Text and Photos Submitted by Terry L. Ommen
Visalia has had railroad service since 1874, when the residents, disappointed by being cut off from the newly created Southern Pacific line, built a connecting railroad between Goshen and Visalia and called it the Visalia Railroad Company. Other railroads followed, like the Visalia-Tulare Railroad, the Southern Pacific and another line that would become the Santa Fe.
And then there was one more railroad that came to town. It was the Visalia Electric Railroad (V.E.R.R.) — an advanced idea that became reality thanks to a small group of visionaries and entrepreneurs, some of whom had just started a hydroelectric business. The Mt. Whitney Power Company began on the Kaweah River and generated electricity — with plenty to spare for the electric line.
The V.E.R.R. actually began in April 1903, when the Tulare County Board of Supervisors granted a railroad “franchise” to John Hayes Hammond and Harold Wheeler. Their new transportation company incorporated in 1904, but didn’t actually begin operation until March 1908. During the lag time, equipment was purchased, overhead lines were installed and real estate was acquired.
When they made the “trial trip” on March 1, 1908, the results were “satisfactory in every way.” The Daily Visalia Delta wholeheartedly endorsed the venture, commenting that “the whir of the electric trolley sounds like music to the Visalia man who is interested in public progress.”
In the years that followed, the enterprise provided passenger and freight services between Visalia and numerous communities to the east. The line at one time extended from Visalia to Strathmore on the south, to Elderwood on the north and Terminus Beach on the east. Existing Southern Pacific Railroad tracks were used when possible and existing depots when practical, including Visalia’s Southern Pacific Depot at Oak and Church streets.
Although the little railroad was a success overall, like most other complex ventures, the operation had its share of problems. In fact, based on the numerous accidents and glitches, it’s surprising that the V.E.R.R. survived.
Shortly after service began, it became obvious that both the public and company employees were struggling to adjust to the new mode of transportation. Two days after the trial, the V.E.R.R. freight train, loaded with railroad officials and supporters, left the Visalia depot and immediately collided at Oak and Garden streets with a two-horse buggy driven by Mrs. J. W. Clark. She entered the intersection not seeing or hearing the silent-running train that had entered the intersection at the same time. She turned the buggy sharply to avoid the collision, but a buggy wheel became lodged in the train. The wheel was ripped off, but fortunately Clark, a young male passenger and her horses were unhurt. Responsibility for the accident was placed with the train operator, who failed to ring the train bell as the “motor glided along so noiselessly.”
Then just two days later, there was another close call. The overhead electrical line near the Visalia depot snapped and left a high-voltage wire exposed on the street. Arthur Farley, a Southern Pacific Railroad mechanic, noticed the condition and notified Visalia nightwatchman W. H. Anderson, who guarded the potentially deadly hazard until Mt. Whitney power linemen made the repairs. Another potential crisis averted.
A year later, an intoxicated man named Leon Charilla boarded the train at the Visalia depot. As the car reached the eastern city limits, the conductor discovered that Charilla did not have
a ticket. He was escorted from the train, but the young man was not happy about it. As the train continued on its journey, the evicted man reached into his back pocket and, after considerable fumbling, removed a pistol and fired several shots toward the train. No one was injured on the out-of-range train, but Charilla spent the next 15 days in the county jail for disturbing the peace.
But incidents involving the electric train were not always injury-free. In August 1911, David M. Scott, who normally was a conductor on the V.E.R.R., was working as a brakeman near Lemon Cove. For some reason, he climbed onto the top of one of the cars while the train was moving. On certain cars, there was mounted on the roof a mechanism called a pantograph used to transfer electricity from the overhead lines to the train’s motor. As Scott was crawling through the pantograph, he touched a “hot” wire, which sent 3,300 volts of electricity through his body. The shock killed him instantly.
Two years later, another employee named Harvey Long received a large dose of current when he mistakenly touched the fuse box in the railroad car. The motorman spent three months in the hospital, but the shock left him with a crippled right hand. The injured man sued his employer, but lost the suit after the jury found that he was “negligent in the operation of the car.…”
On Aug. 12, 1916, at about 4:40 p.m., the V.E.R.R. was involved in another incident. Bloom Parr, her husband and daughter Esta were traveling eastbound in their Ford automobile at the railroad crossing on East Main Street in Visalia. They were traveling slowly as they prepared to cross what many people thought was “one of the most dangerous crossings in Tulare County.” Parked on a siding near the crossing were railroad cars unloading oil at the Mt. Whitney Power steam plant, partially blocking the view. As Parr eased over the tracks, V.E.R.R. car #411 operated by motorman Williams came through the crossing. He slammed into the Ford and the auto was tossed into the air. The three occupants were ejected. Williams stopped the train and immediately checked on the injured family. He found Bloom on the ground seriously injured, her husband hurt slightly and Esta had some broken bones. Bloom died from her injuries.
For the next several years, routes were adjusted and diesel engines replaced electricity. But the changes were too late to affect the reality. Train passenger and freight service was beginning to decline. Automobile ownership was increasing rapidly, and railroads began to fall out of favor. All passenger service for the V.E.R.R. was discontinued as of Oct. 31, 1924, and all electric freight operation stopped on Nov. 13, 1944.
Today, other than the memories of some old-timers, there is little left of the V.E.R.R. on the Tulare County landscape.