Friday, June 15, 2012

Santa Cruz Station & Depot

The history of Santa Cruz as a station and depot began in the early 1870s. The current depot site was almost from the beginning intended to house the freight depot and passenger station for Santa Cruz. When the South Pacific Coast took over the line, the freight yard was built and located near Mission Hill Tunnel, but it was soon moved to its current site. And that site was well-placed, being just outside of the downtown region, and it was along a straight shot to Gharky's Wharf, which would soon become the original railroad pier. The route, however, was very different until the South Pacific Coast Railroad took over operations from the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad in 1879. The first runs over to Felton followed Pacific Avenue, bypassing Mission Hill and the tunnel that would later have to be bored through it to bypass the downtown area. The photograph at right is a rare early photograph of the original Santa Cruz & Felton freight building with an old steam engine parked out front. Whether this train is parked near Mission Hill or near the current station site is unknown. In either case, this building would soon be demolished and replaced with larger more long-term buildings.

From the mid-1880s onwards, Santa Cruz depot expanded until it reached its height in the 1920s. A turntable was added with storage sheds for engines staying overnight. Extra sidings were added that stretched all the way to Laurel Street. The routes out of the freight yard heading toward the ocean split into three segments. One headed toward the beach taking the path of Pacific Avenue today. A second still exists, heading under the West Cliff Drive Truss bridge, toward and onto the wharf. The third headed north, the track of which also still exists, toward Davenport Landing where it terminated. Another train line, the Ocean Shore Railroad, maintained a parallel route along this line that continued to the village of Swanton about three miles north of Davenport. That route was intended to meet with a southbound branch heading from San Francisco, but the company went bankrupt before the two lines ever met. The only place where the Ocean Shore and South Pacific Coast lines crossed over was immediately behind the roundhouse; otherwise they maintained separate right-of-ways.

The photograph below is of the roundhouse that was built for the Santa Cruz railroad engines. This is a Southern Pacific broad-gauge train sitting on the tracks in front of the roundhouse building. The actual turntable was probably in the foreground or barely visible in the background. There are few extant photographs of the freight yard but if I find more, I will post them here.

According to the 1899 Station Book, the depot was located 80 miles south of San Francisco via Alameda Point's ferry. The passenger platform was located on the right side heading south, which means the passenger trains went around the station house. This makes sense considering the passenger route during this time led between the cliffs on Pacific Avenue rather than its current alignment under the Truss bridge. The freight yard was a Class A station able to hold "any quantity, carloads or less". No further information is available about the station from its narrow gauge days except the obvious fact that the station had a telegraph office.

Images of the station in the last days of the narrow gauge railroad, when it was being converted (as visible by the triple-railed tracks) can be seen in this photograph below.

The photograph shows the last depot house in its earlier days with the freight yard heading off to the left. Oddly, the tracks do not pass on the right side, as the earlier station book mentions, but instead are on the left. The city of Santa Cruz can be seen in the background. What is most likely is that this station house was recently built, as a sketch drawing from the time of Theodore Roosevelt's visit to Santa Cruz in May 1903 shots a very different station house in the background. The building is smaller, single-story, although the tracks are still shown only on its left side. The middle track again is visible demonstrating that the broad-gauging of the main Santa Cruz lines was a long and drawn-out process. The continued use of narrow gauge trains in the timber industry near Boulder Creek may have also forced the local tracks to remain narrow gauged longer than other lines.

By 1912, the depot was approaching its best years. It was further enlarged since the sepia photograph from 1906 and at least the third rail on the passenger line had been removed. Still, a parked wagon trailer and a lack of paved roads suggest that the era of automobiles was still a few years from taking hold of Santa Cruz. The Pacific Avenue right-of-way went into disuse a few years before, preferring instead to use the same tracks as the freight train under the West Cliff Drive bridge. Streetcars and public trollies running between downtown, the beach, and Capitola continued to use the Pacific Avenue route into the 1920s when the Union Traction Company was finally shut down.

The depot in the 1930s and 1950s looked much the same as it did in the 1910s. But other aspects of the site were in decline. The roundhouse was demolished in 1942 after sixty years of service. Indeed, by the early 1930s, possibly due to the Depression, the freight yard had been almost entirely abandoned with the roundhouse and turntable falling into disrepair. During World War II, many of the sidings were pulled and scrapped to obtain the raw steel for use in the war. The Ocean Shore had already closed up shop a few years earlier. Freight and passenger service continued, but at reduced quantities.Below is a photograph of it in the 1930s when a passenger waiting area was added and covered with an awning. The image quality is poor but you can still see many lines of tracks heading off into the foreground.

By the 1950s, the awning had been removed because most passengers were not headed for Santa Cruz Depot anymore but making their way to the beach. The station was already falling into disuse. However, this photograph still shows a good number of people milling about trackside and two trains on the sidings, but its days as a station were numbered.

The station continued in regularly daily use all the way until 1959 when the last Suntan Special left town and the tracks from Watsonville to Santa Cruz became a freight-only passenger line. Roaring Camp would not buy rights for passenger service between Santa Cruz and Felton until 1985 when offered a deal by Union Pacific, the successor to Southern Pacific.

The photograph above shows the first Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railroad tourist train on its inaugural trip in 1986 stopping at the old station, which by this point was either a private residence or a restaurant. Despite being used only for hauling cement and timber for almost thirty years, the Santa Cruz rail yard still has numerous track sidings, including two immediately to the left of the train, a third a little to the left of those, and a fourth at the far left. A fifth can be seen in the background heading into a warehouse complex. Three cement hopper cars sit on one of the sidings at left.

Today, Depot Park beside Pacific Avenue marks the location of the old station and depot. The only items of the old location that remain are a triangle track intersection leading toward Watsonville, Davenport, and Felton, and the old American Railway Express Agency building (c. 1918) that has been converted into restrooms and a public gathering hall. Trains still run past it from time to time, running freight or passengers to and from Felton, but it is nothing compared to its glory days. The roundhouse is gone, all but one of the sidings pulled, the station house burned down and demolished. Santa Cruz Depot no longer exists except as a memory.


  1. Do you have a copy of Rick Hamman's California Central Coast Railroads? Theres a real nice two page map of the Santa Cruz yard that he put together showing all the industry tracks and switching leads as well as the connection to the union traction company and the silly pointless spur that kept the ocean shore off the wharf.

  2. That copy of the painting in black and white with Teddy Roosevelt standing in front has a depot name of Campbell on it. There's been a color print of it on eBay.