Back to the Future
Trains made Monterey County great. And they could again.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Monterey and Salinas were once both railroad towns. Like many places in the West, they owe their existence to trains. The economy and culture of the Peninsula and the Valley still bear traces of what once was, and, in theory, could be again.
A brief history lesson will be familiar territory for some readers, but let’s recall: In the 1860s, Monterey was decrepit. After a promising start and a run as the capital of California (under Mexico and then later under the US), Monterey was practically abandoned following the Gold Rush. The adobes were crumbling. The missions were in ruins. The city was rescued from oblivion by a man with a dream: Charles Crocker, the Southern Pacific Railroad tycoon.
“We shall make Monterey almost a suburb of San Francisco,” Crocker said. And so he built the most magnificent resort in the nation, the Del Monte Hotel, with its spectacular gardens, heated pools, and beautiful golf course. (Pebble Beach was icing on the cake—17-Mile Drive was a dirt road from the Del Monte Hotel out to Cypress Point and back.)
Simultaneously, Crocker built a spur rail line from Castroville to the Peninsula, and launched the Del Monte Express, providing passenger rail service between San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula. Modern Monterey was born as a destination for train travelers.
The Del Monte Express was a fabulous train. It featured wooden-side coaches, a club car for smoking, a parlor-lounge, and an air-conditioned observation car. The lounge included easy chairs, a buffet and writing desks. It ran daily; the trip to or from San Francisco took a mere three hours.
The Del Monte ran continuously for 82 years. By 1960, coach fare was $7.10 for a round-trip ticket—a good deal even in those days. But still, ridership had been slipping since the ’40s. The Del Monte Hotel had been leased by the US Navy during World War II as a pre-flight training school, eliminating the tourist trade at the train’s primary destination. Some steady business persisted—San Francisco businessmen came to the Peninsula for a weekend of golf and returned home Monday by mid-morning. And on weekdays, the fashionable women of Monterey made shopping trips to the city.
For locals with a taste for urban pleasures, the Del Monte Express offered salvation. Until it discontinued service in 1971, the train left Monterey every morning at 6:45am and returned every night at 7:55pm, allowing passengers to spend a long day in San Francisco and still enjoy a late dinner at home. By that time, however, US 101 was carrying most of the traffic between the Peninsula and the rest of the world. It’s a story told everywhere: cars killed the railroad.
Rail played a similarly historic role in Salinas. The
agriculture industry in the Valley flourished with the arrival
of the railroad in 1872 as crops grown here were shipped
across the nation. Southern Pacific carried most of the
freight, but its rates were a burden to local farmers. So in
1874, two local businessmen, Carlisle Abbott and David Jacks,
launched the Monterey & Salinas Valley Railroad (MSVR),
and built a narrow-gauge line, where Highway 68 now runs, to
transport crops from growers in the Valley to steamships in
Monterey. The rail line, however, experienced hardships, when
bridges over the Salinas River washed out repeatedly. But the
competition did help fuel Crocker’s urgency to built Southern
Pacific’s spur line to the Peninsula from Castroville, so when
the MSVR folded, ag continued to thrive with the SP. This
continued until the 1950s, by which time trucks running on
government-built US 101 started to take over most of the
I deliver this brief history lesson to point out that the two industries that continue to dominate the local economy did just fine before the invention of the automobile and the jet airplane. We find ourselves now at a time when gas prices are hurting these two industries. We find ourselves trapped in a situation where cars and trucks clog our roads, degrade the atmosphere, and force us into depressing traffic-jammed auto commutes; a time when reliance on cars, trucks and jets has created an oil dependency that destabilizes the world.
Trains could deliver us from this nightmare. I realize that the idea sounds almost preposterous. But what do we do when something terrible feels inevitable? When a solution to a big problem seems obvious and yet distant? When we can’t allow ourselves to believe in the possibility of a way out of a bad situation?
I realize that Measure A, the transportation tax we’ll decide on June 6, provides only a small step toward this utopian future that looks a bit like the past. But it’s a start.