The Visalia Electric Railroad

by Phillips C. Kauke

Full Reviews of this book:

Review from Model Railroad News magazine, Vol. 11, No. 11, November, 2005, pp. 50, 51.

"Signature Press offers two books on California traction lines" (this is a joint review of the CCT and VE books)

"Electric Railroads - also known as "traction" - first appeared along the East Coast in the 1880s and expanded rapidly, offering light rail service first to inner cities but then expanded into smaller towns and rural areas. While they often existed primarily as passenger and commuter services, many also handled extensive freight, using special electric freight loco motives called "freight motors." Electric power was supplied through either third rails or overhead wires, and some systems had a mix of both.

"Although the expansion of traction service continued through the twenties, the uncertainties of the Great Depression shut down some systems while others were forced into bankruptcy. During World War II, some were scrapped for war scrap metal and the drumbeat of history seemed to have passed them by. Only a few remained in operation after the war, and the world of automobiles and highways obviated these until most were gone by 1960.

"Today, with massive gridlock on the highways, most municipalities would welcome back these systems. But when we think of trolleys and such in California, we too often think of the Red Cars of Los Angeles or the Cable Cars of San Francisco. In these two books from Signature Press, we get a look at two traction operations outside the major metropolitan areas: Central California Traction and the Visalia Electric Railroad. Both are hardbound, 8-1/2 by 11 inch volumes with attractive dust jackets and feature table of contents, maps, rosters, and indexes."

The Central California Traction Company

"This 410-page volume (ISBN 1930013-06-X) is a powerhouse study of the history of a California institution. With Stockton as the center stage, our play begins in 1906. This central California city has the distinction of being at the junction of the Southern Pacific, Western Pacific, and Santa Fe railroads while also having freshwater access to the Pacific Ocean via the San Joaquin River. The surrounding countryside enjoyed arable land, but its incorporation in 1850 was laid at the feet of gold mining in the Mother Lode, Stockton being the closest seaport access.

"The Central Pacific Railroad had provided rail connections with the cities of Sacramento and Oakland going as far back as the 1870s, but the hallmark of a really great city in that time and place was its own internal transport system. Just past the dawn of the Twentieth Century, a man named H.H. Griffiths offered just that. To better provide service, the new Central California Traction Company (CCT) reached northward to Lodi in 1907. By 1910, the line had reached past Centralia all the way to Sacramento where it spawned a successful streetcar line.

"Though the Stockton streetcar line didn't fare well, the freight connections up and down the valley between Stockton and Sacramento proved to be a rich source of capital. Agriculture and other forms of trade have always prospered in this fertile land, and trade cannot survive without transportation. In fact, CCT survives today, the wires long gone and operated by diesel locomotives.

"The book also plows rich, historical ground, digging up a vast wealth of interest. David G. Stanley and Jeffrey J. Moreau burrow deep to find the truth as it played out. Moreau is a noted historian while Stanley is both historian and photographer. They bring in the talents of California rail historian, John Signor, who adds maps and the cover painting of street running in Lodi.

"The book is written in two parts: "The Electric Way" and "The End of Electrification." Chapters One through Nine make up the first part and draw their share of the 626 photos in the book. The 23 maps and drawings also make a contribution to Part One. One drawing shows very clearly how the line used a 1200-volt inverted third rail. Obviously it was cheaper to construct than overhead wires and was safer than bare third rails. This contact system was set up between Stockton and Lodi.

"In 1928, after several years of legal wrangling, CCT ended up becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the three large railroad converging in Stockton. One-third ownership of CCT went to each of Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, and Western Pacific. While CCT would manage day-to-day business, ATSF would provide mechanical and engineering help, Southern Pacific would tend to legal matters, and Western Pacific would provide accounting and secretarial assistance.

"For a while in the building years of the CCT, there was talk about building a line south from Stockton to Modesto and perhaps even further. Since CCT lacked the financial resources to make that connection, Tidewater Southern eventually made it happen. Western Pacific purchased controlling interest later on, building a financial bridge between TS and CCT. The book does a great job of discussing the convoluted relations between all of the railroads, the plot of which would have made a dandy soap opera.

"For example, ATSF and WP thought it would be just dandy to build a four-block-long siding to serve a canning company in Lodi. The only fly in the ointment was that SP already served this company and didn't want any competition, thank you! What resulted was a shoving match the likes of which could be found on almost any school playground on nearly any school day.

"Anecdotes abound, illustrating the life and times, but general history came to call, too. The Great Depression put an end to the largely unprofitable interurban service. Buses already operated on the roads in the area, and so the railroad just turned loose of this economic activity.

"After World War II, the book leads us into Part Two: The End of Electrification. This took the form of 44-ton GE diesel-electric switchers, at least at first. Two days before Christmas 1946, the first GE went into service. Immediately, freight motors began to come off line and more diesels were ordered. Three of the GE 70-ton variety arrived in 1947, proving to be very satisfactory. However, after 10 years of service, the Cooper-Bessemer diesel engines developed serious problems, including crankshaft failures, leading the road to purchase a used Alco S-1, and it was a better, more reliable puller.

"The book does an excellent job of relating the equipment in use (along with occasional mishaps) from the beginning of the railroad right to the present day. We see the replacement of the GEs with used Alcos, including an Alco RS-1. Eventually, of course, the road succumbed to the siren's call of the Geep, purchasing first a single GP7. In time they'd add another, plus a GP18, leading to the purchase from UP of a pair of SW1500s in 1999. Some of the final pages of the main section show photos of restored freight motor #7, a pair of Tidewater 44 tonners that once belonged to CCT, and the leased GP7 #44 that started life on the Santa Fe where it had a nose and cab roof job. UP, now the owner of both SP and WP, and BNSF still wrangle and get into minor shoving matches. The soap opera continues.

"In addition to the story and photos, modelers will especially enjoy the track plans within various towns plus the Equipment Roster and Drawings Appendix."

The Visalia Electric Railroad

"If you think you understand California traction lines thanks to the book on the CCT, stand by to have your thinking rearranged. When Southern Pacific built through California's Tulare County, they missed the town of Visalia by some 7 miles, passing through the nearest town of Goshen. A small shortline sprang to life, connecting the two towns and commenced operations in 1874 as the Visalia Railroad. In 1899, it was leased to Southern Pacific and became the western portion of their Visalia Branch.

"About this time, the Mount Whitney Power Company set up shop at Visalia and had excess hydroelectric power for sale. SP constructed a branch from Visalia eastward to Exeter, about ten miles away. But these weren't the only connections by rails for these two towns. The San Francisco & San Joaquin Valley Railway set up a line from Fresno down to Visalia and Exeter, and that railroad was purchased by the AT&SF. Since this railroad and SP were in a fierce struggle for primacy in their shared regions, SPÕs Visalia to Exeter line drew utmost attention at corporate headquarters. It would become a shared line with the new Visalia Electric Railroad (VE).

"The VE had been under a franchise from the county since 1903, the intent being to operate from Visalia through Exeter up to Lemon Cove where there was a limekiln that only needed good transportation to become an economic boon. Failing to find local financing, one of the new partners approached E.H. Harriman of the Southern Pacific, and the latter man jumped on board promptly, eager to stem off competition from the Santa Fe.

"Groundbreaking took place in 1905 and twice-daily trains commenced operation by September of that year. The large hand of SP lay over all, and the big railroad was looking at cost reduction in mountainous areas such as Tehachapi and Donner. Harriman's engineering corps examined electric power as an alternative to the Mallet, and Harriman himself decided that the VE would be a good place to test out some concepts. As a result, they installed a 3,300 volt, 15 cycle AC single-phase system from Westinghouse Electric. The first freight motor was a 47-ton Baldwin-Westinghouse boxcab instead of the customary steeple cab interurban type.

"This 168-page volume (ISBN I930013-15-9) gives us a very close-up look at the construction and startup of the electric system in 1908, including the initial electrical tests. This makes rather dramatic reading, for while nothing terrible happened and all was successful, it is very clear that the engineering force did not know for sure how this all would work. There were a couple of locations where the rail dipped in such a way that the pickup shoe lost contact with the overhead wire.

"From 1908 to 1912, passenger traffic grew rapidly, but after that it slowed down, in large part due to the proliferation of the automobile. When World War I rolled around in 1917-18, another SP affiliate, Pacific Electric in Los Angeles found itself short of cars, so it stepped in and bought the used orange cars of the VE. Two motor cars and two trailers plus one gas-electric freight motor went to Pacific Electric, leaving three motor cars. Passenger service only was discontinued October 31, 1924. VE was now a freight only road.

"Southern Pacific took a more direct interest in this freight subsidiary, since it was always so well run. VE took over the operation of the Chowchilla Pacific, considerably to the north of their operations until SP finally took direct control of the line in 1928. In San Jose, well to the west and north of Visalia, a section of the Peninsular Railway fell under the operation of the VE. Around that time, the Fresno Traction Company, owned by SP, also was operated by VE. By 1938, the San Jose Division shut down and the next year the Fresno operation followed suit.

"The book's author is Phillips C. Kauke, a longtime rail historian working with the graphic assistance of John Signor. Kauke takes a sure hand throughout the history of the Orange Grove Route, leading coverage of the VE through World War II and out the other side. Electric operations ended and diesel service began For a while, VE owned its own GE 44 tonners to go with its gas-electrics, but finally even these left the property to be replaced with leased SP EMD SW and GP units. The last train was run on the VE in 1990, and SP filed for abandonment of the VE trackage in 1992.

"The book also features rosters and drawings of equipment to supplement the 249 photos on 168 pages. The scale drawings make this tome especially valuable to model railroaders but will also be appreciated by those who want a sense of the size and layout of each piece of equipment."


While either book could be of great value to someone engaged in research of a specific flocation or railroad, I think both together build an even broader and more comprehensive picture. Two different writers and production teams also add to the diversity without hindering the quality in any way. Both books are equally enjoyable. I'd also like to praise Signature Press for the quality of its reproduction plus the typography and layout. With either The Central California Traction Company or The Visalia Electric Railroad, you will receive a fine product. With both, you double your pleasure."

-- John Sipple

Review from Web listing, 2005

"The Visalia Electric: A Traction Line that Outlived the Traction Era"

"Phillips C. Kauke's Visalia Electric Railroad: Southern Pacific's Orange Grove Route provides modelers of many eras with a guide to modeling. Like many Signature Press books, this is an excellently packaged and printed volume, containing numerous, ultra-sharp, photographs of the line during its many 'lifetimes.'

"Numerous photographs document both the line' s rolling stock, stations, and environments. Most important, there are detailed maps showing a wide variety of stations and their relations to area packing houses. Oranges were truly a cash crop, and the Visalia Electric served area growers well.

"Detailed maps showing the line's interchanges with mainline railroads add to the completeness of this book. It's always surprising to see how simple many high-capacity interchanges actually were. With the book's maps as a guide, inspiration can be found for a creating a 'logical' traction line in any part of the country, either in the the electric, or later, years.

"Unlike books which devote just a few pages to the 'after the wires came down' era, the Visalia Electric documents the post-traction years when GE 44-tonners and occasional mainline leased gas electrics rode the VisaliaÕs rails.

"On the basis of quality, 'model-ability,' and comprehensive coverage of both electric and diesel years, this volume should rate high on the list of any modeler who wants a prototype that can serve as the basis of several eras and environments."

-- Roger C. Parker, Dover, NH On-line reviewer