Thursday, May 23, 2024

People: The Colton Family

 The Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad left a significant legacy across California. In Santa Cruz County, the initial construction of what would become the Santa Cruz Branch was delayed twice due to Leland Stanford overpromising and underdelivering. Later, in 1883, Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Charles Crocker were instrumental in approving the construction of the Loma Prieta Railroad, which allowed them to harvest their timber tracts on Aptos Creek. Mark Hopkins’ widow, Mary, also invested heavily in the Aptos Forest, and her adopted son, Timothy, became a leading figure in the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, which harvested the forest into the 1920s. However, the Big Four also had a junior partner, David Douty Colton, the Central Pacific Railroad’s chief lawyer, vice president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and namesake of Colton, California, near San Bernardino. While Colton himself had little to do with Santa Cruz County, his family provided some of its most prominent citizens.

The bottom of the Railroad Wharf, with the Hotel St. James at the left, the Sea Beach Hotel in the distance, and the wooded Colton and Martin estates between them, circa 1905. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

General Colton died from prolonged internal bleeding caused by a fall from a horse on October 9, 1878. His most relevant achievements in relation to Santa Cruz County’s history were marrying Ellen Mason White and fathering Caroline. Colton began life as a farmer in Maine in 1832. Five years later, his family moved to Illinois, where he later met Ellen, a Chicago-born daughter of a physician. The two became engaged in 1850, but her father would not let them marry, so Colton headed out to California to make his fortune in the Gold Rush. Falling ill, Colton briefly moved to San Francisco until he earned enough money doing odd jobs to relocate to Oregon to continue his search for wealth. Soon he drifted back south in to the Shasta region, where he was based when Siskiyou County was created. He was chosen as under-sheriff in Yreka, and subsequently elected sheriff. He decided this made him eligible for Ellen’s hand, and he retrieved her from her Illinois home.

Lithograph of General David D. Colton from Chapters on the History of the Southern Pacific by Stuart Daggett (1922).

Through acts of heroism while serving as sheriff, Colton was given the rank of Brigadier-General in the state militia, a title he kept in courtesy once his term ended. He ran for state senator, but lost in a close race to the Know-Nothing Party’s candidate. In 1859, he became partners with Ralph C. Harrison of Merchant Street and became a lawyer, albeit a very energetic one who rarely would be found in his office. Following a two-year trip to Europe with his family, Colton began investing in coal mining and it was this that brought him into contact with the Central Pacific Railroad, which bought his coal to fuel its trains. His influx of wealth allowed him to build the first mansion on Nob Hill. At the time of his death at only 46 years old, he was planning to travel to Arizona to oversee the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad through the state.

Half of a stereograph showing General Colton's mansion on Nob Hill, circa 1890. Photo by Carleton E. Watkins. [California State Library – colorized using MyHeritage]

General Colton’s premature death left his wife, Ellen, with most of the family fortune. His family was still relatively small at this time. In addition to his wife, David had two daughters, Caroline and Helen, the latter of whom had a daughter of her own also named Helen. A year after his death, Caroline gave birth to her eldest daughter, Theodosia, while eight years later, she had her second child, Katharine. The younger branch of the family would have little involvement in Santa Cruz history, except for an inheritance dispute. Meanwhile, Caroline’s family quickly became major property owners at the Santa Cruz Beach.

The Colton Family Tree
David Douty Colton (1832 – 1878)
+ Ellen Mason White (died Feb 1905)
—Caroline Colton (12 Jun 1856 – 12 Feb 1918)
—+1 Daniel Cook (9 Aug 1837 – 9 Oct 1882)
——Theodosia Cook (21 Aug 1879 – 1 Jun 1945)
——+ Francis Joseph Morgan Grace (4 Oct 1873 – 9 Sep 1933)
———Francis Joseph Morgan Grace, Jr. (13 Mar 1904 – 30 Jul 1948)
—+2 Henry MacLean Martin (15 May 1849 – 8 Apr 1891)
——Katharine Agnew Martin (25 Mar 1886 – 6 Jun 1936)
——+ Marcel Ernest Cerf (2 Apr 1877 – 20 Jun 1935)
———Charlotte Crosby Cerf (15 Oct 1910 – 15 Aug 1997)
———+ Charles Cook Cushing (8 Dec 1905 – 14 Apr 1982)
———Elizabeth Agnew Cerf (11 Aug 1912 – 26 Oct 1988)
—+3 John Bernard Dahlgren (2 Dec 1874 – 23 Nov 1921)
—Helen “Nellie” Colton (2 Dec 1854 – 17 Oct 1899)
—+ Crittenden Thornton (2 Feb 1849 – 29 Sep 1921)
——Helen Colton Thornton (12 Sep 1877 – 8 Feb 1904)
——+ Siegfried Sacher (ca 1865 – 10 Jun 1927)
———Hélène Marguerite Béatrice Sacher (26 Mar 1900 – ?)

From the 1860s through the 1880s, four properties dominated the part of Beach Hill that fronted the beach between Pacific Avenue and Main Street. The properties passed through several owners and the boarding houses on them went by many names, but by the mid-1880s, they were known as the Sea Foam Hotel, Seaside Home, Liddell House, and Douglas House. The first of these never had a relationship with the Colton family, but the remainder fell into the family’s hands one-by-one. It remains unclear when the Coltons first visited Santa Cruz, but Ellen and Caroline spent a summer in the city in 1885 and again in 1886. General Colton may have visited the place in the early 1870s alongside Leland Stanford, or else it may have become a place of interest once the South Pacific Coast Railroad began building its railroad through the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1877.

A girl posing on the Railroad Wharf with the Seaside Home, Liddell House, and Douglas House in the distance, circa 1885. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Liddell House was the first to fall into the family’s hands. The third hotel from Pacific Avenue, it was also the oldest having served as a public boarding house for sailors in the early 1860s before the family erected the first permanent bathhouse on the Santa Cruz Beach. By the mid-1880s, the Liddell family had fallen on hard times and were ready to sell. On April 2, 1887, D. K. Abeel of the adjacent Douglas House offered to buy the property for $8,000. He hoped to merge the two properties in order to build an expansive new hotel, but his offer was declined. Two months later, C. Hoffman offered $10,000 for the estate and the Liddells accepted. Hoffman was a property agent for Ellen Colton and Caroline Martin, and he soon transferred the Liddells’ property to them. Colton and Martin allowed the current proprietor, Mrs. M. A. Bergler, to run the boaring house until the end of the season, after which all of the furniture was sold and the main building of the property demolished. They rechristened the estate Miramar and ran it as a private resort for their friends and family.

Block No. 25 on Beach Hill, showing Ellen Colton and Caroline Martin's properties, circa 1892. Drawn by Charles L. Pioda. [Santa Cruz County GIS]

Next door, the youngest of the four boarding houses, Seaside Home, was soon listed for sale. Seaside Home was built in 1871 by Annie M. Richards and given its name five years later by the hotel’s proprietor at the time, George W. Goss. Management passed in 1883 to Martha Jane Lewis—Patty Reed of the Donner Party—who ran it profitably for the next four seasons. By 1889, the Richards family decided to sell the property to Alfred H. Fitch. Within a year, though, Fitch changed his mind and sold half of his interest in the property to W. S. McCormick of San Francisco in January 1890. In June, McCormick sold this interest to John E. Armstrong, the owner of the lot above Seaside Home that fronted Second Street, for $7,800. Armstrong did not keep it; rather, he sold it immediately to Ellen Colton for the same amount. Colton began demolishing the main structure of the Seaside Home in February 1891, with plans to replace it with a new building, though none was ever erected. Meanwhile, Fitch sold his remaining interest in the property to Armstrong in September 1891 for $300. Armstrong, in turn, sold this to Colton and Caroline Martin in November for the same amount. Colton, wishing to distance the property from its former life, renamed it The Cabins in 1892.

Lanteen boats next to the Railroad Wharf with the forested Colton and Martin properties on Beach Hill in the distance, circa 1910. Photo by Charles L. Aydelotte. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

By the end of 1891, Colton and her daughter owned the two largest single lots between Pacific Avenue and Main Street, now both running as private resorts under the names The Cabins and Miramar. Granted, the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Santa Cruz Electric Railway, and the Esplanade ran directly through their properties, rendering the lower third completely unusable, but the women seem to have been content with their terraced cottages surrounded by gardens and trees. Throughout the late 1880s and early 1890s, Colton and Martin heavily renovated their properties, moving around structures, expanding some and demolishing others. Colton sold her share in Miramar to her daughter in July 1890. Later, in October 1897, Colton acquired the entirety of Armstrong’s adjacent property, which stretched to Second Street, for $2,000. Both women used their properties primarily to entertain friends and family, and Martin repeatedly offered Miramar to her in-laws for the summer months.

Sentinel photograph of The Cabins, September 13, 1933.

Ellen Colton died in 1905 and Caroline took sole control over The Cabins since her sister, Helen, had died six years earlier, followed in 1904 by Helen’s only daughter. A great-granddaughter, born and raised in Paris to a German father, would become a thorn in her side for several years in the late 1900s since she was left out of Ellen’s will, but this had little impact on the beach properties. In Ellen’s will, her Beach Hill property officially went to Caroline’s eldest daughter, Theodosia Grace. In reality, Caroline controlled both properties, confusingly adopting the name The Cabins for both, until her death in February 1918.

Ruins of the Sea Beach Hotel, June 1912. Photo by Paul Baker. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

The final piece in the Colton family’s take-over of the beachfront boarding houses came in the years after the Sea Beach Hotel fire of June 12, 1912, and shortly after Caroline’s death. Katharine Agnew Cerf, Caroline’s second daughter, had spent most summers of her childhood at Miramar and The Cabins. After she was married on May 8, 1909, she continued this tradition with her new husband, Judge Marcel E. Cerf of San Francisco, and their two daughters, Charlotte and Elizabeth. Beach Hill was a barren place without the dominating presence of the Sea Beach Hotel, so they decided to do something about it.

Judge Marcel Cerf's residence on the site of the Sea Beach Hotel, photographed from the Pleasure Pier, July 4, 1922. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

In early 1918, they purchased the front lot of the Sea Beach property and hired George McCrea to build a luxurious mansion on the site. The home was completed before May 1, 1918 and supplemented with an expansive garage, tennis court, and gardens. Its most iconic feature was a massive flagstaff that towered above Beach Hill flying a large American flag. The Evening News reported in 1919 that the property “is the pride of the entire [water]front.”

The Martin-Dahlgren and Grace properties shortly after Ellen Colton's death, July 1906. This, with the lower (right) portion dominated by the railroads, streetcars, and Esplanade, would become the final arrangement of the two properties. Drawn by A. W. Pioda. [Santa Cruz GIS]

Caroline’s death allowed the former Miramar estate to pass out of the Colton family into the family of Caroline’s third husband, John Dahlgren of Washington, D.C. He only lived another three years, despite being almost two decades younger than his former wife, but her property was retained by his children by his first wife. In November 1923, the Dahlgrens sold it for about $15,000 to Frances T. Coleman of San Francisco, permanently separating it from the family’s control.

View of the Municipal Wharf from the Goebel–Waterman property, formerly Caroline Martin's Miramar, 1925. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Coleman only owned it for two years before selling it to George Goebel and Val C. Waterman, who sold it two months later to Harry L. Hussmann, president of the Hussmann Refrigerator Company of St. Louis, on July 9, 1925. Hussmann planned to build a resort hotel on the property and bought up several surrounding lots to realize his plan, including the back lot of the former Sea Beach Hotel property and the lot on Second Street immediately behind the former Dahlgren property, across Drift Way.

Promotional postcard for Terrace Court, 1941. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Hussmann never built his resort but he held onto the property into the 1930s. In July 1933, he defaulted on his payments to the Santa Cruz Land Title Company, a result of the stock market crash of 1929, and his properties in the county were sold at auction. The purchaser was Randall Currell of El Paso, who did nothing with the estate during his seven years of ownership. George Lawrence Holland Jr. bought it in late 1940 and finally began construction of the long-delayed hotel on the property. Over the next year, he constructed 15 terraced units of an ultramodern design. Each room had a combined living room and bedroom with a view of the bay, a car garage, kitchen, and ensuite toilet. In March 1941, Holland christened the resort Terrace Court. Holland had little time to enjoy his new resort complex since World War II ruined the summer season for the next four years. In 1944, he decided to cut his losses and sold the property to Frank L. Genshlea, former production manager at Magnavox.

The Casa Blanca Apartments, 1948. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

To the east, the Cerf family had its own crisis when Marcel died in June 1935. His widow, Katharine, decided it was a good time to sell their Beach Hill mansion. In 1936, it was bought by attorney Stanford Smith, who maintained it as a private residence for the next seven years. During World War II, though, he sold it to Holland, which greatly enlarged the potential Terrace Courts property. Nonetheless, the property was included in the sale to Genshlea the following year. Genshlea began to make improvements, such as building a reinforced bulkhead along the beach, but suddenly decided in March 1946 to sell both properties to John Azevedo, a Sacramento-based wine producer. Azevedo took over the Terrace Court and renovated it extensively, expanding into the back lot to Second Street. The hotel now operates as the Beach Street Inn and Suites. He also developed the former Cerf mansion into the Casa Blanca Apartments before passing ownership of the property to his son, Robert Azevedo, and a partner, Thomas Allen, in 1951. The hotel today is known as the Casablanca Inn.

Terrace Court and the Casa Blanca Apartments, with the vacant lot of The Cabins at left, circa 1950. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Grace property, formerly the Seaside Home and The Cabins, was the last of the properties to leave the Colton family’s ownership. Francis Grace, Sr., Theodosia’s husband, was murdered outside The Cabins while walking in his garden by an ex-nurse Wilhelmina Weltz on September 9, 1933. When the Graces sold the property is unknown, but Theodosia died in 1945 followed by her son in 1948. Prior to this, the family had sold the property and it eventually fell into the hands of Charles K. Bell. He sold it on June 17, 1944, to Joe and Mary L. Gardella, who held onto it for about a decade before developing the back lot facing Second Street into a short-term rental complex known as the Edgewater Beach Apartments, while the narrow beach portion was seemingly left in a state of nature. Today, the Edgewater Beach Motel remains on Second Street, while the Beach Street part of the property is an overflow parking lot for the hotel, often rented out to beachgoers on busy summer days.

Citations & Credits:

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Railroads: San Vicente Lumber Company Railroad

Far up Santa Cruz County’s north coast, Scott Creek winds inland from the Pacific Ocean along a gradually climbing path up to its source near Little Basin. Less than two miles from the coast is a tributary, Little Creek, a comparatively shorter stream than its neighbor, Big Creek. Passing through a narrow canyon, Little Creek runs 2.8 miles to the northeast in the direction of Bonny Doon. And it was atop this strange mountain plateau created by the headwaters of Little Creek, Big Creek, and San Vicente Creek that the San Vicente Lumber Company focused its effort to harvest over 615,000,000 board feet of timber beginning in the summer of 1908.

One of the San Vicente Lumber Company's shay locomotives with crews loading logs onto flatcars above Swanton, with a large steam donkey at left, 1909-1922. [Margaret Koch Collection, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – colorized using MyHeritage]

The San Vicente Lumber Company was incorporated on May 8, 1908, and immediately contracted with the Ocean Shore Railroad to extend a track along Scott Creek between Folger near the coast and Swanton 1.4 miles inland. The Pratchner Company was hired to install the tracks and, according to the Santa Cruz Evening News, had a crew composed of a dozen teams to build the line. On June 19, a new railroad company, the Scott Creek Railway, was founded as an Ocean Shore subsidiary to extend the new line from San Vicente Junction south of Swanton 2.5 miles up Little Creek to the site of Camp No. 2. At the junction, several spurs and sidings were installed to park flatcars for use on the line up Little Creek.

A hand-drawn survey map based on observations and GPS recordings by George Pepper and Rick Hamman.

Construction of the Scott Creek Railway finished sometime before mid-March 1909. Camp No. 1 was established a mile east of Swanton at the confluence of Little Creek and its largest tributary, Chandler Creek. Here ox teams and steam donkeys hauled cut timber from along Chandler Gulch to the railroad grade. Camp No. 2, the site of the worker village, required a switchback to climb up roughly 500 feet in elevation to Stoney Point and then a further mile east to a flat clearing, where timber from upper Little Creek and the headwaters of Berry Creek could be pulled over the ridge via steam donkey. The extension of the line beyond Camp No. 2 was a task done by the lumber company rather than the railroad company. The mill itself was erected in Moore’s Gulch at the western limits of Santa Cruz and was completed around March 22, 1909. Yard tracks were not installed at the facility until the weeks before it opened, and no logs were shipped over the route until March 23.

The main San Vicente Lumber Company forest crew, ca 1912. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

The company employed around 225 men annually, over half of whom worked in the forest and lived in the camps. They were an eclectic mix of Italians, Greeks, Irish, Swedes, and other people of mostly European descent. In its first year, Camp No. 2 hosted around 50 cottages, which supported both workers and their families. Famed California reporter Josephine Clifford McCrackin visited Camp No. 1 in late September 1909. She reported that “the company has built very pretty cottage for its employees… At the general store goods are sold at Santa Cruz prices; and at the market meats and vegetables can be bought just as in Santa Cruz.” In addition, the camp featured a boarding house for visitors, a cookhouse, and a bunkhouse for single men. The anticipated influx of children led to Seaside School moving from Gianone Hill to Swanton. Swanton, too, grew when it became the northern terminus of the Southern Division of the Ocean Shore Railway. Its hotel became the transfer point for Ocean Shore-sponsored buses heading to the southern end of the Northern Division at Tunitas, and a few commercial businesses may have arisen around the old Laurel Grove Hotel.

One of the San Vicente Lumber Company's shay locomotives running up a grade above Swanton, ca 1915. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

The San Vicente Lumber Company’s railroad used two Shay locomotives for its logging operations, although Ocean Shore Railway trains ran irregularly to Camp No. 2 to provide passenger and switching services. 36-foot-long flatcars with air brakes were used to haul full logs from the hills to the mill. Several spurs were kept at Camp No. 2 for yarding and storage, and photographs show that several boxcars were converted into makeshift buildings for the company. Beyond Camp No. 2, bridges were built as needed using available resources—namely felled pine trees—and some of these bridges rose up to 90 feet in height. Because the area was prone to slides and heavy rainfall, bridges and half-trestles were preferred over fills, and both switchbacks and tight curving trestles were used to achieve quick increases the gradient in confined spaces. Nonetheless, gradients of up to 8% were not unknown on this railroad.

A section of the original Scott Creek Railway trackage between Swanton and Camp No. 2, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

Logging was continuous but probably did not move into the San Vicente Creek watershed until 1912. The first major extension of the railroad took it up Little Creek and over it in a tight loop in order to gain elevation. It then switch-backed and continued to the headwaters, where another switchback allowed the route to finally exit the Little Creek watershed and climb atop the plateau at the top of the grade. From there, the track swung to the south and curved around a hill, on the other side of which Camp No. 3 was established. The camp was placed here since it intersected with a rugged county road between Davenport and Bonny Doon, the southern part of which is today’s Warrenella Truck Trail. Camp No. 3 was established to gather timber from the West and East Forks of San Vicente Creek.

Two women standing beside the San Vicente Lumber Company's tracks, probably between Camp Nos. 1 and 2, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

Tracks were slowly extended beyond Camp No. 3, probably between late 1912 and 1913. On one of the tightest curves on the railroad, known as the Bear Trap, the track crossed the West Fork of San Vicente Creek and then headed south until stopping just before the creek’s fork with its other branches. Here a switchback brought the track alongside the Middle Fork. As before, crews used donkey engines here to pull out logs from the surrounding forest, loading them onto flatcars and sending them down the line.

The impressive series of trestles spanning the Bear Trap above the West Fork of San Vicente Creek, ca 1912. [UC Berkeley – colorized using MyHeritage]

When the West and Middle Forks were harvested, the railroad moved again, this time north around the headwaters of the West Fork to Camp No. 4, known as White House Camp because of the presence of an abandoned whitewashed house at the site. This move likely happened in 1914 and was perhaps the shortest-lived camp. It focused on harvesting the headwaters of the West and Middle Forks, and may have also pulled down material from atop the ridge that separated the San Vicente Creek and Big Creek watersheds.

A high lead and gin pole above the San Vicente Lumber Company's tracks above Swanton, ca late 1910s. [Fritz–Metcalf Collection, UC Berkeley – colorized using MyHeritage]

Around 1915 or 1916, the track was extended to the east between the Middle and East Forks of San Vicente Creek, with a substantial curve and switchback in the middle of the route to lower the grade and avoid a hill. The track then continued south, bringing it directly opposite the main settlement area of Bonny Doon. Camp No. 5 was, therefore, appropriately named Bonny Doon Camp. This camp was responsible for harvesting all of the timber within Rancho San Vicente from the East Branch of the creek—the property boundary—and the Middle Fork. These operations likely wrapped around 1918, perhaps delayed by World War I and the influenza pandemic that followed.

Three women standing on a steam donkey platform probably near Camp No. 6 during the final phase of harvesting, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

Following the war, the company pursued its final drive to harvest timber to the northwest along the headwaters of Big Creek. A new switchback was built near the headwaters of Little Creek with the tracks heading to the west around several short hills and gulches. It finally reached a pond in a high clearing, where Camp No. 6 was established just above Big Creek. The main track wrapped around the camp from the south and descended to the creek via a single switchback. It then continued along the creek through Deadman Gulch and up the East Branch of Big Creek before terminating near its headwaters. Presumably San Vicente Lumber only had rights to harvest timber east of Big Creek’s main course, and it spent its last four years harvesting this dense forestland from above and below.

Members of the Mattei family and friends posing beside a cottage, probably at Camp No. 2, with converted train car cottages and permanent cottages in the background, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

It is not entirely clear whether Camp No. 2 remained the main camp for families or if the entire camp relocated every few years. Logically, it makes sense if the camp remained in place throughout this time. Camp No. 2 marked the end of the Scott Creek Railway and Ocean Shore trains could still reach it to shuttle children between the camp and the school in Swanton. It would also be directly connected with southbound trains so people and camp businesses could easily resupply. Rick Hamman, however, states that the camp moved each time, with the cabins loaded onto flatcars and then placed on the ground at each new location. This seems a rather large burden to do every two years, though, and there is no evidence that this was in fact done. What was done, though, is the removal and reinstallation of track as the line moved. Whenever a section was cleared of usable timber, the rails and ties would be pulled and reused, when possible, to build the next extension. The downside of this is that a new section of track could not be built while an old section was still being used.

An Ocean Shore Railroad passenger car separated from its wheel truck by presumably a runaway flatcar that crashed into it, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

Because of the steep grades, sharp turns, and switchbacks, the railroad was prone to many incidents. The number one issue was runaway rolling stock. Both of the Shay locomotives escaped the engineers’ control on several occasions, and flatcars escaped constantly. Fortunately, most incidents at worst resulted in the stock in question crashing into a hillside at the end of a switchback or tearing of the ties after derailing. Many of the switchbacks, however, we designed in such a way that they rose up near the end to decelerate runaways without damaging the stock. Most of the time, operations along the railroad ran remarkably smoothly considering all the compromises that had to be made. The same cannot be said of the workers, who were frequently injured on the job resulting in several maimings and a few deaths.

Four women posing beside a section of cut forest with the San Vicente Lumber Company's railroad tracks heading into the distance, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage] 

The San Vicente Lumber Company’s railroad outlasted the Ocean Shore Railroad, that had helped build and support it. Around the end of 1920, the company bought the Southern Division of the Ocean Shore, which had effectively gone defunct in October following a worker strike. As part of the deal, they acquired Ocean Shore engine no. 4, which they used as their primary locomotive to transport logs to the mill. The railroad continued to haul logs until the end of the 1922 season, at which point the company began wrapping up its operations. In January 1923, the mill was shut down and crews began dismantling the railroad and workers’ village. Henry G. Stoddard of the Nibley–Studdard Lumber Company continued to run the company’s lumber yard for about eight months, but all other operations at the mill ended in February and the large plant was partially dismantled with usable parts destined for a new mill at Cromberg, California.

A woman shyly posing beside a San Vicente Lumber Company locomotive crew at Swanton, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

Much of the former rights-of-way survived in the mountains, with a few repurposed as private access roads or county park trails. Others have degraded into nearly unrecognizable paths, with the August 2020 fires destroying some of the last artifacts from the age of logging in the area. Prior to the fires, George Pepper carefully hiked the hills with a GPS recorder to identify the former railroad grades, making several corrections to Hamman’s map. The entire area remains private property, but the Santa Cruz Land Trust is working on creating a trail network within the area, called San Vicente Redwoods, some of which trails will closely follow the rights-of-way of the former San Vicente Lumber Company’s railroad.

Citations & Credits:

  • Articles of incorporation for the Scott Creek Railway Company. Courtesy Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • Pepper, George. Personal correspondence.
  • Santa Cruz SentinelSurf, and Evening News, 1908-1923.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

People: The Porter Family

There are a surprising number of tributes to members of the Porter family in Santa Cruz County. Donald T. Clark in his book, Santa Cruz County Place Names, includes the Porter Family Picnic Area, Porter Gulch, Porter Gulch Road, Porter Memorial Library, and Porters Landing. To that could be added Porter Street, Porter College at UC Santa Cruz, and the Porter Trail in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Just across the Pajaro River, there is also Porter Drive and the Porter–Vallejo Mansion. In Los Angeles County, there is even a suburb named them. Indeed, the Porter family may be one of the most attributed early American families in the county, if not the state, but who were they and what did they have to do with local railroading?

Portraits of George K. Porter, Benjamin F. Porter, John T. Porter, and Warren R. Porter.

The Porter family did not all arrive in California at once, but they were all lured to the state by the prospect of gold. George Keating Porter, son of Dr. John Thomas and Ann Thomas Porter of Duxbury, Massachusetts, was the first to arrive, reaching San Francisco in late 1849 aboard the Acadian. He almost immediately failed at mining, so he tried his hand at farming, lumbering, and freight hauling. Eventually, he found his way to Santa Cruz County, where he found his cousins already setting up shop.

Early View of Soquel from the top of the Soquel Creek railroad bridge, ca 1880 [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Benjamin Franklin Porter and his brother, Edward, had travelled to California from Vermont in 1854 for the same reason as George. Like George, they quickly tired of the hunt for mineral riches and moved to farms on Aptos Creek. On July 5, 1857, Ned set up the first general store and post office in Soquel. Meanwhile, Benjamin began negotiating the purchase of Jean Richard Fourcade's tannery near Aptos. Benjamin agreed to buy the facility for $600, which included five acres of land and all of the vats, flumes, aqueducts, worker housing, mules, and machinery required to run the tannery. The sale was finalized on January 1, 1858, but the transfer of land was not made until June 11. In 1861, Benjamin was elected to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, serving one term until 1863.

Stereograph of the main plaza in Monterey, ca 1875. Photo by Romanzo E. Wood. [Chico State – colorized using MyHeritage]

Last on the scene but the most important to local history was George's brother John Thomas Porter. He arrived in California aboard the Herculaneum in the early 1850s and headed to the Gold Country, where he eventually amassed $10,000. He took these funds to Stockton where he worked as a buying agent for several San Francisco stores, but this proved uninteresting. He finally moved to Santa Cruz in 1854, where he opened a general store. While there, he was elected county sheriff on October 5, 1857, serving almost two terms until resigning in disgrace just before the end of his second term. Immediately after reigning, he was appointed Collector of the Port of Monterey and remained in that position until 1865, when he moved to the Pajaro Valley.

Looking northwest toward Soquel, ca 1890 [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

It was shortly after John's election as sheriff when his brother George arrived in the county seeking land. Fortunately, the late William Andrews had left an unpaid debt to the Catholic Church so his land was being auctioned off in a sheriff's sale. George placed the winning bid of $740 and acquired disputed property in both Rancho Soquel and Shoquel Augmentation. Through later purchases, transfers, winning auction bids, and judicial decisions, the Porters amassed extensive holdings in the Soquel, Aptos, and Pajaro areas. Within the Soquel ranch land alone, George and Benjamin jointly owned 750 acres of contiguous land running from the Monterey Bay along the west side of Borregas Gulch to Tannery (Porter) Gulch.

Lithograph of the G. K. and B. F. Porter tannery in Soquel, 1878.

George joined his cousins in running the tannery, which quickly grew into the second-highest-producing tannery in the county, with 25,000 hides processed annually. Soquel Wharf had been erected in the mid-1850s by Frederick Hihn, who owned the surrounding land, but it was the Porters who used it the most during these years, earning it the common nickname "Porters' Wharf." In 1863, George used his leverage as the State Senator for Santa Cruz County to hire 100 convicts from San Quentin to make boots and shoes from the tannery's leather. By 1865, they were producing 3,000 shoes a year. When the plant burned in 1870, the brothers built a new factory in San Francisco, operating under the name Porter, Schlesinger & Company. When the Santa Cruz Railroad arrived around 1875, a spur was purportedly extended to the tannery, which if true would probably have split off from the main track in the vicinity of Borregas Drive. Meanwhile, George and Benjamin built homes near the tannery. Yet the allure of profits elsewhere ultimately led George away from Santa Cruz.

Colorized postcard of the Porter Hotel in San Fernando, ca 1915.

In 1874, George partnered with Charles Maclay to buy 56,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley from Eulogio de Celis. Benjamin soon joined in on the scheme and bought the western third of the valley, where he established Porter Ranch. George, meanwhile, kept 19,000 acres in the middle and eastern valley, establishing the village of San Fernando at the same time. After farming the land for a decade, George founded the Porter Land & Water Company in 1883 and began subdividing his property. He kept 2,000 acres for himself, under the name Mission Ranch, and also established the three-story, sixty-room Mission Hotel, later the Porter Hotel. George reincorporated the company in 1903 as the San Fernando Mission Land Company, but died three years later on November 16, 1906 before realizing much gain from the real estate firm. The Porter Hotel remained a fixture in San Fernando until a fire destroyed it on July 21, 1964.

William T. Jeter serving customers at the County Bank of Santa Cruz, 1906. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Unlike his brother, Benjamin remained based out of Santa Cruz County, even if he dabbled in ventures across the state. By the time of his death on June 9, 1905, he had acquired land in Oregon, as well as Contra Costa County, Monterey County, and his vast holdings in Los Angeles County. His earliest claim to fame came in the early 1860s, when telegraph poles cut from his timberland were used to connect San Francisco and San José. In 1870, he became a founding director of the County Bank of Santa Cruz, and he was also a director of the State Loan & Trust Company. In 1873, he became a founding director of the Santa Cruz Railroad, which would connect his Soquel tannery and timberlands with the outside world. He was less involved in Central Coast affairs later in life, focusing instead on his vast property empire in Southern California. However, he served as vice president of the Bank of Santa Cruz County from 1902 until his death.

Pino Alto, now the Porter–Sesnon House on the Cabrillo College campus, ca 1935. [UC Santa Cruz – Colorized using MyHeritage]

Benjamin only left one surviving daughter, Mary Sophia Porter, who had married William T. Sesnon in 1896. The Sesnons became the heirs not only to Benjamin's vast real estate empire, but also to Mary's uncle Edward, who had left no children. In 1912, the Sesnons were approached by the Soquel Ladies' Improvement Club, who asked them to help fund a public library. The next year, the Porter Memorial Public Library opened on Porter Street, dedicated to the memory of Mary's parents, Benjamin and Kate Porter. Throughout their lives, William and Mary retained most of the Porter property, but after their deaths in 1929 and 1930 respectively it was sold off. Their family estate, Pino Alto, was eventually acquired by Cabrillo College and is now a core part of the community college's main Aptos campus. Meanwhile, their daughter Barbara Sesnon Cartan donated funds to establish the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at UC Santa Cruz in 1968. The next year, she and two siblings, Porter, and William, donated nearly 70 acres of land to establish Fifth College at the new university. On November 21, 1981, the campus was renamed Benjamin F. Porter College.

Benjamin F. Porter College at the University of California, Santa Cruz, campus, 2003. [UC Santa Cruz]

In hindsight, it is strange to think of John Porter as the least successful of the clan, but he was indeed the least successful when compared to his brother, cousins, or eldest son. Yes, he resigned from his post as county sheriff in disgrace in 1861, but this had little impact on his long-term reputation and he quickly grew in prominence within Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. Near the end of his stint as collector, in 1864, John purchased 820 acres of Rancho Bolsa de San Cayetano on the east bank of the Pajaro River. It took several years to settle the transaction, but from this base John began his Pajaro Valley empire.

Pajaro depot with many waiting passengers, ca 1900. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

In 1871, the Southern Pacific Railroad reached John's land and stopped there for a number of years. The station, located directly across the Pajaro River from Watsonville, was named Pajaro by the railroad. John took the opportunity to found a township there in 1872, which primarily catered to the railroad as a transloading station for goods arriving from Santa Cruz County. When the Santa Cruz Railroad reached Pajaro in early 1876—and especially after 1883 when the Southern Pacific Railroad standard-gauged the tracks—the importance of Pajaro only increased as it was now the junction point for an important branch line. The railroad attracted new industries, such as sugar beets, and John dedicated 400 acres to the growing of the crop in 1879, selling the produce to the California Beet Sugar Company in Soquel. When that company collapsed in late 1879, John acquired the Soquel property as repayment for unpaid debts.

Pajaro Valley Bank, ca 1895. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Indeed, John was heavily involved in several local businesses. In May 1874, he co-founded the Bank of Watsonville. Fourteen years later, in 1888, he co-founded the Pajaro Valley Bank. In November 1883, he joined with several other lumber barons to incorporate the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, which set out to harvest timber within the Aptos Forest and would continue in operation into the 1920s. And in 1888, when Claus Spreckels arrived in the Pajaro Valley looking to build a beet sugar refinery, John was there by his side as an original director of the Wester Beet Sugar Company. As before, he sectioned off large areas of his land for sugar beet production, and he also convinced the Chinese population of Watsonville to move onto his land in Pajaro, which soon became known as the Brooklyn Chinatown. Most of the Chinese would end up working at the refinery or on John's beet fields. The next year, John again helped Spreckels in building the Pajaro Valley Railroad, which passed directly through his property and included a freight stop, which was also named Pajaro. A few years later, in the Salinas Valley, a stop named Porter was established to cater to a beet-growing property he owned there.

Brooklyn Chinatown in Pajaro, ca 1910. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

As John reached the final years of his life, he shifted into politics. In 1890, he was appointed County Supervisor for northern Monterey County, winning election in 1893 and serving until 1897. He also consolidated all of his ongoing real estate and financial concerns into the family-owned John T. Porter Company in 1891, though he remained in charge of most of his empire until the end of his life. In 1892, he found himself appointed manager of The Great Asylum for the Insane at Agnew's Village near Santa Clara, a post that he held until 1895. These busy years of politicking, managing, and everyday life took its toll on John and he died suddenly of a heart attack on February 13, 1900.

Loma Prieta Lumber Company office at Opal, ca 1890. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Though John had several children, his eldest son, Warren Reynolds Porter, benefitted the most from his family's empire. At the age of 19—in 1880—he began working as a bookkeeper for the Bank of Watsonville. In 1884, he was hired as secretary of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, and on April 10, 1886, he became general manager and moved into the secretary's house—now the Porter House—in the village of Loma Prieta, where he and his family would live each summer until 1899. In August 1893, Warren married Mary Easton. These were likely the best days of his life, managing everyday operations at the Loma Prieta mill and enjoying time with his children and wife.

Graniterock workers on the back of a flatcar at Logan, 1903. [Graniterock – colorized using MyHeritage]

With the closure of the mill, Warren set out to do greater things. In January 1900, he became co-owner alongside Arthur R. Wilson of Oakland of the Granite Rock Company, which ran an aggregate quarry outside of Aromas. Shortly afterwards, in February, he became a member of a state legislation committee for public schools. And on March 12, he became the president of the Pajaro Valley Bank and the Pajaro Valley Savings and Loan Society. In September, he received a special honor when he was named an elector in the November 1900 presidential election of William McKinley, the first person ever chosen from Santa Cruz County. Unsurprisingly, all of this led him to resign from his role at the Loma Prieta Lumber Company and enter politics.

William Hamilton and  Warren Porter aboard the tug Slocum, 1910. [California State Library – colorized using MyHeritage]

Like his father, Warren began seeking high profile ventures locally. From 1902 to 1904, he served as a director and treasurer of the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway Company, an ambitious predecessor to the Ocean Shore Railway that sought to build an electric railroad between the named locations and beyond. He also expanded the John T. Porter Company into Monterey County in 1908, consolidating all of his and his siblings' holdings in both counties. More broadly, Warren became a member of the board of the State Prison system in 1901, which brought him into contact with state politicians in Sacramento. This eventually gained him enough notoriety to be elected Lieutenant Governor of California in 1907, serving a single term as a Republican alongside Governor James Gillett until 1911.

St. Luke's Hospital in San Francisco, 1930. [San Francisco Public Library – colorized using MyHeritage]

After his term was over, Warren settled in Berkeley and became involved in many projects throughout the Bay Area. In Santa Cruz, he briefly resumed his position on the board of directors of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, championing the proposal of several employees to form the Molino Timber Company and harvest the uncut timber in Hinckley Gulch and along China Ridge. He also remained president and general manager of Granite Rock Company until resigning in 1924. In Berkeley, he became involved with St. Luke's Hospital, becoming a director in 1923, and he also was involved with several social clubs including the Order of Free Masons. He eventually made his way back to Watsonville in 1920, where he was elected chairman of the Pajaro Valley Bank, a position he retained for the rest of his life. He died at his home in Watsonville on August 27, 1927, survived by his widow and three children.

The Porter House at the Loma Prieta mill, ca 1895. [Aptos History Museum – colorized using MyHeritage]

Warren Porter's legacy mostly lives on in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. After he resigned from the Loma Prieta Lumber Company in 1901, he and his family refused to give up the Porter House on Aptos Creek, even though it should have reverted to Timothy Hopkins, the property's original owner. Instead, the Porter family continued to use the home as a summer retreat until it fell into such a state of disrepair that it was uninhabitable. When The Forest of Nisene Marks was formed in 1965, the matter of the Porters' property had to be resolved. After long negotiations, it was agreed that the larger parcel would be donated in exchange for the creation of the Mary Easton Picnic Area. Further negotiations were required to acquire a smaller parcel held by another Porter descendant. She eventually agreed to donate the land in exchange for creating the Porter Family Picnic Area. Both picnic areas can be accessed along the Aptos Creek Fire Road.

The Porter Memorial Public Library on Porter Street in Soquel, 2018. [Times Publishing Group]

The legacy of the Porter family in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties cannot be overstated. Members of the families essentially established the towns of Soquel and Pajaro, contributed greatly to the creation of Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz, and established several local institutions and businesses that were focal points for industry and commerce for decades. They were also directly involved in the construction of the Santa Cruz Railroad, the Pajaro Valley Railroad, and the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway electric streetcar system, and indirectly involved in the expansion of the Southern Pacific Railroad to Pajaro and its branch line to Loma Prieta, as well as the narrow-gauge trackage of the Molino Timber Company. Quite simply, where the Porters went, railroads followed.

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