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Friday, June 16, 2017

Railroads: Early Coast Railroad Companies

There have been a total of eight known attempts to construct a railroad between San Francisco and Santa Cruz along the coast. What is remarkable is that none of them succeeded, and only two ever even built track. This is the story of those five that failed. (For information on the two that succeeded, see Ocean Shore Railroad and Coast Line Railroad)

Narrow-Gauge Railroad Company (1870-1871)
The first proposal was the simply-named Narrow-Gauge Railroad Company, founded in Fall 1870. This was route optimistically planned to link San Francisco to the Arizona state line via a coastal route of 700 miles. The plans were for the line to pass directly through Santa Cruz County, following much the same route that the Santa Cruz Railroad would take a few years later. From there, it would cross the Pajaro River and pass through Castroville and down the Salinas Valley, much like the Southern Pacific Railroad soon did. However, in November 1871, it was revealed that the railroad was only every a paper company created by the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad to encourage competition with other railroads along the proposed route. No track was ever installed.

San Francisco & Ocean Shore Railroad Company (1879-1887)
In September 1879, the San Francisco & Ocean Shore Railroad set to work getting permits to construct a narrow-gauge track from Fulton and Larking Streets in San Francisco and thence down the coast to Half Moon Bay. Approval for the company to begin construction was given by the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors on 6 November 1879. Numerous technical obstacles and lawsuits, most begun by proprietors of commercial businesses along the city routes the railroad intended to take, delayed construction. From mid-1880, reports were regularly issued by the company that the railroad would be completed to the San Mateo County line (which line is unclear) by the end of the year, but this was still the rhetoric in January 1881 and no actual progress had been made. Meanwhile, the railroad company took out multiple mortgages and released additional stocks to try to increase revenue. New York bankers were the company's primary investors, while a New Yorker, Col. Lyman Bridges, was hired to build the route.

Original 1880 stock certificate for the San Francisco & Ocean Shore Railroad Company. [Pacifica History]
When the Santa Cruz Railroad went bankrupt in 1881, it derailed plans for the San Francisco & Ocean Shore Railroad to connect to that line through to Pajaro and further south. Some of the primary financiers of the Santa Cruz Railroad were also stockholders in the San Francisco & Ocean Shore, and most pulled their funding. Without a connection through Santa Cruz, the railroad had to reevaluate their plans and plan to build a new line through the city separate from the now-Southern Pacific-owned Santa Cruz route. It was an expensive problem but one for the future.

The company trucked on. On January 22, 1881, a newspaper article suggested that property sales in Pacifica would soar due to proximity to the new line, while industries further from the line along the Central Coast would devalue and disappear. Another article a month later supported this story and suggested that property values were already increasing. Surveyors began popping up all along the planned route, including in Santa Cruz and Pescadero. On May 20, articles of incorporation were filed for the railroad to extend its track to Santa Cruz from Half Moon Bay, thereby confirming that the company planned to build an entirely new route through Santa Cruz County. The entire line was also now planned to be standard-gauge to match the track width of the Southern Pacific. However, construction on the route still had not begun.

Suspicious rumours began circulating in May 1881 that the entire company was secretly owned by the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad, although that line had actually already gone bankrupt the year before. Other rumors spread that the new railroad intended to continue south of Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara and beyond, while in July, the plans for the new California Central Railway leaked that suggesting that the railroad would become a part of a new transcontinental scheme under the direction of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad (which in 1879 purchased the Atlantic & Pacific). Col. Bridges, acting as company spokesperson, announced that the route between San Francisco and Santa Cruz should be completed no later than 1883, while other railroad companies (or subsidiaries) were responsible for connecting to this line near Pajaro.

Dire news arrived on December 10, 1881, however. The Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel reported that the rivalry between the Sante Fe Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad had come to an end. Plans to build the San Francisco & Ocean Shore Railroad were not immediately abandoned, but the end was imminent. On Christmas Eve, it was revealed that the massive multi-state railroad plan was mostly a rouse, designed to frighten the Southern Pacific into reducing the cost to switch at Santa Fe junctions. However, the railroad really did intend to connect San Francisco and Santa Cruz, but the news of the con spooked the county governments. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to delay granting of the franchise to the SF&OS in early 1882. For the next year, the supervisors demurred, punishing the company for their trickery. But this cost the railroad money and supporters. Desperate, the railroad company attempted to bypass San Francisco by passing through the military property to the north of the city and then down Ocean Beach. But this angered the board more and, on November 22, 1882, they indefinitely postponed development of the railroad within San Francisco County.

The story of the first San Francisco & Ocean Shore Railroad came to an inglorious end without a single piece of track set. Whispers of the line continued to appear in the newspapers throughout 1883 and afterwards and the company appears to have remained in existence long afterwards, but for all intents and purposes, the railroad was finished. Financial troubles and an unstable stock market in the late 1880s brought the company to its inglorious end.

San Francisco & West Shore Railway Company (1892-1894)
A decade after the collapse of the San Francisco & Ocean Shore Railroad project, a new company was formed called the San Francisco & West Shore Railway Company to attempt what its predecessors had failed to accomplish. The company was incorporated on March 9, 1892, to build an electrified railway between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay, although most expected at the time that the route would eventually continue onward to Santa Cruz and beyond.

Unlike the other railroads, this route's initial plan was to carry freight exclusively, primarily dairy, eggs, and agricultural products from the Half Moon Bay and San Pedro Valley areas. Surveying of the line began immediately after incorporation and, also unlike the other lines, plans were to build a tunnel through San Pedro Point further inland rather than at the tip as the Ocean Shore Railroad eventually did. On November 28, 1892, the mayor of San Francisco vetoed plans to allow the San Francisco & West Shore Railway to build tracks down 25th Street and Potrero Avenue, effectively ending the railroad since the company had no other method of entering the city. The company fought the veto in the state's supreme court, but ultimately lost, although they continued surveying and purchasing materials throughout 1893. Rumors of the line being taken over by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad also cropped up but were ultimately unfounded.

West Shore Railway Company (1895-1899)
West Shore Railway survey map blueprint, 1896. [UCSC Digital Collections]
Established as a direct successor to the San Francisco & West Shore Railway, the West Shore & Valley Railroad was founded in April 1895 to connect the cities of San Francisco and Tulare, north of Bakersfield, via a coastal route through Santa Cruz. By the time the company finally incorporated on July 11, 1895, the name of the company had become the West Shore Railway and the plans were reduced to just connecting San Francisco to Santa Cruz via standard-gauge track. The new corporation purchased all the rights-of-way, surveys, and other material from its predecessor for a cost of $150,000.

How much of this railroad was actually begun is not entirely known. As early as April 1895, reports in the San Francisco Call claimed that "a good deal of the grading has been done. There have also been purchased a large number of ties and other materials...." Furthermore, the article reports that "a complete survey of the line has been made, and all the necessary right-of-way promised."
The existence of a large blueprint for the entire line (half of which is visible at right) published in 1896 does indeed suggest that this operation made it significantly further than its three predecessors, although it seems highly likely that most of this was completed by the 1892 iteration of the firm. Like its predecessors, New York financiers also were brought on to help fund the project and significant capital was raised throughout 1895, but also like them, a lot of the company's funding was promised but never delivered or bound to stocks and bonds of questionable value. Plans were in place to build a major station at 25th Street and Potrero Avenue in San Francisco and a freight yard near the Spreckels refinery there.

Early projections estimated that the track would run for 80 miles and transit times between Santa Cruz and San Francisco would begin at two hours, ten minutes, although they predicted that would become faster as the roadbed settled into place. Like its predecessor, the West Shore Railway was intended primarily for freight usage, although passenger service was not ignored and, indeed, was emphasised in some of their early marketing. The company hoped that the railroad would make the abundance of undeveloped farmland along the coast more accessible, thereby increasing their customer base. Likewise, they expected to reap some benefit from the numerous redwood forests located just off the proposed main line. As of September 1895, the company estimated that the cost of construction would sit at around $2,350,000.

However, the true story of the railroad only began to appear over a year after it had been incorporated. The transfer of the older San Francisco & West Shore Railway to the West Shore Railway was only completed in August 1896, meaning that the new company did virtually nothing in the intervening year. In April 1897, another article discussed the fact that nothing of note had still been done, although the company's president, R.S. Thornton, stated that much had been done behind the scenes. The problem was that portions of the right-of-way remained in private and city hands. One of the most obstinate property-owners along the line was that of D.D. Wilder, who refused to sell or lease his land to the railroad. Others likewise hesitated. Thus, the railroad was quickly suffering the same fate of those that came before.

As the months passed, the same dismissive rhetoric was told: work on the railway would begin shortly; work will begin next month; everything is in place to begin construction. But the tide turned against the West Shore Railway. Estimates on costs were rapidly increasing and not enough locals along the route were interested in subscribing to the company. 1897 and 1898 passed without any actual work being done on the railway, despite numerous statements from the company insisting construction was imminent. The failure of California's Enabling Act in 1899 stalled the railroad—it would have provided necessary funding and other support to complete the route. However, it also provided the company one last opportunity to correct its past mistakes.

On March 25, 1899, plans were released that the entire railroad venture was to be sold to the Vanderbilt Company as a direct competitor to the Southern Pacific along the California Coast. Their goal was to build a route through California that would connect to other non-SP lines out-of-state. For all intents and purposes, the West Shore Railway was to become a different company. But fate intervened again. The board of directors revolted and refused to sell out to the Vanderbilts, and the company essentially died as a result. At the end of 1899—three months after Cornelius Vanderbilt himself was dead—the franchise permit with the City of San Francisco expired and nothing more could be done for the line. The West Shore Railway was defunct.

Bay & Coast Railway Company (1899-1902)
Within months of the proposed buy-out of the West Shore company, a new firm was founded to build a coastal route. The Bay & Coast Railway Company officially incorporated on June 26, 1899 to build a 100-mile track between downtown San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Like the three companies that came before, the Bay & Coast was, at least on the surface, a private company with no ties to other operations. This ended up being its downfall. The railroad desired to run its train directly into San Francisco along a major road, but because of its limited operation range, the county board of supervisors denied them access. After two years of negotiations with the city, their project was finally approved with the requirement that they build $25,000 worth of tracks by late September 1901. They defaulted on this requirement and, after several extensions into February 1902, the franchise was forfeited and the company closed.

San Francisco & Southern Railway Company (1903)
One last railroading enterprise came about on September 26, 1903, with the same optimistic plans to connect San Francisco to Santa Cruz. This corporation was sponsored primarily by Eastern venture capitalists who were relying on the older surveys prepared by the West Shore Railway. Learning from past mistakes, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors required the investors to build a short portion of track immediately to demonstrate good faith before the franchise was to be confirmed. Nothing more was said of the company in the newspapers afterwards.

Citations & Credits:
  • Oakland Tribune, 1881-1883.
  • Sacramento Record-Union, 1881-1883.
  • San Francisco Call, 1895-1901.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, 1879-1883.
  • Santa Cruz Evening Sentinel, 1899-1901.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1895-1901.
  • Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, 1871-1883.
  • Vonderlin, John. "West Shore Railway's BIG Plans for the Coastside." Half Moon Bay Memories & El Granada Observer. 4 July 2009.
  • West Shore Railway Company, "Articles of Incorporation", 11 July 1895, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, Santa Cruz Count Records, Folder #235.

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