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Southern Pacific Water Tower: Coyote

There are two Southern Pacific water towers remaining in the Bay Area, one in San Jose (near the passenger station) and one further south on the Coast Line in Coyote.

I headed to Santa Clara County, the county of my birth, to the Valley of Heart’s Delight (Silicon Valley). The small, blip of a town that is Coyote is south of San Jose and just north of Morgan Hill.

Coyote is on the Coast Line, a 470 mile route that connected San Francisco and Los Angeles. SP’s famous passenger service, the Coast Daylight, blew through Coyote. A resident of Coyote wishing to catch the Daylight to Los Angeles had to either head to San Jose or Salinas. Coyote has a passenger station that was in service until December 10, 1958. The building still exists but is now abandoned and boarded up. At one time it was a private residence.

The abandoned Southern Pacific water tower and the double tracks of the Coast Line on the left. To the left of the tracks is the Metcalf Energy Center.

Before heading down to Coyote I stopped off at the town where I grew up: Sunnyvale. As I exited off Highway 280 and headed north on Sunnyvale Saratoga Road, I reflected, as I always do when I’m in Sunnyvale, on how much it has changed from the 20 odd years I spent here.

Along the road, there were things that where very much the same, such as the Longhorn Restaurant on the right (I don’t think I every ate here), and to the left is Fremont High School. The 1925 main building looks very much the same but according to a family friend, who is an assistant principal at Fremont, a lot of renovations are happening on campus.

The reason I turned off the highway was to see another water tower in the South Bay. This tower was not built by Southern Pacific, although it sits just north of the Coast Line. Before Silicon Valley, this area was known as the Valley of the Heart’s Delight and the valley was covered in apricot and cherry orchards.

According to the Sunnyvale orchardist, Charlie Olson, there used too be “eight to nine million” fruit trees in Sunnyvale. Now there are eight to nine hundred.

To process all the fruit, canneries where built along the railroad line. My father, after coming home from work, would put me one the back of his bike and he would ride on the same route he had just come from. He spent his working career at Westinghouse which was also right next to railroad.

During the harvest season, a favorite destination was a pedestrian bridge over the railroad. From this vantage point we could watch commuter trains come and go and also we could look down into the yard of one of the canneries. Here forklifts moved at a frenetic pace and I can still recall the persistent din of the processing plant as workers canned ripe fruit to be shipped, by rail, to the nation. At this time, in the mid to late 1970s, Sunnyvale very much had one foot in the agricultural word.

This cannery was the former Schuckls Cannery which was later bought by California Canners and Growers in 1963. It was in operation until the cannery was demolished in 1984. The year 1984 was a auspicious year in the valley, it was in this year that Apple introduced the Macintosh computer.

This was about to change as the valley and it’s orchards were slowly replaced by Silicon Valley. It is interesting that one of the valley’s sons recognized the beauty of this area but was also one of the catalysts for it’s demise. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, said, “Silicon Valley for the most part at that time was still orchards-apricot orchards and prune orchards-and it was really paradise.”

Can we say that Sunnyvale is now a paradise? Well I guess it depends on how you define “paradise’.

As I crossed over the railroad tracks as South Matilda Ave. become North Matilda, the water tower came into view.

The Libby Water Tower is all that remains of the largest cannery in Sunnyvale. Libby, McNeill and Libby opened it cannery in 1907 and by 1922, it was the largest cannery in the world.

The current water tower was built in 1965 and is shaped like a can of Libby’s Fruit Cocktail. This is all that remains of one of the biggest canneries in the valley. It is now surrounded by a business park with buildings occupied by Walmart and Raytheon.

Looking up at this water tower I can recall the sounds of the cannery working at full capacity, to can the bounty of the Valley of Heart’s Delight.

The Libby Water Tower in Sunnyvale. It has been repainted as a can of Libby’s “Fancy Fruit for Salads”.
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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”.