Friday, January 11, 2019

Stations: Ben Lomond

The development of the settlement that became Ben Lomond took well over three decades to achieve and, compared to many other settlements in the San Lorenzo Valley, had surprisingly little to do with the coming of the railroad. The area is located north of the northern boundary of Rancho Zayante and, as such, it had virtually no development prior to the 1860s. A few rugged farmers established themselves in the area, but otherwise there were no formal roads or services offered north of Felton. The name Ben Lomond was actually given to the mountain to the west of the San Lorenzo Valley, upon which the Scotsman John Burns began the first commercial vineyard in Santa Cruz County. Throughout the 1860s, a number of small lumber enterprises moved into the area that would become the town of Ben Lomond, including Isaac Graham's daughter, Mary E. Marshall, after whom Marshall Creek was named, and Thomas B. Hubbard, the namesake of Hubbard Gulch. On the opposite side of the area, Captain Henry Love, famed for killing the outlaw Joaquín Murieta, owned another small logging operation along the creek that would later bear his name.

A view down Mill Street at Pacific Mills, c. 1885. [Preston Sawyer]
James Pieronnet Pierce purchased Love's property in 1868 and it is with him and his Pacific Manufacturing Company that the true history of Ben Lomond as a settlement begins. Pierce saw the lumber potential provided by the various wooden creeks that all met the San Lorenzo River around floodplain where the river turned abruptly eastward before continuing on its southward journey to the Monterey Bay. But Pierce was patient and harvest other lumber sources while he awaited better access to his land along the river. This opportunity came in 1877, after the San Lorenzo Valley Flume was completed and sufficiently stress-tested.

Pacific Manufacturing Company factory in Santa Clara, c. 1880s. [San José Public Libraries]
At the bend in the river, Pierce built Pacific Mills, a mid-sized lumber mill that ran for almost ten seasons. Pierce's priority was Love Creek, but Hubbard and other local firms also either leased their properties to Pierce or used his large facility at the floodplain to process their felled timber. In Santa Clara, Pierce built a massive planing mill that turned the crudely-cut wood into lumber, window sills, and coffins, among other items, for sale across the West.

Men and a carriage outside the first Ben Lomond depot, c. 1895. [Bruce MacGregor]
In mid-1884, the Felton & Pescadero Railroad first reached Pacific Mills, allowing Pierce to ramp up production of lumber exponentially. Spurs and sidings snaked throughout the mill property, as well as across the San Lorenzo River to the south, up Love Creek to the east, and up Hubbard Gulch to the west. The ultimate extent of his private railroad network is unclear, but remnants found along Love Creek suggest that Pierce built over seven miles of narrow-gauge track, although he probably used horses, oxen, or mules to actually transport felled trees.

Ben Lomond subdivisions as proposed by J.P. Pierce, 1887.
During the summer of 1886, the area around Pacific Mills was logged out and Pierce looked toward selling the acreage. Although Pierce wished to keep the Pacific Mills name, the United States post office disagreed and the name became Ben Lomond in May 1887. Pierce incorporated the Ben Lomond Land & Lumber Company that same year to manage property sales on the 4,000 acres he owned, land that stretched nearly two miles to the north and south and a mile east and west. A Southern Pacific-style combination passenger and freight depot was erected just north of the mill at around this same time, with track passing on either side of the depot. While south of the river, Pierce leased his land to Thomas Bell, who established the Hotel Rowardennan resort complex, within the settlement Pierce separated the land into two large subdivisions he called Sunnyside and Brookside, the former located on the floodplain, the latter along Love Creek.

A passenger train parked beside the new Ben Lomond depot, c. 1910. [Bruce MacGregor]
By the mid-1890s, the town of Ben Lomond was firmly established and the former mill grounds were evolving into downtown. The various spurs up the creeks and around the mill were removed leaving only a short stretch of double track behind the depot and a single run-around track in front of it. Following the San Francisco Earthquake, the track through Ben Lomond was upgraded to standard-gauge in 1908. The next year, the small depot at Ben Lomond was replaced with a structure nearly twice the size and significantly taller, identical to a new station also erected at Boulder Creek.

The San Lorenzo River near Hotel Rowardennan, c. 1908. [California State Library]
Following the end of logging along the Boulder Creek Branch around 1912, Ben Lomond became primarily a tourist destination, with visitors coming from throughout the Bay Area and beyond to visit Hotel Ben Lomond, Hotel Rowardennan, Hotel Dickinson, and other resorts dotting the hills around the town. Significant swimming holes could be found along the river south and west of town, while Hotel Rowardennan also maintained a swimming hole as a part of its resort. Boating and fishing were popular at this time, as were hunting and camping. Ben Lomond produced few freight goods except some fruits grown along Love Creek and north of town.

Postcard of a McKeen motor car parked outside Ben Lomond depot, 1913. [The Valley Press]
Increasing automobile traffic beginning in the late 1910s spelled the doom of the Boulder Creek Branch in general and the station at Ben Lomond in particular. Fewer people took the train to the town, favoring instead to drive there from the Bay Area. A lack of freight customers at Ben Lomond made this problem more acute. Southern Pacific attempted to limit their losses in the mid-1910s by trying McKeen Company motor cars on the line, but these steel tanks proved unable to navigate the turns and grades of the branch line and were quickly moved elsewhere. Traffic continued to fall throughout the 1920s until only a single mixed train ran daily. Passenger service was ultimately ended at the end of 1930, although the tracks remained an active freight line until January 1934.

Mill Street in downtown Ben Lomond soon after the abandonment of the railroad, c. 1940. 
When the tracks were removed later that year, Santa Cruz County planners decided it was a good opportunity to redirect the county road through downtown Ben Lomond. Prior to 1934, through traffic bypassed the town by remaining on the west side of the San Lorenzo River, but a new road, supported with two new bridges built by the Works Progress Administration, was built along the northern edge of downtown, paralleling the old route of the railroad, although never overlapping it. Over the following years, businesses, homes, and the town's fire department were built atop the railroad grade, the remnants of which fell into obscurity.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0899N, 122.0902W

The site of Ben Lomond depot is currently occupied by the Shell gas station at the corner of California State Route 9 and Main Street. The ultimate fates of both depots remains open for debate. The older depot may now serve as a heavily-modified private residence behind the gas station, but the second depot appears to have been demolished. The right-of-way to the east passes through the Scarborough Home Center parking lot, Henfling's Tavern, and the Ben Lomond Fire Department before crossing Love Creek Road and Love Creek on its way to Glen Arbor. To the west, the right-of-way runs through Spanky's and three residences before passing behind the Tyrolean Inn and over the San Lorenzo River, where remnants of the former bridge there can still be discerned on either bank. Nothing else survives of the station at Ben Lomond.



  1. It's wonderful to read all about the Ben Lomond Station. And the photos are fantastic!

  2. Another great article with photos I have never seen! Good work!

  3. Loch Lomond may have been immortalised in song, but it is also the largest freshwater lake in Britain (by surface area) and a popular tourist destination.

  4. A special train filled with the California Camera Club (and let's see some photos, please) traveled up the branch in May of 1900. The stops for those who cared for alternative destinations were Felton, Ben Lomond, Rowardennan, Reed, and finally on to Boulder Creek. So the Hotel Rowardennan may have had its own stop, and while this was the yet to be converted narrow-gauge system, I was wondering about the streetcar. I think that there is a 1912 map of BL showing nothing left of city trackage, only the station's siding and a single nearby spur, so the streetcar may have been a simple shuttle for the flow of tourists.

    1. One problem, the McKeen Motor Car is only single-ended and they are also quite difficult to throw into reverse. If they did operate it backwards, that might be the reason for the 'shameful' accident. Still, maybe there remained some loop of track in 1910.

    2. While I'm still curious where the streetcar service delivered passengers, the Hotel Rowardennan may have been out of reach without horse carriages; which might explain the strange order to the destinations - one needs to reach Ben Lomond and then the hotel. I would need to see a map that showed how far east the hotel's property went, and if a small bridge provided a link across the river. Long shot: the narrow-gauge line borrowed the street bridge south as shown on the earlier map.

  5. It wasn't a 1912 map that I was trying to remember above, but rather a 1908 Sanborn map. All tracks except the one that ran to the station are removed, and only the passing siding in front of the station and a double tracked spur behind the station leading to an ice house, remain. This June,1908 map indicates that the smaller station still existed, while the 1910 photo (with the 'streetcar') shows the much enlarged station, so sometime within the three years 1908-10 a new structure replaced the old. The earlier station was much narrower, had a bay window, and a platform - which makes me wonder where the platform was reassembled; maybe a building dedicated to freight only.

  6. I may have read the main article (dated Friday, July 19, 2013) a little wrong. I thought the McKeen failed to reach the upper end of the line, and that Ben Lomond found a limited use for it locally. I now believe that they persevered with an underpowered rail car all the way to Boulder Creek, and quickly canceled the service.

    The McKeen Moter Car was an early, and famous, failure. Many better models followed, and the McKeens were sometimes stripped of their engine and heavier hardware, to be used a coach towed by one of those same stronger rail cars. Many McKeens were built, one survives - Virginia and Truckee #22 in Carson City, Nev; one can ride it, watch videos online, see photos and read of its history. With a 'wind-splitter' nose and porthole windows, one should take a look and try to imagine how it appeared running up the San Lorenzo Valley, that's if you can.


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