Thursday, June 8, 2023

Companies: Union Mill & Lumber Company

The story of the Union Mill & Lumber Company shares its origin with the Alpine Lumber Company in that both began with Hubbard Wilson McKoy, an early settler in the Felton area. In 1871, McKoy’s daughter Sierra Nevada married the bartender of his Felton Hotel, Thomas Benton Hubbard. This link soon brought their two families into business together, prompting seventeen years of collaboration.

Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. mill on Oil Creek, one of the headwaters of Pescadero Creek, late 1890s. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Hubbard family had migrated from Missouri and were led by Thomas’s father, Daniel Campbell Hubbard, who went into business with McKoy in 1875. The following year, Thomas began working at George Treat’s mill near the toll house south of Felton, giving him both experience in the industry and a connection with an influential local capitalist. On September 5, 1876, Thomas joined McKoy to form McKoy & Hubbard. For the next three years, the partners ran a mill north of Felton on the line of the San Lorenzo Valley Flume. During this time, they owned a lumber yard near the Railroad Wharf and briefly partnered with Nathaniel Manson and Charles Cummins of Lompoc, operating together as the Santa Cruz Lumber Company. But Manson, Cummins, and Hubbard all wanted more direct control over their operations and eventually went their separate ways in spring 1879.

H. W. McKoy's Central Hotel in Felton, mid-1870s. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

Hubbard soon joined forces with another son-in-law of McKoy, Isaac Newton Hayes, and together they purchased stumpage rights to the lands of H. E. Makinney and T. H. Peterson on Marshall Creek in a gulch soon named after Hubbard. Their mill opened the week of May 22, 1880, and was placed under the management of veteran lumbermen Joseph W. Peery and J. W. Basham. At the end of the year, Hubbard was appointed to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to replace James F. Cunningham, who had resigned his post. Despite his unexpected shift into local politics, he remained focused on his lumber projects.

Hayes & Hubbard's mill on Marshall Creek, ca 1881. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

In May 1881, Hayes & Hubbard sold its mill on Marshall Creek to the Independent Lumber Company of San José, which planned to run the mill until the end of the summer and then relocate the machinery to Soquel Creek. Only two months later, Hubbard partnered with David Lynd Kent, William Armstrong, Isaac B. Kent, and Nathan Robbins Bowes to incorporate the Union Mill & Lumber Company. That same month, the firm opened its first mill a quarter mile upstream of Hubbard’s previous mill. Joe Nichols oversaw construction of the new facility, which had a capacity of 20,000 board feet of lumber per day. The mill opened the last week of August and employed 30 to 40 people.

D. L. Kent's General Merchandise store in Felton, ca 1880. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

Union Mill’s operations in Hubbard Gulch lasted for three seasons. During that time, the mill ran at peak efficiency but the San Lorenzo Valley Flume could not handle its increased output, so the company was forced to transport lumber to Felton by wagon on the County Road (Highway 9). Once in Felton, it was loaded onto waiting South Pacific Coast Railroad flatcars. This was an inefficient system, one that the company hoped to avoid at its next venue. In February 1883, the company bought 400 acres of timberland along Lompico Creek from Peter C. Van Allen for $6,000.

While its Hubbard Gulch mill ran for one last season, the Union Mill & Lumber Company set up a new facility near the confluence of Lompico Creek and Zayante Creek using machinery purchased from the late William Waddell’s defunct mill near Point Año Nuevo. Construction was slow, particularly because the basin was extremely narrow. Crews used this to their advantage and installed a 35-foot-high dam that allowed the millpond to snake up the creek for half a mile. At the top of this, they installed a 330-foot-long canal, which served as a catchment for logs pulled or lowered from above. Once completed, the mill had a capacity of 50,000 board feet of lumber per day, more than double the output of the Hubbard Gulch mill. Probably in early autumn 1884, the South Pacific Coast Railroad extended a 0.4-mile-long narrow-gauge spur to the mill. Ownership and maintenance of the track was split between the lumber company and the railroad, with Zayante Road marking the dividing line. Empty cars were lowered to the mill using gravity and brakes, while horses pulled loaded cars up to the railroad grade. An access road was extended from the mill to Zayante Road in September 1884, and the mill was ready for operation in October.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map of downtown Felton, showing the dilapidated Union Mill & Lumber Company's planing mill between the end of the Old Felton Branch of the South Pacific Coast Railway and the San Lorenzo River, 1895. [Library of Congress]

Around the same time the Lompico mill was being erected, the Union Mill & Lumber Company also erected a planing mill behind the old Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad’s freight depot on the west side of the San Lorenzo River. The steam-powered facility had a capacity of 8,000 board feet of lumber per day, and, in May 1884, it shipped five carloads of wood products every day. This planing mill was responsible for processing rough lumber, splitstuff, and other wood products that could not be manufactured at the Lompico site.

Fellers and piecemakers of the Union Mill & Lumber Company posing around a felled tree above Lompico Creek, ca 1886. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

A Sentinel reporter visited the Lompico mill in October 1885 and reported on the operations there:

This mill is running light at present, with a force of twenty-five men, and turns out about 12,000 feet of lumber per day, though its full capacity is 50,000 feet. This mill can boast of having the largest engine used in any saw-mill in the country, being one hundred horse-power. The system of bringing logs from the woods is different from all other mills in this part of the State, and has resulted in a great saving to the company, who formerly used sixteen yoke of oxen, while at present only four yoke are engaged in hauling the logs to a dam on the Lumbago creek, down which they are floated to within about one hundred feet of the mill, when they are attached to a chain and pulled by the huge engine to the saw. It is very interesting to watch this process, which is a well contrived plan and a much more rapid means of moving logs than was the old system.

Most of the wood products produced at the mill were sent to San José, where Hubbard moved in January 1885 to work as the primary sales agent for the Bay Area.

On January 20, 1886, there was a change in leadership at the Union Mill & Lumber Company when H. W. McKoy was elected president. McKoy had spent the previous three years running the Central Hotel in Felton, but he had been a principal an investor in the lumber company when it first formed five years earlier. As president, he moved to San José and took over the company’s yard there. He only remained in his position for two years, however. In January 1888, he sold his shares in the company and permanently left the lumber industry. He returned to running his hotel until a fire on October 20, 1889, burned much of Felton to the ground. He rebuilt, christening the new structure the Grand Central Hotel, and continued to run the hostelry until his death on August 22, 1895.

Not long after McKoy took over the Union Mill & Lumber Company, the firm acquired 356 acres of additional land in the Lompico basin from the estate of Charles McLaughlin via a judicial ruling. This solidified the company’s hold over the timber in the Lompico Creek basin. The next year, in July 1887, the company announced plans to build a new mill on San Pedro Street in San José for $32,000. There is some evidence to suggest that it was actually built. The company also acquired timberland four miles north of Boulder Creek and was operating a mill there in March 1887, though no further details of this operation can be found.

Hubbard’s relationship with the company after this point becomes murky, primarily because local newspapers had a habit of blurring the names of local businesses with the names of their owners. What is clear is that Hubbard was likely in charge of the planing mill in Felton during this time. That planing mill was scheduled to relocate to Lompico in March 1887, but it is unclear if it ever moved since it was still operating somewhere in Felton in February 1888. That same year in October, Hubbard entered into a new partnership with Daniel and Neil Carmichael of Saratoga to harvest timber along Oil Creek, a tributary of Pescadero Creek at the northernmost point of Santa Cruz County.

Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. first mill on Oil Creek, ca 1890. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Union Mill & Lumber Company must have gone inactive at around this time since the Sentinel notes that Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. relocated the Union Mill’s machinery to its new operation on Oil Creek prior to July 1890. Charles C. Smith is named as president of the Union Mill & Lumber Company in April 1889, but the firm is not mentioned against in newspapers after this date. It may have suffered during the economic downturn of 1893, which severely impacted the local lumber industry, and never recovered. What ultimately happened to the Union Mill & Lumber Company remains a mystery, but it was finally dissolved on December 14, 1905.

The former Union Mill on Union Creek within Big Basin, ca 1901. Photo by Andrew P. Hill. [History San José – colorized using MyHeritage]

The story of Hubbard and the physical remains of the Union Mill take different paths from this point. Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. sold the old mill structure and machinery to Henry L. Middleton in March 1895, who moved it to Little Basin northwest of Boulder Creek. Middleton employed around 40 workers at the mill during the three years that it operated there. He then moved the mill further north onto a 160-acre tract on today’s Union Creek within Big Basin that he harvested from 1898 to 1900 at a reduced capacity. This threat posed by this mill, along with a few others owned by Middleton, finally convinced the State of California to purchase land that would become the California Redwood Park in 1902. Following the sale, the mill was dismantled and removed to Boulder Creek in November. Joseph Grahamer later leased the site in 1904 and established the Union Mill Camp and Tavern, one of the earliest campgrounds at Big Basin. Unfortunately, the site was destroyed by fire on September 7, only a few months after it opened.

A Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. water wagon on Big Basin Road, ca 1901. Batista 'Bat' Mevin is driving. Photo by Andrew P. Hill. [History San José – colorized using MyHeritage]

Hubbard & Carmichael Bros., meanwhile, continued their operations on Oil Creek. The company may have closed the mill for a few years from 1893, which explains why the Union Mill was sold to Middleton during this time. When business resumed around 1896, the partners shifted operations downstream of their original mill site into San Mateo County. The mill was moved 0.75 miles off Saratoga Gap to a clearing beside Oil Creek. To get the cut lumber and other wood products to the top of the ridge, where the lumber yard was located, the company built a funicular cable railroad, the first of its type in the county. Horses pulled wagons full of lumber from the mill to the bottom of the incline, where they were attached to a cable and hauled up the grade to the yard. Once in the yard, crews would load wagons and send the material off to Saratoga and San Jose. The mill at this time employed around 50 men and cut 20,000 board feet of lumber per day. The Oil Creek mill remained in operation at this site for at least two seasons.

The original Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. mill on West Santa Cruz Street in San José, mid-December 1901. [San José Daily Mercury – colorized using MyHeritage]

In January 1900, Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. opened a new retail mill and yard on West Santa Clara Street in San José. It would remain the most stable aspect of the firm for the next three decades. The mill on Oil Creek shut down after the 1899 season and relocated to the Morrell Ranch on Two Bar Creek. But it only remained there for two years, shifting back to a new site on Oil Creek in July 1902. The mill resumed using the funicular railroad to bring lumber to Saratoga Gap, but the company’s primary focus had shifted to the hillside west of the mill, with felled trees dragged via cable to the millpond below. Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. finally ended its operations on Oil Creek at the end of the 1905 season, after which it relocated to Waterman Creek just below the California Timber Company’s property.

Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. workers in San Jose celebrating 100% union membership, ca 1913 [San José State University – colorized using MyHeritage]

During this time and for at least two more decades, Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. became a pillar of the San José lumber scene. The company briefly incorporated as Carmichael Bros. on October 27,1909, perhaps reflecting changes to the firm caused by the San Francisco Earthquake. This entity went out of business on April 13, 1914. Yet four years later, the older Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. was reincorporated and remained a legal entity until December 18, 1944. Not unexpectedly, Thomas Hubbard did not live to see the final end of his lumber empire. He died on November 23, 1917, after which his son Albert L. Hubbard succeeded him as president of the firm. From his start as a bartender in the upstart hamlet of Felton, Thomas became over forty years one of the most prominent lumbermen in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties, whose legacy lives on in the gulch named after him in Ben Lomond.

Citations & Credits:

  • California Office of the Secretary of State. bizfile Online.
  • San Jose Evening News and Herald. Various articles.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, Weekly Sentinel, Daily Sentinel, Morning Sentinel, and Evening Sentinel. Various articles.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Sources: Subdivision Plans

Almost every property in Santa Cruz County and in the surrounding areas was once a part of a larger property. On the coast and in the Pajaro Valley, most of these were Mexican ranchos. Elsewhere, they were large land grants, often in nearly uninhabitable mountain terrain. Eventually, the forests were cut down, the swamps were drained, and roads were extended, making much of the land in the region usable by settlers. Over time, the large ranchos and tracts were subdivided into smaller, more manageable properties. And the plans of these subdivisions can be very useful in researching local railroad history.

The railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains passed through several large properties. These included the coastal ranchos, the Pajaro Valley ranchos, Ranchos Zayante and Rincon on the San Lorenzo River, and Rancho Rinconada de los Gatos in Santa Clara County. Other large tracts through which railroads passed include the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company's properties high up Zayante Creek, the Pacific Manufacturing Company's properties in the Ben Lomond area, Grover & Company's lands around Brookdale, and the various timber companies that owned property in and north of Boulder Creek. When the early railroads built their routes, these were still large property blocks, so negotiating easements and rights-of-way were relatively straightforward. However, as time passed, these large properties shrunk and subdivisions were created, often directly beside or around the railroad tracks.

A property developer creating a new subdivision can deal with the presence of a railroad in a number of ways:

  • In select cases, they may petition the Southern Pacific Railroad to create a dedicated station for their subdivision. This is how Glen Arbor, Olympia, Call of the Wild, and Seabright all obtained their stations. Similarly, resorts such as the Boardwalk, Mount Hermon, Twin Lakes, Eva, and Manresa were allowed stations because the resort owners petitioned the railroad.
  • Alternatively, a subdivision may be created around an already-established station, with the property developers integrating the station into its plans (and the name sometimes changing as a result). This occurred at Eccles, Meehan (formerly Doughertys), Farley (Claus), Glenwood, Laurel (Highland), and elsewhere. In some cases, large-scale communities developed around former freight stations, such as at Ben Lomond (Pacific Mills), Brookdale (Reed's Spur), Aromas (Sand Cut), and Capitola (Soquel).
  • In the majority of cases, the property is subdivided with acceptance of the adjacent railroad but no active engagement with it. Sometimes proximity to a nearby railroad station is offered as a perk, other times the railroad goes entirely unmentioned. And in rare instances, it is left off the subdivision plan itself, suggesting that the developer wanted to downplay the presence of the railroad.
The plans created for subdivisions can often reveal a lot about the developer's strategy regarding the railroad. And other details in the plans including the layout of the subdivision, the year it was surveyed and registered, the people involved, the owners of adjacent properties, and the details of the railroad itself all make them an invaluable resource when researching local railroad history.

Ways of using this type of source:

When it comes to railroad research, the number one reason to view a subdivision plan is to see how the property developers intended to interact with the railroad right-of-way. The area around Brookdale in the San Lorenzo Valley provides several different examples demonstrating the various relationships. Brookdale was developed from the land of Grover & Company, a lumber company, which had been purchased in the late 1890s by James Harvey Logan, a superior court judge. At the time, there were two train stations in the area: Reed's Spur and Steen's Spur. Both of these were industrial spurs catering to local logging operations, which had shut down by the time Logan had purchased the property.

Map of Brookdale (assembled from four tiles), 1910. [Santa Cruz County GIS]

This map above lays out the town in some detail. By this point, Reed's Spur had become the official station for Brookdale and Steen's Spur had become Fish Hatchery. There was also a new station directly across the river to the southeast called Siesta. Notably on this map, the station locations are emphasized, but the spurs and facilities are nowhere mentioned. This map is primarily about property ownership, so other details are lacking. Yet the importance of the railroad line passing through the property development is obvious. The three stations are mentioned and clearly play some role in the life of the community.

Map of Huckleberry Island, April 1903. [Santa Cruz County GIS]

This map of Huckleberry Island is in some ways the opposite of the Brookdale map. The railroad right-of-way is shown, but it is there purely for geographic accuracy, nothing more. The actual railroad passes through an adjacent tract owned by the Hartman family (who are not named on this plan). For whatever reason, no agreement was made with the family and the railroad to allow a flag-stop for Huckleberry Island. Granted, the subdivision was just across a bridge from Brookdale station, but the fact that the developers of the subdivision mostly ignored the railroad in their plans is relevant to understanding the history of this little community.

Excerpt from a revised Map of Brookdale, ca 1911. [Santa Cruz County GIS]

At the other extreme is the above extract from a revision to the 1910 Map of Brookdale. Notice the sudden addition of "North Brookdale Station" at the end of Irwin Way. This station never existed but was rather the fanciful idea of the property developer, surveyor, or cartographer.  Yet the suggestion of such a station is reasonable—this community is separated from Brookdale station by a wide bend in the river putting it 0.9 miles away The next nearest station is Harris (formerly Boulder Mill), which is across the river and therefore inaccessible at this time. Thus, the closest station is actually Filbert 0.8 miles to the north along the main county road (Highway 9). It therefore makes sense that the developer would petition for such a station, but there is no evidence that a station was ever requested and Southern Pacific certainly never established one at this site. Its presence on this map is both evidence of hope and a warning to researchers not to trust everything found on a subdivision plan.

Plan of East Brookdale, August 1909. [Santa Cruz County GIS]

Some of the most useful subdivision plans aren't even necessarily of the specific area in question. This plan of East Brookdale from August 1909 shows Siesta station in detail, despite the fact that it's actually focused on an adjacent subdivision. The plan shows the approximate length of the railroad spur and implies a relationship with the subdivision. Curiously, Siesta is not named, perhaps because the station itself did not have a name at the time this plan was made. The station's prominence in this plan makes clear that it would be available to residents and vacationers to the East Brookdale subdivision. For railroad researchers, it is also very helpful that visual details of the adjacent bridge over the San Lorenzo River are provided, making this plan even more helpful.

Excerpt of the Map of Brookdale, ca 1911. [Santa Cruz County GIS]

Shifting to another use for these maps, they can be used to identify important people, including those who lived on the property before it was subdivided, those who subdivided it, those who lived on it when the map was made, and neighbors to the subdivision. In this random excerpt from the circa 1911 revised Map of Brookdale, several names jump out, some individuals and some businesses. The most important business is the Brookdale Land Company, which subdivided the property on behalf of Judge Logan. Other important property holders include the Fish Hatchery and the Brookdale Lodge. Then there are individuals: Ralph Miller, former co-owner of the Neptune Baths at the Santa Cruz Main Beach; Fred R. Walti, owner of a large slaughterhouse in Santa Cruz; John W. Linscott, superintendent of county schools; and several other people connected to county business and government. All of these may provide clues as to why the subdivision was created, who it hoped to attract, and how the railroad was involved.

Map of the Clear Creek area, 1894. [Santa Cruz County GIS]

One final important use for subdivision plans, town maps, and similar documents is to show a progression. Brookdale was not always a large property subdivision. Once it was just a lumber mill along the county road to Boulder Creek. This map surveyed by E. D. Perry in 1894 shows a very different area than would later emerge. Everything is in a grid pattern corresponding with a standard township division of 36 sections in a 6 mile by 6 mile grid. The railroad bridges are very helpfully numbered, presumably according to the South Pacific Coast Railway's formula. The relationship between the railroad, San Lorenzo River, and county road are much more apparent since there are no small properties confusing the scene. A 'white sulphur spring' is apparently located on the east bank of the river along a small brook. Most importantly, the names of the several large property owners are visible across the page: Grover and Logan, Castle, Ordway, Peterson, and the Hartman Tract. There's also the promise of some development in the area with 'Island Park' already labeled over Huckleberry Island.

Local history resources:

While there are various places you can go to find a few subdivision plans, Santa Cruz County has a one-stop online place to find almost all of them relating to the county. Geographic Information Services (GIS) for Santa Cruz County includes many different maps of the county, but among those are subdivision and other property plans documenting the entire property history of the county.

You can access the GIS Web portal at Type in or navigate to a property, click on it (make sure only one property is selected, because it sometimes will click two), and then click on "Recorded Maps & Docs." Under the "Recorded Maps" and "Non Recorded Maps" sections are sometimes dozens of items relating to the property or the larger property within which it is found. Most subdivision plans are under "Recorded Maps," but other things such as rancho boundaries, early area surveys, smaller private subdivisions, and court maps may be found under "Non Recorded Maps." There are also several other categories of maps that may be useful, depending on your topic.

Monterey County has a similar GIS map viewer that can be found here: Unlike the Santa Cruz version, this GIS site shows many of the subdivisions at the overview level and users can see small thumbnails of the available plans and maps when they click on a property. This makes it both more and less convenient to users, depending on how you want to search for your plans.

Unfortunately, Santa Clara and San Benito Counties do not appear to have similarly useful online web tools to search for historical subdivisions and property information. While they have GIS websites, these do not seem to allow for historical breakdowns of properties.

Online map tool:

To assist researchers and those interested in local history, Santa Cruz Trains is created an online map showing all of the ranchos, named subdivisions, and organized towns and cities in Santa Cruz County. The focus currently is on Felton and Ben Lomond, but the map will be expanded to the entire county as time permits.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Events: The Train Wreck of May 23, 1880

While train rides in the Santa Cruz Mountains were sometimes fun affairs and more usually just a part of a person’s daily commute, in the afternoon of Sunday, May 23, 1880, an excursion trip became the stuff of nightmares. That morning, a fourteen-car South Pacific Coast Railroad excursion train arrived at Big Trees, today's Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. In it were members of the San Francisco Bohemian Club, the Alameda Harmonie Verein, and the Independent Rifles, among others, about 300 people in total. Picnickers enjoyed the early afternoon walking through the redwood groves and picking wild flowers. Some fished while others just relaxed under the mid-Spring sun. A number of Santa Cruzans had travelled to Felton earlier in the day to join the excursion group. Included among these were Duncan McPherson, editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Santa Cruz County Sheriff Elmer Dakan.

Original chromolithograph of the May 23, 1880 wreck commissioned by and published in The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp on June 5. Art by Mr. Keller.

At around 3:00 p.m., Felton Depot received a request from a group of excursionists for a train to take them to Santa Cruz, where they hoped to enjoy the last hours of the day at the beach. The train of George L. Colegrove, a man experienced with the route through San Lorenzo Gorge, was initially assigned the duty, but this was rescinded and a different crew was tasked with the duty headed by engineer Robert J. Elliott and his fireman, Frank R. Thompson, neither of whom had ever taken the train down the grade. Elliott's train was larger than Colegrove's, which meant that it had to be controlled with more caution as it navigated San Lorenzo Gorge. Colegrove quickly coached Elliott about the dangers of the route, and provided him with his brakeman, Howard D. Anthrum, who knew the line well. Sam Davis, the younger brother of the railroad’s president, Alfred Davis, also insisted on joining the crew in the cab of South Pacific Coast Railroad Locomotive No. 3. Other crew members included Alfred Withers, an attaché of the railroad, and M. D. McLean, the brakeman.

Early view of Big Trees before the addition of a siding for passenger cars, 1880s. Photo by Alfred J. Perkins. [WorthPoint – colorized using MyHeritage]

Rather than use formal passenger cars, Elliott chose to bring flatcars that had bench seats and four-foot guard rails installed, similar in style to the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway excursion cars uses today, though more crudely constructed. Elliott’s train arrived at Big Trees at around 3:15 and the engineer sounded the whistle for all aboard. Conductor William D. Bones crowded the picnickers onto three of the open-air excursion cars, which only measured 24 feet in length. By the time the train was ready to go ten minutes later, many passengers were standing precariously or shoved against the poor-quality railings of the cars. For whatever reason, Elliott had decided against turning the locomotive at the Felton turntable and instead planned to back the train down the seven miles of track through San Lorenzo Gorge to Santa Cruz.

The area known as Summit, later Rincon, with a South Pacific Coast Railway train approaching on the main line, ca 1900. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

Three miles along the route, at around 4:00, the train reached Summit, the highest point along the line. The three miles beyond Summit were steep with tight turns, precarious bridges, and a tunnel through the Hogsback above the California Powder Works. Elliott and his crew, looking over the tender of their locomotive, began to back down the grade from Summit and passed into Tunnel No. 7. It was here that all accounts agree things began to go wrong. The train began to gain speed as it curved out of the tunnel toward the grade crossing of West San Lorenzo Drive (Highway 9). Elliott blew the whistle alerting Bones and McLean to begin braking the cars. McLean later claimed that he had already tightened the brakes on the first car, but Bones admitted that he could not get to the brake wheel on the third car because it was overloaded with passengers and he was busy collecting money.

The sharp curve on the railroad tracks at the West San Lorenzo Drive grade crossing, May 24, 1880. [Alan Young – colorized using MyHeritage]

Elliott looked through the cab window toward the back of the train and watched as the three flatcars began swaying heavily. He slammed on the engine’s brakes and put the drive wheels of the locomotive in reverse, but this did little to slow the train. A minor buckle in the track, probably caused by heat expansion from the unusually warm Spring day, caused the locomotive to rock severely and lift off the outside rails as the train curved around a tight bend. Centrifugal force pulled the passengers toward the hillside, adding a heavy weight to a poorly-built railing. The railing gave way in the second car when it brushed against a rock outcropping. As the car derailed, passengers began spilling into the hillside and onto the tracks below. The third car also derailed, falling down the opposite embankment toward the road below. More passengers were dumped over the side of the car. Elliott braked as hard as he was able from the front of the train and it slowly rolled to a stop just before the bridge over Shady Gulch. But it was too late.

The deadly rock outcropping where the car derailed, crushing passengers into the hillside, May 24, 1880. [Alan Young – colorized using MyHeritage]

Scattered across the rails were bodies everywhere. Nearly sixty passengers from the two cars were littered across the tracks. Those from the third car were thrown down the hill, where many of them were badly injured but most survived. The passengers from the second car, though, were less lucky. Dashed against the hillside, many were crushed or, worse, run over by the car that followed. As Elliott, Anthrum, and Davis ran back to the cars, all they heard were screams as the severity of the incident became obvious. It was a massacre. Never in Santa Cruz County history was there such a railroad disaster before or after, and it proved to be the second-worst rail accident in the state to date.

South Pacific Coast Railroad Locomotive No. 3, 1880s. [ebay – colorized using MyHeritage]

Realizing that they could do little to help the people, Elliott and Anthrum uncoupled the locomotive and carefully rode it to Santa Cruz to seek help. They quickly gathered medical supplies, doctors, and others and returned to the site of the accident about thirty minutes later. By this point, thirteen people were declared dead and over fifty other passengers were severely injured. The railroad crew quickly recoupled the cars and put the flatcars back on the track. Those dying or grievously wounded were placed on the cars and rushed to Santa Cruz where they were taken up by most of the local hotels including the Ocean House, Germania Hotel, and Wilkins House. Colegrove’s train was brought in from the north and took less injured people and the remaining excursionists back to Felton, where they were loaded onto a larger train bound for the Bay Area.

South Pacific Coast Railroad Locomotive No. 3 parked at the scene of the wreck for the inquest committee to inspect, May 20, 1880. [Alan Young – colorized using MyHeritage]

Before dusk, two more passengers had died. Two final passengers would die on their journey back to San Francisco, resulting in a total of seventeen dead from the accident. These included Santa Cruzans, San Franciscans, and other men and women of the Bay Area. The full list of deaths included Frank Butler, William Costello, Jeremiah Darcy, Louis Falk, Patrick Gallagher, Frank Herringer, George C. W. Huer, Walter Hoyt, Mrs. C. S. Hussey, Ernest R. Jasper, Clayton F. Merrill, Frederick William Opitz, John Ripon, Joseph Salinger, Henry W. Stahle, and John Straub. The South Pacific Coast Railroad paid for all costs incurred by the passengers due to the accident.

Faced with few options, Dakan arrested Elliott under charges of gross incompetence and manslaughter, although it may also have been for his protection since many of the surviving passengers wished him harm. The sheriff had been on the train in the first car and witnessed the entire affair. While survivors tried to sleep off their injuries and forget the nightmare they had just experienced, crews working for the South Pacific Coast Railroad snuck up to the site of the accident and cleaned up before the full extent of their culpability could be determined.

Members of the inquest committee inspecting the tracks, May 24, 1880. [Alan Young – colorized using MyHeritage]

That night, Judge John Pope Davenport ordered the coroner’s inquest board to investigate the incident. Early the next morning, the nine-member board headed out to the site of the accident. They found to their annoyance that the entire site had been stripped of evidence, with the flatcars gone, the rails and ties repaired, and the grade raised and freshly ballasted. Almost all evidence of the accident had been erased. While there, a photographer captured at least seven stereographs of the scene, showing where the accident had occurred and several of the surrounding geographic and railroad features. Perhaps surprisingly, these stereographs, with captions explaining their purpose, were sold commercially after first serving as evidence in the inquest.

On Tuesday, May 25, Davenport and the inquest board began to hear testimony from forty witnesses to the event. Elliott’s competence as an engineer was called into question as it was revealed that he had also failed to adequately control the train when he took it from Alameda to Felton on May 22. The poor quality of the couplers used on the train were also noted. Still others emphasized the poorly-ballasted track with rails that had inadequate anchors and joints, all of which may have been further impacted by the unusually hot afternoon on May 23. The board took a week to come to a verdict, presenting a split decision on Monday, May 31.

The inquest committee investigating the site of the wreck, May 24, 1880. [Alan Young – colorized using MyHeritage]

Three members of the board declared the railroad at fault for assigning an inexperienced crew to the train and not properly notifying the engineer of the sharp curves along the route. Another member blamed the engineer for the entire disaster. And the remining five members refused to place blame at all, claiming that accidents happen and the reasons cannot always be known. Besides the railroad’s cover-up efforts, a considerable reason for this split decision was the different stories told by the forty witnesses, few of whom could agree on specifics.

The disaster made worldwide news, with newspapers mentioning it as far away as Australia. An inaccurate color sketch based on initial reports of the accident was produced by Mr. Keller for the June 5 issue of The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp. Bay Area newspapers continued to report on the coroner’s inquest for the following two weeks. The wreck led to several changes. The South Pacific Coast Railroad began a program of straightening curves and reducing grades across its lines. It also changed the couplers used in its trains and improved its efforts at ballasting track. More importantly, crews operating along the former Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad’s grade had to receive special training and were expected to follow rules closely to ensure that such an incident as that of May 23, 1880 never occurred again.

Citations & Credits:

  • Secrest, William B., Jr., and William B., Sr. California Disasters, 1812–1899: Firsthand accounts of fires, shipwrecks, floods, epidemics, earthquakes and other California tragedies. Sanger, CA: Word Dancer Press, 2006.
  • MacGregor, Bruce. “Stereo Forensics: An Investigation into the May 23, 1880 South Pacific Coast Railroad Accident,” Stereo World 25:5 (Nov/Dec 1998), 10-15.
  • Various newspapers from throughout California and the world, May–June 1880. 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Companies: Glenwood Lumber Company

The Glenwood Lumber Company was one of the longest running logging businesses to originate in Santa Cruz County. Prior to the company’s founding, William Farrington purchased over 500 acres of timberland near the top of Mountain Charlie Gulch, a tributary of Zayante Creek. The land had been owned by Horatio Weymouth, who lost his home on the Santa Cruz Turnpike in a fire on February 20, 1880. In late 1882, Farrington opened a shingle mill near the toll road and operated it through the 1883 logging season. What precisely motivated him to take on partners is unclear, but on March 19, 1884, William H. Covell became the senior partner in the creation of the Glenwood Lumber Company, named after the nearby railroad station from which the firm would ship its lumber. Considering the sheer size of the property, it is surprising that the company only operated on Mountain Charlie Gulch for two more years.

Oxen team operating on the hills new Glenwood, ca 1890. Photo by the studio of E. B. Andrews. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

In September 1885, the shingle mill closed and the machinery was moved three miles to the east to Covell’s property near Vine Hill on the West Branch of Soquel Creek. The new mill was scheduled to open May 1886 and would ship lumber from Highland (later Laurel). As part of this move, the company was reincorporated with Farrington becoming a full partner alongside William Covell’s brothers, Frank M. and Prentice E. Corporate offices were maintained at Glenwood and Laurel, suggesting some residual milling may have continued at the former site. Frank was made superintendent of the Soquel Creek mill.

Advertisement from the Los Gatos News, May 7, 1886.

Beginning in May 1886, advertisements for Glenwood Lumber began appearing in Bay Area newspapers. The business sold a combination of locally sources and imported lumber at its San José yard, which was situated on White Street beside the South Pacific Coast Railroad’s yard. Another retail yard was also maintained briefly in Los Gatos. The Covells left the business in September 1887 and William J. Rogers was brought on as a new partner and superintendent of the mill. At this time, the Glenwood office was closed, suggesting operations had ended on Mountain Charlie Gulch. The company’s Laurel office served as its primary place of business until July 20, 1890, when it was destroyed in a fire. All the company’s paperwork and books were lost.

Early the next year, Rogers became involved in multiple ongoing lawsuits against the Southern Pacific Railroad. The issue related to freight rates discrimination, with Rogers arguing that the railroad unfairly charged more for shipping lumber to San José from Laurel than it did for shipping from the North Bay, which was further away. He dropped this suit in April but then in September, he testified on behalf of the Santa Cruz Lumber Company, which was suing for the same reason. In June 1892, Rogers petitioned the Railroad Commission with a new complaint that shipping from Boulder Creek was cheaper than shipping from Laurel, which was closer to San José and on the same route. Eventually, the disputes were settled when Southern Pacific adjusted its rates in October. 

(Clockwise) The Glenwood Lumber Company's wharf at the Port of Alviso, its lumberyard at the port, the South Pacific Coast Railway's tracks outside its San José lumberyard, and the main mill and offices of its San José yard, 1895. From Sunshine, Fruits & Flowers: Santa Clara County, California

By this point, Rogers had effectively taken control of the Glenwood Lumber Company. On April 29, 1892, it was formally incorporated with a capital stock of $100,000. Its corporate offices moved to 34 N Third Street in San José. On the new board of directors, Rogers served as president, C. M. Ayers was elected vice president, and Joseph B. Collins was made secretary, with William Knox Beans and David B. Moody as additional directors. William Rogers’ brother, Charles A. Rogers, was appointed general manager and served in that role until March 1898, when he left for the Alaskan goldfields. One of the reasons the Glenwood Lumber Company was incorporated was to bypass Southern Pacific’s monopoly. It began reaching customers directly in whatever ways it could. The company provided most of the lumber to build the town of Morgan Hill in 1893, opening a retail outlet there to speed along construction. The next year, it opened a yard at Rucker, midway between Gilroy and San Martin, probably hoping to repeat the trick. North of Santa Clara at the Port of Alviso, the company built at least two wharves and purchased at least one steamship. This brought in lumber imported from Northern California to supplement the company’s local stock. To reduce the costs of imported lumber, the company bought a substantial stock in the Cottoneva Lumber Company, which operated out of Rockport in Mendocino County. Rogers took on the role of superintendent at the Rockport mill and erected a general store and hotel there. With its lumber empire firmly established, the Glenwood Lumber Company no longer feared the power of the railroad.

Nevertheless, the company suffered during the financial crisis of the mid-1890s. In July 1896, the company joined the Santa Clara County Lumber Dealers Association, which was an anti-competitive collective that set lumber prices in the depressed market. It also decided to cut costs and closed its retail yard at the end of 1896. From this point onward, the company focused exclusively on wholesale. Another casualty of these cost-cutting measures was likely the closure of the Soquel Creek mill and the sale of its stocks in the Rockport mill. This allowed the company to focus more on resale rather than production. It was around this time that E. Walter Schnabel became vice president of the company, replacing Ayers.

Over the next several years, William Rogers became distracted with politics and other ventures. He was elected to the San José City Council in 1901. The next year, he became the lead supporter of the Watsonville Transportation Company’s plan to turn Watsonville into a seaport. Rogers made the poor decision on March 31, 1903 to sell the Glenwood Lumber Company to J. H. Routt, owner of the startup San Jose Lumber Company. The set price was $36,000, with $3,000 paid up front. While Routt took control of the company, he would not own it outright until he paid the balance. As insurance, Schnabel remained on the board of the new company as vice president. Routt spent the next year scamming several local logging businesses out of their lumber. Between March 31 and September 10, 1903, he purchased $1,500 of lumber from I. T. Bloom, $800 from the Gualala Mill Company, $1,600 from the Virginia Timber & Lumber Company, $5,000 from the Wendling Lumber Company, $300 from the Santa Cruz Lime Company, and $90 from the Hartman Bros. To make matters worse, he mixed all the lumber together and gave all of the money he made directly to Rogers rather than repaying the businesses that sold him the lumber. The Glenwood Lumber Company’s reputation took a dive and Rogers sued Routt in February 1905 for damages and failure to fulfil his contract. Rogers had already regained control of the company, but the lawsuits took about two years to resolve. In every case, the judge ruled against Routt.

Around August 1904, Rogers decided to open a new mill in the Santa Cruz Mountains, possibly to restore local confidence in his firm. He hired the well-respected lumberman I. T. Bloom as manager and opened a mill somewhere near the mountain town of Boulder Creek. According to later reports, Rogers only owned a single share in the company at this time. The controlling interest was held by the Schnabel family, with Bloom and Jacob Miller holding the remaining 999 shares. Walter Schnabel served as general manager. This imbalance may have set Rogers against his partners, though this was not apparent immediately. The Boulder Creek venture wrapped after only two seasons and Rogers sought new tracts to harvest.

A San José Daily Mercury photo of the burned mill in San José, taken March 31, 1906.

He decided to jump on the Ocean Shore Railway bandwagon and, on November 14, 1905, the company bought stumpage rights to 1,450 acres on Gazos Creek in San Mateo County from L. Woodard. The cruising report for the acreage, which sat directly north of Big Basin, estimated that it contained 60 million board feet of timber. Before even the first trees were felled, though, disaster struck. On March 31, 1906, the company’s lumber yard on Fourth Street and St. John in San José burned to the ground, taking with it the company’s records and over $10,000 in lumber. As was common at the time, none of the property was insured. Arson was expected, but the arsonists were never found. Less than three weeks later, the San Francisco Earthquake struck and everything in the Bay Area came to a standstill.

After over a years’ delay, the first trees on Gazos Creek were felled in spring 1907. The mill, which cost around $30,000 to build, opened in mid-summer of that year. The company cut around 5,000,000 board feet of timber in its first two seasons of operation. However, the earthquake and the financial panic of 1907 caused the halting of construction on the Ocean Shore Railway. Without the railroad, the Glenwood Lumber Company could not ship its lumber. For the 1907 season, the company negotiated shipments with Loren Coburn, who owned a freight warehouse and shipping pier at Pigeon Point. However, in January 1908, Coburn denied them further use of the facilities. The company ignored him and used them anyway. In June, Coburn sued the company and Schnabel decided to shut down the mill the next month. His timing was perfect since a fire burned through the forest in early August, decimating much of the company’s timberland.

The history of the company after it abandoned Gazos Creek is less clear. Rogers appears to have left the company around the time that the mill opened. Miller was president for a time, but Schnabel eventually rose to the rank no later than 1911. By this point, the company’s offices had moved to 521 South Fifth Street in San José. A proposal to build a new lumber yard at Sixth and Julian Streets in 1913 was rejected, but it is unclear whether the company owned another yard at this time. It still maintained offices in June 1925, and it reportedly auctioned off 150,000 board feet of lumber on March 27, 1954 from a yard at 96 North Twenty-eighth Street. When the Glenwood Lumber Company ultimately closed is unknown.

Farrington's original timber tract on Mountain Charlie Gulch was later acquired by the Virginia Timber & Lumber Company, which operated a small mill beside the railroad tracks. The former Covell Bros. property south of Laurel was eventually bought by John Dubuis on July 27, 1910, who registered it as the Glenwood Basin tract. He converted the property into twenty-nine 5-acre residential lots, most of which never sold as intended. The subdivision is at the end of Tucker Road, accessible off Highway 17 via Sugarloaf Road.

Citations & Credits:

  • Various newspapers including the Los Gatos NewsSan Francisco Examiner, Jose Daily Mercury, Santa Cruz Evening News, Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Santa Cruz Surf.
  • San Jose Mercury. Sunshine, Fruit & Flowers: Santa Clara County, California. San Jose, CA: San Jose Mercury Publishing and Printing Company, 1895.
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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Curiosities: Storms and the Railroads

The watersheds of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay have never been kind to the region’s railroad infrastructure. From the earliest days of local railroading, landslides, sinks, cave-ins, and flooding have been commonplace, rendering various regional branch lines out of commission for months while bridges, tunnels, and rights-of-way are repaired. Because winter storms in particular have historically been so destructive, it is not surprising that some of these have been photographed by the railroad companies and interested parties. However, many storms have gone little recorded and unphotographed. making the creation of a full history of storm damage to local railroad lines nearly impossible.

A major washout at Edric near the southern (railroad east) portal of the Summit Tunnel, 1909. [Courtesy Neil Vodden Collection, courtesy Jack Hanson – colorized using MyHeritage]

As with similar blog posts of this nature, this article will evolve over time as more information and photographs come to light. If you know of any storms that significantly impacted local railroads not recorded below, or have photographs of any local railroad infrastructure damage from storms, please share your information on Facebook in the Santa Cruz Trains group.

The Storms of 1875-1876

Not long after the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad opened in 1875, a winter storm threw a section of track south of Felton below Inspiration Point into the San Lorenzo River far below. This became an annual occurrence and the short line railroad did not have the funds to finance a more formal fix to the situation. Each year, the company just cleared slides and repaired damage right-of-way along the stretch of track known as Coon Gulch, and then resumed operations.

When the South Pacific Coast Railroad took control of the right-of-way in 1879, it attempted to remedy the worst of the problems. It reinforced the hillside trestles along the gulch and built a tunnel underneath Inspiration Point to avoid an especially sharp turn around a rock outcropping that was prone to rockslides. Yet these did not stop the problem—they only made the problem easier to repair. Each year, more rocks would fall on the tracks and the Southern Pacific Railroad (after 1887) gradually extended a shed over the tracks to protect them from these falls. Meanwhile, the largest of the hillside trestles was eventually replaced in March 1905 with a beautiful concrete arch bridge, which has since been the subject of many photographs since it can be viewed from Inspiration Point. Even these adaptations, though, only lessened the financial impact of slides; they did little to stop them from happening. Today, Roaring Camp Railroads clears slide activity along this stretch regularly after even the mildest storm or windy day.

One other result of the storms of 1875-1876 was the destruction of the Santa Clara Valley Railroad between Alviso and Dumbarton Point. This line was incorporated to build a railroad from Oakland to Santa Cruz via a route through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Its destruction in the storm led to its reincorporation as the South Pacific Coast Railroad in May 1876 with new financial backing but a similar proposed route.

The Storm of 1881

Storms did have a habit of undermining the short-line railroads of the region. An aggressive January storm in 1881 went so far as to wash out large portions of the Santa Cruz Railroad line, which had experienced annual storm damage since it had first opened less than five years earlier. By January 1881, the company was running on fumes with much of its revenue lost to the South Pacific Coast Railroad, which had a more direct route to the Bay Area. On January 27, the railroad bridge at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River was completely destroyed. The cost to repair the bridge and the rest of the line was too much, so the company fell into receivership. Not long afterwards, it was purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad in a bankruptcy auction. While the line was rebuilt, it was now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Southern Pacific.

Collapsed trestlework at the approach to the San Lorenzo River bridge in Santa Cruz, January 1890. [Courtesy University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Storms of 1889–1890

December 1889 was an exceptionally wet month across California that saw damage to nearly every railroad line in the state. Slides and fallen trees were the main hazard to the railroad and shut the route through the mountains and to Boulder Creek down on multiple occasions. As had become a trend, the steep hillside below Highway 9 and south of the Inspiration Point Tunnel (Tunnel No. 6, later No. 5) collapsed. Other slides happened near the Powder Works station and south of Glenwood above Bean Creek. The entire Boulder Creek Branch was out of commission, with slides most likely happening in the vicinity of Brackney, where the hillside was steepest.

Another major storm struck in late January 1890 which caused far more destruction than the first. All of Front Street in Santa Cruz was under water on January 25, but more troubling was that the railroad bridge over the San Lorenzo River at the beach had fallen off its foundations. A logjam piled up under the bridge, putting immense pressure on its piers. Crews spent the week after the storm repairing the bridge and also clearing several slides and sinks from across the route to Watsonville. The station in Watsonville, meanwhile, was under water. Elsewhere in the county, the bridge over Newell Creek on the Boulder Creek Branch was heavily damaged, though still in place, and the long bridge over Zayante Creek near today’s Mount Hermon was in a similar condition.

By the end of the 1889-1890 rainy season, over 124 inches of water had fallen in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The damage was so widespread across the region’s railroad lines that the Santa Cruz Surf speculated it may be easier to grade entirely new routes than restore caved-in cuts and repair sinks, especially south of Felton. Damage to the northern end of the route between Oakland and San Jose was also immense, with much of the trackage flooded around Alviso.

Reconstruction of the west portal of the Summit Tunnel, 1893. [Colorized using MyHeritage]

The Storm of January 1893

The year 1893 was ushered in by yet another monstrous storm. In addition to widespread damage throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, the main casualty of the tempest was the northern (railroad west) entrance of the Summit Tunnel (Tunnel No. 2, later No. 1) at Wright’s Station. About 100 feet inside the portal, a complete cave-in occurred that resulted in a total reconstruction of that end of the tunnel. In the meantime, the Southern Pacific Railroad’s mountain route was closed and all traffic diverted through Watsonville. The new tunnel that was constructed was made of concrete in an oval shape with a concrete channel beside it to divert run-off from the hillside above.

Reconstruction of the Summit Tunnel nearing completion, Spring 1893. [Colorized using MyHeritage]

One benefit of this reconstruction was that the tunnel was built to standard-gauge scale, meaning it did not have to be rebuilt when the line was standard-gauged from 1906-1909. It also was of sufficient quality that it suffered only minor damage in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. However, a downside is that it was also built of slightly inferior materials, so when the tunnels were dynamited in 1942, the portal at Wrights exploded, whereas the other seven abandoned portals have survived to the present.

The Storm of 1899

While the Loma Prieta Branch north of Aptos was always an industrial line focused exclusively on logging, it did offer some passenger and excursion services on request and the occasional alternative freight was shipped on the route. Nonetheless, it was a storm in March 1899 that cut the life of the line short. Logging north of the village of Loma Prieta had been on the decline for a few years when the mid-March storm struck. The initial damage to the route was focused in the vicinity of Hell’s Gate, an especially narrow section of Aptos Creek on the road to Monte Vista near Five Finger Falls. While slides along this stretch were not uncommon, the ones in 1899 were severe. Initial reports suggested that the line would be shut down and Monte Vista abandoned, but that wasn’t strictly true. Southern Pacific did, in fact, repair the line and continued to harvest timber beyond it for the next three summers. But the cost of restoring the line to full operations likely convinced the railroad company to downgrade it and wrap up operations north of Hell’s Gate. The passenger station at Monte Vista closed in November 1899, and the route to Monte Vista was abandoned on June 30, 1902.

A temporary trestle installed south of Rincon above the San Lorenzo River, 1909. This has since become a permanent raised section of track. [Neil Vodden Collection, courtesy Jack Hanson – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Storm of 1909

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake did a number on all of the region’s railroad lines, knocking the route through the mountains completely out of commission in the process. Rather than repair and reopen, Southern Pacific decided to keep the line closed until all of the tracks could be upgraded to standard gauge. This meant enlarging all six remaining tunnels along the mountain route and rebuilding or expanding many bridges. Most of this work was completed by early 1909 when a sudden storm swept through the Bay Area on January 20.

Receding floodwaters beside the Southern Pacific track at Ellicott, 1909. [Neil Vodden Collection, courtesy Jack Hanson – colorized using MyHeritage]

The next day, Santa Cruz County was struck by the storm and the Pajaro Valley flooded. Traffic between Santa Cruz and Watsonville was cut, while traffic along the Boulder Creek Branch was also paused due to slides. At Laguna (Nuga), railroad crews dumped hundreds of carloads of ballast into Watsonville Slough in an attempt to stabilize the right-of-way, but most of it washed away soon after being dumped. In the fruit-packing district along Walker Street, the tracks were undermined and washed away. Meanwhile, the main road and railroad between Alma and Wrights at Eva washed out, cutting railroad service between Los Gatos and Laurel. It was only after repairs to the line were made that Southern Pacific was able to finally reopen the full mountain route following three years of closure.

Landslide covering the tracks across from the east portal of the Summit Tunnel, February 29, 1940. [Courtesy Bruce MacGregor – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Storm of 1940

Jumping ahead several decades, the storm of the night of February 26, 1940, was the most catastrophic to local railroading. Over one night, such extreme damage from weather impacted the railroad route through the Santa Cruz Mountains that Southern Pacific estimated it would cost $46,220 ($966,180 today) to repair. The company’s usual annual cost of maintaining the right-of-way between Los Gatos and Felton was already the relatively high amount of $25,000 ($522,600 today) for about 20 miles of track. Thus, one storm incurred almost double the cost of annual repairs of the line. Only three years earlier, Southern Pacific had spent a considerable sum upgrading track, smoothing curves, reinforcing retaining walls, and making other repairs to the line to ensure its long-term feasibility. Yet none of that mattered in the face of a powerful storm.

Shifting ground across from the water tower at Tank Siding, March 1, 1940. [Courtesy Bruce MacGregor – colorized using MyHeritage]

After long discussions and public debates, Southern Pacific decided to abandon 17 miles of track between Los Gatos and Eccles, north of Felton. It would operate the two lines separately. All of the track and infrastructure worth salvaging was removed in 1941 and 1942, and then three of the tunnels were dynamited by the Army Corps of Engineers around late April 1942. Whereas earlier storms had led to buy-outs, reincorporations, and abandonments of short segments of track, this storm led to the end of a 60-year-old railroad route. It also marked the end of regular railroad passenger service in Santa Cruz County, since all earlier passenger lines had already converted to autobuses.

Collapsed Soquel Avenue bridge over the San Lorenzo River, January 1982. [Courtesy Gary Griggs, Santa Cruz Sentinel]

The Storm of 1982

One final line in Santa Cruz County was abandoned because of a storm. Over the winter of 1981-1982, constant heavy rains pounded Santa Cruz County, inundating the soil and causing slides and sinks across the northernmost 8.8 miles of the Santa Cruz Branch between Santa Cruz and the former Eccles station. This section had been retained by Southern Pacific because of the two sand quarries located in the Olympia area above Zayante Creek, but by 1981 the company had increased prices such that the remaining company decided to shift to trucks for freight. Southern Pacific was likely to abandon this section anyway, since it was expensive to maintain, but the storm made the decision easier. With so much damage on a line that paid almost nothing, Southern Pacific finally had the excuse it needed to abandon this 107-year-old railroad line. F. Norman Clark had a different idea, though.

The owner of the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad, Clark saw the potential of the standard-gauge railroad line to Santa Cruz and offered to buy it from Southern Pacific. He knew that acquiring the line would mean his small amusement park would become a common carrier for San Lorenzo Lumber, other local businesses, and any future quarry traffic. He also knew that his company would be responsible for any annual damage to the line. Despite all of this, he decided to buy anyway. On August 12, 1985, Clark incorporated the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway and purchased the line. It has been running between Felton and Santa Cruz almost continuously ever since as the Beach Train.

Undermined tracks beside Gallighan Slough outside Watsonville, 2017. [Courtesy Ben Rylander]

The Storm of 2017

Even in more recent times, storms continue to impact local railroading. Besides annual maintenance required along the Beach Train’s line, the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, now routed from Pajaro to Davenport, has required constant repairs. Between 1996 and 2012, this was done by the Union Pacific Railroad, but in more recent years it has been the responsibility of common carriers acting on behalf of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, which now owns the line in trust for the people of Santa Cruz County.

Overgrown tracks and mud at the washout, October 2017. [Courtesy Derek Whaley]

Iowa Pacific Holdings, operating as the Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway, was the first firm to take responsibility for local lines. However, in early 2017, winter storms undercut the right-of-way beside Gallighan Slough outside Watsonville rendering the entire line beyond that point unusable. Storm water from adjacent agricultural fields was allowed to drain into the right-of-way, which had no drainage system to address this issue, so the result was undermining of the tracks. The storm damage and repair quickly became a political talking point, delaying repairs for over two years. Iowa Pacific pulled out of its contract and Progressive Rail, operating as the St. Paul & Pacific Railway, took over.

Crews cutting down a fallen tree on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, June 2017. [Courtesy Howard Cohen]

Due to all of these delays, other portions of the right-of-way have since fallen into disrepair, including multiple large bridges that have been condemned, a perpetually flooded right-of-way near Wilder Ranch, and a migratory sand dune south of Davenport that has entirely consumed the railroad tracks. Roaring Camp Railroads now operates trains along the line on behalf of St. Paul & Pacific, but when rail traffic beyond Ellicott can resume remains an open question. In the meantime, freight traffic remains restricted to the first few miles of track from Pajaro, while separate traffic can hypothetically operate between Olympia, Wilder, Santa Cruz, and Capitola.

Citations & Credits:

  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways, second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2007.
  • Powell, Ronald G. The Reign of the Lumber Barons: Part Two of the History of Rancho Soquel Augmentation. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, 2021.
  • Santa Cruz Evening News, Sentinel, and Surf. Various articles.