Friday, October 4, 2019

Railroads: Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad

Sometimes it is necessary to outsource a project to save time and money. And while this may not be the most popular truth, it certainly was the case on November 9, 1874, when the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad was incorporated by a group of Santa Clara County elites. In all fairness, locals had their chance...several times, in fact. Projects to build a railroad route within Santa Cruz County had been feted for over fifteen years by that time and Frederick A. Hihn's San Lorenzo Railroad had actually gone so far as to grade much of the route between Santa Cruz and Felton before a court order forced the project to halt before it installed a single rail. With Hihn's project dead in January 1874, some other source of financing was required to fund a project that could transport the millions of board feet of redwood timber from the San Lorenzo Valley to points outside the county had to be found.

The end of a Santa Cruz & Felton train showing the first-class passenger car with two men on the car and two more men and a dog posing beside it, c. 1877. Photo by F. A. Cook. [Pacific Narrow-Gauge]
The initial solution was not a railroad. In August 1874, the San Lorenzo Valley Flume & Lumber Company was founded to link the city of Santa Cruz with the rich, old-growth timber tracts located over sixteen miles up the San Lorenzo River. The plan was simple enough: a V-flume would run from a lumber mill located near the confluence of Boulder Creek, Bear Creek, and the San Lorenzo River—the modern-day town of Boulder Creek—and water from various feeder creeks along the way would refresh the flume as it made its way to Santa Cruz. But as surveyors mapped the intended route and assessed potential difficulties, they realized that the final seven miles would have to snake down the steep San Lorenzo Gorge without the benefit of additional water sources. This proved entirely untenable since the county as a whole lacked rain through the summer months and flumes notoriously leaked like a sieve.

The flume-railroad interchange in Felton, with downtown visible at top-right, c. 1876.
[California State Library]
To overcome this challenge, the company decided to found the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad in November as a replacement for the last seven miles. Its major backers included Edmund J. Cox, John S. Carter, Charles Silent, and Cornelius G. Harrison, among others. Fortunately, the town of Felton had recently been established at precisely the place where the lumber would have to be unloaded from the flume and stacked onto flatcars. The town sat on a relatively high, flat meadow to the west of the river and the company set up its yards just south of town. Meanwhile, in Santa Cruz, a new pier was planned at the Santa Cruz Main Beach, which would be accessed through a deep cut made through the northwest side of Beach Hill, forever isolating Blackburn Terrace from the rest of the hill. At the pier, steamships could pick up lumber for delivery to San Francisco, Southern California, and beyond.

A man and his dog sitting beside a trestle bridge along the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad's line in San Lorenzo Gorge, c. 1878. [UC Santa Cruz]
Construction of the railroad started in the winter of 1874 and progressed rapidly. Avoiding the mistakes of the failed San Lorenzo Valley Railroad, the company negotiated a right-of-way through the Davis & Cowell property. But to satisfy their demands, the route the railroad took was much higher on the hillside than the previous railroad had planned, meaning that fewer bridges were required but the route had a much steeper grade with sharper turns. Both plans had called for a tunnel at the Hogsback—a solid granite promontory that rises above the west bank of the river three miles north of Santa Cruz—but the higher elevation of the route also meant that a 0.4-mile-long trestle was required to bring the track from the top of the grade into Santa Cruz.

Men standing around at the end of the Railroad Wharf with the second-class passenger car at right and a horsecar in the distance, c. 1875. [Harold von Gorder – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
As construction continued, the erection of the pier began in April 1875, by which time two miles of the flume were already built. The Railroad Wharf, as it was called locally, was completed on June 15. Crews working for the Pacific Bridge Company were involved with the pier construction and building the eleven bridges required by the railroad and the entirety of the flume construction. Appropriate for the time, Chinese workers were involved in grading and track-laying and possibly some of the flume erection. The rails used for the narrow-gauge track were light-weight, low-grade iron, popular with small lumber operations but not especially qualified for heavy freight trains running hard on steep grades.

Closeup of the Santa Cruz stopped for a photograph over the Coon Gulch bridge with the first-class passenger car behind it, c. 1877. Photo by F. A. Cook. [Pacific Narrow-Gauge]
The company's rolling stock was light and cheap. Flatcars for lumber and boxcars for lime barrels were all built at the Carter Bros. workshop in Sausalito or locally at one of the iron foundries using Carter designs. The Carters also built the company's only two passenger cars, one a first-class carriage with glass windows and a decorated interior, the other a second-class carriage without glass and with a more austere look. The company's motive power, the twin Santa Cruz and the Felton, were H.K. Porter 0-6-0 steam locomotives. The first engine arrived at Pajaro on July 5, 1875, after which it assisted with the construction work. The Felton arrived in 1876.

The St. Charles Hotel in Santa Cruz, which served as the unofficial passenger station for the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad, c. 1875. Photo by Romanzo E. Wood. [California State Library]
The route formally opened on October 9 and was celebrated with an all-day gala, with passengers invited to take a ride in flatcars along the route to Big Trees Landing (today near Cotillion Gardens south of Felton). Freight operations commenced shortly afterwards and the first revenue shipment from the Railroad Wharf—30,000 board feet of lumber bound for Oakland—was sent on November 4. For the next five years, operations continued in a rather routine pattern, with lumber shipments made throughout summer and fall, the route virtually shut down through winter, and the cutting season running from late winter through spring. Although the line never officially offered passenger service, it was nonetheless a feature from the very beginning, with passengers riding on flatcars until the two passenger cars were purchased in 1876 and 1877. The de facto station in Santa Cruz was the St. Charles Hotel at the junction of River Street and Pacific Avenue, while a warehouse in Felton served as the northern terminus.

Downtown Santa Cruz during an event, c. 1875. Note the railroad tracks down the center of Pacific Avenue.
Photo by R. E. Wood. [CSU Chico]
Several problems confronted the railroad from its earliest days. Even before the route was completed, Santa Cruz residents complained of the railroad running down Pacific Avenue to the Railroad Wharf. The noisy and smokey iron horse with its consist of construction cars simply made downtown less appealing and too industrial. A city ordinance was therefore passed making it illegal to run locomotives through town. To correct for this, the company was forced to use horses to pull the heavy flatcars to the Railroad Wharf from a makeshift freight yard beside Mission Hill, where San Lorenzo Lumber is located today. Meanwhile, the company simultaneously began construction of a tunnel under Mission Hill that would bypass downtown altogether and run trains down the lesser-used Chestnut Street three blocks away. While all of this was occurring, the company was also forced to establish, due to a different city ordinance, the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad Company, a horsecar line that ran down the Pacific Avenue track between River Street and the Santa Cruz Main Beach. In 1877, the company sold the business to one of its financiers, James P. Pierce.

The southern end of Pacific Avenue, c. 1875, showing the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad's tracks turning toward
the west toward the Railroad Wharf. A horsecar is walking away from the camera in the distance.
Photo by R. E. Wood. [CSU Chico]
The re-routing in Santa Cruz did not alleviate more serious structural problems along San Lorenzo Gorge. Only months after the route had been completed, in January 1876, large sections of the trackage in the gorge washed out partially or completely from torrential rains. This was revealed to be a recurring problem and one that the railroad's sometimes rival, the Santa Cruz Railroad, also faced along the coast. Every spring, as the mill near Boulder Creek returned to operation, the first loads of lumber were sent to repair the damaged right-of-way. It cut into profits and efficiency, but it also prompted the railroad to gradually upgrade the quality and integrity of its route, helping ensure its long-term survival.

A South Pacific Coast Railroad locomotive parked over the Shady Gulch bridge overlooking the California Powder Works, c. 1885. [California State Library]
At its peak, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad shipped hundreds of thousands of board feet of lumber per year to the Railroad Wharf in Santa Cruz. In addition, it shipped thousands of barrels of lime from the Holmes and IXL lime-works in Felton, gunpowder from the California Powder Works, and mercantile products, mail and parcels, foodstuffs, and miscellany. The company management also had aspirations: in November 1876, a new parent company was incorporated entitled the Felton & San Lorenzo Company, which intended to extend the railroad route along the path of the flume to the headwaters of Boulder Creek with additional branches up Bear Creek and to the San Lorenzo River's headwaters. It was a bold plan, but required far more money than the small company could gather.

A Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad train threading its way through the perilous San Lorenzo Gorge, c. 1878.
[University of California, Santa Cruz]
Unlike the Santa Cruz Railroad, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad survived the late 1870s, but not entirely intact. Financial mismanagement and low returns meant that the railroad was only barely surviving, and its future prospects were grim, with low lumber yields and insurmountable bottlenecks. Financial investment was required and soon to pull the company out of its doldrums. Fortunately, just such a potential savior had emerged in the Bay Area.

A section of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad's line integrated into a color advertisement for the South Pacific Coast Railroad, c. 1880. [Bancroft Library]
The South Pacific Coast Railroad incorporated in May 1876 with plans to connect Alameda near Oakland with Santa Cruz. Several local investors, including Alfred E. "Hog" Davis, rolling-stock engineer Thomas Carter, and former Santa Cruz & Felton Superintendent A. Williams, joined the new railroad company. As grading crews entered the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1877, it became clear that the cheapest option for the firm was to simply purchase the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad and incorporate it into the final route. After heavy wrangling, where Santa Cruz & Felton management threatened to construct its own route to San José and the South Pacific Coast countered with a plan to build a better route down the San Lorenzo Gorge, the former agreed to being leased to the latter in 1879.

The massive, snaking composite bridge built by the South Pacific Coast Railroad over the San Lorenzo River south of Big Trees, c. 1880. Photo by C. W. J. Johnson. [Pacific Narrow Gauge]
At a point called Felton Junction, just south of Big Trees, a bridge was built over the San Lorenzo River that linked the old railroad route to the new when it was completed on September 6, 1879. Although it was another eight months before the line through the mountains was opened to through traffic, the Santa Cruz & Felton had lost most of its identity by this point. Throughout the winter and spring of 1880, the tracks were replaced, curves reduced, and a tunnel built to bypass an especially sharp curve a half mile south of Felton Junction. When regular freight traffic resumed using the route in May, it had become a core part of the South Pacific Coast line. Granted, it would always be a unique part of the line. Its grades, especially from the Hogsback to downtown Santa Cruz, were still exceptionally steep, and a few curves were still sharper than the preferred degrees, but it was undeniably part of something bigger.

The Santa Cruz outside the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad's machine shop and depot in Santa Cruz, c. 1877.
[California State Railroad Museum]
The corporate independence of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad lived on for another seven years, but the reality was that the railroad had ceased to exist as a separate entity. The only physical structures the company owned were a warehouse in Felton and a machine shop in Santa Cruz near Neary Lagoon. The shop was replaced with a large facility while the warehouse remained but was leased to one of the local lime companies—probably IXL—for storage. The Santa Cruz, meanwhile, was sold, while the Felton assisted in the construction of the Felton & Pescadero Railroad beginning in late 1883. Afterwards, it too was sold to the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company, along with most of the flatcars. The first class passenger car probably became the temporary end-of-track station for the Felton & Pescadero Railroad and was installed at Lorenzo until the permanent Boulder Creek station was installed further down the track in 1885. Finally, on May 23, 1887, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad was consolidated into the newly-formed South Pacific Coast Railway Company, which was promptly leased to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company on July 1.

Citations & Credits:
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2007.
  • MacGregor, Bruce. The Birth of California Narrow-Gauge. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

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