(See the track plan for the Vasona branch.)

My Vasona Branch layout models several Santa Clara Valley towns on the real railroad. Within the valley, the west end of San Jose, Campbell, and Los Gatos are represented on the railroad. Even the railroad junction at Vasona Junction, out in the middle of the orchards, exists on the layout. A few towns in the Santa Cruz mountains also appear: the near-ghost town at Wrights at the east end of the tunnel through the Santa Cruz mountains, the resort town of Glenwood on the west side of the mountains, and Alma, a village just up the canyon from Los Gatos.

San Jose Yard

The "starting point" for the layout is the San Jose Yard. Most model railroads include a model railroad yard because they tend to be fun places to operate. Unfortunately, the real yards at San Jose were huge. There were multiple yards (Santa Clara, College Park, and the Lenzen Avenue engine terminal) stretching over a couple miles. On my layout, I'd never capture the size of the real San Jose yards, and even a modest (and non-prototypical) yard would have taken way too much space. Instead, a set of staging tracks just offstage serve as the starting and ending point for most trains, and represent everything north of the modeled stretch of railroad.

Most trains will come out of staging (from the yards), switch the industries in San Jose, Campbell, and Los Gatos, then return to the yards. There are four staging/fiddle yard tracks representing West San Jose, placed just in front of Los Gatos. There's also a single staging track intended for passenger trains that's just behind the backdrop from San Jose. With few trains continuing to Santa Cruz, the lower staging tracks will be the most crowded; five tracks may not be enough.

West San Jose

West San Jose became a stop on the railroad when the narrow gauge South Pacific Coast grazed the edge of San Jose as the line headed south towards Santa Cruz. Eventually, the Southern Pacific bought the SPC, converted it to standard gauge, and ran it as just another branch. If you visited in 1920, you'd see a small station left over from the narrow gauge days along with some canneries and warehouses. Only the passenger trains to Santa Cruz stopped here; all the real action was up at the main San Jose station at the top of Market Street.

Park Ave. underpass, 1932.

First train across the Alameda bridge

In the early 1930's, though, the area was in the midst of construction. SP's original line from San Francisco to Los Angeles ran down the middle of Fourth Street in San Jose, and the railroad's 50 year franchise meant the city couldn't do anything about it. By the end of the '20's, San Jose residents were tired of the trains going through the middle of the city, and told the railroad in no uncertain terms that they'd better get off Fourth Street before the franchise expired in 1935. Southern Pacific's solution was to build a bypass around the west side of the city, and running along the old South Pacific Coast trackage to West San Jose, then circling west and south of San Jose til the tracks met the old railroad line. The bypass took years to get built. The original path went right through the middle of the (unincorporated) village of Willow Glen, and those folks weren't any more excited about trains running in their neighborhood than the folks downtown on Fourth Street. Willow Glen even incorporated as a city so they could fight the SP better. Eventually, the current route was agreed upon, and the SP started work.

West San Jose was a busy part of town, so the railroad (and the city, I suspect) decided that regular grade crossings would be inconvenient to the railroad and the neighbors. Instead, the new line was built with several underpasses on major streets. As part of the underpass work, the SP raised the tracks through here a few feet above ground level. Pictures around 1932 show the the area under construction. The tracks sit on new fill. An old passenger car was put next to the tracks and up on the fill to serve the West San Jose passengers. Down at the bottom of the embankment, the old South Pacific Coast narrow gauge station sits alone.

Today: Plant 51, San Jose; Alameda underpass.

Across the tracks from the the old narrow gauge station was Del Monte's Plant 51 warehouse. (It's still there, across from the modern Diridon station, and is being turned into lofts.) Del Monte used the huge Plant 51 building for processing and packing dried fruit. It must have generated a lot of traffic, for there were two SP tracks in the street on the east side of the building. The Western Pacific had its own sidings on the west side of the building for shipments going out on their tracks. It's an intimidating building -- four stories tall and several hundred feet long. This warehouse is on the layout, and it's a major industry for ; it'll both provide lots of freight traffic, and do a great job of making the trains look puny. Plant 51 started out as the Griffin and Skelley warehouse which makes up the southern end of the complex. Griffin and Skelley was one of the packing companies that merged into the huge California Packing Company (which was the corporate name of Del Monte; you'll also hear it referred to as CalPak.) Del Monte had two other plants in San Jose; the vinegar plant on the east side of downtown, and the huge Plant #3 canneries just down the track past San Carlos Street.

When I finally got around to building the layout in 2003, I realized I'd never really seen Plant 51 up close and personal.  So Saturday and Sunday I built benchwork, and Monday I stopped by 50 Bush Street as I part of a trip to the hardware store.  I remember how the place was so unlike the Santa Clara Valley; the building's huge, four stories high and stretching way down the block.  Brick and concrete dominated the scene.  In its shadow, I wasn't thinking trees and blossoms, but crates, boxes, and hard work.  On the station side, I could see what used to be "White Street" as a dirt road leading away from the Alameda towards the opposite side of the building.  

Plant 51: the Model

I tried to capture that in the model; the buildings dwarfing the trains, the brick and concrete, the lack of dirt and trees, the shade.  

The West San Jose area was a popular place for other industries. Before the turn of the century, a coal-gas plant sat where the HP Pavilion now sits. The coal gas company was replaced by PG&E, and by the 1930's, a gas holder filled the site. It's obvious in most of the photos of the area, and the model had to be included. PG&E also had a generating plant just south of the old depot. A model of the post-and-beam concrete building sits on the layout and gets a steady stream of tank cars for oil and machinery.

Not all agricultural businesses were canneries and packing sheds. Stockton Ave. parallels the railroad tracks north of the Alameda. The street was home to many San Jose businesses. One was Smith Manufacturing Co. which made food processing machinery. It was tiny compared with the huge Food Machinery Corporation (FMC) found elsewhere in San Jose. Smith's building still exists north of Diridon Station, and I liked the building enough that I built a model of it right next to the hole in the backdrop leading to staging.

Auzerais Street and the Del Monte Cannery

South of the West San Jose station, the tracks curve towards the southwest and head towards Los Gatos and the Santa Cruz mountains. The tracks pass by Del Monte Plant #3 -- San Jose's Del Monte cannery (which finally closed in 1999). This area, which I name "Auzerias Street" after the street on the south border of the cannery, is another key area for the layout. Sanborn fire insurance maps show the cannery as huge, with multiple tracks leading to different warehouses on the property. I model all the tracks in the cannery, and treat the tracks near the can and box warehouse as the "incoming" track, and the tracks nearest the canning buildings as the "outgoing" tracks. I also have one little spur on the Del Monte property pointing the opposite direction of all the others. This spur wasn't on the maps; I added it to add a bit of trouble for switch crews. They either need to serve that siding when handling the shippers on the other side of the tracks, or they need to make some extra moves to handle it and the other cannery tracks at the same time.

The Abinante and Nola Packing (formerly "Pacific Fruit Products") packing house on San Carlos Street is across the tracks from the cannery. Next to it is the Santa Clara Valley Lumber Company's yard and planing mill. The lumber company receives lumber from the Santa Cruz mountains.

Standard Oil building, Auzerias St., 2003. Detail of shutters.

Also in this area is the Standard Oil depot south of the cannery, and a crossing and interchange with the Western Pacific. Standard Oil generates a lot of work for the switch crews. The buildings still exist: you can see the brick walls and fireproof iron shutters just across the street from the site of the cannery. I'd wanted to model the buildings, but they would get in the way of switch crews trying to reach in to couple and uncouple cars. I might eventually build models of the buildings and remove them for operating sessions. The Western Pacific tracks cross the SP line here. There was a tower at the crossing, but by the late '30's, it was no longer staffed. Crews switching in this area will have to watch out for WP freights crossing the tracks.

There were a bunch of other fruit packing and canning businesses in the area that I didn't model. Sanborne maps show a Sunsweet facility on the west side of Lincoln Ave. just south of the railroad tracks; this had been the George Herbert Packing Company in 1915. California Fruit Products (later Hershel Fruit Products and then Contadina) had a cannery just south of Sunsweet, and the U. S. Products cannery was across the railroad tracks on Race Street. Houses and empty lots filled the rest of the lots, and the fire insurance maps show a bunch of druit drying yards on random lots.


Campbell, "The Orchard City", will be represented with its canneries and fruit packing houses, small depot, and downtown street. I'll be representing two of the canneries -- the Ainsley/Hyde cannery south of Campbell Avenue and Drew Cannery on the north side.

Campbell was a center for canning and dried fruit. Four canneries lined the tracks next to a station that barely received passenger train service and a railroad water tank that was being being overtaken by the weeds. Campbell’s operational interest is in the canneries and fruit drying plants, for they can furnish lots of traffic in the correct seasons. A few passenger trains will also go along this stretch, but most of the trains for San Francisco bypassed Campbell by turning north at Vasona Junction and heading to San Francisco via Saratoga, Monte Vista, Los Altos, and Mayfield.

According to a 1935 Sanborn map, Campbell’s four canneries were (from north to south) Havens, Drew, Sunsweet, and Hyde. The Havens-Semaira Canning Co. had a cannery and sawtooth metal warehouses along the tracks. (The sawtooth buildings are still visible south of Fry’s Electronics.) The Drew Canning Company started off as the J.C. Ainsley Packing Co., started by John Ainsley and his brother Thomas to export canned fruit back to his native country of England. The Drew cannery buildings were wooden, with four separate hipped roofs facing the railroad tracks. Drew bought the cannery in 1933.

On the south side of Campbell Ave. was the California Prune and Apricot Growers Association, also known as the Sunsweet co-operative. It started off as the Farmer’s Union Packing Company in 1912; it was a three story wooden building with its own spur off the cannery siding; the wooden office building south of Campbell Avenue may be this building. Finally, furthest to the south and largest of the four was George E. Hyde and Company (which he had bought from the Campbell Fruit Growers Union in 1909.) Its brick warehouse and concrete cannery still exist in Campbell. Hyde’s 17 acre drying yard continued south along the railroad tracks.

There are other industries in Campbell; a box factory sat across the tracks from the Havens cannery at the north end of town; photos from the 1950’s show it to be a wooden building with two hipped roofs placed side by side.

Campbell’s station and water tower sat on the east side of the tracks just south of Campbell Avenue. The station looked a bit more Victorian and decorated than most SP stations. None of the photos ever show it looking busy; it always looks empty. One photo shows that it has a train order signal, but employee timetables reveal that there was no operator in Campbell as of 1939. The best photo of the Campbell depot is in the Arcadia book of Campbell photos and in SPC: A Centennial (p. 149); Central California Railroads p.85 shows the depot and water tower, and shows an outside braced boxcar spotted on the siding, while a PFE reefer is sitting on the cannery spur near the Sunsweet spur.

I'm planning on building many models for the non-railroad buildings of Campbell. Both the Drew and Hyde canneries will sit along the tracks. Where the railroad tracks cross Campbell Avenue, several downtown buildings will be visible. The eye-catching B.O. Curry building next to the railroad tracks is essential. The Curry building's mission-revival style building’s tile tower is an obvious landmark for Campbell Ave, and most photos near the railroad tracks catch it. I've also built a Spanish-revival storefront. I also plan a model for the Campbell Theater. The theater started out as the Growers National Bank, built in stone in a greek revival style. By the 1930's, it held a movie theater.

Vasona Junction

As the tracks get close to Los Gatos, it meets another railroad line that wrapped around the west end of the Santa Clara valley. This line branched off at California Ave. in Palo Alto, and passed through Los Altos, Cupertino, and Saratoga. Vasona Junction was worth including; it provided a wye for turning the trains that switched Los Gatos and Campbell. The line through Los Altos was used by some passenger trains, so it's essential for modeling the prototype. It also serves as an extra place for staging trains. I've occasionally thought of having trains start or end here (as if they've started switching in Palo Alto), but have never actually operated the layout with trains here.

Vasona Junction's also a cool place to model. The tracks of the wye crossed a much quieter Winchester Boulevard, and were surrounded by orchards. Modeling the orchards and the country road will help set the era and setting. The junction had several railroad details including signals, signs, and the train register shack. The small shack held the train register where passing trains wrote down when they passed. The train register is essential when running with train orders (so you know if a superior train has already gone by.) I've put out a pad of paper and forced crews to sign the train register on one session, and they appeared to like the extra little bit of work found on the real railroad.

Los Gatos

Los Gatos will be the final town in the valley. Los Gatos was a large town even in the 1930's, and there's lots of sights that would be fun to model. The railroad tracks ran behind the main street buildings for a good distance, and the building rears would make a photogenic scene. There were several industries scattered along the tracks north of town. The station area's well represented in photos with its small park and huge hotel behind. Lots of cute scenes could be modeled here.

Unfortunately, Los Gatos gets short shrift on my layout; it's less interesting to model because it had less industry than the other towns, and its space on the layout is too narrow for much scenery. Los Gatos will exist as a passing siding, and a place for the last couple industries. The Hunt's Cannery will be the primary industry for Los Gatos. It existed along the railroad until the 1940's. (Did you know that Hunt's is a local San Francisco Bay Area brand? It was started near Santa Rosa in the 1890's. The Hayward area historical society has a nice history of the Hunt Brothers Cannery in Hayward, California; many of the stories about that cannery would match any of those from the canneries represented on my layout.) The Hunts cannery was made up of three buildings with hipped roofs, and loading docks facing a spur on the railroad. The buildings still exist as a small strip mall just north of Santa Cruz Ave's intersection with highway 9, the Saratoga-Los Gatos road.

Santa Cruz Mountains

After Log Gatos, the railroad climbs a helix to the upper deck of the layout. This portion of the layout represents the track heading over the Santa Cruz mountains. Fewer trains are seen up here, and there's fewer industries for switching. I included this deck because I wanted to model the scenery of the mountains, and I wanted add some distance so the trains felt like they were going somewhere. I model four places on the upper level: Alma, Wrights, Glenwood, and Santa Cruz staging.


Alma sat in a wide part of Los Gatos Canyon just uphill from Los Gatos. The station served the ranchers and farmers in the area, and also catered to the automobile drivers heading over the hill to Santa Cruz. Alma was also the last passing siding on the railroad until Glenwood on the other side of the Santa Cruz mountains. I model it primarily so I have one passing siding up in the hills.


Wrights in 1935.

At the top of Los Gatos Canyon, the railroad turns to the right, crosses the creek, and dives into a tunnel that crosses under the Santa Cruz Mountains and right through the San Andreas fault. Wrights started out in the 1870's as as a place for the construction gangs working on the South Pacific Coast narrow gauge and the tunnel, was a shipping point for lots of fruit at the turn of the century, and was pretty much abandoned by the mid-30s. By 1935, San Jose Water Company had bought the town and surrounding land, bulldozed the buildings, and declared it part of their watershed lands. Now, Wrights is just a wide spot on a small road that winds down off of Summit Road. The road bridge across the creek still exists, but the location of the railroad tracks and general store is replaced with a row of mailboxes for even more isolated houses and a large shoulder to permit the mail truck to turn around. Somewhere deep in the trees past the "No Trespassing" signs, the tunnel still sits.

So why was Wrights a busy spot at the turn of the century and near-abandoned by the 1930's? When potential farmers came to California in the 1860's and later, they found that all the flat land in the Valley was already taken. Some of it had been bitterly fought for in the legal cases connected with the Spanish land grants. Many were completely planted in wheat which was exported to the east coast and Europe. For a farmer wanting to find some available land, the Santa Cruz mountains were some of the only options. Pichetti Ranch in Cupertino is one example of a farm buried up in the foothills; vineyards cover some of their lands along Montebello Ridge, and feral pear trees still grow along some of the trails.

At the turn of the century, many little farms like this existed in Los Gatos canyon. Pictures show multiple refrigerator cars being loaded from farmer's horse-drawn wagons, and a couple of the big fruit packing companies had packing shed up here for loading. By the 1930's, however, these little farmers couldn't compete against the huge orchards down in the valley that had replaced the wheat fields, and as the water company bought the land, the farmers left.

Wrights in 2005: car sits where the general store sits in the previous prototype picture; gully slowly washes away roadbed near tunnel. (Second picture is taken near lower edge of 1935 photo, facing towards camera. This tie would have supported front-most track. The location of the house in the left foreground has already been washed away.

If you go to Wrights these days, there's not much to see. There's a wide dirt shoulder where the hotel and store used to be. On the opposite side of the road where the station used to be, there's a barbed wire and vines covering everything. Across the barbed wire, you can see a few ties in the dirt leading to the tunnel (hidden by trees); these ties are slowly falling in the small creek that descended from above the tunnel portal. The overgrowth keeps you from seeing the bridge piers or any other signs of the railroad; only the highway bridge hints that you're in the right place.

When modeling Wrights, I tried to capture the gloom of the redwood forests in the little canyons along the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the quiet of Wrights as it slowly fades away. Wrights wasn't going to be a major stop for the railroad; I wanted it primarily for the setting. Occasional refrigerator cars will get left out on the spur just before the tunnel, but apart from that, Wrights is a place to pass through.

The town had several structures worth including in the scene. The general store was a simple frame structure, and still in operation in the 1930's next to the ruins of the old hotel. Photos of the time show an older Ford automobile and a horse drawn wagon pulled up in front of the general store. The small station on the opposite side of the creek and its water tank against the hillside would be useful for operation. The road bridge appears in most photos of town, and its low profile and decorative railings complemented the scene. Some photos from the time also show a group of old buildings -- probably old fruit packers and warehouses -- but I suspect these were pretty much abandoned by the time I'm modeling.


On the other side of the tunnel lies Glenwood. Glenwood was the first real passing siding after Alma. It had been a major location for the South Pacific Coast narrow gauge -- short trains full of lumber from Felton and Boulder Creek would slowly climb up the hillside; in Glenwood, they'd be reassembled into longer trains for the slight grade through the summit tunnels and down through Los Gatos Canyon. With the ending of the narrow gauge, many fewer freights went over the hill, and few of those needed to be brought up the hill in sections. By 1930, the four sidings and turntable were long gone; photos show a town slowly disappearing into the weeds. The north end of town was particularly photogenic -- the tracks pass a pair of semaphore signals before curving into a cut and into the Glenwood-Laurel tunnel leading back towards Wrights. There was no industry at Glenwood, but I'm planning to create a spur to a lumber mill so that the Santa Clara Valley Planing Mill on San Carlos Street can get lumber from the Santa Cruz Mountains. (By the 30's, the Santa Cruz Mountains were logged out. The company was getting most of its lumber from property in Mendicino County.)

Past Glenwood, the tracks pass through typical scenery in the lower reaches of the Santa Cruz mountains, cross Bean Creek, and dive into a tunnel. This tunnel marks the Santa Cruz end of the layout. On the other side of the tunnel, a four track staging yard holds trains that are coming or going from Santa Cruz. This staging yard holds the occasional freights and the San Jose to Santa Cruz passenger trains. The staging tracks are stub ended. When I want to turn trains after an operating session, I either pick up the cars and rearrange by hand, or run the train backward to Glenwood, and turn it around on the Sunset Park spur's reverse loop.