Friday, September 6, 2019

Curiosities: The Sun Tan Special

Passenger rail service in Santa Cruz County was nothing new in the 1920s. The Santa Cruz Railroad had first connected the county to Southern Pacific Railroad's Coast Division via a coastal route in 1876, and the South Pacific Coast Railroad effectively did the same via a route through the mountains in 1880. The two routes proved popular with tourists for different reasons. Both had Santa Cruz—and specifically the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk—as their ultimate destination, but whereas the coastal route had the beautiful Monterey Bay as part of its backdrop and catered to beach-goers, the mountain route was oriented more to the rugged outdoors-people and picnickers.

A Sun Tan Special at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, preparing to head off for the mountains after picking up passengers, June 11, 1939. [Wilbur C. Whittaker]
In 1927, two years before the stock market crash that would trigger the Great Depression, railroad patronage was still relatively high despite the increase in automobile ownership. At the time, Santa Cruz County had a robust passenger rail system via two competing routes, both controlled by Southern Pacific. Yet the railroad company had an idea to make some extra money on the side.

The inaugural Miss California Bathing Beauty Contest participants at the Santa Cruz Main Beach wearing the form-fitting swimsuit styles of the period, 1924. Fay Lanphier, Miss Oakland (front-center), later became Miss America in 1925.
[Santa Cruz Life]
The summer months were always a popular vacation time with children home from school and the weather warm enough to swim in the often frigid Monterey Bay. By the 1920s, the prudish swimming costumes of the 1910s had finally given way to simpler swimsuits that allowed flexibility and movement, and women for the first time could feel comfortable wading or swimming without the need of a bath cart or floor-length wool swimming dress. The Santa Cruz Main Beach had been a popular swimming spot since the 1860s but the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, composed of the Casino, the Plunge, the Casa del Rey Hotel, the recently-opened Giant Dipper roller coaster, and several other rides and attractions, increased its popularity and drew crowds from throughout the Bay Area. But the Glenwood Highway—the main thoroughfare to Santa Cruz from San José—was crowded on sunny summer days, and the weekend commuter trains were insufficient to keep up with passenger traffic.

Sun Tan Special heading across Los Gatos Creek just south of Los Gatos on its way to Santa Cruz, 1937.
[Wilbur C. Whittaker]
On Fourth of July weekend, 1927, Southern Pacific district passenger agent George B. Hanson ran a special excursion train between San José and Santa Cruz via the direct route through the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was intended to be a one-off special express train, with stops at Big Trees (Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park), Santa Cruz, and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Because of the holiday, most of Southern Pacific's locomotives and passenger cars were sitting idle, so appropriating them for a special was easy enough to do. In the end, the excursion trains outdid Southern Pacific's wildest imagination and were a massive success. Two more trains ran over the first summer on September 5 (Labor Day) and September 9 (Admission Day). In 1928, service was expanded to begin on Memorial Day—May 30—and run every two weeks plus holidays until Admission Day. The year 1929 inaugurated weekly Sunday service. Lacking any formal name, the newspapers and advertisements at the time simply called these trains "Popular Excursions."

A Sun Tan Special passing Capitola Station, July 4, 1940. [Wilbur C. Whittaker]
It took three years for these seasonal excursion trains to get the official green light from Southern Pacific management. In October 1930, the route was finally christened the Sun Tan Special and it became Santa Cruz County's only official named excursion service. The name was a reference to several things: its destination was the beach; people went to the beach for a tan and needed suntan lotion; the fact that the train initially ran on Sundays (although in later years it often ran on Saturdays, as well); and the name harkened to the Sunset Route, one of Southern Pacific Railroad's most popular transcontinental excursions.

A Sun Tan Special passing by Aptos Station, May 28, 1939. [Wilbur C. Whittaker]
Beginning in 1931, the Sun Tan Special ran every weekend and holiday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, charging only $1.00 for a round trip from San José. An increase of special excursion trains throughout that summer season led to Southern Pacific expanding the route all the way to San Francisco in 1932. Three to four trains per day ran between the two stations and were packed full of beachgoers. The time it took to travel between San Francisco and Santa Cruz was almost precisely three hours each way. A second Sun Tan Special with its origin in Oakland joined the established route in 1934, and this allowed the original train to run via the Mayfield Cut-off, avoiding San José entirely and cutting off time from the run. Up to seven trains ran each direction in summer months in the mid- to late-1930s, all of them being led by two locomotives to overcome the steep and twisting terrain of the Santa Cruz Mountains and specifically San Lorenzo Gorge. At least one train also ran each operating day along the coast to Watsonville Junction to drop passengers off at Seabright, Capitola, and Aptos.

A Sun Tan Special heading back over the San Lorenzo River after picking up tourists at the Boardwalk, c. 1950.
Photo by Fred Stoes. [Jim Vail]
The damage sustained to the route through the Santa Cruz Mountains in the winter storm of late February 1940 led to the abandonment of that trackage in November. It did not, however, stop the Sun Tan Specials from coming to the Boardwalk. Beginning on April 28, 1940, the Sun Tan Special took a more circuitous route south of San José through Gilroy and Pajaro Gap and then along the Santa Cruz Branch to Casino Station. The net difference in time was only about thirty minutes despite the significantly longer route. This was due to the more level terrain and gentler curves, which allowed the trains to go faster. Many Sun Tans continued north to Big Trees to give tourists a taste of the earlier route and a place to picnic under the redwoods. One casualty of the change was that the Oakland Sun Tans were cancelled, although a regular passenger train was rescheduled to be able to meet the southbound Sun Tans (to return home, passengers detrained at San Francisco and took a train across the newly-opened Bay Bridge to Oakland).

A row of Sun Tan Special locomotives sitting beneath the watertower at Santa Cruz Station, July 31, 1949.
[Wilbur C. Whittaker]
The first year that the Sun Tan Special ran along the Santa Cruz Branch generated record profits, further proving to Southern Pacific that they did not need the route through the mountains. This year and 1941 benefited from a public still recovering from the Great Depression and an economy gearing up for the country's inevitable entry into World War II. Indeed, the special excursios ran right through Labor Day and only stopped on September 21 that year. However, when war finally did break out at the end of the year, it meant a temporary cessation to all non-vital railroad traffic along the coast. The Sun Tan Special was put on hold for the duration of the war and tourism in Santa Cruz County screeched to a halt as gasoline and food were rationed and coastal lighting dimmed.

The iconic photograph of the first Sun Tan Special after World War II arriving at the Boardwalk, July 4, 1947.
Photo by Fred Stoes. [Jim Vail]
For six long years, Santa Cruz County lacked any passenger service, and ongoing military control of the railroad network meant that even after the war, special excursion trains could not return to service. But on July 4, 1947, the Sun Tan Special came back to Santa Cruz at last. And these trains were long—often more than twenty cars—carrying hundreds of passengers to the beach. At Watsonville Junction (Pajaro), the train would lose its high-efficiency locomotive and be replaced with two nimble consolidation engines that could handle the hills and curves of the Santa Cruz Coast.

Bands on the Entrance 2 stairs welcoming the arrival of a Sun Tan Special, 1941. [Santa Cruz Seaside Company]
Life on the Sun Tan Special was an exciting affair. Despite the three-hour slog to Santa Cruz from San Francisco, people were excited. Everyone was dressed for the beach and some people had brought anything more than their swimsuits and towels. Food carts were rolled up and down the train for the entire run, offering candy, coffee, and healthier snacks. Most trains ran a beauty contest en route to determine who would reign as the Beauty Queen of the train. All Sun Tans also featured an open-ended observation car at the end. Upon arrival at Casino Station, the Cocoanut Grove band played several Big Band songs, welcoming passengers to the Santa Cruz Main Beach. The return journey, though equal in length and time, usually was quieter, with many of the passengers sleeping off the salt air or relaxing with views of the mountains and ocean.

An advertising pamphlet, c. 1949, showing the schedule and some of the features of the Sun Tan Special. [Jim Vail]
On its original route, the Sun Tans left San Francisco at 7:55am and arrived at Casino Station around 10:30. The train departed at 4:50pm and arrived back in San Francisco at 8:25. After 1940, the first train left San Francisco at 8:17am and arrived at Casino at 11:40. It departed Casino at 5:20pm and returned to San Francisco at 8:50. The train made several stops along its route from San Francisco, picking up or dropping off passengers at Burlingame, Palo Alto, Fruitvale, San José, Watsonville Junction, and Capitola.

Several Sun Tan Special trains parked at Santa Cruz Station, awaiting the trip back to San José, 1950s.
[Gene O'Lague Jr.]
The 1950s were the hay-day of the Sun Tan Special. In 1956, annual passenger numbers reached an all-time record of 15,485 riders along any of the Sun Tan routes. Every year of the 1950s saw at least 10,000 passengers per year. But in 1957, ridership dropped for the first time since the service had begun in 1927. And it was a fairly drastic drop: 3,000 riders. As often happens in such situations, fingers were pointed with Southern Pacific claiming declining interest and members of the public claiming the railroad was neglecting the line. Both were probably true. By this time, the Sun Tan Special was the last regularly-scheduled summer excursion train operating in America. It was a nuisance to run and Southern Pacific may have been looking for ways to get out of their assumed obligations to Santa Cruz. By the mid-1950s, the Sun Tan Special schedule was beginning later in the season—in mid-June— and the trains were gradually becoming shorter with fewer trains running on summer weekends. However, the trains that did run were still packed, which probably led to a public presumption that the service was still doing just fine. Even the changeover to diesel locomotives in 1957, which ostensibly saved money since they did not require the level of attention as steam locomotives and could perform the entire journey with a single locomotive without the need to refuel, did not delay the inevitable end.

Mary Ann Arras of Boulder Creek advertising the Suntan Special, 1958. [Santa Cruz Seaside Company]
The last Sun Tan ran on Labor Day—September 7—1959. At the time, nobody, including Southern Pacific, knew that the special had made its last run. There was still the assumption that service would resume the next year until April 10, 1960, when the railroad company pronounced the Sun Tan Special's death. Southern Pacific claimed that it was a "money losing train," but passenger numbers alone prove that this was a patent lie. While numbers in 1959 were only 7,752—nearly half that of three years before—the railroad had almost entirely given up advertising the trains and was doing everything it could to undermine its potential success. Quite simply, the railroad no longer wanted to deal with running trains on weekends, maintaining the Santa Cruz Branch trackage to passenger quality levels, or organizing the consists that would be required to run the trains each week in the summer.

A rare photograph of a Sun Tan Special being led by a mixed consist of diesel and steam locomotives, c. 1958.
[Arthur Lloyd]
The dream of the Sun Tan lived on, though. On July 4, 1960, a chartered excursion train borrowed the name Sun Tan Special and ran to the Boardwalk and Big Trees, as had many official Sun Tans done for the past three decades. These chartered trains continued to run every year through 1964, while chartered Big Trees picnic trains ceased in 1965. At this point, Southern Pacific reclassified all trackage in Santa Cruz County for light freight use only. And since they were the exclusive common carrier and the track was all their property, nobody could do much to change this situation. For thirty-one years, no passenger train ran along the Santa Cruz Branch, although Roaring Camp Railroads did purchase the Felton Branch in 1985 and began running a private tourist train to the Boardwalk in 1987 under the name Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway. This service still operates seasonally.

Beach traffic at the Pacific Avenue-Beach Street intersection near the wharf, 1970s. [Ann Fuellenbach]
Between 1971 and 1995, the idea of restoring the Sun Tan Special was one of the primary motivations for proposals of rebuilding the former railroad route through the Santa Cruz Mountains and restoring passenger service along the Santa Cruz Branch. The idea came up constantly, despite heavy resistance from both Southern Pacific and vocal groups of Santa Cruz residents. In 1988, the Santa Cruz Seaside Company and Roaring Camp Railroads attempted to commission a one-time exclusive run of the Sun Tan Special along its entire historic route, but Southern Pacific refused to allow a passenger train to run between Watsonville Junction and the Boardwalk. Proposition 116, passed in 1990, encouraged funding for rail projects throughout California and made funds available for such purposes. But public resistance was still high and the wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly. Meanwhile, summer weekend traffic to Santa Cruz via Highway 17 and Highway 1 continued to increase to a point where people sometimes waited three to four hours to travel from the Bay Area to the Boardwalk.

The "Return of the Sun Tan Special" train at Aptos, May 18, 1996. [Aptos Museum]
When Southern Pacific and Union Pacific merged in 1996, it provided an unprecedented opportunity to restore passenger service along the line. Three demonstration trains were arranged that would each feature different options for passenger service along the Santa Cruz Branch. The first and most popular event was held on May 18, 1996 and involved a pair of Amtrak-Caltrain trains hauling 1,250 passengers to the Boardwalk from San José in an event entitled "Return of the Sun Tan Special." It stopped at Watsonville, Aptos, and Capitola on its way to the Boardwalk.

The Amtrak Flexliner passing the abandoned Watsonville Station, August 1996. [Sam Reeves]
In August, an Amtrak IC3 Flexliner running as the "Coastal Cruzer" transported an additional 1,000 fare-paying passengers between the two locations. The Flexliner was composed of six passenger cars and stopped at Aptos and Capitola on its way to the Boardwalk. At the Boardwalk, passengers were let off and three cars were detached while the rest of the train continued to Wilder Ranch.

The demonstration RegioSprinter in Campbell, December 20, 1996.
At the end of the year as a part of the First Night Santa Cruz annual event, a RegioSprinter running as the "First Night Trolley" was introduced. The trolley could seat seventy-four passengers per run and simply ran a ten-minute circuit from Chestnut Street to demonstrate the merits of the system. Santa Cruz County officials hoped to use the trolley to demonstrate a potential intra-county rail system for future commuter service. They estimated that roughly 2,000 people rode the trolley for the First Night event.

An Iowa Pacific train parked outside Neptune's Kingdom at the Boardwalk, 2012.
Despite the runaway success of the three demonstration trains, Union Pacific showed no interest in allowing regular passenger service—even seasonally—along its line to Santa Cruz and shut down future runs. This resistance eventually prompted the Santa Cruz Country Regional Transportation Commission to look into purchasing the line outright. This process began in 2001 and took over a decade to complete.

The St. Paul & Pacific Railroad's City of Watsonville hauling freight in Watsonville, August 16, 2018.
[Santa Cruz Sentinel]
In recent years, there has been increasing interest in reviving the sixty-year-defunct Sun Tan Special in some form. Iowa Pacific Holdings, running as the Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway, played with the idea during their five years as a common carrier, but made no actual effort toward restoring any passenger service along the line. Progressive Rail, operating as the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, which took over common carrier duties in 2018, also has promised a return of the Sun Tan and has put more serious planning in such a proposal. Their goal is to establish summer weekend train service between San José's Diridon Station to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk via Watsonville Junction (Pajaro). To accomplish this, they would coordinate with the Transit Authority for Monterey County (TAMC), which could also use the revived service to send excursion trains to Monterey Station once the Monterey Branch is rehabilitated. One of the ongoing difficulties is the fact that Union Pacific, which owns the trackage between San José and Pajaro, has been reluctant to reinstate a passenger station at Watsonville Junction and it could also potentially conflict with the company's regular freight operations. Further opposition from within Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties and foot-dragging from all parties has seen these proposals never move beyond rhetoric. Only the future can tell whether the Sun Tan Special returns to bring tourists to the beaches of Santa Cruz again.

Citations & Credits:
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2007.
  • Santa Cruz Evening News and Santa Cruz Sentinel, various articles, 1927-1960.
  • Scott, Barry. Personal correspondence and Facebook group posts.
  • Stindt, Fred A. "Sun-Tan Special." Archival material. Watsonville, CA: Pajaro Valley Historical Association.
  • Whaley, Derek R. "The End of the Line: The Abandonment of Passenger Services in Santa Cruz County, California." Railroad History (Fall 2016), pp. 12-33.
  • Willenjohn, Chuck. "From San Jose to the Sea: SP's Suntan." Passenger Train Journal (April 1994), 26-31.
  • Whiting, Ted III. "Riding the Sun Tan Special." Blog post. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. May 17, 2018.


  1. I rode the Big Trees annual picnic train in 1963. On the return trip,
    they let us off at the Boardwalk to wander around before returning to
    the Bay Area. But enroute to Felton, we did not stop at the Boardwalk
    but did stop at the Santa Cruz station where we picked up a man and his
    little girl. As far as 1964 and 1965 were concerned, the agenda was the
    same as far as I know and I never heard of any other passenger runs than
    these annual runs to Santa Cruz and Big Trees in those years. I took 8mm
    movies of the 1964 run. What is difficult to imagine now when everyone
    is using their phones to take pictures, on that nice summer day in 1964,
    I saw nobody else photographing this train at such scenic locations as
    Capitola and the Shady Gulch trestle.

  2. I rode the special Caltrain to Santa Cruz from San Jose in 1996. The train
    was restricted to 10 MPH from Watsonville Jct. to the Boardwalk, a distance
    of 19.5 miles for a running time of two hours. I was pleasantly surprised
    at how great this was to be able to observe closely the magnificent scenery
    between these two points. At the Boardwalk, I was able to ride the current
    train up to Roaring Camp and back, allowing almost a duplicate of the
    Big Trees picnic train I rode in 1963. Going back to San Jose, a jogger at
    New Brighton crossing put both of his arms in the air and made obscene
    gestures with his fingers and a woman in her back yard at Aptos looked at
    us and just shook her head.

  3. I loved watching the Suntan Special run through Beach Street picking up passengers on Sunday afternoons, and finally got to ride one with my Grandpa Ledyard in 1954, when a special train ran up to Big Trees for the dedication of Henry Cowell State Park. My cousin Gary Soper told me that the engineer on the 1950 picture heading up to cross the river was his dad, my uncle, Harold Soper.


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