Friday, July 10, 2020

Freight Stops: Railway Express Agency

Parcel services are something that we take for granted today. Before 1918, the United States did not have a consistent, nationwide network of parcel service. Even the United States Post Office did not deal in anything bigger than what could be held in a hand until 1913. For most of the country's history, small, local, independent firms managed parcel shipping, while similarly small, local, independent firms managed receiving and delivery. In Santa Cruz, that service was handled by the Daniels' Transfer Company, which worked with Southern Pacific Railroad, the Pacific Steamship Company, and the various long-haul parcel companies such as American Express and Wells Fargo to ensure that parcels arrived at their destination. Efficiency and supply-line problems prompted by World War I, however, forced the country to move forward. The United States government took control of the country's railroads in 1917 to aid the war effort, and this meant that all railroad contracts with parcel firms were suddenly terminated. A solution had to be found to ensure that parcel delivery could resume.

The former Railway Express Agency building at Depot Park, 2018.
It was the United States Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo who proposed the idea of a unified railroad parcel company in early 1918. In July, the American Railway Express Agency was founded, taking control of the parcel services of American Express, Wells Fargo, Southern Express, and Adams Express companies. American Express was left largely in control of the new agency since it contributed to 40% of the assets, although not in Santa Cruz County. The United States Railroad Administration remained in control of the country's railroads until March 1920 but did not release its influence over the American Railway Express Agency until March 1929. During these years, the REA expanded service to Chicago, which was not originally included in its range, and also opened an Air Express Division in 1927.

The American Railway Express Agency office beside the Santa Cruz Union Depot, 1920s.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – Colorized using DeOldify]
When precisely the American Railway Express Agency structure was erected at the Santa Cruz Union Depot yard is unknown, but it was probably built between late 1918 and 1920. It was located directly to the north of the main station building along Washington Street. Where previously people would have had to arrange transportation of parcels by visiting the Daniels' Transfer office or visiting the main downtown post office, instead people could go to the Union Depot, where a station agent would receive parcels and then, after appropriate labeling, store them in the adjacent express warehouse to await shipment. In many ways, it streamlined the process, although Daniels' remained in business as an alternative parcel shipper. The building itself was a high-roofed, single story, wood framed building with a plain, stucco exterior done in a vaguely Spanish revival style. The building measured 30 feet wide and 85 feet long and was probably exposed timber inside.

The Railway Express Agency warehouse to the left of the Santa Cruz Union Depot, late 1940s. [Tom Hambleton]
In March 1929, the government finally relinquished its influence over the organization and it reincorporated under new terms. The new name became simply Railway Express Agency and, rather than being owned by the pre-war express agencies, was jointly owned by eighty-six railroad companies in direct proportion to the average amount of parcel service they carried along their lines. Attempts by other companies to compete with the REA began as early as 1922 with the San Francisco-based Pioneer Express Company, but Santa Cruz County proved loyal to the REA through World War II, with few local competitors really presenting a challenge.

World War II once again challenged local parcel services and most switched to using trucks for much of their short- and medium-haul trips. REA, in response, moved into the refrigerated goods transfer business via a fleet of refrigerator cars, since trucks were still not quite capable of staying refrigerated for long periods of time. This changed in the mid-1950s and by the end of the decade, even this service was suffering dramatically. REA finally adopted trucks itself in 1959 and began to phase out its fleet of rolling stock. In 1960, the company reincorporated as REA Express, Inc., marking its transition from a principally railroad-based business to all forms of transport. The company continued until 1969, when it was sold to several of its employees. Rail service had dropped by this time to 10% of its entire business and REA itself only constituted 10% of all parcel service transactions in the United States. A series of lawsuits against UPS and the Brotherhood of Railway Workers in the early 1970s led to the final demise of the company due to insolvency. The company went bankrupt in November 1975 and all of its goods were sold at auction.

Santa Cruz Sentinel notice noting closure of local REA Express office, July 23, 1971.
In 1961, the REA agency in Santa Cruz became the only operating office in Santa Cruz County when the office at Watsonville permanently shut down. A decade later, in July 1971, the office closed and all REA shipments were routed to Salinas, where couriers would have to pick up deliveries and route them to Santa Cruz via truck. In 1973, the building became Washington Square, a boutique clothing showroom and store owned by Tom Cahill. It underwent a significant facelift with arched, covered windows and decorative plants around the building. Cahill died in December 1980 but his business lasted until May 1984, at which point it shut down. The location appears to have remained unoccupied afterwards, although it continued to be used for community functions on an as-needed basis. It survived the earthquake unscathed and became the base for the Homeless Garden Project in 1994, which continued to use the building through 1998.

Washington Square shortly after opening, July 19, 1973. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]
The Railway Express Agency building survived the fire that engulfed the adjacent Union Depot station on January 5, 1998. It was vacated later in the year and was included in the plans for the transformation of the depot area into Depot Park. By the time that the park opened in March 2005, the former Express Agency building had been upgraded for use as a public hall and restroom facility and remains so today. It received a Blue Plaque noting its historical importance to Santa Cruz County history from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History on May 5, 2012.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9468N, 122.0273W
119 Center Street

The former Railway Express office is now the only surviving structure at the Santa Cruz Union Depot grounds. The building itself has been upgraded superficially to have rust orange walls over the stucco fa├žade and the roof has modern shingling. The placement of the windows remain original. The structure was shifted slightly when the park was made but it remains within the vicinity of its original location. The interior of the building has been entirely gutted to create the public hall with no hints left as to its original purpose. The walls have soundproofing along all four walls and florescent lights now shine down from overhead. The building hosts several regular programs including yoga classes and parts of it can be viewed during these times or simply by using the restroom.

Citations & Credits:
  • Bender, Henry. "SP San Jose to Santa Cruz (ex-South Pacific Coast Ry.)." Unpublished notes. 2013.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1971–1994.

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