For almost 90 years, the Southern Pacific Railroad offered daily commuter passenger train service between the Monterey Peninsula and San Francisco. Today, as we grind our way by car up and down the 101 corridor one can only think it would be wonderful to have another chance to “ride the rails”.
The train was established to bring guests from San Francisco to the luxurious Hotel Del Monte which opened in 1880, but there is confusion about when service began. Newspaper clippings in The California History Room indicate a train from San Francisco around 1880, perhaps locally known as “The Daisy.” A timetable from 1884 advertises daily train service from San Francisco to Monterey in 1884, but does not mention a specific train or schedule.
The official word from the Southern Pacific is that although early records were lost in the great fire of San Francisco in 1906, a train known as the Del Monte, the first named train in the Southern Pacific system, began its schedule around 1889. It was known in the first few years as the Del Monte Limited, later becoming the Del Monte Express, and much later was known again as the Del Monte or Del Monte Limited. Service was extended to Pacific Grove in 1890.
Early on, the Del Monte Express steamed out of the Monterey station at 7:55 a.m. and highballed up the main line, with stops in Pajaro, Gilroy and San Jose, arriving in San Francisco at 11:15 a.m. Complete with meal and beverage service in the parlor car, and with a route connecting the cultural and financial hub of California and the seaside resort of Monterey, which was advertised by the Southern Pacific as “The Queen of American Watering Places”, it became well-known in railroad history.
But in time the freedom of the automobile and availability of air travel doomed the Del Monte. Ridership steadily declined in the 1950’s and 60’s and near the end passenger travel had dropped to an average of 30 passengers per day. The Southern Pacific was unwilling to continue losing money on the run.
While Peninsula residents fought the Southern Pacific and the Public Utilities Commission for many years to keep the Del Monte service, they did not support it with ridership. Just a few months before the Del Monte’s end, the steward of the parlor car for some 20 years, Eddie Elkins, told the Herald “If each Peninsula family would give us just one trip of every three that they make to the City, we’d make out wonderfully!” Ironically, on the Del Monte’s very last run, on April 30, 1971 the Herald reported that more than 300 passengers had boarded between Monterey and San Jose.
The following is from the clipping files of the Library’s California History Room is this account of a ride on the Del Monte from San Francisco in the early 1900’s, written by Malcolm W. Steel of Carmel, and appearing in the Monterey Herald on October 5 and 9, 1962.
Taking the story back to the days prior to the great San Francisco disaster of 1906, the Del Monte Express followed the original route out of the city through the Mission District with a stop at Valencia Street Station before climbing to the high point of some 300 feet at Ocean View.
From here on, it was easy sailing to San Jose and into the large covered train shed, fashioned after those of Europe but somewhat cruder. Perhaps San Jose was the longest stop, for any rail trip of 50 miles or more was something which was planned long in advance, therefore entailed the problem of the loading and unloading of much baggage. Again, as rail transportation was the only means of travel, stations were always filled with people arriving or departing.
Moving slowly through San Jose with warning gongs ringing at every street crossing, it was always a must to look for the giant tower on Santa Clara Avenue bearing a powerful electric arc light. It was the city’s version of the Eiffel Tower, no doubt, and which to the best of my recollection, was made away with by old man earthquake which spared nothing in its path.
Arrival at Gilroy seemed to call for a delay for no apparent reason. Perhaps it was a coffee break for the train crew or perhaps the Southern Pacific simply wanted the passengers to become acquainted with Gilroy. If anyone was entitled to a coffee break… it was the fireman in the engine cab who, with a soot-covered face, had a real job shoveling coal into a hungry furnace, and the heat of the Santa Clara Valley in the summer months did not ease his task.
At Pajaro (long since, Watsonville Junction), the Santa Cruz-bound passengers and their baggage transferred trains as did the Salinas passengers at Castroville. The rather dull 14 miles from Castroville called for nothing more than looking out to see if the fog was rolling in.
There was the usual checking of the passing signboards, e.g.: Morocojo, the crossing point of the Spreckels Sugar Co’s narrow gauge Pajaro Valley Consolidated RR (Spreckels to Watsonville via Moss Landing), such signs as Bardin, Niponset and Gigling, all ranch names. Seaside with its two white houses up in the sand dunes near the present oil tanks and its giant oak tree, said to have been the world’s largest, had its SP marker.
Pulling into Del Monte Station and coming to a stop, the train debarked its hotel passengers, mostly from the parlor car at the end of the string. It might be said that to provide an “escape from democracy,” an extra fee of 50 cents was levied. A fancy two-horse vehicle, entered by passengers at the rear and with long seats facing one another, landed the guests at the hotel entrance. It must be remembered the only the very wealthy could stay at Hotel Del Monte for the daily rates on the American plan, e.g., with three meals, and meals they were, was something between $7 and $10.
Perhaps the private car of some financial tycoon from the East Coast rested on the siding awaiting order from its owner. Plans might call for its attachment to the north bound Express in the morning.
Leaving the Del Monte Station, a sharp lookout spotted the Beach Baths to the right at the end of the Monterey yards. In season, this was some sort of a very, very small Atlantic City with its boardwalk and pier. The remains are still there if one knows just where to locate them. There was the walled-off pool for ladies and a large one for the big husky and daring men of the day.
We cannot linger too long at the old Beach Baths for we must get on to California’s first capital, with its several hotel runners, baggage transfer men and later a modern electric car of the Monterey & Pacific Grove Railway to take new arrivals to Alvarado Street, New Monterey and with a transfer at Alvarado and Franklin, to the Presidio.
No doubt there might be some sort of horse drawn vehicle, labeled “To Carmel-by-the-Sea”…said to be some sort of small colony away over the hill in the woods… the inhabitants of which preferred to live apart from railroad trains, horse and electric cars and the general hustle and bustle of commerce.
No doubt before we leave Monterey on the last stage of the journey, we will note the fishing fleet, just off shore, all of the boats propelled by sail. Again, the little steamer “Gypsy” of the Pacific Coast S.S. Co. might have arrived during the afternoon and tied up at Wharf No. 1 amid much shouting or orders from the bridge to the “stupid” shore blokes or landlubbers who could not be made to understand which was the bow and which was the stern. At times, one would think the “Queen Mary” was docking.
With the warning gong ringing at the Custom House, the “Del Monte” moved westward to the great city of Pacific Grove, a white high fence keeping the track out of sight of passing horse-drawn vehicles for the ordinary horse was still not quite sure of the iron horse and might first rise on his hind legs and then take off faster than he ever had before. He was accustomed to horse cars, but a little later, the electric cars made life unbearable for him as he was simply face to face to these modern contraptions of man.
Skirting the beautiful New Monterey shore line was a treat for the most blasé traveler. Off shore were the unsurpassed marine gardens viewed from glass-bottom boats, the splendid Tevis mansion, the only remains of which are a portion of the tiled-covered wall at Cannery Row. There was McVey Beach at the foot of Hoffman Avenue, a popular bathing beach… There was the Chinese fishing village just before entering Pacific Grove and it was a real Chinese fishing village, complete with sailing junks.
Coming to a stop at the Grove station, the “Del Monte Express” had added one more trip to its record and like its arrival at Monterey, was met by runners for the Carmelo Hotel, Centrella Hotel, etc. Perhaps there might have been some good man passing out tracts, warning the arriving travelers of the evils of sin and liquor and the fate which might befall them in the hereafter.
The hard-working engine was uncoupled and placed on the turntable, turned around, perhaps with the willing assistance of whatever kids were on hand and backed into its stall for a good night’s rest after its long run of 128.7 miles from Third and Townsend Streets in San Francisco. It may have been Nos. 1375, 1377, or 1438. It made no difference which one it was to the kids, for it had pulled the Del Monte Express and was the equal of No. 999 of the New York Central, the fastest in the world.
This is the story of one of the best-known trains in the world. The Southern Pacific no doubt would like to keep it in operation but unfortunately cannot in justice to its stockholders. However, it will never die in the minds of those who knew it in its prime.