Friday, November 28, 2014


U.S. Geological Survey Map of Aptos, 1899. (USGS)
Aptos was one of the most important railroad stations in Santa Cruz County. This may seem a slightly strange statement, but it's truth is evident simply from the United States Geological Survey map from 1899 at right. Most noticeably, perhaps, is that besides the tracks going to the west toward Santa Cruz and to the south toward Watsonville, there is a third line going to the north, into the mountains. Indeed, a fourth line would soon join these three to the northeast in a few years' time. It was these two lines to the north that made Aptos such an important stop along the line. They brought to Aptos and, therefore, to the railroad mainline precious timber cut and milled by the Molina Timber Company and the F.A. Hihn Co.'s mill on Valencia Creek. The former's importance was so great that the Southern Pacific even built a shortline railroad into the very heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains just for the mill.

However, the history of Aptos Station itself is the topic here, while the histories of the mills will come later. When the Santa Cruz Railroad was completed in 1876, Aptos was a small village with an insignificant passenger stop that only saw occasional passenger usage. Camp Capitola to the west was more popular since it was on the beach. In fact, Aptos Station wasn't even that close to the beach because the track swung inland to keep it on a level grade and to bring it closer to the potential timber tracts up in the hills. Yet for seven years, nothing was done about those tracts. The Southern Pacific took over the Santa Cruz Railroad in 1881, and only in 1882 did the first whispers of development begin. On July 10th, the whispers became a shout as the Watsonville Mill & Lumber Company announced its plans to form, with the cooperation of the Southern Pacific, the Loma Prieta Railroad Company, tasked with reaching and harvesting the vast material wealth above Aptos. To mill the lumber, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company was founded.

Just to the east and up Valencia Creek, another railroad, this one narrow-gauged, was under construction by F.A. Hihn Co. by 1886. The railroad was to access the tracts of timber up the creek, and Hihn built his mill just outside of town to make shipping out via rail easier. After a fire burned down his first mill later that year, Hihn switched from using donkeys to transport his freight cars, to using a small steam engine. For five more years the mill harvested the lumber of Valencia Creek until closing in 1892. A spur for the railroad ran from Aptos to the mill, where narrow-gauged tracks them took over to the current logging camp.

A freight yard did not develop of Aptos until late in 1883 when the Santa Cruz Railroad line was standard-gauged. Indeed, work on the Loma Prieta branch was done in standard-gauge but with narrow-gauged rails until the Santa Cruz Railroad track's conversion was completed. That task was done by November 13, 1883, when the Loma Prieta branch opened to the public. The area around Aptos Depot exploded into a flurry of activity as support sidings were added repeatedly until there were four separate sidings on either side of the main line. In addition, a spur branched into three and led into a lumber yard. A turntable was eventually added in the around 1890, located at the end of a spur that headed toward Watsonville. This was later removed in the early 1900s and replaced with a wye further to the north, using the Aptos Branch track as one corner of the wye. A new spur was also added to the lumber yard, oddly located at the end of the northernmost spur and heading in the opposite direction.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Aptos, 1892. (UC Santa Cruz Digital Collection)
The Aptos Depot began as mostly a flag-stop when it appeared in timetables from 1875. It only had a station building from about 1882 with the original structure situated on the west side of the tracks. The building was a standard-issue Southern Pacific station with a platform on the track side and a small bay window facing the tracks to serve as a ticket booth. This building did not change, though it was upgraded and expanded somewhat over the years. A freight house was eventually added in the early 1900s across and slightly to the north of the depot, beside the Aptos Branch track. From 1881, the station had regularly scheduled railroad service and this persisted until the end of passenger service along the line in 1938. The station was 7.8 miles from Santa Cruz and 112.6 miles from San Francisco via Pajaro Junction. After 1908, it was 87.0 miles from San Francisco via the Mayfield Cut-Off.

The Aptos freight yard, c. 1910s. (Paul Johnston Collection – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)
Paul and Christina Johnston outside Aptos
Depot preparing to go on their honeymoon,
1913. (Paul Johnston Collection – MAH)
In April 1899, a massive spring storm destroyed Aptos Branch rail line and led, soon after, to the closure of the Loma Prieta Lumber Co. mill. In 1901, the track was extended once again along a different path to access timber in Soquel Creek and by 1908, the Loma Prieta Lumber Co. was back in business, but the cost of running this new mill was prohibitive and it closed down after only one season. With that, the Loma Prieta Lumber Co. moved to a tract of land near Swanton on the North Coast. The Molino Timber Company picked up the slack and harvested the remaining redwoods beginning in 1910, using once again the old Southern Pacific track. At a point along the line, a steep incline requiring a cable hoist was installed. At the top of the incline, a narrow-gauged track meandered for miles along the top of the ridge where it shuttled lumber from various tracts to the top of the incline, where it was hauled down and milled. The company worked the area until 1917 after which it abandoned its track and sold it for scrap metal. One last operation along the line occurred the following year, when the Loma Prieta Lumber Company returned in 1918 to harvest the timber around Bridge Creek and Porter Gulch. The route was too difficult for standard-gauged traffic so the company took a hint from the Molino Company and used a narrow-gauged train to collect the felled trees. For four summers the company harvested the tracts along Bridge Creek and then in spring 1921, it closed down its Aptos operations for good. The Aptos Branch lingered for nearly a decade before finally being removed in 1928. Whether it saw any service during this time is unknown. Regardless, Aptos quickly returned to a simple passenger stop on the Santa Cruz Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

An accident near the tracks. Aptos Depot and its freight yard in the background, c. 1920.
(Paul Johnston Collection – MAH)
The extensive sidings and spurs began to be removed prior to 1910 as demand on the line had decreased. Of the four spurs to the east, only two survived by 1908, one as a short maintenance track and the other to the F.A. Hihn Company's freight warehouse. The four sidings in town remained behind for another two decades before they were finally removed as non-essential. In 1909, there were still 3,086 feet of sidings and spurs at Aptos Depot. Even as late as 1941, roughly half that trackage still remained at Aptos, though the wye had been removed by that point. But with no passenger service and little freight traffic, the depot and the sidings became unnecessary.

Locals protesting Southern Pacific's decision to fence its tracks through town,  c. 1960s. (MAH)
When precisely the sidings were removed is unknown, though it may have been as early as during World War II. The freight depot was probably demolished first. Its site later became the Aptos Station shopping center. The end of the Suntan Specials ensured the demise of Aptos Station, which closed in 1962, though it likely hadn't been used for over a decade. The expansion of Soquel Drive soon after forced the demolition of the Aptos Depot, which was located immediately beside the road.


  • Rick Hamman, California Central Coast Railways (Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002).
  • Kevin Newhouse, Images of America: Aptos (Arcadia Publishing, 2013).

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