Friday, August 5, 2016

Stations: San Juan

Three decades after the Spanish friars of the Franciscan Order had founded their first mission in the Alta California region of Nuevo España, they decided that a small outpost tucked away in a sparsely-inhabited tributary valley of the Pajaro River would serve as an excellent waypoint for pilgrims, soldiers, and missionaries traveling up and down the King's Highway – El Camino Real. In November 1795, a small group of explorers and friars spiked a cross on a site at the mouth of a deep valley and proclaimed the place San Juan Bautista after Saint John the Baptist. It took two years for a physical church to be completed at the site, with it officially dedicated on 24 June 1797. In 1803, construction began on the current adobé and redwood structure, and it was completed in 1812 becoming the largest of all twenty-one missions in the Spanish system. The mission largely prospered on its bluff that overlooked the floodplains of the San Juan Valley. Many supporting structures were built around the core mission complex, while farmers and ranchers from various backgrounds settled in the surrounding region to work for the Franciscans. Although the mission suffered during the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath, the church continued to operate without a break.

Drawing of Mission San Juan Bautista, c. 1830. [California Missions Resource Center]
The secularization of Catholic Church lands in 1834 greatly reduced the scope of the mission, but locals continued to patronize the church each week and it never closed as so many other missions did. When the United States took control of California and gold was discovered soon after in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the tiny hamlet of San Juan Bautista quickly grew. Prospectors travelling between Monterey and the interior passed through the town, with many settling after striking rich and others never leaving, opening businesses to sell wares to the passersby. The village became a mid-sized town with multi-story buildings in the main plaza, general stores, hotels, restaurants, and feed stores. A fire destroyed much of the town not long afterwards, depriving it of some of its glory, but it was the railroad that really turned the tide against San Juan.

The Plaza Hotel across from the mission, 1893. [fine art america]
In 1870, the Southern Pacific Railroad reached Hollister, a town just a few hours' wagon ride away from San Juan Bautista. With the end of prospectors, the relatively recent fire, and a lack of available land in the valley, many shifted their attention away to this new site, hoping to capitalize on the railroad which still intended at this time to continue south into the San Joaquin Valley. The town never died, but it barely grew after this point and in many ways never recovered from the fire and loss of the railroad.

San Juan Station, late 1908, with a passenger train sitting out front. [McMahon & Hendershot]
1915 USGS map showing the town of San Juan Bautista, although notably
no railroad station appears at the junction of the road to Hollister (bottom).
In 1907, the town's prospects rose again. The Southern Pacific Railroad had been considering a route between their station at Betabel and San Juan Canyon for nearly thirty years as a short-cut to the San Joaquin Valley. Other rivals had also partially surveyed routes in the area in half-hearted attempt to defeat the Southern Pacific transcontinental monopoly. The plans of the San Juan Pacific Railway were no different: they wished to connect to the Ocean Shore Railroad and other proposed lines in a trans-California route that would one day span the nation. But in the meantime, the San Juan Portland Cement Company wished to open a refinery in the hills just outside of town. They fronted the cash to form the railroad in order to expedite the construction and shipment of goods. The new route would loop around the eastern side of the town with a station established along the main road to Hollister just below the mission. Around August 1st, the track to San Juan Bautista was completed and a long siding was installed to cater to local businesses such as the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, which intended to build a yard beside the tracks and harvest nearby forests. The route formally opened on October 1, 1907, and San Juan Bautista had its very own railroad at last.

Mission San Juan Bautista at the time the San Juan Pacific Railway first came to town.
Passenger train returning from Chittenden, c. 1907.
[McMahon & Hendershot]
Presumably, a railroad structure was built to cater to passengers awaiting the three passenger trains that ran daily in either direction between San Juan and Chittenden. However, the financial difficulties that quickly consumed both the cement plant and the railroad may have halted any permanent structure since no known photograph exists of such a depot or shelter. By May 1909, San Juan Station was a lost dream. The railroad went bust. When the California Central began running regular freight runs along the Old Mission Route in 1916, service to the Loma Prieta yard continued, but for how long is unknown. Most trains headed without stopping for the cement plant and any passengers would have to find other means of getting to the nearest Southern Pacific station. It is unknown how long trains serviced the Loma Prieta yard, but general freight service past San Juan continued through 1930, after which the tracks lay dormant until they were pulled in early 1938. The mission continues to look out over the San Juan River floodplain, but nothing remains of the station, tracks, or right-of-way that sat so briefly in its shadow.

Official Railroad Information:
San Juan appeared on the first public timetables for the San Juan Pacific from mid-1907 through May 1909 as 1.3 miles from San Juan Junction and 8.7 miles from Chittenden (although, in reality, it was closer to 6.4 miles from the latter). It was listed as having three passenger trains in each direction daily. Records for the California Central Railroad are more difficult to find but there was no known service to the former stop after 1909.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.841˚N, 121.532˚W

The precise site of San Juan Station is not entirely certain but it was most likely on either side of modern-day State Route 156 near Nyland Drive or Groscup Way. If it was on the north side, it occupied the same location of today's San Juan School. If the south side, it sat in the open lot between Groscup and the highway. The Loma Prieta Lumber Company lot was most likely the large grass field on the south side of the road east of Groscup. Most of this area can be explored to a degree without breaking any trespass laws, but nothing of the station or right-of-way survives in this immediate area.

Citations & Credits:
  • Clough, Charles W. San Juan Bautista: The Town, The Mission & The Park. Sanger, CA: Word Dancer Press, 1996.
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • McMahon, Joseph, Carla Hendershot, and the Plaza History Association. Images of America: San Juan Bautista. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

1 comment:

  1. If you are visiting San Juan Bautista and you want to see railroad
    remains, you can always look at the rails in the concrete just
    south of town at Mission Vineyard and San Juan Canyon roads.


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