Lazy days of summer on the San Joaquin RR
By Wayne Parsons
The July 25-26, 1998 run on the San Joaquin Valley Railroad by Southwest Railcar is an example of a successful run in summer heat. Temperatures top 100° both days as the group of 18 cars travel across irrigation canals and through orchards in central California's most fertile agricultural area. Meet coordinator Sal Jacobs takes the group north from the host city Exeter, CA toward Fresno on Saturday, and south toward Bakersfield on Sunday.
The San Joaquin is a collection of branch lines formerly owned by the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe. Roadmaster Tom Northrup characterizes the SJVRR as a "switching" railroad handling one-half agricultural products (sugar beets, oranges, grains) and one-half oil and gas products. Northrup supervises replacing 20,000 ties each year and installing five or six switches for new customers. The company office is manned 24 hours a day.
The group departs at 9 AM Saturday northbound from the Sequoia Orange Corp siding (mp 257.5) in Exeter. Traveling through the yard we see many boxcars and hopper cars used for the transportation of agricultural products. The cars have names like Western Fruit Express, Solid Cold, UTCX, Railbox and Burlington Northern. Leaving Exeter the track straightens out and runs through orchards of limes, oranges, olives, pomegranates, plums, peaches, and grapes. We pass by and over many irrigation canals and small rivers. Wind breaks of rare large California oak trees shade the track and make our morning as comfortable as a carriage ride down a French lane.
Our run today includes three Beaver Cars; one of them with a two- cylinder diesel engine that even has air conditioning! Also in the group is one couple with an open AT&SF MT-19 making their first run. We stop at Dinuba (mp 235) at 10 AM for the tail end to catch up and to flag a crossing. A local policeman, who's never seen so many motorcars, does a double take at our appearance the track. He stops to find out what's going on and becomes a fan of "speeders." The officers' presence along with the safety vests and stop paddles of our two flaggers makes this crossing easy.
Lunch break is just above Reedley at mp 229 where Manning Ave. crosses the tracks. It's a short walk to McDonalds for lunch and restrooms. After lunch we're at our turnaround point LACJAC mp 227.5 at 1:15 PM. LACJAC is where the old AT&SF crosses the SP above Reedley. Today the San Joaquin has a train working above this point so our track warrant ends here.
On the return run to Exeter we see several "gangs" of pickers in the orchards. They each carry a double pouch on one shoulder and a three-legged ladder on the other when moving up and down the rows. The small trestles over the irrigation ditches are about the right "scale" for our speeders and I get several pleasing photos. We're back in the yard and tied up at 5 PM with a total distance today of 60 miles. Tonight there's security for the cars to prevent a reoccurrence of vandalism that happened here last run.
Southwest Railcar members and guests gather for dinner at 7:30 PM. The club hosts the railroad General Manager Rex Bergholm, Roadmaster Tom Northrup and their wives. A wonderful social evening is enjoyed by all.
Sunday is a different kind of day on the railroad as we go south through the more populated areas of Lindsay, Strathmore, and Porterville. The last time on this section of track, as a new operator, the number of crossings annoyed me. Today the crossings seem easier for me to handle as my emphasis is operating the car not just running the car. There are many packinghouses and cold storage companies along the track to serve the orchards. The companies have names like Lulu Packing, Lobue Bros., Tri Citrus, Deer Creek, Castle Rock, Western Sierra, Central Valley, Golden Valley, Ballantine, and Stark. Other industry along our route includes a large sand and gravel operation and a lumber truss company. The Wal-Mart distribution center, the largest company we pass, has no railroad connection. Wal- Mart and the highway have decreased the commercial importance of these small towns and the railroad that linked them.
At Strathmore we pause for a photo next to the old station now boarded up and used for storage. This common rectangular structure, with a bay window and long side to the track, is easily recognized as a depot. Regrettably these stations are disappearing. Along the track most of the old SP block signals have been removed leaving only their concrete foundations. The few that remain do not have lights atop the poles. That's not all that's been removed.
At 11:50 AM we reach the end of track at Richgrove mp 295. The track that connected to Bakersfield has been pulled up from here south to Hollis at mp 304. Last October I ran this missing section to Hollis and three miles further to Calico. It's not that the San Joaquin wanted to abandon the track. No, the last manager made the hard choice to tear up rail and sell it for scrap to pay a debt. For access to Bakersfield today the SJRR makes a 70-mile detour.
We start back north with the hope of finding some shade in which to eat lunch. At Ducor mp 287 we switch onto the AT&SF track. Ducor is short for Dutch Corners and so named because four Dutch homesteaders dug a well here in 1885 at the corner where their properties met. The Southern Pacific East Line came here in 1888. We run four miles east of Ducor and stop at an open sided packing shed on the edge of a lime orchard to eat lunch in the shade. Afterward we continue east another mile to the one railroad customer on this branch, Grand View Heights Citrus at Ultra, where the track ends. We turn around and are back at Ducor by 2:20 PM.
The thirty miles back to Exeter is a relaxed trip of 20 mph speeds mixed with flagging operations where needed, and unhurried stops at nearby markets when possible. Everybody is off the tracks safely at 5 PM. With the side trip to Ultra, our total mileage today is 85 miles. Even in the heat, a good time is had by all! Thank you San Joaquin Valley Railroad for hosting Southwest Railcar, Ltd.!