Southern Pacific Water Tower: Elmira

I planned to sketched the water tower at Black Butte, in the shadow of Mt. Shasta in Northern California.

I wanted to sketch this Southern Pacific water tower because of it’s historical significance and also because this is one of the few water towers still in operation as Union Pacific (it’s current owner) keeps this active to water any of UP’s heritage steam engines and other steam excursions that might pass this way. (SP 4449 topped up her tank here in the summer of 1991). The tower was built in 1926.

But not all plans come to fruition. I headed up to Weed to sketch the water tower only to find that the road leading to it was gated and all the signs around the area read “No Trespassing, Do Not Enter”. This area was still very much an active Class I railroad and I’m sure UP didn’t appreciated railroad gawkers and sketchers near their tracks.

So in order not to become a headline in the local paper, I chose to turn back towards Dunsmuir.

Steam engines cannot function without water. If water runs too low in the boiler it can result in a deadly boiler explosion. Therefore railroads built water tanks or towers near railroads, spaced out so there would be water along the line, when the locomotive became “thirsty”.

But I still wanted to sketch a more accessible Southern Pacific water tower so I did some research. I found that in the State of California, there are 16 Southern Pacific water towers still in existence. While I was not able to access one of those, there were still 15 left to find.

I hade seen the 65,000 gallon restored water tower across from the passenger station in San Luis Obispo. It was built in 1940 and was retired in 1956. I did have it on my sketch list but I didn’t get to it. One down, fifteen to go.

The restored Southern Pacific water tower in San Luis Obispo. This tower was slated to be torn down but local interests intervened and saved it from destruction.

I set my sights on the Southern Pacific water tower in the small Solano County town of Elmira (population 188).

Elmira was a major railroad stop in the early part of the 20th century as it was on the Cal-P line between Vallejo and Sacramento. At Elmira, there was a spur that went to Vacaville, Winters, and Rumsey as part of the Vaca Valley and Clear Lake Railroad. It is easy to understand why a water tower was built here because of the rail traffic and the spur.

Then U.S. Route 40 (now Interstate 80) was created as one the the first Interstate Highways in 1926. It was the first major east-west route, starting in Atlantic City, New Jersey and terminating in San Francisco. The route passed west of Elmira, through the town of Vacaville. Since that time the town of Elmira never recovered. As the population and development in Vacaville grew, the town of Elmira became a rural backwater with a shrinking population.

The same growth in the Nation’s Interstate Highway system also was the death knell for many railroads across the country with trucks and cars replacing freight and passenger service.

The last freight train to run on the spur to Vacaville was in 1985. After that the rails between Vacaville and Elmira were abandoned and then later removed.

The abandoned but still standing Southern Pacific water tower at Elmira. The tower is not fenced in and there are no historic signs about the tank. It looks to be similar to the 65,000 gallon tower in San Luis Obispo and I imagine that it was built in the 1930s or 40s and used up until the mid 1950s.

The passenger station is now gone but active double tracks still pass the abandoned and rusted water tower at Elmira. The Capital Corridor passenger service runs 16 trains every weekday. The 168 mile service runs from San Jose to the state capital in Sacramento. A few trains head further north to Auburn.

Looking north towards Davis and Sacramento. Two sets of polished tracks pass through Elmira. These rails get lots of use with 16 passenger trains on a normal weekday.
Westbound train number 729 passes by Elmira’s water tower at 9:28 AM on a Saturday morning at a rapid clip. There is no longer a passenger station in Elmira. The closest station is to the south at the Fairfield-Vacaville Station. On point is an EMD F59PHI with “California styling”.

Oak Hill Cemetery, San Jose

O Mary I have not wrote you half the trouble we have had but I have Wrote you enough to let you know what trouble is. . . Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.

-Virginia Reed, letter to her cousin Mary Keyes, May 16, 1847

Once the survivors of the Donner Party made it out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they dispersed into the state of California.

One can barely imagine how the horrors of their experience in the Sierra Nevada Mountains stayed with them as then conducted their lives, starting businesses, had families, lived their lives, and died far away from the mountains, settling in to the coastal region of the Golden State.

I headed down to the county of my birth, Santa Clara County, to visit California’s oldest secular cemetery, founded before the Gold Rush in 1847. This is Oak Hill Funeral Home and Memorial Park, southeast of downtown San Jose.

This is the final resting place for ten survivors of the Donner Party. About 20% of the 48 survivors are buried here.

The year 1847 was an important one for the Donner Party. This is the year that the survivors, in five groups, made it out of the jaws of death from the campsites on Donner Lake and Alder Creek to the salvation of the Central Valley at Johnson’s Ranch and then on to Sutter’s Fort.

Near the core of the old cemetery is the plot of the Reed and Lewis families in Section D which is now named the “Pioneer” section. Here lies the patriarch of the family James F. Reed and his wife Margaret.

James Reed was one of the leaders of the party and if it hadn’t been for the moment of rage that caused the death of a teamster, stabbed to death by Reed and his subsequent banishment from the party on October 6, 1846, the group might have gone done in history as the Reed Party.

James Reed, because of his banishment, made it over Donner Pass before the historic winter storms of 1846, closed the way to the emigrants. He did return as a member of the second relief party.

The Reed and the Donner families are like a tale of two clans with two different outcomes from their ordeal in the winter of 1846-47. All of the members of the Reed family survived while the Donner family suffered the most out of any family group. All four adults and four children perished.

This is the grave of Martha Jane Reed Lewis. To history, she is known as Patty Reed and the story of the doll she kept hidden throughout her ordeal in the mountains has become part of the Donner Party legend. Patty Reed’s Doll is now on display at Sutter’s Fort. Patty Reed did much to keep the plight of the Donner Party in the Nation’s mind. On June 6, 1918, Patty attended the dedication of the Pioneer Monument with her step sister Virginia Reed Murphy at eastern end of Donner Lake.
Mary Donner was the orphan of Jacob and Elizabeth Donner. She was seven years old during the horrifying winter of 1846-47. I was puzzled because she was buried in the Reed family plot. Then after further research, I learned that she had been adopted by James Reed and spend her time in San Jose where she died in 1860, aged just 22.

After visiting the graves of the Reeds and Donners I crossed the street into Section C looking for the grave of another Donner Party survivor. I looked at my map and his grave was marked as Historical Points of Interest Number 2.

Who knew finding a grave could to so difficult (I was really about to find out a little later in the morning)? There are 15,000 souls interred here, so it could be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. I wanted to find the grave of William Henry Eddy, the “leader” of the third attempt to escape from Donner Lake to get help from Sutter’s Fort. This party of 15 was later called “The Forlorn Hope”.

On December 16, 1846 the Forlorn Hope set out from Truckee Lake (now named Donner Lake) and headed toward the summit (now named Donner Summit). The party started off as 15 and when they made it to Johnson’s Ranch there were just seven of them alive. Willian Eddy was one of two male surviors.

After an exhausted search I finally found Eddy’s unique gate, which was almost eclipsed by a larger headstone. Eddy’s grave is unique because it consists of a rock and a round, coin-like relief portrait of Eddy. A small plaque under the portrait reads: “HE LED THE FORLORN HOPE OF THE DONNER PARTY. DEDICATED MEMORIAL DAY 1949 BY THE ANCIENT & HONORABLE ORDER OF E CLAMPUS VITUS”.

I set up my sketching stool and put down the line work of Eddy’s grave. I then added some watercolor.

Eddy left his wife and two children to head over the summit to find help. When he later returned to the lake camp as a member of one of the relief parties, he learned he was the only member of his family still alive.

I had one more Donner Party grave to find and this one proved to be the most elusive. This is the grave of Virginia Reed, James Reed’s oldest stepdaughter (she was Margaret Reed’s daughter from her first marriage). She was 13 in 1846. She was at the dedication of the Pioneer Monument with her stepsister and she had written a recollection of her experience as a member of the Donner Party and had written the very well known and often quoted letter that is quoted at the top of the blog.

I had the location of her grave: Section D, Block 26, Lot 2, Grave 2. I thought this would be easy as I walked up the road. There was a buddhist funeral ceremony going on in Section B. The chimes that rang out and the chanting reminding me that this was still very much an active cemetery.

Section D had a lot of newer graves that were opulent and ostentatious, unlike the simple markers I had seen of the members of the Donner Party. I searched Section D until it turned into Section N. Then I checked my map and headed back toward Section D. In the middle of this section five guys in lawn chairs seemed to be having a tailgate party. This was very much an active and alive cemetery.

I retraced my steps again with no luck. I must have looked lost as I wandered with frustrated intent, map in hand, that I attracted a groundskeeper who pulled up in his truck and asked if I needed help.

I told him I was looking for Section D, Block 26, Lot 2, Grave 2. Her name was Virginia Reed Murphy. He told me it was back the other way near the corner. He would drive around and meet me there.

I guess he assumed I was a member of the family looking for a great great great grandmother. I walked with intent back the way I came, the chimes and chants to my left and turned right on Observatory Avenue. The groundskeeper had just pulled up in his work truck.

He pointed to a plot. To the left was a humble marker for Murphy and to the right was a fallen headstone. In between was green grass. Virginia Reed’s grave was nowhere to be seen. My search had ended in a dead end (pun intended).

“Sometimes the markers get covered up,” the groundskeeper remarked as he headed to the truck and returned with a shovel! He started poking around with the tip of the spade and he he hit upon resistance. “Here it is.” And he dug in. I advised, half jokingly, not to dig too deep.

What followed was one of those moments of miracle and wonder. A moment that is stranger that fiction.

Under five to six inches of sod and grass emerged a marker. Through the thin layers of dirt I could read the markers simple inscription: VIRGINIA REED MURPHY.

No one was here to care for her grave. All her children and grandchildren were long gone and buried. But then came along a fourth grade teacher with a passion for California history.

Here was my small gift to those who cared to look for the grave of a Donner Party survivor. Her grave must have been covered up for years and I wondered about those who had searched in vain for Virginia Reed’s grave, eventually giving up. Now, as if a historical treasure had been unearthed, as indeed it had, it was here again to be seen; To help along what Patty Reed started, that the struggles and tragedies but also the resilience and successes of the Donner Party be remembered for all generations.

“never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.”


San Jose, the End of the Line

“I became quietly seized with that nostalgia that overcomes you when you have reached the middle of your life and your father has recently died and it dawns on you that when he went he took some of you with him.”
― Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

My last historic station sketch was a short train ride down the line from oldest station on route in Santa Clara. This was the end of the line for most southbound Caltrains, San Jose’s Diridon Station.

This is a station that was built to impress, a station to represent a major city and not a town. Much like San Francisco’s old passenger station at 3rd and Townsend Streets.

San Francisco’s main train station was built in a Mission Revival style like Burlingame Station. It was opened in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. This grand station stood until July 1975. It was torn down because, according to Southern Pacific, it had “outlived its usefulness”.

San Jose’s Station, by contrast, still survives and is in use. The station was designed by SP architect John Christine in an Italian Renaissance Revival style. It cost $100,000 to build and was opened on December 30, 1935.

The interior is grand, featuring a high ceiling with large roof beams and hanging chandeliers. At the northern end of the depot is a mural by John MacQuarrie, at the south end is a clock.

This has always been a busy place. Many routes pass through this station. I remember boarding the Coast Starlight here for a trip to visit a friend in Eugene, Oregon. In its heyday the following routes stopped at this station: the Lark, Coaster, Daylight, Del Monte, and Sunset Limited. Today the station serves Caltrain, Altamont Commuter Express, Capital Corridor, and the Coast Starlight.

I set up my sketching stool on the lawn across the street from the station and started to sketch San Jose’s imposing station. In the background a woman loudly gave a sermon to an audience of none while she waited for a bus.


The last railway journey of this project was bittersweet for me.

The train ride was through the southern part of the line and through the memories of my youth. There were bits of my youth still standing but much of it altered or gone completely.

The Sunnyvale train station, where I would come to watch commuter trains with my father, was gone now, along with my father. In its place there was a parking structure with a shelter covering a few benches and a ticket machine.

An August 1977 still frame from one of my dad’s Super 8 reels showing a shirtless me watching a commuter train pull into Sunnyvale Station. My brother looks on from further back. I was six years old.

On the east side of the tracks, just out of the Sunnyvale station, was the former Westinghouse Plant (now Northrop Grumman). This is where my father worked for most of his adult life.

Beyond Sunnyvale, the line was surrounded by tech buildings, parking structures, and concreted clutter. The former orchards of the Valley of Heart’s Delight have been paved over years ago. Change is the creed and mantra of Silicon Valley.

The touchstones to the past where to be found along the line in the eight historic passenger train depots I had sketched. They could not be changed or destroyed because they were designated historical landmarks.

On my return journey from San Jose Station I sat on the east side of the train and watched the ever passing progress of the valleys build up. This was a landscape void of familiarity for me. Sunnyvale was much changed with multi-story buildings cluttering and changing its skyline.

We pulled into Mountain View Station, the next stop north of Sunnyvale, and I looked down at the platform at the passengers waiting to board. That’s when I saw an unexpected part of my past, not a place but a person.

It was Rosemary. My neighbor from Cormorant Court, the street in Sunnyvale where I grew up. But she was much more than a neighbor, she is family, so much so that my brother and I call her Aunt Rosemary. Our families still celebrate the holidays together, long after both families have left Cormorant Court.

I realized that the past is not just made up of places or things, but of people. Like Rosemary, who has known me longer than I’ve known myself.

I walked back a few cars to find her and we talked and I showed her some of my sketches and we enjoyed our brief journey together until I disembark at Hillsdale Station.

It seems fitting, that on my quest to find the past, that I found mine at Mountain View Station in the city of my birth. I’ve been finding the past in stone wood, glass, tile, and steel, forgetting the true treasures of the past that are made of flesh and blood.

These are not only the people we know and love throughout our journey here on earth, but also the people that designed, built and use these stations along the railway corridor. After all, these are not just buildings to be looked at but they are meant to be used by the people who fill them with love and life.