Friday, November 29, 2019

Stations: Rincon

In the days when México still controlled California, San Lorenzo Gorge was largely a single land grant that went by the name Rancho la Cañada del Rincon en el Río San Lorenzo de Santa Cruz (Ranch in the Canyon of the Bend in the San Lorenzo River of Santa Cruz). The property was not overly productive nor profitable, but during the 1860s, a small sawmill and accompanying paper mill were established in a flat clearing beside the Eben Bennett Toll Road between Santa Cruz and Felton. The property shortly afterwards passed into the control of the Davis & Cowell Lime Company.

An excursion train steaming through Rincon, 1952. Photo by Jim Holmes. [Jim Vail]
When survey and grading crews for the San Lorenzo Railroad passed through the area in 1868, they stuck close to the river far below, avoiding Sawmill Flat which angered the lime barons, who received no compensation for the timber that was cut on their land by the railroad. Furthermore, the right-of-way was to difficult to access, meaning that they also would not benefit from railroad access. They promptly sued the company and the railroad project fell apart having never lain a single rail.

The flat at Rincon with an excursion train passing through, July 23, 1950. Photo by W. C. Whittaker. [Jim Vail]
Enter the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad. In late 1874, the railroad incorporated and almost immediately started surveying a new route up San Lorenzo Gorge. Rather than following the more logical route low in the canyon, the company realized that it needed to gain the support of the lime company. Therefore, it graded its right-of-way much higher along the canyon wall. At a point about one hundred yards south of Sawmill Flat, it crossed the highest point on the line. South from here, the grade was a continuous incline down to the Monterey Bay, but to the north, it was a relatively gradual downward slope to Felton.

Piles of empty barrels along the siding at Rincon, 1907. The old warehouse can be seen at left while a train approaches from the north.
During the Santa Cruz & Felton years, Davis & Cowell never used the railroad, but they did require a 300-foot siding be installed at Sawmill Flat, just in case they needed it. And since it was the first flat area on the route to Felton, it became the primary passing zone for the two trains that operated along the line. The railroad named the location El Rincon, for the rancho, but when the South Pacific Coast Railroad took over the line in 1879, it renamed the location Summit, since it was the highest point on the old route. The station did have one semi-permanent occupant: a railroad agent who lived in a small cabin alongside the tracks and walked the route to Felton every morning to ensure that there were no slides or fallen trees on the right-of-way. In 1883, after four years operating as Summit, the location resumed its old name of Rincon, and that name has remained in use ever since.

The Cowell Lime & Cement Company lime kilns at Rincon during their height, c. 1920s. [Margaret Koch]
For many years, Rincon was little more than a waiting area for South Pacific Coast and, later, Southern Pacific Railroad box- and flatcars. Because of the steep grade from Santa Cruz, shorter trains sometimes hauled heavy loads to the siding at Rincon and then assembled full consists for the long run to San José, Oakland, and San Francisco. In 1885, Davis & Cowell built a small warehouse beside the tracks at Rincon so that lime barrels could be loaded and unloaded there. Full barrels were picked up from the warehouse and taken to various destinations, while empty barrels were dumped along the side of the siding here for reuse. This exchange system increased substantially after Davis died and Cowell took full control of the company in 1889.

View of the Cowell lime kiln facilities at Rincon from above San Lorenzo Drive (Highway 9), 1930s.
[University of California, Santa Cruz]
Around the turn of the century, Cowell began heavily shifting his preferred transport method to railroad. The destruction during a storm in December 1907 of his ancient pier, located at the end of Bay Street, forced the issue and suddenly expanding operations at Rincon became a priority. Where previously Cowell had used redwood timber to heat his lime kilns, the trend in 1907 was toward crude oil. And oil was most efficiently and safely transported via rail. As a result, the area around Rincon was quickly upgraded into the Cowell Lime Company's primary kilns, opening in 1909.

Closeup of the abandoned limekilns at Rincon, 1950s. Photo by John Cummings. [Jim Vail]
The seven new kilns at Rincon operated continuously, day and night, and ran off oil and steam. While the quicklime that they produced was not of the highest grade, the speed with which they could produce saleable quicklime more than compensated for the quality. A cooperage was built beside the kilns and a worker village sprang up along the east side of the tracks, above the river. Tens of thousands of barrels of quicklime were produced each year that this facility operated.

An excursion train passing by the abandoned Rincon limekilns, 1950. Photo by Fred Stoes. [Jim Vail]
To address the increased activity at the location, Southern Pacific installed a longer standard-gauge siding in 1907, that eventually reached 1,300 feet in length. A second siding was also added that ran along the fronts of the kilns, while a spur was built in front of the new storage warehouse. During the off season, a station agent lived in a shack beside the tracks and railroad employees often called upon the agent during bad weather or while waiting for the train to be loaded by work crews.

Abandoned worker cottages across from the Rincon lime kilns, 1950s.
Photo by John Cummings. [Jim Vail]
The kilns at Rincon thrived until the 1920s, and lingered through the Great Depression and war years. After Cowell himself died, his heirs continued the company for a little longer but eventually lost interest as demand for quicklime and lime products in general declined. In 1946, the plant at Rincon shut down, although most of the structures remained. The homeless soon moved into the abandoned warehouse, worker cottages, and other structures. Meanwhile, excursion trains often stopped at Rincon to let off anglers and hikers. Hopper cars from the Olympia sand quarries sometimes sat on the sidings at Rincon, waiting pickup by a passing train.

Hopper cars parked outside the Cowell warehouse at Rincon, 1950s. Photo by John Cummings. [Jim Vail]
The sidings at Rincon were removed in 1960, not long after Southern Pacific had switched to diesel locomotives that could handle the climb to Olympia and back without needing to unload cars. The property itself had been sold by the Cowell family to the State of California in 1954 to form the larger part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The remaining buildings were removed in the 1960s due to safety, security, and aesthetic concerns. The kilns, however, were collapsed and partially buried, but still remain today, currently obscured by blackberry and poison oak bushes.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0125N, 122.0538W

Today, Rincon is easily and legally accessible. It is located near the south boundary of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park along State Route 9 at the large pullout north of where the railroad tracks cross the highway. Everything from the parking lot to the tracks was part of the former Cowell limeworks or hosted tracks. Roaring Camp Railroads has an easement for the right-of-way but this is one of the few areas where the public is able to enjoy the tracks without condemnation by locomotive engineers. The location is popular for mountain bikers, who climb up the old hauling roads and mule trails above Rincon to access Pogonip and the University of California, Santa Cruz main campus. It is also popular with anglers, who head down the hill to the river, where it is especially wide and relatively calm. During the summer, the tracks are still used up to four times per day by the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway, so caution is advised when loitering near the tracks.

Rincon Station, 2012, looking south toward Santa Cruz. The limekilns, warehouse, and sidings were located to the right, while the worker cabins were along the tracks to the left. [Derek R. Whaley]
Citations & Credits:
  • Logan, Clarence A. "Limestone in California," California Journal of Mines and Geology 43:3 (July 1947): 175-357.
  • Peery, Frank A., Robert W. Piwarzyk, and Allan Molho. "Getting the Lime to Market." In Limekiln Legacies: The History of the Lime Industry in Santa Cruz County, 150-155. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & History, 2007.
  • Clark, Donald Thomas. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Second edition. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2008.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.


  1. Your picture there of "rincon tunnel" sure looks like the shoo fly around the other tunnel up by the arch and the hogsback. The rincon tunnel was as you describe, south of rincon near the highway 9 crossing. The shoo fly where the tracks are now is actually the original SC&F alignment, and the SP built the tunnel to ease the curve there. It burned after RC owned it. They didnt daylight it because the ground is really unstable there, hence the long cement retaining wall still visible on the south side of the tunnel.

    1. It's possible it is the wrong area; I didn't take this photograph myself. I am planning to hike this area of the tracks again and take some photos, so I will confirm or change the photo when I find out. Lisa seemed to know where I was talking about, but she may have been more confused than she realized.

    2. I have since confirmed that the above photograph is indeed of the cite of the Rincon Tunnel. Its likeness to the other tunnel is pure coincidence.

  2. The 1950 photo by Fred Stoes shown above, it looks earlier to me. The reasons are the amount of track and activity seen, neither of the locomotives have silver paint on their front, and the locomotives would be backing up the grade as in the color photo of an excursion on the Big Trees page (no turntable at Felton). It's probably a Sun Tan running in the 1930s (I don't know when Fred Stoes was in the area).


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