A Tale of Two Railroads 

On January 13, 2023 by Javier Powell, Reporter

By Javier A. Powell, Reporter

Los Banos Station, Photo Courtesy of the Milliken Museum

There are a few critical points where the history of Los Banos could have been very different, and one of its most critical aspects could have been far different- its railroad. Two miles south on Volta Road from the railroad crossing is the original town site of old Los Banos. The town was later moved by Henry Miller, also known as the Cattle King, after he gifted land to the Southern Pacific for the Westside Line- giving him advanced knowledge of the alignment. Using this insight, he bought and surveyed the land, that would become Los Banos, as a prime regional hub. Henry Miller would bankroll the first major buildings and settle the headquarters of his vast cattle empire on the Main Street- 6th Street.

In the 1880’s, the Southern Pacific wasn’t the only company vying for a lucrative west valley line. Others interested included the independent venture by Claus Spreckels, the ‘Sugar King’. A fellow German, whom Henry Miller had met previously. The appeal of an independent railway was palpable in the Californian public, for at the time the Southern Pacific was seen as an “octopus” with a tendril in every layer of state government. Claus sensed the opportunity and petitioned Miller for land to create a railroad.

Henry Miller 1857

It seemed like a perfect opportunity to get precious access to export markets without exorbitant Southern Pacific prices, yet Miller had a grudge to settle with the Sugar King. After a long hard drought, much of Miller’s herds were depleted. Large expenses were needed to replenish the herds. Spreckels was a San Francisco banker in the 1860s-1870s when Miller was in the process of replenishing the herds and livestock. One day Miller asked for a loan to continue the process. Spreckels asked for security on the loan. The move insulted the Cattle King, who at that point had done business in California for 40 years without needing security.

Miller with the past firmly in his mind ‘gifted’ the Sugar King land for his railroad, land that was in Miller’s overflow land, and required a high railbed to keep dry. Waiting until Spreckels had already completed 100 miles with great investment, Miller then quietly gave the better, dryer, and higher route through his holdings to the Southern Pacific. Claus had no choice but to concede and build elsewhere. Miller gained something from Claus’ investment, a levee donated by his enemy to keep the overflow waters in check.

Claus Spreckels eventually found the San Francisco & San Joaquin Railroad from Oakland to Bakersfield on the east side of the valley. And Miller continued to keep expanding his cattle empire. Founding the current Los Banos on the alignment he had helped the Southern Pacific to choose. If only Claus hadn’t asked for security on a loan to a Mr. Henry Miller, perhaps the Santa Fe, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, or Union Pacific Railroads who out survived the Southern Pacific in the 90s would have kept the railroad alive in Los Banos?

Filed under: History

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