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History: Trains in the Valley
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Story & Photos provided by Terry Ommen
Railroads in Tulare County have a long and rich—and mostly positive—history. For many people, when the railroad arrived in their community, it was seen as a good omen and was considered to be the golden ticket to prosperity. But as with many ventures, as time passes, problems arise, the excitement wanes, and the feelings of joy are tempered with the realities of life. Such was the case for the rail industry.
Trains first appeared in Tulare County in 1872 when track-laying crews from the Central and Southern Pacific Railroad Companies met near what became the town of Goshen. Visalians were happy that the railroad had finally come to the county, but deeply disappointed that the line did not pass through the county seat. This slight to Visalia caused the railroad its first local public relations problem. The line was soon fully acquired by the Southern Pacific or “Espee” as it was called. In 1880 an incident captured the world’s attention: The railroad initiated an eviction action against settlers occupying railroad land in the Mussel Slough district of then-Tulare County (now Kings County) and it went terribly. The confrontation turned violent and when the deadly shootout was over, seven men were dead. The incident left long-lasting scars on the Espee’s reputation.
In 1901, Frank Norris wrote a fictional novel called "The Octopus" that criticized the railroad—it was inspired by the Mussel Slough incident.
A decade later, more problems arose for the company when it experienced a series of violent train robberies and attempts. Armed men ransacked trains, sometimes detonating explosives and stealing valuables, often killing people in the process. The long and often unsuccessful hunts for those responsible left the public questioning the company’s ability to care for passenger safety and protect valuable cargo.
About the same time, more complaints came in about the Espee’s unreasonable shipping rates. Critics argued that without a competing rail service, the Southern Pacific had no competition in the county and could therefore charge whatever they wanted for freight hauling.
Almost three decades later, a competing line, the Santa Fe Railroad was welcomed to the county, but soon the warm welcome turned cold. Within a year of arriving, the Visalia Daily Times newspaper slammed them with a blistering editorial titled “Mighty Poor Railroading.” Their lengthy attack focused on what the newspaper called a “very unsatisfactory” passenger timetable schedule. Shortly thereafter, the company was criticized over the lengthy train stops that blocked well-traveled roadways.
But it was the number of serious train accidents that brought unwanted attention to the company. In 1912, a speeding Santa Fe locomotive near Sultana smashed into a horse and buggy driven by John DeFehr. DeFehr’s widow brought a successful wrongful death lawsuit against Santa Fe and received a $12,000 judgment. The extensive newspaper reporting of the crash and trial heaped considerable scorn onto the company.
In 1916, a Tulare rancher named Joe Williams became another fatal accident victim—this time near Lindsay—when his horse and buggy were struck by a Santa Fe passenger train. The rig was dragged 100 feet. The Lindsay area witnessed two more train wrecks and one more fatality, all within a short time.
Smaller railroads in Tulare County were also vulnerable to problems and criticism. The Visalia Electric Railroad (VERR) incorporated in 1904, was a small line, using the Southern Pacific tracks linking several communities like Lemon Cove, Visalia, Farmersville, and Exeter. It used electrical power for locomotion—all generated by the Mt. Whitney Power Co. Electrical power lines, which were erected along the route to provide a constant flow of current. When the new technology was introduced, there was tremendous optimism for yet another passenger and freight service. The Visalia Delta applauded its arrival, reporting, “The whir of the electric trolley sounds like music to the Visalia man who is interested in public progress.”
But almost immediately, the beautiful music went off-key. On its 1908 inaugural trip to Exeter, the train, filled with railroad officials, struck a buggy driven by Mrs. J.W. Clark as it crossed the tracks on Garden Street near the Visalia depot. The woman failed to hear the nearly silent train approaching, and the “motorman” operating the train failed to ring the bell. No one was injured, but the trip was delayed as parts of the buggy needed to be dislodged from the railcar. The year was off to a bad start for the small electric line.
A few years later, David Scott, a VERR conductor, was killed in a gruesome accident near Lemon Cove. Scott climbed on top of the big electric engine he was operating, and he touched a 3300-volt electrical line. Newspaper reports described the gruesome electrocution of Scott in great detail. He left behind a wife and 15-year-old daughter. Responsibility for the accident was placed with the VERR.
Even the very small, short-lived Visalia-Tulare Railroad Co. had its share of problems. In 1887, a group of investors led by Visalian Jasper Harrell, had a plan to build a small railroad commuter line between Visalia and Tulare. It would make travel between the two towns quicker and easier. For about a dozen years the train carried passengers back and forth, but was never financially successful. In 1900, the venture ended dramatically. On May 5th at about 7:30pm on its way to Tulare with 35 passengers, the little locomotive struck a cow that had wandered onto the track. The animal was cut in half by the impact, and the little engine somersaulted off the track. Crew members and passengers were thrown from the train and suffered injuries, but miraculously no one was killed. The engine was damaged beyond repair. The accident proved to be the coup de grace for the little line, forcing it to cease operations. But the distressing story of the bovine’s encounter with the Visalia-Tulare Railroad Co. lingered for years.
Without question, the railroads of Tulare County helped tremendously in the development of the county, but the paths of these iron horses were riddled with derailments.