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Nostalgia & History > Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northerm .


Date: 07/31/11 10:19
Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northerm .
Author: KeyRouteKen

For many years, travelers driving between Oakland and Sacramento on old U.S. Highway 40 (later on, Interstate 80) were suddenly thrown into an extremely strong fragrance of "Onions", while passing thru the city limits of Vacaville. What was it ? Where did it originate from ? Was a railroad involved in its operation ?

Most of us probably simply knew it as the "Onion Plant" and nothing more. Here is the story of that "sweet smelling place" that affected most travelers :



Basic Vegetable Products Company processed onions and garlic on a 29-acre site in Vacaville. The company contributed to California’s agricultural industry for more than fifty years before closing
in 1986. Let’s look back on a bit of nostalgia and history of the famous “Onion Plant” .

The original Vacaville location of Basic’s operation was a tin shed on the Uhl ranch, where Shock’s Furniture Interiors and Longs Drugs are currently situated on Monte Vista Avenue. “Basic” was to grow from these humble beginnings to become one the world’s largest dehydration plants.


It was at this juncture, 1940, that “Basic” left the Uhl ranch and set up a bigger operation in the Vacaville
Fruit Growers’ old facilities on Stevenson Street. “Basic” now employed 1,000 people and was producing
many millions of pounds of product per year. Jobs at the new plant were advertised offering 48 hours work during the onion season and 40 hours off season. The company maintained bus service to and from the surrounding areas: from as far as Sacramento ($6 for 30 trips) and from Vallejo in the other direction.
Enticements for jobs at “Basic” were good pay, being centrally located, country living, homes and
dormitories, and a safe, clean plant. A company cafeteria was open 24 hours a day.
Employees were required to don uniforms to maintain the sanitary conditions the plant promoted. Women
wore dark blue dresses and blue caps, both with white accents. Men wore striped overalls, blue shirts and
white caps.

Basic Vegetable Products Co. was a major contributor for years to Vacaville’s economic, social and
cultural heritage. Many employees retired after decades of service. Often, members of the same family
worked for the company, like Dolores Lopez’s family. Dolores, like many “Basic” employees, kept an ongoing scrapbook commemorating company picnics and parties and logging numerous news clippings about company leaders, events and issues. For the outsider, passing by Vacaville meant a few miles of the strong odor of onion permeating the air. But for the residents of the town and surrounding area, it was truly the “sweet smell of success.” The company, which eventually became Basic American Foods Inc., closed its Vacaville dehydrator in 1986 and its local office in the spring of 1994. Its contribution to the town’s history lives on, however, in the name of the annual September celebration: The Onion Festival.
The property was unused for nearly a decade until the Redevelopment Agency of Vacaville wanted to create a sports and recreation center and buildings for commercial and industrial use at the site.
A one-story 90,000 square foot building now covers most of the previously contaminated area. Opened in 1998, Vacaville Skating Center serves more than fifteen thousand people each month.

Basic Vegetable Products Company’s Vacaville plant was served by a direct rail connection of the Sacramento Northern’s “Vacaville Branch”. The length of this branch from the SP interchange at CANNON to Vacaville was 7.87 miles . The line split off from ‘Vacaville Junction’ (located some 2.34 miles from CANNON) and headed in a Northwesterly direction to Vacaville, skirting the perimeter of the “California Medical Facility” for the criminally insane.

In entering the center area of the Onion Plant proper, the track had to pass thru a “tunnel” that ran underneath old U.S. Highway 40 (now Interstate-80) . The track exited the West side of the Onion Plant property and terminated in beautiful downtown Vacaville.

On October 10, 1965 a passenger excursion was operated by the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association on most of the remaining SN trackage in Solano County. The equipment consisted of Key System Bridge Units # 182 and 186 pulled by a Sacramento Northern switch engine. It was an amazing trip and completely sold out. Some 250 railfans took advantage of this opportunity of a lifetime. The main highlight of this excursion was operation thru the Onion Plant property and on into Vacaville proper. As a sidenote, operation at some 45+ mph on the Willotta Branch parallel to the I-80 freeway with “destination signs” indicating Line ‘F’ and Shattuck Avenue, definitely garnered a few looks. It was the trip of a lifetime and a lot of crazy fun too !
Unfortunately, photographs of this excursion seem to be far and few. I’ve seen only one, years ago, from the collection of Bart Nadeau. Surely there must be others lurking somewhere !

In June, 1981 the track was “Out-of-Service beyond Vacaville Junction. The Willotta Branch was abandoned in 1971. The absolute last train was operated to Vacaville in 1980 and the track between Vacaville Junction and Vacaville was abandoned in 1985. The final freight train operated between CANNON and Vacaville Junction in December, 1983 and abandonment occurred in 1985.

Hope you enjoyed this look back at the history of the famous Vacaville “Onion Plant” and its connection with the Sacramento Northern Railroad.

QUESTION: Does anyone on here know for sure if the old SN “tunnel” is still intact under the I-80 freeway ???

(Many thanks to the Vacaville Museum folks for a lot of this information !)

Cheers…

KRK...



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/31/11 10:21 by KeyRouteKen.



Date: 07/31/11 11:17
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: 1200v

Yes, it's part of a bike path now.



Date: 07/31/11 11:21
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: BNSF6400

KeyRouteKen Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> QUESTION: Does anyone on here know for sure if
> the old SN “tunnel” is still intact under the
> I-80 freeway ???

I appears, at least in later years, that the Sacramento Northern went under I-80 at a bridge. The bridge was a typical four-span concrete job, with two main spans and two shorter "approach spans". It appears that the SN went under the east main span and the parallel two-lane Davis Street went under the west main span. That bridge remains today, but Davis Street has been widened to four lanes and occupies both spots under the bridge. Note the most of the old SN right-of-way south to the California Medical Facility is now a bike/walking trail. The rest of the right-of-way to Vacaville Jct hasn't been built over yet and is clearing visible.

Southern Pacific crossed under I-80 in a similar way parallel to Elmira Road. Today this Southern Pacific right-of-way which was parallel to Elmira Road has been completely taken over by a widened Elmira Road.



Date: 07/31/11 12:26
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: shipsbell

Even today when I drive through that area I expect the onion smell.
I really miss it. Patrick



Date: 07/31/11 12:39
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: RD10747

Burp!!..Ahhhh!...



Date: 07/31/11 13:13
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: sagehen

When I was at UC Davis graduate school in 1971-73, I'd always look down when passing westbound because one I saw one of the SN GP7s switching the onion plant.

Even now, I glance down when passing.

Stan Praisewater



Date: 07/31/11 18:32
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: TonyJ

Each time Marjorie and I drove over the old SN we'd look at tracks and enjoy the smell of onions. It made you hungry just smelling it.

Tony J.



Date: 07/31/11 18:43
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: doge_of_pocopson

Why did the plant shut down? Thanks -- B



Date: 07/31/11 20:55
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: atsf121

I remember the tracks there and at Elmira Rd, but I never saw a train on either line as a kid. I remember the boxcars parked n
Ext to the big buildings along I-80, which is now an ice rink. I was older before learning about the Sacramento Northern, everything I saw there was SP. I remember. The old packing sheds at Willotta burning down when I was in high school. Thanks for the fun trip down memory lane Ken, if only I had been born a few years earlier - or had a time machine! :)

Nathan



Date: 07/31/11 21:25
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: KeyRouteKen

Hey Nathan--
During that October 10, 1965 excursionm, the two Key System Bridge Units not only visited the Onion Plant, but also galloped along I-80 and then swung West down thru the orchards to the end of track at WILLOTTA near the Rockdale Road... By the way, WILLOTTA was named for "Will" and "Lotta", two of the children of the Pierce Family which owned the land.

We stopped to EAT in Fairfield at the crossing of North Texas Street. There was an A&W Root Beer stand next to the track and suddenly, 250 fans got off the "F"-Line and lined up for burgers and drinks. That got the manager/owner a tad excited too !
I was on that trip myself, too. Infact, a U.S. Naval Commander excused me from my monthly Reserve meeting on T.I. so as I could go. Thank you, SIR !!!

Like I said previously, it is just too bad that photos of the entire trip don't seem to be in evidence.

KRK



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/31/11 21:27 by KeyRouteKen.



Date: 08/01/11 09:24
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: chrisbutts

There was a short blurb in Pacific Rail News long ago, that stated the last run to Vacaville was sometime in 1984/1985 to deliver two box cars of fumigant for a Orchard Supply Hardware warehouse... if that rings a bell for anyone?



Date: 09/27/11 22:34
Re: Vacaville's "Onion Plant" and the Sacramento Northe
Author: atsf121

KeyRouteKen Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Hey Nathan--
> During that October 10, 1965 excursionm, the two
> Key System Bridge Units not only visited the Onion
> Plant, but also galloped along I-80 and then swung
> West down thru the orchards to the end of track at
> WILLOTTA near the Rockdale Road... By the way,
> WILLOTTA was named for "Will" and "Lotta", two of
> the children of the Pierce Family which owned the
> land.
>
> We stopped to EAT in Fairfield at the crossing of
> North Texas Street. There was an A&W Root Beer
> stand next to the track and suddenly, 250 fans got
> off the "F"-Line and lined up for burgers and
> drinks. That got the manager/owner a tad excited
> too !
> I was on that trip myself, too. Infact, a U.S.
> Naval Commander excused me from my monthly Reserve
> meeting on T.I. so as I could go. Thank you, SIR
> !!!
>
> Like I said previously, it is just too bad that
> photos of the entire trip don't seem to be in
> evidence.
>
> KRK

I remember the old A&W stand there on North Texas and going to the movie theater across the street. Too bad there aren't any photos of the trip, thanks for the info.

Nathan



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