Friday, September 14, 2018

Railroads: Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway

Roaring Camp Railroads was a narrow-gauge-only affair for the first two decades of its existence. But opportunity reared its head in 1982 when disaster struck the Olympia section of the Santa Cruz Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The winter storms of 1982 damaged much of the infrastructure in the San Lorenzo Valley. Massive flooding decimated the Felton Grove subdivision and also caused numerous landslides all over the valley. In San Lorenzo Gorge, slips, sinks, and slides knocked the railroad tracks out of commission. For twenty years, these tracks had been used exclusively to haul freight for the two quarries up at Olympia. But both had been considering a switch to trucks and the 1982 disaster forced them to switch. It would be months before Southern Pacific could restore the branch line and, frankly, it wanted out of its obligations.

The first Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railroad excursion train to Santa Cruz in October 1986, with the Whitcomb locomotive leading three modified flatcars and a caboose. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
Meanwhile, F. Norman Clark had a dream. When he first opened Roaring Camp, he envisioned a revival of the former route through the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Jose. It was a pipe dream, but the closure of the remnant nine miles of track gave him the opportunity to take the first step toward achieving this goal. He met with railroad officials and they eventually came to an agreement on February 14, 1985. The entire line between Laurel Street in Santa Cruz to the end of the line near Zayante School Road would be purchased by Roaring Camp, which intended to use the line primarily for passenger excursions, although freight to the San Lorenzo Lumber Company yard and potentially the quarries was also anticipated.

CF7 2641 in its original color scheme outside the Boardwalk's Looff Carousel, 1989. [ATOMIC Hot Links on Flickr]
Unlike the track up Bear Mountain, which used vintage steam locomotives, this new standard-gauge line would require modern diesel locomotives and brand new rolling stock. Initially, Norman purchased a small Whitcomb diesel locomotive from the nearby Lonestar Company quarry, which no longer needed it. It was capable of hauling a few cars to operate the line. The first runs only went as far as Rincon before reversing back to Felton. This locomotive was clearly a short term solution, but Norman never would see his full vision realised. He died in December 1985, and his wife, Georgiana, was left with the task of completing his vision. For the first year, trains only went as far as the Santa Cruz Union Depot at the end of Center Street, but in 1987 an agreement was made with Southern Pacific that allowed trains to park in front of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Georgie purchased two CF7 locomotives to pull the trains and an increasing number of mostly open-top sightseeing cars to hold the passengers, although Roaring Camp did purchase a vintage mail car that is now used primarily for ticket and snack sales. Most of the rolling stock, except the mail car, were constructed on site atop 1895-1915-era flatcars that had been used by the Western Beet Sugar Company's refinery in Spreckels near Salinas.

The Beach Train parked behind the Giant Dipper at the Boardwalk, c. 2000. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
Little has changed since the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway (popularly known as the Beach Train) began operating in 1986. Regular excursions run seasonally from Felton to the Boardwalk twice a day, with special weekly excursions from Mount Hermon's Redwood Camp in the summer for campers. Various plans to open evening dinner service either along the current route or up to Davenport have been proposed, but have yet to become regular activities. Meanwhile, plans are also slowly developing to utilise the roughly two miles of track to the north of Roaring Camp. To support future activities and supplement the existing CF7s, two additional CF7s were purchased in late 2017. Freight is extremely rare along the line, now, but Roaring Camp still retains all common carrier privileges to the old quarries and to the San Lorenzo Lumber yard.

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1 comment:

  1. Most interesting and especially because when I was a counselor at Mt. Cross Camp in Felton me and other counselors often walked those tracks to go to the beach in Santa Cruz and then walk back on them to the camp. Very cool read. Glad someone kept those tracks in use.


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