In Search Of The Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railway
Another exciting Railroad Man adventure
THE PLANT MANAGER at the Spreckels sugar refinery just southwest of Salinas, California frowned down at my business card. Then he peered back into the white Pontiac TranSport and it was apparent he had made a decision. "I'm very sorry," he lied. "If I let you guys onto the grounds, I'd have to let everyone in."
Well, maybe his second statement was true. He had been looking at an imposingly large driver with a short beard, a gray sweatsuit, and a cap with the Colorado & Southern's "columbine" logo. Next to him sat a younger, more traditionally built man with no beard and no hat, wearing a plaid green Pendleton wool shirt. In the back seat was a big white teddy bear wearing a filthy, tattered engineer's hat, sunglasses, and no clothing whatever.
We were, in order of appearance, Don M. Scott, Railroad Man, myself (Uncle Russ), and Rhonda the Railroad Polar Bear. Despite our impeccable credentials as the highest ranking dignitaries of the model railroad press, the plant manager reasoned, if he allowed anyone as ridiculous as the three of us onto the grounds, he really would have had to let in everyone.
The Railroad Man was indignant. "I'm an attorney!" he sputtered as he drove off. "Maybe I should go back and tell him we're officers of the court investigating a crime."
I tried to answer diplomatically, "Okay, but it's possible the teddy bear has undermined our credibility."
The Railroad Man erupted into such a fit of laughter he nearly swerved the car off the road. "Oh yeah," he wheezed upon regaining motor control, "I forgot about the bear."
"Besides," I pointed out, "the tracks are gone, they've already demolished half the plant and, in another few weeks, the whole area will be nothing but a big pile of used brick. Face it: The building is a hundred years old, it's condemned, and it would be too dangerous to walk around even if they did let us in."
The Railroad Man responded with characteristic courage, "I'd risk it." But I noticed he kept driving toward Moss Landing.
Our expedition had begun at his house late in the afternoon the day before. The Railroad Man and I had decided to combine two adventures into one trip. First we determined to search for the old standard gauge Pajaro Valley line, the so-called "Dead Beet Railroad". It ran from Salinas to the Pacific Ocean. It had served the primarily agricultural Salinas Valley and we hoped to find some old Southern Pacific beet gondolas along the way. We arranged to drive to Salinas in the evening since the Dead Beet Railroad's southern terminus was only a few miles south of town. The next morning we would follow the railroad northwest to the coast. The following day we intended to explore the route of the former South Pacific Coast narrow gauge railroad between Santa Cruz and Los Gatos.
The Railroad Man selected the white Pontiac TranSport for our journey. You may remember it resembles a Dustbuster with a 700 megawatt sound system and has served us well on previous adventures. Each of us secured his camera and gadget bag, extra film, jacket, overnight bag, and train hunting cap with official narrow gauge logo in the rear of the TranSport. We also packed a box of Fig Newtons, the Official Snack Food of Exciting Railroad Man Adventures, a complete assortment of road maps, railroad right-of-way diagrams, relevant books, magazine articles and, of course, our shiny black Big Gulp 44-ounce plastic cups complete with insulation sleeve, nylon reinforced flexible straw, and two-way snap-down access caps.
I climbed into the cab. The white teddy bear was already comfortable in the back seat. Before I could react, the Railroad Man introduced us. "Have you met Rhonda?" he asked matter-of-factly. "She'll be traveling with us." Rhonda became Conservator of Cookies and Crackers.
He lowered the side windows, pressed a button on the dashboard, and the abrupt shriek of a steam whistle loudly pierced the tranquillity of the neighborhood. Then a cacophony of bells, mechanical grunts, squeals, and belches of steam issued forth. Apparently the Railroad Man had rediscovered his copy of The Sounds of Small Steam, Volume I or some such tape. A few feet away, on the porch, his wife and their two cats (Norene, Boris, and Gina in order of descending size) screamed in startled harmony and, all with hair on end, scrambled for the house. Oblivious, the Railroad Man hummed a Welsh folk tune and nonchalantly backed down the driveway. As the sun set slowly in the west, we accelerated up the Highway 101 on ramp.
The drive north was uneventful except for the incident, about 30 miles north of Paso Robles, involving the Highway Patrolman. Fortunately, we spotted him before he noticed us and the Railroad Man decelerated to a less illegal speed. But the officer wanted to write a ticket; he slowed even more. Soon we were driving side by side at under 50 miles per hour and I suggested the Railroad Man pull in behind the nice officer, particularly when the driver behind us blinked his lights and hurtled past us at about 75 miles per hour. Evidently California's Finest noticed him, too. As he pulled over the other driver and we eased by, the Railroad Man lowered the side window and thrust his cap into the darkness. "Heigh ho, fellow motorists! " he cried, "I am the Railroad Man, and we are in search of the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railway!" Despite our rapid acceleration and the murk of the moonless evening, I was aware of the glares of our erstwhile highway companions. The adventure had begun.
As the glistening TranSport consumed the miles between Spreckels and the sea, neither the Railroad Man nor I was able to discern so much as a trace of right-of-way. We drove past such communities as Tucker, Clausen, Dee, Couper, Moro Cojo, Struve, and Warnock but found neither cut nor fill, track nor tie and certainly no beet gons. At one time a railroad had hauled quarry stone, produce, and supplies between Buena Vista in the south and Watsonville in the north to steamships at Moss Landing. The Pajaro Valley interchanged with the Southern Pacific at Watsonville.
On the coast above Castroville, the "Artichoke Capital of the World" (they were out of season), we discovered tracks and followed them toward Moss Landing. Rails once had extended onto a pier but neither they nor it remained. We did find what appeared to be the former right-of-way but it terminated at a chemical plant. Crestfallen, the Railroad Man suggested we stop for lunch. As you may remember, he has an amazing sixth sense about such things.
"I know just the place," he announced. We followed a labyrinth of seaside avenues to a very unassuming restaurant at the edge of the water. We sat beside a window, watched seals, otters, and middle aged men in wet suits swim in the tiny harbor, and wolfed down large bowls of New England clam chowder. As always, the Railroad Man's culinary discrimination had proven unerring.
We headed for Watsonville. Apparently the Southern Pacific had abandoned and removed the tracks to and from Moss Landing about a decade before but, as far as we knew, Watsonville still enjoyed a fair amount of rail traffic.
The Railroad Man guided the TranSport through the newer sections of town toward the older. We approached an industrial neighborhood, turned right, found a dead end, turned around, drove back about six blocks, and stumbled onto the old depot. "Aha!" fibbed the Railroad Man. "Just as I thought!"
I put on my heavy jacket, ventured into the cold, overcast weather, and shot a dozen photos. The Railroad Man called his wife on the cellular phone from the toasty comfort of the minivan. The Southern Pacific had boarded up the station's trackside windows. A solitary boxcar sat on a siding. No beet gon was evident anywhere. We determined to proceed toward the railroad yard.
As we approached, and since my glasses are stronger than the Railroad Man's, I was better able to discern what lay ahead. "Turn left!" I ordered. "Into that lot." Immediately the Railroad Man jerked the van into oncoming traffic and caused a pandemonium of blaring horns, angry voices, shaking fists, and crying children. Then it began to rain.
We drove toward a dispatcher's office. The Railroad Man's eyes shone. His face brightened. He jammed on the brakes, grabbed Rhonda the Railroad Polar Bear, and vaulted from the van screaming, "Al Akhbar! We have found the lost diesel!"
A rusty old Southern Pacific GP9 stood at the head of a four locomotive consist. I shot the remainder of my film as the Railroad Man and Rhonda paid enthusiastic tribute to the sacred gods of steam (conveniently ignoring that GP9s are diesels) by performing the secret railroad dance. They leaped madly about, utterly humiliating me, and leaving the few curious railroad personnel unfortunate enough to have come out of the office into the driving rain reeling in stunned disbelief. The bystanders also found the Railroad Man's teddy bear and "lucky pancake" necklace thoroughly bewildering.
When we returned to the van, a mother hurried away her children and kept them from looking at us. And as the Railroad Man headed back to the highway, still exulting in our discovery, I pointed out, "Diesel or no diesel, we've still seen no trace of a beet gon."
"What did you expect?" he asked. "It's the wrong time of year."
In our next thrill packed issue, The Railroad Man and Uncle Russ face diesels, debutantes, and danger...In Search Of The South Pacific Coast.