Friday, August 31, 2018

Stations: Felton

The San Lorenzo Valley was home to two railroad hubs, the logging station at Boulder Creek and the main line junction at Felton. But Felton Station did not originally begin as an important stop along the line. When the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad was first constructed up the San Lorenzo Valley from Santa Cruz in 1875, it terminated on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River, within the central part of the town. When the South Pacific Coast Railroad built its route in late 1879, they located their right-of-way on the east bank, about 0.75 miles to the east of town, so that the train could capitalize on the tourist potential of the Welch Big Trees Grove. The station that the erected between the tracks and East San Lorenzo Drive (Graham Hill Road) was crude and unassuming, probably akin to similar small depots erected in Wright's Station and Alma. Photographs of this early depot do not survive, but the station provided passenger and freight service. However, much of the local population continued to connect to passenger trains leaving from the "Old" Felton station on the west bank.

Felton station grounds, with the passenger depot and covered seating area in the foreground, an signal center, and the water tower and freight depot in the background, c. 1920s. [University of California, Santa Cruz]
Everything changed when the Felton & Pescadero Railroad was constructed beginning in late 1883. The railroad intended to use Old Felton as the southern terminus for the line since that is where the San Lorenzo Valley Flume ended its route, but people in the city tried to exploit the railroad by increasing property rates in order to receive a better payout. The railroad chose, instead, to just bypass downtown area entirely and terminate at the newer Felton station. This proved more convenient for the railroad, which had ample siding space at Felton to park and transfer cars, but it alienated the town. Over the next decade, Old Felton station declined in importance until it was essentially abandoned in favor of the station to the east. Convenient passenger access was eventually provided to the residents of Felton by flag-stops near the river (Covered Bridge Park) and at Bonnie Brae (San Lorenzo Way), but Felton ultimately survived as the only depot in the area as well as the transfer point for all trains, passenger or freight, traveling along the Boulder Creek Branch.

Felton Depot around 1908, showing the freight depot, the passenger depot, both turntables, the water tower, a train on the main track, and a boxcar on a siding, with the Welch Ranch property (later they Ley Meadow) in the background. [Mt. Hermon Association]
The original depot at Felton was replaced around 1891 with an entirely new 19' x 36' single-story wood-frame structure that still remains at its original location today. Beside it, a slightly earlier freight depot was erected, possibly through the use of wood salvaged from the flume, although that assertion has been disputed in recent years. Regardless, it was fully erected no later than 1887. Felton Station provided passenger, freight, and mail delivery services, but also functioned as the primary yard for the lower valley. As such, it included a gallows-style turntable to the south of the depot, so that trains coming from Glenwood or Boulder Creek could turn around; a water tower to refuel trains; and multiple sidings to park excursion trains and waiting freight cars. The station reached its peak in this capacity around 1900, when lumber trains passed constantly through the station, jockeying for space with commuter trains, picnic and excursion trains, and other freight such as black and white powder from the California Powder Works. After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the standard-gauging of the line, a second, larger gallows-style turntable was installed to the north of the freight depot, beside a much larger water tower. The original water tower was removed at the same time, while both turntables remained until the upgrading of the line was completed in 1909. At some point in the 1920s, a covered passenger waiting wing was added to the south side of the passenger depot.

Felton Depot on July 21, 1940, five months after the route over the mountains ended and passenger service to Felton ended. [Wilbur C. Whittaker]
Felton as a station declined slowly. Its location as a central hub made it important throughout the years that the Boulder Creek Branch operated, but even after that line closed in early 1934, the track to the Holmes Lime Kiln across the San Lorenzo River kept the station operating. By this time, multiple loads of gravel and sand from the Olympia quarries were also hauling loads to the station, where loaded and empty cars parked along the open siding space. The closure of the route through the Santa Cruz Mountains and the end of local passenger service did not immediately lead to the end of this station. Locals still came to the station to purchase train and Pacific Greyhound tickets and ship their parcels. The Santa Cruz Lumber Company also operated out of the adjacent lot so maintained regular traffic to the stop. Furthermore, some Suntan Specials, which ran seasonally until 1959, and all Big Trees excursion trains, which ran periodically to 1965, stopped at Felton, where the trains could top off their water, if they so required it. The station finally ended all service in two waves. In 1953, the freight house was mostly retired, although the freight office remained open. Southern Pacific and the Railway Express Agency petitioned to abandon the station completely in 1958, but was denied due to local protests. They were not closed until February 27, 1962.

Felton Depot during the early years of Roaring Camp Railroads, c. 1965. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
The freight depot at Felton today. [Derek R. Whaley]
The station and freight house had barely gone into disuse before Roaring Camp Railroads purchased the structure from Southern Pacific in late 1962.  For the first five years of its operations, between 1963 and 1967, Roaring Camp used the former station as its ticket office while construction continued on their narrow-gauge line up Bear Mountain and on Roaring Camp Depot, which would open across from the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park entrance in 1968. Once they relocated, Roaring Camp did not maintain the station or freight house well. The freight house survived more or less intact, its large-timbered old-growth redwood able to withstand the environment. It has undergone various repairs over the years and is generally used for storage. The depot began to deteriorate in the late 1960s and was allowed to decline. In 1992, all the rotten timbers were removed and the entire structure underwent rehabilitation. It reopened in 1997 as the corporate offices of Roaring Camp and remain in use as such today.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0467N, 122.0641W

Felton depot today. [Derek R. Whaley]
Felton station can still be seen off Graham Hill Road just west of the entrance to Roaring Camp Railroads. During its restoration, it was painted burgundy with a white trim, as was the adjacent freight depot. The depot has lost its porch and eaves but otherwise remains in tact and is still used for storage. The passenger depot serves as an office for Roaring Camp and entry is permitted only by appointment, although it can be freely viewed from the outside on the street side. The track side is restricted to Roaring Camp personnel only. These depots are the oldest confirmed narrow-gauge structures that still survive in Santa Cruz County.

Citations & Credits:


  1. The photo with the Mount Hermon guests walking south:

    1. It seems later than 1910 by just a few years - women in white with shades of color, button stance on the men's jackets, neckties, the track shows no trace of having recently been converted to standard-gauge, weeds. Where could they be going? Late afternoon. June. There are enough of them to overwhelm any venue, unless it was to see the trees.

    2. While modern systems place the block signals within the sidings, the older automatic block signaling (or ABS) put the semaphores beyond the switches. Sidings are double-ended with the expectation that trains will use them to bypass one another, and the ABS system protected trains between such sidings; ABS only concerned itself with the mainline track. In generally, double-bladed semaphores were placed in front of the siding with the upper blade indicating the condition of the immediate block and the lower blade duplicating the signal that sits at the exit of the siding. The signal on the right-hand-side of the tracks is important, the signal on the left is for the opposing direction.

    The photo shows two double-bladed semaphores, which seems to mean that the siding on the west (along with the Boulder Creek branch) has ended, and another separate siding on the east has opened (I'm looking at the condition of the tracks in the photo and the east track is more weeded). The second track down at Big Trees was not a siding, but the track up at Meehan (and possibly Glenwood) had correctly installed signals. Those concrete blocks along the old line might indicate a siding, or a 'distant' signal, or an 'overrun' signal.

    3. The photo was taken from the roof of a railcar sitting on some house track, I wonder what industry established itself here?

    1. It looks like the same group, or at least half of them, were photographed crossing the Mount Hermon Bridge minutes earlier. It probably isn't a wedding under the trees, as everyone appears around the same age. The resolution fails in both photos, but it looks like a sure identification although it is now dated "c. 1920".

      There might be several uses for end-to-end sidings - switchback maneuvering, bunched trains traveling as sections - but the benefits would mostly go to a Boulder Creek branch train waiting for another to clear. If no industry is found for railcars waiting this far from the station, then maybe it was a double-ended single track yard for transferring freight between branch and through trains. A photo of the last (?) Southern Pacific excursion to Big Trees (resting adjacent to the parking lot) shows that the siding still existed in the mid-1960s.

  2. New Felton Station:

    Standing in front of the building is a 'train order semaphore' that is manually operated by the station’s operator. Ignoring the blade on the left (it is for the opposing direction), if the blade on the right is in the horizontal position an approaching train must stop and be handed orders. These orders are usually wired many miles and typed by the operator to be given to crews. I see train order semaphores at Los Gatos, Wright, Laurel, Glenwood, and Felton. Newer, metal poles were installed at LG, Glenwood and Felton, while Wright and Laurel lost their signals; Ben Lomond also had one of the earlier wooden semaphores.

    The station used the southern third of the building for the public. Both of the doors – east and west - were open, and the ticket agent worked behind a window in the main area of the building. Heating was provided by the sun.

    1. Looking at the recent photo of the station, I don't see the interior dividing wall, so it was either altered or my memory of it is off. I sure don't remember walking from one end to the other while receiving my ticket for the Roaring Camp train.

  3. New Felton Station: It looks like this station is a little more traditional than at first sight: office in the middle, waiting room to one side, freight to the other side. I’m guessing that it had a platform on the north side – the station is very asymmetrical, it has fewer windows on the north for looking through, and the roof is at least three feet higher than usual. So a small station that wasn’t intended to compete with old Felton, and one that stuck to a plan similar to that of the Laurel station or the first Ben Lomond station (or Castroville, or Pacific Grove, etc…).

    The turntable: I think that the sepia-toned aerial photo is from a later date. The passenger railcars look too long for narrow-gauge, the ABS semaphores are present (yes/no?), the track leading to the turntable seems wide in appearance. This photo seems to show the narrow-gauge turntable behind the station (eastern side), while the newer turntable is by the water tower (and the McKeen railcar would have needed a standard-gauge tt). I still see the turntable in one of the 1935 photos.

    New Felton Depot: was built later than the station as New Felton began to grow in importance. Using an architectural style that had no relation to the station, it was built with two wide doors on both the east and west sides, probably a platform all the way around, and a house track on both sides. Access to the new turntable ruined the west side because no railcar could sit for any length of time.

    The rail yard: It might be a public-owned team track for wagons to transfer supplies, or it might be for holding freight that needed to be switched into downtown Felton after the shorter route was established.

    All guesses. Really, really good guesses.

  4. New Felton Station is a Southern Pacific station built on their Common Standard #23 blueprints. The CS #23s were being built from 1896 to 1916, which would mean that the current building is at least the second station. I expect the earlier station followed the typical South Pacific Coast passenger structures (or are they Southern Pacific, too?) seen at Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond or Los Gatos. The freight depot is probably similar to the Glenwood Depot (before Glenwood's conversion to dual purpose) and dates back to the 1880s, although the eaves at Felton have been cut back.

    Southern Pacific stations are reported to have originally been painted 'chocolate' brown. In 1884 they began painting them slate grey (although I see some trim painted darker), with white window sashes and a 'mineral red' roof. By 1906-7 Colonial Yellow was adopted and a program to repaint all structures in California began. Trim was light brown (Samoa Brown), sashes remained white, the roofs remained mineral red until 'moss green' started as a replacement around 1912. Many stations had Colonial Yellow on the upper half of their sides and a darker yellow for the lower half, easily seen on the Los Gatos Station, but I also see something in the 1900 LG photo, which would have been too early - so I'm confused. The painting of the shingles (not shakes) occurred only on the passenger stations, which leaves the freight depots with the natural look. A report that the 'Greek Cross' shelters had red roofs exists, and I've seen one with what looks to have Colonial Yellow sides.

    I don't know the South Pacific Coast paint scheme, yet.

    'Sanding' was the practice of adding sand to the paint for toughening against bumps and kicks along the lower areas of the wall, this was used until around 1910 (and is still used to protect against mold in the tropics). Reports say that sanding was a popular practice with railroad stations.

    (My sources are usually just single comments, which tend to be copied from one site to another, so question everything.)

  5. Hi Derek! Great article!

    The last Southern Pacific Big Trees Picnic Train ran to
    Felton on August 1, 1965. You ran a photo of this train at the
    Boardwalk in one of your regular Facebook columns many months
    ago. I rode this train in 1963 and photographed it in 1964
    but was unable to see it in 1965 due to my father's birthday.
    See my article on these trains in one of your quarterly bulletins.

    The 1937 Employees Timetable shows two sidings here, one
    with a siding capacity of 9 cars and another for 34 cars.

    I spent time at Mt. Hermon in the summer of 1961 and often
    went down to Felton station to watch the switching of hopper
    cars. I met Norman Clark there one day who was VERY nice and
    he told me of his plans to build the Roaring Camp & Big Trees
    Railroad. I was thrilled when he said it would be steam powered!


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