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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Newria

At the southernmost tip of Santa Clara County near the junction of Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey Counties, and along the northern bank of the Pajaro River midway between Gilroy and Watsonville once sat the minor industrial stop of Newria. It was here, in this remote area east of the tiny hamlet of Chittenden's, that the Standard Oil Company opened up an oil processing center under its subsidiary company, the Rialto Oil & Refining Company of San Francisco.

The endeavour began in April 1904 when the Watsonville Oil Company completed a pipeline to oil wells near Chittenden on the ranch of James P. Sargeant. The Watsonville company had been founded around 1896 and may have been prospecting in the hills around Chittenden since around that time since a lease from the Clara Land & Lumber Company dates to 1901. The original purpose of the wells was to fuel the steam trains and electric streetcars used by the Southern Pacific and the Watsonville Transportation Company in Watsonville and Pajaro. To process the oil, a small refinery was constructed beside the railroad tracks along a four-car spur, presumably in the large meadow on the south side of the mainline tracks at Newria. By July 1904, three oil wells were in operation here producing enough oil to fill three standard-gauged tanker cars per day. More wells were being drilled through to at least the end of the year. The newspapers at this time call the station "Rialto", although Southern Pacific Railroad records call it "Newria" from January 1905. Because of the presence of another Rialto in Southern California, it seams reasonable to assume that this site was named "New Rialto" or "NewRia".

Rumours published in the Santa Cruz Evening Sentinel in June 1904 stated that "it is the intention of the Southern Pacific company to make Rialto a station of importance and that in the near future both Sargent and Chittenden will be abandoned and all the business of the company for that section of the valley be transacted at Rialto." However, this seems very unlikely considering Chittenden was located directly alongside the road and the mainline track. In contrast, Newria was tucked away along a remote stretch of track beside which was only Sargent's farm.

Unfortunately for the Southern Pacific and the Rialto Oil Company, popular discontent intervened. Despite the initial popularity of the oil field and the wealth it was brining to nearby Watsonville, pollution began to seep into the Pajaro River almost immediately. It appears that Little Pescadero Creek, which ran just south of the refinery, was doubling as a wash from the wells up on the hills above Newria, and the runoff was fouling the water near town. In December 1905, the people of Watsonville took the Rialto Oil & Refining Company to court in Santa Cruz, accusing it of pollution and injuring the health of people and grazing stock. While the prosecution had no problem finding witnesses, the defense found virtually none. On January 4, 1906, the Newria refinery closed its doors permanently. Interestingly, the trial may not have dealt the company its death blow, at least not directly. Instead, it appears that the plant may have failed to pay its rents to the Sargent family and was also unable to pay its legal fees for the trial. Regardless, the company closed its doors permanently and Newria became a thing of the past.

During the 1906 earthquake, multiple slides were reported in the Newria area. This was only made worse the next year when terrible late winter storms crippled the mainline in the area. It can be supposed that this double-damage further decreased the likelihood that the facility would resume operations. Newria disappeared from Southern Pacific agency books in January 1908, leaving barely a memory behind of what was supposed to be the central rail hub of Chittenden Pass. It is possible that the Watsonville Oil Company continued to drill wells in the area until 1948, when the company was abandoned, but refining of that oil was done elsewhere and a stop was no longer required in the area.

Official Railroad Information:
Newria first appeared in Southern Pacific Coast Division agency books on January 1, 1905, as a private freight stop. It only remained on timetables for a scant three years, disappearing in the January 1908 agency book. It is not clear to this historian if Newria ever appeared in employee or public timetables, but considering the nature of the stop, this seems unlikely.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.898˚N, 121.575˚W

The site of Newria is on the north bank of the Pajaro River just west of Sargent Creek and east of Pescadero Creek. The site is only accessible by following the railroad tracks from Chittenden to the west, which is both highly dangerous and illegal. The station site is at the foot of a grassy hill and beside a large meadow created by a sharp bend in the adjacent river. Chittenden Road (CA 129) is directly across the river on the south bank.

Citations & Credits:

  • Santa Cruz Weekly, Morning, and Evening Sentinels, 1904-1907.

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