Friday, June 14, 2019

Freight Stops: Waterman Switch

For almost an eternity, nothing had disquieted the dark wilderness at the top of the San Lorenzo Valley. Native Americans rarely if ever ventured so far, while Spanish and Mexican explorers and settlers took easier routes into the valley, far from the San Lorenzo River's headwaters. In this high mountain glen, some of the last of the valley's giants soared, perhaps not as high as their older cousins further to the south at Big Trees or up Big Basin, but these giants reigned undisturbed. That is, until Buckskin moved in.

James "Buckskin" Lawrence was the first and only resident of the area, having settled there in 1868. Buckskin knew the value of his land—the San Lorenzo Valley Flume & Transportation Company had briefly considered his property as the start of the flume until additional surveys convinced the company to establish the flume further to the south. Nonetheless, Buckskin eagerly capitalized on the interest by founding Rocky Ridge in 1875. Despite acquiring a post office in that same year, the settlement never materialized and the post office closed two years later. A school related to the community, founded in 1876, did survive for nearly a decade and supporting all of the children living north of King's Creek, but it too ultimately failed. Buckskin still lived on the property when the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company extended its Dougherty Extension Railroad 1.5 miles north from McGaffigan Switch and directly across the homesteader's parcel.

The lumber company had only moved to its mill north of Boulder Creek in 1888, and despite promises that decades worth of redwood timber were available along either bank of the San Lorenzo River north of the mill, timber crews proved the truth of the matter: the valley was running out of viable old growth redwood trees fast! With the trackage moved to Buckskin's property, the company established a logging camp at the site. At the time, it likely had no name and may have been considered a temporary loading area, exploiting the large meadow that spread out in front of Buckskin's front door.  But for the next seven years, lumber crews continued to operate from the site, which functioned as a loading zone for logs that were hauled down the hills by oxen and donkey teams. Additional logs passed through the area on flatcars that came from the end-of-track 0.5 miles further up the river. At least one spur or siding and possibly more were installed at the camp to allow these flatcars to pass without impeding operations. The site operated until early 1900 when the company determined that all viable timber in the upper San Lorenzo Valley had been cut.

For the next two years, the struggling company considered ways that it could access its timber resources at the headwaters of Pescadero Creek, a short distance from this logging camp but almost entirely uphill and in an adjacent valley. The company had purchased prime timberland along there from the Davis & Cowell lime company in the late 1880s. Davis & Cowell, in turn, had acquired it from Frederick H. Waterman, who had purchased the land in the 1870s, but never actually used it for anything. Now the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company wanted to try and do something with it, but accessing the tract was nearly impossible. They finally decided in 1902 to attempt to use a skid road that worked in tandem with a cable winch to control the descent of logs down from Waterman Gap. A steam donkey was installed at the logging camp at the bottom of the ridge, and it was at this time that the site finally became known as Waterman Switch, since it was where logs arriving from Waterman Creek were transferred to waiting flatcars for processing. The operation proved too costly and the company finally went bust in early 1903, prematurely ending the operations along the ridge.

Lumbermen posing for the camera near the mill on Waterman Creek, 1905. [Derek R. Whaley]
In February 1903, the disparate lumber companies of the San Lorenzo Valley consolidated to form a new collective: the California Timber Company. This new firm had several goals, but their primary function was to more effectively harvest the timber on Waterman Creek. While one crew cut a new road to the mill from Waterman Switch, another worked to transfer the machinery of an old mill from Bear Creek to Waterman Creek. Within a few months, the mill was ready to cut timber into lumber. A large logging camp arose at Waterman Gap alongside the millpond. The mill itself achieved a capacity of 60,000 board feet of lumber per day via its 125 workers. After cutting the timber, lumber was carted down the wagon road to Waterman Switch, where it was loaded onto flatcars and taken to Boulder Creek for transfer to Southern Pacific Railroad trains.

The California Timber Company Mill along Waterman Creek, c. 1910. [Santa Cruz Museum & Art & History]
The mill at Waterman Gap continued to operate for a decade, enduring the 1906 Earthquake and establishing a record for most timber cut in the San Lorenzo River in one day at 109,441 board feet. Waterman Creek and the other tributaries of Pescadero Creek owned by the lumber company were finally logged out in 1913, at which point the California Timber Company moved onto other ventures. The tracks to Waterman Switch remained in place for several more years, eventually being scrapped in 1917. In 1924, Santa Cruz County annexed the logging road and eventually upgraded it during the Great Depression to support automotive traffic. It became the northernmost portion of State Route 9 within Santa Cruz County soon after the end of World War II. In 1947, the county briefly considered converting the area around Waterman Switch into a reservoir to supply Santa Cruz with water, but the Newell Creek watershed was ultimately chosen instead leading to the creation of Loch Lomond. The state eventually purchased the area of Waterman Switch in 2004 to create a trail link between Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Castle Rock State Park via the old Saratoga Toll Road, which also passes through the area.

Location of Waterman Switch. [Google Maps]
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.2078N, 122.1434W

The site of Waterman Switch is legally accessible to the public. It can be visited along the Saratoga Toll Road near the southern end of Castle Rock State Park. The toll road is marked by a train-shaped mailbox and a gated road. Unfortunately, parking is at a premium in this area and the sharp turn of the old wagon road creates a dangerous area for pedestrians. Once beyond the gate, continue for 1/8-mile down the old toll road. At the site of Waterman Switch is a kiosk that has some out-of-date information printed on it. The Dougherty Extension Railroad right-of-way through this area is still visible, especially when heading south from beside the train-shaped mailbox. Any relics of the Waterman Switch operation itself are no longer visible except for the right-of-way. Along Waterman Creek, it is unknown whether any remnants of the mill remain, though an extant log dam continues to block the stream according to the "Pescadero-Butano Watershed Assessment: Final Report" of March 5, 2004, although this may likely be from later activities along the creek.

Citations & Credits:
  • 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: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Derek, do you know what the financial interest of James "Buckskin" Lawrence was in his property at and after the time that Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company extended their rail line onto his parcel? I'm just curious.


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