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Keeping Tidewater Southern rail history alive
Tidewater Southern Railway Historical Society business agent Ben Cantu talks about the railroad during a program at the Manteca museum Thursday night. - photo by HIME ROMERO
It almost seemed like destiny that retired City Planner Ben Cantu was one of the municipal staffers that worked on the project that preserved the old Tidewater Railroad and converted it into a bike path.

For as long as he can remember, Cantu has always held an interest in the history and the grand scale of the massive Tidewater locomotives that crossed Manteca in his younger days.

As business agent for the Tidewater Southern Railway Historical Society, Cantu was the focus of attention Thursday as he presented a program on the railroad before a gathering at the Manteca Historical Society museum.

“Getting up here and sharing what I love is great – it is more than enjoyable and allows me to express my love and my ideas,” Cantu said.

“When you look around at the people (in) this room you see the real history of Manteca, and it’s fascinating to be able to be presenting something to them.”

For more than two decades the non-profit model railroad organization has been turning a section of Building 1 at the San Joaquin County Fair into a remarkably accurate model of the route that the now-defunct Tidewater used to take. It includes foothills along the side for emphasis and historic landmarks such as the Spreckels Sugar Plant and several Modesto buildings.

Cantu reminded the crowd the construction of pieces takes more than just a few nails and some quick-bond glue. As an example, he has spent 19 years on the original Spreckels building and will likely have to spend just as much time to wrap up the undertaking.

Each and every one of the windows is hand cut. Every piece has to be assembled by hand sometime using old photographs as blueprints for buildings that stood nearly 100 years ago.

It’s the history of the tracks and their intended purpose that Cantu said really keeps him going.

Originally opened in late 1910, the Tidewater was set to connect the major port city of Stockton to Bakersfield – with an offshoot eventually working its way into the LA Basin.

Up and until just 25 years ago, the Tidewater railroad trains rolled right through the heart of town to reach the now defunct Spreckels Sugar plant.

Through a series of railroad mergers, the Tidewater ceased to exist. The concept of having a secondary route that connected the fertile Central Valley with populous Los Angeles would be never be realized.

And while all of this talk of the “high speed” rail intended to carry passengers from Sacramento to Los Angeles with access to the Bay Area, Cantu says his experience as a planner and a railroad have taught him to know better.

“I don’t think that’s something that we can expect to happen anytime soon – the logistics are just far too much to accomplish that,” he said. “In today’s cost a program like that and one of that size could end up taking decades, so I really (can’t) see that happening in my lifetime.”