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Friday, June 9, 2017

Stations: Vasona Junction

A SP train approaching the wye at Vasona Junction, 1940s
[Los Gatos Public Library]
Within the grand scheme of the Southern Pacific Railroad's operations, there was nothing noteworthy about Vasona when it first appeared in the railroad's 1899 stations and offices book. Indeed, the name itself was the brainchild of a local prune farmer, Albert August Vollmer, who petitioned the railroad to set up a flag stop north of Los Gatos so his family could more easily to San José. When asked a name for the stop, Vollmer offered "Vasona," the name of his childhood pony. The stop was located immediately beside Santa Cruz-Los Gatos Road (Winchester Boulevard), 27.8 miles from Santa Cruz. By 1906, just before the earthquake, the stop included a 193-foot-long spur, likely to collect harvested prunes from the nearby orchards.

A SP train in the wye at Vasona Junction in 1949. [Los Gatos Public Library]
Things drastically changed in 1907 when the Los Gatos Branch—popularly known as the Mayfield Cut-Off—was constructed between Vasona and Palo Alto. Suddenly, the simple stop at Vasona became the bottom part of a wye that linked two major branches of the Southern Pacific's Coast Division. To control traffic at the wye, a register booth was erected near the flag stop and all trains were required to stop and record their passage before moving on. Vasona Junction also marked the beginning of an automated block signal system which operated across the Santa Cruz Mountains to avoid accidents in the tunnels and around sharp curves. The entire wye encompassed 2,757 feet of track. Via the new line, San Francisco was only 51.4 miles to the north, a significant reduction from the former route that looped through San José. Most of the wye was in undeveloped orchard lands, and this remained the case for decades.

Registry booth at Vasona, c. 1960s. [Charles Givens]
Painting of Sewall S. Brown fruit plant, c. 1930s. [Robert Bowdidge]
Due to the increased traffic at Vasona, the flag stop was upgraded into a full stop in 1912, with a concrete freight platform installed between the mainline and the upgraded spur track. This location began to appear as a full stop on public timetables in the early 1920s. On the northern side of the wye, the Gem City Packing Company erected a fruit-drying plant and a second spur, seven car-lengths long, was installed to access the facility with a platform setup for easy loading of products. This company processed many of the prunes, apricots, almonds, grapes, and strawberries in the area. The company was later purchased by Sunsweet and then Sewall S. Brown Company. The factory burned down in 1955. Later patrons used had access to the spur for a number of years, but it is unknown whether they used it or not.

A SP train passing through Vasona Junction in 1953. [Los Gatos Public Library]
Once the route through the Santa Cruz Mountains was closed in February 1940, the importance of Vasona Junction declined. Passenger service continued to Los Gatos until 1959, but then the line was cut back. The wye remained in place for five more years and Vasona became the primary stop for railroad commuters from Los Gatos. In fact, a small passenger station was erected at the stop to facilitate this increase in traffic. However, in January 1964, the Los Altos Branch was closed and the ability to commute from Vasona to San Francisco was curtailed—locals would have to use cars and buses if they needed to travel to San Francisco.

A SP engine passing beside prune trees at Vasona Junction, 1955. 'Los Gatos Public Library]
The southern ends of the wye were not immediately removed, but the south-eastern portion quickly deteriorated and even became dislodged. The old registry booth, meanwhile, was rescued by Jim Holmes and relocated to Swanton Pacific Ranch north of Davenport. The tracks of the wye were eventually removed with only the northern curve remaining to allow freight trains to access the Permanente cement plant west of Cupertino. Plans to extend the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) lightrail network to Vasona have been on the books for over a decade, but no progress has been made due to funding.

A SP engine in the wye at Vasona Junction,  c. 1940s.
[Los Gatos Public Library]
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37˚15'20.2"N, 121˚57'57.7W

The site of Vasona Junction can be accessed along Winchester Boulevard north of Los Gatos, just before the track's crossing under State Route 85. While trespassing on the track itself is illegal—they remain active rails owned by Union Pacific—so access to the northern part of the former wye is not permitted. Fortunately, there is a new rail-trail that runs parallel to the tracks from Winchester to Wedgewood Avenue, the entire length of the old wye. The western portion of the former wye is now entirely developed over by the Bay Club Courtside tennis facility. The south-western side is the most accessible. It ran parallel to Winchester across from the tennis club and most of the right-of-way still exists as sidewalk. Unfortunately, no trace of the railroad exists along either of these sides of the former wye. The former stop itself is roughly at the location of the Winchester & Albright bus stop outside the Netflix headquarters parking lot on Winchester Boulevard.

The site of Vasona in the mid-1980s beside Winchester Boulevard. The Union Pacific tracks are visible in the distance.
Citations & Credits:
  • Bender, Henry. "SP San Jose to Santa Cruz (ex-South Pacific Coast Ry.)" Unpublished.
  • Bowdidge, Robert. "Gem City Packing becomes Sunsweet Becomes Sewall Brown." Robert's Vasona Branch Blog. 21 November 2011.
  • "Hooked on Los Gatos." Library and History Museum Project.
  • Edward Kelley & Peggy Conaway, Images of Rail: Railroads of Los Gatos. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.
  • Los Gatos Times-Saratoga Observer, 1955.
  • San José News, 1928.

4 comments:

  1. Actually, the final passenger train to San Jose
    from San Francisco via Los Altos and Vasona ran
    on January 27, 1964. According to the SP Peninsula Time table of October 27, 1963,the train arrived from San Francisco at 6:44 PM.
    The morning train stopped there headed north at
    6:41 AM. This was a regular stop, not a flag stop. The tracks from Simla to Alta Mesa were
    removed later in 1964. Other segments were
    removed later than this. I rode the train to
    Vasona in 1963 and kept an eye on when they removed the tracks in 1964 and later.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I went to Gunn High School in Palo Alto from 1965 to 1968 which was adjacent
    to where the Alta Mesa station had stood. After the tracks were removed
    from Alta Mesa to Simla in 1964 to make way for the Foothill Expressway,
    the tracks continued to sit abandoned from Alta Mesa to Hansen Avenue in
    Palo Alto until 1966. Preformed Line Products west of El Camino Real
    continued to receive freight service for many years after 1966, perhaps
    until 1983. The remaining tracks at Simla were eventually abandoned by 1966
    and replaced by the line running directly from Monta Vista to Permanente,
    part of the currently operating line from San Jose to Permanente via Vasona.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Duncan - I grew up in Los Altos Hills between June 1957 and Dec. 1968. I don't know about the date of track removal from Alta Mesa to Los Altos, but I seem to remember that from Los Altos (Main St.) to at least Loyola Corners, it was removed in Jan. 1965...

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Automatic Block Signal system also extended from Vasona Junction into San Jose and was still shown on Employee Timetable # 178 for Sept. 27, 1959. By 1963 it had been removed from this stretch of track.

    The pale green waiting shelter at Vasona remained there long after the passenger trains had been discontinued. The station sign of Vasona is now on display in the meeting room of the Santa Clara Caltrain station.

    The dismantling of the Los Altos branch began almost immediately after the
    passenger service was discontinued. They started pulling spikes, put canvas
    over the wigwag signal, and put a big wooden block over the tracks north of the Arastradero Road crossing, all at Alta Mesa. Soon the tracks were removed here and the waiting shelter there demolished. By the summer of 1964, there were no more tracks in Los Altos and the track was cut back just shy of Simla. In 1966, the bypass was completed around Simla and there were no more tracks here either from then on.

    ReplyDelete