Friday, February 19, 2016

Spreckels Beet Sugar Refinery

Adolph Claus J. Spreckels was not an unknown entity when he decided in 1888 to erect a massive sugar beet refinery just outside downtown Watsonville. The sugar beet king had begun his career in 1872 in Aptos as the owner of a large resort hotel. He, with Frederick A. Hihn, was the primary financier of the Santa Cruz Railroad, which was completed in 1876. Beginning with Rancho Aptos, Spreckels began growing sugar beets in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, inducing dozens of local farmers to become his clients in the venture. But in 1888, he founded the Western Beet Sugar Company within the Watsonville city limits, and it quickly became the largest sugar beet refinery in the United States.

An overview look at the entire Spreckels refinery yards, c 1895, with the cleaning barns at right, the factory in the center, and endless piles of unprocessed sugar beets. The Southern Pacific mainline is visible in the foreground beside stacks of lumber. The Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad turntable and engine house is just in front of the refinery at center-right.
(PacificNG Collection)
The Western Beet Sugar Company's refinery was built just northwest of the Southern Pacific Railroad station in Watsonville, along Ford Street and near Walker Street and fenced in from the north by Watsonville Slough. Over the course of the next few years, the structures at the factory expanded massively. Four massive beet bins were installed to clean and process the beats. Between the two southernmost bins, a special pair of railroad sidings were installed that ran their entire 900 foot length before passing directly through the middle of the factory itself. These two tracks constituted the Southern Pacific Railroad's connection to the refinery and are the two tracks that still survive at the site today. They were standard-gauged and used primarily for export shipping. To the northwest of the factory, the tracks met, although did not merge, with the tracks of the Pajaro Valley Railroad.

Western Beet Sugar refinery, c. 1900, with the turntable and engine house at left. (Bancroft Library)
The narrow-gauged Pajaro Valley Railroad was constructed in 1890 by Spreckels to help his farmers in the Pajaro and Salinas Valleys get their sugar beets to his refinery in Watsonville. It initially reached Moss Landing and Moro Cojo Slough but was soon extended all the way to the southern outskirts of Salinas where Spreckels was building a brand new, much larger refinery. With this new extension, the name of the company was changed to the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad which took effect in 1892. With the new railroad and refinery, Watsonville Terminal—the official railroad name for the Watsonville factory—became the northern hub of the line. To support this, many new facilities were built on the southern side of the Watsonville refinery including a turntable, a three-stall engine house, a water tower, and multiple sidings. The Pajaro Valley Railroad tracks crossed the Southern Pacific tracks just west of Watsonville Station's freight yard, and a tiny station booth was added here to allow for transfers between the two lines.

1892 Sanborn map showing the entirety of the Western Beet Sugar Company refinery. (UCSC Digital Collections)
1892 Sanborn map of the Watsonville Creamery & Cattle
Company's facility and railroad stop (UCSC Digital Collections)
Everything at the Western Beet Sugar refinery revolved around the massive four-story factory structure that towered over the grounds. The Pajaro Valley Railroad's main track wrapped around the structure to the west, meeting and paralleling the Southern Pacific tracks that emerged from the factory. They continued to the fringe of Watsonville Slough along a narrow fill that terminated at the Watsonville Creamery & Cattle Company. A small platform was built at the end to allow the loading of freight and/or cattle. The company became Miller & Lux's Cattle Feeding Sheds by 1902, at which point the station here appears to have gone into disuse. This fill still exists and now acts as a private access road for the farm still at the site. Just before the slough, a side track broke off and wrapped around the north side of the refinery to enter a long enclosed cleaning and storage warehouse. Thus, rather uniquely for the region, the Western Beet Sugar refinery was catered to by two entirely independent railroad companies which used two different gauge tracks to accomplish similar goals. For a brief time, the factory was a hub of activity and commerce in the Watsonville area, symbolized by the cooperation of the two railroad companies.

The refinery, in dark contrast and possibly showing more signs of color in its paint scheme, c. 1897.
By the mid-1890s, railroad services had expanded at the refinery and the factory itself nearly doubled in size. A new pair of Southern Pacific tracks ran parallel to its old one, running across the front of the refinery, and a spur off the old line catered to a new sugar loading warehouse. Meanwhile, the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad track added two additional spurs, one that ran to a storage shed to the northeast of the factory and another that terminated at a the sugar loading warehouse beside the Southern Pacific Track. Beside the old run-around track, another warehouse was erected for freight loading purposes. To the south of Beach Street, a large freight warehouse was also erected alongside the Pajaro Valley tracks to cater to additional Spreckels refinery concerns.

The refinery on a busy day, c. 1895. (California State Railroad Museum)
In 1898, Spreckels formally shifted all refining operations to his new factory outside of Salinas. The Watsonville refinery was renamed Spreckels Sugar Company milll #2 and became a back-up and overflow refinery, listed in the 1902 Sanborn map as "used as a reserve mill only". In other words, the mill was closed for business. The loss of the factory was a blow to local businesses that had hoped Spreckels would help build up the city of Watsonville. Instead, he diverted the crops of the few sugar beet planters away from the city and to Monterey County. Sanborn maps suggest that the dismantling of the factory began after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, when Spreckels probably decided it wasn't worth repairing.

The refinery in its final years, c. 1897. (National Museum of American History)
The 1908 Sanborn map notes it is "not in operation" rather than in "reserve". Large portions of the facility were already gone by that year and even some of the spurs were truncated or removed. The 1911 map shows Kearney Street Extension for the first time with the Hihn-Hammond Lumber Company occupying the former sugar beet cleaning yard. Fruit packing houses already were popping up along the new road on grounds that were formerly Spreckels yards. By this point, only the original two Southern Pacific spurs remained with the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad still retaining its former trackage, although probably not using any of it. The factory still remained but was "vacant". The final Sanborn map available from UCSC Digital Collections shows a very different in 1920. The Hihn-Hammond Lumber yard has stretched across most of the old grounds while numerous agricultural—mostly fruit—packing companies, driers, refrigerators, and canneries sit on either side of Kearney Street Ext. The old PVCRR turntable remains, but the engine house is gone. Two spurs continue past the turntable on entirely new paths but terminate soon afterwards. The Southern Pacific spurs in the area now cater to the Crown Fruit Extract Company, which sits on the site of an old Spreckels molasses refinery, and the Shell Oil Company, located at the end of Ford Street. The last trace of Spreckels' presence in the area, the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad, shut down permanently in 1929 and its properties and stock were sold to the Southern Pacific, which immediately scrapped the line.

Official Railroad Information:
As a freight stop along a private spur, the Southern Pacific Railroad did not note the refinery on any of its official documentation. However, the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad, which had its northern terminus at the refinery, simply called the factory "Watsonville Terminal" from 1899 to 1928. It was located 27.2 miles from the Spreckels factory near Salinas via a long circuitous route following the coast until the track reached the Salinas River, at which point it followed the river inland. The terminus included a turntable, three-stall engine house, a water tower, and a total 7-car capacity for loading product cargoes for shipment out on the main Southern Pacific line.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.906˚N, 121.767˚W

The site of Spreckels Beet Sugar Refinery remains an active industrial area and the original spur built in 1888 for Spreckels still cuts through the heart of this block. Numerous businesses now sit on either side of the spur, including Del Mar Seafoods, Crop Production Services, Tomich Brothers Seafoods, Better Brand Foods, Auto Care Towing, and Terminal Freezers. Of the tracks that once ran through the block, only two remain and neither are in use. A single track runs to the north of Watsonville Station paralleling Walker Street before splitting just before the crossing over Kearney Street Extension. The track now only splits where before it forked multiple times to service the many businesses in the area. The northern fork caters to Terminal Freezers, ending at the end of their building, while the southern fork disappears under gravel behind Auto Care Towing. From Google Maps, it is clear that the track once continued onward to the end of the block, with one spur once crossing the slough along a still-existing fill. A remnant track still parallels Walker Street on the west side for quite a distance longer, while hints of other now removed spurs can be seen throughout the district. Access to this area is restricted to employees of the various companies, although much of the trackage can be viewed from public streets.

Citations & Credits:

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