Friday, August 2, 2019

Railroads: Eccles & Eastern Railroad

Over the years, there have been several attempts to rebuild the original South Pacific Coast route through the Santa Cruz Mountains between Felton and Vasona Junction. Yet only one attempt, begun in 1988 by local author and historian Rick Hamman, almost succeeded. Hamman brought on board two financial backers, Mike Hart and Walt Hofler,  who owned land in the summit area and saw the potential of a railroad to run utilities such as fiber optics and other utilities within the railroad right-of-way. Incorporating as the Eccles & Eastern Railroad Company, Hofler made a bold move by purchasing the inaccessible eastern portal of the Summit Tunnel near Laurel, while Hamman negotiated the purchase of the Mountain Charley Tunnel between Zayante and Glenwood. While these talks were ongoing, Eccles & Eastern hired a small crew and began restoring the railroad right-of-way between Felton and Eccles, ostensibly on behalf of Roaring Camp Railroads, which had purchased this stretch in 1985, but with the long-term plan of purchasing the section from the heritage park.

Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific locomotive 2600 at the end-of-track at Olympia, c. 1887.
Jack Hanson is the conductor in the white shirt. [Jack Hanson]
End of track at Eccles, where the Eccles & Eastern RR planned
to begin its rebuilding of the Mountain Division in 1988.
[Derek R. Whaley]
Almost immediately after work began on restoring the line, local residents began to complain. To many Zayante-area residents, the noise of construction foreshadowed the noise daily freight traffic would make if trains were allowed to return to the serene, wooded Zayante Creek valley. As they began to organize a resistance against Eccles & Eastern, Hamman fought back with a plan to build a spur to Scotts Valley, promoting it as a way to avoid commute traffic over State Route 17. It also would give direct access to the sand quarries in the area, one of which was still operating in 1990. Eccles & Eastern, not yet daunted by the resistance, continued to improve the tracks and also assisted with upgrading and maintaining the rails between Felton and Santa Cruz, a line that would see increased usage if the railroad scheme succeeded.

Fearing that their inexperience would doom their dreams, Eccles & Eastern management approached Southern Pacific and offered to take over freight operations in the county on their behalf. In addition to proposing resuming sand quarry operations in Olympia near Felton, the company suggested that they could haul cement from Davenport and canned goods from Seabright, the two remaining freight operations beyond the four mile marker outside Watsonville. Unfortunately for them, Southern Pacific got skittish and retreated behind the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, which showed no interest in changing common freight carriers at the time. In reality, they would have considered an offer had it been made to them, but Eccles & Eastern never approached nor did the RTC reach out. Without common carrier duties, Eccles & Eastern was doomed, so the company spread out its scope and began exploring potential businesses further afield. They looked at imperilled lines in Colma, Warm Springs, places in the Sacramento Valley, and the Lodi to San Andreas line, but none of them panned out.

Southern Pacific 2706 being lowered from its display track at Ramsey Park, October 1989. [Colusa Steam]
Meanwhile, their hopes for Santa Cruz County were still not dashed. In 1989, they acquired a 1904 Southern Pacific Baldwin 2-8-0 locomotive, numbered 2706, which had been installed at Ramsey Park in Watsonville as a playground centerpiece. They removed the locomotive on the same day that the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck, and the train was stuck in Watsonville for several weeks while the situation in the county calmed down. Eventually, it and its tender were moved to the little-used siding off Swift Street in West Side Santa Cruz. The intention was to restore the steam locomotive for use in excursions along various local lines while the mountain route was rebuilt. The short-term goal was to run dinner trains between Felton (or Santa Cruz) and Glenwood, but this was contingent on the trackage between those points being restored or upgraded. Tracks were acquired from an abandoned rail line in San Francisco, some of which were later used on the track to Santa Cruz. Further negotiations for tracks from an abandoned ferry yard were in progress in 1992 when things began to unravel, at least for Rick Hamman and his dreams of reopening the route to San Jose through the mountains.

Rick Hamman inspecting the Western Pacific Railroad
right-of-way near San José, c. 1990s.
[Jack Hanson]
Two separate feasibility studies to reopen the route through the Santa Cruz Mountains were in progress in the early 1990s. The Eccles & Eastern study, although done less formally, released first and prompted Santa Cruz County to seriously consider the idea of a new railroad line through the mountains. The report, released in early 1995, agreed with Hamman's assessment that it was both feasible and a good option, but corporate and public support for the scheme were both flagging by then. A vicious and vocal minority of the public, especially by those who lived adjacent to the proposed railroad line in Zayante and Glenwood, meant that the project had little outspoken support, although a good portion of the populace likely tacitly supported the prospect of a commuter line through the mountains. Internally, Mike Hart led a coup against Hamman in the Eccles & Eastern management in 1992 and became the new president. Hamman lost almost all power within the company and his health started to decline. He quit the company shortly afterwards, remarried, and moved to Texas, where he sold railroad photos on his website, Yesteryear Depot, until his death in 2014.

Original Sierra Railroad #3, restored for use by the Sierra Railroad Historical Society, 2016.
[Sierra Railroad Historical Society]
Prior to Hamman's departure, the company did have one unexpected victory. In early 1992, management discovered that the Sierra Railroad was for sale. It was a poorly-aging line with one functional locomotive that had a weekly freight run in the Sierra foothills hauling wood chips. During the rest of the week, the locomotive moonlighted as a switch engine at the Oakdale rail yard east of Modesto. Eccles & Eastern purchased the Sierra Railroad Company and rebranded it the Sierra Pacific Coast Railway, with the intention of establishing a dinner train in the Oakdale area like they had planned in Santa Cruz. But it was Mike Hart's desire to focus on these potentially successful operations at the expense of the company's other plans in Santa Cruz County that caused the rift with Rick Hamman. On October 30, 1995, Hart founded Coast Enterprise, Inc., to act as a holding company for the Sierra Railroad, and at the same time Eccles & Eastern and the Sierra Pacific Coast Railway were effectively dissolved as corporate entities.

A Sierra Northern freight train at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk hauling cement hoppers. [Wikipedia]
By 1997, several of the high-ranking staff of the former Eccles & Eastern-Sierra Pacific Coast management had resigned but Hart succeeded in making the Sierra Railroad profitable again, even obtaining federal and state funds to restore railroad service to several areas that had been briefly abandoned. In 2003, Hart purchased the Yolo Shortline Railroad and reincorporated the three railroads as the Sierra Railroad Company, essentially erasing the memory of Eccles & Eastern in the process. Within a few years, the company spun off a subsidiary, the Sierra Northern Railroad, which operated freight lines with the main company ran tourist trains in the Sierra foothills. For two years, from 2010 to 2012, Sierra Northern became the common carrier in Santa Cruz County on behalf of Union Pacific, finally achieving one of the goals Eccles & Eastern had aspired toward twenty years earlier. Sierra Northern gave up their contract when the RTC took control of the Santa Cruz Branch in 2012, at which time common carrier duties were granted to Iowa Pacific Holdings (running as the Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway). The company still exists, however, and runs several trains in the Sacramento Valley, as well as Sierra Energy, all of which can be found on their website.

Southern Pacific 2706 in a state of disrepair in its original engine house in Colusa, 2015. [Colusa Steam]
The 2706 locomotive, after sitting abandoned on Swift Street for nearly a decade, was eventually sold to John Manley, who is slowly restoring it to operation at his personal engine shed in Colusa, California. He hopes to run it on a local tourist line once it is operational again. You can follow his progress on his Facebook page (or check his former website here).

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8 comments:

  1. Once again you've delivered some fascinating info, Derek. But how in the heck do you pronounce Eccles? Ecklees or Eckles? My sources are divided.
    Thanks for all the great history about our area.

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  2. I pronounce it as if it were a cake.

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  3. I pronounce it: Ehk-ulz. Honestly, I'm not sure if I've ever heard it pronounced by someone else, though. I've never been corrected in my pronunciation, if that counts for anything.

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  4. My question is this. Under federal railroad act aren't the people who have businesses and housesnthe obstruct the origonal deeded route fall under eminent domain. And aren't under eminant domain supposed to be given grant for the value of thier property to relocate. That was the way i undertood the law although i may be wrong. I would never move in an old right of way and i would feel blessed to live next to a historic line. I had lived many years right smack dab in the middle of the boulder creek yard growing up and dug up many railroad artifacts i would sell to the boulder creek antiques museum. I love your sight as i have seen some site i did not know where there.

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    1. From what I understand, everything north of Eccles is owned by somebody else, not the railroad anymore. There may be an exception for the tunnels, but otherwise that appears to be the case. Regarding the people moving into the "active" Santa Cruz right-of-ways, well, it is technically the job of the railroad to ensure that people aren't pushing onto their land. If they let it slide too long, the people can sometimes argue in favor of squatter's rights, which means they may get compensated for basically stealing someone else's lands and not getting in trouble for it for so long. It's an annoyingly complicated process that the city has been dealing with for two decades or more.

      It's awesome that you lived for so long on the train yard. I've been wanting some good old railroad relics from around here, but they are surprisingly hard to find without a metal detector.

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  5. Yes Ehk-ulz is the proper pronunciation. I heard my dad say it a thousand times ;)
    -Karen Hamman

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  6. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time to save this railline

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  7. Great article Derek! These are details I had not been aware of regarding
    Rick Hamman's extensive efforts to rebuild the Mountain Route. But what
    was Hamman's notion of how to rebuild the route around Lexington Reservoir
    with the original route sitting underwater north of Aldercroft? To try to
    run the track around either side of the reservoir poses the question of
    what to do when the track reached the elevation of the top of the dam as
    the drop from there into downtown Los Gatos would be really extreme. Then
    there is the question of how to cross Highway 17, negotiate the parking
    lots in Los Gatos, and run out along University Avenue by Lake Vasona.
    The speed limit for Santa Cruz to Los Gatos was 20-25 MPH, great for a
    tourist railroad, not so great for commuters.
    .

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