ORANGES AND TRAINS: THE GLORY DAYS OF THE INLAND EMPIRE

Two forces began to transform San Bernardino, starting in the 1870s and continuing into the next decade — the citrus boom and the coming of the railroad. In just a few years the city would evolve from a Wild West town full of desperadoes to become a vital agricultural capital, a transportation capital, and even a tourist capital.

The region’s first half-dozen orange trees had been planted in 1857 by Anson Van Leuven in southeast Rancho San Bernardino, in what today is Loma Linda. He used cuttings from trees located at or near the San Gabriel Mission, it is said. In 1865, Myron H. Crafts planted orange trees in what now is Yucaipa, and Lewis F. Cram planted a modest orchard in 1869 in what now is Highland.

It can be said that these men were California’s first commercial citrus growers, though on a small scale. Previously, fruit from the few citrus trees in Southern California had been used only for private consumption, but now San Bernardino Valley growers were able to sell their produce to a burgeoning population, and for astonishing prices. Cram, for example, realized a yearly profit of almost $2,000 from his grove of not quite two acres. That was a great amount of money at the time.

But the real action got under way in 1873, when Eliza Tibbets obtained two navel orange trees imported from Brazil and planted them at her home in Riverside, a breakaway community founded in 1870 southwest of San Bernardino. The results of that planting were spectacular. The fruits were abundant, large, seedless and deliciously sweet.

Word spread and Tibbets soon managed a flourishing business selling rootstock cuttings from her amazing trees to growers not only in Riverside and San Bernardino but throughout the valley and all of Southern California.

The boom was about to begin.

Also in 1873, the Southern Pacific Railroad declared its intention to extend tracks from Los Angeles to San Bernardino and from there to Yuma, connecting there with tracks already in place to complete a transcontinental line across the southern United States.

The railroad couldn’t reach terms with San Bernardino, however, and chose an alternate route that circumvented the city a little to the south. A depot, built in 1875 at what now is Colton, led to the development of that city.

The Southern Pacific also planned a north-south line from San Francisco to the San Bernardino Valley, but it couldn’t acquire rights through the Cajon Pass, so it instead chose a route, completed in 1876, between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

San Bernardino did benefit, in the short term, from its proximity to both of Southern Pacific’s new rail lines. And, in the long term, when a new opportunity to accommodate a railroad project presented itself a decade later, the city did not fail to take advantage.

In fact, city residents were excited to learn, in the late 1870s, that a rival railroad, the California Southern, intended to build a line between San Diego and San Bernardino. Construction began and anticipation grew as the line grew closer and closer to San Bernardino.

A substantial difficulty loomed, however. In order to complete the route into the city, the California Southern would have to cross Southern Pacific’s east-west line south of the city, and Southern Pacific made it known that permission would not be forthcoming.

As expected, when the California Southern rail line reached Colton in August 1882, it was blocked from crossing Southern Pacific’s east-west tracks. Southern Pacific even parked idle locomotives in place to obstruct the way. California Southern’s project was stymied for an entire year while the issue was debated in court.

But in the summer of 1883 the court granted an order that the Southern Pacific must yield to California Southern’s northward push. The lines were crossed, additional track was laid, and on Sept. 13, 1883, a California Southern train rumbled into San Bernardino, where it was greeted with a citywide celebration.

The railroad had come at last
to San Bernardino and the city was linked at its heart
with an exploding Southern California economy. In fact, in many ways,
the city became the heart of that new economy.

In 1885, the Santa Fe Railroad acquired California Southern, determined to extend its line through the Cajon Pass to points northward. But Southern Pacific again presented an opposing force. It previously had bypassed the Cajon Pass, unable to secure rights to a route on its west side that was considered to be the only viable option. Later, though, it secured those rights and maintained them for the purpose of keeping them out of play for competing railroads.

The Santa Fe, though, guided by engineer Fred Perris, a San Bernardino resident with keen local knowledge of the Cajon Pass, successfully laid track along an eastern route through the pass. Construction was completed that same year, and the following year, 1886, Santa Fe built a depot in San Bernardino, the city’s first.

Soon, as Santa Fe continued to challenge and usurp Southern Pacific’s monopoly in the region, an east-west Santa Fe line sprouted from the city and two things happened: San Bernardino became Southern California’s key transportation crossroad, and it became forever known as a Santa Fe town.

The citrus industry, meanwhile, was gaining full force, and San Bernardino found itself at the center of that, too, not only as a grower but a shipper of citrus. Even oranges and lemons grown in Riverside had to be transported out of San Bernardino.

There were 10 million orange trees in Southern California, most of them in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The first large commercial shipment of citrus out of the Inland Empire took place in 1882 when a railroad car full of oranges and lemons left San Bernardino bound for Denver. It set the pattern for countless shipments to come, at an increasingly frenzied pace, especially after the refrigerated box car was developed in 1889.

By 1920 more than 40,000 railroad cars full of citrus were leaving San Bernardino each year, headed East. That amounted to almost 20 million crates of fruit, a cash crop worth more than $30 million, an incredible sum in those days.

Easterners were endlessly fascinated by reports of the mid-winter citrus harvest in California’s Southland, and growers here took advantage of that interest. Citrus crate labels often featured images of snow-capped mountains rising behind orchards heavy with ripe fruit.

Postcards were circulated showing happy people picking and enjoying fruit, with the caption, “I’ll eat oranges for you, if you’ll throw snowballs for me.”

The National Orange Show, established in 1911 in San Bernardino, was for decades held in February or March, winter months, and it was billed as “California’s Greatest Mid-Winter Event.”

The festival featured an onsite packing house where souvenir crates of fresh fruit could be purchased and shipped anywhere in the country. Each box was adorned with a commemorative National Orange Show label.

The citrus boom ultimately proved to be an irresistible tourist attraction. People in other parts of the nation and world wanted more than reports and pictures and even boxes of real fruit. They wanted to see the spectacle for themselves.

The National Orange Show became one of America’s most highly attended annual events, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. As a postcard advertisement for the 1929 edition of the show stated, “No trip to California is complete without a visit to the National Orange Show, the most beautiful exposition in all the world.”

The growth of the Southland citrus industry even became a magnet for permanent migration. Many visitors liked what they saw so much that they decided to move here. It was a phenomenon that was likened to the influx of gold seekers to the state in earlier decades. In fact, the citrus boom came to be called “California’s Second Gold Rush.”

It was said, only partly in jest, that trains left California full of fresh fruit and returned full of fresh folks.

World War II marked the beginning of the end. The combined effect of the war years, the Great Freeze of 1949, and booming urbanization in the post-war years forced a decline in Southland citrus production that began slowly but accelerated with each new decade.

San Bernardino County’s 50,000 citrus acres dwindled to 5,000 by the 1990s as groves were bulldozed to make way for industrial, commercial and residential growth and development.

In recent years, a backlash movement has gained momentum, and efforts are being made to preserve remnant orchards and support the small number of local growers who remain active. The Inland Orange Conservancy (www.inlandorange.org) is leading these efforts. The campaign is featured in the documentary film “Orange Sunrise” (www.orangesunrise.net).

  • Tamara

    Thank you for a wonderful story. My half dozen bushels of citrus from two old orchard trees feel very proud of themselves.