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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 author@santacruztrains.com. This site would not be possible without your help and support. Thank you! – Derek R. Whaley

Friday, September 19, 2014

San Vicente Mill

Just before the village of Swanton, the San Vicente Lumber Company planted a switch off the Ocean Shore Railroad tracks for a private spur that would head deep into the Santa Cruz Mountains along Little Creek. This switch was located 15.3 miles north of Santa Cruz's Ocean Shore Depot above the freight yard. The San Vicente Lumber Company was founded in May 1908 with the goal of harvesting much of the timber around Scott Creek. Their large planing mill was in Santa Cruz at Rapetti, along the banks of Antonelli Pond on the West Side. At Swanton, the company negotiated with the railroad to build a private spur that would stretch more than 9 miles into the hills. The tracks would be standard-gauged and the operation would survive for fifteen years until the costs caught up with the demand and available timber supply. And that timber supply in 1908 was vast, encompassing over 615,000,000 board feet of timber.

A portion of the San Vicente Lumber Company right-of-way with an engine on the tracks and a steam donkey at left.
(Courtesy Mattei Family Collection – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)
A stretch of track with a guard rail to help keep the trains on the rail.
(Courtesy Mattei Family Collection – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)
Construction of the railroad and the first lumber camp began in early 1909 with minor timbering operations beginning the same year. By the time the line was demolished in 1923, it encompassed at least four switchbacks, around a dozen tight turns, and some spectacularly high and curved trestles. There were a total of six logging camps along the route where felled trees would be collected, debarked, and loaded onto flat cars. Smaller camps were located at most clearings. The whole operation encompassed all of Little Creek, the upper part of Big Creek, and the headwaters of San Vicente Creek. A county road (modern day Warnella Road) passed through the large logging complex on its way to Bonny Doon Road (the road no longer connects).

Locals at Camp One near the cookhouse.
(Courtesy Mattei Family Collection – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)
Camp one, also called the main camp, was the closest to the assembly area south of Swanton along the Ocean Shore Railroad tracks. Oxen and skid roads from surrounding areas led to this assembly site. Other sites used steam donkeys instead due to the harsh terrain and the difficulty of transporting oxen. Buildings where built here to support the loggers including a kitchen and dining area. Camp two was where the largest settlement along the San Vicente right-of-way was located. It acted as the primary junction point where all the branches of the railroad converged. It also was where most of the workers slept and lived. Camp three was located at the junction with the county road, making it a place where materials could be hauled if the railroad couldn't manage something. Camp four was the highest point on the line and was the gathering point for timber cut from the upper West San Vicente Creek region. Camp five was responsible for the East San Vicente Creek region. Finally, a brief sixth camp was built around 1919 to harvest the headwaters of Big Creek. Most of these camps did not exist simultaneously, except for camps one and two. The others moved around via the tracks and most of the structures were converted train cars. Indeed, when a camp moved, the tracks to that camp would also be removed so they could be used elsewhere along the line.

Members and/or friends of the Mattei family walking to one of the logging camps.
(Courtesy Mattei Family Collection – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)
These ladies are standing before a desolate landscape of a forest of old growth redwood trees timbered for lumber.
(Courtesy Mattei Family Collection – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)
The San Vicente Lumber Company railroad was the most dangerous operation in the county with steep grades and sharp turns causing numerous accidents. Generally, the train would run away, with gravity overpowering the brakes. The company had its own engines and purchased more from the Ocean Shore when they took over the line in 1920. Its engines were rugged and designed for steep grades, but the Santa Cruz Mountains still almost destroyed them. Numerous safety precautions protected the engines from ultimate harm and all were able to be repaired when they did get damaged.

A train wreck along the San Vicente lines. The passenger cars have completely fallen off their beds!
(Courtesy Mattei Family Collection – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)
The lumber company successfully planed 9,000,000 board feet of timber per week each year and employed around 225 men. The company was run by Mormons and thus were forced to donate 10% of their wages to the Church of Latter Day Saints even if they were not themselves Mormon. Most of the passenger traffic along the Ocean Shore route between 1910 and 1923 was composed of SVLCo. employees visiting the city to spend their nightly wages. Few others used the railroad, and after 1920, only SVLCo. employees were allowed to use the line.

The criss-crossing right-of-ways for the San Vicente Lumber Company. Seanton is at the very
bottom of the line, at top-left, with the tracks heading up into the mountains.
(Courtesy George Pepper)
Much of these old right-of-ways survive in pieces throughout the Little Creek and upper San Vicente region. George Pepper has provided the above map showing where the lines went based on his original research. Rick Hamman, likewise, printed a map showing mostly the same lines, though Pepper has corrected Hamman in some places. The railroad was scrapped entirely in 1923 with all the tracks of the southern division of the Ocean Shore Railroad taken with it. Now the tracks end at Davenport, the last hint of a greater plan to reach San Francisco from along the coast.

Citations:

  • Rick Hamman, California Central Coast Railways (Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002).

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