Turlock’s life on the rails
Land, water & railroad gave birth to Turlock
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.
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.