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Friday, January 4, 2013

Sunset Park Picnic Stop

Upper Los Gatos Creek showing Wrights and Sunset Park
(Map courtesy Duncan Nanney)
Unlike most flag-stops and stations along the Southern Pacific's Mountain Route, locations such as Sunset Park were destinations built by the railroad company as a rest and tourist stop before the long journey over the mountain. Los Gatos Canyon had numerous picnic stops, as they were called, with Sunset Park being the last of them before descending into Summit Tunnel (Tunnel #2). The site today is roughly an eighth of a mile down Cathermola Road beyond the bridge over Los Gatos Creek at Wrights Station Road. The actual picnic area was across the creek and is probably inaccessible now.

When the Southern Pacific Railroad leased the line in 1887, they began setting up picnic stops along the route to encourage passengers and tourists. Sunset Park dates to this time, though the earliest photographs of the site are only from the 1890s. A spur broke off from the main Mountain Line at Wrights, staying on the east side of Los Gatos Creek while the main line crossed the creek, heading toward the tunnel. Once at Sunset Park, the majority of the amusements were located in a clearing accessible via footbridge across the creek. In a photograph of Wrights during a busy market day (below), the Sunset Park spur can be seen across the creek, heading to the right.

A busy market day at Wrights. In the distance, between the water tower, a spur can be seen heading off the main line
toward Sunset Park, which is located up the creek about a quarter of a mile.
Picnickers at Sunset Park in the 1890s.

During its heyday—namely the 1890s—the Southern Pacific cut fares to Sunset Park from $5.00 from San Francisco to only $3.00 round trip. Up to ten passenger cars, each with up to fifty tourists, would head up to Sunset Park, bringing 500 tourists to the region of Wrights. The SPRR spared little expense to impress their guests. Tourists were greeted with beer and fresh foods such as French bread, cheese, salami, and barbecued lamb. The area was not a simple meadow, but instead hosted picnic tables, barbecue pits, cabins, and hiking trails. Electrified Japanese lanterns were strung overhead and lighted in the evenings.

The Sunset Spur branching off from the main line at Wrights.
(Courtesy Bruce McGregor, A Portrait)
The site was often used by local organizations and fraternities. But while there, tourists were messy and severely damaged the scenic location. The combination of thousands of tourists visiting the pristine upper Los Gatos Canyon for the first time prompted them to remove all types of plant life as free souvenirs, making the area look untidy. Littering was also a huge problem, effecting the scenery and Los Gatos Creek. Worse still, picnickers were prone to drunkenness, and the train ride home was often more like a confined war between brawling patrons than a peaceful trip to San Francisco. Windows and doors were frequently smashed by unruly passengers. The worst of the crowd would be thrown off the train, while police generally avoided intervening out of a fear that they, too, would become engaged in a brawl.

A picnic train parked at Sunset Park in the 1890s. Note the large building with chimneys visible at left and
the Japanese lanterns hanging beneath the telegraph poles.
End-of-Track at Sunset Park, c. 1890s
(Courtesy Bruce McGregor, A Portrait)
It is interesting to note that the 1899 Station Book does not mention Sunset Park though the site was clearly in use during the time. Indeed, there is no mention of even a spur for the park at Wrights. Also interesting is the lack of mention by most sources of the large building visible in the above photograph opposite the train. This building, apparently, was a large dancing pavilion which was expansive enough to support up to a thousand dancers, though no photographs of the pavilion in full seem to have survived.

After the earthquake, the Wrights Station was transferred
to the opposite side of the creek, beside Sunset Spur.
(Courtesy Bruce McGregor, A Portrait)
Sunset Park, as well as most of the picnic stops, were short-lived. Vacationers sought ever-more-distant locations to travel during their free time, and a short trip to the mountains no longer cut it. When the Mountain Route was upgraded to broad gauge in the early 1900s, Sunset Park was mostly abandoned, though the Southern Pacific kept it open as an option until the Mountain Route was fully restored in 1909 following the 1906 Earthquake. The spur and site were formally shuttered in 1910, with most of the lodgings in nearby Wrights shutting down soon after. The right-of-way became Cathermola Road at some point in time, and that road now continues to Lake Eisman, a mountain reservoir on Los Gatos Creek.

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