Image for post
Image for post
Title page of the original publication of the article in Eden, Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society, Volume 21, Number 1 (Winter 2018). The image is of the Santa Fe Railway depot and garden Reedley, California c. 1897. Courtesy Kansas Historical Society.

The California Railway Gardener

“The day will come when one of the special features of travel in California will be the horticultural display at thousands of small railroad gardens scattered along every valley and mountain from San Diego to Siskiyou,” [1] predicted Charles H. Shinn, inspector of the University of California’s Agricultural Experiment Stations and author of the Pacific Rural Handbook, the first manual of advice for California gardeners.

Shinn based his optimism on the work of Johannes Reimers, a landscape gardener for the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railway (SF&SJV) unit of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. In a talk given in May 1901 at the Pacific States Floral Congress in San Francisco, Reimers said:

“What better way is there of advertising our state than by laying out gardens along our far reaching, iron-clad highway — gardens of semi-tropical beauty, such as the greater number of men dare only dream of? It is probably with this in mind that the Santa Fe Railway Company has planted a garden at every station depot and every section house along its lines in this state.” [2]

Although little evidence remains today of these horticultural oases that brightened Central California depots a century ago, ornamental gardens were a popular feature supported by railroad companies worldwide. Frances Copley Seavey , horticultural columnist for the Chicago Record Herald, contributed a six-page entry, “Railway Gardening,” for Liberty Hyde Bailey’s four-volume Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, published in 1902. Seavey wrote “Many a tired traveler is cheered by the bright colors of a neatly-kept railroad station. They are always preferable to dirt, ugliness and a general air of indifference.”

In addition to their aesthetic value, gardens also delivered economic benefits to the railroad companies. Trees planted along rights of way were harvested for ties, poles and posts. Banks and cuttings covered in managed vegetation prevented erosion and slides. The Northern Pacific Railway Company planted belts of trees to act as snow fences across miles of windswept prairie between Minneapolis and Seattle.

These mitigations derived from European railway practices. For example, planting of annual and perennial flower beds and shrubs was widespread throughout the government-owned rail system of Sweden from the early 1860s. In Denmark the national railroad operated nurseries for propagating trees and shrubs for decorative and protective purposes. Beginning in the 1870s, privately-owned English operators encouraged the cultivation of ornamental flower beds on station platforms by offering cash prizes for the most attractive displays. Seavey reported on the planting of fruit trees in Holland and shade trees in warm climate countries, including Algeria, Siam, and Uruguay.

J. T. Johnston, president of the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CRRNJ), ordered the planting of an ornamental garden along the line between Elizabeth and Bound Brook in 1869. This is one of the earliest official endorsements of the benefits of improving the appearance of railroad premises through horticulture in North America. Stimulated by popular acclaim for flower beds planted by the baggage master at the Newtonville, Massachusetts station in 1881, the management of the Boston & Albany Company established a set of guidelines for the development of similar gardens throughout the system. By the early 1900s, the Canadian Pacific Railway had also integrated garden design and maintenance into company policy.

The Southern Pacific Railroad began to follow the practice in California in 1885 and according to Seavey:

“expended large sums in beautifying choice spots along its route, as at Merced, Fresno, Santa Monica, Pomona, Pasadena and Riverside. The range of climate and soil is wide. At Los Angeles there are palms dating from the Spanish occupation, a collection of semi-tropical shrubs, and display of yuccas, cacti, and other curious vegetation from the Arizona desert. Roses in bloom all winter are the special attraction at several points. Along the ocean, where difficult horticultural problems are met, the use of mesembryanthemums, eucalypti, and other succulents is general.”

With the country mansions of several railroad barons located on the San Francisco Peninsula, it is not surprising that gardens at stations serving their estates enjoyed “a more finished aspect than any others in the state.” Castroville station, on the route to Charles Crocker’s Hotel del Monte resort near Monterey, was described as a picturesque wilderness “overflowing at all seasons with fragrance and bloom.”

Image for post
Image for post
Two views of the garden at La Grande Station, Los Angles. Above: In 1894 shortly after planting. Below: With plantings established.
Image for post
Image for post

With financing from sugar mogul Claus Spreckels, the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railway was incorporated in 1895 to build a railroad from Stockton to Bakersfield. The Santa Fe Railway acquired the business in 1899 to complete its transcontinental route to San Francisco. The company hired Norwegian immigrant Johannes Reimers to build gardens at the depots of this new venture in competition with the Southern Pacific.

Johannes Reimers was born into a wealthy Norwegian ship-owning family in 1856. After attending a German College of Forestry, he landscaped parkland surrounding the family home in Bergen. With his father’s business in decline, Reimers left Norway to seek his fortune overseas and, after a couple of years in Hawaii, moved to California. His fiancée Marie traveled from Norway and they married in Oakland in 1883. Pioneering as fruit growers in the Miacmas (Reimers’s spelling of Mayacamas) Mountains of Lake County, Johannes also pursued a writing career with his “wife working and struggling in every way to enable her husband to continue literary work.” [3] To improve their financial situation the family moved to Stockton in the 1890s, and Johannes joined the Santa Fe Railway as a landscape gardener.

A profile in the Overland Monthly of 1898 accompanying the publication of a story by Reimers, “Courting at Grizzly Spring,” notes that “the work in which I am now engaged is absolutely killing my soul life. I cry from the depth of my heart for deliverance.” Looking back on his days as an orchardist he said, “I was poor but free. Now I have no sorrows for my bread but for my art, now I am free no longer.” [4]

Image for post
Image for post
Johannes Reimers c. 1900. Photo: “The Book Buyer, 1900” page 435

Reimers wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, Unto the Heights of Simplicity, “while travelling from station to station and on Sundays.” [4] Published in 1890, the book received positive reviews but the meager royalties could not relieve him of his landscaping duties. In 1902 he met popular author Jack London who commiserated with the challenge of writing as a career by pointing to a stack of his own manuscripts. “Those are just your kind of stories, and nobody wants to buy them.” [5]

Despite frustration over the demands of his work, Reimers is remembered as a successful landscape architect both during his tenure with the Santa Fe and for later commissions. “Through his advocacy, parks were constructed at each station from Ashcroft in Arizona to Richmond, California.” [6] He also designed large public parks in Fresno and Visalia and supervised plantings for Jack London’s property in Sonoma County.

Image for post
Image for post
Reedley Depot soon after planting. Courtesy: Kansas Historical Society.

In Reimers’ 1901 talk to the Floral Congress at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, he described the positive influence of attractive landscaping on passengers, employees and neighbors of the railroad. He recommended design criteria, desirable plants, shrubs and trees, maintenance procedures, and ideas for future development.

Image for post
Image for post
Merced had the largest garden in Santa Fe’s San Joaquin system. Courtesy: Kansas Historical Society

A typical garden on the San Joaquin Division route varied in size from 40 x 80 feet to 40 x 160 feet, with the Merced plot being somewhat larger. His preference for the “so-called natural” landscape style was tempered by the small lot sizes and the desire to create the appearance of an oasis in the heat of a cloudless summer day. To break the monotony of the vast level of the valley he brought volcanic rocks from the mountains and created rockeries of creepers, aloes and cacti with sedums and varieties of ice plant.

Image for post
Image for post
Santa Fe Depot, Tulare c. 1900

“I have shunned as far as possible, the English idea of a stiff, closely-cropped lawn, upon which a lonely palm or two has been stuck out, or a shrub or two to shiver in awkward bashfulness at their own conspicuousness. Instead, I have tried to bring color, lots of color, into these little gardens, such as our cloudless summer will develop, at the same time being forced to use such plants as would thrive under the main care of unskilled hands. … In my selection of trees and plants I have tried, as far as means permitted to imitate the gardens of bella Italia, so that as they grow older, they may own their southland charms of form, color, and fragrance, in preference to the cold passionless stiffness of the modern imitation the English garden.” [2]

Image for post
Image for post
Esacalon depot and garden (1915). The Lee Gustafson Collection. Courtesy OMNI Publications Collection, Palmdale, California

Recommended trees included pepper, paulownia, catalpa, mulberry fig, casuarinas, carob, olive and Pride of China (Melia Azedarach) for its low spreading form providing shade around buildings. Pritchardia and Washingtonia palms are “as easily grown as onions” and are adapted to alkali soils. He emphasized trees and shrubs from the warmer climates of Australia and Africa in place of varieties common to the north. “A California railway garden … must own another charm, more passionate, more intense in form and color; it must contain the superabundance, almost voluptuousness, of the southlands.”

Image for post
Image for post
Postcard of Santa Fe Depot, Stockton (1911). Photo: Newman Post Card Co.

In 1903, based on his experience with plants that thrive in hot dry climates, the City of Fresno commissioned Reimers to landscape a new public park on 119 acres of land donated by Frederick and Marianne Roeding. Here, Reimers had room to work in his favored “naturalistic style” that was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He graded to create varied elevations as well as a series of small ponds and a lake. Curvilinear roads connected group picnic areas named for the shade trees: Cedar Grove, Eucalyptus Grove, and Pine Grove. Many of the trees and shrubs were donated by the Roeding’s son, George C. Roeding Sr., from his nearby Fancher Creek Nursery. [7] Now studded with large specimen trees, Roeding Park remains an important community space for family gatherings and civic celebrations.

Image for post
Image for post
Teenagers in Roeding Park, Fresno (1910). Courtesy California History and Genealogy Room, Fresno County Public Library

Reimers designed a second space, Hobart Park, for Fresno in 1906, and in 1910 was commissioned to create a 100-acre park in Visalia, 45 miles to the south. Similar to his work in Fresno, Mooney Grove Park followed a naturalistic style with a boating lake and picnic spots shaded by ancient oak trees that the land donor decreed must never be cut unless they were diseased or dying. Although suffering from long-deferred maintenance today, Reimers’ legacy survives as one of Tulare County’s most popular public spaces.

Image for post
Image for post
Boating lagoon, Mooney Grove Park, Visalia (c. 1920). Courtesy Tulare County Library, Visalia, CA

Reimers’s friendship with Jack London extended to landscaping advice. He recommended plants for the grounds of Wake Robin Lodge, London’s home at Glen Ellen, following the 1906 earthquake. London’s wife, Charmian, wrote:

“Jack, with eye to homebuilding, ordered fruit-trees of all descriptions suitable to the latitude, and seventy-odd varieties of table-grapes. … Johannes Reimers tendered the benefit of his professional advice about the trees and vines, and ordered for us a hedge of Japanese hawthorne to flourish between orchard and house-space, which in time grew into a glory of orange and red berries alternating with a season of white blossoming.” [8]

John Rock, a nurseryman from San Jose, opened the California Nursery Company in Niles in 1884. Reimers was familiar with Rock as early as 1900 when he expressed interest in purchasing several varieties of eucalyptus in lots of one thousand. His relationship with the company continued after George C. Roeding Sr., who had worked with him in Fresno, purchased the nursery in 1917 and expanded it from a mostly wholesale to a retail operation that ultimately became the largest firm of its kind in the West. George C. Roeding Jr., took control of the business after his father’s death in 1928. In the 1930s, he hired Frederick Reimers, architect son of Johannes, to restore the historic Vallejo Adobe on the site for use as a Guest Lodge for events and meetings. Johannes designed the garden around the adobe. [9] Now owned by the City of Fremont, the nursery site is preserved as the California Nursery Historical Park.

Image for post
Image for post
Johannes Reimers designed the landscaping for the 1930s renovation of the historic Vallejo Adobe by architect Frederick H. Reimers (his son) as a guest lodge on the California Nursery Company site in Fremont. The painting by Maurice Logan is featured on the cover of a catalog published at the time of the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition. Frederick designed a replica of the adobe for the company exhibit on Treasure Island. Image courtesy of the Roeding Family Archives.

Living in San Leandro after retirement on “a poor railway pension,” Reimers continued to bid on Santa Fe and other landscaping projects. He explained in a letter to Roeding in 1937, his eightieth year, “After having held a steady position with its work and responsibilities, I now go about as if with a bad conscience for not being at work … I had always hoped that I could be at work to the very last.” That year he purchased plants from Roeding for the Santa Ana depot in southern California and also embarked on a major commission to landscape the grounds of a new factory for the Friden Calculating Machine Company in San Leandro, as well as the country home of its owner Carl Friden in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The archive of the California Nursery Company holds a wealth of correspondence and business documents from this period.

Image for post
Image for post
Friden Headquarters Building, San Leandro. (Friden Streamliner November 1944)

In his later years, Reimers studied at the Institute of Art in San Francisco. Several of his watercolors are in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Reimers was also an active participant in the Ruskin Club of the University of California. He died in San Leandro in 1953.

Image for post
Image for post

For Christmas 1929 Reimers presented an illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland to his granddaughter Betty. Inscribed in the front of the book, displayed at the Trotter Galleries in Pacific Grove, is the message, “There must be a wonderland somewhere. I have been looking for it up through many years before I found it. Wonderland is right here, all around us and above us, and I know you will see it, too. All you have to do is keep your eyes wide open.”

Reimers’s wonderland was indeed right there at all those dusty depots in Central California where “vacant spots have been transformed from barren cinders into beauty spots of lawns and flowers; hot platforms and sidewalks have had the spotted shadows of trees thrown over them; the cheerless has been transformed into jubilant symphonies of colors and cool shadows”. [10]

Special thanks to Terry Trotter of Trotter Galleries, Inc., Pacific Grove for introducing me to Johannes Reimers and to Janet Barton of Fremont for her exhaustive research into the history of the California Nursery Company.

This article was originally published in Eden, Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society, Volume 21, Number 1 (Winter 2018) pp. 12-21. This online version includes additional images not available in the printed copy.

A pdf of this issue of the printed journal can be downloaded from the ARCHIVES page of the CGLHS website.

Image for post
Image for post

[1] Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cyclopedia of American Horticulture Vol. IV (R-Z) (Macmillan, New York 1902) All subsequent text in quotes without a reference number are taken from the entry “Railroad Gardening” on pages 1489–1495 written by Frances Copley Seavey.

[2] Johannes Reimers, “Railway Gardening in California,” Proceedings Pacific States Floral Congress, Academy of Sciences, San Francisco (1901) p. 76.

[3] Overland Monthly, Volume XXXII (Second Series, July — December 1898) p. 386

[4] “A Review and Record of Current Literature”, The Book Buyer Volume XX (Feb — July 1900) p. 435

[5] Charmian London. The Book of Jack London — Volume 1 (1921) p. 369

[6] Chris Pattillo, “Roeding Park, 890 W. Belmont, Fresno, Fresno County, CA,” Historic American Landscapes Survey, HALS CA-59 (2010)

[7] “Fresno Park Threatened by Master Plan” The Cultural Landscape Foundation

[8] Charmian London. The Book of Jack London — Volume 2 (1921) p. 119

[9] John Sandoval, “Another view of the Old Adobe in Niles” The Argus, (August 4, 1974), p. 12

[10] Johannes Reimers, “Railway Gardening in California,” Proceedings: Pacific States Floral Congress, (San Francisco: Academy of Sciences,1901), p. 75.

Kurt Culbertson, Pioneers Of American Landscape Design, Volume III: Johannes Reimers, landscape gardener and artist (1856–1953) (2008)

Lee Gustafson and Phil Serpico, Coast Lines Depots: Valley Division (Omni Publications, Palmdale, California 1996)

Janet Barton “The Garden of the Vallejo Adobe — Designed by Johannes Reimers” (August 25, 2013)

“California Nursery Historical Park”

Written by

I photograph and write about Gardens, Nature, Travel, and the history of Silicon Valley from my home on the Monterey Peninsula in California.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store