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Friday, August 4, 2017

Freight Stops: Los Gatos Manufacturing Company Spur

Los Gatos Manufacturing Company with trestle,
c. 1900. Photo by Alice Lola Hare. [Clyde Arbuckle]
Los Gatos would have been little more than a picnic stop had it not been for the economic development brought to the area by a Scotsman, James Alexander Forbes, beginning in 1852. In 1854, Forbes built the Santa Rosa Brand Flour Company mill, which was the first flour mill in California and built to service the gold miners. Constructed along Los Gatos Creek, the mill reflected Forbes' hope to utilize water power to run the mill stones. The town of Los Gatos grew up around it, initially called Forbes' Mill and later Forbestown. Unfortunately, Los Gatos Creek proved to be a mild stream that could only power the turbines during the winter. The end of the Gold Rush and the rise of flour mills throughout the state in the later-1850s spelled doom for Forbes' endeavor.

After three unprofitable years, Forbes went bankrupt and left Los Gatos in 1857. Gustave Touchard, one of his creditors, took over the mill but he also failed to turn a profit. For almost ten years, Touchard sold portions of the land away to aspiring townsfolk, leaving the care of the mill to more capable men. In 1866, William H. Rogers, an accomplished miller, took over operations and finally started to make money after upgrading the water turbines and machinery.

Los Gatos Manufacturing Company mill in 1887 with railroad trestle visible at bottom-left, c. 1880s. [Clarence Hamsher]
After bringing in William S. McMurtry and J.Y. McMillen, Rogers renamed the mill the Los Gatos Manufacturing Company in 1869. Their operation was initially successful, prompting an expansion of the facility in 1880. The company built a large, stone, two-story grain warehouse annex on the northern side of the building beside the railroad spur, visible in all of the photos of the mill on this page. The mill reached peak efficiency during these years, with 200 barrels of flour milled a year on a system that ground 25 tons of grain per day. At one point, the company built a wollen mill next door, but a discontented Chinese laborer burned this down the next year.

The Main Street bridge with the South Pacific Coast Railroad tracks passing underneath, c. 1882. [Farwell Family]
The spur for the Los Gatos Manufacturing Company Spur was one of the first built on the southern end of the South Pacific Coast Railroad's route between San José and Los Gatos. That is because it was not originally intended to be a spur. The tracks were first installed in 1877 as the main line. The line later passed underneath the wooden Main Street bridge, opened in May 1882, which was designed to allow a train to pass underneath, and continued until the bottom of the hill on which the Sacred Heart Novitiates now sits. At this point, the railroad discovered blue clay deposits, which undercut the line so severely, that a new route was required. Working backwards, they split the line just north of Bentley Avenue and converted the original route into the manufacturing company spur. The new mainline continued to parallel Santa Cruz Avenue and crossed the street near the southern end of Cats Canyon.

Main Street bridge with a South Pacific Coast locomotive and flatcar parked at the end, c. 1882. [Clarence Hamsher]
Extant photographs from the 1880s show a curving narrow-gauge trestle bridge crossing Los Gatos Creek as it heads into the mill complex, which was on the east bank of the creek. The tracks originally passed through the complex, with a spur built that stopped beside the main warehouse. The lithograph below shows this arrangement. The main track then continued beyond, under the Main Street bridge, to terminate near the original site where the tracks washed out during construction. Here, blue clay was quarried for at least two decades for use by a local limestone company. The entire track functioned more or less as a 0.6-mile-long extension of the Los Gatos freight yard, and was classified as such since it never appeared in railroad timetables or station books. Nonetheless, the spur at the mill was capable of holding up to 10 boxcars of flour, making it the first profitable freight patron in Los Gatos.

Santa Rosa Mill beside Los Gatos Creek, c. 1880s. [Clarence Hamsher]
In 1887, a lack of nearby wheat resources combined with a fire at a portion of the facility spelled the end to the Los Gatos Manufacturing Company. The buildings were taken over by the Los Gatos Ice & Power Company, which began using them as a power plant for the town of Los Gatos. An ice house was built at the end of the railroad spur and the annex was turned into a warehouse. The Los Gatos Lime Company, likely to better exploit the blue clay deposits, built a small limekiln and warehouse facility on the west side of Los Gatos Creek in the late-1880s and extended a short spur off the main spur to support their operation. This operation was closed no later than 1894, which probably marks the end of the blue clay quarry and its spur. Indeed, by 1895, only one spur still reached the old Forbes Mill and it ended at the ice house. The company was renamed that year the Los Gatos Ice & Electric Light Company. New ice storage facilities were installed and another spur placed, but in a different location than before. The electric plant continued to run until around 1905, but ice storage eventually moved across the creek to the Union Ice Company structure near the freight yard. By 1904, the spur was probably not being used, and it was certainly removed no later than 1907, when the entire Los Gatos freight yard was upgraded to standard-gauge.

The Los Gatos Manufacturing Company in its heyday, c. 1885, showing the annex building at left and the spur tracks
at right heading into the loading area and beyond to the blue clay quarry. [Los Gatos Public Library]
Forbes Mill Annex today as the Los Gatos History Museum,
2013. [Google Street View]
In 1911, a new spur was installed along the old line to the limekiln, which was now owned by the Los Gatos Lime Quarry, founded by J.W. Taylor. This company, however, processed rocks from the Lyndon quarry near Lexington. The spur may have remained in place as late as the 1930s, when the Lyndon spur to the south disappeared from timetables. At the former Forbes Mill, the electric company was replaced by the Los Gatos Gas Company, which in turn was purchased by Pacific Gas & Electric in 1912. The remaining portions of the mill were demolished in 1916, except for the annex building, which PG&E continued to use until 1955. It was repurposed by the city as a youth center in 1971 after over a decade of disuse. Then, after that venture failed, it became the Forbes Mill Museum in 1982, the predecessor of the History Museum of Los Gatos.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.222˚N, 121.980˚W

The Forbes Mill annex still survives today as California State Historic Landmark #458, a status it gained in 1950. All other remnants of the mill and railroad are gone. It now sits along the Los Gatos Creek Trail off Church Street. The re-routing of Los Gatos Creek to facilitate Highway 17 in the 1950s significantly changed the terrain in the area. Originally, the trestle, which headed out from the annex on the right, would have gently banked northward over the creek. Development in the area has hidden most of the historic right-of-way, but two small plots of land that resemble a right-of-way show that the spur continued until a junction with the Southern Pacific mainline near Bentley Avenue and University Avenue.

Citations & Credits: 

1 comment:

  1. A very informative article and I like the pictorial representation of the mill. A good way to communicate how the place changed with time.

    ReplyDelete