Thursday, March 25, 2021

People: Fred W. Swanton

Other local personalities may have made Santa Cruz what it is today, but none promoted the city and county more enthusiastically than Fred Wilder Swanton. For the ten years either side of 1900, Swanton was synonymous with Santa Cruz in many ways, and where he went, so the city went. His fame reached such levels that by 1911, several reporters nicknamed the city "Swanta Cruz." Besides founding the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, he promoted and financed the city's first public electric grid as well as its first electric streetcar line, promoted the village of Brookdale, served as mayor of Santa Cruz three times, and even had a small village on the North Coast named in his honor. Many of his ventures also directly or indirectly involved local railroads.

Ninety-three-year-old L. B. Jarrett, Martha Friede, and Mayor Fred Swanton at the New Year Flower Show, ca 1928. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Edward Martin in his History of Santa Cruz County extolled Swanton's virtues and life up to 1911, noting in his opening line's on Swanton's life: "Difficult if not impossible would it be to name any citizen who is more closely connected with the modern development of Santa Cruz than Mr. Swanton." Much of the information below is drawn from this biography, with addition information taken from contemporary sources, of which there are many due to Swanton's very public and open life.

Albion Swanton, 1868 (left), and Fred Swanton with Frank Fiester, posing with a ladder from his Van Alstine & Swanton Telephone Company, ca 1883. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries and UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify] 

Fred Swanton was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 11, 1862, the son of Albion Paris Kingston Swanton and Emily Jane Parshley of Maine. Albion had moved to California when Fred was two years old and found work with his brother in Pescadero. Fred and his mother joined Albion in 1866 and all three of them moved to Santa Cruz in 1867, where Albion became manager of the San Lorenzo Stables, owned by William H. Bias. Nothing of note occurred during his childhood until Fred graduated from Heald's Business College in 1881. Upon graduation, he worked as a bookkeeper for two lumber companies: Maderra Flume & Trading Company of Fresno and the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company in Felton. However, he was not destined for a desk job. He travelled to the East Coast in late 1882 and secured a telephone patent from Alexander Bell for use in California.

The Swanton House soon after it opened, ca 1882.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

The telephone system was a project that would take years to fully expand throughout the state and control of the technology quickly slipped through Swanton's fingers. He did not despair, though, and continued his business endeavors. After travelling California for several months in 1883 to promote his telephone system, he joined in business with his father and the two of them founded the Swanton House on Front Street in downtown Santa Cruz. This was his first major enterprise and it did well for six years. During this time, the Swantons built the city's first athletic park and Fred worked as the manager of the Santa Cruz Opera House. The Swanton House burned down in June 1887 but it did not deter Fred. He and his father quickly sold the property to James G. Fair of the South Pacific Coast Railroad and used the funds to buy the Bonner Stables on Pacific Avenue.

The Swanton House fire with firefighters attempting to salvage furniture, June 1887.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

On Christmas Day, 1884, Fred married Stanley Emma Pope Hall. Stanley had been born in Petersburg, Virginia to James and Margaret Pope, who had traveled to Benicia, California around 1870. Both of Stanley's parents died when she was young and she was raised for some years by her aunt Ellen Adie, who was a teacher. Eventually, Stanley was adopted by Richard H. Hall of Santa Cruz. Hall was a native of Vermont who moved to Santa Cruz since 1853 and owned the property that would become Natural Bridges State Beach. A year after their marriage, Stanley gave birth to the couple's only child, Pearl Hall Swanton, on October 25, 1885. Pearl married William Dorsey Dalton on May 21, 1908 in a large gala at the Swanton home at the corner of Soquel and Ocean View Avenues.

Portrait of young Fred Swanton, ca 1888.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Shortly after establishing the Bonner Stables, Fred Swanton set out on his own and became a pharmacist when he founded the Palace Pharmacy on Pacific Avenue. But after only fifteen months, he grew bored and sold the store. His passion was always technology and the future, so he founded Santa Cruz's first electrical lighting system. Working with Dr. Hulbert Henry Clark, Swanton first turned on the switch for 300 incandescent lights in October 1889, lighting up downtown with electricity. Demand for electrical lighting shot up while the price of gas plummeted almost instantly. By the end of 1891, Swanton and Clark supplied 5,000 light bulbs to city businesses. The partners incorporated the Santa Cruz Electric Light Company to manage the operation of the plant, with Swanton chosen as secretary and general manager. Clark was appointed president, and Swanton's father served as vice president.

A Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Railroad streetcar leaving the Vue de l'Eau on the Cliff Drive, ca 1892. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Even as electricity began to spread from his plant, Swanton shifted his focus to streetcars. In 1891, Swanton joined with Clark and James P. Smith to form the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Electric Railway, the first electric streetcar line in Santa Cruz County. With the purchase of the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad in 1892, the company reincorporated as the Santa Cruz Electric Railway and remained as such for the next twelve years, shuttling people between Garfield Park and the Santa Cruz Main Beach via downtown. The electric streetcar line was powered by Swanton and Clark's electrical plant at the southern end of Pacific Avenue.

The Big Creek Power House on Big Creek north of Davenport, ca 1896.
[The Street Railway Review – colorized using DeOldify]

The increase in electricity demands prompted Swanton to sell his original power company to James McNeil, and incorporate a new firm based on a different power plant. Swanton had purchased a large block of land along Scott and Big Creeks north of Davenport in the mid-1890s. In 1896, he founded the Big Creek Power Company, over which he was once again named secretary and general manager. Eighteen miles of electrical lines were extended from Big Creek atop Ben Lomond Mountain to Santa Cruz. The whole system took only sixty days to install. This new source of power provided enough energy to run the streetcar lines and satisfy the needs of the peoples of Santa Cruz, who were rapidly increasing their power usage. Over the next five years, the Big Creek power plant expanded its reach to Capitola and Watsonville, becoming the first long-distance electric power plant in the state.

Fred Swanton with H. F. Andersen and boxer Tex Rickard, ca 1900. Photo by R. A. Biller.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Considering his substantial success with both the electrical plant and the streetcar line, it is somewhat odd that Swanton decided to divest himself of all of it and head north to the Alaska gold fields. In 1900, he sold his stake in the Big Creek Power Company to John Q. Packard and Frank Willard Billings, who soon afterwards sold the company to R. C. P. Smith and John M. Gardiner. These men were hoping to unite many of the Central Coast's power companies together and also wanted to build a streetcar line of their own in Santa Cruz County. As a result, Swanton had inadvertently given the keys to the future of electric streetcars to rivals of his old Santa Cruz Electric Railway. But Swanton was clearly not troubled by this betrayal. When he returned from Alaska in 1901, he co-founded the Santa Cruz Oil Company, based out of Bakersfield, before joining with Smith and Gardiner to build their new Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railroad streetcar line. He saw the marketing potential of such a route between Santa Cruz and Capitola in particular and eagerly promoted it across the state.

Fred Swanton, general manager of the Santa Cruz Beach & Tent City Corporation, June 14, 1905.
[Santa Cruz Seaside Company – colorized using DeOldify]

After two years of marketing Santa Cruz, however, Swanton realized that what the city really needed was an attraction to draw people in. His vision was realized in June 1904 when the Neptune Casino, Plunge, and Tent City opened to the public. This fully-electrified resort featured tents and cottages for visitors to spend the nights in; a grand two-story Moorish-style casino with restaurants, bandstands, dance halls, and various attractions; a fully remodelled Plunge heated salt water pool; an Electric pier; and various minor amusements and carnival games. For two summers, this resort thrived, and then in June 1906, it burned to the ground, leaving only the pier, the roller rink, and some tents behind.

Inaugural run of the Bay Shore Limited Railroad at the Boardwalk (Fred Swanton seated center), 1907.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Swanton recovered quickly. After clearing the debris, he reopened the pool as an open-air structure and built a dance pavilion out on the beach. Over the winter of 1906-1907, he hired William Henry Weeks to design a new Mission-revival style resort that had fire suppression among its top priorities. The new complex included a two-story casino with restaurants, shops, bars, a grand dance hall, and a rotunda; a new Natatorium, with changing rooms, diving board, slide, restaurant, and other amenities; the new Bay Shore Limited miniature railroad ride; an extended and improved Pleasure Pier; a cottage city completely replacing the tent city; and numerous other improvements.

Committee of 1912 breaking ground for the Water Pageant, June 29, 1912. Photo by J. E. Olive.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using Deoldify]

Over the next eight years, Swanton continued expanding the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with the addition of an L. A. Thompson Scenic Railway ride in 1908, and the Charles I. D. Looff Carousel, the Colonnade, and the Casa del Rey Hotel all in 1911. The Casa del Rey Golf Links, the city's first golf course, was also established at Pogonip in 1911. In August 1912, Swanton ran a Grand Water Pageant at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, attracting thousands of visitors from across the state. 

Members of the Santa Cruz Invitation and Entertainment Committee (Fred Swanton front center) at the Santa Cruz Union Depot, 1906.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Swanton became known for his booster trains to promote the city. Skip Littlefield recalls: "With the credo 'do it big,' he talked the Southern Pacific into giving him a five-coach special train into which he packed two brass bands, advertising men and civic leaders. Arriving in a town, he would disembark and parade with his bands to the city hall, pull out the town officials and exchange oratorical greetings. In Marysville and Sacramento his arrival was sufficient reason to close the schools.... From Italy Swanton brought the famous Michael Angelo Garibaldi to fashion pieces of statuary and copies of the masters, which he placed in the natatorium, on the roof and spires...."

Excerpt from a Bird's Eye View of the City of Santa Cruz showing a proposed streetcar extension to Swanton Beach Park, 1908. [Bancroft Library]

Even while Swanton was developing his seaside resort at the Santa Cruz Main Beach, he was also working on other resorts elsewhere in the county. Three miles away to the north, Swanton had acquired through his wife a beautiful beach iconic for its natural sandstone bridges. In 1908, he opened Swanton Beach Park to the public and announced plans to build a large resort hotel there in the near future. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1940: "He laid out the streets and pavements and designated each street by a huge monumental structure inscribed with the name of some valley town. Then he set off with a colored map of the subdivision and sold the lots to valley buyers like hotcakes. The property was quickly sold."

Swanton Cottage outside Brookdale (Fred at right), ca 1912.
[Derek R. Whaley – Colorized using DeOldify]

Up the San Lorenzo Valley, Swanton and his friends had been operating Camp Thunder north of Ben Lomond for several years, but Swanton wanted a more permanent place for his wealthy Bay Area peers to spend warm summer nights. Once more he hired William Weeks to build a structure for him, this time a quaint log cabin in the hills that opened in 1910 under the name La Siesta. The property included a lake on the river created by a dam that also provided electrical power to the community. The cabin also featured direct Southern Pacific Railroad service via the adjacent Siesta Station with its ornate stained-glass window shelter.

Ocean Shore Railroad train at Swanton north of Davenport, ca 1910.
[Images of America: Davenport - colorized using DeOldify]

Meanwhile, the Ocean Shore Railroad was extended up Scott Creek to the bottom of Big Creek in 1908. The new end-of-track for the railroad was a tiny hamlet whose post office was named Swanton, after the nearby Big Creek power plant, which Swanton founded a decade earlier. The arrival of the railroad led to an increase in the profile of the settlement, although it is unclear if Swanton had any ongoing connection to the place following the sale of his power company.

Natural sandstone arches at Swanton Beach, ca 1920.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

Not long after the Casa del Rey Hotel opened, things began to take a turn for the worst for Swanton. The returns for the hotel and amusement park did not meet costs. He resigned from the board of the Santa Cruz Beach Company in 1913 to take a job promoting the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, a position he held until 1915. Following the event, his personal finances began to suffer. Swanton no longer had the funds for his Swanton Beach resort and none of the buildings were built. Meanwhile, he was forced to sell La Siesta in 1920.

Fred Swanton with ZaSu Pitts, ca 1924.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

As his local projects stuttered and failed, Swanton purchased the Shebe chrome mine near Placerville, which he ran during the war years and continued to own until his death, although it was no longer operating at that time. He later became involved in the Volcanoville and Bear States mines in Auburn. He also tried his hand at producing films through his Fer-Dal Motion Picture Company based out of DeLaveaga Park in Santa Cruz. Despite recruiting some star talent, no film was ever finished. Using his new-found connections, he briefly moved to Hollywood and became a manager for star ZaSu Pitts, but gave up on this venture after only a year. In 1924, he returned to Santa Cruz and opened an airport in the West Side, but he couldn't attract enough interest and it closed down the next year. By this point, Swanton declared bankruptcy and turned his attention to more viable career options.

Mayor Fred Swanton at a beauty contest at the Santa Cruz Main Beach, ca 1928.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

In 1927, Swanton formally entered Santa Cruz politics when he was elected mayor of the city. He became the first mayor to win three sequential terms, and ran again in 1937 against C. D. Hinkle, although he lost this fourth bid. In 1930, he was even considered as a candidate for governor of California, but chose not to run. His terms in office were not spectacular. His council was implicated in a corruption and bribery scandal, with one member sent to San Quentin State Penitentiary. He also sniped at the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, showing his lingering frustration over losing control of his seaside amusement park.

Katherine Carlson, Al Kline, Mayor Fred Swanton, and San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi celebrating Santa Cruz's birthday, ca 1932. Photo by Charles M. Hiller.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

By 1933, his popularity was spent and he decided not to run again for office. However, he was quickly appointed deputy chief director of state parks by the governor. In 1938, after his failed fourth run for mayor, he was appointed by Governor Frank F. Merriam to a special state park commission to seek out future state parks. He used his position to turn Seacliff Beach, New Brighton Beach, and his own Swanton Beach into state parks.

Portrait of Fred Swanton late in life, late 1930s.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Despite rumors to the contrary that have persisted since the mid-1940s, Swanton did not die penniless, although he had certainly lost much more money throughout his life than he had ever gained. He spent the final fifteen years of his life living respectably in his family's small mansion built by his father. His death was mourned across the state. Swanton died September 3, 1940 in Santa Cruz from a lingering heart condition brought on by a heart attack in late June. In the Santa Cruz Evening News' obituary, it noted that Swanton "spent a lifetime in building utilities, promoting subdivisions, developing beach property, attracting nationally known celebrities, and in constantly selling Santa Cruz to hundreds of thousands of visitors. It is estimated that at least 5000 permanent residents were brought to the city through his individual efforts." A side-column opinion piece added: "He never failed in his loyalty to this city and never stopped believing that its future prosperity was without limit." Fred Swanton is buried beneath a stone monument at Santa Cruz Memorial Park alongside several members of his family.

Citations & Credits:

  • Dunn, Geoffrey. "The Boardwalk Empire." Good Times. June 27, 2012.
  • Griggs, Gary. "Our Ocean Backyard—Broken bridges and fallen arches." Santa Cruz Sentinel, 02/13/2010.
  • Harrison, Edward Stanford. History of Santa Cruz County, California. San Francisco, CA: Pacific Press Publishing, 1892.
  • Martin, Edward. History of Santa Cruz County, California, with Biographical Sketches of Leading men and women of the County.... Los Angeles, CA: Historic Record Company, 1911.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, Santa Cruz Evening News, and Santa Cruz Surf. Various articles. 1881-1946.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Streetcars: Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway

California was undergoing a growth period at the turn of the nineteenth century and electric streetcar lines helped spread people further and further out into suburbia. In Santa Cruz, the successful Santa Cruz Electric Railroad meandered through downtown, out to the beach, and up to Mission Hill and the West Side. However, the old East Santa Cruz Railroad, a horsecar line built a decade earlier, still was the only service available to people on the East Side, and no attemp t had yet been made to connect Santa Cruz to Capitola, Aptos, and Watsonville by a streetcar network of any type.

Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway streetcar at Twin Lakes on its way to Opal above Capitola, December 29, 1903. [Charles Smallwood Collection, University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Things were changing in 1902, though. Gilroy, Salinas, and Monterey were all looking to add or expand electric streetcar service under the guidance of R. C. P. Smith and John M. Gardiner. They were interested in expanding to Santa Cruz and Watsonville, too, but local businessman Fred W. Swanton acted first. The principal financier for the Santa Cruz Electric Light and Power Company, Swanton had quietly purchased a controlling interest in the East Santa Cruz Railroad and used it as leverage when negotiating with Smith and Gardiner. On May 5, Swanton sold his power company to Smith and Gardiner with part of the deal involving the expansion of streetcar service throughout the county.

A former East Santa Cruz Railroad horsecar converted into a passenger waiting shelter at Atlantic Avenue near Wood's Lagoon, ca 1920s. [Preston Sawyer Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Although nothing else had been revealed yet, surveyors began defining a route between Twin Lakes and Capitola in August. Finally, on September 11, 1902, the Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway Company was incorporated, with a capital stock of $350,000 and pledges of an additional $100,000 from the streetcar line's financial backers, among whom were Smith and Gardiner of Los Angeles, Martin V. McQuigg and O. Z. Hubbell of Ontario, Henry Willey of Santa Cruz, and Warren R. Porter of Watsonville.  The goal of the company reflected a wider dream of connecting a narrow-gauge electric railroad line down the coast from San Francisco to Salinas and beyond. Therefore, the charter included transport by steam, electricity, or any other motive power, and permission to run ships.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville conductor and motorman standing beside their streetcar, with two boys seated at right, ca 1903. [Santa Cruz Public Library – colorized using DeOldify]
While the surveyors finished their work, the company began acquiring necessary permissions from the city government and purchasing easements through properties on the East Side. In December, the company received permission for a short line from Front Street to Center Street and then south to the Santa Cruz Union Depot in order to meet with arriving Southern Pacific Railroad and South Pacific Coast Railway trains. In January 1903, it received permission to electrify the East Santa Cruz Railroad. And on February 16, Swanton finally convinced city operators to give the company permission for a track adjacent to the Southern Pacific tracks to the Plunge at the Main Beach. This effectively halved the benefits of the Santa Cruz Electric Railroad's line, which now only claimed exclusivity of service on the West Side with both companies sharing beachfront patronage.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville streetcar at Twin Lakes, ca 1903. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Grading of the line began in early February 1903 with multiple teams working to both improve the old horsecar line's infrastructure and expand the track beyond Twin Lakes. Besides installing heavier rail and new crossties, much of the route required new bridges. culverts, cuts, and fills. Construction on the section across Twin Lakes Beach and up the hillside to East Cliff Road was especially difficult. Meanwhile, the streetcar company also looked at future prospects. An obvious candidate was a short branch line to the top of Ocean Street at the I.O.O.F. cemetery, which they received permission to build on February 25. The next target was the Lower Plaza, where the company hoped to leach even more profit from the suddenly struggling Santa Cruz Electric Railway. This proposal was not received as graciously.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville streetcar passing the Southern Pacific Railroad station at Seabright, with the Seabright Hotel next door, ca 1905. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
The owners of the older streetcar line, primarily I. Philip Smith and former district judge James Harvey Logan, had spent years developing their streetcar line into the successful service it was in 1903. Despite the threat of the new line to its beach services, it still held a monopoly at the Lower Plaza and on the West Side, two things it did not want to give up. And people genuinely liked Smith, Logan, and the company in general. By March, the fight between the two companies had become such that the local newspapers published letters from angry citizens almost daily, most in favor of the older line. A hearing on April 6 granted the new streetcar company permission to build a slightly modified route to the Lower Plaza, but nothing more was accomplished at the time. For the next three months, lawsuit after lawsuit attempted to block the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway from extending track down Pacific Avenue to the Lower Plaza, but all these attempts failed and the Santa Cruz Electric shifted to improving service to undermine its rival's efforts.

Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville car #1 at the original end-of-track at the Lower Plaza, with the Santa Cruz Electric Railway's streetcar line at right, ca 1903. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections]
Construction continued on the line throughout 1903 with the branch from the Lower Plaza to the beach opening in June and the separate branch along the old East Santa Cruz Railroad line and its extension to Opal Cliffs operating by July 25. Meanwhile, rolling stock orders had been placed in April and the first cars were completed in mid-June including two open bench cars, five combination cars, and a parlor car. Full service along the completed branches began on June 28. On July 17, the first Capitola car ran up Pacific Avenue on track that the Santa Cruz City Council had deemed joint use, despite protests from the Santa Cruz Electric which had built and maintained the track.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville streetcar outside the Tent City Office at the Santa Cruz Main Beach, ca 1904. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
In January 1904, the company finally relocated to new offices on Soquel Avenue downtown, where they setup a waiting room beside the main track to Capitola. At the beach, the track was extended slightly to curve into the new Neptune Casino complex, which opened in June, allowing direct access between downtown, the Union Depot, and the casino without any need for transfers or hikes through the dirt. Work on the extension to Capitola finally neared completion in early 1904 once property disputes were resolved and equipment was moved into place to carve a path down to Camp Capitola from Opal Cliffs high above. Actual grading began in April while the route was only clear for the laying of rails in May after shifting several buildings from their foundations.

The Neptune Casino at the Main Beach with Santa Cruz Electric streetcars on the left track and Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville streetcars at the far right track in the distance, 1904. [Preston Sawyer Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Ironically, the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway never finished its planned route to Capitola and never started its route to Watsonville. On September 2, 1904, as track layers were nearing completion of the line into Capitola, the Union Traction Company was formed by the board of directors of both the Santa Cruz Electric Railroad and the Capitola line. Its sole purpose was to consolidate the two electric streetcar companies into one unified operation. The official announcement of the merger came on October 4, the same day that regular service began from Santa Cruz to Capitola. As the larger and better-funded system, the Capitola management dominated the board with newcomers F. S. Granger and E. A. Cole taking over daily management of operations.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway streetcar passing over the new bridge into Capitola, ca 1905. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Over the next two years, old board members began to drop out and sell their shares as the old Capitola line began to lose its independent identity. The first casualty was the beachfront trackage, which was reduced back to a single streetcar track while the Capitola branch went back to operating from the beginning of Soquel Avenue. A brief leasing of the Union Traction Company to the Ocean Shore Railway in early 1906 came to nothing once the San Francisco Earthquake severely curtailed the company's expansion plans. Meanwhile, any involvement Swanton still retained in the company, including in plans to build a short-cut bridge over the San Lorenzo River to connect the streetcar tracks between the beach and Seabright, fizzled when his casino went up in flames in June 1906.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonvile liveried streetcar outside the Hotel Capitola, ca 1905. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
The purchase of Union Traction by John Martin of the Coast Counties Power Company (PG&E) on July 8, 1906, likely marked the corporate end for the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway. Throughout 1907, all of the narrow-gauge track was torn out and replaced with standard-gauge trackage, while a new electrical plant was installed and new rolling stock purchased to replace the smaller-gauged stock. These were the last vestiges of the Capitola line other than the rights-of-way.

Citations & Credits:

  • McCaleb, Charles S. Surf, Sand & Streetcars: A Mobile History of Santa Cruz, California. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & History, 2005.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Sources: Photographs

Photography has been around for as long as California has been a U.S. state. The first commercial photographs arrived in 1839 under the guidance of Louis Daguerre, and the processes quickly evolved into more streamlined, reproducible, and higher quality images. By the time the first railroad infrastructure was built in Santa Cruz County in 1874, photography had gone mainstream and several studios had popped up throughout the county. While fairly stationary photograph was still required into the 1890s, the shutter speeds had increased enough that scenes depicting action were not out of the question. Thus, photographs of the age of railroads in Santa Cruz County can be quite helpful in answering research questions, investigating mysteries, and generally giving historians a better idea of the world people lived in at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Felton Covered Bridge and approach with the Old Felton spur in the center, ca 1930, overlaid onto a modern photograph taken at the same location. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections, and Google Street View]

The historical community has always had a mixed relationship with photographs. They are absolutely essential tools for research but their flaws sometimes far outweigh their benefits. But one thing that photographs, especially candid photos, can show is history as it once was. Time machines do not exist, at least not yet, so there is no way to actually go back to see the past today. Historical documents and newspapers can paint a picture of how things were, but they leave much unsaid. Similarly, artifacts can be helpful in showing construction techniques and how things were done, but they often are accompanied with much speculation. Photographs, therefore, are unique in showing a specific snapshot in time. And these snapshots do not just show what the photographer wants the viewer to see, but also everything around it and things outside their control. Despite an eternal uncertainty regarding the viability of using photographs in historical research, they are undeniably a tool that every historian of the Modern era must consider in their research. 

Ways of using this source:

Illustrative Photographs

The primary reason historians and any researcher uses photographs in their work is to highlight or emphasize a point. For example, you are writing a biography of Frederick A. Hihn, so you include a photograph or lithograph (a reproduction of a photograph on a plate so it can be used in a printing press) of him at the side of the page. Often, this type of use isn't even accompanied with a photo caption because it is so straightforward. Illustrative photographs are important for historians to include to better immerse readers and it also makes books more saleable since people always like photographs. Many local history books these days, namely Arcadia Publishing's various offerings, are almost entirely composed of illustrative photographs with the captions telling the history in snippets—an inversion of the traditional way of using photographs in historical works.

Watsonville Depot from Beach Road, ca 1895. Note the multiple sidings, the wagon train at right, and the smokestacks of the Western Beet Sugar Company in the distance at left. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]

Comparative Photographs

Another relatively straightforward means of illustrating a point is to use two photographs that show substantially the same scene but set years apart. Again, this usage is often accompanied with little more than the dates of the two photographs and maybe a description of some key changes. But this is where it begins to veer into historical analysis territory. Where a single photograph can only reveal what is in it, two photographs of the same thing can be used to demonstrate changes. This can be very important, as well, if you are trying to date when a change happened and you have access to two photographs set only a few years apart that depict said change. Comparison photographs can also be used to show how industries or locations have changed from one type to another, such as the shift at a business from using freight trains to truck, or of a place from a bustling town to a rural community. Arcadia Publishing has also begun capitalizing on people's love of the before and after with its Then & Now series, again focusing on the photographs foremost and using the captions to explain the history.

Photograph taken at almost the exact same location on Beach Road looking toward Watsonville Depot, 2017. [Derek R. Whaley]

Stylized Photographs

One domain of photograph that all historians need to be wary of are overly stylized photographs, especially those that were made for mass market consumption. The least offensive of these are stereographs. Stereographs were all the rage in the 1870s and 1880s before being replaced with colorized postcards. Some streographs are even colorized! The two images that make up a stereograph are not identical, but they depict the same exact moment since the pair of cameras snapped at the same time. That being said, these photographs are usually a low resolution and of lower quality than other similar photographs because of how they were produced. The differences between the photos in a pair, though, can be telling. The quarter inch offset sometimes reveals small details not present in the other photo, so these must be inspected closely. Also, the three dimensional aspect of the photograph should not be entirely discounted—it can sometimes bring out details that you may otherwise not have noticed and the added depth, while not perfect, occasionally reveals hidden secrets.

Stereograph of the San Lorenzo Valley flume, ca 1878, showing differences between photos. [Public Domain]

Stereographs shifted to colorized photographs, especially postcards, in the late 1880s and remained in vogue through the 1910s. Colorizing has always had some controversy about it since it is a biased technique. Until recently, all colorized photographs were done by hand, with artists choosing which shades to color specific parts of the photograph before the template was sent to a printer for mass production. And in almost all cases, the colorizer was not present to actually witness the scene they are colorizing, which means the colors are often arbitrary and invented. You can see this in postcards of the Sea Beach Hotel or the Santa Cruz Union Depot, which sport a variety of colors depending on the colorizer. Modern computer colorizing can be better in some respects in that it bases its algorithms on sets of tens of thousands of photographs in an attempt to shade areas with the correct colors based on the implied colors present in the photographs. But in both cases, the result is imprecise.

Colorized postcard of the Garfield Park Tabernacle revealing an old horsecar chassis converted into a streetcar shelterr at the top of Garfield (Woodrow) Avenue, ca 1905. [Public Domain]

Where colorizing can be helpful for local historians is what it can sometimes reveal. Normal monochrome photographs from the three decades either side of 1900 were prone to fading and yellowing, which led to a loss of definition. Commercial grade postcards in general survive better and colorized postcards even more so. Thus, colorized photographs can sometimes make certain details pop out where otherwise you may overlook them. The reverse of this is that colorizing can also downplay or obscure details that the colorizer found less interesting. Computer colorizing does not have this latter bias, however, so it has a tendency to make features, especially natural features such as the sky, trees, and bodies of water, really become more defined.

Stylized postcard of the Sea Beach Hotel on fire, modifying an existing photograph from 1904 with additional people added and artificial flames. Original photograph below. [Public Domain]

The biggest problem with using commercial photographs of any type, including stereographs, postcards, or even modern commercial photograph, is their tendency to be altered. Photographs can always be cropped to focus on a specific feature, but the entire purpose of commercial photographs is to sell prints and postcards so their printers focus very specifically on what they find important in the image. This often means that potentially interesting details are cut-off on the edges, or even cropped out and replaced with something else. In some cases, details are added, such as a train emerging from the tunnel at Laurel or a nighttime fire at the Sea Beach Hotel. It is a good idea to always consider the intended market of the photographs. On rare occasions, this can actually reveal its own useful historical facts. In any case, the use in historical research of any commercial photograph needs to be done with caution, especially when using colorized postcards.

Stylized photograph of the Laurel-Glenwood Tunnel (Tunnel #3) showing a hand-drawn train emerging at an odd angle, ca 1910. Original photograph by George Besaw. [Ken Lorenzen]

Photographs as subjects of in-depth analysis

In the end, though, photographs can be an excellent research tool when considered properly. They can reveal small details that other primary sources may have left out and they can help complete narratives that are missing vital information. For example, it is well known that the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 severely damaged the South Pacific Coast Railway's line through the Santa Cruz Mountains. But what is less well known is that an early winter storm in January 1909 damaged a lot of the recently-completed repair work, leading to a several months delay. Details from newspapers and first person accounts attest to this fact, but it is in the photographs that the real extent of the damage can be seen. And these photographs are not just illustrative, although they do accomplish that goal as well. Photographs taken around Laurel and Edric reveal massive sinks and slide activity, but they also reveal dual-gauged tracks along the line, as well as a previously unknown siding.

Southern Pacific right-of-way survey photograph of trackage in the Los Gatos area, showing a disused spur, February 12, 1930. [Los Gatos Public Library]

Similar railroad maintenance photographs accomplished this elsewhere, as well. Right-of-way survey photographs taken by Southern Pacific along a three-mile-long section of track through Los Gatos shows the full extent of the existing trackage in 1928, including the lack of freight spurs in the area and the disuse of many of the sidings. Photos taken of the route through the mountains in 1940 shows the extent of the damage to the line, with captions that accurately though concisely describe the locations and conditions. These candid, non-commercial photographs are able to show a degree of information not available elsewhere and not likely to be printed in any newspaper or published source.

Early postcard of Brookdale showing the station with a siding and the Reed's Spur in the bushes in the center, ca 1905. Note extra wide crossties suggesting the narrow gauge tracks would be upgraded soon to standard gauge. [George Pepper]

Despite the unreliability of postcards, they too can sometimes yield surprising things. The Brookdale area was heavily photographed for postcards and this has brought to light at least two photographs of the Clear Creek railroad bridge, several of the bridge to Huckleberry Island, and even one of the bridge north of the island. This has allowed me to identify the types of railroad bridges built in the area, at least after they were upgraded to standard gauge. Postcards and other contemporary photographs have also revealed the longevity of the Reed's Spur that once catered to timber interests at Brookdale before the location became a vacation destination. Some of this material could be derived from maps, charts, and plans of the Brookdale area as well, but the photographs serve as pieces of these puzzles rather than additions to them.

Photograph showing a railroad bridge crossing over railroad tracks, ca 1892. The upper bridge has subsequently been identified as the Loma Prieta Branch mainline. The track below is a private logging spur heading up a gulch. Aptos Creek itself is at the bottom of the hillside in the distance (off camera). [Ronnie Trubek]

More excitingly, though, is when photographs reveal features that seem bazaar or difficult to envision. Just north of the Boulder Creek yard, the Dougherty Extension Railroad passed over Boulder Creek, the San Lorenzo River, and Bear Creek in rapid succession and this arrangement has only completely been captured on maps. However, a sprawling panoramic photograph of Boulder Creek taken from a hill to the east of town shows the full extent of the freight yard there and, when observed closely, reveals the design of the first of these bridges at the extreme right corner. Similarly, a mysterious photograph taken in the Forest of Nisene Marks in the early 1890s shows a railroad bridge passing over railroad tracks, something that was unprecedented anywhere in the county except far to the north decades later. During subsequent research, however, I discovered that a single two-level track did exist in a location along Aptos Creek, which fit the image perfectly. Sometimes the fact comes before the photographic evidence, and sometimes the photograph precedes the evidence.

Mysterious structure on a rock beside narrow-gauge railroad tracks in a forest. Likely the McGaffigan family's home north of Boulder Creek, ca 1890s. [UC Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections]

The more frustrating part of using photographs as research tools is when things still are left unanswered. Mysterious, unidentified or misidentified photographs are the most annoying. For example, this photograph shows a strange fortress-like home beside railroad tracks, but the details of the tracks are too vague and the lack of a caption means that nothing can be known for certain. A secondary source describes a similar structure beside the Dougherty Extension Railroad's tracks at McGaffigan's Switch, but is this Patrick McGaffigan's home? Probably, but it can't be known with certainty and it may not even be a photo of Santa Cruz County! A similar problem occurred recently with several photographs sent to me of railroad construction in Los Gatos Creek, where the surrounding topography definitely did not correlate to what I knew of the area. Thus captions and assumptions must be tested and questioned repeatedly when using photographs for evidence.

Four photographs showing the evolution of Lower Pacific Avenue from ca 1880 to ca 1935. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections]

Where photographs shine the most as a research tool is actually in documenting change, so as comparative photographs. But rather than posting both photographs for the reader to do the comparisons, the researcher does the comparisons and summarizes the results. For some locations such as the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, or the Union Depot, or the freight spurs in Watsonville, these comparisons can include dozens of photographs spanning decades and incorporate maps, charts, and other material as well to cross reference information. For example, there are enough photographs of Pacific Avenue just before it curves around Beach Hill to demonstrate a long progression of development from the late 1870s, when the first horsecar line was installed, to the 1940s, when the area finally saw permanent commercial development. With these, you can see the addition of power lines, the upgrading of the horsecar to a single track streetcar line, the widening of the road, the addition of two tracks, the construction of businesses along the road, etc. Some of these details would have been included in newspapers and county records, among other places, but the visual progression is just as useful, so long as the dates of the photographs can be properly assessed. Thus photographs can be used just like any other source when researching, but their importance must be weighed accordingly. 

Downsides and problems with this source:

Most of the major downsides of using photographs are mentioned above, but there are a few more general ones that must be taken into account. First and foremost, a photograph does not tell a story. A lot of people think it does, but it doesn't. Not without outside context, at least. Sometimes a caption on the back of the photograph can tell the story, but that's the only exception. Everything else in a photograph must be drawn from other knowledge, that can also be flawed. If you see a photograph of Walt Disney and Billy Jones meeting beside a miniature locomotive at the Jones Ranch in the early 1950s, you are taking for granted the fact that a) you know what Walt Disney and Billy Jones look like, b) you can identify this as a specific type of rolling stock in the image, c) you know this is the Jones Ranch, and d) you know the approximate year that the two men met at the ranch. Those are a lot of details and any one of them could be wrong, either due to a lapse in memory or because of an incorrect source. Images can help clarify or correct facts but they can't reveal the initial facts. They are always secondary sources in that respect—another type of source needs to be used to fully trust what you are seeing.

Billy Jones and Walt Disney at the Jones Family Ranch, early 1950s. [Billy Jones Family]

Second and related to the first, you can't trust everything you see in a photograph. As mentioned above, photos can be altered and photographic techniques can be used to give image unrealistic depth, color, or angles. Even the captions written on the fronts of postcards can't be trusted and, in fact, are often the least trustworthy part of a postcard. But handwritten captions and postmarks can also be incorrect or not accurately reflect the intent or age of the photo. And geography is not always clear in photographs, so do not assume directions or elevations or ridge lines in scenic images without cross verifying with other images and topographic maps, when necessary. When relying on a photograph as your primary evidence for something, be extra weary for anything out of the ordinary and do not be afraid to acknowledge uncertainty.

Photograph of the C. H. Squire general store at Wrights,  1925. [Public Domain]

Lastly, there is the constant problem of copyright. As a general disclaimer, I am not a lawyer and the following information should all be taken as non-legal advice. If you have specific questions about copyright law, seek a lawyer. Generally speaking however, ownership of copyrights is often difficult to determine and even harder to enforce in the United States. Any photograph published before January 1, 1926 anywhere in the world is considered in the public domain in the U.S. That means that if you find the photo online in a substantively unaltered state (scanned, photocopied, or digitally touched-up images don't count as altered) and you can prove that it was produced before 1926, then you can use it free of charge, although attribution is appreciated. Things get more complicated from here. If it was produced between 1926 and 1977 and the copyright was not renewed—which in most case it will not have been—then it is also public domain. After 1977, the odds are much higher that the photograph is not in the public domain, although there is still a good chance even up to 1989 that it could be. For images that aren't in the public domain, the copyright is usually upheld for 120 years from the date of creation, 95 years after the first publication, or 70 years after the death of the author, all dependent on the status of who owns the copyright. The earliest date that any of these types of images can enter the public domain is 2047.

Nothing to see here. Just a few Italian fishermen on the Railroad Wharf transferring their catch from their boat, ca 1905. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections]

The onus is on the historian or user of the photos to conduct due diligence in order to determine the copyright status before using a photograph. This may involve reaching out to the owner, contacting the publisher, or doing a comprehensive search to determine either. The key is that if you do not do due diligence and the copyright holder takes issue, then you are liable. This can especially be problematic when you are given collections or given permission to use images from someone's collection, since they also may not own the photographs or have a right to distribute them freely. The benefit of post images online is that they can be taken down relatively easily—published images are not so easy. Also, copyright suits over image infringements have been rare and usually settled out of court, so don't let potential copyright violations haunt your dreams. As long as you are careful and cautious in your usage, you should be fine.

Local History Resources:

  • Library of Congress (Online) – A nationwide mixed media collection with a limited selection of images from Santa Cruz County and its surroundings.
  • Calisphere (Online) – A massive mixed media repository that covers all aspect of California history.
  • Sources material from University of California databases, as well as other state repositories.
  • Online Archive of California (OAC) (Online) – A massive mixed media repository that covers all aspect of California history. Sourced primarily from private collections and smaller institutions from throughout the state.
  • California State Library (Online) – A massive mixed media collection that covers all aspects of California history, politics, and culture.
  • California State Archives (Partially online) – A massive mixed media collection that covers all aspects of California history, politics, and culture.
  • California State Railroad Museum – No online database. A massive mixed media collection that covers all aspects of railroading in California and the neighboring states.
  • Pacific Coast Narrow Gauge (Online) – A small database of photographs and information relating to California and West Coast narrow-gauge railroads.
Santa Cruz County:
  • Santa Cruz Public Libraries (Online) – A somewhat random collection of local images, most derived from donated collections with some public domain material mixed in.
  • UC Santa Cruz Legacy Digital Collections (Online) – A massive mixed media collection from throughout the history of Santa Cruz County, with a strong emphasis on the history of the university and the City of Santa Cruz.
  • Soquel Pioneers (Online) – This small website contains a collection of historical photographs related specifically to Soquel and a little bit of Capitola.
  • Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – No online database. The museum holds an extensive collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum's archives in Santa Cruz. Booking recommended.
  • Capitola Museum – No online database. The museum holds a modest collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum in Capitola. Booking required.
  • Pajaro Valley Agricultural History Project – No online database. The project holds a modest collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum in Watsonville. Booking required.
  • Pajaro Valley Historical Association – No online database. The museum holds an extensive collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum's archives in Watsonville. Booking recommended.
  • San Lorenzo Valley Museum – No online database. The museum holds an extensive collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum's archives in Boulder Creek. Booking required.
Santa Clara County:
  • History Los Gatos (Online) – A comprehensive collection of photographs and other material aggregated primarily from the New Museum of Los Gatos (NuMu) and the Los Gatos Library.
  • History San José (Online) – A comprehensive collection of photographs and other material aggregated primarily from private donations over many decades.
  • Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History – The local history wing of San José State University responsible for collecting material related to Santa Clara County history and its surrounding regions, as well as more general California history. Bookings required.
  • Gilroy Historical Society – Small online database. The museum holds a modest collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum in Gilroy. Booking recommended.
Monterey and San Benito Counties:
  • Monterey County Free Libraries (Online) – A modest mixed media collection of local images, with many derived from private donations over many decades. The actual libraries' archives are located in Marina. Booking recommended.
  • San Benito County Historical Society – No online database. The museum holds an extensive collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum's archives in Hollister. Booking recommended.
This list will be expanded as more sources of photographs become available to the public.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Railroads: Valencia Creek Railroad

Santa Cruz County hosted several private railroad lines that were built economically in order to achieve a specific goal and them promptly disappeared out of memory. History books have afforded these railroads little room and even contemporary photographers found them less than inspiring, leaving a dearth of photographic evidence. Thus, little is known about Frederick A. Hihn's narrow-gauge railroad line that once meandered along the east branch of Valencia Creek except what historians Rick Hamman and Ronald G. Powell have revealed in their investigations.

The Betsy Jane with passengers on a flatcar beside the Valencia Mill's pond, August 14, 1891. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Unlike the nearby Loma Prieta Company's mill on Aptos Creek, which had been years in the making by the time it finally opened in June 1884, Hihn's milling operations in the Aptos area, which began in May 1883, developed more gradually. Both companies harvested timber from properties in Rancho Soquel Augmentation, with Hihn personally owning thousands of acres throughout the former Mexican rancho. But whereas the Loma Prieta mill was located within the Augmentation and hauled processed lumber out via a standard-gauge Southern Pacific Railroad branch (initially the wholly-owned subsidiary Loma Prieta Railroad), Hihn situated his first mill at the junction of Trout Creek and Valencia Creek just outside of Aptos on land he purchased from the Bernal family. He used wagons and skid roads to haul uncut logs 1.5 miles from the Augmentation to the mill for processing. It was an inefficient system to say the least.

Sanborn map showing Aptos with Hihn's 'Aptos Milling Company' lumber yard sprawling behind the main commercial block, May 1892. [Library of Congress]

Hihn's mill in Trout Gulch had a 30,000 board foot per day capacity, which was considerable for the time, though competitive with the Loma Prieta mill. Everything produced at the mill was shipped via the newly standard-gauged Santa Cruz Railroad, now a Southern Pacific subsidiary. And since Hihn owned much of downtown Aptos, he ensured that he had prime real estate for his lumber yard on the backlot adjacent to Aptos Depot and behind the Bay View Hotel. Delays on the construction of the Loma Prieta Railroad meant that one of Hihn's first contracts was to provide lumber on behalf of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company until the latter could fire up its mills. Nonetheless, the problem of hauling large redwood logs on skid roads and wagons down the grade from the Augmentation to the mill was ultimately untenable. By the end of the second season, Hihn realized that a solution needed to be found to his transportation issues, but it took several years to fully address.

Lumber crew posing on the railroad grade near the Valencia Creek mill, late 1880s. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

For two summer seasons, Hihn's lumber crews harvested the timber up Trout Gulch in the Augmentation using the system explained above. In late 1884, however, he decided to abandon the remaining timber near the head of the creek and relocate his mill to the confluence of Valencia Creek and Cox Creek located on the southern boundary of the Augmentation. To the east of the mill, he established a tiny hamlet he named Valencia where workers with families and others could live. Meanwhile, beside the mill, more workers cottages and dormitories sprang up for unmarried men and between the two locations, several other facilities eventually were erected including a school, general store, and community hall that doubled as a church on occasion. With the mill now three miles closer to the timber, lumbermen did not have to haul the logs so far and wagons could cart full loads of lumber the rest of the way to the lumber yard in Aptos. Yet this new arrangement did not greatly increase efficiency and the Loma Prieta mill still had an output substantially higher despite the two mills being similar in maximum capacity.

A transloading platform along Valencia Creek where a skid road met with the Valencia Creek Railroad's grade for loading logs onto flatcars, 1889. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

For two seasons, Hihn allowed this reduced output to persist, but he knew it wouldn't work as a long term solution. When the mill was first moved, the hills around Valencia were still being actively harvested, but by the end of 1885, timber crews had moved further up Valencia Creek, away from the mill, meaning that they were once again dragging logs ever longer distances. This meant a lower return for Hihn since either fewer trees could be cut or more lumbermen were required. Meanwhile, the Loma Prieta company was building railroad spurs up onto the hills above its mill at Monte Vista, quickly hauling the felled trees to the mill for processing. At this point, the two mills were almost incomparable in output due to the restrictions impacting the Valencia operation.

Chinese crew carving out the Valencia Creek grade, 1886. [Aptos Museum – Colorized using DeOldify]

Hihn changed tact after the 1885 season ended and finally decided to invest some hard cash into his Valencia Creek milling operations. He decided to build a railroad, but a mule- and horse-drawn line. During the late winter and early spring, while fellers were in the forest cutting trees, Chinese work crews were brought on to grade a 2.76-mile-long narrow-gauge railroad line from Aptos Depot to the mill. Roughly three-quarters of the line was along a level grade, running either above the creek or almost in the creek bed, which had a controlled flow due to the millpond and its requisite dam. Not far from the mill, a 3,400-feet-long stretch of track ran at a relatively steep grade of 3% downhill, but gravity could take cars through this section and empty returning cars found little trouble surmounting this grade. Beyond the mill, the track initially was extended a mile but was gradually extended further over subsequent years in order to reach ever more distant timber tracts.

Mules hauling flatcars with logs to the millpond at the Valencia Creek mill, ca 1886. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]
A mule team hauling small logs around the last turn before the pond of Valencia Creek mill, ca 1886. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

The summer of 1886 proved to be a bonanza year for Hihn and his Valencia Creek mill. With the increased efficiency of the mule-driven railroad line, the mill was able to increase daily capacity to 40,000 board feet. This still lagged behind the Loma Prieta mill, but it confirmed Hihn's suspicions that his biggest problem was transportation. As a result of the boom, more jobs were made available and the town of Valencia began to bustle. Things were finally looking up for Valencia. So naturally, a fire destroyed it all. On November 28, the mill burned to the ground but most of the logs and lumber survived. Fires were no uncommon occurrence in lumber mills, but this was Hihn's first fire. But it happened at a perfect time. Operations were wrapping up for the year so the loss was less than it could have been. And Hihn was a generally optimistic man, so he saw the task of rebuilding as an opportunity for expansion and improvement.

Betsy Jane hauling flatcars with logs to the millpond at the Valencia Creek mill, ca 1890. [Aptos Museum]

In late winter 1887, construction began on the new mill, but Hihn no longer wanted to lag behind the Loma Prieta operation. So he built a much larger mill capable of producing 70,000 board feet of lumber per day. Beside it, he erected a box factory and planing mill, meaning that a wider range of products could be shipped finished directly from the mill. But with these new products, more than a simple mule-led railroad were required: Hihn needed steam. He upgraded the trackage of the four mile railroad and purchased a saddleback locomotive that he named Betsy Jane after the first locomotive that he brought into the county a decade earlier. Along with the locomotive came a new set of flatcars, one of which was upgraded with seats and railings for passengers to ferry workers, their families, and tourists up to Valencia and the mill. All of these entered full operations by July 1887.

Excerpt from the Hatch Map of Santa Cruz County, 1889, showing the route of the Valencia Creek Railroad (right), compared to the Loma Prieta Branch at the same time (left). [Aptos Museum] 

This enlargement of the mill and upgrading of the railroad line marked the peak of railroading in the Valencia Creek basin. For the next six years, from the summer of 1887 through the summer of 1892, lumber crews tore down nearly every old growth redwood tree that they could find and access on the hills either side of Valencia Creek. These trees were dragged to the railroad grade and then hauled on flatcars led by horses, mules, or the Betsy Jane to the millpond, where they were processed into lumber, boxes, and other wood products and shipped via train to Aptos, where the Aptos Milling Company, as it was popularly (though inaccurately) named maintained its yard. Regular freight trains passing through Aptos would pick up prepared standard-gauge flatcars of lumber and products from the yard for shipment to locations across California and beyond.

The Valencia Creek mill with high piles of lumber beside several railroad spurs, ca 1889. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]
The Valencia Creek mill during its peak years, ca 1890. [Aptos Museum – coloried using DeOldify]

With the improvements to the mill, Hihn could also finally compete with the Loma Prieta mill, which had just reached new tracts of timber in the vicinity of Five Finger Falls far up Aptos Creek. The mill crews, who often interacted on weekends and on days off in downtown Aptos, began a fierce production competition in the summer of 1888. Despite the set capacities of the mills, these could be stretched if workers were prepared in advance and the machinery was well tended to. The extent of this became clear on July 30, 1887, when the Loma Prieta crew cut 93,000 board feet in a day. The next year on August 15, Hihn's crew doubled its maximum capacity and cut 143,000 board feet. Loma Prieta would not be beat, though, and cut 181,000 board feet on October 8, and that in less than seven hours! This race could not be sustained both because of available logs to cut and the amount of energy it took to cut them. Loma Prieta set the state record for most lumber cut in one day, which it held for several years.

Tourists standing on logs on a flatcar beside the millpond, with the Valencia Creek mill in the background, 1888. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The Valencia Creek mill continued to operate until the autumn of 1892, when the major machinery was removed and relocated to Gold Gulch south of Felton. While some crew remained behind to gather the remaining split stuff and cut the few remaining trees, the operation was largely considered to be at an end. With the move to Gold Gulch went the Betsy Jane, which thereby left the Valencia Creek Railroad all but abandoned except for some light hauling by horses and mules. Many of the workers remained behind, either to work for the Loma Prieta company or to raise families on tracts sold to them at low rates by Hihn within the former timber tracts. Much of the land was converted into apple orchards, and the railroad tracks remained behind for some years to help former employees and new settlers transport equipment and building materials into the relatively isolated Valencia Creek backcountry. The town of Valencia persisted but never thrived over the next two decades. A post office was established there in 1893 but shut down in 1909. The school remained open until around 1931.

Workers cottages above the Valencia Creek mill at a transloading site, with mules leading a train of logs beside empty flatcars, ca 1886. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Nothing is left of the Valencia Creek Railroad today except some parts of the right-of-way that have been repurposed for private driveways. Even the precise route is unknown, although much of it ran just above the creek-bed and, therefore, has suffered landslides and sinks. The former apple barns that sat beside the railroad tracks in later years remain in Aptos but have been moved from their original site, where they hosted an antique mall for many decades.

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, forthcoming.