The Santa Fe: A Vanishing Visalia Railroad
Train service began in Visalia in 1874, and from that early beginning, the town had a love-hate relationship with the iron horse. The arrival of a railroad to a town meant a good chance for prosperity as people and freight could move quickly and conveniently. But joy oftentimes turned to resentment when the train’s arrival and departure times were not convenient or the freight rates and ticket prices were seen as excessive. Communities soon discovered that the problems were not necessarily related to the train or its management, but instead were connected to the lack of railroad competition. More trains servicing a community could help keep prices down, so communities lobbied not just for a railroad, but for multiple railroads.
In the 1890s, the Southern Pacific was the only main line railroad operating in Visalia and it was subjected to the normal monopoly criticism. So in 1890, when rumors of an additional railroad coming to Visalia began to circulate, excitement started to build. By 1895, a group of San Francisco businessmen, including entrepreneur Claus Spreckels, organized the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railroad Company (S.F. & S.J.V.), oftentimes called the Valley Railroad.
Construction began on the San Francisco to Bakersfield line, and in 1895 a delegation from Visalia paid a visit to the railroad officials with an offer. In exchange for putting Visalia on the route, the city would provide free right-of-way through town, and would also secure right-of-way through the county from the Fresno County line to Kern County. The generous offer was accepted by the company, and the people of Visalia were overjoyed. Alonzo Melville Doty, the poetic publisher of the Visalia Daily Morning Delta, captured the excitement when he penned the following in his paper:
O won’t this be a lively town,
And won’t the people shout,
And won’t prosperity rain down,
When that railroad’s round about.
By 1897, the Valley Railroad crew arrived in Visalia on its 391-mile track laying journey that began at Point Richmond in the bay area. Sept. 9, 1897 was the date set for the inaugural S.F. & S.J.V. train’s arrival in Visalia. Not only was it California Admission Day, but according to the media, it represented the day “that Visalia was admitted into extended communication with the world at large.”
At about 11 a.m. on the big day, the southbound 26-car train pulled into Visalia on East Street (now Santa Fe Street) and stopped at a boxcar, which served as a temporary depot for the new line at North Street (now Murray Avenue). The town was obviously in a party mood as bells, whistles, and anvil salutes blasted in the background of a cheering crowd. An estimated 12,000 people filled the town, all anxious to celebrate the occasion with sporting events, parades, and a big BBQ feast. Valley Railroad officials were also on hand and that evening a formal program was held in front of the county courthouse with railroad and city officials exchanging compliments and congratulations.
The following year, the S.F. & S.J.V. sold their line to the Santa Fe Railroad and new owners began planning an extension of the tracks to Chicago. On July 1, 1900, Visalia welcomed yet another inaugural train. This time it was the first Santa Fe “through-train” from Chicago to San Francisco. As it pulled into the Santa Fe Depot, now at Main and East Street, about 1,000 people were there to greet its arrival. Even before the train wheels stopped rolling, representatives from the Visalia Board of Trade entered the cars and presented each passenger with a gift basket of Tulare County grown fruit. Passengers were surprised and bewildered by all the attention. One young female passenger commented, “Why these are the nicest people I ever saw.” Another passenger overwhelmed by the generosity said, “What have we done to deserve such special treatment? I shall never, never, never forget Visalia.” As the train left heading north, the Visalia crowd cheered.
Not only were the passengers and crew pleased with their Visalia reception, the San Francisco Examiner took notice as well reporting, “Residents of the town [Visalia] forsook their homes and callings and crowded at the depot…and the Overland Express moved out of the depot amid cheers and hat and handkerchief waving…”
The Fresno Democrat was also impressed with Visalia’s response to this historic occasion reporting, “It was not until Visalia was reached that the passengers realized the importance of the event. The people of that city left no chance for doubt as to their feelings and the train was given a royal reception.”
However, it didn’t take long for feelings to change. On July 9, 1901, the Visalia Daily Times commented in an editorial headlined “Mighty Poor Railroading.” The Santa Fe had upset Visalians with an unreliable time schedule.
According to A. H. Brandt, freight and passenger agent for the Santa Fe Railroad and Santa Fe employee for 42 years, the S.F. line had six passenger trains running through Visalia daily up until 1921. After that he said a new era had arrived; one that saw a steady decline in train travel as the use of automobiles took over.
By about 1949, passenger service on the Santa Fe line in Visalia ended, however, a few freight trains continued to run. By about 1958, even freight trains stopped and Visalia’s depot sat vacant. Arnold Wiebe owned the building in 1969, and that year it was demolished to expand his automobile dealership.
Now the Santa Fe trains, tracks, and depot are gone. The only historical remnant reminding us of the glory days of the transportation giant is the name of the street.