Researching An Obscure Prototype Through Non-Prototype Research

I didn't set out to model this railroad, I didn't even set out looking for a railroad to model. I already had one in mind (something loosely based on the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific, as it traveled the California coast). I was merely looking up the railroad that served my home town, when I realized that it offered a lot that I found interesting. At that point I decided that it would better fit my available space, allow for interesting operations, and allow me to model the coastal California scenery that I grew up with.

Unfortunately, as I was no longer modeling the Southern Pacific/Santa Fe hybrid I had imagined, I quickly realized that if you search for "Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad" you get some great webpages with a lot of information, but not a lot of pictures. This is likely due to the sale of the railroad in 1929, and the lack of cameras in everyone's pockets at the time, like they are today. To be fair, those sites I linked to are great resources, and I go back to them time and time again.

If I wanted to track down some more information, I had to broaden my search. What follows are some non-railroad resources that I have found to be really useful as I research the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad.

I'll briefly discuss the successes I've had searching for the following information -
  • Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
  • California Warehouse Guide
  • Historic Aerials
  • Movies/Television
  • Other Railroads/Non-Railroad Subjects

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Spreckels, 1919. Courtesy Library of Congress,

Sanborn Fire Insurance maps are a great resource. I have had some luck finding online versions for the towns of Watsonville and Spreckels, from various years. From what I can tell, many maps have yet to be digitized, though they are still available to the general public at libraries and historical societies.

These maps are incredibly useful. They not only show you where the railroad traveled, they also include all of the structures associated with the area - including their footstep, building material, height, and location of windows. Even though I do not have the space to build the entire factory shown in the above image, I can still use it to properly scale my models so that they work together to create a realistic scene.

California Warehouse Guide

Moss Landing Warehouses 1885, Courtesy Historic Map

Compiled by the Sanborn Map Company, the California Warehouse guide is incredibly useful in that it gives a detailed description of the sizes and capacities of the warehouses I plan to model at the Moss Landing wharf. What I found most useful about these drawings, is that they describe that the warehouses were built on pilings, and how high the floors of the warehouses were from the ground. These are from 1885, well before the railroad came to town, so it is entirely possible that this information changed, particularly after the area was all but destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Even if that was the case, this does provide prototypical evidence of how these warehouses were originally constructed.

Historic Aerials

Spreckels topographical map 1928, courtesy Historic They seem serious about that copyright, don't steal this.

Historic Aerials is a great site to find ... historic aerials. Google Earth also provides historic aerial imagery, though they don't have the same maps as can be found on this page. Historic Aerials also includes topographic maps that will be very useful if you are modeling an area you haven't seen in person. The topographic maps include the changes in elevation, as well as the general route of any waterways. They also include the railroad routes, though they are not as detailed as the Sanborn Maps.


The PVCRR Depot at Spreckels, as seen in "East of Eden." The small building is much taller than I would have imagined. 

The PVCRR depot outhouse structure, as seen in "East of Eden"

In the 1950s, the depot at Spreckels was used as a stand-in for the Salinas depot in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden. Before seeing this, I had never seen images of the small brick depot, or its wooden outhouse. I had heard that East of Eden was filmed in Spreckels, but I never noticed which scene, because this was all torn down well before we moved there. Thanks to the book Steinbeck Country Narrow Gauge, I re-watched this scene and once I knew what I was looking for, I was able to see the small station, in full technicolor. In the image above, the train is seen pulling away from the "Salinas depot." In reality, the train is driving directly toward the large sugar beet factory at Spreckels. Had the camera zoomed out, you would see the imposing structure to the right of the frame.

Behind James Dean are the original structures used as temporary housing for seasonal labor

The movie also provided a lot of shots of what the surrounding scenery and structures looked like. In the above scene, which was filmed on the east side of the tracks directly across from the original wooden depot/freight station, the housing built for seasonal workers can be seen. This scene is also particularly helpful in that it shows what the scenery in the area looked like. It's possible that the wild flowers were staged by production, regardless, I like how it looks, and if there's space to model this area, I'll add the flowers and trees.

Many towns that have hosted movie productions are proud of the fact, and if one came through the town you're modeling, you might just get lucky enough to find footage of a long lost building. Sometimes you find James Dean, which I guess it good too. 

Other Railroads/Non-Railroad Subjects
Photograph found in Steinbeck Country Narrow Gauge, courtesy John Hughes Collection, Monterey County Historical Society

The above picture is of a Southern Pacific train leaving the station at Salinas. However, tiny train in the upper left? That's the PVCRR mogul and its train. This isn't the best example, because it came from a book about the PVCRR, but it is used to show that if you search for other railroads in the area you are modeling, you might find something useful.  It's been almost 100 years since the PVCRR was sold, that's plenty of time for an image to get mislabeled or put on a website for another local railroad. You might also find pictures where another train or structure is the focus, but the background holds something you're looking for. 

Photograph found in Steinbeck Country Narrow Gauge, courtesy Benny Romano

Photograph found in Steinbeck Country Narrow Gauge, courtesy Amstar, Spreckels Collection

The first picture above is of the PVCRR depot at Salinas, the second picture is one of the few images I've found of the original wooden depot at Spreckels. While they might not have been identical, it wouldn't have been unusual for them to be fairly similar. By using images from two different depots, a reasonable model could be built. 

Additionally, community historical societies are a great source of information about the time and place you're modeling. Learning about the general community can help to conceptualize the purpose of the railroad at any given time.

If that doesn't work, and you know what your railroad shipped, you might try searching for information about the history of that commodity in your area. It's possible that someone out there who's really into the citrus industry in Ventura County, CA has some pictures related to the Southern Pacific, but because that's not their primary focus, they don't discuss the railroad.

If you're having trouble tracking down the perfect bit of information to help you complete a model, I hope you give some of these resources a try. Remember, if you can't find a picture or information about how tall a given building was, chances are pretty slim anyone else will know, so if you do whatever you want, that's probably perfectly ok. 


  1. What a great post, Nick. I remember discussing the movie with you at the PCR-NMRA convention last month and it's great to see the images here. Thanks for sharing!
    - Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)


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