Thursday, May 5, 2022

Curiosities: Returning Commuter Service to the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line

On the evening of February 26, 1940, something momentous happened in Santa Cruz County. Earlier in the day, a massive rain storm had passed over the Santa Cruz Mountains causing landslides and sinks in several places along the Southern Pacific Railroad's branch line over the Santa Cruz Mountains. The evening commuter train to San Francisco could not return across the mountains so buses were brought in to collect passengers in Felton and shuttle them to Santa Cruz, where the train took them to the Bay Area via Watsonville Junction and the Coast Division mainline. Nobody knew it at the time, but this evening train was the last regularly scheduled commuter train to run in Santa Cruz County.

The Coast Futura demonstration electric trolley on Chestnut Street, October 2021. [Coast Futura]

Over eighty years have now passed since Santa Cruz County last had regular commuter service on any of its lines. Several attempts have been made over the decades to revive service in both the mountains and along the coast, however. While the former has become increasingly unlikely as the years march on, the latter remains possible since the tracks are still in place between Watsonville Junction and Davenport. Indeed, the entire route had been in daily use as a freight line until 2010, when the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company plant in Davenport closed, and parts of it have remained in continuous use to the present.

Southern Pacific Railroad survey photo showing storm damage in Laurel, April 9, 1940. [Bruce McGregor]

Following the end of rail transportation across the mountains in 1940, Southern Pacific shifted to providing bus service through Pacific Greyhound. The railroad did this as a cost-saving move, but gathered support for it through lies and half-truths. In 1940, the company promised efficient commuter bus service, at same or similar prices, and the same level of support provided to rail passengers. It also resumed seasonal Sun Tan Special excursion trains, now via Watsonville Junction, to the relief of the Santa Cruz Seaside Company and many other summer businesses. Yet World War II allowed the company to reduce its services substantially and back out of many of its commitments.

No photo description available.
Sun Tan Special at the Boardwalk, mid-1950s. [Joshua Reader]

The end of the war marked a return of demand for passenger service. In 1946, the local railroad agent, A. L. Andrews, stated that commuter service would be made available if there were a demand for it. The Sun Tan Special returned in June 1947 to much hype and signalled a return to normalcy after the war. The service continued every summer until Labor Day 1959. Other hired excursion trains resumed too beginning in May 1947, taking visitors to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Davenport, and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (Big Trees), and these continued to operate through 1965, after which all forms of passenger service were discontinued in the county and the railroad tracks were downgraded to light freight-only status.

Sun Tan Specials at the Santa Cruz freight yard awaiting a return to San Francisco, 1950s. [Jim Vail]

These hints at passenger service did not satisfy locals, though. While seasonal tourist service enlarged Southern Pacific's coffers, locals were left only with year-round freight and undependable bus service. The local train stations, mostly servicing freight customers, continued to sell bus and rail tickets to the public, but they were poorly patronized and most were closed by the mid-1950s. A system-wide bus strike in 1952 gave hope to potential customers that commuter service would return to Santa Cruz County; however, Southern Pacific admitted that it did not have enough passenger cars to support commuter service even if it wanted to, which it did not. A 1959 Sentinel editorial outlined the plight of the railroads and how little interest Southern Pacific had shown toward maintaining any passenger service in Santa Cruz County whatsoever. From subpar passenger coaches on excursion trains to poor upkeep of the Santa Cruz Union Depot to the reduction of freight service to rural stations, the editor made it clear that Southern Pacific had failed in its duty to the county.

Southern Pacific diesel locomotive switching freight cars at the Santa Cruz yard, 1960s. [Jim Vail]

From 1966, Southern Pacific fought any attempt to return passenger service to the county. The railroad was entirely in favor of a buy-out, though. As early as 1971, Southern Pacific expressed interest in leasing or selling Santa Cruz County's trackage to a third party. This would allow passenger service to resume, force the third party to maintain the tracks, and also allow Southern Pacific to bypass its workers' union. Unfortunately, Amtrak, which formed in 1971, was not interested in reviving passenger service since its main focus was on long-haul routes. However, in 1974, a feasibility study revealed that a revival of the Sun Tan Special could be economically feasible if enough rolling stock could be earmarked for the service. Despite strong support by State Senator Alfred Alquist, Amtrak decided against running an experimental service to Santa Cruz at this time.

The three routes assessed in the 1977 California Department of Transportation feasibility study.

Throughout the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, Southern Pacific remained opposed to any expansion or continuation of passenger service in the Bay Area. Even local government-controlled commuter systems in the Santa Clara Valley could make no headway with the railroad. Its position was that anyone interested in reviving commuter service on its rails would have to buy or lease the route first. Proposition 5 (1974) provided state funding for local transportation initiatives, including for the maintenance of rights-of-way, purchasing of rolling stock, and supplementing of transportation income. A feasibility study conducted by the California Department of Transportation in 1977 found that restoration of commuter service along the Santa Cruz Branch was a viable option.

A Southern Pacific freight train heading south beside Davenport, 1988. [Drew Jacksich]

Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) reports released in 1980 and 1983 also indicated the feasibility of commuter service along the Santa Cruz Branch, although it would have to be subsidized to not run at a loss. The earlier report championed daytime commuter and nighttime freight service, while the latter study found that jointly operated daytime service was preferred. The 1983 report estimated annual ridership would be 335,800 to 568,550 passengers, 75 percent of whom would be commuters. The system would use diesel trolley cars slightly larger than a bus to run 24 trips per day from 7:00am to 7:00pm. The most patronized stops would be Watsonville, Capitola, and Santa Cruz, although the proposed service would also include stops for UCSC, Aptos, Soquel, Live Oak, and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The annual operating costs were estimated at between $343,000 to $588,000, and state subsidies could cover up to $700,000.

Southern Pacific freight train hauling ballast through Watsonville, early 1980s. [WorthPoint]

Warren Weber, chief of rail service for Caltrans, suggested that the most viable option for the county was to buy the right-of-way. As expected, Southern Pacific balked at any suggestion that passenger service could resume on the freight-only, "Salad Bowl Express" route. The railroad insisted that any commuter service would interrupt its produce shipping schedule in Watsonville, and that freight was the only source of potential railroad revenue in the county. Opposition also came from the shippers themselves, 52% of whom stated that any change in shipping time would disrupt their service. Lastly, a vocal minority of local leaders came out against any restoration of commuter service, citing the possible fiscal deficit that could result from the service, competition with the existing public transportation network, and the long journey time of the service. The RTC decided to defer responsibility to the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District (METRO) in July 1983 for them to conduct their own feasibility study.

One of the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway locomotives beside the Boardwalk, 1989. [ATOMIC Hot Links on Flickr]

The earlier studies prompted the formation of the first community action group, Renaissance of the Railroad, in August 1980. Its goal was to restore seasonal excursion service to the Santa Cruz Branch by working with a private operator. The RTC supported the venture and provided limited staff resources to investigate the option. Renaissance estimated that the cost of a two-year pilot program would be $646,000. The disastrous storm of 1982 provided the county with an opportunity to act. The Olympia part of the Santa Cruz Branch was damaged in the storm and Southern Pacific was no longer interested in catering to the two remaining freight customers along the line. As a result, Norman Clark of Roaring Camp Railroads stepped in and bought the 8-mile section from Laurel Street in Santa Cruz to the end of track at Eccles north of Felton for around $2 million. In 1986, the first recreational passenger train of the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway ran from Felton to the Santa Cruz Union Depot. The next year, service was extended to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The service has run seasonally ever since. Although Clark had said that he would support a commuter service along the line, no such service materialized.

A Southern Pacific freight train heading through Watsonville to the mainline at Watsonville Junction, mid-1980s. [Sam Reeves]

Meanwhile, others worked to resolve the commuter rail impasse along the Santa Cruz Branch. Following a year of research, METRO decided unanimously to put the matter to a public vote. Measure A (1984)'s goal was to secure state funding provided by Proposition 5 for the research and development of fixed guideway public transportation systems in the county. While some of the touted ideas included a downtown-beach monorail, a Capitola to Santa Cruz streetcar line, movable walkways, and light rail, the heart of the idea was the restoration of commuter rail service. Unlike later measures, this one had the full support of all local politicians. If passed, the measure could secure around $11 million in funding from state and national agencies. On November 6, citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of Measure A with 83% voting "yes." Commuter rail was back on the table.

Potential locations for stops of along an aerial tramway, 1989. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]

Until June 1985, submissions were solicited by METRO to explore the range of fixed guideway systems that the county could potentially support. A federal consultant submitted a preliminary report in November that ruled that the best option for a fixed guideway system was between Pogonip or UCSC and the Boardwalk via downtown, primarily because it would provide easy transportation for tourists and would have public support. At the same time, the consultant rejected every other existing option in the county because they would conflict with existing conveyances. Frustratingly, this meant that federal funds could only be applied to an entirely new fixed guideway rather than utilizing the existing Southern Pacific right-of-way. While many options for this new route were discussed, an aerial tramway from UCSC to the Boardwalk via Harvey West Park and downtown was considered the best solution.

The freight and passenger depot at Watsonville Junction, 1980s. [Watsonville Memories]

The October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake briefly led to a resurrection of commuter passenger service for Watsonville. For three weeks beginning October 23, Southern Pacific restored passenger service to Watsonville to help commuters get to the Bay Area, since many of the local roads were barely usable. Around 40 commuters used the service, with stops at Salinas, Gilroy, and Morgan Hill adding another 130 passengers. The journey to San José took about an hour. Unfortunately, the service came to an abrupt end on November 10 due to insurance and liability problems, and it was never reinstated.

A triple-header Southern Pacific freight train on its way to Davenport, 1987. [Drew Jacksich]

Also in 1989, a second countywide report revealed that using the existing Santa Cruz Branch was by far the most logical solution for commuters. Initial estimates suggested that up to 6,000 people would use the service per day between La Selva Beach and Natural Bridges State Park, as well as between Felton and Santa Cruz. It further estimated that over 30,000 daily commuters would ride the train by 2005. The preferred means of conveyance were diesel-powered railroad cars, or railbuses, that could hold up to 100 people each. Spur lines to Cabrillo College and the Santa Cruz Metro Center were planned.

Southern Pacific freight train crossing the Manresa State Beach bridge, 1996. [Sam Reeves]

The 1990s saw an increase in discussions regarding the feasibility of restoring commuter passenger service to the county. Proposition 116 (1990), which gave state subsidies for alternative transportation projects, passed with 60% approval in Santa Cruz County. In 1995, another feasibility study found that using the Santa Cruz Branch for commuter service was still viable. Yet the overwhelming defeat of Proposition 185 in November 1994, which would have allocated substantial funding to local rail projects, likely made any expansion of rail services in the county infeasible. Meanwhile, at the end of 1991, financial difficulties forced METRO to pass responsibility for the project back to the RTC, which formed a Fixed Guideway Oversight Committee in response. The RTC has been responsible for all county railroad projects ever since.

Staff photo from the Sentinel showing Barbara Rodak of RAILS at her home in Aptos, August 16, 1993.

Proposition 116 and the railbus plan prompted the creation of a community action group, Community Rail Transportation, which lobbied local governments to support commuter rail. In response, another group, Aptos-based Right-of-way Alternatives In Local Suburbs (RAILS), formed to oppose any expansion of rail services and to convert the railroad right-of-way to a hiking/biking trail. Around the same time, Santa Clara County Supervisor Rod Diridon announced his support for restoring the Sun Tan Special by any means necessary, while Santa Cruz County Supervisor Gary Patton became the first loud voice against restoring passenger service. He feared that extending commuter rail service to Santa Cruz County—which he admitted would be financially viable and a generally successful idea—would turn the county into a satellite of the Silicon Valley. It was a short-sighted sentiment that was already contradicted by the reality that Santa Cruz had long been considered a part of the wider Bay Area.

The "Return of the Sun Tan Special" train at Aptos, May 18, 1996. [Aptos Museum]

Debate continued throughout the late 1990s even as no further progress was made. In 1996, County Supervisor Walt Symons came out vocally in support of converting the Santa Cruz Branch to a hiking and biking trail, surely not the first local official to do so but one of the first to make their opinion public. By 1998, a plan was in place to purchase part of the railroad's right-of-way to build a county-wide bike path, but the California Transportation Commission rejected using Proposition 116 funds for the project. Meanwhile, pro-rail supporters finally got their long-sought return of the Sun Tan Special that year when three demonstration runs from Watsonville Junction to the Boardwalk were conducted by Amtrak and RegioSprinter. All three were successful but did not convince Union Pacific (which had taken over Southern Pacific that year) of the viability of regular or seasonal passenger service along the Santa Cruz Branch. A feasibility study conducted by the RTC in 1999 reported that commuter service would cater to no more than 5,000 daily riders, thereby making the prospect unappealing.

Official logo for Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail.

At the turn of the millennium, Santa Cruz County's options for restoring commuter rail were slim. After decades of research, funding applications, and public debate, the RTC's commissioners were prepared to drop the concept from its 25-year plan. But they didn't. Instead, with public encouragement and the support of the newly-formed Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail (FORT), the commissioners dug in their heels and bought the Santa Cruz Branch from Union Pacific using all funding sources they could find. Negotiations with the railroad began in 2002 and continued for a decade. During this time, the CEMEX-owned Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company refinery in Davenport closed, ending over a century of freight traffic along the North Coast. Freight traffic along the Roaring Camp-owned Olympia Branch had also come to an unofficial end when ProBuild absorbed the San Lorenzo Lumber Company and shifted to using trucks.

First run of the Iowa Pacific train on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, November 2012. [Derek Whaley]

In 2012, the RTC finally closed escrow on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line (SCBRL) for a price of $14.2 million, taking heavily from Proposition 116 funds. The purchase required that the line be used for freight and passenger service. Union Pacific's contracted common carrier along the line, Sierra Northern Railway, was uninterested in providing the latter and terminated its contract. Iowa Pacific Holdings took over under the subsidiary Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway and brought in a vintage diesel locomotive and consist to provide seasonal excursion service along the line. It also took over freight duties in Watsonville. For three years, things were looking bright. In 2014, a plan was completed that integrated the county's rail and rail-trail future with that of Monterey County. The next year the RTC completed a feasibility study setting out the path forward to restore commuter services in the county. And finally in 2016, the passage of Measure D allocated 25% of a sales tax increase to rail and trail projects. Yet trouble was brewing.

Official advertisement from Greenway, formerly the Great Santa Cruz Trail Study Group, 2017. []

The end of regular freight service outside Watsonville combined with a poorly-maintained right-of-way and the gimmicky nature of Iowa Pacific's excursions added fuel to the fire of the anti-train lobby. Trail Now was formed in 2013 to promote the idea of removing the railroad tracks and building a multimodal trail. The next year, the Aptos Rail-Trail Investor Group formed to petition more formally against the restoration of rail services throughout the county. This grew into the Great Santa Cruz Trail Study Group and, ultimately, Greenway in 2017. While touting itself as a grassroots organization of like-minded local residents, in reality it is run by wealthy property investors and tech millionaires whose only formal plan is to disrupt and delay any decisions related to using the SCBRL.

A section of track suspended above a washout near Watsonville Slough, October 2017. [Derek Whaley]

Not all problems were caused by rail opponents, though. In 2016, Iowa Pacific found itself in legal and financial trouble. It eventually announced its decision to abandon its contract in Santa Cruz County in 2017, leaving the RTC in a tough position. Around the same time, heavy winter rains caused a major washout beside Watsonville Slough, making all rail transportation impossible beyond that point except by Roaring Camp or smaller maintenance-of-way vehicles. State and federal regulators, mixed with Greenway obstacles, delayed repairs until 2019. In the meantime, Progressive Rail was brought in as the new common carrier, operating as the St. Paul & Pacific Railway, under similar conditions as its predecessor. However, those conditions were dependent on the repair and upkeep of the SCBRL, which was the responsibility of the RTC. Greenway has ensured that every obstacle possible falls in the way of the RTC performing its duties.

The Coast Futura electric trolley running alongside a section of the rail-trail, November 2021. [FORT]

The release of the Unified Corridor Investment Study in 2019 paved the way for the RTC to finally develop the SCBRL properly. In December 2020, the first of many segments of trail opened alongside a portion of the SCBRL, with a second segment opening in July 2021. In October, a commuter demonstration Coast Futura electric trolley ran in both Watsonville and Santa Cruz to general acclaim. This coincided with the RTC staff's recommendation to adopt a similar modern electric passenger trolley as the preferred technology for use in a commuter rail system along the SCBRL.

One of the two Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway locomotives trapped in Watsonville performing common carrier duties on behalf of Progressive Rail, May 2021. Photo by Tarmo Hannula. [Santa Cruz Good Times]

But Greenway has continued to obstruct in whatever way possible. An influential member was elected to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors in November 2020. He quickly worked to split the RTC evenly between pro- and anti-rail commissioners. The obvious impasse this would present prompted Progressive Rail to throw in the towel. It contracted out its common carrier duties to Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railways, which had bought two diesel locomotives to supplement its fleet in 2018 only for them to become stranded in Watsonville because of the RTC's failure to keep the line operable. In early 2022, the RTC proposed revoking Roaring Camp's right to operate as a common carrier along the Olympia Branch. This was part of a grander attempt by the Greenway-influenced RTC to abandon the SCBRL. When this failed, Greenway gathered signatures to put a new measure on the June 2022 primary ballot. If passed, Measure D (2022) will allow the county to abandon the SCBRL and will strip all language relating to rail transit from the 20-year general plan.

Concept drawing of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line beside a two-lane paved trail. [FORT]

The future of commuter rail in Santa Cruz County remains nebulous. Measure D is an important referendum on the future of commuter rail in Santa Cruz County, and voting "No" in June is of paramount importance. But defeating the measure does not ensure that commuter rail will be restored nor will Greenway throw up its hands and admit defeat. The possibility of commuter rail in the county sits on a knife's edge. A small but wealthy and influential cabal of anti-rail people have shown themselves repeatedly to be capable of making substantial change in the county, turning hearts and minds against residents' best interests. Feasibility study after feasibility study dating to the 1970s has shown the strong potential of commuter services in the county, yet still the residents of Santa Cruz County wait for the promises of Measure A and Proposition 116 to come to fruition. Will the Sun Tan Special return? Will electric trolleys run commuters between Santa Cruz and Watsonville? Will Santa Cruz County ever rejoin the California passenger rail network? Only time can tell.

Citations & Credits:

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Curiosities: Local Railroads in Film

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In the era before World War II, Santa Cruz County provided a perfect location for dozens of film productions. From the Santa Cruz Beach to the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River to the fields of Watsonville and the distant North Coast, film crews came and recorded hundreds of hours of content. The earliest known local movie was the silent film A Diamond in the Rough released in December 1911 by the Selig Polyscope Company. At Laveaga Park, the Fer Dal Film Manufacturing Company, run by Edward Ferguson of Soquel, filmed around a dozen silent films beginning with The Tip in 1916. All considered, over 100 films have been wholly or partially filmed within the county to the present.

Film crew for The One-Way Trail recording from a log raft on the millpond at the Loma Prieta Lumber Company mill on Aptos Creek, 1919. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The popularity of film mixed with the ubiquity of railroads in the first half of the twentieth century meant that several local film productions featured local railroads in some capacity. Although the railroads depicted were never portrayed as local, they nonetheless served as an important setting. The following films are those where local railroads feature prominently in the plot or where other railroad-related locations are used.

Promotional poster for Sudden Jim.

Sudden Jim (1917)

The earliest confirmed film to involve local railroads in some capacity is Sudden Jim, filmed in early 1917 by Triangle Film Corporation. Based on a novel by Clarence Budington Kelland, it stars Charles Ray in the role of James "Jim" Ashe, Jr., who takes over a clothespin manufacturing plant from his father. However, Moran, a local strongman, tries to ruin Jim by withholding a lumber contract he had made with Jim's father. In retaliation, Jim and his workers seize control of the railroad that shuttles the lumber to the small town of Diversity. Left with no other choice, Moran is forced to fulfil the contract and Jim's business is saved. The film released July 22, 1917.

The San Vicente Lumber Company's mill in Santa Cruz. [UCSC Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The mill scenes were all filmed at the San Vicente Lumber Company mill on the northern edge of the Santa Cruz city limits, where Antonelli Pond is today. A portion of Boulder Creek was transformed into the town of Diversity for the film, and Felton Depot served as the train station. The film also included scenes taken at Gregory Ranch and elsewhere in the mountains. Other than one or two marketing photographs, no visual elements of this film, including the original recording, have survived.

Promotional poster for False Evidence. [Colorized using DeOldify]

False Evidence (1919)

Perhaps the only film on this list to leave a long shadow, False Evidence's main claim to fame is accidentally perpetuating false information about Welch's Big Trees. The film, originally titled "Madelon of the Redwoods," was an adaptation of Mary E. Wilkins' novel Madelon. It was filmed by Metro Pictures in March 1919 and released on April 21. It features Viola Dana in the role of Madelon MacTravish, a betrothed young women seeking a way out of her obligations. After several hijinks including a stabbing, coercion, and a near-hanging, a redwood tree falls on Madelon's betrothed freeing her to marry the man she loves.

A night-time scene in False Evidence, filmed on location at the Welch's Big Trees hotel. [UCSC Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Although the film does not feature any of the local railroads, one of its main set pieces is the former resort hotel that was at Welch's Big Trees, which today is the redwood loop of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Postcards sold by the Welch family in the years following the film's production often included a description of the former resort complex as the "Old Pony Express Office." In reality, this was a fabrication created for the film that remained after the production left. The establishment of the hotel postdated the Pony Express by fifteen years and, in any case, there was never a Pony Express office in Santa Cruz County. As with Sudden Jim, False Evidence is considered a lost film and most promotional material for the film has been lost. Fortunately, a decent collection of behind-the-scenes photos have been preserved and are available to view at the UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections website.

Newspaper advertisement for The One-Way Trail.

The One Way Trail (1920)

The following year saw the release of one of the best-photographed local films, The One-Way Trail. Starring Edythe Sterling and Gordon Sackville, the film was produced by Republic Pictures and filmed at the mill of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company on Aptos Creek in Autumn 1919. According to a summary by the Dayton Daily News:

The timberland of Canada is the locale of "The One Way Trail"... The action is not unlike that of the ordinary western thriller, there being quick drawing of weapons, much gun-play, the conflict between crime and law and order, and other things so dear to the heart of the movie fan. But the story is very different and the settings, too, are Canadian instead of Western United States. Views of the lumber mill in operation are particularly interesting. The story centers around Wanda Walker, whose father once had been sent to prison for a crime he did not commit and the effort of the real criminal to win Wanda for his own by threatening to expose him as an escaped convict.  But, fortunately, there is the brave limb of the Canadian mounted police on hand to thwart the arch-conspirator and criminal and to bring retribution for his crimes upon his head. And there is Wanda, second only to him, to fight for the father and the man she loves. 

The film was released in February 1920 to relatively little fanfare. Only a single, low-quality promotional photo and no movie posters have survived.

An epic train disaster from The One-Way Trail, filmed on location along the Bridge Creek railway in the Aptos Forest. [UCSC Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Of all the lost films of Santa Cruz County featuring railroads, this is the one to mourn the most. The Evening News wrote of the film on November 29, 1920: "The most spectacular and natural scenes were those taken at the Loma Prieta mill, showing actual milling and logging operations, as well as railroad operations." Although the film is lost, dozens of production photos survive showing the actors and crew on location in the mountains and elsewhere. These photos provide an incomparable look at the final years of operation on the Loma Prieta Branch along Aptos Creek and can be found at the UCSC Digital Collections website.

Marketing supplement for The Kingdom Within.

The Kingdom Within (1922)

In April 1922, Director Victor Schertzinger, who had directed Sudden Jim, brought a large film crew to Santa Cruz to continue the tradition of using the San Vicente Lumber mill as a movie set. This production, The Kingdom Within (originally titled "The Red Geranium") by Hodkinson Pictures, focuses on Amos Deming and Emily Preston, the former of whom is disabled and the latter of whom has an ex-con as a brother. Because of this, their town dislikes and distrusts the pair. After the local mill's owner tries to peg another crime on Emily's brother, Amos intervenes only to have his disability miraculously fixed during the fight. With the boss defeated and Amos and Emily having redeemed themselves and their families, the couple lives happily ever after. The film released on Christmas Eve 1922 to general acclaim.

Amos standing up to the mill owner in a newspaper photograph from The Kingdom Within. [Colorized using DeOldify]

The film is notable for recording scenes at several locations around the county. In addition to the mill, crews recorded in Felton and at Big Trees, as well as at the California Redwood Park (Big Basin) and around Santa Cruz. Promotional shots, advertisements, and production photos survive of the film, but the film itself does not. A small selection of set photos can be found at the UCSC Digital Collections website.

Promotional poster for The Amazing Vagabond.

The Amazing Vagabond (1929)

A film named The Amazing Vagabond must surely include railroads—and indeed it does. Filmed in late 1928 by FBO Pictures, the movie was one of the last silent films produced in the county. Similarly to most previous railroad-related films, the focus of this was on a lumber town in the redwoods. Jimmy Hobbs is the reckless son of a wealthy lumber baron who flies stunt planes and chases women. To punish him, his father sends him to a lumber mill, but the plan backfires when Jimmy falls in love with the superintendent's daughter and discovers that the mill foreman is selling lumber off the books. By outmaneuvering the foreman, Jimmy wins the respect of his father and the superintendent. The film had lackluster reviews when it released on April 7, 1929.

Promotional still for The Amazing Vagabond.

Shifting to yet another area of the county, Glenwood north of Scotts Valley features heavily in The Amazing Vagabond. As such, it showcases much of the surrounding area on the cusp of the Great Depression. Rather humorously, during filming, there was an incident involving a boxcar that was parked on a siding at Glenwood. In September 1928, Perry Murdock, an actor, was napping in the boxcar before a scene when he was locked in! The rest of the crew, not realizing their mistake, went to shelter from poor weather at nearby Glenwood Station. When the weather didn't clear up, crews began to pack up to leave when Thelma Daniels, another actor, realized she had lost her purse. While searching for it, two members of the crew found Murdock in the boxcar yelling for help. Like all the silent movies of Santa Cruz County's railroads, this film is now considered lost.

Promotional poster for West Bound Limited.

West Bound Limited (1937)

The Great Depression led many film companies to cut their budgets, especially since "talkies" required more time to produce and edit. This meant that most on-location films shifted to within a few hours' drive from Hollywood to save money. As a result, Santa Cruz County's golden age of film came to an end. From Black Tuesday to Pearl Harbor, only eleven feature films included scenes recorded in the county and only one featured a local railroad.

Promotional photo for West Bound Limited.

In spring 1937, Universal Film Company and Hollywood glitterati descended upon Santa Cruz County to film an action movie deep in the mountains entitled West Bound Limited. The Hotel Palomar in downtown Santa Cruz became the temporary home of celebrity director Ford Beebe, famed art director Ralph DeLacy, associate producer Henry McRae, and popular actor Lyle Talbot. Other actors, such as Henry Hunter, Polly Rowles, Henry Brandon, and Frank Reicher, joined them, spending their free time at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and other local sites.

Lyle Talbot in a promotional still for West Bound Limited. [Colorized using DeOldify]

The film follows the story of Dave Tolliver (Talbot), a night dispatcher in the town of Hargraves who works for a short-line railroad. While on duty, the payroll for the Bonanza Gold Mine arrives and a masked man steals it. Tolliver tries to retrieve the stolen goods, but unwisely abandons his post in the process, resulting in a deadly railroad collision. He is imprisoned for manslaughter but escapes to a rural town where he takes over for a local dispatcher who has become ill. While there, he discovers the identity of the thief and reveals him, exonerating himself.

Santa Cruz Sentinel photograph of the production set of West Bound Limited at Zayante Station. [Colorized using DeOldify]

This movie features a lot of the San Lorenzo Valley's railroad infrastructure only three years before the route through the mountains was ended. The otherwise poorly documented Zayante Station was chosen as the primary set for external scenes due to its remoteness, the sounds of rushing water from Mountain Charlie Gulch and Zayante Creek, and its accessibility via train and road. A special studio train brought in production materials and shuttled the crew and actors daily from Santa Cruz to Zayante, where a temporary train order tower was erected across from the actual Southern Pacific station shelter. Interior scenes were filmed at Felton Depot, while others scenes were completed at Big Trees, Olympia, and Inspiration Point on Highway 9. Production lasted for a week and involved the studio renting a passenger and a freight train from the Southern Pacific. Al G. Hemmerstram from the railroad remained on site to ensure the authenticity of all railroad scenes. 

Sentinel photograph of the cast and crew of West Bound Limited eating at a long table sandwiched between Zayante's station shelter and a Southern Pacific passenger train. [Colorized using DeOldify]

Production was hampered by intemperate weather, an unimpressive stream, and numerous landslides along the tracks. These were all common and predictable occurrences for the San Lorenzo Valley that time of year. Additionally, a special lightning effect nearly exploded, but Talbot and Beebe were able to defuse it before it injured any of the nearby and unaware crew. Zayante’s remoteness kept down the usual number of visitors to the filming location, but dozens of local extras were employed in scenes in Felton and elsewhere. Filming wrapped on May 3, only days before a Federated Motion Picture Crafts strike was scheduled to begin. Cast and crew were feted at one final well-attended dinner at Hotel Palomar before heading back to Hollywood. The release of the film on July 11, 1937 marked the last substantial film focused on local railroad infrastructure.

The film is available on DVD from the Mountain Parks Foundation Nature Store at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Promotional poster for The Lost Boys.

The Lost Boys (1987)

The final film on this list is not a local railroad movie and is only included here to correct a misconception. The Lost Boys, distributed by Warner Bros. and directed by Joel Schumacher, was primarily filmed in various places in the Santa Cruz County in 1986, most notably at the Boardwalk and Pogonip. However, one of its early iconic scenes, of Michael Emerson and several of his new vampiric friends leaping off of a railroad truss bridge, was not filmed locally. Contrary to popular belief, the bridge in the film is not that over the San Lorenzo River beside the Boardwalk but rather a bridge in Santa Clarita on today's Iron Horse Trailhead. Presumably this location was chosen because the bridge was near the film studio and was suspended over a seasonal creek rather than a year-round river. The Lost Boys Bridge, as it is called on the trail, and much of the former railroad right-of-way has been converted into a pedestrian trail.

Production still of actors or stuntmen hanging off the truss bridge in Santa Clarita, ca 1986.

If you know of any other studio films that depict Santa Cruz County's railroads, please let us know! Click one of the "Contact" options to the right of the screen or email

Citations & Credits:

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Companies: Molino Timber Company

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Rancho Soquel Augmentation still had thousands of acres of unharvested old growth redwood trees in the spring of 1910. Yet the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, which owned the land, had spent the better part of the past decade failing to harvest anything other than the most accessible acreage. Conservative in its outlook and methods, the company hesitated when it should have asserted. By 1910, it had abandoned operations in Hinckley Gulch and its small mill on Mill Creek north of Davenport was quickly running out of usable timber. If the company was to remain viable going forward, it needed help.

The Molino Timber Company's locomotive backing a train of empty wagons into the forest above Hinckley Gulch, 1910s. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Assistance came from Alfred Williams, Oscar E. Chase, Albretto "Bert" Stoodley, Fred Daubenbiss, and Fred Severance, who on May 31, 1910 joined forces to incorporate the Molino Timber Company. All of the men were employees of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company and retained their positions within the firm. The stated goal of the new company was to harvest difficult-to-access timber on behalf of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company so that the latter could eventually plant eucalyptus trees throughout its properties within the Augmentation. What the directors lacked in money they made up for in ambition and vision. Their first task was to send crews along Aptos Creek to chop up abandoned and overlooked trees for firewood. This would generate some initial revenue from which they could further invest in equipment. Then, in late 1910, the company was made a subsidiary of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company and given the contract for harvesting the remaining timber in Hinckley Gulch.

The flooded remains of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company's Hinckley Gulch mill following the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

This narrow, remote tributary of the East Branch of Soquel Creek had eluded thorough timber harvesting since 1901. The canyon was difficult to access and vulnerable to natural disasters such as flooding, landslides, and earthquakes. On April 18, 1906, several lumbermen and a Chinese cook were killed in a massive landslide triggered by the San Francisco Earthquake. The Loma Prieta Lumber Company never recovered from this loss and eventually gave up on the gulch and its millions of board feet of timber. But the Molino Timber Company had some ideas that were more risky and the Loma Prieta Lumber Company was keen to make money.

Narrow-gauge tracks on the old Loma Prieta Branch right-of-way, 1910s.  [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

The Molino directors reasoned that the only way to profitably extract the timber was via a railroad. But the Loma Prieta Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad had recently been cut back to the old village of Loma Prieta, far south of where any line to Hinckley Gulch would need to be located. Meanwhile, a route up Bridge Creek could potentially get to Hinckley Gulch, but at too high of an elevation to be useful. The conclusion the directors of the company came to was that any useful railroad would have to run along China Ridge, which was substantially higher in elevation than the current railroad grade. A 30-inch narrow-gauge railroad was the only affordable option and, in any case, would allow trains to make very sharp turns and pass through very narrow cuts. A switchback, meanwhile, could get the train to the top of the ridge. Unfortunately, over three miles of track would be needed to achieve this goal. In addition, another three miles would be needed to reach Hinckley Gulch, and four more miles to reach the heart of the the timberland. This was simply not practical.

The bottom of the Molino incline, 1910s. [The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

After much debate, the directors finally agreed on building a 2,250-foot-long, steam-powered cable incline. It wasn't the first in the county—a similar incline had run at Waterman Switch north of Boulder Creek, but that operation did not have a railroad running within Waterman Gap. This incline would serve as the midpoint of a timber-cutting network that would operate in two sections, one at the top of China Ridge using a small 10.5-ton Shay locomotive, and one along Aptos Creek using first a modified gas-powered Maxwell automobile and later a Scott-Hall gasoline rail speeder. The product brought out of Hinckley would not be logs, but rather splitstuff such as railroad crossties, grape stakes, fence posts, and shingle and shake bolts. This would keep the carloads light and obviate the need for ballast. The splitstuff would be hauled to the railroad grade either on pack mules or via highlines, where it would be loaded into waiting wagons.

Piles of splitstuff lining the dual-gauge tracks at Molino Junction, 1910s. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Splitstuff was also quick to produce. As a result, the railroad tracks from Loma Prieta to the southern boundary of the Augmentation were lined with stacks of splitstuff awaiting pickup by Southern Pacific trains. Even before the railroad was completed, the F. A. Hihn Company hired the Molino Timber Company to haul out splitstuff from its logging operation at the headwaters of Bridge Creek. Stacks of its splitstuff were placed side-by-side with Molino stacks, with the incline being used to haul both down to the Aptos Creek grade. It was the duty of the lumberjacks to keep straight which piles of splitstuff were Molino's and which were Hihn's.

The Molino train passing beside a water tower along the Molino grade, 1910s. [The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Construction of the line began in spring 1912. Southern Pacific readily agreed to allow a third rail to be added to its tracks between the end of the Loma Prieta Branch at the village of Loma Prieta and the former Schilling's Camp (today's Porter Picnic Area in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park). For the first time, the private switch at Molino, which had initially split off for the Molino shingle mill in 1884 and later for the main Loma Prieta mill from 1886, was upgraded to a formal stop by Southern Pacific. A former county engineer, Arnold Baldwin, was hired to build the line. Around 100 workers were employed that summer, half to build the railroad and the other half to cut splitstuff in the forest.

Molino workers posing for the camera at Camp No. 1, with the incline's cable hoist and the top of the incline in the center, 1910s. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

The Molino Timber Company's operation eventually had three camps and a waypoint along China Ridge. Camp No. 1 was at the top of the incline and included the massive donkey engine that operated the cable hoist, locomotive storage and repair facilities, homes for the hoist operators and mechanics, sidings for spare and under-repair rolling stock, a water tower and wood bunker to resupply the locomotive, a blacksmith shop, and other facilities for the small group of people that lived there. After 1912, no logging took place in the vicinity of Camp No. 1 and it only hosted a small population of workers.

Probably the F. A. Hihn Company's splitstuff camp at the headwaters of Bridge Creek below Sand Point, 1910s. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

In 1913, railroad construction crews reached Sand Point 3.5 miles beyond Camp No. 1, where Hinckley and China Ridges meet. It was here that the F. A. Hihn Company's splitstuff from the headwaters of Bridge Creek was hoisted up via highlines to the railroad grade for transfer to the incline and beyond. To support this effort, the location had at least two sidings to allow the loading of rolling stock. To reach Sand Point, ten bridges and numerous half-bridges were needed to cross all the gullies above Bridge Creek. These were crude structures made of stacks of logs and splitstuff and held together with the same. Unlike the Loma Prieta Branch, which was built to Southern Pacific standards, this route was a remote logging railroad and the Molino Timber Company cut costs wherever possible. The one-mile route from Sand Point to Camp No. 2 was even more rugged, crossing over several deep gullies via six more bridges.

Camp No. 2 on the slopes of Santa Rosalia Ridge, ca 1915. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

It was at Camp No. 2, reached in late 1913, that the majority of the workers lived in crudely-built shacks atop the adjacent hill. The place had the unfortunate monicker of "Jap Camp" due to the high number of Japanese lumbermen who worked here during the high season. The camp had many worker cabins and a dormitory, a cookhouse, and small amenities to keep the men occupied in the evenings. Around 70 workers lived in the forest during the harvest season, with some chopping trees, some stripping them, others cutting them and preparing them for transport. At the end of the day, most returned to Camp No. 2 except for the most hardy cruisers, who ranged deep into the forest to identify potentially profitable groves. The railroad built two spurs at the camp to park rolling stock. A switchback to the top of the ridge was also built to more easily access timber near the summit.

Workers posing with a wagon on a trestle bridge along the Molino grade, 1910s.  [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

The majority of the Molino Timber Company's logging operations were centered at Camp No. 2. Work crews took pack mules down into the gullies of Hinckley Gulch each day and returned in the evenings. Most splitstuff was cut on site and brought up to the railroad grade either by mule or via highlines that were suspended across the entire gulch, which spanned a mile from ridge-to-ridge. Larger logs were also sometimes hauled to the camp, where they were processed on site rather than in the gulch due to poor terrain for cutting. Most piecemakers—splitstuff cutters—worked by themselves or in tandem, and the Japanese workers in particular did not like working with each other. The railroad would make two to three runs on most days, hauling four to six cars per run. This system worked from late 1913 through mid-1916, when most of the available timber around Camp No. 2 was exhausted.

A wagon passing through a narrow cut along the Molino grade, 1910s. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Beginning in late 1915, the railroad line was extended deeper into the forest toward the headwaters of Hinckley Gulch, but it did not reach Camp No. 3 until mid-1916. Part of the reason for this slow progress was the extreme terrain, which involved deep gullies, narrow cuts, and near-vertical drops. Another sixteen bridges and six deep cuts into the hillside were required to reach Camp No. 3, only two miles away from Camp No. 2. Once the camp was reached and the area prepared, Camp No. 2 shut down and the buildings and machinery were moved north. The large highline donkey engine was also relocated to the camp and work resumed.

Man pulling himself along the mile-long highline cable over Hinckley Gulch, ca 1916. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

In spring 1917, disaster struck the company when the mile-long highline snapped and all attempts at repairing it or replicating it with other lines failed to achieve profitable results. After nearly shutting down the operation permanently, management decided to extend the railroad further to the top of Hinckley Creek. However, it is unclear whether this decision was made by the directors or Timothy Hopkins, president of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company. To reach the new area, the railroad switchbacked twice before finally crossing the creek, where it terminated in two forks on the west bank. The landing here allowed cars to be loaded directly from nearby mule tracks, which reduced crews' reliance on highlines and donkey engines.

Workers posing for the cameraman at Camp No. 3, ca 1917. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

At the end of the 1917 season, all logging at the headwaters of Hinckley Creek ceased. It was a sudden decision sent by Hopkins after the workers had mostly left for the year. Although there was still useable timber in the area, it was deemed too difficult to extract and unlikely to generate sufficient profit. By the late autumn, Hopkins had sent in crews to remove most of the tracks beyond Camp No. 2 in order to use them on a new route the Loma Prieta Lumber Company was building along Bridge Creek. The track that remained continued to be used to remove splitstuff from the headwaters of Bridge Creek. It also supported a small group of pieceworkers that returned in spring 1918 to harvest the remaining timber on the slopes of Santa Rosalia Ridge, just to the north of Camp No. 2.

Molino locomotive somewhere along the line, 1910s. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

A disastrous storm in September 1918 severely damaged parts of the new track on Bridge Creek as well as the Molino Timber Company's grade and the tracks at the headwaters of Bridge Creek. The former F. A. Hihn Company's saddleback locomotive Betsy Jane was lost in the mayhem. As a result of the storm, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company salvaged what they could from what was available. The tracks along the ridge were pulled to replace the damaged tracks along the lower portion of Bridge Creek. In spring 1919, the Molino's Shay locomotive and the remaining rolling stock on the ridge were hauled down the incline. Crews then dismantled the remaining track and the incline. Lastly, the massive donkey engine that had run the cable hoist for the past seven years was lowered down to Aptos Creek. On December 1, 1919, the Molino Timber Company was voluntarily dissolved by its directors and all of its remaining assets were transferred to the Loma Prieta Lumber Company.

The Molino shay being lowered down the incline to the grade below, 1919. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

The legacy of the Molino Timber Company's route along China Ridge survives today in the form of the Aptos Creek Fire Road in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. After reaching the top of the switchback, hikers and bikers arrive at the site of Camp No. 1, the top of the incline. Continuing down the road, they follow the railroad right-of-way except where it originally deviated over bridges and half-trestles, remains of which can sometimes be found at the bottom of gullies. The Sand Point Overlook marks the start of the Hinckley Basin Fire Road, which once provided logging crews access to the headwaters of Bridge Creek. Continuing on along the main road, the railroad grade eventually veers off to the west while the road continues its climb north up the ridge. This is the site of Camp No. 2 and marked where the railroad first entered Hinckley Gulch. Because of the temporary nature of the camp, nothing survives today except the vague trace of a railroad grade disappearing into the forest.

Citations & Credits:

  • Powell, Ronald G. The Shadow of Loma Prieta: Part Three of the History of Rancho Soquel Augmentation. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, forthcoming.