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Friday, October 30, 2015

Betabel

Betabel station on the 1915 USGS Map.
Claus Spreckels was the king of the sugar-beet business in the San Juan, Pajaro, and Salinas Valleys at the turn of the twentieth century but he had a problem: many of his fields were nowhere near a local railroad. Enter Betabel Station. When the Southern Pacific Railroad's Coast Division mainline was first constructed through the Pajaro Valley in 1871, it skirted the northern side of the Santa Cruz Mountains before cutting south to Salinas from Pajaro. Unfortunately, this stranded many of Spreckels' fields in between. For many years, nothing was done about this issue and the local farmers just had to regularly cart their goods to Chittenden or Sargent stations along the mainline. Spreckels successfully financed for the lower Pajaro Valley (i.e., the Watsonville area) the Santa Cruz Railroad by 1876 and he constructed in the Salinas area the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad in 1897. This left the San Juan Valley the only major area without railroad service as of that year.

Betabel was the short-term solution to this problem. The station, named after an uncommon Spanish name for a sugar-beet, first entered the scene at some point in 1896. By 1897, it had become the primary shipping hub for all San Juan Valley sugar-beets farmers. The station, inconveniently located on the north bank of the Pajaro River and above the confluence of the San Benito River into the Pajaro meant that a long spur was required that crossed over the confluence via a truss bridge and stopped immediately beside the county road (modern Betabel Road), making delivery of goods especially easy for farmers. While the stop does not appear to have had any offices, it was classified as a class-B station which meant it had a freight platform and, most likely, a holding spur or siding. The 1915 USGS map shows the long spur and the tracks appear thicker in the area between Sargent Creek and the stop, suggesting there was a siding there.

The truss bridge over the Pajaro River at Betabel, c. 1897. (History San José)
The station remained predominately a beet shipping station for the entire first decade of the 1900s. In 1903, a grower's association was founded to negotiate rates for using the Betabel spur, with a threat to discontinue their contract with Spreckels if their demands were not met. Things apparently went well for the next year, rumours abounded that the Southern Pacific planned to abandon both Chittenden and Sargents stations due to the increased importance of Betabel to the line. A month later, the real reason for this was revealed: oil was discovered in the hills above Betabel. According to the Sentinel, the Watsonville Oil Company had constructed an oil refinery at Betabel (although it seems more likely it was at Rialto/Newria slightly to the west). In any case, the plans to abandoned Sargents were made certain that year, but that station remained on timetables for years afterwards suggesting there was at least some local resistance.

By December 1905, news was quickly spreading that the Southern Pacific Company intended to extend a line south to San Juan Bautista to better patronize the farmers in that area. There was already an SP line to Tres Pinos, but it went away from the farmers. Where this proposed line was to branch off from was open to speculation, but one excited reporter in February 1906 called the short spur across the Pajaro River both the "Betabel branch" and the "Betabel line", implying it would be extended into a full SP branch. Further speculation in November 1906 suggested that Betabel would be converted into a formal passenger and freight station acting as the regional hub and the gateway to the Betabel branch line to San Juan Bautista.

The primary purpose of Betabel promptly fell away once the San Juan Pacific Railway came into being in 1907. This line, which linked nearby Chittenden with San Juan Bautista via the western edge of the San Juan Valley, essentially made Betabel's original purpose redundant and ended any desire for the Southern Pacific to extend their own line to San Juan Bautista. The history of Betabel disappears from records after this point, except as the occasional reference point for road construction projects and railroad-related murders. The sugar-beet industry there ended abruptly in 1907 while the oil industry closed shop within a few years due to pollution to the Pajaro River, as discussed in the Newria article. Betabel remained on railroad timetables, a little-used industrial flag-stop, until around 1944. When its spur was removed is not known—the station may have remained in use until the early 1920s as a shipping point for locally-grown fruits, but a truck company offered their services in 1921 which promptly ended this service as well.

Official Railroad Information:
Betabel first appeared in Southern Pacific Railroad agency books on January 1, 1897. It was listed in 1899 as a class-B station, implying the presence of a freight platform and siding or spur, although no other services were listed there. A 1937 employee timetable reports that it had a 26-car (1,300 feet) siding and telephone services at the stop. It was located 89.0 miles from San Francisco via San José and 11.4 miles from Watsonville Junction. By 1940, the station had no scheduled stops, passenger or freight, although it was available as a flag-stop. The station remained in records until 1944, although it seems to have been out of use for many years by that time.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.897˚N, 121.562˚W

The site of Betabel Station is a marked by a hedgerow located 2,000 feet south of the Betabel RV  Resort near the southern end of Betabel Road. The hedgerow itself is the former spur line. The switch for the spur was on the west bank of the Pajaro River beside the current Union Pacific mainline track which is today marked by a locally-used dirt road. There is no legal access to this site or even this side of the river and trespassing is not advised.

Citations & Credits:

  • Southern Pacific Railroad employee timetables and agency books, 1897 to 1940.
  • Chino Champion, 08/27/1897.
  • Santa Cruz (Morning/Evening) Sentinel, 1903-1917.
  • Oakland Tribune, 1921.
  • Nanney, Duncan. Personal correspondence.

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