Friday, September 26, 2014

San Lorenzo River Trestle #1

On the eastern edge of the Santa Cruz Main Beach, the San Lorenzo River meanders gently, pulsing with the tides as it exits into the Monterey Bay. When the Santa Cruz Railroad incorporated in June 1873, the river would prove to be one of its greatest obstacles. Most of the problem was funding, but the geographic terrain at the river's mouth was never the most secure. A large sandbar ends the beach, jutting in between the bending river and the relentless sea. The beach was smaller then, before the harbor silted the beach and brought its sand levels up. There were also no developments at that end of the beach, with only grass and ice plants keeping the sand from washing away with the tide. Yet surmount the obstacle the railroad did...three times.

The second trestle over the river, dated between 1893 and 1904. Note the long causeway along the beach.
(Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)
The first trestle, a truss bridge built of redwood pilings and assembled at the lowest price possible, washed out in a torrential storm that pummelled the coast in January 1881. One of the problems of the bridge, in addition to those mentioned, was that it required a massive raised causeway to get the tracks from sea level to the cliffs behind Seabright Beach. This causeway was built of redwood pilings and stretched nearly a quarter of a mile, from just beyond the bath houses at the beach to just before the river mouth. The truss bridge, atop which the trains crossed, was only directly above the river. Its collapse during the storm was not inevitable, but it was still a likely occurrence. For months it sat abandoned with the right-of-way broken as Frederick Hihn negotiated the sale of the railroad to the Southern Pacific.

The second trestle in the 1890s. (UC Santa Cruz)
Two years later, in November 1883, a new standard-gauged trestle was built and the last remnants of the railroad's short-lived narrow-gauge days were removed. To correct the error of the previous trestle, a longer truss bridge with tighter crossbeams was installed, though the extensive causeway to the river remained behind, though virtually every piling was replaced by the Southern Pacific. Trains passed through the bridge rather than atop it, making the bridge less susceptible to storm damage.

A double-headed Suntan Special atop the third trestle in 1939. (Jim Vail)
As part of the overall upgrading scheme of the Southern Pacific at the turn of the century, the old bridge was replaced with a pair of prefabricated steel truss bridges in 1904. This bridge is the current structure that remains in place today, though it is now in desperate need of repair or replacement. The causeway west of the trestle was filled by the railroad at the same time and now the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk uses the side of that fill to support its Giant Dipper roller coaster. The trestle sits atop a pair of concrete piers, with one on its eastern side and the second in the middle of the river, though east of the main flow. The western side of the trestle supported by a concrete abutment built into the sandstone cliff. A short steel deck trestle west of the trestle crosses over a pedestrian and maintenance road, as well.

The third trestle today during sunset. (Tim Cattera)
The trestle is currently owned by the City of Santa Cruz in cooperation with Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railroad, an agency of the city. Plans to upgrade the train to support passenger service are in the works. The pedestrian bridge beside the trestle, installed in the past two decades, is quite popular with Live Oak residents wishing to visit the main beach.


  • Bruce MacGregor, South Pacific Coast: A Centennial (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1980).

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