Friday, February 23, 2018

Stations: Laurel

When the South Pacific Coast Railroad surveyors and grading crews first traversed the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1877, they ran through a small basin that formed the headwaters of Burns Creek. A work camp was established in a crude clearing on the western side of the basin, just before a hillside that would soon host a tunnel to Glenwood. Once construction officially started on this tunnel, as well as the tunnel to Wright's Station, in late 1878, the location acquired the name Highland, since it was the stop nearest the top of the railroad grade. For the next two years, Highland served as a construction site while the tunnels were being bored. Two local lumbermen, Harold F. Elbone and John Peter Houck, built a lumber mill at the site on land leased from Frederick A. Hihn, who owned the entire valley. They provided ties for the tracks and materials to build the bridges and tunnels in the valley.

When the railroad was completed in May 1880, Highland declined in importance. Elbone and Houck continued to operate their mill for a number of years to provide fuel wood to passing trains, but Glenwood, just a mile to the west, also provided this service so the mill soon closed down. John Martin Schultheis, who lived on the summit just above the railroad grade, built a short road between the Soquel Turnpike and Highland in 1880 to make it easier for local ranchers and farmers to bring their goods to the trains. Another lumber venture, this time by Hihn and Ephraim Morrell, attempted to produce commercial-grade lumber beginning in 1881 along Cleveland Gulch, just to the south of Highland. In 1885, Morrell left and Joshua Barber moved in in an attempt to drill for oil on the millsite. Still, Highland grew slowly, and was virtually a ghost town in the winter, when lumber crews raised camp.

People awaiting a train at Laurel Station, c. 1890s.

Hihn permitted construction of a school in the hamlet in 1882, but it took the name Laurel rather than Highland, probably in reference to a local chaparral tree. That same year, a post office was installed, probably within a small general store located near the tracks, but the postmarks for it read Laurel as well. Even Burrell Creek, which ran below the town, slowly became known as Laurel Creek during this time. Although the South Pacific Coast Railroad resisted the trend to rename the town, the Southern Pacific Railroad, which took over the line in 1887, had no such qualms. From late 1887 to the present, the site has retained the name Laurel while the name Highland shifted up to small settlement along Summit Road.

Laurel township with boxcars, c. 1915. [George Pepper]
Laurel was never a thriving town. Besides the school, it was composed of a general store, a hostelry, and a few other rotating amenities, as demanded. For the entire period from 1887 to 1900, the town survived only because of the freight needs of Summit residents and seasonal interest in the Hotel de Redwood Resort, which was accessed from the station along a long, curvy road along Soquel Creek to the south. Laurel's station was erected by the Southern Pacific in late 1887 and served both freight and passenger service, as well as a Wells Fargo Express office.

View of Laurel looking west toward the Glenwood Tunnel, c. 1905. The large warehouse beside the tunnel portal housed the cable winch for the incline, which passed through the gully to the left. The station is directly to the right of the photographer.

The hamlet's fortunates briefly changed in late 1900. Frederick Hihn had been operating a mill along Gold Gulch south of Felton for the past five years, but it was running out of timber. He had long viewed the upper Soquel Creek basin as a highly profitable source of revenue, but as of yet had been unwilling to tap the vast redwood tracts located there. In 1900, though, demand was high and he finally relocated his operations to a deep gully at the confluence of Laurel and Burns Creeks just south of the Summit Tunnel. To reach his mill, he built a 1,600-foot-long tramway that connected the railroad tracks at Laurel with his mill. A cable winch installed in a large barn beside the Glenwood tunnel's western portal provided the motor power to haul up carloads of cut lumber to the railroad grade. Although a fire destroyed the original mill in September 1902, Hihn rebuilt and was producing lumber at peak capacity when the April 1906 earthquake hit.

A view of Laurel from the top of the Glenwood Tunnel's west portal, c. 1920.

The earthquake trapped Laurel and briefly ended logging operations at the mill there. Blocked to the south due to sinks and landslides and to the north by the San Andreas Fault destroying the Summit Tunnel, the hamlet probably suffered the most commercial per capita of all the towns along the former South Pacific Coast route. For two years, work crews operated in the town, first repairing the Summit Tunnel, which reopened in September 1907, and then upgrading the tracks and the Glenwood Tunnel, which was completed in March 1909. Hihn resumed limited operations at the mill in May 1908, shipping lumber to San José, but the profits were lacking and he soon closed down again. In 1909, operations resumed again and continued intermittently for the next decade. Hihn died in 1913, but his lumber operations continued under the direction of his children for a few more years.

Laurel Station, probably around mid-1940 after the railroad route had been abandoned but before the tracks were removed.
With the closure of all the local mills no later than 1919, the town began to decline. It was not located along a major thoroughfare—Glenwood Highway ran to the west, through Glenwood, and the San José-Santa Cruz Road ran to the east, through Soquel—and interest in remote campgrounds and picnic stops along railroad routes was declining as automobiles became more popular. A gas station was built on the site of Hihn's old cable winch warehouse in the mid-1920s. Meanwhile, the general store and school remained opened and intact for many more decades. But the warning signs were mounting. Passenger service along the line was declining and freight service to Laurel ended in 1920. By 1940, only 35 people remained in the valley. The severe damage to the railroad line in February of that year led to the abandonment of the railroad route through the Santa Cruz Mountains and the closure of the train station the next year. The tunnels on either side of the town were dynamited in April 1942, after which residents converted the Glenwood Tunnel into a water reservoir. The school eventually closed in 1947 and the post office, which operated out of the former station building, closed in July 1953.

Slides and sinks under the tracks across from Laurel Station on April 9, 1940. [Bruce MacGregor]
Laurel Station in 1948 after the tracks had been removed.
Today, Laurel is considered a ghost town. There are no commercial building in the area except the Hotel de Redwood, which serves now as a wedding venue called Redwood Lodge. A dozen or so homes still remain in the area, including one that occupies the former gas station beside the Glenwood Tunnel's west portal. Some buildings remained in place at the site, including possibly the train station, until 1994, when the poor condition of the buildings caused them to be demolished due to public safety concerns. A plaque was erected in 1971 by the Santa Cruz County Bicentennial Commission recognising the historic importance of the town.

The former gas station outside the western portal of the Glenwood Tunnel, 2012.
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.117˚N, 121.966˚W

The site of Laurel can be found at the intersection of Laurel, Schulties, and Redwood Lodge Roads off State Route 17 (northbound). The actual townsite is down a private dirt road, but can also be viewed from above Schulties Road just north of the intersection. Many of the cinderblock foundations of the old structures remain in a clearing just northeast of the road intersection. The dirt road itself is the former right-of-way and trespassing is not advised.

Citations & Credits:
  • Clark, Donald Thomas. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2008.
  • Comstock, Charlie. "A Short History of the South Pacific Coast Railroad" (1998).
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.


  1. Great photos and history. You'll need to give me the grand tour of some of these sites one of these days.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for the info about the north end of the Wrights tunnel. I have been to all the tunnels portals except for this one. Hopefully I'll be able to find it.

  4. Oops,I meant south end of Wrights tunnel

  5. I visited Laurel for the first time in 1964 with camera and I can say with
    great certainty the Laurel station was gone at that point. I returned again
    in 1969 and 1972 and I know there was no station in Laurel then either.
    The only thing worth photographing then as well as today is the portal of
    the tunnel which is easy to locate. Nobody I have talked to seems to know
    when the station was demolished. Perhaps a reader of this article could fill
    us in on this. Great article Derek!

  6. Would like to see pictures of the former town site today.

  7. The building that was used for the post office burned down around 1960 and the train station was gone in the mid 40's.The mill was torn down. And rebuilt where the Laurel Rd and Redwood Lodge rd come together. There is an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel about the mill supplying wood to rebuild San Fransisco about 1952. It's a full page.


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