Thursday, August 11, 2022

Stations: Eva

One of the primary appeals of a railroad through the Santa Cruz Mountains was its picturesque nature. However, much of the route through which the South Pacific Coast Railroad passed in 1880 was less verdant than it is today. Logging along Los Gatos, Bean, and Zayante Creeks had largely deforested the areas. Nowhere was untouched and only the Welch’s Big Trees Grove near Felton and parts of San Lorenzo Gorge to the south retained a semblance of wilderness. Because of this and because the South Pacific Coast Railroad was focused primarily on expanding its lines, the company never established its own picnic stop in the mountains. But when the Southern Pacific Railroad took over in 1887, it found a ready picnic ground on the east bank of Los Gatos Creek at a place it christened Forest Grove.

Members of the Toro Club gathering at Forest Grove, November 4, 1894. [Colorized using MyHeritage]

What would become Forest Grove had probably existed as an informal stop since the arrival of the South Pacific Coast Railroad to the area in 1879. In the first Officers, Stations & Agencies book published by Southern Pacific following the acquisition of the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1887, the location was named Casey’s. This likely derived from the South Pacific Coast Railroad’s former roadmaster and superintendent of bridges, Thomas Casey, who was responsible for maintaining the right-of-way between San José and Santa Cruz between December 1880 and June 1884. He had previously worked in the same role for the Central Pacific Railroad during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s. In summer 1884, he was given the task of laying the track for the Felton & Pescadero Railroad to Boulder Creek. Casey was well-respected by his peers and known in settlements across the South Pacific Coast Railroad’s network. He fell ill in January 1886 and died November 4, 1888 in San Francisco.

San Francisco Examiner advertisement for Forest Grove, printed June 2, 1899.

The seventeen-acre rectangular property was mostly on the east bank of Los Gatos Creek just south of Hooker Creek and 5.8 miles south of Los Gatos. The railroad purchased the land from John Young McMillan and Dr. William S. McMurtry of the Los Gatos Manufacturing Company on June 15, 1878 under the condition that the right-of-way remains in continuous use and maintenance. Considering the location—1.6 miles north of Wrights and the Summit Tunnel—it seems likely that the station began life as a staging ground for construction and maintenance crews. After the line was completed in May 1880, Casey’s probably became a maintenance yard, which would explain why the property was so large and why it was named after the roadmaster, who would have operated out of the station to perform many of his duties in the mountains.

Woman on the Hooker Creek bridge north of Eva, 1912. [Ginger Constantine Navarrete – colorized using DeOldify]

Southern Pacific clearly had less interest in maintaining a remote maintenance yard, but it was looking for potential picnic stops in the mountains. Although the area around Hooker Creek had been logged over in the 1860s and early 1870s, second growth redwood trees were already appearing and the large meadow where the maintenance equipment had likely sat was ideal for a picnic ground. The railroad sent out W. T. Fitzgerald, general passenger and freight agent for the narrow-gauge division, to inspect the property and make sketches of it that could be used in marketing.

Members of the local Elks Lodge vacationing at Eva Vista, ca 1910. Printed in the Los Gatos Times–Saratoga Observer, July 23, 1974.

The picturesque station opened under the name Forest Grove on April 20, 1888, with a group of Presbyterians traveling from Brooklyn, New York, as its first visitors. The railroad provided picnic tables and accessories, and the people were responsible for bringing food. Though few amenities were provided to the revelers, they loved the place, noting that the “mountains covered with redwood forests, valleys and ravines in which marvelous ferns grow and wild flowers abound, and through which gurgling brooks flow in crystal streams, give abundant scope for romping and climbing by young America.” Over subsequent years, many different groups held annual picnics at Forest Grove, including the Knights of Pythias, the Native Sons of the Golden West, and Southern Pacific itself. The popularity of the picnic stop was such that in 1889, the Oakland Tribune declared it superior to Big Trees.

View of the resort looking south, with the Southern Pacific tracks to the left of the photographer and Los Gatos Creek to the right, ca 1909. Printed in the Los Gatos Times–Saratoga Observer, July 23, 1974.

Forest Grove continued to serve Southern Pacific as its chief picnic resort in the Santa Cruz Mountains until the end of the 1895 summer season. The next spring, the company opened Sunset Park south of Wrights and all picnic traffic was redirected there. For two years, Forest Grove seems to have languished, but in 1899 it was leased to Thomas M. Silvey of Wrights, who promoted fishing, hunting, and bathing in the San Francisco Examiner. In late 1889, W. R. Sterne of Los Angeles took over the lease and purchased the adjacent estate of the late Frederick A. Marriott, editor of the San Francisco News Letter tabloid.

Eva Vista Hotel beside the artificial lake and outbuildings, ca 1910. Printed in the Los Gatos Times–Saratoga Observer, July 23, 1974.

Sterne dammed Los Gatos Creek in order to create a small lake in which people could swim. He also began improving his newly-acquired property, erecting the Eva Vista Hotel up on the hill overlooking the lake and railroad tracks. The station, meanwhile, was renamed Eva to better promote the resort. Sterne never enjoyed the property, though. In May 1903, he sold the estate and the lease to H. R. Judah, assistant general passenger agent for the Southern Pacific. Judah soon erected a tent city and club house on the picnic grounds and expanded the hotel’s restaurant to support a larger crowd.

Postcard of Lake Evavista with an inset image of the cookhouse, 1910. [WorthPoint – colorized using DeOldify]

Unfortunately for Judah, his resort was not to last. When the San Francisco earthquake struck before the start of the 1906 season, it caused a landslide that blocked Los Gatos Creek causing it to overflow and flood the railroad tracks and much of the resort grounds at Eva Vista. Railroad traffic was canceled beyond Alba until August 1907, with only repair trains passing through to fix the right-of-way and widen the Summit Tunnel at Wrights. However, the flooded resort was only cleared in December, long after the picnic season had ended. The Panic of 1907 and the widening of the tunnel between Laurel and Glenwood in 1908 made the prospect of reopening Eva Vista infeasible.

San Francisco Chronicle advertisement for Evavista Resort, printed June 2, 1909.

When it finally welcomed visitors again in 1909, the resort was under the management of Peter Charles Trobock and his brother, Barton N. Trobock, who rebranded it Evavista. The resort’s ultimate fate three years later was outside anyone’s control. On August 27, 1912, mice nibbling on matches in the hotel started a fire. The structure burned to the ground, taking several nearby buildings with it. The last recorded picnic excursion to Evavista was on October 16, 1915 by juniors and seniors from Los Gatos High School.

Storm damage to the Southern Pacific right-of-way near Eva, 1909. [Neil Vodden – colorized using DeOldify]

The resort site quickly fell into disrepair but the railroad station remained on timetables for 25 more years. When the line was standard-gauged in 1905, a long siding measuring 2,340 feet—capable of holding 28 cars—was installed along the east side of the right-of-way. It broke off from the mainline just south of the Hooker Creek bridge and paralleled the main track for most of its length, reconnecting with the mainline just beyond the border of the rectangular parcel. A short spur continued from the end of the siding to allow up to three cars to park at the station without blocking the siding. The siding was cut back in late 1909 to 1,821 feet, enough space for about 22 cars.

Flatcars parked on the siding at Eva, 1909. [Neil Vodden – colorized using DeOldify]

The long siding may not have been intended just for passenger trains. During standard-gauging, Eva was likely used as a staging ground in the off-season for work crews. This was even more likely in the three years after the earthquake, where Eva probably served as a storage site for repair equipment and building supplies, considering the land to the east of the tracks remained Southern Pacific property. Meanwhile, in 1900, a vein of copper was discovered on the eastern hillside a mile south of Eva near the railroad right-of-way.

Southern Pacific locomotive and caboose parked on the siding at Eva, 1914. [Ginger Constantine Navarrete – colorized using DeOldify]

Perhaps because of the resort, no mining was performed until 1917, when an experimental adit was dug by H. E. Casey, J. E. Casey, and G. W. Stollery of San Mateo. The partners employed fifteen men for several months, who dug two tunnels, one 300 feet long and the other 185 feet. They found high concentrations of copper, and smaller veins of chalcopyrite, azurite, malachite, gold, and silver. However, due to poor market conditions and a lack of interest by potential buyers, they decided not to pursue further mining. The mines were sold to Dr. H. C. Adair in 1929, who promptly resumed prospecting. Four adits were dug into the hillside, with the largest supported by a timber frame. Large quantities of pyrite and other sulfides were discovered. A second attempt by Adair in 1936 found a quantity of gold and silver, resulting in the only profit gained from mining operations near Eva. The two longest tunnels, 235 and 500 feet in length, were abandoned in 1938. It is unclear if these operations used Eva station, but they are likely the reason why the railroad retained the station for so many years after the closure of the resort.

A Southern Pacific commuter train stopped at Eva, July 9, 1939. Photo by Wilbur C. Whittaker. [Jim Vail]

Eva Station was approved for abandonment on August 9, 1937 due to disuse, with Southern Pacific records showing it closed on October 15 of that year. It was removed from employee timetables in May 1939. The closure of the mountain route the following February put an end to any hope of rejuvenating the area around Eva. Following the legal abandonment of the line on March 25, 1941, the property reverted to its original owners, who had several years earlier sold the property to the San Jose Water Company. At the time, nobody lived in the vicinity of Eva to contest abandonment.

Southern Pacific survey photo of the Hooker Creek bridge just to the north of Eva, March 1940. [Bruce MacGregor]

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:

37.153˚N, 121.960˚W

The San Jose Water Company continues to own the land, though the right-of-way through the former site of Eva is so overgrown with poison oak and Scotch broom that it is virtually impassable. As a result, the company has not blocked access to this section of the grade, though trespassing is not advised for health and safety reasons.

Citations & Credits:

  • Bender, Henry, "SP22."
  • California Division of Mines, California Journal of Mines and Geology, 50 (January 1954).
  • California Journal of Mines and Geology 50 (January 1954).
  • California Public Utilities Commission, Decision No. 30018.
  • Hamilton, Fletcher. Report XVII of the State Mineralogist (San Francisco, CA: California State Mining Bureau, 1921).
  • Interstate Commerce Commission, Vol. 242.
  • Los Gatos Mail, 1915.
  • Oakland Tribune and Evening Tribune, 1884–1890.
  • Record-Union, 1888.
  • Sacramento Bee, 1882.
  • San Francisco Call, 1905.
  • San Francisco Examiner, 1899.
  • San Jose Daily Mercury, 1903.
  • San Jose Evening News, 1912.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1885–1903.
  • Southern Pacific Railroad Company, various records.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains (Santa Cruz, CA: 2015).
  • Wiley, Marlene. “Riding the Picnic Trains,” Mountain Network News (date unknown).
  • Young, John V. Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains, expanded edition (Santa Cruz, CA: Western Tanager Press, 1984).

Friday, July 8, 2022

Sources: Aerial Photographs

The invention of the hot air balloon, photography, and, many years later, airplanes, made capturing the passage in time over a large geographic area much easier. Whereas maps and surveys are incapable of capturing all of the contours and developments in an area with precision and completeness, aerial photographs can capture everything just as it was on the day a kite, balloon, or airplane flew over a specific place and took a photograph. Balloon- and kite-based aerial photographs usually only captured one or a couple photographs of a place, but airplane-based aerial photographs often captured a series of photographs that could later be pieced together to create a long sequence (a mosaic).

George Lawrence's panoramic photograph of the Santa Cruz Main Beach, 1906. [Bancroft – colorized using DeOldify]

When it comes to researching local history, aerial photography does not always come to mind. And this make sense. Assuming a researcher is looking into the history of a location, the first place they may turn is ground-based photographs. From there, they will likely look into primary and secondary sources, such as newspapers, land deeds, and history books. Even after that, they may turn to more specific visual resources such as fire insurance maps, panoramas and street scene photographs, and family or corporate histories to try and piece together what's missing from the earlier sources. Thus, aerial photographs are often forgotten and, even if not, may be a resource of last resort. That's because they can be difficult to use, are often low resolution, and often do not provide any additional information. Nonetheless, aerial photographs should not be dismissed out of hand.

Ways of using this type of source:

Like with much of the Central Coast of California, local aerial photograph dates to a coastal panorama of the Santa Cruz Main Beach captured by George Lawrence in mid-1906. He began his career using various balloons to take photographs, but after several accidents, he switched to using kites that carried 50 lbs. cameras and took photos with four feet wide negatives. These highly-detailed images were not taken from the top looking straight down, as with later airplane-based photographs, but were taken from about a 35˚ angle, which allows the contours of the horizon and the scale of buildings to be more prominent.

Close-up from the George Lawrence panorama of Bay St. at the Ocean Shore Railway crossing, with Gharkey St. in the foreground, 1906. [Bancroft]

These early aerials are more of a transition from traditional panoramic photography and airplane-based aerial imagery. This lends it the strengths of both. In regard specifically to Lawrence's photograph, you can see several features that a traditional overhead aerial photo would miss, such as the Bay Street bridge over the Ocean Shore Railway's tracks with a wagon passing over it, electrical or telephone lines running along West Cliff Drive, the pilings under the Cowell and Railroad wharves, or more generally the visual styles of the buildings on Beach Hill. Meanwhile, the photo also allows you to view the Santa Cruz Beach and downtown from an angle a traditional photograph would be unable to capture—taken as it is from high above the Point Santa Cruz Lighthouse—and it shows the viewer things that would probably not be photographed, such as how undeveloped the Seabright/Twin Lakes area was or how denuded the hills were of trees. For more on this specific aerial panorama, check out Peter Nurkse's article on the subject here: "Notes on the 1906 Aerial Panorama of Santa Cruz by George Lawrence."

The earliest aerial photograph of Santa Cruz County date to 1928, over twenty years after George Lawrence's kite cameras. The technology used was first tested during World War I, with airplanes flying high over battlefields and behind enemy lines looking for enemy movements and positions. The cameras and how they were mounted onto planes were refined substantially throughout the war but were still not entirely ready for public use afterwards. The cost of the technology alone made it difficult to justify. By the mid-1920s, though, aerial photography planes—many of them war surplus—became available for commercial use and several companies popped up across the United States to capture aerial images for use by local governments, companies, and individuals. Many of the early aerial photographs of Santa Cruz County were captured by Fairchild Aerial Surveys, incorporated in 1924.

1931 aerial photograph showing the remnants of the Ocean Shore Railroad right-of-way from Bay St. (top right) to Delaware Ave. (far left). [UC Santa Barbara]

Aerial photographs by their very nature need to be high-resolution. Thus, even in the 1920s, they show a high degree of detail. Their primary use in research is to identify when specific structures or other features visible from the air first were built and how they were situated. Parcels are quite often distinct due to boundary fences, roads, agricultural plantings, and different yard layouts, meaning that aerial photographs can be quite useful in determining the physical boundaries of an estate or business. They also can show to some degree the layout and quality of roads, waterways, railroads, and other human-made topographical features.

Over the decades, the quality of film changed, especially following World War II, when aerial photography shifted from a convenient tool for reconnaissance into a precision bomb-targeting tool. As before, technological improvements quickly dispersed from the military after the war into the public and private sectors. Thus, aerial photographs from the 1950s and 1960s are often of a very high quality, even by today's standards. From the early 1970s onward, color photographs increasingly replaced two-tone, allowing researchers to see an even greater range of details in the photographs. This remained the state of aerial photography more or less into the late 1990s.

Aerial photograph of Laguna St. and the former Ocean Shore Railroad right-of-way, ca 1964. [UC Santa Barbara]

One of the major features of later twentieth century aerial photograph was higher contrast photographs. In the first half of the century, photos were usually pretty flat, with shadows muted and even many details slightly fuzzy. World War II aerial photographers realized that higher shutter speeds could capture sharper images. This also resulted in sharper shadows and generally brighter photographs. Certain details, such as color shading on roofs and fields could be better discerned, often making property boundary markers easier to see, and features such as automobiles and railroad tracks also became more visible.

The late 1990s and especially the early 2000s had the most substantial shift in aerial photography in that it shifted from the troposphere to the exosphere. The first such global positioning system (GPS) satellites went into the upper atmosphere in the late 1970s, but it was not available to the public until the mid-1980s and not widely until 2000. The rapid expansion of GPS meant that commercial firms, non-profits, and public government agencies could take high-resolution photographs from space and send them back to earth. These can be taken constantly and are stored digitally, so they do not require the same type of infrastructure—planes, film, and photo paper—to maintain. While a few companies still capture aerial photographs in the old manner, this is usually done for specifically outlined reasons and the results are often not made public. The most recent airplane-based aerial survey of Santa Cruz County was made in 2003.

Google Maps satellite image showing Laguna St. and Delaware Ave., ca 2016. [Google Maps]

There are several different websites and applications that allow people to view GPS-recorded photographs, but none are more popular than Google Maps and Google Earth. Indeed, Google Maps always maintains two separate sets of satellite images, one called "Globe View" (which also allows for an artificial 3D effect based on stereoscopic technology) and one simply called "Satellite." The desktop app version of Google Earth, meanwhile, allows for limited historical views, which are made up of old airplane-based mosaics superimposed on an otherwise modern map. The benefits of Google Maps and Earth are obvious: a user can zoom in quite close with quite a good level of detail and then quickly move somewhere else without having to find another photograph or mosaic. The aerial photographs are so seamlessly sewn that you often don't even know you're looking at thousands of overlapping images. The compression factor in the file sizes also means that you don't have to download huge TIFF files to view details, as you do with traditional aerial photographs, and the color quality is maintained since the images are digitally native.

For researchers, there are many reasons why satellite imagery is superior. The color and level of detail often far outpace traditional aerial photographs. If you can find historical satellite aerials, such as on the Google Earth desktop app, you can see progressions of development in an area over a relatively short space of time. Even by comparing the two different Google Maps layers—"Globe View" vs. "Satellite"—you can see changes, since the two maps do not reflect the same exact moment in time and may be a few years different.

Whether you are looking at kite panoramas from 1906 or Google Maps from 2022, aerial photographs can be helpful when doing local history research. These photographs, unlike almost any other resource, depict visual representations of change over a long period of time. They can show urbanization, the expansion of roads and railroads, the development or collapse of industries, and even the damage caused by natural disasters. And unlike so many other sources, they show things agnostically: an aerial photo captures both the target of its attention and all the details around it, which sometimes is a lot.

Downsides and problems with this type of source:

Just because aerial photographs can be extremely helpful in research doesn't mean they don't have problems. Earlier aerial photos suffered from several issues. They depicted both a larger and a smaller area than airplane-based aerial photos—larger because they could see beyond the range of a top-down photograph, smaller because the details become increasingly difficult to discern the further the camera is from the subject. Airplane-based aerial photos capture everything from the same distance more or less. Earlier panorama aerials also were taken far enough away that individual details can't always be made out, such as business names, the routes of roads that may be obscured by buildings or trees, or the nature of features far in the distance.

Low-resolution aerial photograph of Laguna St. and the Ocean Shore Railroad right-of-way, 1957. [UC Santa Barbara]

Airplane-based aerial photographs became the standard from the 1920s and had several of their own issues. First and foremost, it is almost impossible to gauge depth on a single aerial photograph, especially in the first half of the century. While multiple photographs can be turned into stereographs—a technique used by the military to gauge the terrain and size of buildings—single photos just show rooftops. Thus, you can't get much detail from them regarding the style and makeup of structures except for their physical location, footprint, and maybe their roofing type. Similarly, other features such as trees and gardens, vehicles, and even roads can be difficult to discern. Roads can often be obscured by tree cover and railroads are sometimes too pale against the landscape to follow with accuracy. These issues improved after World War II, but they never disappeared entirely.

Low-resolution color aerial photograph of Laguna St. and Delaware Ave., 1972. [UC Santa Barbara]

A strange step-back occurred in the 1970s, as an increasing number of aerial photography cameras shifted to using color film. While adding color had its benefits, the film quality itself was often subpar, rendering blurrier photographs and low resolutions. Color film also had a strong tendency to fade over a relatively short period of time, especially when left out in any light. This problem persisted throughout the entirety of the color film period until digital photography replaced film in the early 2000s. In most cases and despite its clear downsides, two-tone photographs are often better for researching aerial photographs. Another problem with all film-based photography is that high-resolution versions are saved in TIFF files, which are immense, slow to download, and often difficult to browse online.

Color aerial photograph of Laguna St. and Delaware Ave., 2001. [UC Santa Barbara]

Satellite imagery has many different problems from its predecessors. Since satellite images today are all digital, the color doesn't fade. Also, compression software means loading the images is less of a problem. Downloading the images, however, is nearly impossible now since the mosaics are no longer separable—they are glued together prior to uploading. So if a person wants a satellite image of a place, they must use screen captures, which can be tedious and breaks copyright. Earlier satellite photos, such as those from the 1990s and early 2000s, are also often poor quality since the digital images were not yet of a sufficient quality. Even more problematic, though, it is often impossible to determine the precise date that a specific satellite image was taken since it is often a mosaic composed of several different photos taken over an unspecified period of time. For example, the "Globe View" of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk right now still shows the park's pre-2016 configuration, while the "Satellite" view shows its current layout.

3D technologies such as that used on Google Maps and Google Earth also sometimes distort things, making them appear different than they truly are. The superimposition of street Labels, too, can cause unconscious problems by giving you a false sense of a street's history based on its modern name. It's often a good idea to turn off Labels when researching if you feel it may distract. The seamlessness of Google Street View is another potential problem in that, much like the different aerial views, it may glue together photographs from several different photo shoots but gives you a sense of continuity. The Street View of the Boardwalk, for example, was taken in 2011, which fortunately is noted at the bottom of the screen.

Like all research resources, aerial photographs have their upsides and their downsides. In many cases, they are tools of last resort, but they should not be dismissed out of hand. Just be cautious when using them and remember that they depict a specific time and place and not everything may be as it appears.

Local History Resources:

The following is a selection of California-specific aerial photograph databases that have material available online. It is by no means a complete list and more material may be added as it is discovered or made available digitally.

UC Santa Barbara Library's Aerial Photography database

By far the most accessible source for California-specific aerial photographs is UC Santa Barbara Library's Aerial Photography database ( This repository includes millions of mosaics and individual aerial photographs from throughout the state and many of them can be downloaded for free directly from the website. The FrameFinder tool is the easiest means of finding photos, although it can be quite overwhelming. Individual dots are placed on the map, each oof which represents an aerial photograph, usually part of a larger mosaic. You can click the Flight ID record for information relating to the flight, including usually a list of all of the photographs that are include in the mosaic and their individual record numbers. More simply, you can click the Free Download link beside Scan to see and download the photograph. The FrameFinder is currently the best way of accessing photographs, unfortunately, because the other method—the AP Flights Catalog—doesn't allow you to select individual photographs to view.

Fresno State University Henry Madden Library's Map and Aerial Photograph Collections

Fresno State University has its own collection of maps and aerial photographs ( that cover all of California, although their collection is far less extensive than UC Santa Barbara's. Its MALT indexing tool is regrettably only useful for the Fresno area, so users from outside that area must search for photos from the Digitized Collections website, which can be more tedious. Nonetheless, nearly 4,000 photographs are available of Santa Cruz County ranging from 1937 to 1993.

UC Santa Cruz University Library's Maps & Aerial Photos database (currently offline)

The most convenient option would be to access UC Santa Cruz's collection of maps and aerial photographs (, but unfortunately the digitized photographs were taken down in 2020 and are still not back online. It is still possible to look through the Aerial Photo Flight Indexes to determine if UCSC has a photograph you need for your research. The index PDFs include specific details of the flight an the customized maps on the pages allow you to identify precisely what photograph would be the most useful.

Google Maps and Google Earth

The easiest and two of the best options for accessing current and near-current satellite photographs of Santa Cruz County are Google Maps ( and Google Earth ( On Google Maps, to avoid distraction, turn off Labels, and for the most recent map turn off "Globe View" (this will also avoid the 3D effect and avoid you accidentally going to Street View). Capturing images from it is a pain, so use your computer's screen capture app. Also remember that all Google Maps are under copyright, so using them in commercial products is legally not allowed.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Stations: Farley

Hear it!
Or watch it!

Claus Spreckels was a prominent individual within Santa Cruz County throughout his life. By 1871, he was already becoming the sugar king, importing 125 tons of raw sugar per day from Hawaii, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, and isolated areas of California to his refinery in San Francisco. But in 1872, he became interested in refining sugar from beets to maintain his thriving empire. He turned to Santa Cruz County and settled his eyes upon roughly 1,000 acres of Rancho Aptos.

Stereograph of the Aptos Hotel, late 1870s, by C. W. J. Johnson. [California State Library – colorized using DeOldify]

Rancho Aptos had been a Mexican land grant given to a member of the Castro family, Rafael de Jesús Castro, in 1833. Castro continued to hold most of the land for the next forty years, primarily using the sprawling marine terrace to raise cattle. However, he also built a 500-foot-long pier near the mouth of Aptos Creek around 1850, from which he shipped lumber, flour, and cattle hide. This was extended another 500 feet in 1867 by Titus Hale, allowing larger ships to dock at the pier. Hale used the pier during these years to ship cords of oak to San Francisco, where it was used to heat homes during the winter. Castro finally relinquished ownership of most of his property in 1872, when his wife, María Soledad Cota, abandoned him. Spreckels swooped in and bought it for $80,000.

Lithograph of Claus Spreckels, ca 1875. [Public domain]

In the grand scheme of his enterprises, Spreckels’ operations in the Aptos area were minor, although not insignificant. There were signs that the region was primed for beet growing and Spreckels needed to experiment before expanding his operations. However, Santa Cruz County was exceptionally isolated, with only a few rugged mountain roads and steamships providing ways out. To the south, however, the Southern Pacific Railroad had opened a new route to San Francisco the previous year. To make shipping goods easier, Spreckels joined with Frederick A. Hihn to finance and support the construction of the Santa Cruz Railroad, which passed through his property on its way to Pajaro in 1875. Meanwhile, Spreckels began planting beets while closely observing the activities of the nearby California Beet Sugar Company, based out of Soquel. Spreckels' precise relationship, if any, with this firm is unclear, and it is unknown if he ever produced a commercial crop at his Aptos property. Nonetheless, he saw the potential of Aptos as a tourist destination and continued to invest in the area.

Engraving of the Aptos Hotel complex, late 1870s. By W. W. Elliott & Company. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections]

On May 22, 1875, Spreckels opened the luxurious Aptos Hotel above the cliffs between the railroad tracks and the Monterey Bay south of Aptos. The Santa Cruz Sentinel of March 27, 1875, says of the hotel complex:

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.

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: Measure D. The measure attempted to force the RTC to abandon the SCBRL and 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]

Despite a very well funded campaign, Greenway and its Measure D lost on June 8, 2022, with the results an overwhelming endorsement for shared rail and trail usage along the SCBRL. With the status quo maintained and Greenway reeling from the defeat, it is up to the RTC, Progressive Rail, and Roaring Camp Railroads to decide Santa Cruz County's railroad future. 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.

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