Friday, November 15, 2019

Tunnels: Coon Gulch (Tunnel 6)

At one time, San Lorenzo Gorge hosted two railroad tunnels. The first was the more southernly tunnel through the Hogsback. But further north, beneath Inspiration Point, a second tunnel was situated at the top of a perilous ledge known as Coon Gulch. When the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad first constructed its line down the gorge in 1875, it did not have the funds nor engineering prowess to surmount the short rock outcropping at the northern end of the gulch. Instead, the pioneering narrow-gauge built a tightly-curving track around the rock, nicknamed by crews "Cape Horn," calculating that its small trains and short consists could handle the turn without significant difficulty. While they were correct in their assessment, they had not anticipated their purchase by the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1879.

The original Tunnel 6 with a recognizable remnant of the old right-of-way around the rock outcropping, c. 1890. Note the sheer hillside above the eastern portal. [UC Santa Cruz Special Collections]
When the first surveyors were sent by the South Pacific Coast in mid-1878, it was abundantly clear to them that the curve north of Coon Gulch would not work with their somewhat bulkier trains and longer consists. The two passenger cars that operated along the eight-mile Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad route already had encountered difficulties, with their stairs being shorn off multiple times due to the close proximity of the outcropping as the train turned around it. Southbound locomotives also occasionally stalled around this turn. The South Pacific Coast's solution was to construct their eighth and final railroad tunnel in the Santa Cruz Mountains through the outcropping, thereby surmounting the problem entirely.

A photograph from inside Tunnel 6 looking south down Coon Gulch, c. 1890s.
Photograph by Oscar V. Lange. [Unknown provenance]
In the Fall of 1879, a team of engineers led by Ed Mix began boring through the solid granite rock. An early winter storm delayed the project when rockfalls from above almost completely sealed the incomplete passage. But crews worked on, eventually creating a 338-foot-long tunnel that was completed in December. More rockslides from storms in March and April delayed the opening of the route by a month and the tunnel may have been extended slightly at this time in an attempt to divert debris in the future. Little more was done to improve the tunnel over the next twenty years as the South Pacific Coast and, later, the Southern Pacific Railroad used it regularly on their runs between Santa Cruz and San José. During this time, the tunnel was designated Tunnel 6.

Rocks did not always fall when trains were off the tracks, as this 1901 photograph reveals. A boulder struck this train as it approached Tunnel 6, derailing the locomotive and possibly some of the cars behind it and stopping the train in its tracks. The longer cross-ties used at this time reveal that the standard-gauging of the route was in progress, although it would be several more years before this section was actually upgraded. [Public Domain]
The upgrading of the line to standard gauge at the turn of the century gave Southern Pacific a chance to finally address the annual nuisance of rockfalls on the tracks outside the eastern (south-facing) portal of the tunnel. In 1903, the tunnel was renumbered Tunnel 5 due to the daylighting of the Los Gatos Creek Tunnel. At the same time, the old track around the outcropping was temporarily reopened and widened while the tunnel itself was widened to support standard-gauge trains. This upgrading proved useful as it could be used in future years to bypass the tunnel when slides closed it temporarily. The interior of the tunnel was expanded significantly and reinforced with new redwood timber posts, while large concrete portals with slide barriers were installed outside both portals. A guard rail was installed outside the tunnel, as well, to further protect trains from derailing due to excess debris on the tracks. The new tunnel was opened in September 1905, although the standard-gauging of this section would not be complete until 1908.

The rockslide shed extending out from the eastern portal of Tunnel 5, c. 1940s.
[Unknown provenance]
In the years afterwards, one more significant improvement was made: the addition of a rockfall shed outside the eastern portal. This thick redwood shed, probably installed in the 1920s, allowed debris to fall from the hillside above directly onto the right-of-way without imperilling the trains passing below. The integrity of the shed probably began to suffer at some point and it was removed, and efforts to control and maintain the hillside more regularly since then has been ongoing, with mixed results.

A Southern Pacific locomotive roaring out of the eastern portal of Tunnel 6 on its way to Santa Cruz, c. 1930s.
[Unknown provenance]
Tunnel 5 continued to be used even after Roaring Camp Railroads purchased the branch line in 1985. It served as a key feature of the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway's Beach Train for several years until a fire inside the tunnel in January 1993 led to a catastrophic landslide that collapsed the tunnel almost completely. It was the only railroad tunnel in the Santa Cruz Mountains to be destroyed by fire and the most recent tunnel to be abandoned (the only operating tunnel left is beneath Mission Hill). Roaring Camp decided to once more reactivate the shoofly track around the rock outcropping, widening the so-called Butte Cut in such a way that trains could safely run around it without too much difficulty. However, it remains the sharpest turn on the route and locomotive crew must take the turn with the outmost caution to avoid derailment.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Western Portal: 37.0245˚N, 122.0588˚W; Eastern Portal: 37.0236˚N, 122.0599˚W

The location of the former Tunnel 5 is approximately 0.2 miles south of Felton Junction, where the Garden of Eden path from the Toll House Resort meets the railroad tracks. Very little of the tunnel is visible today except for the retaining walls on both sides of the rock outcropping. Trespassing is not allowed as this is an active rail line and the Butte Cut is a blind curve, so especially dangerous for explorers not paying attention.

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. In the 4th photo, that third rail is whats known as a guard rail. Its purpose is to prevent a derailed piece of equipment from wandering over and smacking the side of the tunnel. You'll commonly see them on bridges, tunnels, or anywhere with close clearances. The idea is that if a car derails in a curve, it is almost always going to go towards the outside of the curve. That guard rail will catch the backside of the inside wheel and prevent the car from going over the edge of the bridge, or in this case hitting the tunnel sets.

    1. While guard rails are referred to quite often, the term 'check rail' fits what I see here and in the Brackney photo. It was used to fight slippage on tight curves.

    2. The guard rails I have seen have more space between the rails. Check rails makes more sense. Trying to force the trucks to turn.

  2. I checked out a book from Felton Library, "Santa Cruz County, Paradise of the Past", and it tells of the 1901 derailment rather more dramatically. The engine derailed due to a landslide, but its momentum kept it moving forward another 50 feet, smashing into boulders and tearing up the ties as it went.
    Luckily the engine was diverted towards the hillside. Had the derailment gone off the other side of the track, the engine would have taken the entire train down the into the gorge!
    It says the boiler was smashed and the smokestack torn off, along with a large piece of the engine cab. The tender crashed into the engine and the baggage car was derailed. The engineer James Stanley was fatally injured, but the 30 passengers were unharmed. It was a close shave, and lives were saved possibly thanks to that 3rd rail Nathan mentioned!

    Regarding that color picture of the tunnel #5: when was that taken? I first hiked Inspiration Pt in the 1990s and I never saw a tunnel. When exactly did it disappear? I must have missed it by just a couple of years...

    1. If I remember correctly, the tunnel burned down around 1996 because I too remember going through it once via the train. Parts of the tunnel can still be seen on both sides where the intentional landslide didn't cover it. The picture was taken in the 1950s, though, I believe. The steam engine and cement wall suggest that. Honestly, I'm more interested in the date the photo of the Inspiration Point store was taken. I've never heard of it anywhere else nor seen another photo of it.

      I've heard of that book you mentioned before and it is on my list of local books to pick up when I...well, get a better-paying job. Fun story, though; I feel bad for James Stanley.

  3. Maybe it is time for a guerrilla plaque to be erected at the now rather generic inspiration point. What would it say, exactly, I wonder?

    1. Who knows, but I'd love to post informational plaques all along the Santa Cruz County fire road that makes up the original route. Enough people hike it every year to make it interesting. I also want to know how long that building above was at Inspiration Point. I assume it either feel off eventually or was removed after a few years. The photograph above is the only evidence I've ever seen of the place.

    2. While everything Nathan has said about a common guard rail is true, I think the picture shows an unusual use of a guide rail. I made that term up, but I mean a rail that rubs against the inside of the flange on a correctly moving train. It looks like it was removed in the later pictures, and I'm not sure of its success as they have disappeared in every case except for switches. It should be noted that steam locomotives have rigid frames that cause the larger wheels (drivers) to climb the rail on sharp turns, and that the small wheels in front of the drivers were used to feel for a curve in order to swing the frame into a curve; the chance of derailment was far less than the problem of slippage and stalls when wheels begin to climb.

      The freight on the concrete arch would be a photo from the 40's or early 50's, the locomotive backed up the hill to deliver at Olympia and came back down pointed forward. There was no turntable. A headlight was mounted on the tender to facilitate miles of backward operation.

    3. Judging by the style of automobiles parked at the Inspiration Point store, my best guess would be between 1927 and 1930 (and closer to the later date).

    4. It's been determined that the photograph of the store was not at our Inspiration Point, but another such site located elsewhere in the county. Not sure where. Maybe near Mount Madonna or something. I probably should pull the photo, but I like promoting discussion.

  4. The photo of the steam engine "roaring out of the eastern portal of
    Tunnel 6 (by then officially Tunnel 5) is of the morning passenger train
    from San Francisco, # 34, which for example, arrived in Santa Cruz every day
    in 1937 at 11:26 AM.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.