Friday, July 12, 2019

Railroads: Felton & Pescadero Railroad

The idea of building a railroad between Santa Cruz and the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River was not new in 1883. As early as the mid-1860s, the San Lorenzo Valley Railroad had a similar idea, although legal disputes caused the project to fail before a single track was lain. The San Lorenzo Valley Flume & Lumber Company inverted the idea by planning to build a fourteen-mile-long v-flume between the city and the headwaters in 1875, but the dearth of year-round water sources between Santa Cruz and Felton forced the company to build a railroad between those two points instead. The Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad and the flume company were subsequently purchased by the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1879 to constitute the final six miles of its route between Alameda Point and the Santa Cruz Main Beach. But with the opening of that line in May 1880, the railroad still had not solved the longstanding problem of a railroad line up the San Lorenzo Valley.

A South Pacific Coast Railroad engine parked at Boulder Creek, c. 1886. [Derek R. Whaley]
For three years, the South Pacific Coast Railroad worked to straighten curves, reinforce bridgework, build short branch lines and spurs, and otherwise cleanup the trackage it had built over the previous seven years. Meanwhile, the poorly aging flume that ran eight miles north of Felton was incapable of meeting the increased demand for lumber by the rapidly-growing Santa Clara Valley. A better solution was required. On June 13, 1883, the railroad incorporated a wholly-owned subsidiary, the Felton & Pescadero Railroad. The plan was to build the route in two stages: first the track would venture six miles to marshy clearing to the south of the junction of the San Lorenzo River and Boulder and Bear Creeks (the Turkey Foot). At a later point, the track would be extended an additional twenty miles to the top of the San Lorenzo Valley and down Pescadero Creek to the coastal settlement of Pescadero.

Map showing the Felton & Pescadero right-of-way running atop George Treat's land on the east bank of the San Lorenzo River with both South Pacific Coast depot grounds visible on either side of the river, c. 1883. [Felton Grove]
Surveying for the line probably began before June 1883, but a final survey prompted residents in both Felton and the town of Lorenzo, south of the Turkey Foot, to increase property prices in the hope of making some easy money. In both instances, the gamble failed spectacularly. The railroad decided to bypass downtown Felton by extending a line from the company's new station on the east bank of the San Lorenzo River. The railroad did not cross the river until after passing through Pacific Mills (Ben Lomond) three miles to the north. The old Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad terminus remained in downtown Felton, but it was increasingly neglected by the railroad and was eventually removed as a passenger stop by Southern Pacific in the early 1900s. At Lorenzo, the railroad likewise bypassed the town, sticking close to the river along its west bank rather than venturing closer to the town center. The stop for the town was only two blocks away, but it had few facilities and the line's terminus was a quarter mile to the north below what would soon become downtown Boulder Creek.

A South Pacific Coast Railway train turning the bend near Lorenzo to head into Boulder Creek, c. 1900.
[San Lorenzo Valley Museum]
Grading work for the narrow-gauge line began almost immediately and it is unclear precisely how the railroad interacted with the flume during construction. It took nearly two years for the line to be built and the flume continued to operate during this time, suggesting that the flume was only dismantled after the railroad was fully constructed. However, it is equally possible that the flume was cut back in sections at places where lumber could be adequately transferred to waiting rail cars. This could have occurred near Rubottom (Brackney), Pacific Mills, and Reed (Brookdale), among other places. Seven bridges over the San Lorenzo River were required, as well as bridges over Newell, Love, and Clear Creeks and other smaller tributaries. Boulder Creek was eventually chosen as the terminus because of the large area of land available for a freight yard and due to the fact that one of the company officials had purchased the property several years earlier in anticipation of such a railroad. The expansion of the town of Boulder to the south, across the eponymous creek, was also part of this arrangement and the town of Boulder Creek was essentially born with the arrival of the Felton & Pescadero Railroad there in 1885.

New Almaden Depot outside the quicksilver mines south of Campbell, c. 1887.
[Laurence E. Bulmore Collection at History San José]
Advertisement for the South Pacific Coast
Railroad showcasing a roundtrip to Boulder Creek
and many of the company's local slogans, c. 1890.
[San Lorenzo Valley Museum]
Construction of the railroad line halted at Boulder Creek as the company's investors gathered revenue to fund the long slog to Pescadero. The construction of the branch line to the New Almaden quicksilver mines south of Campbell also likely delayed further projects in the San Lorenzo Valley for a time. Lumber from the South Pacific Coast's customers in the valley was sent to fuel the fires in the mercury refineries at New Almaden, so the two projects were closely related. During this time, the flume was definitively cut back to Boulder Creek and its terminus was set directly across from the new Boulder Creek depot building, erected in 1886. It may have also been sold to a private firm since it disappears from company records after 1885.

With the completion of the New Almaden Branch in November 1886, attention should have returned to the Felton & Pescadero Railroad, but events were moving that would prematurely end any such plans. Throughout 1886, South Pacific Coast principal owner James G. Fair was in negotiations with Southern Pacific to lease his company to his competition. Despite proving the financial potential of a narrow-gauge railroad network, Fair apparently tired of his railroading scheme and wanted out. On May 23, 1887, he consolidated all of his railroad companies together to form the South Pacific Coast Railway Company, which he promptly leased to Southern Pacific on July 1 of the same year. May 23, therefore, marks the official end of the company.

The Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company's locomotive known as the Dinky (originally the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad's Felton), emblazoned with Boulder Creek & Pescadero Railroad livery, c. 1910. [San Lorenzo Valley Museum]
The legacy of the Felton & Pescadero Railroad lived on in several ways. The line itself became first the Felton Branch and eventually the Boulder Creek Branch and remained in use as a passenger and freight line until January 1934. Meanwhile, in 1888, the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company finally achieved one of the Felton & Pescadero Railroad's goals in extending the line further north, albeit as a privately-owned railroad. This line, at times fancifully called the Boulder Creek & Pescadero Railroad, eventually reached the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River in 1898 and remained in operation until 1915.

A section of the Santa Cruz Lumber Company's railroad right-of-way along Pescadero Creek south of its mill, 1936.
Photo by Emmanuel Fritz. [UC Berkeley]
Southern Pacific seriously considered purchasing the line and extending it to Pescadero in 1905. Indeed, the Coast Line Railroad was partially incorporated to achieve this goal. Multiple surveys were conducted and a route up Feeder Creek and across to a branch of Pescadero Creek was decided before the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake threw all such plans into disarray. The removal of the tracks north of Boulder Creek in 1917 permanently ended any attempts to reach Pescadero via Boulder Creek. In an interesting twist, however, the Santa Cruz Lumber Company did, a decade later, build an isolated railroad line along Pescadero Creek, although it never reached the town to the north nor connect to Boulder Creek to the south.

Citations & Credits:
  • Clark, Donald T. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Second edition. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2007.
  • Robertson, Donald B. Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History: California. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Press, 1986.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the fantastic history lesson there, I'm a clamper out of the Santa Cruz mountains above Aptos, this is a story that I hope my clamper chapter Branciforte 1797 ECV might want to pursue with a plaque there maybe in Boulder Creek somewhere near where the railroad terminal was, and so recorded.

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