Friday, October 7, 2016

Curiosities: The Hihn Railroad Grade

Santa Cruz County map, 1929. [UCSC]
A peculiarity in Santa Cruz County is the presence of a long forgotten piece of history that meanders along the east side of Soquel Creek for over five miles from Park Avenue above Capitola Village to Olive Springs Road on the western fringe of the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. This relic of a long lost age is the Hihn Railroad Grade, a bygone project of an optimistic time. Meandering through the Soquel Creek basin, this right-of-way was never used by any railroad but its nearly 150-year-old grade remains a mostly unused and only partially owned path that runs behind and acts as the boundary for over a hundred homes and businesses in Soquel and the unincorporated area above it.

In the late 1860s and the early 1870s, Frederick Augustus Hihn was desperate for a railroad in Santa Cruz County. Hihn was a local entrepreneur, an immigrant from Germany who came to California during the Gold Rush in 1849. He moved to Santa Cruz County in 1851 and quickly became one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the city. In 1856, Hihn purchased 12/19ths of Martina Castro's massive Rancho Shoquel Aumentación, which was composed primarily of endless tracts of old growth redwood trees alongside Soquel and Aptos Creeks. Hihn's new holdings ran to the headwaters of Soquel Creek as well as up many of its tributaries. In 1860, Hihn also purchased 404 acres of Rancho Shoquel, receiving that lot as part of a mortgage settlement. Over 5,000 acres of timber were estimated to be in the rancho lands that Hihn owned. Unfortunately for the magnate, he had no easy way to transport any of this potential wealth to the word beyond. Previous lumber operations in the area had relied upon oxen- and mule-driven methods that were slow, dangerous, and limited in their capacities.

Hihn's plan was to built a standard-gauged railroad up from the proposed route that would run along the coast to the mill of his business partners, the Grovers—J. Lyman, Stephan Frealon, Whitney, and Dwight W.—who had operated out of Bates Creek since 1866. Once his route was completed, he would transport the timber to a large lumber and planing mill located near the mainline at the beach. In reality, this was just a part of a much larger scheme that would have, in essence, created the route between Santa Cruz County and the city of San José nearly a decade earlier than the South Pacific Coast and via a drastically different right-of-way that would have bypassed the San Lorenzo watershed entirely. Part threat and part actual intent, the proposal for a standard-gauged railroad running directly between San José and Soquel was used by Hihn as a bargaining chip while negotiating the right-of-way for the Santa Cruz & Watsonville Railroad. The proposed route, which was surveyed in the summer of 1871, would have followed the later route of the South Pacific Coast up to the region of modern-day Laurel, at which point it would have passed through a tunnel into the greater Soquel basin. The route would have then meandered down the east bank of the river until terminating at the Soquel Landing pier. But both ventures ultimately failed, and the plans changed when the Santa Cruz Railroad eventually passed through the area in 1874. Rather than heading straight out to sea, the final alignment of Hihn's Railroad Grade—by now repurposed as a long narrow-gauged lumber long—arced to the east in a wide loop, eventually joining with the railroad track on the bluff above Soquel Landing. This adjustment clearly shows Hihn's intent as late as 1874 to build a railroad line between Soquel and his timber tracts.

Grover mill up Bates Creek, 1883. [Soquel Pioneer and Historical Association]
The land for this railroad was parcelled out from the rancho and established as a separate continuous tract, 40 feet wide and roughly five miles long. The right-of-way never crossed Soquel Creek once, although it certainly crossed a number of smaller feeder creeks and streams, the largest of which was Bates Creek itself just outside of Soquel. One question that immediately presents itself to anyone interested in this line is: was it ever used for a railroad? For the most part, the answer to that question is a definitive no. From as early as 1885, the property boundary records and parcel maps refer to the right-of-way as the "Hihn Railroad Grade", which implies it remained unused. By that time, Hihn was already working on a different railroad route up the nearby Aptos Creek to access the mill of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, in which he had a significant stake. But a portion of this right-of-way may have been used. From the 1870s, it seems that Hihn maintained a lumber yard immediately beside the Santa Cruz Railroad line and it seems highly likely that at least a short spur was extended down the grade. Even more convincing, however, is that from 1874, the California Beet Sugar Company operated a sugar beet refinery above the modern site of Nob Hill Foods, and Hihn Company records suggest that a railroad spur was to be extended to this factory. Assuming this company spur was built, it would have run along the Hihn Railroad Grade until reaching modern-day State Route 1, at which point it would have turned west off the grade. A Santa Cruz Sentinel article from February 1874 notes that the factory was only 60 yards from the track, which is impossible without a spur considering the factory was over 1/4 mile from the mainline right-of-way and also sat alongside Soquel Creek far below the tracks which ran above over a trestle. The factory relocated in 1884 and few maps show its extent, making confirmation of its railroad spur difficult to determine.

A homestead along Soquel Creek with the roof of the defunct California Beet Sugar warehouse in the distance, 1887.
[Polhemus family, Edith C. Smith Collection, Sourisseau Academy, San Jose State University]
Throughout this time, the Soquel timber tracts remained a relatively minor operation, the purview of the Grovers who also operated mills in Boulder Creek, Scotts Valley, and Porter Gulch. Over the years, the Grovers constructed two more mills in the area while Hihn himself built a small isolated cable railway south of Laurel near the headwaters of Soquel Creek, but only steam donkeys were used here, no locomotives. By 1916, Hihn returned to the lower Soquel area to complete the job he left undone half-a-century earlier. But this time, he decided to use rugged motor trucks newly designed for use by the military in Europe. Although using the old Hihn Railway Grade was discussed, it was dismissed as unprofitable, with a cost of at least $42,000 required and up to 10 miles of track needed to reach all of the possible tracts.

Hihn's flume through Soquel in the mid-1880s. [Images of America: Soquel]
Just because the route was never used for a railroad does not mean it went unused. One strong possibility is that the right-of-way was repurposed by Hihn in the 1880s for a flume which he installed along Soquel Creek to service the South Coast Paper Mill, which first opened around 1879. This flume also accepted sewage from Soquel School and a tent campground. Notably, it is said that this flume went subterranean for 300 feet as it approached Depot Hill and then exited in a direction toward Aptos. The unedited map above from 1929 notes a change in the Hihn Railroad Grade in roughly this same area, with the map-maker changing the sold line to dashes implying a subterranean portion of right-of-way. Generally, this implies the existence of a tunnel. Indeed, the paper mill was still in operation as late as 1931 – two years after the map was made – and may have still used the flume or some successor to it until this date.

1948 aerial view of the Santa Cruz Airport at Capitola showing its two perpendicular runways. [Airfields-Freeman]
However, it is likely this final stretch of grade was removed as early as 1926 when the Santa Cruz Airport was opened directly atop the old grade. The main purpose of this air field was to support the adjacent Camp McQuaide, home of the 250th Coast Artillery, but over the years it became a regular operation for small commercial flights. The entire property was purchased at this time by the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, explaining why the railroad grade parcel boundaries no longer appear in this area today. The airport was closed in September 1954 and by the mid-1960s, the entire area had been subdivided and developed.

Hihn Railroad Grade at the intersection of Glenhaven Rd. and Cherrvale Ave. The private road is not, in actuality, the
grade, but rather the grade runs along the bottom of the hill at left where the sign sits. [Google StreetView] 
Regardless of whether it was used or not, the majority of the grade still exists as a series of independent parcels running primarily between Soquel Drive and Olive Springs Road. Most of these parcels are undeveloped, although roads and homes populate some portions, especially those nearer to the town of Soquel. Today, one would not notice the former railroad grade, but it is still there. From the Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway tracks at the intersection of Washburn Avenue and Park Street, the grade curves wide to the northeast and has been entirely developed over. But it reappears as Kennedy Drive briefly before crossing State Route 1 and cutting through more housing, until reaching Aguazul Drive. From there, the grade runs behind the Christian Science Church and Main Street Elementary School, as well as numerous homes. At the intersection of Glenhaven Road and Cherryvale Avenue, the grade acts as a third direction, passing almost directly between the split before making a wide arc to the east and then briefly returning to Cherryvale Avenue. Its path continues north, crossing High Gulch Road and briefly becoming Bobcat Trail. It then crosses High Gulch two more times before definitively disappearing into the Soquel Augmentation Rancho wilderness. Its terminus is located somewhere east of Mountain Elementary School in a deep second-growth forest.

Citations & Credits:
  • Clark, Donald. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2008.
  • "Entry #466-468." F. A. Hihn Company's Agreements, Deeds, & Leases, vol. 2. University of California, Santa Cruz. Edited and curated by Stanley Stevens.
  • F. A. Hihn Company Collection. University of California, Santa Cruz. Edited and curated by Stanley Stevens.
  • Freeman, Paul. "California: Monterey area". Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields, 2016.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1871-1874.
  • Soquel Pioneer and Historical Association, Images of America: Soquel. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.
  • Stevens, Stanley, personal correspondence.
  • University of California, Santa Cruz. "1929 Santa Cruz County Map". UCSC Map Library Collections.
  • Young, John V. Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Lafayette, CA: Great West Books, 2002.


  1. Cherryvale is properly marked as to the left. The right-hand road is actually Glen Haven

  2. I am happy that another reader has found the confusing image that shows two Cherryvale roads.
    Also, the caption is incorrect in that Cherryvale is misspelled as Cherrvale.

  3. If there was a tunnel around Depot Hill, any idea where the entrance/exit would be?

    1. I don't know if any tunnel was ever built, but it wouldn't have been a railroad tunnel. Perhaps a culvert or outlet for the flume, but I feel like that would have just gone to Soquel Creek. I imagine any tunnel would be gone now even if one had existed.


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