5491Whittier Citrus History
- Mar 4, 2014
The material below is from an article by John Nestegard titled, “Whittier’s First Railroad, Part II”. This article appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of the HOT RAIL!, published by the Southern California Railway Plaza Association, Inc., and the Southern California Scenic Railway Association, Inc.
Here is a link to 1911 and 1926 city maps as an aid to following the article:
In reading this article it occurred to me that the industries and trackage described would make a good basis for a compact switching layout based on the citrus industry. Aerial photos and Sanborn maps can help in planning a layout.
Jim Lancaster’s packing house website has a page on Whittier that also is useful:
The Scent Of Orange Blossoms
When the Pickering Land and Water Co. began development of the 1,200-acre site that would become Whittier, it touted the almost idyllic environment it offered for homesteading and agriculture. The soil was rich; the Puente Hills guaranteed an almost frost-free climate and the recent introduction of citrus horticulture to the area promised growth and prosperity for the Quaker colony.
The one fly in the ointment was the lack of an adequate water supply to service both a growing community and irrigate the groves of oranges and lemons that were being proposed. The water table was too low for economical drilling and pumping, and efforts to build dams in the Puente Hills to store rainwater proved futile. What little agriculture that was accomplished required the hauling of water from the San Gabriel River.
Two events provided the impetus for the development of the citrus industry in Whittier. First was the completion of rail lines linking Southern California with the rest of the nation via the Southern Pacific’s San Joaquin Valley route to San Francisco (1876) and the Sunset Route via Yuma, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas (1883). Second was the construction in 1892 of a 10-mile flume to bring artesian well water from the banks of the San Gabriel River to Simon Murphy’s 2,000-acre development just east of Whittier.
The availability of a dependable year-round source of irrigation water benefited not only the Murphy Ranch properties — making them one of the most profitable in the district — but also the citizens of the city itself, who were able to purchase any excess water.
By 1902 the Whittier Citrus Association had been chartered and the first packinghouse constructed on the southeast corner of Penn Street and Whittier Boulevard. To tap this new source of revenue, the SP extended a spur track a half-mile south of the yard paralleling Whittier Boulevard. In 1916 the Murphy Ranch properties built its own facility on the northeast corner of the same intersection, and the railroad reciprocated by adding a siding to serve it as well.
The Southern Pacific provided the only rail freight service to Whittier until the Pacific Electric extended a branch in 1903 off its La Habra line in Los Nietos. Although primarily a passenger hauler (the Big Red Cars), the PE did serve the Whittier Select packinghouse at Gretna and Whittier Boulevard.
More serious competition arrived when the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railway (Union Pacific), brought its Anaheim branch through town in 1917. The LA&SL provided the Murphy Ranch with a double-tracked siding and accommodated the Whittier District Fruit Exchange, which affiliated itself with the Sunkist brand in 1921, with a spur on the south side of the packinghouse.
The 1919-1920 crop year saw a total of 3,281 car loads of citrus with a market value of $4,842,570 shipped from the district. By 1923, 10,000 acres of trees were under cultivation. The peak production of oranges and lemons occurred in the 1935-1936 crop year when 4,000 cars were sent to market while 1942-1943 boasted the highest dollar value — in excess of $7 million. Ironically, that was also the last season for the SP branch.
Picking season for Valencia oranges was mid-summer, while the Navels ripened in the fall/winter. Lemons and grapefruit could be harvested at various times throughout the year. Packinghouse operations consisted of washing, waxing, grading, tissue-wrapping and packing the fruit into wood shipping crates. Colorful labels often incorporating original artwork were applied to the crates proudly identifying point of origin.
The products of Whittier’s citrus orchards were loaded into 40-foot, ice-refrigerator cars of the Pacific Fruit Express (PFE) Company, a jointly-owned subsidiary of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads for shipment to the eastern U.S. and Canada. The PFE was, by far, the largest of the refrigerator car (reefer) operators, maintaining a fleet of more than 100,000 cars at its peak.
Until 1936, when the first all steel reefers were introduced, these distinctive orange sided cars were wood sheathed with steel underframes rated to carry a payload of 25 to 35 tons and five tons of ice. Ice bunkers at each end and insulation up to 6-inches thick provided the required cool temperatures (40-44 degrees F) for the fruit.
Loaded cars from the various citrus-producing districts in Los Angeles and Orange Counties were consolidated into solid trains or “blocks” at Colton and routed to eastern markets in expedited schedules.
Other Industries, Revenue Sources
Over its relatively short 53-year life span, a number of commercial enterprises developed along the Whittier branch tracks. The packinghouse spur saw the coming and goings of a number of businesses that required access to the railroad, such as the Globe Mills feed mill, the Edmund Pecke Fruit Packing Co. (later the Mutual Mfg. Co. – mattresses and pillows), the Citrus By-Products Facility (juice concentrates), the Whittier Ice Company, the Whittier Fruit Cannery, a Union Oil Co. storage facility, a shipping crate manufacturing plant and a lumber yard. Across Philadelphia in the Hadley Street yard there were the San Pedro Lumber Co., a cement-manufacturing plant, and across Hadley, the Whittier Brick Co.
One of the sidings in front of the depot performed an important function as a team track. Railroad customers that did not have a spur track to their places of business could unload and load freight directly from their wagon (hence the term, “Team”) or motor truck to a railcar. A number of car dealers in Whittier received their new automobiles in such fashion, aboard specially equipped box cars.
End Of The Line
The 1930s disastrous economic downturn was not a good time for the SP and its Whittier Branch. Although the citrus industry in the Whittier district was at its prime and record crops were being achieved, the bounty had to be shared with the LA&SL (in fact, the LA&SL served two additional packinghouses in Whittier — Mutual Orange at Hadley and Gregory Streets and Sunset Sternau Foods on Whittier Boulevard, south of Sunkist).
There was also mounting competition from trucks utilizing the all-weather state highway
(Whittier Boulevard ) that was recently completed all the way to Los Angeles. With the recession, other sources of traffic, both in and outbound, were shrinking or disappearing altogether.
The depot/freight house at Evergreen Street was retired in 1938, and it became obvious to Southern Pacific management that it could no longer justify two almost identical rail lines into Whittier. The Pacific Electric had been a wholly-owned subsidiary since 1911 and its right-of-way into the Quaker City was newer, constructed to heavier standards and was approximately three miles shorter (downtown Los Angeles to Whittier).
The decision was made in favor of the PE line and the original SP trackage — from just north of the former Evergreen depot all the way to Studebaker Junction — was pulled up in August 1942. The rail and ties were later used to enlarge the port facility at Terminal Island in support of the Pacific front of World War II.
Connecting the PE main track with the Hadley Street yard was accomplished by the simple expedient of a crossover installed near the intersection of Magnolia and Whittier Boulevard . PE electric locomotives, or “steeple cabs,” took over freight duties from the Southern Pacific steam engines. Overhead electric wire had to be strung to allow pickup utilizing trolley poles on the locomotive roofs. This also enabled the PE to bring its electric box motors up to the ex-SP depot and provide Railway Express service (less than carload freight) to Whittier customers. A Pacific Electric freight agent took over duties in the depot and it wasn’t long before the building got a fresh coat of PE institutional blue-gray paint replacing the Southern Pacific yellow and brown scheme.
With the end of WWII, the citrus industry in the Whittier district began a dramatic downsizing. The reasons for this were two-fold:
• The trees in many of the groves were over 25 years old and yields were decreasing. To remain competitive, the growers were faced with rooting up the stock and planting new trees – an expensive proposition that also meant not seeing a harvest for a number of years, until the decided that here is where they wanted to put down roots. The result was a tremendous demand for new housing that Southern California developers were more than happy to accommodate.
From 1945 to 1955, the number of acres transferred annually from agriculture, mainly citrus, to real estate development increased almost seven-fold. Whittier was in the process of changing from an agrarian center to a Los Angeles “bedroom community.” During that decade the number of carloads of oranges and lemons shipped from the Whittier district dropped from 3,445 to 750 per year.
PE’s electric locomotives continued to serve Whittier, but gradually their duties were taken over by diesel locomotives leased from the parent Southern Pacific.
Some were even relettered for the Pacific Electric and had trolley poles added to actuate highway grade crossing signals (wig-wags).
Beyond the citrus industry — which included support materials such as finished lumber for shipping crates, fertilizers, insecticides and fuel for smudge pots — Whittier boasted little in the way of industrial enterprise requiring rail service. In the 1950s, an industrial zone was created along orchards reached maturity.
• Service men returning from the Pacific war, particularly those from the Snow Belt, having experienced the wonder of the “Golden State,” Whittier Boulevard east of the Nelles School. Only one manufacturing plant required a spur off the truncated main track — an aerospace supplier called Modine. In the northwest corner of the Bailey Street yard, a rather impressive facility was built by the Kieckfefer Container Co. for the manufacture of paper dairy cartons.
The Whittier Citrus Association packinghouse had its last season in 1951 and the Murphy Ranch house closed its doors in 1954. The PE soldiered on until 1961, when it merged into the parent SP which continued to serve a diminishing customer base until 1969. The PE tracks from Santa Fe Springs into Whittier were pulled up and the venerable Bailey Street yard and packinghouse lead were removed to make way for the Whittier Market Place shopping center. The classic two-story depot got an eleventh-hour reprieve and was moved to a temporary location adjacent to the Union Pacific tracks off of West Philadelphia Street
As Whittier moved into the 21st century, scant evidence remains of its pioneering little railroad. Aerial photos of the area clearly show the alignment of the old main tracks as they crossed Washington Boulevard east of the Presbyterian Hospital, and skirt the Nelles property to a crossing at Whittier Boulevard.
The “sweat room” of the Murphy Ranch packinghouse has been converted into a self-storage facility; the 1902 Sunkist packinghouse exists in much of its original state as the depot reigns supreme as a regional transportation center in its new location, opposite the Radisson Hotel on south Greenleaf Avenue. How it got there is another story.
It should be noted that the southern portion of the Whittier branch was reincarnated in 1954 when the old right-of-way from Studebaker Junction to Los Nietos was restored by the SP as part of a new cut-off line that takes off from the Yuma Main in the City of Industry (Puente Junction). It utilizes trackage rights over the Union Pacific south to Bartolo and then on new tracks, parallels the San Gabriel River to Los Nietos where it connects with the old PE La Habra line and continues south to the SP route to Santa Ana. This line provides a bypass around the congestion of downtown Los Angeles for freight moving to and from LA/Long Beach Harbors and Orange County.
To bring this recounting of a small part of Southern California’s railroad history to tidy closure, it should be noted that in September 1996, the Southern Pacific Rail Corporation merged with and was totally absorbed by its sometime-partner and oftentimes nemesis, the Union Pacific Railroad, thus ending the epic 126-year life of an enterprise that profoundly influenced the economic, political and social development of the “Golden State.”
The SP was conceived and built by Californians, was the only transcontinental railroad to built from west to east, and in its lifetime grew to become the most powerful and controversial transportation industry in the state. Among railroad historians, it has joined the ranks of “fallen flags,” gone but far from forgotten.
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