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, February 16, 2018

Stations: Edric

Not all of the stops along the Southern Pacific Railroad route through the Santa Cruz Mountains were there from the beginning. Indeed, some appeared quite late. One such location was Edric, located along Burns Creek just across from the Summit Tunnel's eastern portal. The location name was a reference to Frederick A. Hihn, the local property and lumber magnate who owned most of the Upper Soquel Creek basin, including Burns and Laurel creeks.

In 1899, Hihn realized that his old lumber mill on Gold Gulch near Felton had nearly run out of viable timber. At the end of the year, he began the arduous task of relocating his machinery to the confluence of Burns and Laurel creeks with the intention of opening a new mill the following year. By November 1900, the mill was in full swing, producing 45,000 board feet of lumber per day. A cable tramway was installed in August 1901 that climbed from the mill to Laurel town along the railroad right-of-way. But for some unknown reason, this wasn't enough. A second station was required along the railroad grade.

Appearing first in the January 1902 timetable and station book, Edric was little more than a waypoint along the railroad line. It may not have even served the mill, although it was certainly named after the Hihn. The most likely explanation for the stop's sudden appearance in 1902 is that it was established in anticipation of a worker camp which would be situated nearby to upgrade the eastern portal of the Summit Tunnel. Standard-gauge tracks already reached Wright by this point and plans were in place to upgrade the tunnel as soon as possible. The stop included a 134-foot-long spur that ran up the western bank of Burns Creek a short distance. A spur this size was too small for much of anything other than parking a three narrow-gauge cars. While it is possible that Hihn used the spur to load felled trees from above Burns Creek and haul them down to the mill, there is no evidence to support this idea.

Further evidence that Edric was a temporary station designed to park tunnel repair cars comes in 1906. In that year, the San Francisco Earthquake occurred, collapsing the Summit Tunnel, thereby forcing the closure of the entire route. Repairing and upgrading the tunnel became a priority for the Southern Pacific, and the Summit Tunnel was the first item on the list. The spur at Edric was expanded to 234 feet and was probably dual-gauged at this point, meaning it could hold three full-sized flatcars. But this was the station's swan song.

The site of Edric across Burns Creek from the Summit Tunnel's eastern portal, with a tunnel repair car parked on the spur,
February 29, 1940. [Bruce MacGregor]
In October 1909, Edric was erased from timetables and station books. The spur, however, remained, as evinced by a photograph taken in 1940, after the route through the mountains had been permanently disabled by the disastrous winter of that February. The photograph shows clearly that a tunnel repair car sat on the spur, probably permanently stationed there to maintain the tunnel's integrity. No similar car was stationed near the western portal, so this single car was probably responsible for making any repairs to the line.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.126˚N, 121.964˚W

The location of Edric is on private property and trespassing is not allowed. Nothing remains of the site except a small portion of level grade, the remainder of which has been eroded by Burns Creek.

Citations & Credits:
  • Rick Hamman, California Central Coast Railways (Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002).
  • Southern Pacific Railroad, Officers, Agencies & Stations, 1902 to 1909.
  • Southern Pacific Railroad, Coast Division Time Tables, 1902 to 1909.
  • Whaley, Derek. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Railroads: Ocean Shore Railway & Railroad Companies

Official Ocean Shore Railroad map, c. 1910s.
The years prior to the San Francisco earthquake of April 1906 were bonanza years for railroads along the Central Coast. Numerous plans were taking shape to settle the coast and connect it with both Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Surveys of the route between the two end points had been conducted in the 1880s and 1890s and already proven the feasibility of construction. All that was left was implementation.

Ocean Shore Railway Company (1905-1911)
While no venture ever succeeded in connecting San Francisco and Santa Cruz, the Ocean Shore Railway Company came the closest. Founded on May 18, 1905, less than a year before the earthquake that led to its ultimate financial failure, the railroad was established with the explicit aim to connect the two cities via a double-tracked, standard-gauge, electric railroad line totalling eighty miles in length. A longer term goal of the company was to link up with other railroads that were under construction or being incorporated to build a new transcontinental line that would bypass the Southern Pacific monopoly on western rail transportation.

Throughout the next few months, land was purchased for use as a right-of-way. The Ocean Shore, unlike other railroads, bought most of its land outright rather than buying rail easements through properties. This allowed them greater flexibility, but it also made everything drastically more expensive. But the Central Coast was still poorly developed, so prices remained reasonable. The railroad also purchased excess land in a number of bays south of San Francisco for future development as resorts, housing subdivisions, and commercial-industrial ventures. Large tracts of lumber in the Pescadero and Butano basins attracted the railroad, while the potentially lucrative cement market developing in Davenport also caught the railroad's eye.
The Ocean Shore office on Bay Street in Santa Cruz, 1906. Annotations by Peter Nurkse. Photo by George Lawrence. [Santa Cruz MAH]
As construction began, it was clear in the south that the Ocean Shore Railway and Coast Line Railroad (a Southern Pacific subsidiary) would be competing heavily for the cement market. The Ocean Shore right-of-way was developed first, heading out of Santa Cruz down Delaware Avenue before turning toward the foothills, where it met with the Coast Line right-of-way just east of Wilder Ranch. The two lines more or less paralleled each other for the next ten miles to Davenport, with the Ocean Shore remaining on the ocean side throughout. This effectively blocked them from accessing the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company plant, as well as a number of farms and homesteads which were located between the Coast Road (future State Route 1) and the railroad tracks. Shattuck and Desmond were hired to build both railroad routes, but Southern Pacific became delayed in late 1905, allowing the Ocean Shore to push ahead to Davenport without competition. Between late October 1905 and January 1906, tracks were laid between Santa Cruz and Davenport and massive wooden trestle bridges were erected over roughly ten deep gulches south of the coastal town. Southern Pacific, risking the forfeiture of their shipping contract with the cement plant, outsourced to Ocean Shore until their line was completed later in 1906.
Extract from "Bird's Eye View of the City of Santa Cruz," 1907, showing the Ocean Shore route through West Side with the proposed viaduct over the Southern Pacific's Union Depot Yards on Center Street. [Bancroft Library]
Progress continued steadily. By April 1906, the Ocean Shore grading crews in the north had reached as far south as Devil's Slide near Pacifica, while in the south they had reached as far north as Scott Creek near Davenport. Plans were afoot to construct a small creekside resort along Scott Creek named Folger, after the investor and coffee magnate. The railroad had also purchased a subsidiary of the Union Traction Company, a streetcar company, in Santa Cruz to convert it to mainline service. A large depot was planned in downtown near the Cooper House that would have put the Southern Pacific depot to shame. And between Bay Street and Garfield Avenue (Woodrow), a sprawling maintenance yard developed that included numerous spurs and sidings, workshops and engine houses, and a wye to turn trains around. But the 1906 earthquake changed everything. Much of its equipment and right-of-way had fallen into the ocean and most of its investors were now struggling to remain afloat. In the south, construction continued after the temblor. Trains began regular service on June 15, while track-building to Scott Creek was finished in October. Fourteen miles of rail had now been placed out from Santa Cruz.
Ocean Shore train assisting in the recovery of San Francisco, 1906. [Bancroft Library]
Things began to fall apart in 1907. A financial panic that years deprived the company of many of its investors. Meanwhile, the recovery from the earthquake was going differently than planned—people were not moving out of San Francisco to the coast. Rather, they were rebuilding within the city limits. The future of the resorts and subdivisions planned along the coast were in doubt. Meanwhile, expenses in recovering lost equipment and rebuilding right-of-way deprived the railroad of much of its limited revenue. And lastly, the Coast Line Railroad was nearly completed. By August 1907, regular service between Santa Cruz and Davenport via the Coast Line began and the Ocean Shore was literally cut off from the main trade on both ends. In Davenport, the Coast Line extended its track to Davenport Landing, where it built a wye and numerous sidings and spurs, effectively blocking any transfer of material to the adjacent Ocean Shore tracks. In Santa Cruz, Southern Pacific extended a spur out to Cowell Beach, blocking the Ocean Shore from entering Santa Cruz through their proposed route. Their alternative—building a massive causeway over the Southern Pacific yard and down Center Street—was rejected by the city council. They relocated their passenger depot from the temporary structure overlooking the Southern Pacific yards to a slightly larger building on Bay Street. It remains a mystery where passengers boarded, but passenger service largely fell off in 1908 and it never recovered. While the Northern Division seemed promising due to steady property sales and sustained interest, the Southern Division was stagnating and trending toward a loss.

The Southern Division only survived due to the fortuitous interest of the San Vicente Lumber Company, which was founded in May 1908 to harvest the timber along Little Creek near the tiny hamlet of Swanton. Since the Ocean Shore had already built track to Scott Creek, it took little effort to convince the railroad to extend a track two miles up the creek to the confluence of Little Creek. The lumber firm build their large mill at Antonelli Pond, midway between the Ocean Shore and Coast Line right-of-ways, which allowed for an easy exchange of train cars between the two lines. At Swanton, the line was extended further to the base of Mill Creek, where the Loma Prieta Lumber Company built a mill.
Ocean Shore Railway passenger train at Devil's Slide, 1910. Photo by Bruno Crenci. [Pacific History Wikispaces]
The Northern Division ultimately reached Tunitas Glen in late 1908, but this would be the maximum extent of the railway line. Twenty-seven miles of partially graded right-of-way still stood between Tunitas and Scott Creek, and this section would never be filled. Storms in early 1909 delayed further construction as portions of the existing right-of-way had to be repaired. Throughout the year, creditors called for repayment and the railroad fell further into debt. On December 6, 1909, the railroad went bankrupt.

Ocean Shore Railroad Company (1911-1934, as a railroad until 1920)
Bondholders of the company purchased the Ocean Shore at auction in January 1911 and reincorporated as the Ocean Shore Railroad Company on October 9. Although the new owners no longer advertised a double track or electric railroad, they did still seek to connect the two ends and ultimately expand further, to Boulder Creek, to Watsonville, and eventually to the Central Valley. Most of the plans for the Southern Division were on long-term hold, pending funds. Passenger service continued, with a Stanley Steamer autobus connecting passengers over the gap between Swanton and Tunitas from 1914, but it is unlikely this service was overly popular or heavily utilised. Most of the revenue in the south came from the San Vicente and Loma Prieta lumber operations above Scott Creek.
Articles of Incorporation for the Ocean Shore Railroad Company, October 1911. [Bancroft Library]
By 1920, competition with automobiles had cut deeply into Ocean Shore pockets, while labor disputes in August across the line forced railroad operations to come to a sudden halt. This proved to be the end of the Ocean Shore Railroad. Both divisions were formally abandoned in October, the Northern Division on the 10th, the Southern Division on the 23rd. The right-of-way (but not property), tracks, and rolling stock on the southern division was sold to the San Vicente Lumber Company on October 27, which continued to use the route for the next three years. The Ocean Shore Railroad did not actually close at this time but rather remained as a property developer that maintained a distant hope that their railroad would someday be realized.

Ocean Shore Railroad Company, Inc. (1934-Present)
After roughly a decade of court proceedings against them, largely over the fact that the company no longer operated a railroad, the Ocean Shore reincorporated once again, this time as the Ocean Shore Railroad Company, Inc., founded in Reno, Nevada on November 16, 1934. Like its predecessors, it was founded with the explicit, though perhaps not genuine, goal of rehabilitating the abandoned Ocean Shore right-of-way. The previous company had spent nearly fourteen years attempting to find the funds to rebuild the line while simultaneously defending its right-of-way from neighbors and others who wished to utilize it for other purposes. The incorporation of a new company was intended to fix some problems but the death in August 1935 of Selah Chamberlain, the new company's chief financier and dreamer, threatened to end this project before it began. In the nine months between incorporation and Chamberlain's death, the entire route was surveyed, new alignments were found, and portions were graded. Two decades later, however, it was found that this work was simply an attempt by the company to appear as if they desired to rehabilitate the line in order to maintain a firmer footing in condemnation proceedings which were being held against them for portions of the right-of-way. On September 28, 1956, it was ruled that the company had no intention to rebuild the railroad line and that condemnation proceedings could proceed against the organization. The company remains a property holder, essentially owning strips of right-of-way between San Francisco and Santa Cruz along the coast, but they have been absent from most public records since their last court cases in the 1970s. Who owns this company, how it operates, and indeed how much land the company still owns is not entirely known.

Citations & Credits:
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • Hunter, Chris. Images of Rail: Ocean Shore Railroad. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.
  • Wagner, Jack Russel. The Last Whistle: Ocean Shore Railroad. Berkeley, CA: Howell-North Books, 1974.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Curiosities: Big Trees

For such a popular tourist resort, Big Trees in Felton—now known as Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park—is one of the least understood places in the county. The history of the site begins in February 1846, when Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Frémont, with his partner Kit Carson, passed through the San Lorenzo Valley on a surveying expedition and allegedly camped within a hollowed-out tree on the edge of the Big Trees grove. It was not until twenty-two years later, though, that the location was made accessible to the wider public. The completion of the toll road between Santa Cruz and the newly laid-out town of Felton in 1868 allowed visitors to come to the redwood grove and peruse the towering giants. A number of small hotels, restaurants, saloons, and other amenities sprang up in the town to support both the industrial trades—mining, lumbering, and tanning—and the nascent tourism market. A year earlier, a San Francisco couple, Joseph Warren Welch and his wife, Anna, purchased 350 acres of Rancho Zayante, which included the redwood grove and the large meadow beside it. Initially, the Welchs intended to use the property as a private ranch—which they did with over half the estate—but a constant flow of seasonal tourists convinced them that access to the redwood grove could not be denied to the public.

General Frémont beside his tree at Big Trees, 1888. [Penny Postcards of California]
A tree covered in postcards at Big Trees,
c. 1900. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
President Theodorore Roosevelt at
Big Trees, 1903. [Bancroft Library]
The primary attraction at Welch's Big Trees, as it came to be called, was the "Fremont Tree," the hollowed-out redwood that he had apparently camped within in 1846. However, until the late 1870s, another larger tree was also known as the "Fremont Tree" since Isaac Graham, owner of Rancho Zayante, had named it such back in the 1840s and even carved an "F" in the bark to designate it. Slowly, the name transferred to the smaller, albeit more famous tree, and the larger tree was rechristened the "Giant" around 1884, right around the time the "F" had entirely disappeared. From the mid-1870s to the mid-1900s, thousands of people came to visit Welch's Big Trees, and a tradition began of nailing postcards to the bark of the giant trees. All of the named trees, which increased in number almost annually, eventually were marked with postcards until President Theodore Roosevelt visited in 1903 and effectively ended the practice by making a derisive off-hand comment about it. The arrival of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad in 1875, which installed a passenger station across the San Lorenzo River near the modern-day site of Cotillion Gardens, only increased the popularity of the grove.

Big Trees Hotel with man reading newspaper, c. 1880s. Photo by Charles Wallace Jacob Johnson. [California State Library]
A covered dining area setup beside the Big Trees Hotel, c, 1890s. [Ken Lande]
When Joseph Welch died in 1875, his wife leased the grove to J.M. Hooper. Hooper quickly began building structures across from the Fremont Tree, beginning with a small hotel. The arrival of the South Pacific Coast Railroad in May 1880, which passed immediately above the hotel and through the Welch property, prompted Hooper to expand and add a dance floor between the Fremont Tree's grove and the lonely Giant. The railroad, meanwhile, set up a flag and picnic stop nearby for use by tourists. Over the years, the hotel resort expanded to include two additional buildings that extended housing, with a total of approximately ten rooms available to visitors by 1884. At one point, a restaurant was added to the main building with a canopied dining area situated beside the structure. A saloon and general store were also maintained to support visitors to the resort. But all this expansion bankrupted Hooper. Anna Welch transferred the resort lease to David Aldrich and then Joseph Ball, the latter of whom ran the Central Hotel in Felton. Ball left in 1900 and one of Anna's sons, Stanly, took over. Stanly lacked the vision of his parents or his predecessors in management. He saw the grove purely as a source of profit and did not care for either the trees or the family's reputation in the community.
The Club House at Hopkins' Big Trees resort with visitors on the patio, c. 1910. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Swing bridge and river ford installed beside Hopkins' Big Trees, c. 1905. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
In response, the Welchs' neighbor to the south opened up his own resort. Henry Cowell owned thousands of acres of mostly second-growth redwood which had been harvested continuously since the 1850s for use as limekiln fuel. By 1901, much of the area around the grove was suitably regrown enough to support a second resort, which was appropriately named Cowell's Big Trees. Milo Hopkins was given the resort lease and permission to build appropriate structures to support the resort. In a clearing between the Giant and the railroad tracks, Hopkins erected a small club house which included a coffee and gift shop, with a photo hut across the clearing from it. Nearby, cabins and a tennis court were erected alongside the San Lorenzo River for seasonal tourists. The Welchs, furious, built a tall fence along its property line, barring entry from anyone except those who paid an entry fee. Cowell and Hopkins, with their less impressive redwoods, did not charge a fee, making their money primarily through concessions. Milo and his son George ran the resort until 1942.

Colorized photograph of the entrance to Welch Grove, c. 1940. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Competition with Cowell and the Hopkins certainly ate into the Welch family's profits, but the allure of the more ancient trees within their grove still attracted tourists. Nonetheless, the advent of the automobile and the ease of visiting the park via train meant that the buildings in the Welch Grove declined in importance. By 1919, they were in disrepair and Metro Pictures repurposed them as a "Pioneer Town" appearing in the film False Evidence. One of the buildings became a Pony Express office for the film and postcards at the time advertised this leading to a persistent rumor that the Pony Express extended to Felton despite the fact that Big Trees did not yet exist when the Pony Express went defunct in 1861.

Postcard for Santa Cruz County Big Trees Park, 1950.
The Welch Grove itself was purchased by Santa Cruz County in 1930 after a brief attempt by Joseph and Anna's two sons to sell the property to a logging company. Since the former access to the grove was through property still owned by the Welch family, the county quickly constructed a bypass road that crossed the San Lorenzo River just south of Felton along State Route 9. At the junction of this road with Highway 9, a large redwood trunk was installed with the name of the park engraved on either side. Since the road now entered from the west rather than the north, a road was built through the large meadow between the river and the Welch Grove, at the end of which a small dirt parking lot was built. Just within the grove, the Big Trees Inn was built in December 1932 and served as a concession stand and visitor center, as well as a home for the concessionaire.
Restored copy of a 1932 trail map of Santa Cruz Count Big Trees County Park. [Ken Lande]
The conversion of Welch's Big Trees to a public—and free—park in 1930 crippled Hopkins' Big Trees, which was struggling already due to the Great Depression. The railroad continued to bring customers to the park throughout the year, but photographs of the time show the buildings in a declining state of repair. The end of railroad service over the mountains and the US entry into World War II ultimately ended the park since tourism was virtually non-existent. The park closed in 1942 but remained in private hands until 1954. Whether there was any tourism activity in Cowell's property during this time is unknown. Prior to 1954, visitors to the park parked at modern-day Cotillion Gardens and crossed the San Lorenzo River via a swing bridge, but buses were able to come to the park by crossing a seasonal ford built across the river at the bottom of Old Big Trees Road beside the Toll House Resort south of Felton.

The Big Trees Inn across from the modern-day visitor's center, c. 1950.
In August 1954, Samuel H. Cowell sold 1,623 acres of his lands—almost everything within the San Lorenzo Gorge including his Big Trees Resort—to the state with the requirement that the Santa Cruz County Big Trees Park also be included and the two units be combined under the name Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Both the state and county acquiesced and the park has changed relatively little ever since. The ford over the San Lorenzo River was immediately abandoned and the aged swing bridge was destroyed in the 1955 flood.

Big Trees Hotel complex after a tree collapsed on the oldest structure, c. 1950s. []
The ruined Big Trees Hotel complex, 1957, after a storm dropped numerous trees on the structures. [Ken Lande]
There are few remnants of the old park left. Above the railroad tracks, there is still a clearing where the dirt tennis court once was located. Meanwhile, a seasonal bridge is still installed across the river near the railroad bridge at roughly the same location as the old swing bridge. On the opposite side of the park, the large entry sign log has been re-carved to represent the current name of the park, but otherwise sits where it has always been. And lastly, the posts that stop vehicles from entering the redwood loop are still those installed in 1932 in front of the Big Trees Inn. Otherwise, only empty lots remain to mark the foundation sites of buildings long since demolished. The old Welch buildings were demolished around 1957 after a tree fell through the middle structure and the state park decided the buildings were in too much disrepair to maintain. Posts sat in the clearing until the mid-2000s when new bathrooms were installed and construction crews removed this lingering trip hazards. The fate of Hopkins' club house and its adjacent buildings is unknown, but may have disappeared soon after the resort closed in 1942. In September 1984, the old visitor center (the Big Trees Inn) shut down and was replaced by the current visitor center that now sits across the trail from the site of its predecessor.

Citations & Credits:
  • Bliss, Traci, and Randall Brown. "Two Trees for General Fremont." Redwood Logging and Conservation in the Santa Cruz Mountains—A Split History. Santa Cruz History 7. Edited by Lisa Robinson, 101-112. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2014.
  • Clark, Donald. Santa Cruz Count Place Names: A Geographic Dictionary. Second edition. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2008.
  • Lande, Ken. Personal correspondence.
  • Whaley, Derek. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Bridges: Soquel Creek

Bridges are an essential part of any railroad and nowhere in Santa Cruz County is there a bridge more iconic than the Soquel Creek bridge that towers over Capitola Village. Two bridges have spanned this 669-foot-long gulch and both were—and the latter remains—popular subjects for photographers.

Stereograph of Camp Capitola with the original Sequel Creek bridge in the background, c. 1885. Photo by Carleton Watkins. [California State Library]
The first bridge was constructed by Tom Carter under contract for the Santa Cruz Railroad in summer 1874. The bridge was a fairly standard design for a long span such as this. More than half of the length, from Depot Hill to Soquel Creek, was composed of a simple redwood open-deck trestle. A similar, albeit much shorter, span connected the other bank of Soquel Creek to the west bank. Over the creek itself, a roughly 200-foot-long redwood double-intersecting Warren truss ensured trains travelled safely and securely over the creek. No piers were required to support the truss span, but dense redwood piers were built on either side of the span to keep the bridge aloft.

Camp Capitola with the Soquel Creek bridge in the distance, 1875. [Covello & Covello]
This narrow-gauge bridge underwent a heavy remodeling in 1883-1884 to convert it for use by standard-gauge trains after the Southern Pacific Railroad purchased the Santa Cruz Railroad in 1882. Whether these changes were highly visible is unknown, but Southern Pacific did at this time relocate Soquel station from the western end of the bridge to Depot Hill, changing its name to Capitola in the process. At some point in the 1890s, the truss span was also enclosed, probably to protect it from the corrosive sea spray.

Railroad bridge over Soquel Creek with train approaching covered truss span, c. 1890s. [Santa Cruz MAH]
The second and current bridge over Soquel Creek was built in a number of waves as the community beneath the bridge transitioned from a seasonal resort to a year-round town. The oldest sections of this bridge closely resembled the original bridge, including a 335-foot-long redwood trestle from Depot Hill and a 100-foot-long trestle extending to the west bank. Over the creek itself, the old wooden truss was replaced with a 150-foot-long open-deck, wrought iron, truncated, upside-down curved chord Pratt truss span that was unique among the bridges along the Central Coast. To support this truss, two large concrete piers were installed on either side of the creek. This truss was not original to Soquel Creek—Southern Pacific had repurposed it from elsewhere in its system and sawed off portions on each end resulting in its unique design.

Colorized photograph of the Soquel Creek bridge, c. 1910. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
At some point, probably in the 1930s, the trestle span over Capitola Avenue was bisected to allow for the insertion of a 120-foot-long prefabricated open-deck steel plate girder span, which was supported by heavily-reinforced trestlework on either side. This allowed automobiles to more comfortably pass under the bridge and into Camp Capitola.

A Southern Pacific train passing over the Soquel Creek bridge, c. 1930. [Phil Reader]
In 1971, the original plate girder span over Capitola Avenue was replaced with a three-part concrete ballast deck span, which better protects cars passing underneath from train debris. On the opposite side of the bridge, over Wharf Road, a similar 60-foot-long concrete ballast deck span was installed to provide better clearance for cars and a safer passage beneath the bridge. This latter span replaced the wood abutment originally found on the west side of the bridge and also replaced the majority of the trestlework from the truss.

The bridge still standing high above Soquel Creek, 2012. [Madeline Horn]
 The current bridge is, unfortunately, no longer fit to support fully-laden railroads operating at branch line speeds and is not designed nor upgradable for use as a pedestrian corridor. As such, it will undoubtedly undergo a partial replacement within the coming years. An engineering evaluation and rehabilitation report from 2012 estimated a cost of roughly $1.2 million to rehabilitate and rebuild the bridge for regular use, although the structure will have to be replaced within 20-30 years regardless.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Eastern end: 36.974˚N, 121.953˚W
Western end: 26.973˚N, 121.954˚W

Use of the bridge by pedestrians is not advised and technically illegal, although dozens of people cross the bridge on foot each day. The bridge, as well as the rest of the right-of-way, was purchased by Santa Cruz County in 2012 and is under the jurisdiction of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.

Citations & Credits:

  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • MacGregor, Bruce, and Richard Truesdale. A Centennial: South Pacific Coast. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1982.
  • Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission. "Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line: Alignment and Bridge Evaluation & Repair / Rehabilitation or Replacement Recommendation Report." Compiled by Patterson & Associates, August 12, 2012.

Friday, January 19, 2018

People: Thomas L. and Weltha A. Bell

Santa Cruz County did not simply develop because of the railroad. It was the effort of individual people who helped turn a small, isolated county on the northern fringe of the Monterey Bay into a tourism Mecca. One such individual was Thomas L. Bell. The origins and ultimate fate of Thomas Bell are not well know. He first entered the local scene in the 1880s as the superintendent of the Pacific Manufacturing Company mill that sat midway between Felton and Boulder Creek. His boss, James Pieronnet Pierce, was a forward-thinking man who also understood public relations. When the Felton & Pescadero Railroad first passed through the mill in 1884, Pierce saw the end of logging in the area and the birth of a town.

Ben Lomond & Hotel Rowardennan (1887-1899)
In 1887, Bell, under orders from Pierce, founded the Ben Lomond Land & Lumber Company with the expressed purpose of subdividing the mill lot into housing parcels. A number of business were already in town, vestiges of the milling days, but a new community was established called Sunnyside behind the depot to attract more high-end residents. The local post office was founded that year under the name Ben Lomond, and the railroad station adopted that name in 1888. The Sentinel praised the settlement, noting that “Mr. Pierce, by these sales, is proving himself a benefactor to the neighborhood – new people are moving to that locality, houses are being erected, homes established, grounds cultivated, orchards set out and a population of sterling, thrifty citizens secured.”

Ben Lomond depot during a major event, c. 1895.
In 1891, the area around the confluence of Love Creek into the San Lorenzo River was logged out and Ben Lomond transitioned completely to a tourist town. On the northwest side of town, Bell constructed the Hotel Ben Lomond as the first tourism-specific venture in town. Pierce, meanwhile, built a mansion he named Hillside, visible from throughout the town, to showcase the benefits of building summer cottages in this region of the San Lorenzo Valley. But neither of these were quite enough. The town required something grander.

Bell Lake behind Hotel Rowardennan in Ben Lomond, c. 1900.
Bell founded the Ben Lomond Improvement Company in 1896 alongside his wife, Weltha A. Bell, and his son, William. The purpose of this new company was to construct a fabulous 300-acre resort just south of Ben Lomond along the county road. Bell took the lead on this project and accepted Southern Pacific Railroad money to help fund it. Hotel Rowardennan opened in the summer of 1896. It spared no expense to attract people. The property included tennis courts, a campground, forest paths, and an artificial boating lake named "Lake Bell," created by damming the San Lorenzo River. The dam also generated power for the hotel, which featured dozens of electric lights.
Hotel Rowardennan from the front, Ben Lomond, c. 1900.
The original structure burned to the ground in February 1897, but Bell rebuilt quickly and the project continued to grow. The second structure included, among other amenities, a large restaurant, a dance hall, billiards room, and a telegraph office. Hotel Ben Lomond, on the other side of town, attempted to match Hotel Rowardennan feature-for-feature. But the latter was always the more refined, catering only to the elite and even denying stays to those management deemed disreputable, including Jews.

Advertisement for Hotel Rowardennan, 1900. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]
Competition with Hotel Ben Lomond and other local ventures cut into his profit and he decided to move onto his next project. In 1899, he sold Hotel Rowardennan to H. Francis Anderson, who hired Benjamin and Gertrude Dickinson to run the hotel. In later years, they would also found the adjacent Hotel Dickinson. Anderson renamed the hotel Ben Lomond Lodge in the 1920s, and the resort burned to the ground on April 9, 1932. The detached ballroom burned the next year. All that remains of this facility is the concrete fountain that still welcomes people to Ben Lomond.

Arcadia & Tuxedo (1898-1906)
A series of fortuitous transactions brought Thomas and Weltha Bell to their next project. Frederick A. Hihn, who had worked with Pierce at various times, had acquired title to a large tract of land at the confluence of Bean and Zayante Creeks on the site of Isaac Graham's original lumber mill. Desiring to put this prime real estate to use, Hihn sold or leased the land to the Bell, who founded the Arcadia Development Company in 1898. He moved fast, converting the large meadow beside the railroad tracks into a small cottage city. Like he did in Ben Lomond, Bell dammed Zayante Creek, thereby creating a boating pond that doubled as a source of power for 200 lights strung throughout the campground. He also built an outdoor dancing pavilion and tent dining room. He named his new resort Arcadia, a reference to Ancient Greece.

A local, John Morrow, visited the site in 1900 and gave his impression in the Santa Cruz Evening Sentinel:
Following up the Zayante Creek a few hundred yards, above the depot, I saw a large sign which read: "Campus Station." Under this is the name of the hotel and grounds, which is Arcadia, and it all belongs to and is conducted by Thomas L. Bell and his wife. It is conducted on the hotel plan. I went all over the place and found a large dining-room and kitchen, a large fine ball-room and electric light plant. The plant is a 12 horse-power engine, and furnishes 200 lights, which are sufficient to light up all the rooms and ground. The sleeping apartments are in cottages of from two to four rooms each. There are 25 of these cottages, and all furnished in the most comfortable manner. About 100 feet below the office, on the Zayante Creek, is a beautiful lake, formed by a dam thrown across the creek. On this is three boats for pleasure riding. Just on the opposite side Bean Creek dashes down over a fall about 40 feet, and joins Zayante. The whole place, the creek and the dam, are in a fine grove of redwood, pine, oak and madrona Mr. Bell intends, before another season, to plough, scrape and level down all the plaza-like grounds between the grove and the railroad tracks, and will erect a large, central building, which will be the hotel proper.
Bell ran into problems, though, when he petitioned the railroad for a stop there. The station was initially known simply as Campus, pending a better name. However, Arcadia already existed in the Southern Pacific network and the railroad did not want yet another duplicate name. After some research, Bell renamed the resort Tuxedo, after Edward Henry Harriman's park in New York state. To match this new grandeur, Bell built the two-story Tuxedo Inn in 1901 and petitioned the railroad to built a formal depot structure alongside the tracks in 1903. Tuxedo proved to be the peak of Santa Cruz County resort culture, but Bell was already looking elsewhere.

Tuxedo campus grounds, 1904. The station sign was altered by an editor to read Mount Hermon. [Mt Hermon Association]
On December 12, 1905, Bell finalized the sale of Tuxedo to the Mount Hermon Association for $45,300. The F.A. Hihn Company finalized the sale of the property and its water rights in March the next year. Why precisely Bell and Hihn decided to sell the resort less than a decade after founding it is unclear. The resort had picked up an unsavory reputation in a short matter of time, so Mount Hermon renamed it the "Zayante Inn" in April 1906. Liquor sales and gambling tables, for which the hotel was infamous, quietly were discontinued. The railroad stop was renamed Mount Hermon in 1907 and the site has served as Redwood Camp since the 1960s.
Tanglewood (1906)
Thomas and Weltha's final known project in Santa Cruz County was less audacious than their previous two. In 1906, they founded the Artesia Development Company and once again purchased or leased lands from Frederick Hihn. In May 1907, a subdivision plat was filed with the county records showing the Tanglewood subdivision in south Felton located on either side of San Lorenzo Avenue. The couple named the settlement after Nathaniel Hawthorne's book, Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls, published in 1853. When the old narrow-gauge tracks of the South Pacific Coast Railway were removed in 1909, the subdivision spread out further, both up the hill and to either side, eventually encompassing everything between Gold Gulch and Shingle Mill Creek.

Map of Tanglewood near Felton, 1907, showing historic and modern property lines. [Michael Rugg]
William L. Bell, Thomas and Weltha's son, continued to oversee property sales for the next decade. He had been appointed a surgeon on the US Navy ship Independence in 1898 during the Spanish-Amrican War, and he also served in World War I in the same capacity. By 1912, he was divorced and had at least one child. In 1948, he became a doctor in Felton, where he could also oversee the estate of his parents. When Thomas and Weltha abandoned Tanglewood is unknown, but they disappear from newspaper records after 1911. Tanglewood, meanwhile, hosted two gas stations, a maintenance shop, a market, and a restaurant through the 1960s, but declined as a commercial area afterwards. Today, it hosts Cowboy Diner and Felton Guild, as well as the Big Foot Discovery Museum, but is otherwise just a residential subdivision.

The Harbor Inn restaurant at Tanglewood, c. 1950s. [Howard Rugg]
Citations & Credits:

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.
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