Author Statement

This website is a constant work-in-progress, with articles updated regularly throughout the site. Much of the information comes from local railroad fans such as yourselves. If you have information regarding local railroads, photographs or railroad documents, or you feel a mistake has been made or information omitted from an article, leave a comment on the appropriate page or email me at This site would not be possible without your help and support. Thank you! – Derek R. Whaley

Friday, October 13, 2017

Stations: Rock Quarry Spur & Lyndon

It is a curious thing when a railroad passes near to a town but builds no stop for it. It is an omen that the town has declined in importance or that, because of its bypassing, it will decline. In the case of Lexington, the former is true. When the South Pacific Coast Railroad first built its right-of-way south of Cats Canyon, it skipped Lexington not because of malice or politics, but because the town was no longer important and a stop was not needed. The nearest station was built further to the south at Forest House and such would be the case for decades.

Lexington in the 1860s beside the original toll road that became Glenwood Highway in 1920. [Los Gatos Library]
Two miles south of Los Gatos, the nascent village was founded in 1848 by Isaac Branham and Julian Jank, who built the first sawmill in Santa Clara County near the site. A year later, Zachariah "Buffalo" Jones took over the mill, around which a small town began to develop that picked up the name "Jones Mill." It was organised on a grassy clearing on the west bank of Los Gatos Creek and surrounded by redwood trees. Louis Hebard built the first Lexington School south of the town in 1859 in an area that would later become Alma.

Lexington from across Los Gatos Creek, with the San José-Santa Cruz road in the middle, c. 1880. [Los Gatos Library]
The name Lexington was formally chosen in 1860 after Lexington, Missouri, where John P. Hennings, who bought out Jones in 1857, was born. Hennings and Santa Clara County surveyor Lucien B. Healy planned out the town and decided to dynamite all the old redwood stumps in the region, with the dream of turning the settlement into a city. Since its inception in the 1840s, the town was dominated by the lumber industry, but it was also a popular stop for tourists and an important resting place for travellers passing over the Santa Cruz Mountains. The main toll road between San José and the Summit area was built through the town in the late 1850s and, as the road was upgraded to the Glenwood Highway in 1920 and State Route 17 in 1940, it continued to pass through the town until the reservoir was filled in 1953. Eight different sawmills were built in the immediate area, and the town hosted a hotel, livery stable, blacksmith shop, church, and general store. John Weldon Lyndon owned the general store and his Lexington House drew adventurous men from across the country to hunt grizzly bear and deer. For a brief moment, Lexington had a larger population than Los Gatos and more businesses as well.

People on a stroll on a railroad bridge, probably over the unnamed creek that sat across from Lexington. The Novitiate vineyards are visible on the hills in the background, c. 1890. [Bruce MacGregor]

The town reached its peak around 1870, at which point the lumber industry moved further to the south into the upper reaches of Zayante Creek and along Bear Creek. The Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company, owned by the Dougherty Brothers, continued to dominate the lumber industry in the area for a few more years, but they moved their mill away from Lexington and closer to Forest House, taking a number of the local residents with them. The first sign of decay came when Lyndon shuttered the general store and took over operations at the Ten Mile House in Los Gatos in 1868. The post office at Lexington soon followed in 1873, when it moved to Forest House. But the big blow to the town came in 1878, when the South Pacific Coast Railroad passed the town on the east bank of Los Gatos Creek and did not even afford it a stop. There simply was no longer the population to support the village. The remaining commercial businesses closed shop or moved south over the subsequent decades. Alma became the stagecoach and train hub of the region, and Lexington began its eighty-year decay.

A Southern Pacific passenger train passing by Lexington, 1909. [William A. Wulf]
Although the railroad basically neutered the town, it continued to exist until Lexington Reservoir inundated the site in 1953, forcing the remaining residents to relocate. In 1884, the town became briefly infamous when Lloyd Majors, Joseph Jewell, and John Showers brutally murdered Archibald McIntyre there in 1884. But probably the town's most persistent legacy is the Lexington School, which was relocated in 1953 to a nearby site above the waterline of the reservoir and continues to operate as the local elementary school today. The town also got the last laugh since the new reservoir was named after it and not the far-more-populous town of Alma, which was also inundated.

But there is a little-known footnote about Lexington: it did eventually get a stop. In 1890, a narrow-gauge spur was built just across the creek from the town up Limekiln Canyon that was named "Rock Quarry Spur." The length of this spur is unknown, but it likely was built on behalf of the Los Gatos Lime Company, which operated a lime quarry midway up the canyon. The company was founded by J.E. Ellis in 1888 and the primary kilns for the company were located on the Forbes Mill spur in downtown Los Gatos. The location only lasted for five years, disappearing from agency books in 1895 and never appearing in employee timetables. Plans to reactivate the spur in 1907 were proposed by the Stauffer Chemical Company, who purchased the quarry prior to this, but it is unclear whether they actually upgraded the spur to standard-gauge and used it.

A view of the Lexington Quarry at the top of Limekiln Canyon, currently mined by Vulcan Materials Company. [Ziasus]
Perhaps ceding to local demands, the Southern Pacific did finally create a station for Lexington in late 1911. The stop was named "Lyndon," after the Los Gatos magnate and early Lexington resident John Lyndon. Conveniently, this coincided with yet another attempt to restart the lime quarry up Limekiln Canyon. The railroad built a short platform at the station for passengers and the Los Gatos Lime Quarry, founded by J.W. Taylor, installed an aggregate-loading tower beside the tracks. Records do not indicate any siding or spur at the site. This station remained in use until 1938, when the station was reduced to a flag-stop. By the time the railroad route was abandoned two years later, no residents were reported to live in the vicinity of the stop, suggesting it was completely unused.

Lexington Reservoir drained in 1991, showing the
original path of State Route 17. Lexington was near
the upper end of the abandoned road. [Richard A. Beal]
At this same time, the new State Route 17 was completed and traffic could pass through Lexington without needing to stop. Thirteen years later, the remaining 100 residents of the Lexington-Alma area were relocated and the area flooded. Only a few foundations remain of Lexington and nothing of the former right-of-way. What does survive is only visible when the reservoir is nearly empty.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.197˚N, 121.986˚W

The site of the Lyndon flag-stop is now underneath Lexington Reservoir, as is the site of the former township. However, the stop was located close to the modern Los Gatos Rowing Club dock near the confluence of Limekiln Creek and Lexington Reservoir. The town itself was located midway between the Los Gatos Rowing Club and the large water tower on the opposite side of the reservoir.

Citations & Credits:
  • Beal, Richard A. Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz. Pacific Group, 1991.
  • Conaway, Peggy. Images of America: Los Gatos. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.
  • Hoover, Mildred Brooke, and Douglas E. Kyle, Historic Spots in California. Sanford: University Press, 2002.
  • Whaley, Derek. R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Bridges: Lower Los Gatos Creek

A photograph showing the bridge across
Los Gatos Creek with the Los Gatos
Manufacturing Company at the end, c. 1900.
Photo by Alice Hare. [San Jose Public Library]
When the South Pacific Coast Railroad first built its track south from San José, the track crossed to the east bank of Los Gatos Creek just in front of the Los Gatos Manufacturing Company mill. At the time, this route was intended to be the mainline for the railroad, but that would change quickly when clay was discovered along the path of the train and the entire right-of-way would have to move to the west bank of the river. Nonetheless, the route over the creek remained in place to support the mill and the clay quarry that was located at the end of the spur.

The first bridge over Los Gatos Creek was a simply-built narrow-gauge trestle with a redwood deck that sat atop piers supported by crossbeams. Like most things built by the South Pacific Coast, the deck was wide enough to support standard-gauge trains, with the expectation that the route would be upgraded at some point in the future. However, this was the only bridge over Los Gatos Creek that was never expanded. The spur was abandoned in 1907 when the narrow-gauge tracks in Los Gatos were pulled, and the bridge sat abandoned for years before the Southern Pacific Railroad finally demolished it around 1910. Nothing remains of this bridge.

A popular postcard of the Los Gatos Manufacturing Company showing the wide bridge over Los Gatos Creek, 1905.
[San Jose Public Library]
Further down the mainline, in the heart of Cats Canyon, the South Pacific Coast was forced to build yet another crossing over the creek. Unlike the bridge to the north, this one would remain a part of the mainline until the closure of the route, although it would be entirely replaced at one point.

A postcard showing the underside of the original narrow-gauge bridge prior to 1903. []
The original structure was primarily composed of a wooden double-intersecting Warren truss bridge, which was a fairly standard design that the South Pacific Coast used elsewhere along the line. Rather than passing through the truss span, the trains would run atop it over a wooden deck. The truss was built atop two wooden piers that were erected on the banks of the creek. Minor trestlework bridged the gap between the truss and the bridge abutments. Unlike the first bridge, this one was not wide enough for standard-gauge rail and certainly could not support the weight of such rolling stock. There are only a few photographs of this early bridge, including the photo above and one on file at the California State Railroad Museum.

Los Gatos Creek bridge #1 on a winter's day with a woman standing atop, c. 1930s. [Unknown]
An early postcard of the new bridge,
c. 1910s. [Unknown]
The structure was replaced around 1903 with an entirely new bridge that has proven much more photogenic over the four decades it existed. The bridge consisted of a single prefabricated American Bridge Company steel plate-girder deck. This was installed atop two tall concrete piers that were anchored on either bank, roughly at the same locations as the older, wooden piers. New concrete abutments were installed and new trestlework connected the track from the abutments to the deck. Again, this was a standard design Southern Pacific adopted throughout the area in their upgrading of the old narrow-gauge tracks. Unlike the original bridge, this one did have a bit of a curve to it suggesting that the right-of-way was smoothed out a bit in the process of upgrading. The photograph at right shows a fairly wide right-of-way approaching the bridge from the south and very little brush or trees are nearby, hinting that they have recently been cleared for widening. Wooden railings were installed in the late 1920s or early 1930s, probably due to new safety laws.

A freight train passing over the bridge in 1938 during the final years of operation. [Wilbur C. Whittaker]
Curiously, this trestle was one of the first removed by the Southern Pacific Railroad after the disastrous storms of February 1940. Bruce MacGregor and Richard Truesdale's South Pacific Coast: A Centennial claims the photograph below was taken June 21, 1940, but that seems impossible since permission to abandon the line was not even granted until November. What is more likely is that this photograph is from June 1941, when much of the demolition work was conducted. Southern Pacific crews removed the rail, ties, trestlework, and prefabricated bridge, but they left the rest behind.

The demolition of Los Gatos Creek bridge #1, June 21, 1940/41. [Bruce MacGregor & Richard Truesdale]
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Los Gatos Creek bridge (Manufacturing spur): 37.223˚N, 121.981˚W
Los Gatos Creek bridge #1: 37.205˚N, 121.990˚W

The bridge that once crossed over Los Gatos Creek to access the Los Gatos Manufacturing Company has long since disappeared. The construction of the State Route 17 bypass in 1956 destroyed any remnants of the trestle and the creek itself was diverted into a culvert at this location.

Northern curb of the bridge, looking south. A graffiti-covered concrete box sits atop the abutment. [Derek Whaley]
The bridge in Cats Canyon, however, is entirely accessible from the west bank. People hiking along the Los Gatos Creek Trail will reach a point within sight of the James Lenihan Dam where the trail takes a steep climb upwards. To the left of this hill there is an overgrown path populated primarily with Scotch broom. Taking this path will bring a hiker to the northern abutment of the bridge, from which the nearest pier can be easily viewed through the trees.

Across the abutment toward the southern side one can see the piers and the clearing for the right-of-way, as well as some remnants of wood pilings. [Derek Whaley]
From the top of the hill, both piers can be seen as well as the remnant right-of-way across the creek, which is extremely difficult to access safely. This right-of-way eventually ends in the parking lot on the northern face of the Lenihan Dam. Public access is not permitted.

A view from above the hill looking south with both piers visible as well as the right-of-way on the opposite bank. The area remains heavily overgrown and forested, and the opposite bank appears to be clear but unused. [Derek Whaley]
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • MacGregor, Bruce, and Richard Truesdale. South Pacific Coast: A Centennial. Pruett Publishing, 1982.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Maps: Vasona to Cats Canyon

The 4.5 miles of South Pacific Coast and Southern Pacific Railroad trackage that once ran from Vasona, near modern-day California State Route 85, to the top of Cats Canyon, now the James J. Lenihan Dam, was both a scenic and industrial stretch. Miles of prune orchards gave way to scenic Vasona Reservoir, after which the railroad passed by the industrial part of Los Gatos, where numerous businesses maintained businesses alongside the track. Then, almost immediately after leaving Los Gatos, an untamed wilderness consumed the railroad right-of-way as the tracks entered into Cats Canyon. While these extremes were not unique on this line—the tracks in Santa Cruz accomplished a similar feat—they certainly made the ride to Santa Cruz multifaceted.
Vasona Junction and registry booth, c. 1940s. [James Bunger]
Map of Southern Pacific trackage between Vasona and Limekiln Canyon, c. 1900-1920.
The end of Cats Canyon near Limekiln Canyon,
August 1, 1904. [Ken Lorenzen]

Santa Cruz commuter train passing by Vasona Reservoir, March 11, 1939. [Wilbur C. Whittaker]
Hunt Bros. Cannery siding, February 12, 1930. [NUMU]
Abandoned Los Gatos Manufacturing Company mill, c. 1910.
[San Jose Public Library]
Southern Pacific visibility photo, showing the curve at Gray's Lane near Elm Street, July 10, 1928. [NUMU]
Another visibility photo, showing the Royce Street crossing,
looking south, 1928. [John & Barbara Baggerly]
Another visibility photo, showing the Elm Street crossing, looking south, 1928. [NUMU]
The Spanish-Revival-style Los Gatos Station and freight depot, July 8, 1939. [Wilbur C. Whittaker]
Gateway Garage Shell Station, February 12, 1930. [NUMU]
Union Ice Company ice house beneath the railroad's water tower, c. 1910. [Elayne Shore Shuman]
Dual-gauge Southern Pacific tracks beneath the
San Jose-Santa Cruz Road, c. 1906. [Ken Lorenzen]

Friday, September 22, 2017

Curiosities: Monterey Bay Area Static Locomotives

Throughout its history, the Southern Pacific Railroad maintained thousands of steam locomotives. But when steam was fazed out in the mid-1950s, most of the locomotives went to scrap, the cost of maintaining them too expensive and their worth to the railroad negated by the more efficient diesel locomotives. However, Southern Pacific remembered the communities through which its trains went and donated many of their old trains to municipal parks across the country. Three of those locomotives settled around the Monterey Bay, two of which still remain at those parks.

Southern Pacific 1285 (Dennis the Menace Park, Monterey)
The first static locomotive installed at a park in the Monterey Bay area was a Lima Locomotive Works S-14 class 0-6-0 switcher locomotive build in 1924 for the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was classified by Southern Pacific as an oil-fired yard switcher, which means it remained at a freight yard to move rolling stock around to make it easier for the larger, long-distance trains to pick up stock on its way through a station. During its years as an active locomotive, SP1285 operated at the San Francisco freight yard. 

SP1285 at the San Francisco freight yard moving box cars, April 1953. [Save the Train at Dennis the Menace Park]
The locomotive and its tender were donated to the City of Monterey in January 1956. The engine was installed by Company C of the 84th Army Engineers from Fort Ord since the locomotive weighted 155,000 lbs and its tender 50,000 lbs. The task was not easy and the engineers used a 300-horsepower tank retriever to move the train after carefully surveying the streets between the track and the installation site. After installation, the new play structure was dedicated February 15, 1956, with Hank Ketcham, creator of Dennis the Menace, in attendance beside the city's mayor and representatives of Southern Pacific. Ketcham, a resident of Carmel who died in 2001, had helped plan the park and donated money to get it built as a children's playground in honor of his comic's theme. The park officially opened on November 17, 1956, and SP1285 served as the centerpiece of this new facility.

Children climbing on SP1285 at Dennis the Menace Park, c. 2010. [Save the Train at Dennis the Menace Park]
For fifty years, children were able to climb on, over, and under the locomotive with virtually no restrictions in place, but new mandatory safety standards for playground safety force the city to fence the locomotive and tender and deny the public access in 2012. It was the last playground locomotive in the state to close access. Since then, the city council of Monterey has created a subcommittee to find a way to reopen the train to public access, although a solution has yet to be reached. The locomotive and tender are maintained by the City of Monterey. A community action group is currently rallying to restore the engine to playground use, which can be found at

Southern Pacific 1298 (Harvey West Park, Santa Cruz)
Much like the locomotive at Dennis the Menace Park, the Harvey West Park engine was built relatively late in its run as a oil-fueled yard switcher. The locomotive was constructed in September 1917 as one of the last S-10 class 0-6-0 Baldwin Locomotive Work engines.

SP1298 before it was repainted and fenced off from the public. Note the kids climbing on the back. [Childhood Memories]
When this locomotive rolled off the production line, it went to the Arizona Eastern Railroad Company as engine #39, but that company was merged into Southern Pacific in 1924, at which point it was renumbered (SP had purchased the Arizona Eastern in 1905, but did not dissolve the company until 1924). Where specifically this switcher operated is unknown, but it was probably in the San Diego area where a number of former Arizona Eastern locomotives went.

SP1298 sitting within its fenced area at Harvey West Park in Santa Cruz. []
SP1298 went out of service in September 1956 but did not arrive in Santa Cruz until 1961. In the meantime, Harvey West Park was founded on May 30, 1959, named after Harvey E. West, Sr., a local lumber magnate and philanthropist who donated 27 acres of his land to create the park. The locomotive quickly became a popular fixture at the park. Originally, it included a C-9 tender and children were allowed to climb over and under both. The tender was sold to the Eccles & Eastern Railroad in 1989 to act as a backup to their tender, discussed below. Around this time, the locomotive was repainted with a colorful and somewhat anachronistic paint scheme (although local railroad years often painted their switchers) to make the engine appear more fun. The locomotive now has a gate around it to stop children from climbing on it, undoubtedly due to safety concerns. It is maintained by the City of Santa Cruz.

Southern Pacific 2706 (Ramsey Park, Watsonville)
The oldest locomotive in the region was Southern Pacific #2706, a Consolidation-type 2-8-0 Baldwin Locomotive Works engine built in 1904. Unlike the smaller engines above, this locomotive was designed for long-haul trips, not simply yard work. Throughout its years in service, it likely was paired with multiple tenders, but a 70-C-10 was what accompanied it to Watsonville. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the locomotive operated throughout the Southwest, from Utah to Texas to Arizona and elsewhere, but by the 1940s and 1950s, it primarily operated in Central California, between San Francisco and the upper Central Valley. The locomotive was decommissioned on November 29, 1956 and sat abandoned for five years while Southern Pacific decided what to do with it.

SP2706 at the Bayshore roundhouse in San Francisco, October 11, 1953. Photo by D.S. Richter. [Colusa Steam]
In August 1963, the engine and tender were donated to the City of Watsonville for use as a play structure at the new Ramsey Park. It operated in that capacity for 28 years and many children in the area grew up climbing on the oddly-shaped tender and large locomotive.

SP2706 as a play structure at Ramsey Park in Watsonville, c. 1970s. [Colusa Steam]
Unlike the two locomotives above, this engine had many afterlives. It was purchased from the City of Watsonville in June 1989 by the Eccles & Eastern Railroad, founded by Karl Koenig, Rick Hamman, Burneda Koenig, and Carol Hamman. After four months of preservation work, the locomotive and its tender were loaded onto a heavy-duty truck and taken to Santa Cruz to be placed on the Swift Street siding on the West Side, which was reserved for Eccles & Eastern rolling stock. Unexpectedly, the ground shook under the relocation crews and the locomotive—the date was October 17 and the great Loma Prieta Earthquake struck Santa Cruz with a vengeance.

SP2706 on a flatbed truck awaiting transport to Santa Cruz, October 17, 1989. Photo by Tony Johnson. [Colusa Steam]
Ramsey Park was decimated by the temblor but the yard at Santa Cruz survived with only minor damage. The locomotive and tender were unloaded onto the siding and, for the next seven years, were repaired and restored to operating condition. Unfortunately, the Eccles & Eastern closed operations in 1995 and the locomotive with both its tender and SP1298's tender were taken by John Manley, one of the railroad's investors. For three years, the stock sat abandoned, enduring vandalism and neglect.

Stripped down parts of SP2706 soon after moving into the new workshop, January 2014. [Colusa Steam]
In January 2000, the locomotive and its tenders began their long journey to Colusa, California. The rolling stock stopped at Oakland, Hunter's Point, South San Francisco, and Oakdale on its way to Colusa, where it arrived in 2006. For another seven years the stock sat in the yard at Colusa, awaiting completion of a workshop that was finally built in October 2013. Work to restore SP2703 is ongoing and people interested in its progress can visit

Citations & Credits:

Friday, September 15, 2017

Sights: Cats Canyon

There were many scenic and picturesque locales along the South Pacific Coast Railroad's route to Santa Cruz, and one of the most heavily photographed was Cats Canyon. Cats Canyon is a roughly 1.5-mile gorge that runs from just south of Los Gatos—the present location of "The Cats" figurine—to the modern-day James J. Lenihan Dam, where once sat the confluence of Limekiln Creek and Trout Creek into Los Gatos Creek. It is named after the wildcats—bobcats and cougars—that once roamed the area.

Vibrantly-colorized postcard of Cats Canyon with the railroad and track walkers, c. 1900. [Los Gatos Public Library]
A path through Cats Canyon has always been available to those who seek it. The native Ohlone people maintained at least one seasonal trail through the gorge for thousands of years before a Westerner laid eyes on the canyon. During the Spanish and Mexican colonial periods, a crude trail down Los Gatos Creek, probably following the old Ohlone route, was used infrequently by bureaucrats, friars, soldiers, and other travelers. Over the years, portions of this route fell into American hands. One of the earliest such roads was Zachary "Buffalo" Jones's so-called Farnham's Toll Road, which ran through the lumberman's property through the upper Los Gatos Creek basin. This was in all likelihood the old Ohlone trail with minor improvements. In 1857, Santa Cruz Gap Turnpike Company purchased the line and widened it so it could properly hook up with Charles "Mountain Charlie" McKiernan's toll road that led from the Summit to Santa Cruz via Scotts Valley. The organisation charged passersby tolls for twenty years until their contract expired in 1877. Over the years, the road was progressively widened to support increased traffic to Lexington and the various lumber enterprises situated in the upper Los Gatos Creek basin. In 1871, the San José Water Company began constructing a wooden box flume above the terraces of Cats Canyon to bring water to San José from Jones's dam south of Forest House (Alma). The original flume was three miles long and remained in place until the 1930s, when it was replaced with an aqueduct.

Three people fishing under a footbridge near Trout Gulch, the southern end of Cats Canyon. [Museums of Los Gatos]
A narrow-gauge train passing through Cats Canyon, with the old stage road visible at top-left. [Los Gatos Public Library]
When the South Pacific Coast Railroad first began building south of Los Gatos, it attempted to follow an eastern approach into Cats Canyon, but deposits of blue clay destabilised the grade forcing the railroad to move to the west side of Los Gatos Creek. Throughout 1877, railroad crews graded through the canyon, building two tunnels (one of which collapsed shortly afterwards) in the process. Immediately, Cats Canyon became one of the scenic beauties of the rail line and photographs began appearing in South Pacific Coast marketing.

The straight, even tracks running left toward Lexington, while the road to Santa Cruz above meanders around the curves.
Even after through traffic to Santa Cruz opened up in May 1880, Cats Canyon remained a heavily photographed venue. Indeed, all tourist trains that ran along the South Pacific Coast and, later, Southern Pacific line to Santa Cruz went through the gorge and many stopped within the Los Gatos Creek basin for picnics and frivolities. Although the canyon itself never had any picnic stops or even any sidings, due to its narrow width, the simple passage through the gorge was a sight to behold.

Dual-gauge railroad tracks passing through Cats Canyon, 1906. Note the massive landslide to the right, caused by the San Francisco Earthquake. [J.B. Macelwane Collection, Saint Louis University]
Southern Pacific narrow-gauged locomotives began their ascent into Cats Canyon just south of Los Gatos, below the Santa Cruz Highway. In the early days, vineyards littered the hills above the canyon. [Los Gatos Public Library]
When the Glenwood Highway was completed in 1921, automotive travellers would often stop at two turnouts above the railroad grade and snap photographs of the gorge, complete with the Southern Pacific tracks in the foreground. Some eagle-eyed photographers even managed to include the first Los Gatos Creek trestle in their photographs.

A beautiful perspective shot of Cats Canyon around 1921. Glenwood Highway is at right while the tracks are at left with the flume running overhead. The site of the Lenihan Dam would be near the top-left of this photograph. [Farwell Family]
Looking north down Cats Canyon toward Los Gatos, August 1924. Note the flume on the right, the railroad in the middle, and Glenwood Highway at left. [Clarence Hamsher]
Interest in the canyon only declined in the 1930s when passenger service across all Southern Pacific lines was declining. As one of the many projects begun during the Great Depression, the upgrading of the Glenwood Highway to California State Route 17 in 1940 marked the end of Cats Canyon's days as a photo stop. Newer cars could travel at faster speeds and fewer stopped at the two pullouts along the top of the gorge.

Cats Canyon as viewed from near the base of the Lenihan Dam, looking north. [Ralph Leidy]
The completion of Lexington Reservoir in 1952 ended any lingering romantic thoughts of the canyon. Today, many hikers and bicyclists run along the former railroad grade beneath Highway 17, unaware of the railroad history they are interacting with. However, if the Los Gatos Creek Trail county park has done anything, it has reminded people of the captivating qualities that Cats Canyon has to offer.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Northern End: approx. 37.215˚N, 121.988˚W
Southern End: approx. 37.201˚N, 121.991˚W

There are still two pullouts accessible to those travelling north on State Route 17. However, for those truly desiring to enjoy Cats Canyon, people should walk the Los Gatos Creek trail through the area. Explorers can either begin from the trailhead on Alma Bridge Road, accessible on the east side of Lexington Reservoir, or from the Forbes Flour Mill Museum, accessible from behind The Pastaria & Market on East Main Street in Los Gatos. For those wishing to walk the right-of-way, remain on the west side of Los Gatos Creek for the duration (the other side of the creek is the old box flume trail). Everything except the final half-mile is the old Southern Pacific Railroad grade. Look for old telephone poles visible along the route, as well as a few culverts and semaphore foundations in the bushes. If you are really up for an adventure, you can also find the old piers to the trestle by going straight rather than up when the trail begins climbing to highway level.

Citations & Credits:

  • Beal, Richard A. Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz. Second edition. Aptos, CA: The Pacific Group, 1991.
  • Conaway, Peggy. "Los Gatos History Photo: The Old Wooden Flume." San Jose Mercury News, 25 October 2010.
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA: 2015.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Tunnels: Cats Canyon

As the South Pacific Coast Railroad began its journey up Los Gatos Creek toward Santa Cruz in early February 1878, it encountered two areas in Cats Canyon that could not be overcome except through tunnels. The first obstacle was just south of Los Gatos: a sharp granite outcropping that jutted so far into the canyon that a tunnel seemed the only possible solution. Crews hired by railroad contractor Ed Mix and managed by a civil engineering contractor named Osborne immediately began boring into the rock to create what they expected to be a 185-foot tunnel, but they found quickly that the rock walls were weaker than anticipated. The tunnel was soon completed but it was never very stable, leading to the collapse of the original SPC Tunnel #1 in June, taking a large portion of the adjacent toll road (the future CA State Route 17) with it. Management was forced to reevaluate their options. Crews dynamited the tunnel, creating a deep cut, and the name "Tunnel #1" moved further south.

Stereograph of SPC #13 heading around the bend toward Tunnel #1 in Cats Canyon, 1882. [Bancroft Library]
The new Tunnel #1 had a bit longer of a life. Approximately 0.3 miles south of Los Gatos Station, Los Gatos Creek was bridged and a menacing rock outcropping was encountered. There was no road above these rocks, but there was the San Jose Water Company's box flume, which provided much-needed water to the growing city of San Jose. More annoyingly for Osborne, another tunnel was required here and no amount of dynamite would clear the right-of-way without damaging the flume. South Pacific Coast management determined that another tunnel should be built in the steepest portion of Cats Canyon here and Chinese workers were lowered from above on swing chairs to place explosives so that the right-of-way to the tunnel face could be accessed.

Exposed interior of the Cats Canyon tunnel during standard-gauging, late 1902. Note the intricate timberwork inside the tunnel. The dual-gauge shoe-fly track is at left. [Ken Lorenzen]
By late February 1878, crews were inside, slowly boring through broken granite until the other side was breached 191 feet and about a month later. It was a short, less painful operation than the earlier tunnel had been and met with comparatively more success. To support this tunnel, the railroad installed heavy redwood beams throughout to provide adequate reinforcement from falling rocks and an unstable hillside. The fact that the tunnel survived as long as it did is a testament to South Pacific Coast engineering.

South Pacific Coast Tunnel #1 during its final years. Photo by Perkins. [Ken Lorenzen]
The tunnel's inevitable end did not come through natural disaster or a freak accident, but rather through the widening of the railroad to support standard-gauge tracks in 1902. The former South Pacific Coast mainline track to Los Gatos had been broad-gauged in 1895, but the route over the mountain involved so many obstacles that Southern Pacific demurred for years before finally deciding to finish the job.

A close-up view of the shoe-fly track around SPC Tunnel #1 during its upgrading, late 1902. Note the dual-gauge tracks that could support trains of either gauge all the way to Wright. A construction train is visible at right. [Ken Lorenzen]
A shoe-fly track was installed precariously around the tunnel as it was upgraded, but the railroad encountered problems almost immediately. Cave-ins became a constant occurrence, and with the cave-ins went the flume atop the tunnel. Power, which was generated by an electric plant upstream, was also interrupted multiple times. The people of San José and Los Gatos complained and began sending bills to Southern Pacific to pay for auxiliary power and importing water from other sources.

A double-headed excursion train heading through the gap that was once Tunnel #1 two years earlier. Note the San Jose Water Company box flume hanging precariously overhead and the pile of debris to the left, c. 1910. [William Wulf]
The railroad finally gave up and allowed the tunnel to collapse in on itself in spring 1903. Crews quickly completed the daylighting of Tunnel #1 before the start of the summer season, when regular excursion trains from San Francisco would pass through Cats Canyon on the way to the Santa Cruz Beach. After the great earthquake in 1906, the remainder of the route was broad-gauged and the Summit Tunnel further to the south became the new Tunnel #1. Cats Canyon no longer had or needed a tunnel.

The right-of-way through Cats Canyon showing the site of the former tunnel, c. 1910. Photo by Perkins. [Ken Lorenzen]
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.203˚N, 121.990˚W

Nothing remains of the former tunnels. The cut where the original tunnel was located outside Los Gatos was completely flattened when the Glenwood Highway was built in the 1910s. Any lingering remnants were removed when Highway 17 was built atop the older road. The cut for the second tunnel survived until the James J. Lenihan Dam was built in 1952, at which point it was buried beneath the earthen dam. The location was just to the east of the current Lexington Reservoir repair facility beside the spillway. Portions of the right-of-way to the north can still be viewed along the Los Gatos Creek trail, but the cut where the tunnel once sat is now buried.

Citations & Credits:

  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second Edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • MacGregor, Bruce A. The Birth of California Narrow Gauge: A Regional Study of the Technology of Thomas and Martin Carter. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Felton, CA: 2015.