Why did train depot in Los Banos close?

By Alina Gutierrez and Jose TorresMay 23, 2013 

When Southern Pacific decided to close the Los Banos depot in 1974 for economic reasons, some cheered, others jeered.

"The Depot still occupies a soft spot in the heart of many young adults who still remember when one of the highlights of their childhood was a train ride to Oakland and on over to San Francisco with their parents," according to a Los Banos Enterprise editorial supporting the depot.

Not everyone concurred, though.

"I haven't been in that depot for 30 years -- and it should have been burned down then," a civic leader anonymously remarked.

In October 1974, Southern Pacific announced that running a train station in Los Banos would no longer be economically feasible. When the Public Utilities Commission hearings began, the city of Los Banos thought that there was a bias in favor of Southern Pacific.

Said Mayor Neil Van Winkle, "The Public Utilities officer in charge of the hearing refused to hear objections making it easy for the Southern Pacific attorney to take control of the hearing and present the Southern Pacific view on the issue of closing the depot."

Southern Pacific contended that it was cheaper to run the station from Newman and have an agent work there taking calls for Los Banos and directing trains here when needed. An estimated $1,100 would be saved yearly with the Los Banos station operating as a non-agency station.

Los Banos officials who protested the closing were Van Winkle, Mayor Pro-tem Joe Carlucci, city planner Michael Ensley, and Chamber of Commerce manager Bob McHale. The Public Utilities Commission sided with Southern Pacific, and the railroad station was officially closed in 1974.

Residents began to rally to save the building, with businessman Richard Gardner forming a committee to save the depot and offering to move it to the fairgrounds.

The city needed to bring the building up to code, an expensive undertaking. Instead, the depot was dismantled in 1976 and sold off as scrap lumber. The train still came through Los Banos, however, as a carrier of produce (mainly cantaloupes).

There were several notable events involving the train depot or the Southern Pacific train.

One such event was In August 1919, when the Southern Pacific dining car caught fire. No one was injured, but the incident broke the stove on the diner and the inside of the car caught fire as well. So, the alarm bells sounded and firemen Mr. Muth and Mr. Chatelop rushed out 50 feet of hose to the dining car where they quickly put out the fire.

Otherwise, the train depot and the train would have been burned.

There were several notable people who rode through the Los Banos depot, among them presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. He visited Los Banos for the May Day fair.

According to local stories, singer Bing Crosby, also visited Los Banos for duck hunting and used the train depot for his trips.

Henry Miller used the train to visit his employees to see what they did when he wasn't around. The coming of Henry Miller created more excitement than it would have if the president were visiting; the telephone bells rang constantly passing the word that Mr. Miller was coming. The whole town got busy in anticipation of the visit.

A tragedy happened on a rainy night when the Owl train wrecked at Ingomar as a band of sheep crossed the railroad tracks and the engineer was unable to see them, causing the train to plow right into the animals. The bodies of the sheep caused the train to lift off of the track, but all the cars of the train remained on the track and passed between the engine and the tender except the last coach, which came to an abrupt stop between the engine and the tender.

The engineer, Mr. Wood, was killed with the throttle running through his body. Mr. Wood and three engineers, brothers from Los Banos, were all killed within one year of each other by track wrecks.

When the railroad first got going and the trains began to run, anyone could go anywhere along the track and flag down the train. It would stop anywhere for a person to put aboard a shipment of ducks or geese. A person could flag the train anywhere; it would always stop and take the person on board.

"Ask Us" is produced by Tim McNally's Advanced Placement American government class at Los Banos High School. Do you have a question about the history of Los Banos? Submit it to Mr. McNally's class by email to tmcnally@losbanos usd.k12.ca.us, by phone to (209) 826-6033 or by mail to Los Banos High School, 1966 S. 11th St. Los Banos, CA 93635.

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