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  • Writer's pictureElsy Hernandez

How Trains Shaped Our Valley

The story of agriculture within our valley is one that cannot be told without acknowledging the railroads it moved across. Our fertile soil has been a great reason for our success in agriculture, but it was railroads that helped the Salinas Valley become recognized as the “Salad Bowl of the World”.

Grain farming within the valley first began in 1853 and included grains like barley and wheat; wheat was one of the first crops to be harvested commercially in the area. For a decade, wheat farming continued in the area, but it wasn’t until the 1860s when it became a big commercial crop. Once wheat farmers began to see financial success, they demanded a way to transport this product to waterways where it could be shipped abroad. Many promises were made by local governments and companies, but it was South Pacific Railroad which delivered. In 1872, South Pacific opened a railway extension from the bay area down to Soledad. While this meant farmers could now send their wheat to ports, there were two major problems. The railway only offered transport to Oakland, and these hauls were very expensive due to the distance between the Soledad and Oakland stations. Secondly, this railway did not offer any transportation to Monterey. The following year, large property owners met, and in 1874 a plan was launched to construct a local railroad. The Monterey & Salinas Valley Railroad was opened in October of 1874; residents of the area now had direct access to Monterey from Salinas or vice-versa.

Between the years of 1884 and 1886, Charles H. King – whom King City is named after – bought Rancho San Lorenzo where he planned to farm wheat on a large scale. His success, despite many vocal skeptics, led to an extension in 1886 from the Soledad Southern Pacific station. Later in 1903, the King City depot – which now resides at MCARLM – was built.

In 1903, Edwin Tobias Earl made a monumental contribution to the world of agriculture and transportation. Earl’s invention of the refrigerated car meant perishable produce could travel distances it never had before; this opened up California’s fresh produce to the rest of the nation.

German immigrant, Claus Spreckels, opened the world’s largest beet-sugar refinery in 1897 here in the valley. The Spreckels farm employed over 200 Japanese immigrant workers the following year, and in 1905 they formed the Salinas Japanese Association. It was these Japanese immigrants who successfully introduced celery, broccoli and strawberry farming to the Salinas valley. This helped diversify the type of produce harvested in the valley.

The commercial first lettuce harvest dates back to 1920, and it was transported to the East Coast via refrigerated Southern Pacific cars the next year. Other fresh produce local farmers had been experimenting with such as spinach and artichoke also began to be sent across the nation. Train transportation only continued to improve from there; in the 1950s, the valley’s perishable goods exports drastically rose. Inventions such as vacuum cooling and corrugated cars meant that produce could be cooled without using ice and it would stay fresh for longer. As the valley sent out more lettuce than in any decades prior, it officially gained the moniker of the “Salad Bowl of the World”.

While the lettuce and produce shipments did not slow down in the 1960s, the use of trains did. The rise of the trucking industry took away much business from Southern Pacific, and in the 1980s Southern Pacific was shipping no produce at all.

Today, despite the demise of produce transport via train, agriculture in the valley continues to thrive. Living up to its nickname, the valley produces around 70% of the nation’s lettuce, 57% of its celery, 48% of its broccoli, over a third of its spinach, and nearly a third of the strawberries. The valley also feeds others around the world. In fact, 80% of the artichokes in North America are produced here, and roughly 371,262,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables are exported annually to the European Union and countries like Mexico, Japan, and Korea.

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