Author Statement

If you have information on local railroads, photographs or railroad documents, or you feel a mistake has been made or information omitted from an article, email me at This site would not be possible without your help and support. Thank you! – Derek R. Whaley

Friday, October 19, 2018

Picnic Stops: Big Trees Landing

Five years before the South Pacific Coast Railroad skirted the edge of the Welch Big Trees Grove and erected a stop there to support the local nature park, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad set up an informal picnic stop across the San Lorenzo River from Big Trees. At its core, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad had one explicit purpose: to transport lumber from the flume terminus at Felton to the Railroad Wharf at the Santa Cruz Main Beach. But from the very beginning, the railroad offered informal passenger service between the two points, eventually prompting the railroad to buy two passenger cars to support the influx of seasonal tourists. Big Trees proved to be the most popular stop along the way.

Postcard of the swing bridge beside Big Trees Landing, postmarked May 28, 1907. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Big Trees Hotel, c. 1877, by Romanzo E. Wood.
[Chico State University]
On its inaugural run on October 13, 1875, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad ran its first excursion train to Big Trees, which was accessible via a pedestrian bridge installed over the river at the end of Big Trees Road beside Eben Bennett's Toll House on West San Lorenzo Drive (State Route 9). The stop itself was a relatively unremarkable location situated beside George Treat's lumber mill. As an investor in the railroad, Treat likely used the site as well to ship lumber, and it seems possible that a spur was located there, which would have allowed the two trains of the railroad company to pass one another, it necessary, at a convenient location not far from Felton.

Irregular excursion service continued to the informal drop-off for Big Trees for the next four years. In 1876, the railroad with the support of the Odd Fellows erected a platform and picnic area beneath a nearby redwood grove, which could be used for special events and private group outings. Fowler Pope's diary reveals that either this platform or another was built beside the railroad tracks in April of that year to support passenger service to the site. Pope is also the first to refer to the location as Big Trees Landing, undoubtedly an unofficial name adopted by railroad crews. By August, the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel reported that "It is quite the fashion now for small parties to come up from Santa Cruz each day on cars, bring their lunch along, stop at a station in the woods, and walk from thence to the Big Trees, about a half mile distant." The Sentinel estimated that 9,000 visitors visited Big Trees in 1876, mostly via railroad, disembarking at what it named simply Big Trees Station.

The influx of activity at this site prompted Santa Cruz County to erect a ford across the San Lorenzo River beside the pedestrian bridge in 1876, thereby reducing the route to Big Trees from Santa Cruz by three miles. From the summer of 1877, three moonlight excursion runs per month began operating between Santa Cruz and Felton, and John M. Hooper, who operated the Big Trees Resort, expanded his facilities to support the increased demand. By September, Big Trees had become an official flag stop for the railroad, listed on public timetables. In May 1878, the railroad sought to increase business by blocking access to Big Trees via coach. It erected a fence alongside its right-of-way at the bottom of Big Trees Road, forcing non-railroad visitors to take the long road around Felton to get into the park.

The Giant covered with postcards, with two women posing in front, c. 1875, by Romanzo E. Wood.
[Chico State Univeristy]
The popularity of Big Trees led the South Pacific Coast Railroad to trespass in order to reach the park grounds in 1879. Its grading crews graded the right-of-way directly along the perimeter of the Welch property, causing outrage by the Welch family, which feared destruction and damage to its highly profitable redwood trees. But the railroad pushed on through and crossed the river inflicting little permanent damage, eventually joining the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad at Felton Junction, just south of Big Trees Landing. By so doing, they made the picnic stop redundant since visitors could henceforth ride directly to the grove via the new railroad route. Big Trees Landing disappeared from timetables after November 8, 1879, although railroad tracks continued along this route for another three decades. George Treat continued to ship out lumber from his mill for a few more years, but access to the redwood grove from the west bank of the river over the ford became a thing solely for coaches and automobiles.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Approx. 37.0350N, 122.0613W

The location of Big Trees Landing and the Treat mill is now the site of Smithwoods RV Park and Cotillion Gardens (originally Sequoia Gardens). Access to both sites is restricted to guests, although people are free to walk down Old Big Trees Road beside the Toll House Resort. The wooden mounts for the original pedestrian bridge can still be viewed on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River near the trestle, but the ford that for decades ran across the river finally disappeared, probably during the heavy floods of 1955.

Citations & Credits:
  • MacGregor, Bruce A. 
  • Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, 1875-1880.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Maps: Felton Area

Postcard of downtown Felton, c. 1890. [George Pepper]
The town of Felton historically covered less than 2.5 square miles yet some of the most extensive railroading that occurred in Santa Cruz County happened here along the mainline track through the Santa Cruz Mountains and two branch lines. Often considered by local historians as the "Felton Loop," the railroad branches in Felton only actually formed a loop between 1908 and 1909, and the trains along one end were incapable of accessing the other due to differences in gauges.

Map of the railroad trackage of the Felton Area, depicting all eras of railroading. [Derek R.Whaley]
The original Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad followed the west bank of the San Lorenzo River, terminating just south of downtown Felton near where the Saint Lawrence Orthodox Church is today. At Felton, trains received cut lumber sent from above Boulder Creek along the San Lorenzo Valley Flume, which operated to Felton from 1875 to approximately 1885.

Kilnsmen atop and around a South Pacific Coast locomotive at the Holmes Limeworks outside Felton, c. 1890s.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
When the South Pacific Coast Railroad built its route through the mountains in 1880, the former trackage between Felton and Felton Junction, south of Big Trees, was renamed the Felton Branch. Two private spurs broke from this branch, one that catered to the H. T. Holmes Lime Company kilns on what would later become Hihn Street, the other south of town supporting an F. A. Hihn Company lumber mill along Gold Gulch. This branch was renamed the Old Felton Branch in 1887 when the Felton & Pescadero Railroad was rebranded as the Felton Branch (later, Boulder Creek Branch).

Passengers waiting for a train at Big Trees Station, with a car parked
on the spur at right, c. 1890s. [Ken Lorenzen]
Along the east bank of the San Lorenzo River, the South Pacific Coast Railroad built its mainline north from Felton Junction until it met with what the railroad called Felton Station, located a mile to the east of downtown Felton (the old station became "Old Felton"). This short stretch of trackage catered to Big Trees and later to the Santa Cruz Lumber Company's planing mill and lumber yard.

Double-header refueling at Felton Depot, c. 1930s. [Derek R. Whaley]
Beginning in 1884, the Felton & Pescadero Railroad (a South Pacific Coast subsidiary) was built from Felton Station to Boulder Creek to replace the increasingly inefficient flume. Eventually, a seasonal station known initially as River Station and eventually Riverside was erected in 1903 near modern-day Covered Bridge Park to cater to picnickers and people desirous of detraining within a short walk of downtown Felton. However, the branch remained on the east bank of the San Lorenzo River.

The future site of Felton Grove set up for a Red Cross group picnic with the railroad tracks in the background,
25 May 1918. [Carol Harrington]
The standard-gauging of the various routes in the San Lorenzo Valley following the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake prompted Southern Pacific Railroad to abandon the Old Felton Branch, but not entirely. The railroad upgraded the trackage south of downtown, only abandoning the route south of today's Monty's Log Cabin.

Sepia image of an unknown switch in the Felton area with wood piled up beside the tracks, 1905. [Carol Harrington]
To reach this upgraded track and bypass the mile-long branch to the south, the railroad constructed a spur that crossed the San Lorenzo beside the Felton Covered Bridge and then turned south, merging with the former Old Felton Branch trackage near today's Quik Stop. The removal of tracks to the south allowed various communities including Tanglewood, Forest Lakes, Sequoia/Cotillion Gardens, Smithwoods, and others to grow south of downtown. The Boulder Creek Branch was later removed in early 1934, but the spur to Old Felton remained in place until October 1939, when the lime operations outside of town finally shut down permanently.

Roaring Camp Station with a caboose, 1970s. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
The standard-gauge tracks on the east bank remain intact today, although some of the sidings and spurs have been removed or reduced. Roaring Camp Railroads added extensive narrow-gauge trackage to the top of Bear Mountain in the 1960s, and later purchased the remaining Southern Pacific trackage as well.

Citations & Credits:

Friday, October 5, 2018

Stations: Felton Junction

Felton Junction represented as much a change in direction as it did an actual location. In 1875, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad drilled its pioneer narrow-gauge railroad alongside the west rim of San Lorenzo Gorge, fighting the landslides, slips, and washouts the entire way. At a place where the San Lorenzo River makes a sharp turn just south of Welch's Big Trees Grove, the railroad grading crews continued on the west bank of the river, never crossing it once throughout the entire course of the right-of-way between Santa Cruz and Felton. The tracks terminated just south of modern-day downtown Felton, roughly at the site of the St. Lawrence Orthodox Church and Abbots.

The location of Felton Junction, looking toward Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, 2012.
[Derek R. Whaley]
Matters changed in 1879, though. The South Pacific Coast Railroad was busy constructing its narrow-gauge route through the Santa Cruz Mountains and the town of Felton proved to be inconveniently situated. The new route ran down Zayante Creek and then to a site the railroad simply named "Felton" (i.e., "New" Felton), bypassing downtown entirely. It then continued along the back of the Welch Grove and crossed the San Lorenzo River, where it met with the original Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad track, which it leased in order to get trains the final seven miles to the Santa Cruz Railroad Wharf.

The point where these two routes connected became Felton Junction, named after the fact that it was the junction point between two tracks, both of which went to the town of Felton (the old depot and the new). The location was not really a stop, just a geographic marker and switching point. It had no platform, no sidings or spurs, and it is unclear if it even had a station sign. The addition of Felton Junction – officially in 1880 – also marked the point at which the last two miles of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad became the Old Felton Branch. Southern Pacific Railroad upgraded this to an official branch in 1892.

The former railroad right-of-way heading away from Felton Junction toward the parking lot, 2012.
[Derek R. Whaley]
It should be emphasised that Felton Junction remained an important switching point throughout the 1880s and 1890s. The San Lorenzo Valley Flume continued to operate from Felton until 1885. In the 1890s, the F. A. Hihn Company began harvesting lumber along Gold Gulch and Boulder Brook, shipping its lumber down this line via Felton Junction, as well. And the various lime kilns in Felton, especially the H. T. Holmes kilns, which had a rail link, used this track and junction daily. Even passenger service to Old Felton occurred at times, again using this switch.

Nonetheless, Felton Junction was not to last. The standard-gauging of the valley's trackage throughout 1908 also led to the abandonment of most of the Old Felton Branch. In 1909, the narrow-gauge tracks to Old Felton were removed and the station was stricken from timetables and station books. Mention of the location by newspapers continued over subsequent decades as a reference point for landslides, which were a common occurrence just to the south of Felton Junction.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0309N, 122.0584W

Felton Junction is easily and legally accessible, and people cross the site regularly on their way to the Garden of Eden swimming hole. Visitors should take the trail down from the parking lot near Glengarry Road along California State Route 9. As the trail levels out, explorers will eventually find themselves atop the former (albeit heavily eroded) Old Felton Branch railroad bed. Where the trail crosses the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway tracks is the location of Felton Junction. Other than the eroded right-of-way and the current railroad tracks, there is no evidence of Felton Junction that survives to the present and there are no known photographs of the site during its active years.

Citations & Credits:

Friday, September 28, 2018

Bridges: Felton Area

Felton was home to several railroad bridges of various styles and qualities, running from the massive trestle-truss complex over the San Lorenzo River south of Big Trees to tiny unrecorded bridges over Toll House Gulch and other small seasonal streams. The Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad was initially responsible for overcoming most of these barriers, but both bridges over the San Lorenzo River in the Felton area came at a later date.

A South Pacific Coast train crossing the long trestle of the first Big Trees Bridge, c. 1880. [Harold van Gorder]
In early 1875, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad began grading south from Felton. It was a low-budget operation with few long-term plans and, as such, the company built relatively cheaply. All of its bridges were entirely constructed using old-growth redwood harvested from along the right-of-way and from local mills such as George Treat's near Toll House Gulch. Other than their existence, nothing is known about these early bridges except that they were all relatively short and probably followed a trestlework design. At a minimum, relatively substantial bridges were built over Shingle Mill Creek and Gold Gulch, with smaller structures required over Toll House Gulch and possibly other seasonal streams in this section. A total of eleven bridges were required along the entire route between Felton and the Santa Cruz Railroad Wharf, and not all of them have been accounted for and only three have extant photographs. Over the subsequent four years, the railroad reinforced and strengthened all of these bridges, as necessary, and it seems likely that the South Pacific Coast Railroad, which took over the line in 1879, retained the original structures when possible. There is little evidence in newspapers and other records of these bridges being replaced or upgraded during the decades of their existence. All such structures were removed around 1908, when the Old Felton Branch (as it was called by the Southern Pacific Railroad) was dismantled and a new bridge over the San Lorenzo River replaced it.

A scenic view of the first Big Trees Bridge from the river, showing the truss span, c. 1890s. [Bancroft Library]
Throughout late 1879, the South Pacific Coast Railroad erected a substantial bridge over the San Lorenzo River just to the south of Big Trees. This bridge acted to connect the new route to San Jose and Alameda Point to the old Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad line, which it joined at a new location called Felton Junction. The bridge crossed the river at an especially wide point over an old floodplain. Significant trestlework was required on the south side to bring the right-of-way to the grade of the existing railroad line. The Southern Pacific Railroad, which leased the line in 1887, filled in this trestlework and it remains an obvious fill today. Over the actual river, the South Pacific Coast installed an open-deck Warren truss bridge.

The second bridge at Big Trees after it was standard-gauged, 1908.
Note the trestlework beneath to support the truss and tracks. [Ken Lorenzen]
This truss was replaced in 1905 with a rather unique-looking thru double-intersecting Pratt truss bridge that gave much greater clearance under the bridge for the river and debris to pass under. The structure, built by Clarke, Reeves & Company and Phoenix Bridge Company, included two new wrought iron features: Whipple-Murphy truss supports and Phoenix columns, both of which were intended to provide additional support to the structure. This may have been a solution to winter storms, which habitually caused the water levels to rise and likely damaged the truss periodically. Photographic evidence reveals that this truss was expanded to support standard-gauge service around 1908, but the photograph above suggests that the bridge could not sustain the increased weight of the heavier trains, requiring extensive supports in the river to support the span. With destructive river storms a constant threat, cluttering the river with multiple bents and piles was impractical.

The DeWald family standing on the third Big Trees Bridge, c. 1910s. [Carol Harrington]
In late 1908, before winter, the Pratt truss was replaced with a heavy-duty Warren thru truss. This was designed specifically to support heavier trains and to keep the river clear so debris could move freely under the bridge. At a latter point in time, a short open-deck plate girder span was extended on the north side to allow vehicular traffic to pass under the bridge along Pipeline Road. This was in place by at least the late 1910s, as the photograph above makes clear.

Construction of the Old Felton Bridge in 1908, showing the fill and the Felton Covered Bridge. [Press-Banner]
The final railroad bridge in the Felton area is also the newest. Immediately to the south of the Felton Covered Bridge, a standard-gauge truss bridge was installed in 1908 during Southern Pacific's standard-gauging of its lines in order to abandon the majority of the Old Felton Branch, which was deemed too costly to maintain and standard-gauge for its limited use. At this time, the only regular business along this branch were the Holmes Lime Kilns, which was situated just west of downtown.

The Old Felton Bridge during the 1920s. Note the Covered Bridge in the background. [Yesteryear Depot]
This new bridge was not built along the Felton Branch but rather was a part of a newly-installed spur that broke off from the Boulder Creek Branch at what would become the entrance to Felton Grove and continued across the river and south, where it forked, with one spur going into the Holmes property and another ending outside Old Felton Depot. The bridge was composed of a compressed Pratt thru truss perched atop a concrete abutment on one side and a concrete pier on the other. A short open steel deck section connected the pier to a second concrete abutment and the railroad grade on the east side.

Postcard of the Felton Covered Bridge, with the Old Felton Bridge beside it, 1920s. []
This bridge remained in operation until 1938, surviving even the abandonment of the Boulder Creek Branch in 1934. But the closure of the Holmes kilns during the Great Depression signalled the end for this bridge. It was dismantled and removed by 1940. The concrete pier may have been removed at this time, as well.

The western abutment of the Old Felton Bridge, 2012. [Derek R. Whaley]
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
The Big Trees Bridge, 2012. [Derek R. Whaley]
Big Trees Bridge (San Lorenzo River Bridge #2): 37.0337N, 122.0582W
Toll House Gulch Bridge: Approx. 37.0327N, 122.0613W
Gold Gulch Bridge: 37.0390N, 122.0705W
Shingle Mill Creek Bridge: 37.0435N, 122.0733W
Old Felton Bridge (San Lorenzo River Bridge #3): 37.0507N, 122.0709W

Only the Big Trees Bridge still exists in its entirety today. The structure is still composed of the 1909 Warren truss bridge accompanied by the shorter plate girder span over Pipeline Road. It is crossed regularly by the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railroad's Beach Train. Trespassing is not advised as the bridge had no guard-rails and remains a part of a live railroad line.

The remnants of the Old Felton Bridge can be viewed from the Felton Covered Bridge on the south side. On the west shore, the concrete abutment is easily accessible on foot, and the fill away from the bridge to the west is also easily noticed, with a driveway to the Felton horse stables cutting through the fill. The eastern abutment is more difficult to see but is intact in the side yard of a home. The ivy-covered abutment has been enclosed with a gate and protects the residence's garbage cans. No remnant of the pier that once sat on the east bank survives—whether it was removed or washed away in a storm is unknown.

No remnants survive of the other four known bridges. They all were removed by 1909 and would have been built almost entirely of wood, so they have either been repurposed or washed away.

Citations & Credits:

Friday, September 21, 2018

Stations: Big Trees

Big Trees was without question the most heavily photographed railroad stop in Santa Cruz County. Tucked in the crook of a bend in the tracks between Felton Depot and Felton Junction, the station catered to the Welch Big Trees Grove and the Cowell/Hopkins Big Trees Resort (see Curiosities: Big Trees Resorts). The Welch family park was already in operation when the South Pacific Coast Railroad built its route alongside the eastern edge of the Big Trees Grove. Despite opposition from the family, the railroad successfully cut its route through an embankment, narrowly missing a massive redwood tree that remained on timetables as a clearance obstacle until Roaring Camp purchased the line in 1985. With the route completed in May 1880, Big Trees station opened for business.

Big Trees station as it looked in the South Pacific Coast era, c. 1885. [Bancroft Library]
The South Pacific Coast Railroad did not build a station for Big Trees—only a sign marked the stop. However, the railroad installed a 202-foot-long siding on the east side of the tracks to park excursion trains. Little changed at the station for the first two decades. The station sign sat above the entrance to the Welch Grove, beside which stairs brought people down to the Frémont Tree and into the park. By 1900, a wood platform sat beside the tracks with a long bench installed alongside the railing. New wooden stairs were installed and a notice board sat at the end of the platform, but the station offered no ticket or telegraph services.

The Big Trees station booth at its original location above the Welch Grove soon after it was built, c. 1890.
[San Francisco Maritime Museum]
When Southern Pacific leased the South Pacific Coast in 1887, they soon installed a station booth at Big Trees to support seasonal excursion service to the site. The booth was installed near the southern end of the platform and only operated during the summer. It offered only ticket service, although telegraph wires overhead suggest it may have also had telegraph capacity, although it did not offer this commercially. At the same time, the passenger platform was lengthened considerably to the thick redwood tree located just before the track turned to cross the San Lorenzo River.

A wide-angle shot of Big Trees station after the booth had moved, c. 1920s.
[Margaret Koch – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
Everything changed in 1901, when Henry Cowell, who owned the majority of the property to the south, decided to open up a resort of his own that would cater specifically to railroad traffic. Cowell's Big Trees grew quickly and Cowell had the pull with the railroad to relocate the station booth slightly to the south. Meanwhile, the wood platform and stairs above the Welch Grove were removed and the entrance to the grove relocated to face Cowell's property, but tall fences were installed to keep onlookers out without paying their entry fees. Cowell's property, which included far fewer old-growth redwoods, was free to the public. To support this new location, Cowell put in broad stairs to welcome people onto his property.

Big Trees station in its final years, with the siding no longer connected to the mainline, c. 1930s.
[Harold von Gorder – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
Big Trees in the 1950s, with people waiting below the station sign and an
excursion train parked at right. [Charles Givens]
The standard-gauging of the tracks and siding at Big Trees in 1908 was the last major improvement to the site. The new siding measured 519-feet-long and could support most of the excursion trains that ventured to the park. Over the decades, the siding fell into disuse and became overgrown, even though occasional trains would still use it, when necessary. In 1930, also, the Welch Grove was purchased by Santa Cruz County and a new entrance for it appeared further to the north. Cowell's Big Trees limped along for another decade, enduring the closure of the route through the mountains to San José and finally closing its doors in 1942, after the start of World War II ended excursions to both parks. The station booth was removed soon afterwards, in December. When excursion service resumed in 1947, most trains stopped at the northern stop, although photographic evidence suggests a few trains still stopped at the old Big Trees station. Big Trees was finally abandoned as an official stop at some point after 1965, when the route was demoted to a freight-only line. The sign lingered on into at least the 1970s before disappearing.

The site of Big Trees, with the path down to the redwood loop and Frémont Tree at left, 2012. [Derek R. Whaley]
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0353N, 122.0582W

Date-stamped culvert across from the Big Trees station site,
2012. [Derek R. Whaley]
The site of Big Trees station is easy to determine. The original station was near the base of a tree just across from the Frémont Tree that sits beside the tracks. A glass insulator cap originally was placed on the side but has fallen off in recent years, but the wood knob that held it up remains on the side of the tree. The station hut was located roughly midway between this tree and the large tree that sits beside the tracks to the south, just before the turn toward the bridge. Nothing remains of the station or platform, but the area is still mostly clear of debris from years of heavy ballasting and harder soil. The siding space where excursion trains parked and locomotives turned around is clearly visible on the east side of the tracks in this area, where a culvert with the date 1912 can be found. While trespassing is not technically permitted, it is never enforced in this area – just check both ways when viewing the right-of-way at Big Trees. These tracks are still active.

Citations & Credits:

Stations: Big Trees (North Gate)

For most of its history, Big Trees was patronized via the main stop just above, at first, the Welch Grove and, later, the Henry Cowell Grove. However, the purchase of the Welch park by Santa Cruz County in 1930 changed the location's dynamic with the Southern Pacific Railroad. For the first two years after the establishment of Santa Cruz County Big Trees Park, passengers continued to debark excursion trains at the old Big Trees location, but increasingly they opted for a new flag-stop just to the north called on railroad timetables Big Trees (North Gate).

An excursion train parked on a spur at Big Trees (North Gate), late 1940s. Main track in foreground. Photo by L. L. Bonney.
From 1936 until 1965, the North Gate catered to all passenger trains visiting the county park. Henry Cowell's grove, in fact, closed in 1942 soon after the U.S.-entry into World War II, so access to the county park was not even possible from that direction thereafter. At the North Gate, a pair of short sidings were installed within the Welch Ranch property so that commuter trains and freight cars from Olympia could operate along the mainline. The station had no other facilities and passengers detrained via the stairs on the passenger cars. From these sidings, tourists entered Big Trees Park down a short pathway that exited beside the Big Trees Inn, which served as a visitor's center and snack shop for the park.

After the closure of the route through the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Jose in February 1940, North Gate became the end-of-the-line for excursion trains, and they constituted the only passenger trains to use this stretch of track, almost exclusively in the summer months. From 1940-1941 and 1947-1959, Suntan Specials would sometimes travel up to the North Gate on Sundays, depending on passenger demand. There were also fairly regular special excursions to Big Trees, although these began to decline in the late 1950s, after the county sold the park to the state where it became Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. In the final few years, there was only one excursion per year to Big Trees, and those ended in 1965, after which the entire line was downgraded to freight-only service. As a result, Big Trees (North Gate) shut down.

Picnickers hanging around the end of the last Big Trees excursion train, 1965. Note Roaring Camp depot in the background.
At around the same time, Roaring Camp Railroads was founded just to the east of the tracks. Indeed, this was likely the reason why the excursions lasted as long as they did, since in the final three years, passengers were able to visit the burgeoning resort and ride the Dixiana, their first narrow-gauge locomotive. But even the draw of this new popular attraction was not enough to convince Southern Pacific to keep the trains going annually. Not long after excursion service ended, the sidings were removed. However, the stop set an important precedent that survives to this day: the pathway between Big Trees (North Gate) and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park still survives, a relic of a time when trains brought people from all over the Bay Area to visit the redwoods.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0403N, 122.0628W

The North Gate of Big Trees still exists and is used frequently to allow people to pass between Roaring Camp and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. It is the short connecting path that crosses the narrow-gauge and standard-gauge railroad tracks near the Roaring Camp mill pond and exits into the Henry Cowell parking lot. The former sidings once ran from roughly the site of the Roaring Camp water tower to just beyond where the cabooses are now parked. The only remnants of the sidings are the tracks that the cabooses sit atop.

Citations & Credits:

Friday, September 14, 2018

Railroads: Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad

F. Norman Clark was a dreamer. And he loved railroads. In 1959, Norman leased 170 acres of the Big Trees Ranch from the Welch family, which had owned and operated the adjacent Welch's Big Trees Grove since the 1860s. His plan was to build a narrow-gauge railroad up to the summit of the nearby mountain and use vintage steam locomotives to pull the passenger cars. He named his mountain heritage park Roaring Camp after a nickname given to Isaac Graham's nearby sawmill that had operated over a century before.

An early excursion train when the station was still Felton Depot, c. 1964. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
Graham had owned Rancho Zayante in the 1830s and '40s where he built in 1842 at the bottom of Bean Creek the first saw water-powered sawmill west of the Mississippi River. For nearly two decades, his mill cut many of the old-growth redwood trees in the Felton area, but the trees on what became the Welch property remained relatively untouched. In 1867, Joseph and Anna Welch purchased the meadow, mountain, and redwood grove from Graham's estate. It was soon divided between their private ranch and the redwood grove. After running the resort for decades, the family sold the grove to Santa Cruz County in 1930 for use as a county park. It later was merged with the much larger Henry Cowell Company properties in 1954 to become Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Roaring Camp in the 1970s with the station and watertower beside a crowded train led by Tuolumne. [Derek R. Whaley]
A large portion of the ranch, however, was leased to Norman, and they began construction on their new tourist attraction almost immediately. Norman had found a rusted Lima Locomotive Works Shay locomotive in an old coal mine in Appalachia in 1958 and decided to truck it over to Felton where it could be restored to service. The restoration took less than four years an the railroad first ran on April 6, 1963. The railroad track only reached the edge of the forest and there were only 44 customers. Construction continued for a number of years, building the railroad up to the top of Bear Mountain. The track was primarily composed of reused steel rails. The route to the summit involved a long curving trestle and a far more complex corkscrew double-trestle. The entire route was single-tracked except for a loop at the top of the mountain and a similar loop around the large meadow at the bottom. The railroad also installed a wye beside what became the parking lot to allow locomotives to reverse direction, if necessary. Initially, the railroad used the Southern Pacific's former Felton Depot structure as its ticket office and waiting area, but a new station, of somewhat similar style, was erected beside the meadow, where a small rustic township slowly developed as the heart of the park.

The burned remains of the corkscrew trestle in Spring Canyon, 2012. [Derek R. Whaley]
Roaring Camp in its early days did had numerous issues. The construction of the route to the summit of Bear Mountain took years to complete. Norman wanted to preserve as many of the redwood trees as he could during the construction process, but this also delayed matters as the route had to be designed to avoid large trees and cathedral groves. A decade after the route was completed, a fire on the corkscrew in 1976, later determined to be arson, destroyed a hallmark feature of the train ride to the top. Due to a lack of insurance coverage and associated costs, Norman decided to build a switchback through the heart of the burned wreckage. This switchback included a 9.5% grade, the steepest still used by a passenger railroad in the United States. This switchback restricted the size of trains to a maximum of six cars, so longer trains had to split up briefly when operating in this section. Meanwhile, construction of the townsite was drastically curtailed due to costs and space. The original plan for a full-blown Western town with saloons, hotels, banks, livery stables, smithy, and other thematic trappings was reduced to a general store, school, photograph studio, and a few restaurants based out of cabooses. The biggest disaster, though, was the death of Norman in December 1985, only months after finalising the purchase of the stub branch line between Olympia and Santa Cruz from Southern Pacific. His wife, Georgiana, whom he married in 1966, took over as CEO and president.

Dixiana in front of the station with the general store and caboose restaurant at right, c. 1966. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
Prior to the purchase of the Southern Pacific line, the two railroads interacted directly once in 1969 to celebrate the centennial of the Promontory Point, Utah, linking of the Transcontinental Railroad. A triple-rail section was laid between the two lines, with a diesel- and steam-powered engine briefly touching noses to symbolize the transference of dominance from steam to diesel. The event was not highly publicized and the tracks connecting the narrow and broad lines were removed soon afterwards and have never been reinstalled.

Steam engineer Tom Shreve posing beside Tuolumne, with Kahuku and Sonora on either side, 2013. [Joseph Shreve]
Over the years, numerous narrow-gauge locomotives have been purchased for restoration and use on the line. Dixiana, the original company Shay, entered service in 1963. In that year, Norman purchased the Tuolumne, a Stearns Manufacturing Company Heisler that had operated relatively recently for the West Side Lumber Company. Three years later, soon after Norman married Georgiana, the Clarks bought the Kahuku, a tiny Baldwin Locomotive Works locomotive that had operated on a plantation near Georgiana's home in Hawai'i. This is the oldest locomotive in the fleet and generally does not haul passenger cars. Norman added another Hawai'i-based Baldwin locomotive named the Waipahu to the collection in 1977 , but this was later sold to a Japanese firm in 1988. The impressive Bloomsburg joined the collection of rusting project locomotives in 1975. This Climax Locomotive Works stock was one of the last built and operated on the Carroll Park & Western Railroad decades before its acquisition. It has yet to be restored and a non-profit organization has been founded to help fund its restoration. The most impressive locomotive in the fleet is Sonora, a larger Lima Shay that was purchased by Georgiana in 1986 and restored in 2007. The final locomotive, Daisy, purchased in 1988, is a twin to Dixiana and has yet to be restored. The pieces of the Bloomsburg and Daisy can be viewed in the parts yard beside the parking lot. Three of the locomotives sit on the register of National Mechanical Engineering Historical Landmarks.

Union soldier re-enactors marching down Main Street at Roaring Camp, 2016. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
With the purchase of the Southern Pacific Railroad's route in 1985, the park rebranded itself Roaring Camp Railroads and the original tourist line up Bear Mountain became the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad (also now called the Redwood Forest Steam Train). It has kept this name ever since. Over the past thirty years, the park has slowly grown in size, with the addition of a large barbecue and picnic area, the restoration of the old Felton Depot and freight warehouse, the construction of Bret Harte Hall and a new eating area, and the introduction of annual events such as the Memorial Day Civil War Reenactments and various Days Out with Thomas (the Tank Engine). Georgiana died on March 2, 2016, leaving her daughter, Melani, sole owner, president, and CEO of the park and its railroads.

Dixiana leading a train over the Indian Creek trestle, c. 2010. [Walter Scriptunas II]
While the narrow-gauge railroad is not a historic line, it does provide a good representation of the types of sounds and experiences lumber crews working in the nineteenth century within the Santa Cruz Mountains would have been familiar with. All the trains are historical entities and the history of the Felton area is ever-present along the line.

Citations & Credits:

Railroads: Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway

Roaring Camp Railroads was a narrow-gauge-only affair for the first two decades of its existence. But opportunity reared its head in 1982 when disaster struck the Olympia section of the Santa Cruz Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The winter storms of 1982 damaged much of the infrastructure in the San Lorenzo Valley. Massive flooding decimated the Felton Grove subdivision and also caused numerous landslides all over the valley. In San Lorenzo Gorge, slips, sinks, and slides knocked the railroad tracks out of commission. For twenty years, these tracks had been used exclusively to haul freight for the two quarries up at Olympia. But both had been considering a switch to trucks and the 1982 disaster forced them to switch. It would be months before Southern Pacific could restore the branch line and, frankly, it wanted out of its obligations.

The first Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railroad excursion train to Santa Cruz in October 1986, with the Whitcomb locomotive leading three modified flatcars and a caboose. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
Meanwhile, F. Norman Clark had a dream. When he first opened Roaring Camp, he envisioned a revival of the former route through the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Jose. It was a pipe dream, but the closure of the remnant nine miles of track gave him the opportunity to take the first step toward achieving this goal. He met with railroad officials and they eventually came to an agreement on February 14, 1985. The entire line between Laurel Street in Santa Cruz to the end of the line near Zayante School Road would be purchased by Roaring Camp, which intended to use the line primarily for passenger excursions, although freight to the San Lorenzo Lumber Company yard and potentially the quarries was also anticipated.

CF7 2641 in its original color scheme outside the Boardwalk's Looff Carousel, 1989. [ATOMIC Hot Links on Flickr]
Unlike the track up Bear Mountain, which used vintage steam locomotives, this new standard-gauge line would require modern diesel locomotives and brand new rolling stock. Initially, Norman purchased a small Whitcomb diesel locomotive from the nearby Lonestar Company quarry, which no longer needed it. It was capable of hauling a few cars to operate the line. The first runs only went as far as Rincon before reversing back to Felton. This locomotive was clearly a short term solution, but Norman never would see his full vision realised. He died in December 1985, and his wife, Georgiana, was left with the task of completing his vision. For the first year, trains only went as far as the Santa Cruz Union Depot at the end of Center Street, but in 1987 an agreement was made with Southern Pacific that allowed trains to park in front of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Georgie purchased two CF7 locomotives to pull the trains and an increasing number of mostly open-top sightseeing cars to hold the passengers, although Roaring Camp did purchase a vintage mail car that is now used primarily for ticket and snack sales. Most of the rolling stock, except the mail car, were constructed on site atop 1895-1915-era flatcars that had been used by the Western Beet Sugar Company's refinery in Spreckels near Salinas.

The Beach Train parked behind the Giant Dipper at the Boardwalk, c. 2000. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
Little has changed since the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway (popularly known as the Beach Train) began operating in 1986. Regular excursions run seasonally from Felton to the Boardwalk twice a day, with special weekly excursions from Mount Hermon's Redwood Camp in the summer for campers. Various plans to open evening dinner service either along the current route or up to Davenport have been proposed, but have yet to become regular activities. Meanwhile, plans are also slowly developing to utilise the roughly two miles of track to the north of Roaring Camp. To support future activities and supplement the existing CF7s, two additional CF7s were purchased in late 2017. Freight is extremely rare along the line, now, but Roaring Camp still retains all common carrier privileges to the old quarries and to the San Lorenzo Lumber yard.

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Freight Stops: Santa Cruz Lumber Company

The new planing mill at Felton, 1949. [Jim Vail]
The area immediately to the west of Felton Depot was originally a massive meadow that had as its edges Zayante Creek, the San Lorenzo River, the Southern Pacific Railroad's tracks through the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Welch's Big Trees Grove. Historically, this has been known as the Ley Meadow, after George Ley, who purchased the property from Frederick A. Hihn in July 1893 for one dollar. In 1923, Ley founded the Santa Cruz Lumber Company, but it was in 1949 when the company, which milled old growth redwood trees along Pescadero Creek above Waterman Gap outside Boulder Creek, relocated its planing mill and wood-drying kilns to the meadow beside Felton Depot. The increased efficiency of milling equipment had rendered the original mill and drying yard at Waterman Gap, which had operated since 1923, incapable of keeping up with demand. Initial milling continued at this site, but further processing was moved to Felton where there was more room and direct access to railroad tracks. The mill machinery was installed over the summer of 1949.

The conveyor to the sawdust burner at the Santa Cruz Lumber Company mill at Felton, 1949. [Jim Vail]
For the first decade or so that the mill operated at the site, the railroad provided no direct access. But at some point in the late 1950s, Southern Pacific built a short, 380-foot-long spur that branched off the little-used stub spur of the Boulder Creek Branch, which was abandoned with the closure of the Holmes Kilns in 1939. This spur served two purposes: import and export. The lumber yard processed thousands of board feet of lumber per day, but only needed a small portion for its local yard. The rest was shipped out to other markets via the railroad, where it deposited loads of lumber in Santa Cruz, Live Oak, Watsonville, and elsewhere in California.  The spur also brought in finished goods that the company itself did not create to bolster the products offered at the yard's store. A warehouse was built at the end of the spur to protect workers who were loading and unloading material from the cars. The installation of this spur was probably the last significant addition to the former line through the Santa Cruz Mountains and, perhaps, one of the last additions to any line operating within Santa Cruz County.

A lumber car parked on the ProBuild spur in 2013, with the old loading warehouse beyond the end of the spur and Roaring Camp rolling stock to the east. [Google Maps]
The mill in Felton ceased operations around 1972, when the Pescadero Creek basin was logged out, and exports from the Felton yard mostly ceased from this point, although small quantities of lumber may have continued to be milled there until 1986. In that year, the Ley family, operating as Redtree Properties, leased the property to Mike and Bob Butcher, owners of the San Lorenzo Lumber Company, where the property continued to function as a lumber yard. San Lorenzo Lumber Company had been founded by Santa Cruz Lumber employees back in 1936 to provide building supplies to Santa Cruz County residents through retail stores.  In 2004, San Lorenzo Lumber was purchased by Lumbermens of Washington, which was absorbed by ProBuild (technically Fidelity Investments) in 2006. In January 2014, to increase its local marketing potential, ProBuild established its subsidiary San Lorenzo Lumber & Home Centers to cater to the local market. ProBuild itself was acquired by Builders FirstSource in 2015. Roaring Camp has expressed interest over the years of leasing the former warehouse for use as a repair and maintenance facility for its standard-gauge rolling stock, but this has not occurred as of the present.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0454N, 122.0649W

The Santa Cruz Lumber Company spur, now owned by Builders FirstSource, still exists although it has been truncated to end just outside the warehouse. Until recently, it was used for the delivery of lumber to the San Lorenzo Lumber & Home Center yard, but no deliveries have been made since late 2016. The spur is used by Roaring Camp Railroads to park excess rolling stock, especially rail cars and maintenance vehicles that are prone to vandalism. Access to the spur is limited to San Lorenzo Lumber & Home Center and Roaring Camp staff.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

Stations: Felton

The San Lorenzo Valley was home to two railroad hubs, the logging station at Boulder Creek and the main line junction at Felton. But Felton Station did not originally begin as an important stop along the line. When the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad was first constructed up the San Lorenzo Valley from Santa Cruz in 1875, it terminated on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River, within the central part of the town. When the South Pacific Coast Railroad built its route in late 1879, they located their right-of-way on the east bank, about 0.75 miles to the east of town, so that the train could capitalize on the tourist potential of the Welch Big Trees Grove. The station that the erected between the tracks and East San Lorenzo Drive (Graham Hill Road) was crude and unassuming, probably akin to similar small depots erected in Wright's Station and Alma. Photographs of this early depot do not survive, but the station provided passenger and freight service. However, much of the local population continued to connect to passenger trains leaving from the "Old" Felton station on the west bank.

Felton station grounds, with the passenger depot and covered seating area in the foreground, an signal center, and the water tower and freight depot in the background, c. 1920s. [University of California, Santa Cruz]
Everything changed when the Felton & Pescadero Railroad was constructed beginning in late 1883. The railroad intended to use Old Felton as the southern terminus for the line since that is where the San Lorenzo Valley Flume ended its route, but people in the city tried to exploit the railroad by increasing property rates in order to receive a better payout. The railroad chose, instead, to just bypass downtown area entirely and terminate at the newer Felton station. This proved more convenient for the railroad, which had ample siding space at Felton to park and transfer cars, but it alienated the town. Over the next decade, Old Felton station declined in importance until it was essentially abandoned in favor of the station to the east. Convenient passenger access was eventually provided to the residents of Felton by flag-stops near the river (Covered Bridge Park) and at Bonnie Brae (San Lorenzo Way), but Felton ultimately survived as the only depot in the area as well as the transfer point for all trains, passenger or freight, traveling along the Boulder Creek Branch.

Felton Depot around 1908, showing the freight depot, the passenger depot, both turntables, the water tower, a train on the main track, and a boxcar on a siding, with the Welch Ranch property (later they Ley Meadow) in the background. [Mt. Hermon Association]
The original depot at Felton was replaced around 1891 with an entirely new 19' x 36' single-story wood-frame structure that still remains at its original location today. Beside it, a slightly earlier freight depot was erected, possibly through the use of wood salvaged from the flume, although that assertion has been disputed in recent years. Regardless, it was fully erected no later than 1887. Felton Station provided passenger, freight, and mail delivery services, but also functioned as the primary yard for the lower valley. As such, it included a gallows-style turntable to the south of the depot, so that trains coming from Glenwood or Boulder Creek could turn around; a water tower to refuel trains; and multiple sidings to park excursion trains and waiting freight cars. The station reached its peak in this capacity around 1900, when lumber trains passed constantly through the station, jockeying for space with commuter trains, picnic and excursion trains, and other freight such as black and white powder from the California Powder Works. After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the standard-gauging of the line, a second, larger gallows-style turntable was installed to the north of the freight depot, beside a much larger water tower. The original water tower was removed at the same time, while both turntables remained until the upgrading of the line was completed in 1909. At some point in the 1920s, a covered passenger waiting wing was added to the south side of the passenger depot.

Felton Depot on July 21, 1940, five months after the route over the mountains ended and passenger service to Felton ended. [Wilbur C. Whittaker]
Felton as a station declined slowly. Its location as a central hub made it important throughout the years that the Boulder Creek Branch operated, but even after that line closed in early 1934, the track to the Holmes Lime Kiln across the San Lorenzo River kept the station operating. By this time, multiple loads of gravel and sand from the Olympia quarries were also hauling loads to the station, where loaded and empty cars parked along the open siding space. The closure of the route through the Santa Cruz Mountains and the end of local passenger service did not immediately lead to the end of this station. Locals still came to the station to purchase train and Pacific Greyhound tickets and ship their parcels. The Santa Cruz Lumber Company also operated out of the adjacent lot so maintained regular traffic to the stop. Furthermore, some Suntan Specials, which ran seasonally until 1959, and all Big Trees excursion trains, which ran periodically to 1965, stopped at Felton, where the trains could top off their water, if they so required it. The station finally ended all service in two waves. In 1953, the freight house was mostly retired, although the freight office remained open. Southern Pacific and the Railway Express Agency petitioned to abandon the station completely in 1958, but was denied due to local protests. They were not closed until February 27, 1962.

Felton Depot during the early years of Roaring Camp Railroads, c. 1965. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
The freight depot at Felton today. [Derek R. Whaley]
The station and freight house had barely gone into disuse before Roaring Camp Railroads purchased the structure from Southern Pacific in late 1962.  For the first five years of its operations, between 1963 and 1967, Roaring Camp used the former station as its ticket office while construction continued on their narrow-gauge line up Bear Mountain and on Roaring Camp Depot, which would open across from the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park entrance in 1968. Once they relocated, Roaring Camp did not maintain the station or freight house well. The freight house survived more or less intact, its large-timbered old-growth redwood able to withstand the environment. It has undergone various repairs over the years and is generally used for storage. The depot began to deteriorate in the late 1960s and was allowed to decline. In 1992, all the rotten timbers were removed and the entire structure underwent rehabilitation. It reopened in 1997 as the corporate offices of Roaring Camp and remain in use as such today.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0467N, 122.0641W

Felton depot today. [Derek R. Whaley]
Felton station can still be seen off Graham Hill Road just west of the entrance to Roaring Camp Railroads. During its restoration, it was painted burgundy with a white trim, as was the adjacent freight depot. The depot has lost its porch and eaves but otherwise remains in tact and is still used for storage. The passenger depot serves as an office for Roaring Camp and entry is permitted only by appointment, although it can be freely viewed from the outside on the street side. The track side is restricted to Roaring Camp personnel only. These depots are the oldest confirmed narrow-gauge structures that still survive in Santa Cruz County.

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