Friday, October 18, 2019

Railroads: South Pacific Coast Railroad

With the completion of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States in May 1869, railroading schemes within California reached a fever pitch. Everyone with a little spare money was becoming interested in investing in a railroad line, from tiny short-line routes like the eight-mile Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad to grand transcontinental schemes such as the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. The people of Oakland especially were excited since the Central Pacific Railroad decided upon their seaside town to be the terminus for the line. But with the head of the Central Pacific-Union Pacific megalith peaking into the Bay Area, others sought ways to both exploit and bypass this new connection to the outside world.

The South Pacific Coast-owned Alameda to San Francisco ferryboat Newark, c. 1890s. [Bancroft Library]
The most significant pioneering local railroad was the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad, which began through operations in 1863. In 1865, the company established a subsidiary, the Southern Pacific Railroad, which was part of an ambitious plan to reach Southern California. But financial troubles in 1867 imperilled both companies and the Central Pacific Railroad's owners, the Big Five, bought them out in 1868. The two were consolidated in 1870 and linked to the Central Pacific line at San José via an extension of the track that ran through Niles Canyon. With this link, the Big Four gained a near-monopoly on South Bay Area railroading.

The combined Central Pacific-South Pacific Coast San Francisco ferry terminal at the end of Market Street, c. 1882. Stereograph by William E. James. [John Hall]
At the same time, a succession of rival narrow-gauge railroads had arisen on the East Bay only to collapse in short order due to funding and bad luck. The California Narrow Gauge Railroad & Transportation Company lasted all of six months before it crashed in the summer of 1875, having done little more than buying some real estate. In its wake, the Santa Clara Valley Railroad was incorporated on October 4 to build a railroad route between Dumbarton Point and the New Almaden quicksilver mines. But winter storms in late 1875 and early 1876 washed out most of the grade work that had been done and the company was on the brink of collapse again. Enter Alfred E. Davis. One of several East Bay rural farmers, Davis had a vision for a great railroad that could rival the Southern Pacific's regional monopoly. He recruited Comstock Lode millionaire James G. Fair, who in turn recruited his friend James C. Flood, and together the three men incorporated the South Pacific Coast Railroad on March 24, 1876. The name was chosen to mirror the recently-founded and similarly narrow-gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad in Marin and Sonoma Counties.

South Pacific Coast locomotive No. 1 on the Telegraph Avenue Branch (technically the Oakland Railroad) at the city limits, late 1880s. From here, horses would take rolling stock through Oakland since the city forbade steam locomotives within its limits. [John Hall]
Davis planned for the railroad to run from Alameda Point near Oakland almost directly south through San José and through the Santa Cruz Mountains to Santa Cruz. At this time, Santa Cruz still sat outside Southern Pacific's control, although that would not remain the case for long. Davis also had a greater vision to extend the line further down the coast and north through Oakland and into the San Joaquin Valley, where it would meet up with the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. The firm even incorporated a subsidiary in 1883, the San Francisco & Colorado River Railroad, to achieve this goal, but it proved to be one ambition too far. Still, the goals of the railroad were public and achievable. In addition to their direct route between Alameda and Santa Cruz, the firm planned to build branches up the San Lorenzo River to reach the rich old growth redwood strands located there, up the New Almaden valley to reach the mercury mines, and maintain a ferry service across the bay in order to function as a direct rival to Southern Pacific, which at the time had a monopoly on railroad access to San Francisco.

The former South Pacific Coast Railroad station at Santa Clara serving as the new Union Depot for Southern Pacific, 1898. [Santa Clara City Libraries]
The northern three-quarters of the primary route consisted of a fairly gentle grade that smoothly wrapped around the East Bay from Oakland down to San José, where the route turned southwest and paralleled Los Gatos Creek until it reached the foothills. Surveying for the route had begun even before incorporation and grading began right afterwards. Through the second half of 1876 and the first half of 1877, Chinese work crews graded and laid track at a fevered pace, encountering few obstacles that Fair or Flood couldn't overcome with some money or Davis through aggressive negotiating. By June 1, 1877, the track to Los Gatos was opened and the railroad, for all intents and purposes, was open for business.

Andrus Company of the Juvenile Zouaves at Los Gatos Station, 1885. [Museums of Los Gatos]
As regular freight and passenger movement began along the installed track, negotiations began with the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad to buy or lease their line to serve as the final section of the route. The short-line railroad hedged heavily, briefly incorporating a rival railroad that, if actually built, would have undermined much of what the South Pacific Coast was trying to accomplish. Charles Silent, president of the smaller railroad, also was aware of the larger firm's potential and likely paved the way for the eventual leasing of the smaller line to the larger in 1879.

Postcard showing the rugged terrain along Los Gatos Creek in the foothills, c. 1895. [Ken Lorenzen]
Meanwhile, as the railroad graded its way to Felton, it encountered several predicted obstacles, namely several mountains that needed tunnelling and a few creeks and rivers that needed bridging. The bridges were by far the easier challenge. A total of eight bridges were required to cross Los Gatos Creek, not counting a bridge just north of Los Gatos that was to serve the mainline until the route was rerouted through town due to unstable terrain on the east bank of the creek. This remained in place for use by the local flour mill and for a lime quarry. More bridges, including several half-trestles, were needed along Burns and Bean Creek, while Zayante Creek near Felton had to be crossed twice, as well. Lastly, a substantial composite bridge was required to cross the San Lorenzo River over an especially wide floodplain before the line could connect to the existing Santa Cruz & Felton trackage at Felton Junction. All of the bridges were completed by the end of 1879, including repairs and upgrades to the Santa Cruz & Felton bridges, some of which were filled at the time to provide better support.

South Pacific Coast Railroad train stopped for a photograph along Coon Gulch in San Lorenzo Gorge, c. 1880s.
[Public domain]
More problematic was the need for tunnels through the mountains. Only three of the tunnels were built without difficulty: those between Highland (Laurel) and Glenwood, under Mountain Charley Road, and along Zayante Creek. In Los Gatos Canyon, two tunnels were planned but the first, just south of Los Gatos, collapsed during construction and was subsequently daylighted. The other was completed but its location directly under the Los Gatos flume meant that its construction had to be done with the utmost care, slowing the boring down significantly. In San Lorenzo Gorge, a new tunnel was required to cut through an especially sharp turn beneath Inspiration Point. Because of the unstable land, though, this tunnel was built longer than anticipated and was lengthened even more in the following years to keep debris from falling onto the tracks. An existing tunnel under the Hogsback about two miles to the south had to be widened and the height lifted slightly to support the larger South Pacific Coast locomotives. This also destabilized the tunnel, eventually leading to its daylighting several years later.

Construction crews finishing work on the Summit Tunnel at Wright's Station, early 1880. [Public domain]
Without a doubt, the biggest difficulty was the Summit Tunnel, which cut directly through the San Andreas Fault in its 1.25 mile journey between Wright's Station and Highland. It took two and a half years to build and cost the lives of at least forty-six Chinese workers in total. The reason for the deaths was that the tunnel had a methane leak that was never entirely resolved, and construction tools, lamps, and machinery unexpectedly set off the gas on two disastrous occasions on February 14 and November 17, 1879. When it finally was bored through in March 1880, many people breathed a sigh of relief. The airflow in the tunnel kept it from exploding again, but various remedies were applied over the years to ensure its continued safety.

South Pacific Coast Railroad passenger cars with conductors, 1880s. [John Hall]
The routes of the South Pacific Coast Railroad
and its subsidiary lines, 1887.
The route to Santa Cruz opened on May 10, 1880 and it thrived for the entire seven years that it was under the control of Davis. It became a popular tourist train in the summer, with families from San Francisco and Oakland going on day picnic trips to the redwoods and the beach, or longer summer vacations to the same. Local fruit growers appreciated the easy access to the Bay Area markets the railroad provided, while larger timber, lime, gunpowder, and other industrial patrons enjoyed direct access to San Francisco and beyond.

With an eye toward expansion, the South Pacific Coast established several subsidiary railroads that ran as branches off its main line. The first substantial route was the Felton & Pescadero Railroad in 1883, which in the short term terminated at Boulder Creek, but had plans to hop over to Pescadero Creek and run down to the coast before turning south and wrapping back to Santa Cruz. Had this been completed, the route would have tapped the Pescadero, Butano, Scott Creek, and San Vicente basins, all areas rich in old growth redwoods that would not be fully logged for decades afterwards. Other smaller routes brought the railroad directly into downtown Oakland as well as out to Dumbarton Point and Centerville. The last substantial subsidiary expanded a track out from Campbell and terminated at the bottom of the Almaden Valley, finally achieving the long-sought goal of the original California Narrow Gauge Railroad of connecting Dumbarton with the quicksilver mines in July 1886.

A horse-drawn boxcar and passenger car on the Centerville Branch of the South Pacific Coast Railway, c. 1890s.
By this point, however, the local railroading scene was changing fast. Southern Pacific was expanding in all directions and playing dirty with the South Pacific Coast. In Santa Cruz, Southern Pacific purchased the bankrupt Santa Cruz Railroad in 1881 and standard gauged its trackage in 1883. While this didn't significantly compete with the South Pacific Coast—they still had different routes with different freight patrons—it meant that passengers could now choose between crammed narrow-gauge cars or spacious standard gauge cars to get to Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, before the South Pacific Coast line to New Almaden was even completed, Southern Pacific began building a rival line from downtown San José that would equally benefit from being standard gauged. And throughout all this time, the two railroads vied for passengers and freight patronage along the East Bay, especially within Almaden County where the trackage was sometimes so close that train crews could see each other.

Although the South Pacific Coast Railroad was certainly a profitable business, revenues were not as high as anticipated and they were looking to continue to fall over the coming years. Flood wanted out, Fair was tired of his railroading project, and Davis didn't really have much say in the matter. Fair opened negotiations with Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington of Southern Pacific in 1886 and the two companies finally agreed to a long-term lease early the next year. On May 23, 1887, all of the subsidiaries were consolidated into the South Pacific Coast Railway. This was then leased to Southern Pacific on July 1. It remained a separate corporate entity for fifty years, only amalgamating into Southern Pacific on December 3, 1937, but Fair sold out his share in the company by the early 1890s.

Company logo after leasing
the line to the Southern Pacific
Railroad in 1887.
In many ways, nothing changed for two decades. Portions of the route, especially around Oakland, were standard-gauged but the bulk of the network remained narrow-gauge into the late 1890s. Southern Pacific continued to operate it as its own subdivision and it had its own fleet of rolling stock to cater to the tighter track width. But by the time of the April 18, 1906 earthquake, the route between Alameda Point and Wright had been dual-gauged with plans to throw off the center rail imminent. The earthquake delayed plans for the rest of the line by three years but also allowed the railroad to finish widening tunnels and replacing bridges, as needed. The route reopened as entirely standard gauge in Spring 1909 and the last real vestige of the South Pacific Coast was gone. Its name ceased to appear in any marketing and the fires in San Francisco after the earthquake had destroyed much of the company's records and history. South Pacific Coast was little more than a paper railroad after 1909, representing nothing except a long-forgotten lease between long dead dead men.

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1 comment:

  1. Another great article Derek! Regarding the San Francisco & San Jose,
    Fred Stindt said regular through service between San Francisco and
    Mayfield - now California Avenue - began on Oct. 18, 1863. The first
    inaugural train did not arrive in San Jose until Jan. 16, 1864.


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