Friday, January 29, 2016

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Miniature Railroads

Out of the ashes of the great Neptune Casino fire of 1906 arose a new phenomenon at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Since the 1860s, the Santa Cruz main beach had been a popular tourist resort, sporting public bath houses, spas and restaurants, gift shops and beachfront campsites. Then in 1903, Fred Swanton formed the Santa Cruz Beach & Tent City Corporation to convert what was a random assortment of private attractions into one unifying vision for the beach. He purchased the large Miller-Leibbrandt Plunge and its accompanying Electric Pier and he moved the old Neptune Bath across the street to become the Tent City restaurant and corporate office for the company. In its place, he erected a massive Moorish-style casino inclusive of (non-gambling) games, gift shops, restaurants, dancing pavilion, and so much more. Outside, a beautiful bandstand was erected while beyond the newly-upgraded plunge a large roller rink was built. No other entertainment attractions were built at this time and nothing else would be forthcoming. For two marvellous summers—1904 and 1905—this grand casino thrived attracting visitors from all over the country, and then tragically everything came to a fiery end one June night in 1906.

Color postcard of the Bay Shore Limited, c. 1910, after the demolition of the curio shop. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The new Casino and the Plunge, while opened before the summer of 1907, built in a Spanish Revival style and was upgraded with state-of-the-art fire suppression systems and far superior architecture. These buildings were meant to last and they still stands today at the western end of the Boardwalk, testaments of the resolve to avoid another catastrophe like that of 1906. But with the new Boardwalk completed, Swanton began searching for attractions to improve his upstart amusement park.

The west end of the Bay Shore Limited loop, with the Pleasure Pier in the background. [Harold von Gorder]
The Bay Shore Limited beside the Plunge, 1907. At right is the skating rink
and at left is the curio shop, both in the style of the 1904 Neptune Casino
suggesting they survived the fire of 1906. [SC Sentinel]
The very first one of those attractions was a 1904 Cagney Brothers' Miniature Railroad Company 22-inch gauge train that ran from the base of the Pleasure Pier to the San Lorenzo River and back under the name Bay Shore Limited. The locomotive was a regulation coal-powered steam engine registered with the Interstate Commerce Commission and operated by an engineer and fireman. It opened in the summer of 1907 right alongside the new Casino and Plunge, and operated on the beach side of the quickly-extending wooden walkway that lined the shore, although after the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway was built in 1908, part of the track ran directly atop a beach dune. The railroad ran with up to six passenger cars, each capable of seating 16 adults comfortably. Despite persistent rumours, there is little evidence that the locomotive operated on the Loma Prieta tracks in the off-season hauling logs due to the difference in gauges. What is certainly true, though, is that Swanton used this train to exchange courtesy passes with other railroad companies, earning him free railroad service across the United States. The track ran down a long wooden boardwalk to the river where a sharp loop inside an enclosed tunnel turned the train around for its return trip to the Pleasure Pier. Another turntable at the base of the pier ended at a loading station for another trip. The railroad remained in use until the end of 1915, at which point the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, which took over from Swanton in December, decided to discontinue it. Santa Cruz businesses were not responding well to World War I and Swanton had overextended himself, going bust. Competition with other attractions also damaged the little railroad's income.

The eastern end of the Bay Shore Limited, showing the long platform out to the turnaround. [Harold von Gorder]
After its near-destruction in a warehouse fire, the railroad was sold for scrap to a San Francisco firm where Joseph Cornelius Hayes found it. He began restoring it in 1924 with plans to operate it at San Francisco's Ocean Beach or Pacific City in San Mateo, but bad luck haunted the train. Herbert Fleishhacker finally purchased the restored train from Hayes in 1925 and installed it at his zoo in west San Francisco, where it operated until 1978. It was put into storage that year where it languished, rusting as it sat in an enclosure with two Asian elephants, a grey seal, and a pigmy hippo. The Golden Gate Railroad Museum petitioned the zoo to restore the train and and finally, in 1998, it was restored by staff of the zoo and museum volunteers. The parks is now known as the San Francisco Zoo and the train is the "Little Puffer", apparently a nicknamed it had even in 1907. It can still be ridden today, one of only four 22-inch gauge railroads still in existence.

The Sun Tan Jr. parked beside its runaround siding on the western end of the
Boardwalk, c. 1930. Loff Carousel building visible at left. [SC Sentinel]
A decade later, in 1928, the Sun Tan Jr. was installed along much of the same route of the original miniature railroad. This train was named after the much larger Sun Tan Special that began hauling passengers to the beach from San José the year earlier. Stanley E. Kohl, a Capitolan miniature railroad builder, opened the train as a beach front concession and operated it for five years until 1933, when the Great Depression likely drove him out of business. This train was a 1/3 scale Northwestern Pacific locomotive, based on his memories as a mail clerk in San Francisco. Unlike the first railroad at the Boardwalk, this one operated off of a simple diesel-powered Dodge motor hidden beneath a fake boiler, with the exhaust exiting out of the steam pipe at top. The capacity of this little train was up to 3,500 people per day, an impressive feat. It ran from the base of the Pleasure Pier to roughly the location of Funland Arcade today atop a long raised trestle that turned back onto the 'Walk on its ends. The Seaside Company took over the concession in 1933 and operated it until 1935, after which the train disappeared from history.

Photograph of the Sun Tan Jr. running alongside the Boardwalk with the Laff-Land dark ride at left, c. 1930. [Boardwalk]
Sun Tan Jr. in front of Entrance 3 near the Carousel, c. 1930s. [Sandy Ragsdale]
The City of Santa Cruz Streamliner on its elevated track beside the main
Boardwalk, c. 1940 [SC Sentinel]
In 1938, a new track was built along the outside edge of the Boardwalk atop 5,000 redwood ties and 1,000 pilings. The new railroad was the City of Santa Cruz Streamliner, an electric train based on Zephyr that had locomotives at both ends. The locomotives and four passenger cars were locally built by the Standard Welding Company of Santa Cruz under the leadership of J. Ross Whiting, the later founder of Whitings Games.  The train was highlighted in red and silver/chrome with green leather seats throughout, replicated in the Zephyr in every way possible. At the time, it was the only miniature railroad that ran entirely atop an elevated trestle. It's capacity was estimated to be 200,000 per summer, which comes out to roughly 2,000 people per day. Unfortunately, very little information is known about this short-lived attraction. World War II ostensibly shut down many of the attractions at the park including this railroad. The railroad, which operated directly over the beach, was deemed too visible when blackout curtains were installed along the walk. It was the last attraction to run alongside the majority of the Boardwalk until the construction of the Skygliders in the mid-1960s. Nothing is known about this train's fate.

The Cave Train to the Lost World, April 2014. [Dexter Francis]
The Cave Train at its depot at the eastern end of the Boardwalk, 1964.
[SC Sentinel]
At around that same time, in June 1961 to be specific, a new miniature railroad was installed in a much tighter and enclosed venue than its three predecessors. Operating off two 2-ton batteries which are recharged nightly, the Cave Train to the Lost World is not your usual miniature railroad. Its appearance is a bit exaggerated and it is operated with quite simple controls. Two near-identical fiberglass locomotives drive two 8-car trains in a circular, albeit curvy, 2,200-foot-long track that runs under the far eastern end of the Boardwalk. The interior nature of this train means that, unlike its predecessors, it can actually feature artificial wonders during the ride, thus the theme of the Cave Train is something akin to The Flintstones, less the official branding. Many of the automated electronics along the ride are triggered by switches hidden in the tracks so staff does not have to operate visuals remotely. In 2000, the ride was upgraded and now is in ultraviolet and follows the story of cave people visiting the Santa Cruz Beach during the Palaeolithic Era, although the trains themselves retain their original faux rustic charm. The original welcome depot was demolished as a part of the rebuild and now the queuing area is outside and uncovered. Considering the recent improvements to the ride, it is unlikely this will be replaced any time soon.

Citations & Credits:
  • Beal, Chandra Moira and Richard A. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: The Early Years—Never a Dull Moment (Pacific Group, 2003).
  • "Little Puffer Steam Train". San Francisco Zoo.
  • Rice, Walter and Emiliano Echeverria. Images of Rail: Rails of California's Central Coast (Arcadia, 2008).
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 05/05/1938, 2:1-3.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 09/20/1964, 21.


  1. this postcards are better than modern

  2. This is truly great information for me Derek Whaley. i just love everything you do, it's all just so quirky and makes me smile! Would like to see some other posts on the same subject!

    1. Do you mean on the Boardwalk? Technically there is an article on Casino Station on here, as well. You may want to check that out. The park itself is outside my scope. I actually pitched the idea of writing a follow-up to their history book a few years ago (I worked at the Boardwalk for about a decade off and on) but the Marketing Department were not interested. Their loss.

  3. Another book worth a look, The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk A Century by the Sea, 10 Speed Press, 2007. Promotion by the Santa Cruz Seaside Company.


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