Friday, March 31, 2017

Curiosities: Railroad Hotels

Wherever there has been a railroad, there has been a railroad hotel. This has been a constant since passenger railroads first became mainstream in the United States in the 1840s. Naturally, as the railroad spread throughout the Monterey Bay area, hotels sprang up with them. But while some hotels prompted stops of their own—such as Casa del Rey, Del Monte, Capitola, Forest Grove, Alma, Tuxedo, and Swanton—others were built to accompany an already existent stop. What made railroad hotels unique, though, were their clientele. Unlike other hotels, railroad hotels catered specifically to people engaged in railroad-related activities, including freight crews, lumberjacks, and itinerant workers. Santa Cruz and Watsonville both sported titular railroad hotels over the years, and they all fit this model.

Even as the dreams of the San Lorenzo Railroad were dashed by years of litigation, the Santa Cruz Rail Road Hotel opened in January 1872 at the corner of Cooper and Front Streets in downtown Santa Cruz. Owned by Christopher Patten under lease from Dan Wente, the two-story Rail Road Hotel began advertising in local newspapers the merits and commutability of the railroad a full four years before any route to San José was available. Advertisements for the hotel focused more on meals than lodging, but both were relatively affordable for the time. Lodging and board for a week cost only $5.00 per person (25¢ more if you want a bed), while meals were a quarter each. Patten's gamble did not seem to pay off. Advertisements for the complex disappeared after April 1872. When the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad finally did pass through town in 1875, the company was forced to switch to horse-drawn rail cars to get the lumber to the Railroad Wharf, a tactic that proved unsustainable. A tunnel was bored under Mission Hill and the tracks were rerouted around downtown, five blocks away from Patten's hotel. Patten died in 1893, although his wife, Maria Natalia Dodero, lived until 1922.

A lithograph sketch of the Germania Hotel as it appeared in the late 1870s. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]
A new and more appropriately-named hotel popped up not far from the Santa Cruz Railroad's end-of-track on Park Street in 1877. Built by Robert K. Whidden with logs harvested on Granite Creek, this two-story hotel was one of the most conservative establishments in the city, declining the fade of houses of ill-repute and instead becoming one of the more respectable institutions. For the first few years, it was known as the Germania Hotel and was run by Frank Pratchner and then J.P. Krieg, who both favoured German-speaking customers. But when the South Pacific Coast Railroad purchased the Santa Cruz & Felton in 1879 and installed a passenger facility on Cherry Street, traffic increased dramatically and the establishment was rebranded the Railroad Hotel. It became the haunt of railroad passengers and employees. Men and women had segregated smoking parlors, and a waiting area was built to cater to passengers waiting for trains. Around the time that the Union Station was built in 1893, the Railroad Hotel was renamed the Santa Cruz Hotel since the railroad station was now further away and nearer to other hotels. The Santa Cruz Hotel has always been synonymous with good food, and from the 1950s it became primarily an Italian restaurant owned by a series of individuals including John Righetti, Louie Facelli, Al Castagnola, Amigo (Friend) Arevalo, Don Stefani, Stella Pera, George Goebel, Anton Suk, George Philipps, Jack Campbell, Dan Robertson, Keith Wilkinson, and Frank Cardinale, among other more recent owners. The hotel became a bar and grill in 1976 and joined the Cardinale chain of restaurants in 1983. It has also served as The Red Room lounge and is currently Planet Fresh Burritos.

Santa Cruz Railroad Exchange Hotel, 1917. [Sanborn]
A truly-dedicated two-story railroad hotel would not be erected until around 1902, about a decade after the Santa Cruz Union Depot was built near the junction of Center Street and Pacific Avenue. The Railroad Exchange Hotel first appeared on Sanborn maps in 1905 on the site of the former Centennial Flour Mill (and built using recycled wood from that mill). It was a multipurpose complex that included a bar, bowling alley, wine house, outside cabins, and upstairs lodgings. The Italian-born Antone Pelizza, Jr., and his wife took over operations of the hotel in 1909 and began extensively remodeling and expanding the facility. The results of this renovation was the addition of a large lodging space between the bar and the wine house. The Pelizzas owned the hotel until the early 1920s when they sold it to partners Angelo Di Marco, Steffani Grossi, and Julius Grossi.

Newspaper advertisement for the
Depot Hotel, 1935. [SC Evening News]
Prohibition had an ill effect on the Railroad Exchange Hotel and the business was cited in 1921 for failing to remove a sign advertising Excelsior Beer, thereby violating the Volsted Act. The hotel was raided numerous times, as well, and each time police discovered evidence of violations. Angelo was fined for possession of contraband drinks in 1929 and again in 1931. In 1930, Steffani and Julius were both fined for bootlegging. Nonetheless, the hotel continued to thrive and its restaurant, focused on Italian dinners, brought an increasing number of customers to the establishment. The restaurant was rebranded the Depot Hotel around 1930, although this new name only became official in 1935 when advertisements for it began appearing in local newspapers.

Do-Drop-In newspaper advertisement, 1953. [SC Sentinel]
By the mid-1930s, the hotel had become one of the city's hot spots under the management of Earl Harris "Hux" Huxtable. By this point, the establishment was more restaurant than hotel and catered to local businesspeople and entrepreneurs rather than low-income workers. The restaurant temporarily shut down over the winter of 1936-1937 to be modernized and upgraded as the Lido Cafe, named after the famous restaurant in San Francisco that burned down in 1933. Management of the hotel was run by E. Malatesta and Leo Pera, who desired to transform the business into "the area's most attractive, moderne dining and dancing resorts." The facility was briefly renamed "Micossi's Hotel" in the late 1940s before returning to Lido. It was renamed the "Do-Drop-In" in 1952 after Ernest Canepa purchased the restaurant. However, Ernest relocated to Portola in 1959 with his frequent partner, George Ghio. The history of the Railroad Exchange Hotel disappears at this time. The building was demolished no later than the 1980s and the site is now occupied by Chris Bordner's Auto Body shop on Center Street.

Railroad Hotel on Beach Street across
from the Watsonville Depot, 1902.
In Watsonville, a Railroad Hotel existed from at least November 1901 when a robbery occurred there, causing it to be mentioned in the Sentinel. Sanborn Insurance maps from 1902 show the hotel as a cluster of buildings located directly across the street form the Southern Pacific depot at the south-west corner of Beach Road and Walker Street. Nothing is known of the ownership of this facility. The hotel was demolished at some point in the late 1910s. No known photographs exist of the hotel, although a number of early photographs of Watsonville Depot appear to have been taken on its second-story balcony or in front of the hotel.

Watsonville Railroad Exchange Hotel, c. 1900. [Adi Zehner]
Railroad Exchange Hotel on Walker
Street, 1902. [Sanborn]
Across the street and down half-a-block from the Railroad Hotel was the similarly-sized rectangular Railroad Exchange Hotel. This hotel was thirty feet by forty feet and two-and-a-half stories tall and included a large downstairs dining room and a separate saloon near the main entrance. The hostelry was erected by Dalmatian immigrant George J. Strazicich in 1893 with the help of his wife, Anka Korotaj. A family member, Andy Strazicich, managed the hotel until 1900 when George and Anka took over. Further renovations were made in 1907, including the installation of electric lights. George leased the hotel to Catherine and Paul Boudry in 1909, who sold the lease to William Sersen in 1910, who transferred it to John B. Labas in 1911, who passed it on to J. Lazar Jalovica in 1912, who returned it to George in December 1912.

George Strazicich, Sr., ca 1880.
George was a problematic owner because he did not adhere to the expectations of how a hotelier should act. From the 1890s through the 1920s, he and his son (confusingly also named George) violated public policy after public policy. In 1914, one of the Georges lost the hotel its liquor license because he "was not a proper person to conduct the business, because he had allowed disreputable persons to frequent his place and that he had permitted liquor to be served to women." Unsurprisingly, the hotel was also the subject of a raid by federal agents during Prohibition, with a $500 fine slapped on the establishment for multiple violations in 1921. Indeed, despite a stellar review of George and his business in 1925's History of Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, the elder George had a reputation in the Sentinel as being anything but gentlemanly. To prove this point, the hotel was shuttered from June 1926 until the same month 1927 due to further violations of the Volsted Act, while one of George Sr.'s other sons was arrested for drunk driving that same year, also violating the act. The hotel was eventually purchased by the Lacabre family of King City, who razed the hotel in March 1943. The site is now a parking lot that sits between George's Liquor Store and the Valley Packing Service Inn Foods–US Food Service office.

There were other "railroad" hotels that littered the Santa Cruz Mountains from Boulder Creek to San Juan Bautista. Very little is known about them and many were probably closer to bed and breakfasts in large private homes than anything resembling purpose-built hotels. At least one such structure was on Zayante Schoolhouse Road at Eccles Station and still exists today as a private home. Most of these were built between 1890 and 1910, the boom years of the mountain tourism industry, and most were closed or abandoned in the 1920s as automobiles made traveling a more personalised, shorter endeavor. Railroad hotels were once a major feature of any large-scale railroading enterprise, but, like the rest of the passenger railroading industry, they quickly collapsed as the Great Depression, World War II, and the rise of the automobile made them irrelevant.

Citations & Credits:
  • Koch, Margaret. "The Santa Cruz Hotel: Newest Member of the 100 Year Club". SC Sentinel, 11 September 1977, 25:1-8.
  • History of Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, California. Chicago: San José Clarke Publishing, 1925.
  • Ninkovich, Thomas (ed.). The Slav Community of Watsonville, California: As reported in old newspapers (1881-1920). Watsonville, CA: Reunion Research, 2014.
  • Santa Cruz Evening News, 1927 – 1936.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, Weekly Sentinel, and Evening Sentinel, 1872 – 1992.
  • Siebenthal, Denise. "Local man buys Santa Cruz Hotel restaurants". SC Sentinel, 16 October 1983, 22:1-4.


  1. Thanks, Derek. Your research significantly expands my rudimentary knowledge of Santa Cruz Hotels. Any idea why the name "Railroad Exchange" was popular?

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.