Friday, August 18, 2017

Stations: Los Gatos

Los Gatos was not always the gem of the foothills. It began in 1840 as Rancho Rinconada de Los Gatos (corner of the cats), a reference to the high number of bobcats and cougars that often descended from the mountains and attacked cattle there in Spanish colonial days. To the south of the modern township, near modern-day Vasona Park, a single adobe home owned by José Hernandez and his family was the only permanent structure until James Alexander Forbes purchased a parcel of land from the Hernandezes in 1854. Forbes built a flour mill on the property along Los Gatos Creek, and around the mill grew a small settlement of employees, lumberjacks, stagecoach drivers, saloon keepers, and so on. In 1861, John W. Lyndon began buying land across the creek from the mill. His Ten Mile House became the center of the western settlement, with the mill acting as the center of the eastern town.

Painting of the original Hernandez family adobe on Rancho Rinconada de Los Gatos. [Los Gatos Public Library]

Los Gatos was still hardly a large community, however. Lexington just to the south beyond Cats Canyon was in decline by the mid-1870s, but it still had at least an equal population to Los Gatos. But the tide quickly turned thanks to the advent of the railroad. In 1876, the South Pacific Coast Railroad was founded to bridge the gap between the Bay Area and Santa Cruz.

Los Gatos Hotel in 1890. [Los Gatos Public Library]
By 1877, the tracks reached Los Gatos. After a failed venture to cross Los Gatos Creek near the Forbes Mill that year, the railroad reassessed conditions and decided the next year to run the railroad straight through the west part of town dominated by the Ten Mile House. The only problem was that Lyndon's hotel was directly in the way of the proposed route. The railroad and proprietor negotiated an agreement: the railroad could have the property, if they moved the entire hotel across the street. This the South Pacific Coast eagerly did and the was renamed the Hotel Los Gatos. The hotel stood on the site until a fire destroyed it in 1898. It was rebuilt in splendor the next year as the Hotel Lyndon, which remained on the site until 1963.

Hotel Lyndon in the 1930s with multiple rows of tracks visible in the foreground. [Los Gatos Public Library]
For two years from 1878, west Los Gatos became the terminus of the railroad as construction continued further to the south. A small freight yard was built just to the north, and passenger and freight depots were built on the former hotel site.

President Benjamin Harrison speaking at Los Gatos, May 1, 1891. [Los Gatos Public Library]

With the completion of the Mountain Route in 1880, Los Gatos became connected to a thriving freight and passenger network, with all manner of goods passing through the town including fruits, vegetables, and lumber. Tourists flocked to the growing town, as well. President Benjamin Harrison stopped by on May 1, 1891, while on a rail tour of California.

A busy day at Los Gatos depot with the new Hotel Lyndon, built in 1899, visible at right, c. 1901. [Bill Wulf]
Although Los Gatos itself was not a freight-heavy station, it often served as a holding yard for materials passing in both directions down the line, and there were numerous small businesses located in the town wishing to use the line as a freight service. The Sacred Heart Novitiates winery on the hill above town regularly wagoned barrels of wine to the track for export to markets. Many other businesses had freight spurs and sidings further to the north. The station more importantly served as an important water refuelling stop for steam locomotives before they began their long climb up the Santa Cruz Mountains, where water was only available at Wright's Station, Tank Siding, and Felton.

As late as 1947, two tracks were still used at Los Gatos, while a third fell into disuse. [Los Gatos Public Library]
Due largely to the tourist traffic, Los Gatos supported three long sidings alongside the mainline at the depots during the narrow-gauge era. On busy days, all three sidings would be filled with tourists enjoying the town and nearby Memorial Park before heading to the beach in Santa Cruz. When the tracks were converted to standard-gauge, the trackage at the station was reorganised and one siding was removed. One siding ran from the freight yard to the end of Santa Cruz Avenue, while a second siding began at Main Street and ended just before the longer siding.

A celebration on April 15, 1900, for the arrival of the first standard gauge train to Los Gatos. [Los Gatos Public Library]
Standard gauging of the line began in 1894 and reached Los Gatos the next fall. The first standard-gauge freight train arrived September 7, 1895, but it was another five years before the first standard-gauge train came to town, on April 15, 1900.

The three main tracks at Los Gatos after the standard-gauge conversion. Note that the third rail is removed, but a guard rail for the third rail remains visible in the center track. [Los Gatos Public Library]
The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake greatly damaged the route to Santa Cruz and delayed the final conversion of the tracks to standard-gauge, which was done while the route was repaired. Thus, from 1895 to 1909, all tracks in Los Gatos had a third rail and the town served as the transfer station from narrow- to standard-gauge rolling stock.

The original depot, modified with standard Southern Pacific Victorian-style additions, c. 1910s. [Los Gatos Public Library]
The depot itself underwent numerous remodels over the decades. At some point in the 1890s, Victorian-style elements such as a bay window and larger windows were added. In 1924, the simple South Pacific Coast structure was massively overhauled and converted to a Spanish Revival stucco exterior. The structure survived the end of passenger service but was finally demolished in 1964 and the site turned into a public park.

Los Gatos depot structure as it is demolished, 1964. [Los Gatos Public Library]
Passenger service continued after the route to Santa Cruz was abandoned in 1940. The northern section of the original route was rebranded by Southern Pacific as the Los Gatos Branch.

A Southern Pacific train awaits a bus from Santa Cruz at Los Gatos, 1941. [Bruce MacGregor]
The automobile decisively ended the future prospects of the short post-1940 commuter line. Saturday service was the first to end in 1953. Standard Oil, one of the line's freight patrons, ended usage in 1958. The next year, all passenger service ended and the line was cut back to Vasona Junction. All remaining freight—primarily Sterling Lumber and the Novitiates winery—had to deliver goods by truck.

The last Saturday service train to Los Gatos, 1953. Weekday commuter service continued until 1959,
at which point the line was cut back to Vasona Junction. [Los Gatos Public Library]
The day after the last passenger train ran—on January 25, 1959—the Central Coast Railway Club and the Los Gatos Chamber of Commerce sponsored a round trip excursion from Los Gatos to San José, which culminated in a spike-pulling ceremony at Los Gatos to mark the end of formal rail service to the town. It came eighty-one years after the track was first installed on the site of Lyndon's hotel. The right-of-way, which ran parallel to Santa Cruz Avenue, was converted into much-needed parking to support the bourgeoning businesses along the growing downtown.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Right:
37.222˚N, 121.983˚W

The site of Los Gatos station is now the Los Gatos Town Park. In fact, a portion of the original track was retained and cemented into a portion of pavement near the original depot site. Other relics of the railroad remain, too, to the south along Santa Cruz Avenue. On the right side of the road, just before it descends under Highway 17, a semaphore signal block with protruding piece of track sits, although the place is often used as a homeless camp now. Another piece of tracks juts out of the hillside just before this spot.

  • Kelley, Edward, and Peggy Conaway. Images of Rail: Railroads of Los Gatos. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing 2006.
  • Los Gatos Public Library.
  • Whaley, Derek. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA: 2015.


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

    1. I was in Los Gatos on a hot summer Sunday in 1958. For whatever reason,
      I still remember seeing a freight car on a spur there along with the
      wigwag signal shown in one of your current article's photos at Main Street. in 1963, my father to took me on Train 132 from Palo Alto
      to nearby Vasona Junction through miles of orchards. I regretted not
      being able to have ridden the train all of the way into Los Gatos while that was still possible. After January 27, 1964, you couldn't ride a passenger train just to Vasona Junction from Palo Alto either.


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