Friday, November 22, 2019

Sights: Inspiration Point

The picturesque splendor of San Lorenzo Gorge was not lost on even the earliest Western settlers to pass through its depths. Almost as soon as the Eben Bennett Toll Road was completed in 1867, people began to photograph and seek out beautiful views of the southernmost portion of the San Lorenzo Valley. At a tight curve on the toll road, approximately 2.5 miles south of downtown Felton, the road widened very briefly, allowing for a pull-out and rest stop on the way to Santa Cruz. This place proved to have several unique and photogenic characteristics.

Colorized postcard of Coon Gulch and San Lorenzo Gorge
from Inspiration Point, c. 1920s. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
From the place that became known as Inspiration Point, a steep ledge fell off to the river far below. This meant that there were very few trees blocking the view of the gorge. Conveniently, the river made several sharp curves, as well, making the gorge somewhat wider here and increasing the range of visibility to the south. The redwood-speckled hills gave a year-round green shade to the surrounding mountains, heightening their unique qualities. Deep in the gorge, one could sometimes hear the rushing waters of the San Lorenzo River as it passed over some of its few rapids sections. And midway between, from 1875, the railroad tracks between Felton and Santa Cruz ran through a dangerous section known as Coon Gulch, where the scenic views below were countered with the ever-present threat of landslides from above.

A lumber train crossing over the two bridges along Coon Gulch, c. 1877. Photograph by F. A. Cook. []
Perhaps one of the best known features of this overlook is the concrete arch bridge built by the Southern Pacific Railroad built in March 1905. The original trackage along Coon Gulch was built by the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad in 1875 and required two short bridges to cross the steep gullies that ran down the hillside.

Closeup of a Santa Cruz & Felton locomotive parked on the Coon Gulch composite bridge, 1878. Note the damage to the right side of the bridge from falling debris. Photograph by F. A. Cook. [UC Santa Cruz Special Collections]
While the southernmost bridge was a simple trestle, the northern bridge required a rather unique construction of a truss bridge low in the gulch with a trestle erected over it. To encourage debris off the bridge, the side of the bridge facing the river was sloped using thick redwood planks, although this technique was only moderately successful.

An early postcard showing Coon Gulch from Inspiration Point, c. 1880s. [Bancroft Library]
As the line was being prepared for standard-gauging at the turn of the century, the decision was made to attempt to resolve the issues plaguing the Coon Gulch trackage. The smaller bridge was completely removed and replaced with a concrete fill. The larger, deeper bridge, however, was replaced with the concrete arch that still exists today.

A telephoto view of Coon Gulch, showing the new concrete arch bridge
and the filled concrete plug, c. 1905. [Ken Lorenzen]
This new structure accomplished two goals: it reduced the damage that could be caused by falling debris, and it reduced the curve through this section of track, since the original bridge was not able to substantially bend, forcing the track entering and exiting it to curve more sharply.

A Southern Pacific freight train heading to Felton over the concrete arch, c. 1940s. [Unknown provenance]
From 1905 to the present, the view from Inspiration Point became one of the most famous photo stops in Santa Cruz County. In the early years of the automobile, especially the 1920s, colorized postcards of the location began to circulate en masse, further emphasizing the location. And since the second-growth redwood forest around the area had not yet grown to full maturity as it has now, most of the scenes show both the river and the railroad tracks. Indeed, often postcard creators added a train to photographs to add to their artistic merits. As with many postcards of the time, many of these are in fact from the same image, but with small changes or artistic differences.

These are part of the earliest-known postcard series, featuring a Model T Ford with the river out of frame:

Postcard with a red Model T, c. 1920s. [Unknown provenance]
Postcard with a black Model T, c. 1920s [Unknown provenance]
These are part of the second series of postcards, where a pedestrian path has been added between the road and the cliffside and the river is now visible:

Postcard by F. R. Fulmer, c. 1930s. [CardCow]
Beginning in the 1930s, postcards of the area became somewhat rarer and the novelty of colorizing photos or, for that matter, editing them had faded. Artists during the Great Depression were more interested in photo-realism and, as such, took more mundane, but equally picturesque, photos to sell as postcards:
A monochrome postcard from the late 1930s, showing no train or car, just scenery. [Ken Lorenzen]
Also, the emphasis moved away from Inspiration Point itself and more toward the view from the point, specifically the railroad tracks and the concrete arch. This may have been part of an artistic movement toward romanticizing industrial works that was popular at the time:

Postcard showing Coon Gulch, 1930s. [Santa Cruz MAH]
Postcard showing a train crossing the concrete arch on its way to Santa Cruz,
taken from Inspiration Point, c. 1930s. [Santa Cruz MAH]
Colorized postcard of the concrete arch and San Lorenzo Gorge, c. 1930s.
Compare the colors to the postcard at the top of the page. [Ken Lorenzen]

Sepia-toned postcard of the above colorized postcard, c. 1930s.
[Mount Hermon]
And people took their own photographs, of course. The following are just a few of thousands that likely exist in private collections and museum archives across the world:

Photo of a train crossing over the concrete arch heading toward Felton,
taken from Inspiration Point, c. 1940s. [Santa Cruz MAH]
An excursion train crossing the cement arch in Coon Gulch, June 11, 1939.
Photograph by Wilbur C. Whittaker. [Jim Vail]
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0241˚N, 122.059˚W

Today, Inspiration Point sits alongside State Route 9 within the boundaries of Henry Cowell Redwood State Park. It is now an official location within the park, aptly, albeit uncreatively, named Vista Point. It can be found on the east side of the road exactly two miles south of the Henry Cowell entrance log outside Felton. There is ample parking, although be aware of drivers coming from the south, as there is a blind curve and locals often take it faster than is advised. While it is not as scenic as it once was—primarily because the redwood trees have since grown to such a height that they block the once-broad view—it is still a sight to behold, especially for people unfamiliar with the scenic beauty of the San Lorenzo Valley.

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.


  1. Great article Derek! The next to the last photo labelled "c. 1940s"
    was probably taken earlier than this. If you look closely, the coach
    behind the locomotive appears to be a baggage car or railway post office
    car. Some excursion trains had an open baggage car but this does not look
    like the ones I used to see on these trains. Unless this photo was taken in January or February of 1940 before the washout, I assume this was a through
    passenger train to San Francisco taken in the 1930's or earlier.

    1. It also has the old metal tell-tale, not the large wooden one seen in the June 11, 1939 photo.

    2. I notice that the photos from the 1930s include a thick cable hanging from the poles and probably leading to a semaphore on the outside of the distant curve, this seems like a very late addition to the route (the semaphore is more easily seen in a few photos that seem to have been withdrawn).

  2. According to Hamman in CALIFORNIA CENTRAL COAST RAILWAYS, P. 147, automatic
    block signals were employed on the Mountain Route between 1913-15, my guess
    earlier like 1909 when the line was broad gauged. On p. 238, you will find
    a nice photo of Train 84 at Glenwood in 1915, framed between two automatic
    block signals. Photos of these signals seem peculiarly rare. For obvious
    safety reasons, these signals were a necessity early on.


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