Friday, July 28, 2017

Freight Stops: Los Gatos Canning Company & Hunts Cannery

South Pacific Coast boxcars sitting on the spur awaiting pickup at the Los
Gatos Canning Company, c. 1900. [John Baggerly]
For most of its existence, the Silicon Valley was known better for its crops than its computer technology. Fruit-growing was an established pastime, and in Los Gatos, it was one of the chief commodities of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Therefore, when the South Pacific Coast Railroad passed through town in 1878, it only made sense to utilize this newfound access to the national rail network to export the region's most profitable goods. It took three years before the town's patrons decided to build a fruit-packing plant in town, and another year before the corporation was formally founded as the Los Gatos Fruit Company in 1882. The usual suspects—town pioneer J.W. Lyndon and other prominent Los Gatos settlers—provided the joint stock backing the company, but the organisation was short-lived. The plant was built between Santa Cruz Avenue and Lyndon Avenue, across from Elm Street. However, the original company was forced to close shop in 1886 due to a recession.

Sanborn Insurance map showing the Los Gatos Fruit Packing Company, 1891. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections]

The company was eventually purchased by D. L. Beck & Son and reformed as the Los Gatos Fruit Packing Company, which retained George H. Hooke as the property manager. Two Sanborn fire insurance maps of the site reflect this period. They show a railroad spur jutting northwest from the mainline into the primary facility. It passes between the packaging plant and a warehouse, where boxcars could be loaded. Beyond the end of the spur was the primary drying facility, where fruit was received for processing and then dried before being sent to the packaging room. Other out buildings were scattered around the property for various purposes.

Sanborn Insurance map showing the Los Gatos Canning Company grounds, 1904. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections]
In 1894, George Hooke purchased the company and renamed it the Los Gatos Canning Company. Hooke began to quickly redevelop the facility. A seasonal stream that ran through the property was culverted around 1895, while the railroad spur was lengthened to the back of the property. Three large warehouses as well as cooking rooms, boxing rooms, and other structures were installed throughout the site until virtually no ground was visible. The photograph at the top of this page shows the facility during this time. At its height, Hooke managed to package 50,000 cases of fruit a year and employed up to 300 people during packing season. The facility packaged a range of fruits including peaches, apricots, apples, cherries, pears, and plums, much of which was shipped abroad. Because of the seasonal nature of the facility, women and teenagers were often employed at the facility.

Los Gatos Canning Company storefront along Lyndon Avenue, 1900. There is a spur with a branch is visible behind wall, although maps do not corroborate this additional track's existence. [Los Gatos Public Library]
In 1895, the tracks in Los Gatos were dual-gauged in anticipation of the full standard gauging of the line, which would take over a decade to complete. The cannery was one of the chief advocates of the track changeover and likely completed the process by 1900, and this may explain the slightly altered alignment through the facility. The great earthquake of April 1906, however, led to the cannery moving locations and changing ownership, thus abandoning the new spur.

Sanborn map showing the Hunt Brothers Packing Company along Santa Cruz Ave, 1908. [Los Gatos Public Library]
Workers at the canning table at Hunts' cannery, c. 1907. [Los Gatos Museum]
Likely due to earthquake damage to the primary facility, the Los Gatos Canning Company relocated to Amedee Delpech's vacant Los Gatos Winery on the corner of Santa Cruz Avenue and the Los Gatos-Saratoga Road (Highway 9). Delpech had built his winery in 1900 but died in 1903, after which his widow sold the building. Soon afterwards, Joseph H. and William C. Hunt, owners of the Hunt Brothers Fruit Packing Company (modern-day Hunt Foods), purchased the company. The winery already had a short spur behind the structure along the Southern Pacific tracks, but the cannery soon upgraded that spur into a full siding and built a freight platform beside the fruit storage warehouse. This new cannery was smaller than the former facility, but undoubtedly more modern and streamlined. By 1908, the railroad supported the new industry by extending one of their yard sidings an additional 0.4 miles to reach the new plant.

Sketch of the Hunt Brothers cannery on the Southern Pacific tracks north of Los Gatos, c. 1910. [Los Gatos Museum]
For roughly twenty years, Hunts remained at the site packing and canning all sorts of local fruits. But the Great Depression led to the quickly closure of the facility. The plant went quiet after 1930 and, after a decade of use as a simple warehouse, was sold to W.J. Gould in 1942, who in turn sold it to Seagrams distillery in May 1943. The Hunt cannery was the only packing house in the Los Gatos area at the time and its closure signalled the end of an era.

Undated label from a Los Gatos Canning Company product. [Peggy Conaway]
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.224˚N, 121.983˚W (Original site)
37.229˚N, 121.980˚W (North Los Gatos site)

The site of the original cannery along North Santa Cruz Avenue was eventually repurposed for commercial uses. The Los Gatos Cinema opened up on part of the property and newer buildings have been added since. Gardino's Ristorante Italiano and Gilley's Coffee Shoppe now sit where the spur once passed into the cannery. Much of the rest of the property is open space for parking, with an annex—Howley Hall—of the St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church sitting atop the site of the original fruit drying plant.

The later cannery structure can still be explored as the Los Gatos Shopping Center, located on N Santa Cruz Avenue just north of Los Gatos-Saratoga Road (Highway 9).

Citations & Credits:
  • Bowdidge, Robert. "Bad Years in the Valley." Robert's Vasona Branch Blog. 13 January 2012.
  • Bowdidge, Robert. "Hunt Brothers Packing Company.Packing Houses of Santa Clara County. 2013-2017.
  • Bruntz, George G. History of Los Gatos: Gem of the Foothills. Fresno, CA: Valley Publishers, 1971.
  • San Jose Evening News, 23 September 1942.
  • San Jose News, 10 June 1932.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Derek - I don't think the Hunts cannery in Los Gatos survived into the 1950's; my guess is that the last season for Hunts would have been in 1930 or maybe 33/34 if they were lucky The San Jose Evening News in 1932 declared that the plant was certainly not in operation in 1931 or 1932 (,3877670&dq=hunts+cannery+los-gatos&hl=en). The buildings were sold to W.J. Gould in 1942 with the note that the buildings had been used for warehousing, then sold in 1943 to Seagrams / Paul Masson for use as warehouse space, again with the note that the cannery had not been in operation for ten years. (,1879700&dq=hunts+cannery+los-gatos&hl=en)

    Hunts was also on the opposite side of Highway 9 from Village Lane. See page 7 of the Los Gatos Sanborn map from 1928/1944 for evidence of the location.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.