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Friday, November 2, 2012

Laurel Station

When the South Pacific Coast Railroad first traversed the Santa Cruz Mountains, it ran through a small basin that formed the headwaters of Burns Creek. The crude trail through the basin served as a toll road through the Santa Cruz Mountains, catering specifically to small logging operations and fruit growers in the region. Once construction started on the Summit Tunnel around 1878, the location was formally named Highland. While the Place Names Index suggests the name is descriptive of the location—"high land"—, an alternative theory is that the location was named in honor of M.C. Highland who was killed in the February 12, 1878, Summit Tunnel explosion alongside at least thirty Chinese laborers. The community served as a construction site for three years while the Summit Tunnel and Glenwood Tunnels were being bored. SPCRR built a small sawmill there to built ties for the tracks. Highland earned its name as it was the highest point on the South Pacific Coast's grade over the mountains at 910 feet.

Soon after construction was completed and trains started to pass through the basin, a town center began to develop in a clearing alongside the right-of-way near the Glenwood Tunnel's north portal. For about a decade, the name Highland stuck despite efforts by the South Pacific Coast to rename the site. Once the Southern Pacific Railroad took over operations along the line in 1887, however, all reference to Highland went away and Laurel Station became the official name of the community.

A view of Laurel from the top of the Glenwood Tunnel's north portal
Laurel Station in the 1910s
The town of Laurel grew with the railroad. A school and post office were established in 1882. As Glenwood Highway was expanded and the proto-Highway 17 built, Laurel fell off the grid. The railroad closed the station in the winter of 1920, turning the location into a flag-stop (which continued to appear on timetables until 1940). The school remained until 1947 and the post office continued in operation until July 15, 1953. The station building was still in existence in 1948 and probably still was the home of the village's post office. Its eventual fate is unknown; only foundations exist where the station and freight buildings were originally located.

Hihn's mill at Laurel, c. 1905
Frederick Hihn, seeing an opportunity to expand his logging operations beyond the redwoods north of Aptos, took over the remnants of the SPCRR mill and expanded operations to the ridge overlooking Laurel in 1899. He built his own spur from the mainline which used flatcars and winches to transport manufactured boards. His mills here and elsewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains provided much of the lumber used to restore San Francisco following the 1906 Earthquake and fires. His facilities included bunkhouses, a blacksmith shop, and cook huts, some of which are visible in the photo at left.

Laurel Station in 1948 after the tracks had been removed
Photograph looking south down the tracks toward the Glenwood Tunnel
Similarly to Glenwood, the town acted as a service area for the train, though there were no major resorts in the area to encourage tourism like Glenwood. The 1899 Station Book notes a number of important points. Firstly, Laurel was located 64 miles south of San Francisco via Alameda Point. The facilities were considered a full freight and passenger station with a telegraph office on site. The freight depot itself had a full set of sidings for storing freight loads, and it had a class A facility and crew. The freight platform was located on the right side of the tracks as heading southbound. Although it is not noted, the site had a water tower and a small stock yard, as evidenced from contemporary photographs. MacGregor adds that Laurel stored much of the fuel wood for the Mountain Route, which suggests the initial load of wood may have been largely used up by the time the route reached its apex.

The home guarding the entrance to the Glenwood Tunnel's north portal
Once the railroad left in 1940, the town dissolved and today serves about a dozen homes. Formally, it is considered a ghost town. There are no commercial buildings in the isolated valley and only one major road into the basin. The location is still accessible, however, via Laurel Road off of Highway 17. Heading down Laurel Road, there will be a sharp curve with a home on the left with a fenced garden and two large noisy dogs. A plaque noting the historical nature of the site is to the right of the property. Behind the sign is a short access road that leads to the Glenwood Tunnel north portal.

Town marker near the Glenwood Tunnel portal
Across the street from this house, Redwood Lodge Road meanders down hill, while Schulties Road (Laurel Road dead-ends at this intersection) heads up and around a bend at left. Straight ahead, though, is a dirt driveway that heads almost perfectly straight. This is the old right-of-way. About 200 feet down the road on the left, the clearing where Laurel Station and the freight depot were located is still empty with cement blocks littering the ground. Continuing, the road will eventually turn left. A half-trestle follows alongside at one point on the right, probably to ease the curve or due to difficult landscape. The route eventually ends as its tries to cross Burns Creek to the south portal of Summit Tunnel. Below is a photograph of this stretch of the basin.

Summit Tunnel's south portal is at the bottom of this photograph, with the
tracks in the center heading south toward Laurel
Here are some other photographs of Laurel for your enjoyment:
Laurel Station on a slow day in the late 1890s. The narrow-gauge Glenwood Tunnel can be seen in the distance.
With the ending of service to Laurel, the stationhouse went into disuse and for twenty years was converted to a general store of sorts, though the post office remained a part of that store.

Laurel Station just around the time the tracks were pulled.
Note how overgrown the mainline is and how little-used the tracks in the center are.
The closure of the route in 1940 was due to extensive damage to the tracks which was declared cost prohibitive to the Southern Pacific Company. Laurel received much of this damage through sinks and slides along its short route from tunnel to tunnel. The final photographs in this article document the Laurel stretch of track during the time that paperwork was filed to abandon the line. The tracks were finally pulled in March 1942 by H.A. Christie's railroad salvage company.

A slide beneath a stretch of track in Laurel, April 9, 1940. (Courtesy Bruce MacGregor)
Slides and sinks under the tracks across from Laurel Station on April 9, 1940. (Courtesy Bruce MacGregor)
The mainline looking north just above Laurel Station, April 9, 1940.
Sinks under the tracks have caused the tracks to sag in many places. (Couresty Bruce MacGregor)
Slide damage to the tracks near the Summit Tunnel north of Laurel, February 2, 1940. (Courtesy Bruce MacGregor)
The town of Laurel near the Glenwood Tunnel on April 9, 1940. (Courtesy Bruce MacGregor)
Citations:
  • Southern Pacific System: List of Officers, Agencies and Stations, 1899.
  • Clark, Donald Thomas. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2008.
  • Comstock, Charlie. "A Short History of the South Pacific Coast Railroad" (1998).

4 comments:

  1. Great photos and history. You'll need to give me the grand tour of some of these sites one of these days.

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  2. I'd love to, but I need to find the time and the perfect weather for it. Whenever I have a day off these days, I seem to have something I need to do during that day. It's actually getting really annoying.

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  3. Thanks for the info about the north end of the Wrights tunnel. I have been to all the tunnels portals except for this one. Hopefully I'll be able to find it.

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  4. Oops,I meant south end of Wrights tunnel

    ReplyDelete