Friday, August 19, 2016

Railroads: Old Mission Portland Cement Company Extension Railroad

By 1909, roughly three miles of a narrow-gauged, private-use railroad was graded and perhaps even built, ostensibly for the use of the San Juan Southern Railway. However, the financial difficulties that crippled and ultimately bankrupted the San Juan Portland Cement Company equally killed any further work on the short-line track that was aimed at the lime quarries south of San Juan Junction. No locomotive ever operated on this track and it was among the properties purchased by the Old Mission Portland Cement Company in 1912, at which point the railroad lost its name and disappeared from history. Sort of.

Old Mission Portland Cement Company map showing route of track south of San Juan Junction. []
The US Geological Survey map for 1915 shows that a narrow-gauged track meandered quite a distance south of the cement plant to the Gabilan School in Rancho Cienega del Gabilan. By 1917, a significant spur was also built to the south of the cement plant, backtracking uphill to the top of the plant's refuse pile so that loads of rejected material could be easily disposed of.

USGS Map showing the cement plant line, 1917.
By 1918, when the new cement plant was finally operating at full capacity, it seems that the narrow-gauged railroad, too, was a part of the operation, meaning that construction was completed after all, although who finished this route is unknown. The railroad meandered for four miles along a route that hugged the western side of the canyon, with at least one large trestle required to span a gulch. Although the track never made it to the San Juan Southern's goal of Underwood, it seems like that the track reached Thomas Flint's Flintsville ranch, which was just about at the four mile mark. Along the route, the train also passed a number of small farms from which additional revenue likely was shipped. Whether additional miles of track were built between 1918 and 1928 is uncertain, but in that latter year a further 3.5 miles may have been added to the route in order to mine a new quarry. However, the 1939 USGS map does not show any further track added since the 1917 map

This new private railroad run by the cement plant included at least seventeen wagons and five locomotives, the latter of which operated out of an engine house located immediately beside the cement plant where it shared space with the California Central's single standard-gauged locomotive. The railroad crews generally worked the narrow-gauged lines but were cross-trained to shuttle the standard-gauge locomotive to the Southern Pacific tracks at Chittenden when necessary. Unlike the standard-gauged track, which forked twice around and between the cement plant structures, the narrow-gauged track terminated just once beside the eastern-most towers where its engine house was located. The locomotives used on the line included two 0-4-OT Porters, a Climax, and two Plymouth with petroleum-powered engines, all narrow-gauge.

The railroad continued in use when the Portland Cement Company took over in 1927, but, like the rest of the cement plant, all operations halted in 1929 when the Great Depression killed the cement industry along the Central Coast. By the time the plant reopened in 1941, all the narrow-gauged track was gone, likely removed alongside the rest of the California Central line in 1938. Trucks ran along the old right-of-way and continued to do so well into the 1970s. Traces of this road still exist today, now used by farming vehicles and restless cattle wandering the old cement company grounds.

The railroad's rolling stock was dispersed. One of the Plymouth locamotives went to a cement plant in Texas while the other was sold to a rail-fan in Willits, California. The Porters may have been sold to Graniterock. The fate of the Climax is unknown but  is no longer operating. The Willits locomotive was sold at auction to the Society for the Preservation of Carter Railroads at Ardenwood, which then sold it to Randy Hees in 2016. This locomotive was built in December 1922 and was delivered to the Old Mission plant in January 1923.Today, it is one of the earliest surviving Plymouth locomotives and occupies space at the Nevada Railroad Museum in Boulder City, although it requires substantial repair work and cannot operate on public track.

Access Rights:
Permission to access this old route is only with permission by the owner. However, one short section of track is available at the Gibilan School where the old route passes over San Juan Canyon Road (G1) about three miles south of the track that is still visible in the road at San Juan Junction and The Alameda.

Citations & Credits:
  • Clough, Charles W., and Bobbye Sisk Temple. San Juan Bautista: The Town, the Mission & the Park. Quill Driver Books, 1996.
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second Edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.

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