Friday, December 20, 2019

Bridges: Shady Gulch

Perhaps the most unchanged and best known feature of the railroad route between Santa Cruz and Felton is the long trestle bridge over Shady Gulch. Erected by the narrow-gauge Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad in early 1875, the bridge originally spanned both a natural, steep gully and the Eben Bennett toll road. From its top, passengers, crews, and brave trackwalkers could look down upon the California Powder Works, which sat at the bottom of the valley along the San Lorenzo River. Excursion trains would sometimes stop on the bridge to allow sightseers to enjoy the view for a moment.

The Shady Gulch bridge during the South Pacific Coast Railroad years, 1884. Photo by Taber. [Bancroft Library]
The original bridge was 262 feet long and thirty-eight feet high at its tallest point. The entire structure was originally composed of locally-sources coast redwood, formed into a rather standard trestle design. In the center of the bridge, five piers of varying lengths reached down to the bottom of the gulch via tall redwood posts, reinforced with bents and crossbeams. Atop the two sections of road, longer spans were erected, reinforced with multiple bents. The bridge had no walkway or railing along the top, but signs at either and and at the midway point did warn people of the dangers of crossing the bridge. This section of track also has a steep grade from the Potrero District north of Santa Cruz to Rincon, so the bridge itself has about a two percent incline from its south abutment to its north.

A Suntan Special crossing the Shady Gulch bridge, c. 1930s. Photograph by Fred Stoes. [Jim Vail]
When the Southern Pacific Railroad finally upgraded the route to standard-gauge in the second half of the 1900s, this bridge finally was replaced with a slightly more modern structure, albeit one that looks shockingly similar to its predecessor. The center portion remained a trestle design, with tall posts reaching the bottom of the gulch and more intricate bents and crossbeams supporting the posts. On either side of the bridge, more heavy-duty redwood piers were erected to support short, open-deck plate girder sections that sat over both road underpasses. At a later point, a support pier consisting of two steel girders and a girder bent were installed under each open deck to provide further support. By this point, second-growth redwood trees had mostly obscured the Powder Works, which would close a few years later anyway, and there is little view of anything outside the immediate area of the bridge today.

Streetview photograph of the Shady Gulch bridges, 2012. [Google]
For another twenty-five years, the narrow county road continued to run under the bridge, but increased traffic and the need for two lanes finally forced the local government to erect a bypass bridge. In 1930, the county road was rerouted across Shady Gulch via a new concrete bridge built beside the railroad bridge. The old road remains intact, albeit poorly maintained with its concrete surface long broken and buried under ninety years of forest debris.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Northern (Western) abutment: 37.0071N, 122.0447W
Southern (Eastern) abutment: 37.0067N, 122.0440W

Today, the Shady Gulch bridge is one of the most recognizable railroad structures in the county, visible to everybody who drives State Route 9 between Santa Cruz and Felton. It is still used seasonally by the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway. The bridge is considered a part of an operational railway and crossing it is absolutely forbidden for reasons of trespassing and safety. People wishing to take photographs of the bridge can pull off (carefully) at either part of the abandoned county road that passes under the bridge. The former road also acts as an access trail for the Pogonip-UC Santa Cruz trail network.

Citations & Credits:


  1. I can still remember vividly standing at the north end of this trestle
    in the summer of 1964, with a wind-up 8mm movie camera in hand, hearing the
    rumble of two Southern Pacific diesels rolling up the grade pulling the
    annual Big Trees picnic train. An open baggage car, a string of S.P.
    suburban cars, a diner from the Sunset Limited, and an open end observation
    car to top it off! What a sight! And nobody else was standing there
    to see it go by.

    1. There is that one photo by Drew Jacksich of three diesels pulling one of the excursions while it crossed this trestle (and at least two more photos down at the Boardwalk). Maybe these S.P. excursions need their own page?


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