place between tracks. With the improvements to the Santa Cruz Branch, one hopes that connections will once more resume with the Union Pacific (successor to the Southern Pacific), but that is still probably many years away. Until then, Watsonville Junction remains a dot on a map, an otherwise forgotten relic of a time when railroads were the primary means of shipping freight and transporting people.

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