Friday, January 5, 2018

Railroads: Early Monterey Bay Railroad Companies

Much like the railroads that attempted to reach San Francisco along the Central Coast, numerous railroads were founded from 1868 to 1907 to link the Monterey Bay to San Benito County and the Central Valley. Also similarly, none of them succeeded and their memory was quickly forgotten.

Monterey & Salinas Railroad (1868 – 1870)
Very little is known of this early railroading enterprise. Organized in January 1868, permitted by state law March 11, and formally incorporated January 2, 1869, this pioneer narrow-gauge intended to link the cities of Monterey and Natividad, northeast of Salinas. In addition, the company intended to build a large railroad wharf at Monterey and improve the waterfront. However, the people of Monterey voted against the railroad, possibly because the future Southern Pacific Railroad was hinting that it may head over to Monterey and Salinas. Despite two years of heavy politicking between the two cities, the railroad never was built. The provisos of the state law required construction to begin by March 1869 and completion of the route by 1874, neither of which occurred, rendering the company defunct.

A similar entity called the Monterey and Salinas Valley Railroad was completed in 1874 as a direct competitor of Southern Pacific, which had bypassed Monterey and charged high freight rates in Salinas.

San Benito Railroad (1875)
With the success of the Monterey & Salinas Valley Railroad in 1874, locals felt safer attempting for a second time to build a railroad to Hollister, undoubtedly continuing from where the M&SV line ended. The proposed San Benito Railroad, a 32-mile-long narrow-gauge line, would pass from Salinas, up San Miguel Canyon to San Juan Bautista and then over the ridge to Hollister. Because of its alignment, Santa Cruz County was too far out of the way and people in Watsonville feared that they would be bypassed entirely by that and the soon-to-be completed Santa Cruz Railroad, which was playing hardball with the Pajaro Valley city. The company was only incorporated on March 8, 1875, but survey work had already been done for months prior to incorporation. The route was planned to become part of an integrated narrow-gauge network, linking up with the Monterey & Salinas Valley, the Santa Cruz, and the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroads. Plans were also in place to continue the narrow-gauge route to the San Joaquin Valley and to San Francisco. However, after August 1875, all news of this railroad disappears, suggesting it went defunct.

Monterey & Fresno Railroad (1893 – 1898)
Map showing the proposed route between Pacific Grove
and Hollister of the Monterey & Fresno Railroad.
[California State Archives]
In August, 1892, nearly two decades after the previous attempt to build a railroad between Monterey and San Benito Counties had failed, a new proposal was forwarded that would connect Monterey not only to San Juan Bautista and Hollister, but Fresno. The primary intention of this railroad was for Fresno to gain ocean and steamship access that did not require the use of the Southern Pacific Railroad's tracks. Furthermore, discussions were in place with other proposed lines to connect the route, via the coast, with San Francisco. On January 15, 1893, the Monterey & Fresno Railroad was incorporated but disputes arose over stock subscriptions, which caused endless problems for the railroad. Meanwhile, the final survey of the 150-mile-long route was completed in May and it was agreed by the company to build a standard-gauge track. Since more of the subscribers were in Monterey County, the company agreed to begin the Monterey to Salinas segment of track first, as well as build the wharf at the beach so that steamships could be used in coordination with the line immediately. Talks also began with Claus Spreckels, who desired to build a railroad between Watsonville and Salinas (what would become the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad).

Newspapers in Santa Cruz, Hollister, and Fresno, however, began to note some strange things occurring by late 1893. At least one of the major investors in the line was a Southern Pacific employee of high standing. In May, the Santa Cruz Sentinel called the entire railroad a bluff to reduce Southern Pacific freight rates along the line. And in September, a memo leaked that suggested a major bond purchase was actually done on behalf of the Southern Pacific. Something was definitely up. Then, in December, it was revealed that Union Pacific may be behind the railroad in a bid to enter the California market. Surveyors continued to criss-cross the proposed route throughout 1893 and into 1894, ultimately surveying five full alignments, but no progress was made on construction. A promised ground-breaking on July 4, 1894 did not happen and the Monterey city council was forced to extend the railroad's charter by two years in January 1895. Ten miles of track between Monterey and Salinas was graded, but nothing more had been done.

By June 1897, the nails were being hammered into the coffin. Rumors began spreading that Claus Spreckels' Hawaiian friends would be constructing the railroad under a new name and with new money and that the old franchise was dead. But the company fought on with further extensions of their franchise, auditing to it grand plans to hook up with the equally-nonexistent West Shore Railroad that was intended to run up the coast to San Francisco. On January 18, 1898, after endless delays and promises, the franchise was finally forfeited. But promotors of the line refused to give up. They petitioned the county board of trustees and successfully regained their franchise on April 7 and the board gave them until January 1900 to get their railroad operational. In November, the railroad began gathering materials to begin construction; in December, piles for the wharf were gathered at Pacific Grove; in January 1899, worker huts were being assembled but a winter storm delayed further construction. Then nothing. In April, the California Construction Company, hired to build the road, waited to be paid while the wood rotted on the shore of Monterey Bay. Fingers were pointed, lawsuits were drawn up, the Vanderbilt and West Shore Railroad became involved. Everything fell apart. The franchise went defunct, as scheduled, January 1900, although its survey work was later used by the Monterey, Fresno & Eastern Railroad for its proposed, though never built, route.

Monterey Transportation Company (1903 – 1911)
Organized and operated as a streetcar line between downtown Watsonville and down Beach Road to Port Rogers on the Monterey Bay, this small railroad was imagined as so much more by its creator and chief promotor, W.J. Rogers. In June 1904, only months after opening the line, Rogers sent a survey team to search for a route to Hollister via San Juan Bautista. He anticipated this route would be completed by early 1905, but Southern Pacific, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, and the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad immediately undermined the project by lowering their prices across the  region. Although Rogers was optimistic, this severely undermined his project. Financial difficulties in 1905 mixed with the construction of the San Juan Pacific Railway that same year ended the dreams of this small railroad company.

Monterey, Fresno & Eastern Railroad (1906-1907)
Inevitably the next step in the Ocean Shore Railroad's grand scheme of crossing California, the Monterey, Fresno & Eastern Railroad was incorporated December 28, 1906 in Fresno with the intention of connecting Goldfield, Nevada, with Monterey via Fresno on an electric, standard-gauge line. When incorporated, only a fraction of the capital stock was subscribed and survey work was ongoing, but the company did place a large order of rails immediately, implying they intended to build the route. Surveyors heading east sought a pass beneath Yosemite National Park through Round Valley and Bishop Creek with the hope that new gold sources may be found in the process. From Goldfield, the investors hoped to connect to a line under construction from Salt Lake City, thereby taking one step further toward completing a transcontinental line. But everything fell apart soon afterwards and the company dissolved. The businesspeople of Monterey, tired of this sort of false hope, were once again disappointed, but as with anything to do with the Ocean Shore, the failure of this line seemed inevitable from hindsight.

Ocean Shore & Eastern Railway Company (1907 – 1911)
The Ocean Shore & Eastern Railway was established February 11, 1907 to connect Santa Cruz to Watsonville via a 20-mile electric standard-gauge line, with plans to eventually reach a proposed railroad in the Central Valley named the San Joaquin Valley Western Railway. Portions were likely to be electric and the railroad purchased a stake in the Watsonville Transportation Company for this purpose. The line was initially intended to link up with the San Juan Pacific, which was to build a route to Watsonville from Chittenden (a route from Chittenden to San Juan Bautista was already completed with plans to extend toward Hollister in the future). The financial panic of 1907, poor passenger revenue on the Ocean Shore and San Juan Pacific lines, and numerous political disagreements with the Santa Cruz City Council, Watsonville City Council, and County Board of Supervisors shelved the company's plans. The organization was dissolved on November 30, 1910.

San Joaquin Valley Western Railroad (1907)
Yet another branch of the eternally optimistic Ocean Shore, the San Joaquin Valley Western Railroad was incorporated as an electric railroad in April 1907 to connect Fresno and Watsonville over a 140-mile-long route via Tres Pinos, Hollister, and Chittenden. The fact that the middle portion of the route closely follows the proposed route of the San Juan Southern Railroad cannot be ignored and they were probably intended to connect. This line also intended to built two long branch lines to Hanford and Coalinga. At Watsonville (or Chittenden), the route was intended to link with the Ocean Shore & Eastern Railway to connect with San Francisco via the coastal track.

Fresno, Coalinga & Monterey Railroad (1910-1912)
Cover of solicitation booklet for the Fresno, Coalinga &
Monterey Railroad, 1911. [Heritage Society of Pacific Grove]
The end of the Ocean Shore schemes did not immediately end the idea of a railroad between Monterey and Fresno. Promotors still desired aa railroad between Fresno and Monterey, and in 1910, they wanted one that passed through Coalinga as well. Surveying began in January 1911, conducted by the Fresno, Coalinga, and Tidewater Company. The survey included two large bridges, presumably over the Salinas and San Benito Rivers, as well as an 800-foot tunnel, probably through the Diablo Range that separates Hollister from the San Joaquin Valley. The total length of the line was estimated at 200 miles, which included branch lines. On July 8, 1911, the Fresno, Coalinga & Monterey Railroad was incorporated to connect the three points with additional stops at Hollister and Salinas. This line was intended primarily for freight use, with hay, grain, oil, fruits, and wine being the primary products to be shipped over it.

Map of the proposed route of the Fresno, Coalinga & Monterey Railroad, from a 1911 solicitation booklet.
[Heritage Society of Pacific Grove]
As the promoters collected subscriptions and sold stocks, their goals expanded, as they are want to do. Suddenly, in addition to the named stops and branches, additional lines were announced to San Jose, Santa Cruz via Watsonville, Maricopa, and Bakersfield. When Fresno financiers failed to appear in December 1911, the railroad decided to seek more charitable cities including Merced, Modesto, and Turlock. Meanwhile, the building of this railroad became more imperative for Monterey when the federal government offered them $200,000 to improve their harbor on the condition that a railroad to the San Joaquin Valley is completed. No railroad, no harbor improvements. Desperate, Monterey set out to build its own line without funding from Fresno while Southern Pacific moved in to kill any profit that could be made from such a line by undercutting prices. And as a final problem, the Fresno, Coalinga, and Tidewater Company was flat broke and had no money to fund a railroad in 1912.

Monterey & Del Monte Heights Railroad (1912-1915)
A streetcar line built to connect Monterey and Salinas, 2.86 miles of the Monterey & Del Monte Heights Railroad were completed by February 22, 1912 when the company was purchased by the Consolidated Light & Power Company. At the same time, this company bought the Monterey & Pacific Grove Electric Railway (a streetcar line), the Monterey Light & Power Company, the Salinas Light & Power Company, and the Salinas Water Company. This move consolidated all the streetcar lines with the electrical systems in Monterey County, allowing the new company to run its electric train systems throughout the area. Although it seems that the initial intention of this consolidation was to construct a line to the San Joaquin Valley, directly challenging the Fresno, Coalinga & Monterey Railroad, and to build an entity capable of releasing federal funds for the harbor improvements, nothing appears to have happened at all. The Coast Valleys Gas & Electric Company bought the consolidated firm in March 1912 and promptly returned the Monterey & Del Monte Heights Railroad to its private, independent status. The streetcar company petitioned for abandonment April 7, 1915, due to lack of patronage since the Del Monte Heights subdivision failed to attract potential residents. In all likelihood, its brief stint as the first portion of a cross-state railroad was probably just an attempt to trick the government into releasing its funds.

Citations & Credits:
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • Railway Age Gazette 51:16 (October 20, 1911).
  • San Francisco Chronicle (1868-1912).
  • Santa Cruz Evening, Morning and Weekly Sentinel (1868-1912).
  • The Street Railway Journal 29:15 (April 13, 1907).
  • Wagner, Jack R. The Last Whistle (Ocean Shore Railroad). Berkeley, CA: Howell-North Books, 1974.


  1. Very much is known about the early attempted Monterey and Salinas Valley if you know where to look and do deeper research. (Hint: There was more than one attempted early railroad) Information known includes stockholders in each attempt, who was hired as engineer, articles of incorporation for each attempted railroad, and proposed route miles, etc...

    The people of Monterey never voted against any local railroads, what they voted against were people outside of their city trying to build a railroad. The State law had nothing to do with the railroad(s) being constructed, it had to do with financing not coming through.

    Dig deeper....

    1. Not to mention a cool book called "Steinbeck Country Narrow Gauge" by Horace W. Fabing and Rick Hamman published by Otter B Books. Lots of great info, stories and photos- check it out, it's worth the read.

  2. Were all of these companies honest. Staged photos, leaks to the press, analysts, the occasional purchase - nothing was spared in fleecing East Coast investors. The Monterey, Fresno & Eastern Railroad might be the star example, and if I remember correctly they had a "station" outside Watsonville; track: no, station: sure.

    1. I found that Monterey, Fresno & Eastern Railroad item again, and it doesn't appear to be a structure, but rather a five acre yard for supplies. On a 1910 Assessment map (found at the UCSC digital library) it exists at the end of West Water Road in Pajaro. It sits next to the Charles Cassin property and along the Watsonville Slough, it may have been served by the Watsonville Transportation Company (electrified railroad) if the WT Co. had been operational. These five acres may have received supplies from ships for movement inland.

    2. I meant West Beach Street.


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