Friday, August 10, 2012

Roaring Camp Railroads

An amusement park built beside the Union Pacific (formerly Southern Pacific) tracks in Felton, Roaring Camp Railroads first opened its doors on April 6, 1963 with 44 passengers on the inaugural train ride. It was located on the site of Big Trees Ranch, just a quarter mile north of Henry Cowell State Park, the site of Big Trees Park until 1930. When Roaring Camp first opened, it converted the disused Felton narrow gauge stationhouse and freight building into its new headquarters. Today, the station remains the company's corporate offices while the freight building is used for storage. A new themed area was opened up on the other side of the park's parking lot which is now known as Roaring Camp town.

The story of the name goes back to Isaac Graham, the owner of Rancho Zayante in the 1830s and 1840s. The Mexican officials had named Graham's property Roaring Camp, according to at least some historical sources. In 1842, Graham built the first saw mill west of the Mississippi River near Big Trees Ranch, but he preserved the area immediately surrounding Bear Mountain, the park's highest point. In memory of Graham, F. Norman and Georgiana Clark named their railroad-themed amusement park Roaring Camp. The Clarks built the narrow gauge route up onto Bear Mountain using recycled railroad tracks. They attempted to remove as few trees as possible to preserve the forest, which was the main attraction of the park. Norman died in 1985 and his wife, Georgiana, replaced him as company CEO. her daughter, Melani Clark, is the current CEO of Roaring Camp Railroads.

In 1985, Union Pacific was looking to liquidate railroad routes and the section between Santa Cruz and Eccles was falling into disrepair and disuse as sand trains were being replaced by sand trucks at the Olympia Sand Pit. In 1985, Roaring Camp purchased the right-of-way to Santa Cruz Junction with lease rights from Union Pacific for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk section. The company purchased used broad gauge passenger cars and two diesel engines and named the new route the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway. Today, it runs along almost the entire route of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad of 1875 and passes over fifteen historic stations and stops before ending at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. On special occasions, it also travels up Zayante Creek a quarter-mile to Mount Hermon Station, another historic site along the old South Pacific Coast route.

Along the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway, passengers will pass:

The major confusion regarding Roaring Camp may be the narrow gauge railroad. The route is not original. There never was a railroad that went up the so-called "Bear Mountain", but the route and its trains are interesting in themselves. First of all, there's the engines. Roaring Camp is populated with six full-sized narrow gauge engines in various states of repair (one has never been rebuilt since it was purchased), with three that have been proclaimed National Mechanical Engineering Historical Landmarks. Up to three more smaller, diesel-power engines are also narrow gauged for use on the mountain line.

Secondly, there is the mystery of the corkscrew fire. Built in 1963, the route suffered a terrible arson in 1976 which destroyed the corkscrew loop trestles at Spring Canyon. A switchback was built by the end of the year to bypass the burned area. The switchback's grade is 9.5%, which is the currently the steepest switchback in use on a passenger line. The trestle has never been rebuilt and there are currently no plans to build a new trestle at Spring Canyon.

While the narrow gauge and broad gauge lines are treated as two entirely separate endeavors by Roaring Camp Railroads, they did briefly crossover for a rare ceremony in 1969 to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Promontory Point, Utah, linking of the Transcontinental Railroad. A special cross-over track was laid between the two lines, with a diesel- and steam-powered engine briefly touching noses to symbolize the transference of dominance from steam to diesel. The even was not highly publicized and the tracks connecting the narrow and broad lines were removed soon after the event.Today, the duties and staff of the two railroads remain separate, as they will likely remain for the foreseeable future.

Roaring Camp has no place in the history of the South Pacific Coast Railroad's Mountain Route, but it does have a place as a memory of what once was. The various types of steam engines at Roaring Camp resemble those used in the logging mills in the San Lorenzo Valley, while the hills are still pristine old growth redwood, which has long left most of the remainder of the valley. And for those seeking true history at Roaring Camp, the Big Trees train that goes to Santa Cruz may no longer stop along the way, but the route is the same as that used for over sixty years by the South Pacific Coast and Southern Pacific railroads as their trains ventured from Santa Cruz over the mountains to Los Gatos and beyond.

  • Roaring Camp Railroads. Accessed on 10 August 2012 <>


  1. The nose-to-nose meet with the narrow gauge was actually in 1976 celebrate the centennial of railroading in Santa Cruz County, with the Kahuku and an SP GP9 handling the local up to the sand pits. The dual-gauge interchange was around long before and after for various purposes (most acquisitions through the years were shipped in by rail, and Norman owned a Roaring Camp-branded tank car that doubled as a rolling billboard between Felton and Richmond as it went for refills!); it was removed by the mid-90s or so to keep the narrow gauge insular, as FRA oversight wouldn't exactly be too compatible with an interpretive logging railroad.

  2. Also wondering how true it is that Bret Harte, living in Santa Cruz at a parsonage near present-day Civic Auditorium, actually named the site of his short story The Luck of Roaring Camp after the local railway. The story is moved to the Gold Country, but the name was suggested locally, according to legend. Roaring Camp was renamed many times and then returned to the current title, maybe in 1969.

    This is so?