The railroad was vital to a community’s growth and endurance in the last quarter of the 19th century. Nothing was more important.
So it was disappointing when the planned Southern Pacific Railroad took its route up the Valley’s middle and bypassed the budding Tulare County town of Porterville. No one felt it more than town founder Royal Porter Putnam.
A native of Pennsylvania, Putnam was born in 1837. At 21, he headed west and found work as an agent for the Tule River Butterfield Stage line. His duties, along with running an inn, included trading goods with settlers, travelers and Indians.
When the stage line was discontinued with the breakout of the Civil War, his agent work ended. He continued working as a trader, opening his own general store.
After the devastating flood of 1862 that wiped out the neighboring village of Vandalia, Putnam paid $200 for 40 acres of land where his store was located. In 1864, he offered town lots to anyone who would move there.
The growth on the east side of the Valley, including Porterville, continued when in December of 1887 Southern Pacific started construction on eastern line. The new line would pass through places where the towns were eventually established, such as Dinuba, Exeter, Lindsay, Terra Bella and Ducor. Porterville boomed, with lots on Main Street selling for the same sum as on San Francisco’s Geary Street.
The momentous day for bustling Porterville came on May 10, 1888, when the first steam locomotive pulled into town. In June, a temporary depot was set up in a converted boxcar. In July, construction began on a permanent depot.
On June 15, 1907 a fire struck the depot and burned the second story portion, sparing the freight room portion was spared due to a strong wind blowing from the south.
In November of 1913, construction began on a new mission-style passenger depot was built at Putnam and D streets, four blocks north of the original depot. The new depot was opened on June 12, 1914.
The old depot was used for freight by Southern Pacific, until 1977, when the SP’s freight agency closed . The two-story portion was moved to a different location in 1979, with plans to make it into a pizza parlor, which didn’t materialize. In 1980, the building was resold, then moved to Old River Road in Kern County, 2.2 miles south of Interstate 5, where is stands as a residence.
The passenger depot is now the Porterville Museum.
Thanks to John Sweetser of Bakersfield for information concerning Porterville’s depot.