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, January 12, 2018

Curiosities: Feasibility Studies to Restore the Mountain Route

On February 7, 1938, regularly-scheduled passenger service between Santa Cruz and Watsonville along the Southern Pacific Railroad Company’s Santa Cruz Branch was discontinued. Twice-daily passenger service continued across the Santa Cruz Mountains via the San Jose-Santa Cruz Branch for the next two years but this too was discontinued on February 26, 1940, when catastrophic damage to the route caused by severe winter storms rendered the line impassible. After months of discussion and debate, during which time passenger service was rerouted along the Santa Cruz Branch along the coast, the portion of the San Jose-Santa Cruz Branch between Los Gatos and Olympia, two miles north of Felton, was abandoned on November 7, 1940. Passenger service out of Santa Cruz County was replaced with Pacific Greyhound buses.

Concurrent with the activity along the railroad lines, California State Route 17 (henceforth Highway 17) was nearing completion. Construction of the highway had begun in 1931 to replace the aged and overcrowded Glenwood Highway (then called State Route 5). The section from Santa Cruz to Los Gatos was completed in August 1940, adding further support to the idea that passenger service and the route through the Santa Cruz Mountains could be safely abandoned without consequences. Most commentators at the time felt that the new highway would adequately replace the absent railroad service.

Following the end of World War II, congestion along Highway 17 began to grow and Santa Cruz County began its slow transition into a commuter community for the Santa Clara Valley. A local suggested in 1946 that the resumption of passenger service was forthcoming due to the exponential population growth in the county. The next year, Southern Pacific resumed its seasonal Suntan Special excursion trains, which helped ease weekend traffic over Highway 17 in the summers between the Santa Clara Valley and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. However, these were discontinued in 1959 due to cost and declining interest. The last excursion trains along the Santa Cruz Branch occurred in 1965, after which Southern Pacific discontinued any passenger service within the county whatsoever due to the declining quality of the railbed.

Meanwhile, fatalities along Highway 17 increased rapidly, with five people killed in ten days in 1966. The state began looking for ways to widen Highway 17 and convert it into a full freeway or otherwise improve it to a make it safer. Other proposals at this time included converting Highway 17 into a toll road to reduce traffic and pay for upkeep and improvements, the construction of a second route between the Alamden Valley and Soquel, and adding a second road so that each could run one-way with more lanes. But all of these met with strong opposition from groups in Santa Cruz County and along the proposed routes. By January 1967, 20,000 vehicles crossed Pachen Pass each weekday and traffic had become a major issue. By 1983, that number had risen to 50,000 vehicles a day. And 1990 brought 74,000 vehicles over the highway. Yet there still remains no safer or more direct high-capacity route between Santa Cruz and San José.

In the decades that followed abandonment, a number of studies and proposals have been conducted and published relating to the concept of restoring railroad service over the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Historical Studies
i. Murphy and Alquist Proposal (1969)
In April 1969, California Assemblyman Frank Murphy Jr. and State Senator Alfred E. Alquist recommended resumption of the seasonal Suntan Special. They cited increased traffic on summer weekends along Highway 17 and an increase in deadly accidents along the route. They added that “the railroads could give youths summertime jobs as food concessionaires or stewards on the trains.” Nothing further came of this proposal at the time.

ii. Lockheed Pilot Study (1971)
In 1971, Alan Goetz, an engineer for the Lockheed Missiles & Space Company, Inc., of Sunnyvale initiated a pilot study to determine the feasibility of restoring service over the historic route. He did this conducted this study “as a public service” to the local community with the hope “that a more thorough study could be done, not necessarily using the old road, but on a mountain train route.” Although the actual report is not publicly available for review, a number of conclusions from the study have been published in other works. Goetz’s study concluded that, of the 26 total miles between Santa Cruz and Vasona Junction, 37% of the route was still intact and in use, 27% could be easily repaired, 26% required new construction, and 10% involved the tunnels and the status was, therefore, unknown. It claimed further that the interior of the three dynamited tunnels were generally intact but that “it is quite likely that gas is present in dangerous quantities in the interior” of the Summit Tunnel. Lockheed’s final statement regarding the matter was that there was “increasing public awareness of the detrimental effects the automobile and population pressures can have and are having on our quality of life.... We believe that strong words such as blight are justified, in reference to Highway 17 and Santa Cruz, in view of the acknowledged fragile nature of the environment of the Santa Cruz mountains and the narrow coastal shelf. As a local firm, Lockheed realizes the validity of the above statement, which helps place us in consonance with the goals of Santa Cruz County.” Lockheed did not participate further in the campaign to re-establish rail service over the historic line.

iii. Santa Cruz County Transportation Policies Committee Report (1971)
The findings in the Lockheed Pilot Study prompted the Santa Cruz County Transportation Policies Committee to appoint William Alschuler head of a subcommittee to see whether there was a “surface feasibility” to a trans-mountain railroad. However, his attention quickly turned to revitalising Suntan Special seasonal excursion service via the trackage between Pajaro and Santa Cruz rather than restoring service on the former route through the mountains. A lack of interest by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) ended the prospect for passenger service along the coastal route. Company vice president of governmental affairs Gerald D. Morgan stated that “the proposed service could not in fact run at a profit, in part because the equipment that would be involved could not be efficiently utilized on a full-time basis.” The Urban Mass Transportation Administration was also contacted regarding the proposal but was told that no funds were available to subsidize the route. Alschuler presented his final report on December 15, 1971. He cautioned that “there is no way possible to [rebuild the route] in a short period of time. It would take years to get the land right-of-way, add new right-of-way, clean up the tunnels and build it.” He noted further regarding the use of the coastal line that “Southern Pacific was totally disinterested in any kind of passenger service.” Southern Pacific stated at the time that the track was “no longer smooth enough for passenger service. You wouldn’t want to ride on it at more than 10 miles per hour,” but Alschuler did not agree with this assessment and desired a second opinion by an unaffiliated expert. The conclusions made by this outsider, if consulted, are unknown.

iv. California Department of Transportation Feasibility Study (1977)
In 1975, the California State Senate passed SB283 which included a clause (Section 13, Chapter 1130) that granted funding for the Division of Mass Transportation of the Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of restoring railroad service between San Jose and Santa Cruz via any available route. The results of this study were published September 26, 1977.

Three different proposals were considered:

  1. Upgrading 14 miles of existing track to 70 MPH top speeds and construction of 19 miles of new track, including all tunnels and structures, signals, right-of-way, a park-and-ride station at Los Gatos, and a new Santa Cruz station. The cost was estimated as $36.9 million ($174.7 million, adjusted for inflation).
  2. Realigning Highway 17 to support an electric railway along its median. The cost was estimated at $84.6 million ($400.53 million), including $48.8 million ($231.0 million) for widening the highway median.
  3. Providing railway service around the Santa Cruz Mountains via the Santa Cruz Branch. The cost was estimated at $22.8 million ($107.94 million) to construct a second mainline to avoid freight congestion and for branchline rehabilitation.

It was found, as well, that passenger revenue would be adequate to cover operational costs; only the cost of construction was an issue and the study only speculated regarding sources that would cover these expenses, leaving the specific details for after the completion of a full engineering survey.

In its executive summary, the report concluded that the “construction of a railway was found to be feasible because of the following advantages over highway expansion:

  • Greater energy efficiency
  • Lower air pollution emissions
  • Lower fatality rate
  • Lower costs”

Regarding energy efficiency and air pollution emissions, the study found that there was an average of 15,00-20,000 commuter vehicles crossing the Summit per day in 1976. The study suggested six to eight self-propelled railcars could be used for commuter service along one of the proposed lines to reduce around ten percent (around 118 passengers per train) of the congestion. The rider fees paid by these passenger would also be sufficient to fund the daily operation of the railcars.

Regarding the fatality rate, it was found via a report by the National Safety Council that driving in general was riding a railroad in 1975 was safer than driving an automobile by a factor of 21.4. Furthermore, the study reported that Highway 17 “has a fatal-accident rate above the statewide average.” Thus, rail service would provide a safer option for commuters and travellers between San Jose and Santa Cruz.

Lastly, regarding cost, the study found that the total cost of upgrading Highway 17 to full freeway standards, which was proposed in 1971, would cost $183 million ($1.134 billion). In contrast, rebuilding the historic corridor would be significantly cheaper due to the existing infrastructure that could be reused. Furthermore, the median of Highway 17 could be expanded between Aldercroft and Vasona Junction to support the railroad in the center of the highway, thereby avoiding complications introduced by the construction of Lexington Reservoir and the conversion of the downtown Los Gatos right-of-way into a parking lot.

Ultimately, a unanimous position was issued by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on June 14, 1976, that “Construction of an ‘over the hill’ rail connection between Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties...would not be consistent with the planning objectives of Santa Cruz County, and would be resisted by this County,” and that “Construction and/or restoration of an ‘around the hill’ route through Watsonville Junction to Santa Cruz County and the City of Santa Cruz, particularly as it might help meet the need for access for recreational visitors to Santa Cruz County, is of great interest to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, and we urge that the current study focus on the financial, engineering, and marketing possibilities of such a route.” Furthermore, it was feared that railroad service through the San Lorenzo Valley would cause increased settlement in the upper Zayante Creek region, along the proposed route, which went against the San Lorenzo Valley General Plan, especially if property developers petitioned for railroad stations within the valley. The election of George Deukmejian as governor of California ended any discussion of this specific project.

v. Senate Bill 650 Study (1979)
On March 20, 1979, California State Senator Alfred Alquist of San José wrote SB650, calling for an engineering study of the historic corridor through the Santa Cruz Mountains as a mandatory follow-up to the previous study, which still required more specific estimates of restoration and upgrade costs. The State Senate estimated the cost of the study to be $200,000 ($722,292, adjusted for inflation). According to a letter to the editor in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors voted on the proposal on May 1, 1979, without a public hearing, and voted 4-1 against the proposed study.

vi. Capitola Chamber of Commerce Proposal (1980)
A proposal to conduct a feasibility study for restoring the route through the Santa Cruz Mountains was again made in 1980, this time by Vic Tognazzini, president of the Capitola Chamber of Commerce. He was advised to confer with other county chambers of commerce to determine whether such a study should be conducted. The Modern Transit Society discussed the idea at a public meeting held June 19, 1981. A major stumbling block to restoring this route was removed on September 28, 1981, when California Governor Edmund Brown signed Senate Bill 523, which allowed private railroad companies to operate short-line railroads in areas not currently serviced by Caltrans or Amtrak. However, remaining restrictions meant fares would still have to cover at least 40% of operating costs along a line before Caltrans would consider allowing a passenger service to operate along said line. Nothing more regarding this proposed study or the possibility of restoring railroad service to the line appears in the Sentinel afterwards. A general transportation feasibility study begun by the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District in 1984 decided against researching a restoration of the historic rail corridor because they estimated that it would cost at least $95 million ($229.9 million, adjusted for inflation) to rebuild the line to light-rail standards.

vii. Eccles & Eastern Railroad Proposal (1988-1994)
On June 22, 1988, the Eccles & Eastern Railroad was founded by Karl and Burneda Koenig, and Rick and Carol Hamman in Ben Lomond, California, with the aim to preserve and restore antique railroad equipment and to operate it for the public benefit, and to...provide common carrier freight and tourist oriented passenger service...through the Santa Cruz Mountains.” To accomplish these goals, the company sought the purchase of the historic Southern Pacific right-of-way between Olympia and Vasona Junction. The first step in this process was to purchase or lease the 3.5 miles of right-of-way between Olympia and Zayante Station. Stage two would have involved purchasing the right-of-way between Zayante and Tunnel #4 (under Mountain Charlie Road near Glenwood). The third stage, which proved the most problematic, would have required restoration of the two mile-long tunnels and restoration of trackage in the Los Gatos Creek basin, inundated since January 1953 by Lexington Reservoir. Rick Hamman stated in 1988 that, “though it would be possible to run commuter trains over the Eccles and Eastern lines, company research indicates such a service would be a financial loser. But the railroad is willing to lease its lines to either Santa Clara or Santa Cruz County if they wish to underwrite commuter trains.” Due to the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and other issues, the Eccles & Eastern slowly pushed back their plans for restoration of the line.

In 1992, Hamman stated that the rebuilding of the historic route would not be completed for at least seven years. At this time, he reported that Eccles & Eastern anticipated a 40 percent growth in truck traffic over Highway 17 over the next decade. His railroad company sought to remove 30-40% of that traffic from the road via two freight trains a day, six days a week in each direction. One of these trains would haul freight while the other would convey passengers. He estimated the total cost would be around $60 million $107.1 million, adjusted for inflation) to rehabilitate the line and purchase rolling stock. Although Eccles & Eastern conducted an environmental impact study of its proposed route, this study was rejected by the California State Office of Planning and Research, which stated applicants cannot prepare their own impact reports. The railroad also lost a bid for a key parcel along the right-of-way around this time. Residents in the Glenwood area specifically were against the restoration of the rail line, citing a decline in quality of life if a train ran 200 feet from their homes daily. These complaints intensified in 1994 and 1995 as other locals in the Zayante Creek area began protesting the proposed route, citing noise, cost, and potential property devaluation.

Meanwhile, after four years of study, Eccles & Eastern determined that all but four miles of the existing right-of-way could be reused without displacing anybody. Their unpublished environmental impact report and engineering survey determined that most of the culverts were still in working operation along the line and that many of the bridge supports in Los Gatos Creek could also be reused. They also determined that the two long tunnels could be reopened with only minor repairs and shotcreting. Only about 10% of this portion of the right-of-way would require substantial work. Their engineer estimated that the route between the Eccles end-of-track near Felton and the southern end of Lexington Reservoir could be rebuilt to operational standards for $12-20 million ($21.4-35.7 million). The major costs not included in this figure related to a four-mile diversion around Lexington Reservoir. The company calculated that a 0.5-mile-long tunnel could bypass the reservoir and return the right-of-way to its former alignment along Los Gatos Creek in Cats Canyon—the current site of the Los Gatos Creek Trail. It would then parallel California State Route 17 until such a point that it could reconnect to the existing track near State Route 85 and Winchester Boulevard in Campbell. Their final assessment was that the entire route could be rebuilt by a private corporation with private money at possibly no cost to the taxpayer.

Eccles & Eastern company officials announced plans to begin freight operations along the existing line between Olympia, Santa Cruz, and Watsonville in late September 1994. This prompted backlash from a community action group opposed to increased use of the corridor called RAILS (Right-of-way Alternatives In Local Suburbs). Organisation co-chairperson Barbara Rodak stated that “we would still love to see the whole Southern Pacific rail line converted from rails to trails for bicyclists and walkers. If that isn’t going to happen, then we will have to live with whatever comes down the tracks.” Hamman responded that “if we reach our goal in four years, we will take 60,000 one-way trips a year off of Highway 17. Further, we would save 275,000 gallons of fuel.” Of this meeting, Hamman later wrote that the “study and E&ERR’s plans completely collapsed at a public hearing when a few vociferous opponents were able to stymie the study group.” By July 1994, the Eccles & Eastern no longer planned to restore railroad service over the mountains, deferring to the plans of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and other regional organisations who were conducting a feasibility study of the railroad route over the former Southern Pacific grade through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Eccles & Eastern abandoned operations in Santa Cruz County and reincorporated as the Sierra Pacific Coast Railway, which was later merged into the Sierra Railroad Company.

viii. Santa Clara County Transportation Commission Feasibility Study (1995)
The final and most recent attempt to restore railroad service over the Santa Cruz Mountains began on April 29, 1991 at a meeting between Santa Clara County Supervisor Rod Diridon and Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors chairman Fred Keeley. Diridon expressed his desire to restore railroad service between San José and Santa Cruz, concerned that adding lanes to Highway 17 would cost over $200 million ($366.5 million, adjusted for inflation) and be detrimental to the environment. He stated that “a rail line over the top is much more environmentally just a fraction of the cost.” But his statements immediately sparked concern by another supervisor, Gary Patton. Patton asked the perennial question: “Do we really want to invest $100 million in order to increase our ties to Santa Clara County?” He stated further that “unless we have really given up on the idea of Santa Cruz County being something special, until we want to be a part of Silicon Valley, then, no. I’m not interested.” Keeley responded to this by saying that “I don’t think we should encourage Santa Cruz County to be the bedroom of Santa Clara County. But I also don’t think we can close our eyes to the fact that to a considerable degree we already are. It is not only right and proper but it’s also intelligent to try to provide better and safer transportation linkage for the people who are already here.” At the time, Southern Pacific expressed disinterest in being involved with the project.

This discussion led to the second government-funded feasibility study on restoring the historic route over the Santa Cruz Mountains. In March 1992, the abeyant Suntan Special Committee of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors began the process of surveying and assessing the route. The committee received approval for a $100,000 study to be split between the federal government (40%), the Metropolitan Transportation Commission of the San Francisco Bay Region (40%), Santa Clara County (10%), and Santa Cruz County (10%). Keeley stated at the time that a “new study is needed because things have changed since the mid-1970s. A whole range of assumptions valid then are no longer valid. Back then, there was no growth management and only 5,000 commuters a day. Now we have growth management, 27,000 commuters and state clean-air requirements to reduce the number of automobiles.” Although his commuter estimates were off by an order of magnitude, Keeley supported the concept of a feasibility study and promoted the idea of a railroad right-of-way directly down the center of State Route 17 as had been proposed in the 1977 study.

By 1994, three independent studies were being pursued by the county. Besides the study regarding the mountain route, one study investigated the resumption of passenger service along the Santa Cruz Branch between Santa Cruz and Pajaro, with a proposed extension to University of California, Santa Cruz. While another study focused on restoring the seasonal weekend Suntan Specials via the Santa Cruz Branch. Residents in the Glenwood area were opposed to the restoration of the former railroad route to Los Gatos, while RAILS, based out of Aptos, was against all three projects. RAILS co-chairperson Barbara Rodak informed the Sentinel in 1994 that “we would not like to see the commuter train proposal go in because we feel it will be cost prohibitive and have insufficient ridership.” The Sentinel also noted, however, that Rodak lived on Pine Street in Aptos, only feet from the Southern Pacific track.

The feasibility study was released on February 12, 1995. It was by far the most extensive study conducted of the line and included a ridership study, engineering survey, and environmental impact study, among other items necessary to restore rail service over the mountains.

Regarding ridership, the study concluded that approximately 4,400 total riders could be expected to take the train each weekday, of which 3,400 would be commuters travelling each direction. However, they also added that daily ridership would inevitably increase as more people became aware of the line and as it became more efficient with the addition of shuttles and park-and-ride locations. In the end, the study suggested that approximately fifteen percent of vehicular commuters would eventually transition to commuting via the railroad.

Regarding the engineering of the line, three separate potential corridors were studied:

  1. The historic corridor that followed the old Southern Pacific route between Olympia and Los Gatos, except for a diversion around Lexington Reservoir. The cost to restore the route was estimated to range from $370.9 to $558.9 million ($612.4-$922.8 million, adjusted for inflation).
  2. A route that followed the proposed route above closely but began in Santa Cruz and paralleled Highway 17 until Scotts Valley, at which point it crossed the city and then met with the historic corridor via a tunnel between Lockhart Gulch and the grade above Zayante Creek. The estimated cost for this line was $437.1 to $646.2 million ($721.7 million-$1.07 billion).
  3. An entirely new light rail route that would follow the center median of Highway 17 for its entirety, much as that suggested in the 1977 survey. The estimated cost of this line was $429.2 to $587.3 million ($708.6-$969.6 million)

The study also looked at, but dismissed, seven other alternative alignments.

The study considered four different forms of motive power along the proposed routes including light rail, heavy rail, commuter rail, and self-propelled rail cars, but it settled on light rail and commuter rail technology to calculate its cost and usage estimates. Only passenger service was studied for this report, although the study did note that freight usage could be considerable.

Regarding the environmental impact of the line, the study concluded that noise levels along the historic route would increase and there would be some negative impact on the riparian areas and to the water quality, although how significant these would be required additional research. The key item of importance here is that local communities could be negatively impacted by changes to the environment along the historic corridor, especially in the Glenwood and Laurel areas.

The study concluded that the operating costs of maintaining the line would range from $6.4 to $9.6 million ($10.6-$15.8 million) per year depending on the route chosen. It advised policy-makers to conduct two studies, one looking at the feasibility of expanding Highway 17 and another surveying the potential sources of funding that could be used to fund a proposed rail route between Santa Cruz and San José.

After numerous public discussions throughout February 1995, the study was finally dismissed by both Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties on March 3, opting instead to improve bus service along State Route 17 and to construct truck-climbing lanes along the road. However, Assemblyman Bruce McPherson noted that the funds for a truck-climbing lane would not be forthcoming until at least the year 2000 and probably later and would cost upwards of $4.8 million per mile. Mike Hart, president of the Sierra Pacific Railroad Company, warned that a railroad company is “going to do this.... If you bow out, you will be abdicating control of a major transportation corridor to a private enterprise.” However, no such company has come forward in the two decades since this study was published to restore railroad service over the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Public opinion is still the overwhelming obstacle to restoring this route. Property owners and lessees along the right-of-way near Zayante Creek, Bean Creek, Laurel, and Los Gatos will undoubtedly protest any attempt to restore service, especially if the route will pass through or adjacent to their properties. There are approximately fifteen homes and businesses in these areas that have property that overlaps the right-of-way, although only around five structures are situated atop the route. Roaring Camp Railroads has expressed support for the restoration of railroad service over the mountains before and may be convinced to do so again, although such a service would undercut their profits on the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Felton Railroad since any passenger service between Felton and Santa Cruz would share the same track.

Structurally, the route would require significant improvements from its 1940 alignment. At the time Southern Pacific abandoned the route, they had been planning to conduct extensive upgrades of the line to protect it from future storm damage like that caused in February 1940 and to make the line more efficient. They proposed straightening a number of curves and replacing numerous bridges. However, San Lorenzo Gorge has always proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. Even today, the route between Felton and Santa Cruz is unusually steep for a mainline track and also involves a sharp, 21-degree turn where once Tunnel #5 was situated (this tunnel burned down on January 21, 1993). The former tunnel would need to be rebuilt but due to the grade through this area, the line could never reach peak speeds, except perhaps with light rail cars. Overall, the findings of the 1995 study remain valid.

Despite thousands of dollars of survey work, though, no such route has been constructed. Similarly, no significant improvements have been made to allow Highway 17 to handle higher capacities of traffic or make the road safer. For decades, the reason was public disinterest and a general desire by those in Santa Cruz County to remain voluntarily isolated from the Santa Clara Valley. But this is no longer the case and has not been for some time. Hamman stated in 2002 that “polls have indicated that a 65% or better support for some kind of service to exist.” Santa Clara County has continuously pushed for improved passenger rail services and has expanded its light rail system as far south as Campbell, with longstanding plans to extend these to Vasona and, eventually Los Gatos.

Citations & Credits:

  • “Alquist Wants More Study On SC-San Jose Rail Link.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (March 21, 1979): 2.
  • “Amtrack Discourages Revival Of Suntan Special Route.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (December 2, 1971): 30.
  • Beal, Richard A. Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz. Second edition. Aptos, CA: The Pacific Group, 1991.
  • Beebe, Greg. “New talk about rail link to SJ.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (April 29, 1991): 1, 12.
  • “Bring Back Suntan Special.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (April 20, 1969): 29.
  • De Leuw, Cather & Company. “Santa Cruz-Los Gatos Rail Corridor Feasibility Study—Draft Final Report.” Prepared for the Joint Policy Board (Santa Clara County Transit District, Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, and Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District). December 1994.
  • Franklin, Denise. “Railroads would link Santa Cruz, San Jose.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (March 16, 1992): A2.
  • Franklin, Denise. “Areawide rail service studied.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (May 19, 1994): A3.
  • Franklin, Denise. “SLV residents oppose rail line’s expansion.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (July 21, 1994): A2.
  • Franklin, Denise. “Trains get set to roll.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (July 31, 1994): A1, A18.
  • Franklin, Denise. “Trying to avoid gridlocked future.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (February 13, 1995): A1, A6.
  • Franklin, Denise. “Commuter rail plan thrown off track.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (March 4, 1995): A1, A12.
  • Gaura, Maria. “Railroad company hopes to revive an old dream.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (September 25, 1988): 1, 4.
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • Jones, Frank N. “Railroad Important to Santa Cruz Area.” Santa Cruz Sentinel-News (August 16, 1946): 9.
  • Marks, Jamie. “Politicians give support to ‘fixed guide way’ transit system.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (September 16, 1984): A5.
  • McFadden, Ruth. “Private Hearing?” Letter to the Editor, Santa Cruz Sentinel (May 6, 1979): 36.
  • Plomp, Gary. “As you see it: Support for rail system.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (January 31, 1995): 11.
  • “Railway Interests Capitola.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (January 18, 1980): 38.
  • “Suntan Special.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (June 18, 1981): 2.
  • “Suntan Special Legislation.” Santa Cruz Sentinel (September 29, 1981): 16.
  • Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. “Fact Sheet: Transit—Vasona Light Rail Extension Project.” 2012.
  • Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission. “Santa Cruz Branch Line Acquisition Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).” May 4, 2010.
  • Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission. “Rail Transit Feasibility Study.” December 2015.
  • Whaley, Derek R. “The End of the Line: The Abandonment of Passenger Services in Santa Cruz County, California,” Railroad History 215 (2006): 12-33.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.
  • Wood, Wallace. “The Sun Tan Special: Will It Run Again?” Santa Cruz Sentinel (October 29, 1971): 1-2.
  • Wood, Wallace. “Why Bring Back the Suntan Special?” Santa Cruz Sentinel (December 19, 1971): 6. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Railroads: Early Monterey Bay Railroad Companies

Much like the railroads that attempted to reach San Francisco along the Central Coast, numerous railroads were founded from 1868 to 1907 to link the Monterey Bay to San Benito County and the Central Valley. Also similarly, none of them succeeded and their memory was quickly forgotten.

Monterey & Salinas Railroad (1868 – 1870)
Very little is known of this early railroading enterprise. Organized in January 1868, permitted by state law March 11, and formally incorporated January 2, 1869, this pioneer narrow-gauge intended to link the cities of Monterey and Natividad, northeast of Salinas. In addition, the company intended to build a large railroad wharf at Monterey and improve the waterfront. However, the people of Monterey voted against the railroad, possibly because the future Southern Pacific Railroad was hinting that it may head over to Monterey and Salinas. Despite two years of heavy politicking between the two cities, the railroad never was built. The provisos of the state law required construction to begin by March 1869 and completion of the route by 1874, neither of which occurred, rendering the company defunct.

A similar entity called the Monterey and Salinas Valley Railroad was completed in 1874 as a direct competitor of Southern Pacific, which had bypassed Monterey and charged high freight rates in Salinas.

San Benito Railroad (1875)
With the success of the Monterey & Salinas Valley Railroad in 1874, locals felt safer attempting for a second time to build a railroad to Hollister, undoubtedly continuing from where the M&SV line ended. The proposed San Benito Railroad, a 32-mile-long narrow-gauge line, would pass from Salinas, up San Miguel Canyon to San Juan Bautista and then over the ridge to Hollister. Because of its alignment, Santa Cruz County was too far out of the way and people in Watsonville feared that they would be bypassed entirely by that and the soon-to-be completed Santa Cruz Railroad, which was playing hardball with the Pajaro Valley city. The company was only incorporated on March 8, 1875, but survey work had already been done for months prior to incorporation. The route was planned to become part of an integrated narrow-gauge network, linking up with the Monterey & Salinas Valley, the Santa Cruz, and the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroads. Plans were also in place to continue the narrow-gauge route to the San Joaquin Valley and to San Francisco. However, after August 1875, all news of this railroad disappears, suggesting it went defunct.

Monterey & Fresno Railroad (1893 – 1898)
Map showing the proposed route between Pacific Grove
and Hollister of the Monterey & Fresno Railroad.
[California State Archives]
In August, 1892, nearly two decades after the previous attempt to build a railroad between Monterey and San Benito Counties had failed, a new proposal was forwarded that would connect Monterey not only to San Juan Bautista and Hollister, but Fresno. The primary intention of this railroad was for Fresno to gain ocean and steamship access that did not require the use of the Southern Pacific Railroad's tracks. Furthermore, discussions were in place with other proposed lines to connect the route, via the coast, with San Francisco. On January 15, 1893, the Monterey & Fresno Railroad was incorporated but disputes arose over stock subscriptions, which caused endless problems for the railroad. Meanwhile, the final survey of the 150-mile-long route was completed in May and it was agreed by the company to build a standard-gauge track. Since more of the subscribers were in Monterey County, the company agreed to begin the Monterey to Salinas segment of track first, as well as build the wharf at the beach so that steamships could be used in coordination with the line immediately. Talks also began with Claus Spreckels, who desired to build a railroad between Watsonville and Salinas (what would become the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad).

Newspapers in Santa Cruz, Hollister, and Fresno, however, began to note some strange things occurring by late 1893. At least one of the major investors in the line was a Southern Pacific employee of high standing. In May, the Santa Cruz Sentinel called the entire railroad a bluff to reduce Southern Pacific freight rates along the line. And in September, a memo leaked that suggested a major bond purchase was actually done on behalf of the Southern Pacific. Something was definitely up. Then, in December, it was revealed that Union Pacific may be behind the railroad in a bid to enter the California market. Surveyors continued to criss-cross the proposed route throughout 1893 and into 1894, ultimately surveying five full alignments, but no progress was made on construction. A promised ground-breaking on July 4, 1894 did not happen and the Monterey city council was forced to extend the railroad's charter by two years in January 1895. Ten miles of track between Monterey and Salinas was graded, but nothing more had been done.

By June 1897, the nails were being hammered into the coffin. Rumors began spreading that Claus Spreckels' Hawaiian friends would be constructing the railroad under a new name and with new money and that the old franchise was dead. But the company fought on with further extensions of their franchise, auditing to it grand plans to hook up with the equally-nonexistent West Shore Railroad that was intended to run up the coast to San Francisco. On January 18, 1898, after endless delays and promises, the franchise was finally forfeited. But promotors of the line refused to give up. They petitioned the county board of trustees and successfully regained their franchise on April 7 and the board gave them until January 1900 to get their railroad operational. In November, the railroad began gathering materials to begin construction; in December, piles for the wharf were gathered at Pacific Grove; in January 1899, worker huts were being assembled but a winter storm delayed further construction. Then nothing. In April, the California Construction Company, hired to build the road, waited to be paid while the wood rotted on the shore of Monterey Bay. Fingers were pointed, lawsuits were drawn up, the Vanderbilt and West Shore Railroad became involved. Everything fell apart. The franchise went defunct, as scheduled, January 1900, although its survey work was later used by the Monterey, Fresno & Eastern Railroad for its proposed, though never built, route.

Monterey Transportation Company (1903 – 1911)
Organized and operated as a streetcar line between downtown Watsonville and down Beach Road to Port Rogers on the Monterey Bay, this small railroad was imagined as so much more by its creator and chief promotor, W.J. Rogers. In June 1904, only months after opening the line, Rogers sent a survey team to search for a route to Hollister via San Juan Bautista. He anticipated this route would be completed by early 1905, but Southern Pacific, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, and the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad immediately undermined the project by lowering their prices across the  region. Although Rogers was optimistic, this severely undermined his project. Financial difficulties in 1905 mixed with the construction of the San Juan Pacific Railway that same year ended the dreams of this small railroad company.

Monterey, Fresno & Eastern Railroad (1906-1907)
Inevitably the next step in the Ocean Shore Railroad's grand scheme of crossing California, the Monterey, Fresno & Eastern Railroad was incorporated December 28, 1906 in Fresno with the intention of connecting Goldfield, Nevada, with Monterey via Fresno on an electric, standard-gauge line. When incorporated, only a fraction of the capital stock was subscribed and survey work was ongoing, but the company did place a large order of rails immediately, implying they intended to build the route. Surveyors heading east sought a pass beneath Yosemite National Park through Round Valley and Bishop Creek with the hope that new gold sources may be found in the process. From Goldfield, the investors hoped to connect to a line under construction from Salt Lake City, thereby taking one step further toward completing a transcontinental line. But everything fell apart soon afterwards and the company dissolved. The businesspeople of Monterey, tired of this sort of false hope, were once again disappointed, but as with anything to do with the Ocean Shore, the failure of this line seemed inevitable from hindsight.

Ocean Shore & Eastern Railway Company (1907 – 1911)
The Ocean Shore & Eastern Railway was established February 11, 1907 to connect Santa Cruz to Watsonville via a 20-mile electric standard-gauge line, with plans to eventually reach a proposed railroad in the Central Valley named the San Joaquin Valley Western Railway. Portions were likely to be electric and the railroad purchased a stake in the Watsonville Transportation Company for this purpose. The line was initially intended to link up with the San Juan Pacific, which was to build a route to Watsonville from Chittenden (a route from Chittenden to San Juan Bautista was already completed with plans to extend toward Hollister in the future). The financial panic of 1907, poor passenger revenue on the Ocean Shore and San Juan Pacific lines, and numerous political disagreements with the Santa Cruz City Council, Watsonville City Council, and County Board of Supervisors shelved the company's plans. The organization was dissolved on November 30, 1910.

San Joaquin Valley Western Railroad (1907)
Yet another branch of the eternally optimistic Ocean Shore, the San Joaquin Valley Western Railroad was incorporated as an electric railroad in April 1907 to connect Fresno and Watsonville over a 140-mile-long route via Tres Pinos, Hollister, and Chittenden. The fact that the middle portion of the route closely follows the proposed route of the San Juan Southern Railroad cannot be ignored and they were probably intended to connect. This line also intended to built two long branch lines to Hanford and Coalinga. At Watsonville (or Chittenden), the route was intended to link with the Ocean Shore & Eastern Railway to connect with San Francisco via the coastal track.

Fresno, Coalinga & Monterey Railroad (1910-1912)
Cover of solicitation booklet for the Fresno, Coalinga &
Monterey Railroad, 1911. [Heritage Society of Pacific Grove]
The end of the Ocean Shore schemes did not immediately end the idea of a railroad between Monterey and Fresno. Promotors still desired aa railroad between Fresno and Monterey, and in 1910, they wanted one that passed through Coalinga as well. Surveying began in January 1911, conducted by the Fresno, Coalinga, and Tidewater Company. The survey included two large bridges, presumably over the Salinas and San Benito Rivers, as well as an 800-foot tunnel, probably through the Diablo Range that separates Hollister from the San Joaquin Valley. The total length of the line was estimated at 200 miles, which included branch lines. On July 8, 1911, the Fresno, Coalinga & Monterey Railroad was incorporated to connect the three points with additional stops at Hollister and Salinas. This line was intended primarily for freight use, with hay, grain, oil, fruits, and wine being the primary products to be shipped over it.

Map of the proposed route of the Fresno, Coalinga & Monterey Railroad, from a 1911 solicitation booklet.
[Heritage Society of Pacific Grove]
As the promoters collected subscriptions and sold stocks, their goals expanded, as they are want to do. Suddenly, in addition to the named stops and branches, additional lines were announced to San Jose, Santa Cruz via Watsonville, Maricopa, and Bakersfield. When Fresno financiers failed to appear in December 1911, the railroad decided to seek more charitable cities including Merced, Modesto, and Turlock. Meanwhile, the building of this railroad became more imperative for Monterey when the federal government offered them $200,000 to improve their harbor on the condition that a railroad to the San Joaquin Valley is completed. No railroad, no harbor improvements. Desperate, Monterey set out to build its own line without funding from Fresno while Southern Pacific moved in to kill any profit that could be made from such a line by undercutting prices. And as a final problem, the Fresno, Coalinga, and Tidewater Company was flat broke and had no money to fund a railroad in 1912.

Monterey & Del Monte Heights Railroad (1912-1915)
A streetcar line built to connect Monterey and Salinas, 2.86 miles of the Monterey & Del Monte Heights Railroad were completed by February 22, 1912 when the company was purchased by the Consolidated Light & Power Company. At the same time, this company bought the Monterey & Pacific Grove Electric Railway (a streetcar line), the Monterey Light & Power Company, the Salinas Light & Power Company, and the Salinas Water Company. This move consolidated all the streetcar lines with the electrical systems in Monterey County, allowing the new company to run its electric train systems throughout the area. Although it seems that the initial intention of this consolidation was to construct a line to the San Joaquin Valley, directly challenging the Fresno, Coalinga & Monterey Railroad, and to build an entity capable of releasing federal funds for the harbor improvements, nothing appears to have happened at all. The Coast Valleys Gas & Electric Company bought the consolidated firm in March 1912 and promptly returned the Monterey & Del Monte Heights Railroad to its private, independent status. The streetcar company petitioned for abandonment April 7, 1915, due to lack of patronage since the Del Monte Heights subdivision failed to attract potential residents. In all likelihood, its brief stint as the first portion of a cross-state railroad was probably just an attempt to trick the government into releasing its funds.

Citations & Credits:
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • Railway Age Gazette 51:16 (October 20, 1911).
  • San Francisco Chronicle (1868-1912).
  • Santa Cruz Evening, Morning and Weekly Sentinel (1868-1912).
  • The Street Railway Journal 29:15 (April 13, 1907).
  • Wagner, Jack R. The Last Whistle (Ocean Shore Railroad). Berkeley, CA: Howell-North Books, 1974.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Maps: Lyndon to Summit Tunnel

The scenic ride along Los Gatos Creek between the southern end of Cats Canyon and the western portal of the Summit Tunnel (Tunnel #2) lacked none for aesthetic beauty. For 5.2 miles, the South Pacific Coast and, later, Southern Pacific meandered up the valley, primarily staying to the east of the creek but twice venturing to the opposite side. For such a short span, a surprising number of stations and stops appeared, both for freight and for passengers, and for the first thirty years of the railroad's existence, this stretch acted as the playground for Bay Area elites wishing to spend an afternoon in the redwood groves and grassy meadows of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Now, a third is inundated under Lexington Reservoir and the rest is situated within the lands of the San Jose Water Company.

Lexington School class beside a bridge
over Los Gatos Creek, c. 1890. [Bruce Franks]
Passenger train approaching Alma from the north, 1937. [Wilbur C. Whittaker]
Map of Southern Pacific trackage between Limekiln Canyon and Summit Tunnel west portal, c. 1905-1940

(according to the 1919 US Geological Survey map).
Children dressed in Halloween costumes outside
Alma Station, c. 1910. [Dale Phelps]
Track damage south of Alma, 1940. [Bruce MacGregor]
Union Oil Company well on Moody Gulch above
Aldercroft, 1953. [Bruce Franks]

Dam on Los Gatos Creek south of
Aldercroft, c. 1910. [Los Gatos Library]
Los Gatos Creek near Wright, 1905. Photo by
Frank Herman Mattern. [Greg De Santis]
Surveyors in front of the Summit Tunnel, 1907.
Photo by Frank Herman Mattern. [Greg De Santis]
Repair train crew at Wright, February 1907.
Photo by Frank Herman Mattern. [Greg De Santis]
A sawmill above Wright, 1893. [Bancroft Library]

Friday, December 22, 2017

Tunnels: Summit (Tunnel 2)

Legends whisper about it. Ghosts haunt it. Gas leaks from it. And rumor plagues it. Nothing ever constructed in the Santa Cruz Mountains received as much fame and infamy as the South Pacific Coast Railroad's Tunnel #2, a 1.2-mile-long pitch maw that humans arrogantly carved directly through the San Andreas Fault to connect Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. Mother Nature was displeased with the railroad in 1880 and fights even today to erase all trace of this presumptious hole bored directly through the heart of the mountains.

South portal of Summit Tunnel, crossing Burns Creek,
c. 1882. [Bruce MacGregor]
When the South Pacific Coast first drafted its plans to build a railroad between Alameda Point and Santa Cruz, management knew that they would have to go through the mountains somehow, but they waited and delayed and hesitated until mid-1878, when grading crews demanded a final alignment. Initially intended to pass into Soquel Canyon via a smaller tunnel to be located further up Los Gatos Creek so as to descend to the city of Santa Cruz via Soquel, railroad superintendent Alfred "Hog" Davis negotiated a deal with Santa Cruz entrepreneur Frederick A. Hihn and lumber magnate William P. Dougherty in September 1878 to divert the railroad to the San Lorenzo Valley first via a longer route through the Upper Soquel, Bean, and Zayante Creek watersheds. Rather than requiring a single tunnel through the mountains, the new route required four including two monstrously long ones, the longer of which would briefly hold the record for longest railroad tunnel in California. That Goliath of engineering was the Summit Tunnel.

Clearing out mud from the western (Wright) portal of the Summit Tunnel after a heavy rain, c. 1890. [Bruce MacGregor]
Construction began in October 1878 under the direction of Edward H. Mix. Around 100 Chinese workers were brought in to mine the tunnel from both sides of the bore and small camps developed at both sites. On the northern end, the worker camp developed into Wright, especially once freight and passenger service began coming to the location around spring 1879. On the other side, above Burns and Laurel Creeks, the town of Highland developed, where workers for both the Summit and the Glenwood Tunnel lived, as well as lumbermen who harvested and cut lumber on behalf of the railroad and Hihn. A steep switch-back road was built above the northern portal (today's Wrights Station Road) and over the ridge to Highland along what became Schulthies Road. Additional roads were extended off the San Jose-Santa Cruz Turnpike to Wright and off Mt. Charlie Road to Highland. Meanwhile, grading crews worked to install track to Wright and prepare the ground for track in the Highland area. All was proceeding as planned.

Reconstruction of the western portal of the Summit Tunnel, spring 1893. [Bruce MacGregor]
Throughout its existence, the Summit Tunnel had three significant problems—flooding, natural gas, and the San Andreas Fault—each of which will be addressed in turn. Ed Mix anticipated the first problem and designed the entire tunnel to slope gently downward from either side. It was an intelligent move that protected the tunnel interior from ever suffering heavy condensation or erosion. What Mix did not anticipate, though, was the intensity of water flowing down the gully above the tunnel at Wright. For whatever reason, surveyors had chosen to place the tunnel directly at the base of a steep gully that seasonally had significant amounts of water flow down it. Every winter for the first fifteen years of its existence, water poured off the top of the tunnel portal, silting the tracks and often throwing heavy debris below.

Work crews putting finishing touches on the new concrete western portal of the Summit Tunnel, 1893. [Bruce MacGregor]
The winter storm in 1893 was unusually bad and the entire portal at Wright collapsed. Early that spring, crews moved in and cleared the tunnel but the decided against rebuilding the wood-frame portal, opting instead for a complete overhaul. They widened the portal to standard-gauge, anticipating the line's upgrade a decade later, and used concrete rather than wood to reinforce the entrance. Furthermore, they installed a large spillway beside the portal to redirect the flow of water away from the mouth of the tunnel. This worked extremely well and the portal survived the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 and remained in use until the closure of the line in 1940. Unfortunately, when the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited the tunnel in April 1942 on behalf of Southern Pacific, the structural integrity of this older portal did not hold. The entire concrete face fell forward and has been sinking deeper in to the mud ever since. The only part that remained was some of the concrete frame inside the tunnel and half of the adjacent spillway. It remains the only one of the eight railroad portals in the mountains to be lost. Adding insult to injury, Mother Nature has reclaimed the tunnel since the portal's structural collapse and the seasonal gully now runs freely over the top of the tunnel remains and onto its debris pile below. Nature destroyed the tunnel once and humans vainly attempted to holder her back, but she has once again reclaimed it.

The remains of the western portal of Summit Tunnel, 2000s. [Brian Liddicot]
The other two problems that plagued the Summit Tunnel were unexpected. On November 16, 1878, after only a month of drilling, work crews discovered methane gas in the western end of the tunnel. Even as more workers passed out from overexposure, others began discovering coal deposits and oil spots on the ground. Workers began carrying lit candles and torches into the tunnel to burn off the natural gas, but a number of accidents occurred when workers returned after holidays, work stoppages, and Sundays. By January 1879, crews worked in utter darkness and no further effort was put to discovering the specific source of the gas leak. This was a tragic mistake. On Valentine's Day, an explosion shook the mountain and people began fleeing the tunnel, some aflame. Fourteen Chinese workers died and many other workers were severely burned. Work on the tunnel stopped for three months to search for solutions. Eventually, a new Chinese work crew was brought in (the old refused to return to the tunnel) and pipes were installed to pipe fresh air into the tunnel in the hope that the methane would be pushed out the front. Nonetheless, another incident occurred in June when a creosote-treated redwood beam caught fire and burned for two months. The fire spread to other beams and caused a cave-in, leading to another two-month delay.

Chinese worker standing outside the worker barracks near the Summit Tunnel's western portal, c. 1880. [Bancroft Library]
The most notorious incident, however, was that of November 17, 1879. On that date, crews were working in the tunnel when an explosion shot out of the portal like a cannon. Off-shift workers ran into the tunnel to pull out their friends, but another explosion erupted shortly afterwards. According to sources at the time, thirty-two Chinese laborers died that day. Tunnel construction came to a stand-still on both ends and Cornish workers from the New Almaden Quicksilver mines were eventually brought in to finish the job on the Wright side. By this point, the source of the methane leak was discovered and a pipe was hammered into the leak and a lantern installed to keep the gas burning. Electric lighting was also installed overhead to avoid other open flames. No further incidences occurred and the tunnel was finally finished on May 10, 1880. The boring through of the tunnel inevitably aided in air circulation, providing further protection from an explosion. Regardless, when the western portal was rebuilt in 1893, the methane leak, which was not actually that far into the tunnel, was completely cemented over, thereby resolving the issue permanently. Nothing else has ever been said of the leak, but a persistent rumor exists that a seismology group attempted to inspect the tunnel for internal damage after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake but quickly closed the small hole they had made at Wright when high quantities of methane gas was detected on their instruments. The tunnel may well be a ticking time bomb hiding deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Work crews widening and re-boring portions of the Summit Tunnel, 1906-7. [Bruce MacGregor]
Damage to the Summit Tunnel after the 1906 earthquake.
Western portal visible in distance. [Bancroft Library]
One thing that is certainly true is that the San Andreas Fault had no respect whatsoever for the tunnel. When the earth trembled in April 1906, it shifted by five feet within the tunnel. Like the gas deposit, the damage was largely localized to the western side of the tunnel, since the fault was only about 200 feet inside. Due to poor economic conditions after the earthquake, it took over a year to reopen the tunnel. The new structure was standard-gauge, completely re-timbered, and sported a brand-new concrete portal on the eastern (Laurel) side. A brick ceiling was also installed for roughly 300 feet on that side since the soil was primarily weak sedimentary rocks and required additional support. Because of that brick ceiling and the threat of collapse, US Army engineers decided to only blast the tunnel beyond this point, so the first 300 feet of the eastern portal remains even today as one of the most intact Southern Pacific tunnels in the county (the other being the Zayante Tunnel, which remains in use by FileSafe). That being said, it cannot be doubted that the western portal, located much closer to the fault, probably sustained further damage inside. Due to the destroyed entrance and the probable presence of methane, the current condition of the interior cannot be known.

A velocipede in the western portal of the Summit Tunnel, c. 1910s. [Bruce MacGregor]
The eastern portal of the Summit Tunnel,
c. 1930. [Bruce MacGregor]
In the end, the story of the Summit Tunnel is one of tragedy upon tragedy, disaster after disaster. But what people do not discuss is the fact that, from 1907 until 1942, the tunnel did its job without incident. At 6,157 feet, it was the longest tunnel in the county and remained one of the longest in the United States throughout its existence. It began life as a narrow-gauge tunnel on a relatively short-line railroad and ended as a standard-gauge tunnel on a major branch line of the Southern Pacific octopus. Each disaster strengthened it until it became impervious to most threats. Its solid redwood interior—completely replaced and upgraded in 1907—ensured its durability. Its ultimate closure and inglorious destruction in 1942 were not due to the tunnel, but due to short-sighted business decisions by an over-extended railway company. Most of the tunnel probably survives beyond its collapsed entrances, and the eastern end certainly has plenty to offer visitors even if the line never reopens. But rest assured: if the line over the Santa Cruz Mountains is reopened, the old Summit Tunnel will rise to the occasion once again and Mother Nature will inevitably fight against its survival every step of the way.

The brick ceiling of the eastern portal of the Summit
Tunnel showing few signs of aging, 2012. [Derek Whaley]
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Western Portal: 37.138˚N, 121.948˚W
Eastern Portal: 37.123˚N, 121.964˚W

The site of the western portal of the Summit Tunnel is easily accessed from the bottom of Wrights Station Road, which is off Morrell Road on Summit Road. Just before crossing the bridge over Los Gatos Creek, the path to the portal can be found. Look for mailboxes and follow the short trail up the gully. The portal cannot be missed. Visiting this tunnel, however, is considered trespassing by the San Jose Water Company and they will ticket any vehicles it finds parked within their area. You have been warned!

The site of the eastern portal is currently unavailable to the public by special request of the owner. In any case, the tunnel was partially flooded in the January-February 2017 storms and the primary two trails to the tunnel have both suffered heavy damage and must be repaired before they should be used. The new property owners hope to allow access to the site at some point in the future. Check back on this page for future information.

Citations & Credits:
  • MacGregor, Bruce A., and Richard Truesdale. A Centennial: South Pacific Coast. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1980.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Picnic Stops: Sunset Park

Of the series of picnic stops developed by the Southern Pacific Railroad in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Sunset Park, located just north of Wright, was probably the most popular and infamous. Despite suggestions to the contrary, Sunset Park was a very short-lived tourist resort, only thriving for about ten years. The first picnic stop along the line was Grove Park, in Los Gatos, and that was replaced in around 1888 with Forest Grove, located roughly 1.5 miles to the north of Wright. But the railroad owned neither of those locations and felt inclined to purchase a property that it could manage itself.

A picnic train on the spur across from Sunset Park, c. 1900. Note the Japanese lanterns. The purpose of the large structure behind the train is unknown. [Vernon Sappers]
Picnickers walking beside a train toward the swing
bridge to Sunset Park, c. 1900. [Vernon Sappers]
In January 1896, the railroad settled on a small, 35-acre maple grove situated above the main town of Wright on the west bank of Los Gatos Creek. The railroad tracks did not go here but they did pass through the original Wright townsite across the creek, which had been rehabilitated in 1893 to deal with the repair and restoration of the Summit Tunnel. The track was extended slightly and a pedestrian swing bridge was installed across the creek to connect the detraining area with the grove. A restaurant and clubhouse were built in the trees beside the grove, and a dancing pavilion was erected as well. Many different activities were advertised for vacationers, including deer hunting, fishing, tennis, boating, and swimming. The creek itself was dammed seasonally for the latter two activities. Japanese lanterns marked the property on all sides and are one of the key means of identifying photographs of the park.

Southern Pacific worked hard to market Sunset Park. They cut their rates from $5.00 to $3.00 for roundtrips from San Francisco or Oakland. The excursion trains they sent to the park could each take roughly 500 tourists separated into ten passenger cars. Once at the park, the railroad would sell beer and fresh foods such as French bread, gourmet cheeses, imported cured meats, and barbecued lamb. At night, electrical lighting in the lanterns illuminated the grove while live music was performed for dancers.

Sunset Magazine, originally a marketing tool of Southern Pacific, noted in 1898:
"At Sunset Park, the pavilion accommodates with ease one thousand dancers, and among the redwood groves are romantic pathways along which, in shady nooks, permanent tables and benches are placed for the convenience of small parties."
A train parked on the Sunset Park spur, probably in its first year since there are few amenities. [Vernon Sappers]
Locals posing beside a Sunset Park excursion
train outside Wright. [Vernon Sappers]
The locals were unsurprisingly able to exploit the park to its fullest. Although Southern Pacific never built any hotels or cottages within their property—and indeed never intended the site to be used for anything other than afternoon and evening activities—local businesses set up rental cottages all around the hills above the grove and a new large hotel was built in Wright to support the summer tourism. During summer weekends, thousands of visitors would come to Sunset Park aboard special excursion trains that would crowd the sidings and spurs at Wright, while many groups hired out Sunset Park for its annual gatherings.

Sunset Park quickly got a reputation about it. Due to the ruggedness of the environment, people let their inhibitions drop. Drunkenness, rowdiness, and other societally frowned-upon activities were common at the park, and obnoxious revellers littered the entire right-of-way from Wright to Alameda in the late evenings as the merrymakers returned home. Often, conductors would literally shove the worst offenders off the slow-moving train in punishment for their lack of respect for the train or other passengers. The grove itself became quickly unmanageable as many tourists would take natural souvenirs, decimating the local flora and forcing the railroad to hire gardeners to maintain the place.

Sunset Park advertisement, appropriately shown
with bottles of liquor atop it. [Bruce MacGregor]
By 1903, the location was becoming to much of a problem for the railroad and the company leased it to a concessionaire. However, the standard-gauging of the tracks to Wright in May of that year meant that excursion trains could now go directly to Sunset Park from anywhere in the Bay Area. For a brief three years, Sunset Park rivalled any other tourist destination in the region, including the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey. Yet problems continued. A derailment in July 1904 and collision in August, both in Cats Canyon, sparked anger and fears among vacationers. Furthermore, residents in Wright were becoming upset that so many drunken people were vandalizing their town.

Southern Pacific finally decided in January 1906 to stop all such excursions through the isolated Santa Cruz Mountains in favor of a more accessible and less populated location on the New Almaden Branch. The new picnic stop, also to be named Sunset Park, was scheduled to open in summer 1906, but the San Francisco Earthquake in April of that year delayed plans somewhat. Outside Wright, the spur for Sunset Park became the new end-of-track for passenger trains while all the other spurs and sidings were repurposed for construction duty since the San Andreas Fault had shifted the tunnel six feet from its original alignment. Any thoughts of tourism to the area came to an end and the two hotels in town were both turned into tunnel worker dormitories.

Overview of the area around Sunset Park, which was located just to the left of center in this photo. The large hotel built to support tourists from Sunset Park is located at right, c. 1908. Photo by Frank Herman Mattern. [Greg De Santis]
  For a long decade between the completed repairs of the Summit Tunnel in summer 1893 and the earthquake of April 1906, Wright thrived as a tourist haven and summer resort, with the popularity of Sunset Park bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists to the Santa Cruz Mountains. But it was a fleeting moment. After earthquake repairs were completed, the Sunset Park spur was removed, the grove abandoned or sold to a local resident, and the town began its inexorable decline.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.138˚N, 121.950˚W

The site of Sunset Park's spur is easily accessible. It can be found at the bottom of Wrights Station Road across the bridge to the right. Cathermola Road marks the right-of-way here, but there is no actual trace of the stop that survives. The maple grove is presumably across the creek, but all of that property is owned by the San Jose Water Company and trespassing is not allowed. Whether the original maple grove survives is currently unknown.

Citations & Credits:
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • MacGregor, Bruce A., and Richard Truesdale. A Centennial: South Pacific Coast. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1982.
  • Stephen Michael Payne, "Resorts in the Summit Road Area, 1850 – 1906" (Santa Cruz: Public Libraries, 1978). From A Howling Wilderness: A History of the Summit Road area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, 1850 – 1906. Santa Cruz, CA: Loma Prieta Publishing, 1978.
  • Sunset: Southern Pacific Company Passenger Dept.Vol. 1 (Southern Pacific Company, 1898). 
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Stations: Wright

Of all the inevitabilities that the South Pacific Coast Railroad faced on its descend up Los Gatos Creek, one was that the right-of-way would have to pass through the land of Reverend James Richard Wright, who owned an entire stretch of the creek basin north of Austrian Gulch. Fortunately for the railroad, Wright saw great opportunity in the arrival of steam to his neighborhood. Wright owned a fruit orchard and a stagecoach stop called Arbor Villa and the railroad would accomplish two things: allow him to cheaply ship fruit out of the valley and bring potential tourists to his frontier hotel. But the coming of the railroad did much more in the end—it turned the little settlement into a thriving backwoods resort area.

People visiting Wright on a push car, c. 1880. Photo by Rodolph Brandt. [Bancroft Library]
In 1877, grading crews for the railroad reached the area and began calculating their final path over the Santa Cruz Mountains. A gully located on the west bank of Los Gatos Creek and within Wright’s property was chosen as the site of the Summit Tunnel, the largest bore along the line. Early the next year, a Chinese labor camp was established beside the hole while a small village popped up on the opposite bank of the creek. By the end of 1878, the hamlet would include a kitchen, maintenance sheds, a turntable for the construction trains, a small saloon, a general store, smithy, and accommodations for visitors to the site. By 1879, intermixed with those official visitors were curious Bay Area tourists, who took trains from San Francisco and San José to watch the action and enjoy a picnic in the woods along the tracks to the tunnel. To support the increased traffic, sidings were added on both sides of the creek and an extra spur was installed near the tunnel. In 1879, a station structure was built near the tunnel’s portal, within which the post office for Wrights was located.

The town of Wrights on a busy market day, with box cars being loaded, c. 1895. [Los Gatos Public Library]
As soon was the tunnel was opened to through traffic on May 10, 1880, Wrights began its rapid transition into a thriving—and optimistic—resort town. Homes quickly appeared on the surrounding hills while small hotels and resorts popped up throughout the area. Across the creek at the primary settlement, A.J. Rich began construction of a new township that would place Wrights on the map. But before he even got started, the entire town burned to the ground on July 4, 1885. Within a year, new buildings sprang up on the opposite bank of the creek, beside the tunnel portal and depot, and the second town of Wrights began its life. The area became a gathering place for local farmers, ranchers, and fruit-growers to load their goods onto trains bound for Bay Area cities. A souvenir book produced by the San Jose Mercury in 1895 describes in detail this period:

The Rich Fruit-growing Section in the Surrounding Mountains. Fertile Soil and Grand Scenery. Private Residences and Summer Resorts. Natural Gas and Mineral Springs. 
Wrights Station, though a small village, is an important shipping point, as it is the depot for the extensive fruit growing sections in the surrounding mountains.  Travelers on the cars receive little intimation from what they see along the route or at the station, concerning the rich and beautiful section which crowns the mountain above the heavy belt of timber which covers the hillside, and reaches down into the stream which rushes through the canyon. The roads which leave the little space of open ground by the depot to enter the leafy tunnels through the woods furnish no suggestion of the vine-clad slopes, the towering redwoods, the green fields, the cozy homes and bending fruit trees which adorn the great territory above and beyond.  The beauty of this section can scarcely be described. There is a wealth of resource, a grandeur of scenery, and a fertility of soil that challenges description. 
The Great Mountain Fruit Region The amount of fruit shipped indicates in a  manner of horticultural wealth of the county.  There are in the vicinity about 3, 200 acres being of various varieties.  The fruit raised in this section takes on a richness of flavor which is always noticeable. It is is firm in texture, also, and its keeping qualities therefore , pronounced.  The in season, about two carloads of green fruit are shipped daily.  The brush is being cleared from the northern side of the canyon, and the land planted to vines.  When these come into bearing the output of the vicinity will be very materially increased.
Soils and SpringsThe body of  the soil consists largely  of disintegrated sandstone and clay, and has the appearance, particularly on the hilltops, of the "white ash" soil of the Fresno raisin district.  It is rich in plant food, and never lacks moisture, as the rainfall in this section is always sufficient for all needs.  Springs emerge from the mountain sides in numerous places, some of which are mineral, and from every steep ravine rushes a sparkling stream.  The atmosphere is always cool, influenced as it is by breezes from the coast. 
The Flow of Natural GasWrights Station has a resource which may yet prove to be of great importance.  When the great tunnel was being driven through the mountain by the railway company a strong flow of natural gas was encountered, and an explosion followed, which resulted in the death  of thirty-two Chinamen. The main leak was subsequently stopped, but gas still escapes in small quantities.  The extent of the supply is unknown, but is probably great enough to warrant developments.
Grand Scenery and Picturesque HomesThe scenery is everywhere beautiful, and within the past few years people in search of sites for homes have climbed on mountain sides, searched out the springs, and made winding roads around the knolls, up the canyons, and to the very summits. The brush has in many places been cut away, and trees and vines cover knolls and hillsides.  White houses stand on projecting points far above the canyons, or nestle in groves of trees on the benches.(From Sunshine, Fruit and Flowers: Santa Clara County and its Resources—Historical, Descriptive, Statistical)
In 1896, a freight depot was installed across the creek to support the thriving industrial culture at Wrights, and in the first decade of the twentieth century, a water tower was installed to provide water to large trains. A school was built the next year to educate the young children of families that had moved to the area. Wrights remained an important upper Los Gatos Creek industrial hub until the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

Photo by Frank Herman Mattern of Wright Station, 1905. [Greg De Santis]
The final thirty years of Wright, as it was formally renamed in 1904, is a story of declining fortunes. The earthquake forced Southern Pacific to seek newer picnic areas elsewhere along their lines, shifting the focus away from the Los Gatos Creek region. Meanwhile, most locals were forced to reassess their options regarding the profitability of local agriculture and began the long process of relocating to more profitable and accessible areas of the state.

The final location of Wright depot, 1908. Photo by Frank Herman Mattern. [Greg De Santis]
After the earthquake, few revenue and tourist trains went to Wright during this time because of the activity surrounding the repairs of the Summit Tunnel. Because of damage sustained to the tunnel, Wright’s depot was relocated across the creek and, after 1908, slightly further north on that same side of the creek.

Wrights Station Hotel and the Squire General Merchandise store, c. 1910.
For the next decade, Charles Henry Squire’s general store served as the center of the town, with a hotel across the tracks from it and a few other smaller businesses and homes rounding out the community. Across the tracks, the station sat isolated across from a dilapidating pair of narrow-gauge passenger cars that had served as the tunnel repairs shops from 1906 to 1908.

Postcard showing Wright with wineries on hills behind, c. 1915. [Ken Lorenzen]
The start of Prohibition in 1920 bankrupted the local wineries, which were some of the only freight patrons still using the station by that time. The local fruit orchards, which had thrived at Wright for two decades, had mostly given up on commercial growing due to severe competition in the Santa Clara Valley. Also in 1920, the Glenwood Highway (State Route 5) was completed, which diverted much of the traffic away from Wright, which at that time sat on a lightly-used San Jose-Santa Cruz road. Accordingly, the Southern Pacific Railroad cut back all the excess trackage at Wright and began using them only as passing sidings for passenger trains. In 1923, Squire’s general store, a centerpiece of the town for over two decades, shut its doors. Five years later, a lack of pupils caused the Wright School to close, too.

Wright a few months after the line was abandoned, 1940. The tracks sit under an overgrown landslide.
The end came on July 16, 1932 when the depot at Wright closed. In 1936, the entire town was purchased by the San Jose Water Company to make management of their properties on either side of Wright easier and to reduce creek pollution. Two years later, on May 25, the passenger and freight depot buildings were demolished, leaving only a sign on a post to mark the stop. Since the post office was located in the station by this time, it too closed. All the remaining buildings in town, except a few residences, were similarly removed by the water company. By 1940, only 50 people lived in the vicinity of the station. When the line between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz was irreparably damaged on February 26 of that year, few people in the Wright area cared. The line was abandoned, the station scrubbed from timetables, and the location became a secret hidden by the water company. To mark the final finis on the town, Arbor Villa burned to the ground that summer, erasing the last commercial business associated with the once-dominant settlement in the Upper Los Gatos Creek basin.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.138˚N, 121.947˚W

The original site of Wright’s is easy to access—it is located at the bottom of Wright Station Road, which is off of Morrill Road on the Summit. Look for the row of mailboxes, which sit roughly where the depot structure once was located. There is virtually nothing of the town left except a few concrete foundation blocks and the old bridge that has sat across Los Gatos Creek since around 1914. The San Jose Water Company patrols this area frequently so people are advised not to leave their cars alone for prolonged periods of time. While the road itself is public access, the shoulders are not. The original site of the town, across the creek, is visible across the bridge to the south. The later site of the station, also across the creek, is unfortunately now behind a razor-wire security gate and trespassing is not encouraged. Wright Station Road is now a dead-end road—the three listed roads in this area are not open to the public.

The only remnant of Wright today—a row of mailboxes where once stood the depot. [Brian Liddicoat]
Citations & Credits:
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railroads. 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.