Friday, April 5, 2019

Railroads: Southern Pacific Branch Lines and Divisions

The Southern Pacific Railroad Company became the sole provider for railroad service in Santa Cruz County in 1887 (although the Ocean Shore Railroad, San Juan Pacific Railway, and Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad all attempted to rival their dominance briefly). To manage its railroad lines, routes were divided into divisions, subdivisions, and branches. Several such lines emerged over the years, most of which began life as independent companies, but when the Southern Pacific became the Union Pacific Railroad in 1996, only the Santa Cruz Branch and the Monterey Branch remained under company control, and both only briefly.

Coast Div ision employee timetable No. 147 cover, dated March 30, 1940. This was the last published timetable that included the San Jose & Santa Cruz Branch through the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Watsonville Branch (1871 – 1874)
The very first Southern Pacific branch line, predating the creation of any divisions or subdivisions, was built continuously from 1871 to 1874 from Gilroy to Salinas. In the beginning, it was a route meant to link the Santa Clara Valley’s railroad lines with the agricultural lands of the Salinas Valley while also conveniently passing through Watsonville and near Monterey. But early plans to go through Watsonville were quickly replaced with a route through Pajaro to the south. In the end, the only portion of Santa Cruz County reached by this branch was the tiny settlement of Chittenden.

As early as April 1872, it was common knowledge that the originally-planned Southern Pacific route to the San Joaquin Valley via Hollister would not be economically viable and that the coastal route through Salinas would likely become the main line. Neither proved true, however, as Southern Pacific instead chose a line down the center of the San Joaquin Valley as its main line. When this happened, the Watsonville Branch became the trunk of the Northern Division and the original trunk through Hollister became the Tres Pinos Branch.

Northern Division (1874 – 1897)
When Southern Pacific began building railroad lines in Southern California in the early 1870s, it had a problem: these lines were disconnected from the lines in Central and Northern California. Thus, the first solution to this problem was the creation of the Northern Division, Southern Division, and Colorado Division. At some point around 1888, a portion of the Northern Division split off to become the first Coast Division, which included the Monterey Bay trackage. However, this early version of the Coast Division was later reimagined. Within the Monterey Bay area, three branches fell under the jurisdiction of the Northern Division.

1889 Southern Pacific Coast Division timetable.
Santa Cruz Branch (1888 – 2012)
Beginning life as the Santa Cruz Railroad between Pajaro and Santa Cruz, this line was consolidated with the Loma Prieta Railroad on June 3, 1884 to form the Pajaro & Santa Cruz Railroad. On May 4, 1888, Southern Pacific absorbed the subsidiary railroad and it became the Santa Cruz Line. In 1892, it was renamed the Pajaro & Santa Cruz Branch and retained this name until 1912, when Pajaro was renamed Watsonville Junction. Rather than use a long and clunky term for the branch line, Southern Pacific instead decided to simply call it the Santa Cruz Branch, although this name was sometimes confusingly applied to the route through the mountains as well. The line had several unofficial names over the years including the Watsonville & Santa Cruz Branch, the Pajaro Branch, and the Watsonville Junction & Santa Cruz Branch, and all combinations thereof. None of these were used in an official capacity by the railroad but appeared in newspaper timetables and other media.

The line gained over eight miles of trackage in November 1940 when the Santa Clara & Santa Cruz Branch closed and the Santa Cruz Branch annexed the southern portion between Santa Cruz and Olympia. It retained this additional trackage until October 12, 1985, when Roaring Camp Railroads purchased the section for use as a private tourist train line. When this happened, the Santa Cruz Branch annexed the Davenport Branch, adding eleven new miles to its length. Technically, the line ceased to be a branch line on May 17, 2012, when the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission took control of the route from Union Pacific, making it once more an independent railroad. The entire route is currently undergoing review for rehabilitation as a passenger and freight line, while a pedestrian/bike trail will soon be installed primarily along the western edge of the right-of-way

Loma Prieta Branch (1888 – 1930)
As soon as the Loma Prieta Railroad between Aptos and Monte Vista was completed in the summer of 1884, the company was consolidated into the Pajaro & Santa Cruz Railroad subsidiary of Southern Pacific. In 1888, the company extended the right-of-way three miles to the second Monte Vista and the foot of Five Finger Falls along Aptos Creek and, after this was completed, the company was absorbed into Southern Pacific and became the Loma Prieta Line, renamed the Loma Prieta Branch in 1892. For the next twenty years, the line was in irregular use, serviced primarily by extras or by Loma Prieta Lumber Company locomotives. The three miles of trackage added in 1887-1888 were destroyed by a landslide in 1899 and the trackage was soon afterwards cut back to just six miles, ending just beyond the rapidly declining town of Loma Prieta. Other operations in the area, however, ensured that operations continued in some capacity until the end of 1921. Southern Pacific waited until November 30, 1927 to petition for the abandonment of the route, which was granted in early 1928. It disappears off station books the next year, but continued to be referenced by employee timetables until 1930.

Monterey Branch (1888 – 2003)
The narrow-gauge Monterey & Salinas Valley Railroad between Monterey and Salinas was taken over at auction in December 1879 and early the following year became the Monterey Railroad, a Southern Pacific subsidiary. Southern Pacific standard-gauged the route almost immediately and redrew the right-of-way between Castroville and Monterey. The line was extended to Lake Majella south of Pacific Grove through the Monterey Extension Railroad between January and May 1888, but on May 14, both companies were absorbed by Southern Pacific and became the Monterey Line. From 1888 until 1892, the line included all of the mainline trackage between San José and Pacific Grove. It was even briefly renamed the San Jose & Pacific Grove Branch in 1892 before the route was cut back to Castroville in 1895 and became the Castroville & Pacific Grove Branch. It finally was named the Monterey Branch in June 1907 and has remained under that name ever since.

The Monterey Branch was popular due to the presence of the Hotel Del Monte, which opened on June 3, 1880 and continued to operate as a hotel until just after the start of World War II. The Monterey Express (later Del Monte LimitedDel Monte Express, and finally just Del Monte) began running along the line at this time as a regular named passenger train. During much of its history, the branch was nicknamed the Del Monte Branch to both reflect the popularity of the hotel and the renaming of Castroville's station to Del Monte Junction. The last run of the Del Monte was on April 30, 1971, after which all passenger service to Monterey ended. The tracks between the quarry at Seaside and Lake Majella were abandoned in early 1979 following approval by the Interstate Commerce Commission on December 29, 1978.

Three years after Southern Pacific's merger with Union Pacific in 1996, the Monterey Branch was formally abandoned and the branch cut off at Castroville. While the trackage remains in place all the way to Monterey (often under paved bicycle/hiking paths), it currently is unable to be used. Strictly speaking, the track no longer constitutes a branch line since the sixteen-mile route was purchased by the Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC) in 2003 for $9.3. Plans are in place to rehabilitate the line for passenger and freight use, but nothing has been done yet.

Santa Cruz Division (1887 – 1897)
The portion of the original South Pacific Coast Railway route between the Bay Area and Santa Cruz changed names several times over the years. When it was first leased by Southern Pacific on July 1, 1887, all of the narrow-gauge trackage became known as the South Pacific Coast Railroad Division. This proved to be a rather short-lived entity. On July 1, 1892, it was replaced by the Santa Cruz Division, but this proved equally short-lived. Also, in a rather comedic twist, it only included two narrow-gauge branches within the county—the other trackage within the county remained a part of the Northern Division while the division as a whole retained oversight of most of the former South Pacific Coast trackage. In 1897, the entire route was demoted, at least in station books, to a subdivision.

Narrow Gauge Subdivision (1897 – 1907)
The Narrow Gauge Subdivision was created to handle the remaining narrow-gauge trackage of the former South Pacific Coast Railroad, essentially taking over the duty from the Santa Cruz Division. Although some trackage was standard-gauged beginning in 1895, the entire line was not converted until 1909. Only one new narrow-gauge branch was added to the trackage around the Monterey Bay during this time, and it was soon abandoned. The subdivision included:

College Park & Santa Cruz Branch (1887 – 1940)
The narrow-gauge railroad route through the Santa Cruz Mountains may have begun as a main trunk line of an enterprising railroad, but from 1887 it was demoted to simply a branch line, albeit a significant one. From 1892, the route was named the San Jose and Santa Cruz (Narrow Gauge) Branch on employee timetables, while station books called the route the Narrow-Gauge Subdivision. It was also alternatively called the Mountain Division, the Los Gatos-Santa Cruz Branch, and the Santa Cruz Cut-off in newspapers, although none of these were official names.

The standard-gauging of the line that began in 1895 and was completed in 1909 prompted a change in status for the trunk of the former South Pacific Coast line. The route became the Santa Clara & Santa Cruz Branch. A slight realignment in its northern terminus led the name to change to the College Park & Santa Cruz Branch in 1912, a name that stuck for most of the rest of its existence. At some point during the height of the Great Depression, the route was changed one last time to the San Jose & Santa Cruz Branch.

The disastrous winter storm of February 26, 1940 heavily damaged this line which led Southern Pacific to file for abandonment on March 25. During this time, the route was referred to frequently as the Los Gatos-Olympia Branch, although this was strictly an informal term referring to the section undergoing debate. Formal abandonment was approved November 7 with the surviving ends of the line divided between a new Los Gatos Branch on the northern end and the Santa Cruz Branch on the southern, which annexed the trackage to Olympia. This latter section was briefly informally called the Santa Cruz-Olympia Branch.

Boulder Creek Branch (1887 – 1934)
The Felton & Pescadero Railroad between Felton and Boulder Creek was consolidated into the South Pacific Coast Railway on May 23, 1887, which was leased to Southern Pacific a month later. Southern Pacific continued to use the Felton & Pescadero branding for several years but timetables renamed it the Felton Branch. It continued to operate under this title until 1912, when the name switched to Boulder Creek Branch. Following the collapse of the lumber industry and difficult years after the stock market crash in 1929, Southern Pacific petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for abandonment on August 30, 1933. The petition was approved on November 14 and the line abandoned on January 26, 1934.

Old Felton Branch (1907 – 1909)

This three-mile line began life as the northern portion of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad's right-of-way. When South Pacific Coast acquired the line on January 1, 1880, the portion between Felton Junction (across the river from Big Trees) and downtown Felton was reduced to a long spur with its own stations. Soon after the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, the spur was upgraded to the Old Felton Branch, a name that referenced its northern terminus and attempted to avoid confusion with the Felton Branch. The branch only last two years, though, after which it was abandoned and the northernmost mile converted into a standard-gauge spur of the Felton Branch.

Interior page from Coast Division employee timetable No. 147 (March 30, 1940) showing various routes within Santa Cruz County.
Coast Division (1892 – 1964)
A massive reorganization of Southern Pacific occurred on July 1, 1892, and the original Coast Division was impacted quite heavily. Besides the Santa Cruz Division, an enlarged Coast Division was created that covered all of the former Northern Division trackage between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, excepting the narrow-gauge track formerly belonging to the South Pacific Coast Railroad. The Santa Cruz Division and Coast Division began appearing on the same timetables on September 3, 1896, until the former was absorbed into the latter on September 27, 1897. Throughout the system, subdivisions were created to handle specific areas within each division.

San Francisco Subdivision (1892 – 1987)
Following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, all of the unconverted trackage of the former South Pacific Coast Railroad was standard-gauged and the entire subdivision rendered moot. The tracks along the west San Francisco Bay, expanded with the addition of the Narrow Gauge Subdivision in 1907 and the Los Altos Branch in 1908, formed the San Francisco Subdivision. In 1912, the name was lengthened to the San Francisco & Watsonville Junction Subdivision, but the longer title was truncated back to the original in 1930. The subdivision continued to exist until 1987, although all of the Santa Cruz and Monterey County trackage eventually became associated with other subdivisions except for the period 1985 to 1987.

Newell Creek Branch (1908 – 1920)
The shortest branch line in Santa Cruz County, the one-mile route to the California Timber Company mill on Newell Creek was installed by Southern Pacific in 1905. After the San Francisco Earthquake, the line to the mill was standard-gauged and the railroad upgraded its status to the Newell Creek Branch around October 1908. All of the trackage north of the mill continued to be narrow-gauge and was privately owned by the lumber company. The mill shut down in 1913 but the branch remained in station books until 1920, when it was formally abandoned.

Davenport Branch (1917 – 1985)
This line began life as the Coast Line Railroad, but as early as July 1907 local newspapers called it the Davenport Branch and on August 24, 1917, the name change became official when Southern Pacific absorbed its subsidiary. Regularly-scheduled passenger service along the line ended on July 21, 1932, although excursion trains continued through the 1950s. The line was annexed to the Santa Cruz Branch around 1985 after the Santa Cruz to Olympia trackage was sold to Roaring Camp Railroads. As a part of the Santa Cruz Branch, it was sold to the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission in 2012.

Los Gatos Branch (1940 – 1959)
The northern three miles of the former College Park & Santa Cruz Branch survived for nineteen years as the Los Gatos Branch until the people of Los Gatos requested that Southern Pacific abandon its route through downtown. On June 16, 1958, the petition was filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission and abandonment was approved on December 30. Formal service ended on January 23, 1959 and the final run happened on January 25, which concluded with a spike-pulling ceremony overseen by Coast Division superintendent R. A. Miller. The right-of-way was quickly converted into parking lots by the town of Los Gatos.

Vasona Branch (1959 – 1964)
When the mountain route was officially abandoned in November 1940, the Los Altos Branch was renamed the Vasona Branch and the name Mayfield Cut-Off went into disuse since it no longer cut off the route between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. When the Los Gatos Branch was abandoned in 1959, the stop at Vasona Junction became the commuter terminal for Los Gatos area passengers. Low patronage at the station and plans to cut the Vasona Branch between Simla and Alta Mesa to make room for Foothill Expressway in 1962 led to a petition to abandon the station on March 21. But the Interstate Commerce Commission provided a brief reprieve on October 25, 1963 when it disallowed Southern Pacific from ending service between the points, in effect also delaying construction of the expressway. After another petition to the ICC, abandonment was approved and the last run along the branch occurred on January 27, 1964. The portion of the track south of Foothill Expressway continues to exist today as a freight line ending at the Lehigh Permanente quarry to the west of Cupertino. Discussions to rehabilitate this line and even extend it to the outskirts of Los Gatos have been discussed for over two decades but no progress has been made.

Salinas Subdivision (c. 1936 – 1985)
At some point in the mid-1930s, the San Francisco Subdivision was divided and the Monterey Branch became a part of the new Salinas Subdivision. This route included all the trackage from Watsonville Junction up the Salinas Valley to San Luis Obispo, at which point the Guadalupe Subdivision continued to Santa Barbara. In 1964, the subdivision was extended north to San Jose and both the Santa Cruz and Davenport Branches became a part of it. In 1985, the Salinas Subdivision was dissolved and all Monterey Bay branches once more became a part of the San Francisco Subdivision.

Gilroy Subdivision (c. 1946 – 1964)
In 1942, a new Gilroy Subdivision appeared to handle traffic between San Jose and Watsonville Junction and it included the Santa Cruz and Davenport Branches. The subdivision was dissolved in 1964 and both branches were annexed to the Salinas Subdivision.

Later Divisions (1964 – 1996)
In its later years, Southern Pacific shifted their focus along the Central Coast to freight, which led to smaller timetables and fewer passenger schedules. In 1964, the Coast Division became the Western Division and annexed several neighboring divisions in the process. In 1985, the division system was abandoned and Santa Cruz County fell into the Northern Region and, in 1987, the Western Region. It remained within that region until Union Pacific took over in 1996. Within the Western Region, local trackage fell under the authority of the Coast District, a spiritual successor to the Coast Division.

A page from the first Western Division employee timetable, April 26, 1964.
Citations & Credits:


  1. Great article Derek! I always enjoy reading anything about timetables!
    I was around when the Alta Mesa-Simla track was abandoned in 1964.
    By the summer of 1964, the track between Alta Mesa and St. Joseph's
    Avenue near Simla was gone but a switchback at Simla continued to
    serve trains going uphill to Permanente until 1966. When construction
    began on 280 near here, the track was relocated to the current location
    on the south side of the freeway to continue the service to Permanente.
    The track from Hansen Avenue in Palo Alto to Alta Mesa remained abandoned
    but intact until 1966 but there was still service across El Camino Real
    to Preformed Line Products on Hansen Avenue for another 20 years.

  2. Derek, although it currently does not have Coast #147 (either side, however), my website has many, many area relevant SP and SPC employee and public timetables which date as far back as the 1880's. They are mostly in PDF form and are freely available for download. Go to pages 1, 2 and 4 from the main menu:

    Your website is absolutely fantastic!

    Ed Gibson


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