Friday, January 4, 2019

Stations: Newell Mill

The Southern Pacific Railroad's Newell Creek Branch to the south of Ben Lomond had only one unique stop: Newell Mill. However, much like the Loma Prieta mill near Aptos, this mill on Newell Creek justified the railroad's costs in building the branch and its continued existence over the next decade.

In 1903, Timothy Hopkins, treasurer of Southern Pacific, joined forces with A. C. Bassett, president of the California Timber Company, which was formed via the consolidation of the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company (once owned by James Dougherty) and the Big Basin Lumber Company (previously owned by Henry L. Middleton). Their goal: harvest the old growth redwood that still sat within the upper Newell Creek basin. Hopkins convinced the railroad to build the 1.5-mile-long branch line while the California Timber Company built the mill and all extra trackage and roads required to get the felled timber to the mill pond. Bassett brought most of his machinery from the now-abandoned Dougherty mill north of Boulder Creek in the summer of 1904. In May 1905, Hopkins delivered on his promise and the branch line to the mill was completed. Only one small bridge was required along the line to cross the creek. In anticipation of the future upgrade, the branch line was triple-railed to support both narrow- and standard-gauge rolling stock.

Newell Mill alongside Newell Creek, c. 1906. Note the creek to the left of the mill and the railroad tracks continuing beside the mill and up the creek. [Bruce MacGregor]
The mill opened on May 1, 1905, averaging an output of 60,000 board feet of lumber per day. The tiny Felton locomotive, nicknamed the Dinky, which originally ran on the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad line before being purchased by the Doughertys around 1887, was transferred to the Newell Mill where it operated in the Newell Basin on narrow-gauge tracks installed by lumber crews. Unlike the branch line to the mill, the miles of tracks installed north of the mill were privately-owned and undoubtedly crudely made, with several bridges built to cross the creek and various gullies and feeder streams. In October, a fire burned down the entire mill. Fortunately, most of the timber was still soaking in the mill pond at the time and very little actually was lost. Bassett rebuilt the mill the following February and resumed operations. 

Lumbermen waiting on a narrow-gauge flatcar for a pickup by a locomotive. [Rick Hamman]
The April 18, 1906, earthquake should have catapulted Newell Creek into peak production to support the San Francisco rebuild, but several issues slowed down operations. The closure of the mountain route for three years meant that lumber either had to be shipped out along the coast via Pajaro or by ship at Santa Cruz. Southern Pacific also took the closure of the route as an opportunity to finally upgrade its trackage to standard-gauge, which occurred along the Boulder Creek Branch in 1908. Prior to this time, all of the San Lorenzo Valley's trackage had been narrow-gauge, but the upgrading meant that the tracks along Newell Creek were now the only narrow-gauge tracks in the valley. The California Timber Company rushed to convince Southern Pacific to send to its mill all remaining narrow-gauge rolling stock before pulling out the third rail. This allowed the mill to continue to optimise its harvesting operations in the hills.

Kitty sitting on a triple-railed track in the Newell Creek property, c. 1907. [Rick Hamman]
The Dinky was no longer as capable as it had once been and in 1910 the lumber company replaced it with the Kitty, a saddleback locomotive purchased from the Molino Timber Company. The Dinky returned to the narrow-gauge track north of Boulder Creek where it was used in subdivision promotions around Wildwood. With the Kitty, harvesting operations on Newell Creek were able to expand even faster than anticipated. By 1911, 3.5 miles of track meandered up to near the headwaters of the creek, crossing over the creek five times before reaching the end.

Lumbermen posing outside the Newell Mill, c. 1906. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections]
By the end of 1912, the basin was completely bereft of profitable old growth timber. The mill shut down early the next year and was subsequently dismantled, the machinery and Kitty shipped elsewhere. The tracks north of the Newell Mill were probably scrapped in the late 1910s for use by the military during World War I, while the main branch to Newell Junction languished until at least 1920.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0987N, 122.0751W

Today, nearly all of the original California Timber Company grounds are submerged under the Santa Cruz City Water District reservoir known as Loch Lomond, which is accessible to the public seasonally via Lompico. The dam was built in 1960 and the valley flooded three years later. It currently provides much of the drinking water for the City of Santa Cruz. Little survives of the narrow-gauge right-of-way because of the inundation, although remnants do exist near the top of the lake. The railroad right-of-way to the Newell Mill mostly parallels Newell Creek Road just to the east, passing through what are now private homes. The site of the mill sits just below the earthen dam at the end of the road and is inaccessible to the public.

  • Clark, Donald Thomas. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographic Dictionary. Second edition. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2008.
  • 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.

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