Friday, September 25, 2015


Down the track 1.6 miles from Pacific Grove and its relatively large freight yard was the much smaller Asilomar flag-stop, the last passenger station along the line. Unlike all of the other stops along the Pacific Grove Extension of the Monterey Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad's Coast Division, Asilomar was a late addition, only added as a stop when the Asilomar Conference Center first opened its doors in 1913.

A group of camp girls at Asilomar, June 1916. Photo by Heidrick Photo Studio. (State Parks)
The inside of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Social Hall, c. 1920. (State Parks)
In the late 19th century, the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) began operating in the Monterey Bay area. In 1897, a group of women representing the Pacific Coast Field Committee of the YWCA decided that it was interested in holding an annual retreat somewhere in the area, choosing  the Hotel Capitola near Santa Cruz for its venue from 1900 to 1911. In 1912, Hotel Capitola burned to the ground and the women were forced to look elsewhere for a conference center. That year, a tent city was erected in Livermore for the conference, but all of that material was later transferred to a property in Pacific Grove. The Pacific Improvement Company, the real estate subsidiary of Southern Pacific Railroad, donated 30 acres to the women at a field near the beach. They were required to build substantive structures within the first ten years of the lease, and they had to pay all property taxes for the land. Julia Morgan, a female architect from San Francisco, was hired to build the conference center, while Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of William Randolph Hearst) provided much of the funding and materials. The name Asilomar was chosen after a contest was held among attendees that first year. It's name means "refuge by the sea". On August 7, 1913, Asilomar was officially dedicated. Ellen Browning Scripps expanded the facility in 1916 by purchasing 20 more acres from the Pacific Improvement Company. It began operating year-round after that, although the summer was always its busiest season when the YWCA ran camps for girls and leadership conferences.

Asilomar Station shelter with luggage trolly, c. 1920. 
Naturally, the railroad came soon afterwards. The Pacific Grove Extension already passed beside the conference center, terminating just 0.1 miles away at Lake Majella and Moss Beach. Asilomar Beach was the name given to the beach next door which sat upon the YWCA land. As early as 1913, the railroad delivered passengers to Asilomar, although the precise date that regular passenger service began is not known to this historian. By the early 1920s, the station functioned as a seasonal passenger stop, although it probably offered flag-service year-round, and an occasional freight stop. The specific nature of the freight at Asilomar is not known, although it likely was related to the business at Lake Majella. Indeed, Asilomar acted as the switch for an 8-car (~400 foot) spur from as early as 1928. This spur was primarily for cars loaded with sand from Moss Beach. A D-class freight platform was also there, although no other services were offered for freight. The siding at Asilomar grew over the years, eventually maxing-out at 30 car-lengths (1,500 feet), although this was likely split between the siding and a spur, the latter of which is visible in some photographs. The spur seems to have been short and removed in the 1940s as the track-length condensed to 27 car-lengths (1,325 feet), which it remained until the line was abandoned.

Phoebe Apperson Hearst Social Hall, built in 1913. (State Parks)
Passenger service was offered via a seasonal passenger agency and telephone office, although the specific nature of this station is not presently known. The Great Depression had an effect on Asilomar and the YWCA, no longer able to pay its debts, was forced to close the facility in January 1934. The Depression, though, meant that nobody wanted to purchase the facility, so the Asilomar Committee continued to maintain the grounds during these years. Passenger service to the stop continued until 1940, but the original station structure, if ever there was one, was replaced with a small generic passenger shelter in the early 1930s. With the closure of Asilomar, the shelter sat abandoned beside the tracks, the station only catering to the random passenger flag and freight. The shelter was dismantled or relocated at some point in time, although somebody has since built a recreation of the original and installed it near the station site. Railroad service past Asilomar continued intermittently until 1978 when the tracks were reduced to Seaside. The right-of-way in this area has since become a public bike trail.

Asilomar Station in 1974 with a pair of sand hoppers parked on the tracks in the distant background.
In 1936, David and Paulsen Visel ran Asilomar as a motel until 1940, after which the National Youth Authority used it as a training came. World War II caused the center to be converted into an overflow motel for visitors to Fort Ord and the Presidio. By 1947, the YWCA had regained enough funds to reopen the conference center, finally making money like it never had before. It has been in continuous operation ever since. In 1956, Asilomar became a California State Park, with its conference center leased to the Pacific Grove Association. In 1969, Pacific Grove transferred its lease to the new Pacific Grove-Asilomar Operating Corporation, a special company specifically established to keep Asilomar operating while protecting its surrounding environment. The property was more than doubled in size to provide a better conservation area around it, and now there is an ongoing program in place to maintain the dune habitat on the beach, which are now called the Asilomar Dune Natural Preserve. In 1987, the original structures at Asilomar were declared National Historic Landmarks.

Asilomar Station on the conference
grounds today.
Official Railroad Information:
Asilomar Station was located 129.9 miles from San Francisco via Castroville, Watsonville Junction, Gilroy, and San José. It was also 0.1 miles from the Lake Majella end-of-track. It was established around 1913 and was operated seasonally. Freight service to the station was in place by 1926 and catered primarily to the Lake Majella/Moss Beach sand quarry. To support this industry, a siding of 1,325 feet was erected, with a shorter 3-car (~175 foot) spur built across from the passenger shelter. Originally, a passenger agency office and telephone were at the shelter. The office closed when passenger service ended around 1940 and the shelter was relocated to within the conference grounds. The station itself remained on timetables, sometimes as a full stop, often as an Additional Station, until 1978 when the line was truncated to Seaside.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.619˚N, 121.933˚W

The site of Asilomar Station is roughly where the bike trail crosses over Sinex Avenue, just outside the main entrance to Asilomar Conference Grounds. The shelter structure has been rebuilt and sits near the site of the original structure with a sign atop its roof.

Citations & Credits:


  1. Lake Majella has always been a difficult place to locate in any historical sense, and 0.1 miles from Asilomar will be the first problem encountered; the sand plant was almost a mile away with additional track reaching well past that single mile; all of it well used. The 'Greek Cross' style of station is reported to have been used three times in the region: Asilomar, Lake Majella, and Newell Junction (on the Boulder Creek branch).

    The siding was probably about a dozen cars long, the team track was maybe three cars in length, a spur on the other side of Sinex Avenue was pointed south, and in older maps it crossed Sunset Drive (as did the track to the sand plant). In the 1960s this shortened spur went into a lumber yard, which received the occasional flatcar of milled lumber; and while it no longer crossed Sunset, I believe a competing lumber yard was located there on the south side of the street. I have no idea what was there in the 1930s, I do know that this spur wasn't used in the 1970s.

    The freight would arrive about two in the afternoon with a mix of around ten boxcars and hoppers, two diesels, and a caboose. The locomotives would uncouple and retrieve loaded cars in the sand plant, return and switch over to the fresh cars, push (on the caboose) all of the new cars into place, return to create a train and leave around four. I think that this came to an end in the summer of 1977 due to ecological reasons (too much silt, etc.).

  2. Here's a 1938 map superimposed (georeferenced - blue outline) over recent Google Earth imagery. You can see the S.P. spur, the sand plant and North Moss Beach (Asilomar State Beach).

    Lake Majella was located behind where Pacific Grove Self Storage is now, between the 13th green and 14th fairway at Spanish Bay.

    Georeferenced Lake Majella Image

    1. Do you still have that image Luke? It’s no longer available on the hosting site

    2. I found it here. Fascinating to explore the streets of pre-urban renewal downtown Monterey, among other things.

  3. Picking up on something RogerT has said a long while ago on a railroad forum, the short spur on the western side was built for the private rail car of Lucius Morris Beebe (December 9, 1902 – February 4, 1966) and Charles Myron Clegg, Jr. (June 29, 1916 – August 25, 1979), both authors and railroad historians. In another spot I found that the two lived in a small mansion in Virginia City, Nevada, and that they spent the winters in Pebble Beach; so maybe some truth. They did travel in their own 'private varnish', the "Gold Coast" (now located at the Sacramento museum) and then the "Virginia City" (currently in service providing tours).

    RogerT (who I grew up with, lived just across the street from the Asilomar sign, and had a nice grasp of historical facts) also said that the siding was installed as the PG yard was being dismantled.

    From having shot moody B&W photos of the train in the rain, I know that the switches at both ends of the siding were of the Y-configured types; neither track using the existing rails, but with the benefit of only slightly widening the roadbed and maybe saving a tree or two.

    1. I think that any mention of a "spur" is the track to the sand plant (along Crocker Avenue), and that it grew in length and freight car capacity as the dunes were leveled. Eventually the original line fell into disuse and a flip-flop occurred that upgraded the spur out of the records because it was now the main track. Confusion is added as the "Lake Majella" name also flipped to the sand plant for no reason, instead of quietly slipping from the schedule. It would have been better to call Asilomar the last stop and continue listing a very long spur across private land. So, two stops wearing the Lake Majella label, the second one, the sand plant, being the counterfeit.

    2. Around 1960-61, I believe that both the siding and the short spur were constructed at the same time as the PG yard was being dismantled. Not only is there a trustful eyewitness, but Lucius Beebe's book 'Mansions on Rails' has a picture of his "Virginia City" (page 56) sitting at what appears to be the Pacific Grove location, a few feet west of the station. It is a picture from the 1950s (the book was published in 1959) and suggests the need of building a spur in a new location, unfortunately, as the PG location was simply prime.


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