Friday, August 23, 2019

Railroads: Santa Cruz Railroad

First, Frederick Augustus Hihn dreamed of a railroad up the San Lorenzo Valley. But before progress could even be made on that vision, Hihn joined in the incorporation of another venture, the California Coast Railroad. This new railroad, incorporated in June 1867, was intended to connect Santa Cruz to Gilroy, where the under-construction Santa Clara & Pajaro Valley Railroad was to terminate. However, this plan, too, stalled due to infighting, a lack of stock subscriptions, and confusion regarding the plans of the Central Pacific Railroad, which purchased the trackage to Gilroy in 1868. In January 1870, the Santa Cruz County Railroad Committee, headed by Hihn, petitioned the local city, county, and state governments for funds to support a coastal line between Gilroy and Santa Cruz and two branch lines up Soquel Creek and the San Lorenzo Valley. Yet once again Hihn's plans were sidelined when Central Pacific incorporated the California Southern Railroad Company, which planned to build a railroad between Gilroy and Salinas. Hihn changed tact and included this new railroad in his funding plan, but the state legislature voted against the idea and the entire campaign fizzled.

Santa Cruz Railroad advertisement, 1879, from S, H. Willey's History of Santa Cruz County, California.
Hihn, though, was not one to give up easily. Despite ongoing legal troubles with his San Lorenzo Valley Railroad and two failed attempts to build a coastal line that would connect to the now-Southern Pacific trackage, which reached Pajaro in November 1871, Hihn convinced several wealthy Santa Cruz residents of the merits of financing a railroad. The reason this time was tribal: with the railroad passing through Watsonville, Santa Cruzans feared that they would be left behind since much of the county's wealth would go through Watsonville via railroad. On January 18, 1872, a second coastal railroad company was incorporated under the name Santa Cruz & Watsonville Railroad. The conditions of construction were that five miles needed to be built before the project received Santa Cruz City and County funding and that the entire project had to be completed within two years. But as before, things went wrong. This time, the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad implied strongly its desire to build a railroad from San Francisco down the coast through Santa Cruz County and then eastward toward the California-Nevada border. Optimism was at an all-time high in the county and several important deadlines lapsed while further word on the Atlantic & Pacific plans were eagerly awaited. It wasn't the last time Santa Cruz would be led down by a company attempting to bridge the coast or place Santa Cruz on a transcontinental line. By Autumn 1872, the Santa Cruz & Watsonville Railroad was effectively dead, with reluctant investors pulling out and lacking any government funding.

Santa Cruz Railroad's Cherry Street Depot outside downtown Santa Cruz, c. 1890. Frederick Hihn kept his local offices in the upstairs of the depot until his retirement in 1892. This depot marked the end-of-track for the Santa Cruz Railroad until the adjacent South Pacific Coast Railway trackage was standard-gauged in 1908. The depot itself shut down in 1892 when the Santa Cruz Union Depot was built at the end of Center Street.
[Harold van Gorder Collection – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
Flustered and impatient for any railroad in the county—it had been nearly eight years since his failed San Lorenzo Valley Railroad had incorporated—Hihn proposed one last plan to build a route between Santa Cruz and Pajaro. In September 1872, he suggested that individuals in the county pool their money together to build a narrow-gauge railroad using the cheapest equipment, rolling stock, and material available. Hihn even saved some money by using the survey maps done by the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad, which clung more closely to the coast than earlier surveys. Hihn made one important deviation: he curved the trackage inland at Aptos in order to reach his timber tracts up Soquel, Aptos, and Valencia creeks. Just as yet another railroad company was ready to incorporate, Leland Stanford of Southern Pacific visited and implied strongly that his railroad would soon be building a route through the county. As before, this almost derailed the entire project, but Hihn and his investors had grown wiser over the past decade. When the stock market crashed a few months later, they were unfazed and decided to incorporate the Santa Cruz Railroad on August 4, 1873, with plans to build a line between Pajaro and Point Año Nuevo on the northern county line.

The Betsy Jane with its crew, c. 1875. [University of Southern California]
The new railroad began construction at once, fearing that some interruption would delay or end their plans for a fourth time. Construction was not continuous, but rather occurred in somewhat haphazardly along the surveyed right-of-way. All of the initial construction in late 1873 and 1874 happened between the San Lorenzo River and Aptos, the former because of the obstacle the river presented, the latter because the final alignment to Pajaro had not been decided yet. Although locals were involved in the project, Chinese laborers did most of the heavy lifting. When enough track was laid, a small locomotive, the Betsy Jane, was brought in to help with construction.  By May 1875, all of the tracks between the river and Aptos were in place. The massive gulch above Soquel Creek presented a significant engineering problem, but this bridge was finished by the end of 1874.

A Santa Cruz Railroad mixed train passing beneath houses on Beach Hill, c. 1878. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Just as things were progressing, the people of Watsonville revolted. The published survey bypassed the city by a half mile—punishment for fighting against the railroad and throwing obstacles at its completion. But as the riotous settlement realized that the railroad would happen and that they would be left off this railroad route, they suddenly demanded to be included. They sued the Santa Cruz Railroad and the railroad's heads decided to relent—indeed, they probably had planned to do so all along. The route was resurveyed along the southern side of Watsonville, where it then turned across the Pajaro River and met the Southern Pacific right-of-way.

A Santa Cruz Railroad passenger train crossing Soquel Creek, c. 1878. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
From the middle of 1875, construction continued at a breakneck pace. The bridge over the San Lorenzo River was opened on April 17 and the track reached the northern terminus on Cherry Street at the end of the month. On May 22, a grand opening celebration was held in Santa Cruz, despite the fact that the bridge over Valencia Creek remained incomplete and the track from there to Pajaro was still under construction. Progress throughout the rest of the year was rapid, but an especially wet winter ensured the line's completion would be delayed. The route between Santa Cruz and Watsonville was finally opened to through traffic on May 7, 1876. As a way to celebrate, a new Baldwin locomotive was brought in named the Pacific to replace the tiny Betsy Jane. Two other locomotives, Jupiter and Neptune, joined it shortly afterwards. The completion of the bridge over the Pajaro River, thereby joining the isolated railroad to the larger Southern Pacific network, was not done until November, although all passenger and freight still had to be transferred since the two railroads ran on separate gauges. Plans to extend the track north of Santa Cruz to the county line remained on the books, but were never acted upon.

Jupiter sitting on the tracks near the Cherry Street depot in Santa Cruz, c. 1878. [Pacific Coast Narrow Gauge]

Despite so many plans and so much hype, the Santa Cruz Railroad had a surprisingly short life as an operating railroad. The damage to the line in early 1876 had cost the railroad dearly, and the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad, completed in 1875, decided to ship out timber and lime from steamships at its piers at the beach rather than using the coastal railroad line. And Hihn himself was actively undermining his own project by working with the South Pacific Coast Railroad to route an alignment down Soquel Creek, although he undoubtedly hoped that the South Pacific Coast would purchase the coastal trackage as a part of such a deal. By 1878, it became clear that the South Pacific Coast planned to build a route down the San Lorenzo Valley—or buy the existing line, as it happened—thereby creating a shorter and more cost-effective route between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. This alone scared a lot of investors, but the line itself was barely viable. The bridge over the San Lorenzo River washed out in 1877, forcing financiers to spend much of their recent profits to revive the line again. Investors were asked to give an additional $10 per share to maintain the company in 1878, but only Hihn paid the amount.

The second San Lorenzo River Bridge following its collapse during a storm on January 27, 1881.
The final death blows came quickly. In May 1880, the South Pacific Coast finished its line through the Santa Cruz Mountains. There was little reason for anyone except rural businesses to need the coastal line after this. Still, the railroad trudged on. Then, in late January 1881, large portions of the line had washed out and the San Lorenzo River bridge has collapsed for a second time. Hihn was the only person willing to finance the line by this point, and he saw no profit in it. In March, the company declared bankruptcy and went up for auction, almost exactly five years after it had first opened. The next month, the Pacific Improvement Company—one of Southern Pacific's property investment firms—bought the dilapidated line and began refurbishing it. Limited operations resumed in June while Pacific Improvement initiated plans to standard gauge the line. In mid-November 1883, standard-gauging was complete and on June 3, 1884, the line was rebranded the Pajaro & Santa Cruz Railroad, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Southern Pacific, which later consolidated it in 1888 and reclassified the 21-mile-stretch of track as the Santa Cruz Branch.

Jupiter as it is displayed today at the Smithsonian. [Smithsonian Museum]

Except for a short portion of track in the vicinity of New Brighton State Beach, as well as the stretch over Woods Lagoon (the harbor), the original right-of-way of the Santa Cruz Railroad still exists and serves as the southern two-thirds of the Santa Cruz Branch Line, which was purchased by Santa Cruz County in 2012. None of the original structures associated with the railroad survive but the third locomotive bought by the company, Jupiter, has been restored and is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian's "America on the Move" exhibit.

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