Friday, September 5, 2014


At last we reach the small community of Swanton, the most northernly of the villages along Santa Cruz's North Coast. But the village did not start out with that name. Originally it was Laurel Grove, a stop along the Santa Cruz-Pescadero stage coach route. The founders situated it between Big Creek and Little Creek, two feeders of Scott Creek. The old name was descriptive since a grove of laurel bushes thrived there beside the Laurel Grove Inn. Pasquale Sonognini, one of the stage drivers and a recent settler in the area, applied for a post office for the town in 1897. He wished the post office—and by extension the village—to be named Trancas, after the Mexican land grant that the community was situated within: Rancho Agua Puerca y las Trancas. Unfortunately for him and the community, another player had entered the scene who would forever send the name of the village in a different direction.

Fred Wilder Swanton, an up-and-coming entrepreneur who would, in 1904, build the predecessor to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, had established the Big Creek Power Company along the banks of Big Creek in 1896 near Laurel Grove. Swanton did not live in the community nor frequently visit it, but the post office saw his name associated with it and decided that "Swanton" was more fitting than either Trancas or Laurel Grove. Thus the name was given and stuck. Swanton, for all his unintended influence over the renaming, sold the company in 1900 to hunt for gold in Alaska. But the little hamlet along the count road continues to this day to be named after the entertainment mogul.

With stage coaches in decreasing demand and the advent of the automobile on the horizon, Swanton would not likely have survived the coming decade had it not been for the Ocean Shore Railroad and the San Vicente Lumber Company. Construction to Swanton was not a given in 1907 when the line reached Scott Junction. A short spur to the Folger subdivision where the Ocean Shore kept its wye was already under development when the San Vicente Lumber Company approached the railroad. They wanted to connect a private logging line to the Ocean Shore main line at Folger so that they could convey logs to Santa Cruz via rail rather than skid road, wagon, or ship. The Ocean Shore, suffering economic hardship in the years after the 1906 Earthquake, eagerly agreed to the proposal. Yet the Ocean Shore line still didn't quite reach to Swanton. Turning up into the mountains just before Little Creek, the San Vicente extension missed Swanton by about a thousand feet.

Swanton Inn with an Ocean Shore train parked out front. (Sandy Lydon)
Access was finally brought to Swanton in 1909 when the Loma Prieta Lumber Company required an extension spur to reach the foot of their operations on Big Creek. Once again the Ocean Shore eagerly agreed to the plan and railroad service was finally brought to Swanton. Swanton Station, located 15.5 miles north of the Ocean Shore depot in Santa Cruz, was more of a hostelry than a train stop. Although a freight shed was built just beyond the Laurel Grove Inn, now called the Swanton Inn, the inn itself served as the passenger depot, telegraph office, post office, and general store for the village, as well as a lodging for visitors. The freight shed was naturally for use by the Loma Prieta company. It was 10' by 16' and its actual use is not entirely known since it was so small. A water tank was installed outside the inn and a run-around track ended the line just beyond it. A run-around track was a special type of siding that continued on to become a very short spur. It allowed engines to pull cars onto the siding without getting trapped at the end of the siding.

The Ocean Shore Railroad never had much to do with the community except to bring in tourists. Many of these tourists hopped on Stanley Steamer buses to head north to the southern terminus of the Northern Division near Tunitas. The last run to Swanton was on August 16, 1920, with the Ocean Shore abandoning passenger service to the stop. The Loma Prieta company had already finished operating along Big Creek and the San Vicente company finished a few years later in 1923, taking the tracks with it. Whether the San Vicente company ever provided rail access for the residents of Swanton is unknown, but traffic was always light even in Ocean Shore days. After 1923, Swanton mostly passed from public memory except to those who still live there today. The appeal of Swanton simply never really caught on and the community remains rather small today, especially now that there are no commercial outlets nearby. California State University, San Luis Obispo, operates the Swanton Pacific Railroad, a century-old miniature engine with cars, out at Swanton, but all other traces of the town have disappeared. Only Swanton Road, the former county road, reminds residents of the time when Swanton actually meant something.

  • Donald Clark, Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary (Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2007).
  • Rick Hamman, California Central Coast Railways (Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002).
  • Charles S. McCaleb, Surf, Sand & Streetcars: A Mobile History of Santa Cruz, California (Santa Cruz, CA: Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, 1995).

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