Tur­lock’s life on the rails

Land, wa­ter & rail­road gave birth to Tur­lock

Escalon Times - - LIVING - 209 Liv­ing

As a mod­ern Amer­i­can, it is rather dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the sorts of things that might con­cern the first set­tlers of the Tur­lock area back in the dis­tant year of 1867. It may seem as though there would be count­less prob­lems with form­ing a town from noth­ing, but two is­sues dom­i­nated the thoughts of those strug­gling to farm their land: wa­ter, and the rail­road. While the wa­ter sup­ply was cer­tainly a con­cern, Stanis­laus County res­i­dents had man­aged to find ways to sur­vive with the amounts that they had. The county had grown to be­come the largest grain-grow­ing area in the en­tire coun­try through the use of dry-farm­ing tech­niques dur­ing the late 1860s. A greater con­cern was how to get the grain out of the county to Stock­ton, the ma­jor ship­ping area of the time. The pro­ce­dure of the time, river ship­ping, was slow, ex­pen­sive, and re­quired river­side ware­hous­ing that could dam­age grain. Econ­o­mists then be­lieved that farm­ers missed out on at least one-fifth of their po­ten­tial prof­its due to prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with river ship­ping. When state leg­is­la­tors took into con­sid­er­a­tion the po­ten­tial for the fur­ther growth and pro­duc­tion that a rail­road through the Cen­tral Val­ley would pro­vide, a com­pre­hen­sive rail­road bill be­came a pri­or­ity. Leg­is­la­tors backed a plan that per­mit­ted county aid to the con­struc­tion of a rail­road in 1869, lead­ing to the com­mence­ment of the con­struc­tion of the Cen­tral Pa­cific Rail­road’s San Joaquin Val­ley line on Dec. 31, 1869 in Lathrop. The four busi­ness­men from Sacra­mento re­spon­si­ble for the for­ma­tion of the Cen­tral Pa­cific Rail­road — Le­land Stan­ford, Col­lis Hunt­ing­ton, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hop­kins — had just com­pleted the na­tion’s first transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road, con­nect­ing Cal­i­for­nia to Ne­braska and all the rail­ways of the east­ern United States. Stan­ford and Hop­kins saw the pos­si­bil­i­ties for growth in the then-des­o­late val­ley, marked by few, scat­tered homes, as they rode on horse­back through the area plot­ting the course for their rail­road. By early 1870 the San Joaquin line reached the Stanis­laus River. Con­struc­tion was put on hold un­til Au­gust due to con­sol­i­da­tion in the rail­road in­dus­try, but by 1872 the rails stretched all the way down to Goshen. In­ter­est­ingly, the whole of the con­struc­tion was done with­out land grants or govern­ment loans. Early val­ley res­i­dents granted the rail­roads right-of-way mostly free of charge due to their de­sire to see the rail­road come to the area. John Mitchell, who would go on to found Tur­lock, owned all of the land that the rail­road would cover from Keyes to Merced and freely granted us­age to the Cen­tral Pa­cific Rail­road. The rails that cov­ered his land were built rapidly dur­ing 1871, us­ing 12 car­loads of tim­ber on the bridge across the Merced River alone. All of the dif­fi­cult work of lay­ing miles of track was done en­tirely by the hands of Chi­nese la­bor­ers work­ing for $26 a month. Nei­ther horses nor ma­chines of any kind were used for this con­struc­tion. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Cen­tral Pa­cific Rail­road wanted to name Tur­lock’s first sta­tion af­ter John Mitchell, but he de­clined. In­stead, he asked that the new sta­tion, around which the city of Tur­lock would grow, be named af­ter Tur­lough, a city in Ire­land. The city did not im­me­di­ately pros­per af­ter Tur­lock’s first sta­tion was built in a lo­ca­tion known as Hen­der­son’s Cross­ing, how­ever. The sta­tion fea­tured no build­ings and the most no­table fea­ture was, in­deed, a mud hole that soiled much of the bag­gage off­loaded from the freight and em­i­grant trains that jour­neyed into the val­ley. Less than a year later the sta­tion was moved a mile north to a less soggy piece of ground and the first Tur­lock de­pot was con­structed. Af­ter the San Joaquin line came to Tur­lock it seemed as though rail­road fever caught the re­gion. A South­ern Pa­cific line was ex­tended from Oak­dale to Tur­lock in 1891 and an Atchi­son, Topeka, and Santa Fe Com­pany line funded by su­gar baron Claus Spreck­els came to town less than five years later. It was the agri­cul­tural promi­nence of Tur­lock that led to the rapid growth. As early as 1878 sev­eral train cars car­ry­ing as much as 24 tons of grain each were leav­ing Tur­lock ev­ery sin­gle day. In the early 1920s a fourth line, the Tide­wa­ter South­ern Rail­road, built track to Tur­lock from Hil­mar in hopes of profit­ing from ship­ping the large and suc­cess­ful melon crop, made pos­si­ble by the new ad­di­tion of ir­ri­ga­tion. In less than 40 years the rail­road trans­formed Tur­lock from lit­tle more than a muddy sta­tion with no build­ings into a grow­ing city ser­viced by four dif­fer­ent rail­roads. The rise of au­to­mo­biles and paved roads spelled the end of the rail­road’s im­por­tance. A com­bi­na­tion of bus lines, re­mov­ing pas­sen­gers from the rails, and trucks, han­dling agri­cul­tural trans­port, cut dras­ti­cally into the rail­road’s prof­its. Pas­sen­ger ser­vice to Tur­lock was fi­nally elim­i­nated in 1971 af­ter 100 years of rail­road ser­vice. De­spite the lack of pas­sen­ger ser­vice, the rail­road still plays a vi­tal role in Tur­lock’s econ­omy. The main lines, now owned by Union Pa­cific, pro­vide for pri­vate ship­ping and sup­port many lo­cal busi­nesses.

Photo cour­tesy of Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­sity, Stanis­laus Li­brary

South­ern Pa­cific Rail­road sta­tion in Tur­lock, circa 1910. Two men wait un­der a tree, next to the wa­ter pump at the end of the sta­tion build­ing. The sign iden­ti­fy­ing the sta­tion’s lo­ca­tion as Tur­lock is on the wall, vis­i­ble to peo­ple on a train as it came down the tracks.

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