Friday, December 15, 2017

Picnic Stops: Sunset Park

Of the series of picnic stops developed by the Southern Pacific Railroad in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Sunset Park, located just north of Wright, was probably the most popular and infamous. Despite suggestions to the contrary, Sunset Park was a very short-lived tourist resort, only thriving for about ten years. The first picnic stop along the line was Grove Park, in Los Gatos, and that was replaced in around 1888 with Forest Grove, located roughly 1.5 miles to the north of Wright. But the railroad owned neither of those locations and felt inclined to purchase a property that it could manage itself.

A picnic train on the spur across from Sunset Park, c. 1900. Note the Japanese lanterns. The purpose of the large structure behind the train is unknown. [Vernon Sappers]
Picnickers walking beside a train toward the swing
bridge to Sunset Park, c. 1900. [Vernon Sappers]
In January 1896, the railroad settled on a small, 35-acre maple grove situated above the main town of Wright on the west bank of Los Gatos Creek. The railroad tracks did not go here but they did pass through the original Wright townsite across the creek, which had been rehabilitated in 1893 to deal with the repair and restoration of the Summit Tunnel. The track was extended slightly and a pedestrian swing bridge was installed across the creek to connect the detraining area with the grove. A restaurant and clubhouse were built in the trees beside the grove, and a dancing pavilion was erected as well. Many different activities were advertised for vacationers, including deer hunting, fishing, tennis, boating, and swimming. The creek itself was dammed seasonally for the latter two activities. Japanese lanterns marked the property on all sides and are one of the key means of identifying photographs of the park.

Southern Pacific worked hard to market Sunset Park. They cut their rates from $5.00 to $3.00 for roundtrips from San Francisco or Oakland. The excursion trains they sent to the park could each take roughly 500 tourists separated into ten passenger cars. Once at the park, the railroad would sell beer and fresh foods such as French bread, gourmet cheeses, imported cured meats, and barbecued lamb. At night, electrical lighting in the lanterns illuminated the grove while live music was performed for dancers.

Sunset Magazine, originally a marketing tool of Southern Pacific, noted in 1898:
"At Sunset Park, the pavilion accommodates with ease one thousand dancers, and among the redwood groves are romantic pathways along which, in shady nooks, permanent tables and benches are placed for the convenience of small parties."
A train parked on the Sunset Park spur, probably in its first year since there are few amenities. [Vernon Sappers]
Locals posing beside a Sunset Park excursion
train outside Wright. [Vernon Sappers]
The locals were unsurprisingly able to exploit the park to its fullest. Although Southern Pacific never built any hotels or cottages within their property—and indeed never intended the site to be used for anything other than afternoon and evening activities—local businesses set up rental cottages all around the hills above the grove and a new large hotel was built in Wright to support the summer tourism. During summer weekends, thousands of visitors would come to Sunset Park aboard special excursion trains that would crowd the sidings and spurs at Wright, while many groups hired out Sunset Park for its annual gatherings.

Sunset Park quickly got a reputation about it. Due to the ruggedness of the environment, people let their inhibitions drop. Drunkenness, rowdiness, and other societally frowned-upon activities were common at the park, and obnoxious revellers littered the entire right-of-way from Wright to Alameda in the late evenings as the merrymakers returned home. Often, conductors would literally shove the worst offenders off the slow-moving train in punishment for their lack of respect for the train or other passengers. The grove itself became quickly unmanageable as many tourists would take natural souvenirs, decimating the local flora and forcing the railroad to hire gardeners to maintain the place.

Sunset Park advertisement, appropriately shown
with bottles of liquor atop it. [Bruce MacGregor]
By 1903, the location was becoming to much of a problem for the railroad and the company leased it to a concessionaire. However, the standard-gauging of the tracks to Wright in May of that year meant that excursion trains could now go directly to Sunset Park from anywhere in the Bay Area. For a brief three years, Sunset Park rivalled any other tourist destination in the region, including the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey. Yet problems continued. A derailment in July 1904 and collision in August, both in Cats Canyon, sparked anger and fears among vacationers. Furthermore, residents in Wright were becoming upset that so many drunken people were vandalizing their town.

Southern Pacific finally decided in January 1906 to stop all such excursions through the isolated Santa Cruz Mountains in favor of a more accessible and less populated location on the New Almaden Branch. The new picnic stop, also to be named Sunset Park, was scheduled to open in summer 1906, but the San Francisco Earthquake in April of that year delayed plans somewhat. Outside Wright, the spur for Sunset Park became the new end-of-track for passenger trains while all the other spurs and sidings were repurposed for construction duty since the San Andreas Fault had shifted the tunnel six feet from its original alignment. Any thoughts of tourism to the area came to an end and the two hotels in town were both turned into tunnel worker dormitories.

Overview of the area around Sunset Park, which was located just to the left of center in this photo. The large hotel built to support tourists from Sunset Park is located at right, c. 1908. Photo by Frank Herman Mattern. [Greg De Santis]
  For a long decade between the completed repairs of the Summit Tunnel in summer 1893 and the earthquake of April 1906, Wright thrived as a tourist haven and summer resort, with the popularity of Sunset Park bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists to the Santa Cruz Mountains. But it was a fleeting moment. After earthquake repairs were completed, the Sunset Park spur was removed, the grove abandoned or sold to a local resident, and the town began its inexorable decline.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.138˚N, 121.950˚W

The site of Sunset Park's spur is easily accessible. It can be found at the bottom of Wrights Station Road across the bridge to the right. Cathermola Road marks the right-of-way here, but there is no actual trace of the stop that survives. The maple grove is presumably across the creek, but all of that property is owned by the San Jose Water Company and trespassing is not allowed. Whether the original maple grove survives is currently unknown.

Citations & Credits:
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • MacGregor, Bruce A., and Richard Truesdale. A Centennial: South Pacific Coast. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1982.
  • Stephen Michael Payne, "Resorts in the Summit Road Area, 1850 – 1906" (Santa Cruz: Public Libraries, 1978). From A Howling Wilderness: A History of the Summit Road area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, 1850 – 1906. Santa Cruz, CA: Loma Prieta Publishing, 1978.
  • Sunset: Southern Pacific Company Passenger Dept.Vol. 1 (Southern Pacific Company, 1898). 
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.


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