Friday, March 27, 2020

Curiosities: Urban Legends of Local Railroading

Santa Cruz County is rife with urban legends, as are most places founded during a period of poor records and worse memory. In the case of Santa Cruz's train lines, those urban legends focus primarily on the suspicious reasons why the mountain route closed in 1940 and locomotives that everyone assumes must be lost in the mountains. In both cases, there is a shred of truth buried in a whole lot of fabrication.

The Closure of the Mountain Route
The myths and conspiracies behind the closure of the mountain route are easy to dispel since documentary evidence from the time reveals precisely what happened. On the morning of February 26, 1940, the regular morning passenger train did its run from Santa Cruz to San Jose and back, as it did on any typical Monday. Passenger levels had been dropping for the past decade as unemployment caused by the Great Depression led gradually to an increase of people buying and driving cars for the trans-mountain commute. The impending completion of California State Route 17, which was finished later that year, added to the general feeling that the railroad route was being bypassed. Indeed, Southern Pacific had made almost no money on the route through the mountain over the past two years, and the trend was continuing downward. To make matters worse, they had yet to recoup their expenses for a massive upgrade of the line conducted in the summer of 1937, and the route still needed much more thorough revitalization if it were to survive the coming years. Almost no freight ran on the line by this point, which further aggravated the situation.

Insurance assessment photograph of the western portal of the Summit Tunnel, April 9, 1940.
[Bruce Macgregor – colorized using DeOldify]
Thus, the events of the afternoon and evening of February 26 shattered the perilous situation the railroad was in regarding its sixty-year-old mountain line. Around midday, rains began to fall and they did not let up. In fact, it was one of the most sudden and violent storms the mountains had sustained in recent years. The evening commuter train wisely was rerouted to Gilroy and Watsonville Junction and this temporary workaround continued for the next week, at which time Pacific Greyhound buses were coopted to bypass the route. Meanwhile, surveyors, insurance investigators, and railroad staff began the difficult process of assessing the status of the route.

The situation was not so grim. There were about a dozen serious sinks along the line, primarily in the Zayante Creek watershed where there had previously been some heavy fills installed. Meanwhile, sections near Laurel and Wright suffered slides. None of this was unrepairable damage, but the cost of repairing it would be approximately $30,000, which was nearly the entire annual budget for repairs for the line. Railroad assessors also increased the price of annual maintenance going forward, with $50,000 per year as their estimate. Furthermore, Southern Pacific knew that the line needed a thorough upgrading to loosen curves, replace bridges, and reinforce the six aging tunnels. The costs were deemed too much and, following misleading propaganda and promises in local newspapers, Southern Pacific petitioned to abandon the part of the line between Olympia, where two sand quarries were operating, and Los Gatos on March 25, 1940.

Anticipated public outrage of the abandonment never really came, despite newspapers extolling the virtues of the line and what the loss of passenger service would mean to the community. The railroad calmly made several promises, including a resumption of the Sun Tan Specials via Watsonville Junction and the coastal line, reduced rates for businesses negatively impacted by the closure of the line, and increased Pacific Greyhound bus service during peak periods. With these issues addressed, the local Chamber of Commerce and other people opposed to abandonment dropped their cases. No rail service passed over the line after February 26, and those opposed realized the futility of their cause. The Interstate Commerce Commission granted temporary abandonment in April and official permission to abandon in July. Although it had been out of service for nearly nine months, the line was only formally abandoned on November 7, 1940.

Insurance assessment photograph of the trackage in the vicinity of Laurel, April 9, 1940.
[Bruce Macgregor – colorized using DeOldify]
The segments the railroad retained returned to working order within two months of the initial storm. After the November abandonment, Southern Pacific moved quickly to dismantle the remainder of the line. The process was systematic, with salvageable stock such as prefabricated bridges hauled away and structures such as the depots sold to any interested parties. Three depots were located along the abandoned route: Glenwood, Laurel, and Alma. The latter two continued to operate as a station point for a year before Southern Pacific sold the structures. They then became first businesses and later homes. Both were eventually demolished, Laurel due to safety concerns, Alma due to the inundation of the valley for Lexington Reservoir. Glenwood's depot, meanwhile, had already been abandoned for several years and seems to have been demolished not long after the line was abandoned. Southern Pacific also recovered most of the rail used on the line, since steel prices were at a premium since the start of World War II in Europe. Presumably some of the rail was repurposed for other lines while the remainder was sold for scrap.

The final step of demolition was the tunnels, which have become the host of one of the stranger conspiracy theories surrounding the local railroad lines. In October 1941, H. A. Christie & Sons was hired to salvage the lumber from the abandoned line. They were allowed to take any wood from crossties, water towers, bridge structures, or tunnels that they found. Since most of the bridge supports were covered in thick layers of creosote, they were left behind and remain in place today throughout the route. But the ties and towers were taken, as were the structural supports within the tunnels. From October to late April 1942, Christie & Sons took every last scrap they could, although the tunnels were especially risky due to the risk of cave-in.

Insurance assessment photograph of Tank Siding, April 9, 1940. [Bruce Macgregor – colorized using DeOldify]
Once Christie & Sons was done, Southern Pacific requested the United States Army Corps of Engineers to collapse the entrances to the Summit Tunnel (Tunnel 1), the Glenwood-Laurel Tunnel (Tunnel 2), and the Mountain Charley Tunnel (Tunnel 3). The fourth and final tunnel along this stretch, the Eccles Tunnel (Tunnel 4) at the top of Madrone Drive in Zayante, was considered structurally secure enough that it could remain—it was used for over a decade as a rural road for locals before being taken over as a nuclear bomb-safe storage facility. The demolition of the three tunnels was fairly straight forward. Charges were set within the tunnels just beyond the limit of the concrete and brick ceiling, which ensured both a cleaner collapse and less likelihood that the ground above would sink into the tunnel. It also ensured that Southern Pacific could, if it chose to do so, reopen the tunnels at a later point in time. Indeed, all of the portals except Tunnel 1's west portal, which was fifteen years older than the others, survived the explosions and still stand in near perfect condition even today, as does the roof inside Tunnel 1's east portal. After the charges exploded, crews installed inside Tunnel 1 and Tunnel 2's east portals steel girder frames to ensure that no additional sliding action occurs. The tunnels were then abandoned to the elements and Southern Pacific appears to have never given them another thought, although others have over the past eighty years.

What must be emphasized in this summary is that at no time did the idea that the Japanese could use these tunnels for reasons of espionage enter the minds of Southern Pacific. The route was abandoned due to structural damage and excessive costs. It was dismantled according to the standard procedures of the time. Furthermore, both the abandonment and demolition were approved and begun prior to the United States' entry into World War II on December 8, 1941. In any case, while the tunnels were remote, they were not unmonitored. Residents have lived near all six tunnel portals for well over a century. By 1940, Laurel had sufficient population to keep an eye on its two portals, as did Glenwood and the Mountain Charley Road community. Wright's portal, meanwhile, was monitored semi-regularly by the San Jose Water Company, which had purchased the surrounding property in 1938. Following the logic in Ocham's Razor, the reason the three tunnels were demolished was simply because they were not safe. With the railroad no longer maintaining the tunnels and a distant county authority uninterested in doing so, the tunnels posed a hazard to anyone using them. Two of the tunnels were over a mile long, and both Tunnel 1 and Tunnel 3 did not connect to populated areas, so there were no reasons for keeping them accessible. The only exception was perhaps Tunnel 2, which connected Laurel and Glenwood, but the risk and maintenance costs were still likely too high to justify keeping it open. The fact that Tunnel 4, which had a solid roof, remained open for the community to use for over a decade further supports the theory that the tunnels were simply closed for reasons of safety

Lost Locomotives in the Mountains
The Zayante Creek Mill locomotive
Myths surrounding lost locomotives in the Santa Cruz Mountains have been sustained for many decades, but evidence for them is weak. However, unlike the theory that the mountain tunnels were closed out of a fear of Japanese spycraft, there is a bit of truth in the story of lost locomotives.

Rick Hamman in California Central Coast Railways notes that at least one and maybe two steam locomotives owned by the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company were buried in a slide during a storm at the Zayante mill in 1884. While this is an exciting lead, no sources appear to support the idea. Hamman himself does not note where he heard this from and cannot identify the designs of either locomotive or even when the disastrous slide occurred. Indeed, even the route of the narrow-gauge railroad built by the lumber company along Zayante Creek is not well known, although it likely followed modern-day East Zayante Road for much of its length.

The locomotive at the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company mill on Zayante Creek, c. 1880s.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
The facts that can be found are few but may help reveal the truth of the situation. First, the company only appeared to own one locomotive during this period. It was purchased specifically to operate along the 2-1/2 mile line that the company began building in April 1884. By September 24, the mill was running at full capacity and South Pacific Coast Railroad No. 13 was making transfers with a locomotive owned by the lumber company. There appears to be no evidence of a storm in the latter part of the year, suggesting that any landslide would have occurred for other reasons or simply been a fluke. But the most likely solution is probably the right one: there simply was no landslide or abandoned locomotive.

The question must be asked: why was the company's locomotive not recovered? Landslides and derailments happened all the time and locomotives were rarely abandoned, even if they were severely damaged. Several South Pacific Coast locomotives were damaged from landslides along the mountain route and all of them were put back into circulation. And presumably the lumber company's locomotive would have been comparatively new since there were few providers of narrow-gauge machinery in California in 1884, when it first arrived. Therefore, the only reasonable answer is that it was not, in fact, abandoned, but rather repaired and brought back into service.

The Dinky at Boulder Creek during its years working on the Dougherty Extension Railroad, c. 1910s.
[San Lorenzo Valley Museum – colorized using DeOldify]
In fact, the only known photograph of the Zayante Mill shows the locomotive in question operating at the bottom of the lumber yard, and it is none other than the former Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad locomotive, the Felton, popularly nicknamed "Dinky" for its diminutive size. After the South Pacific Coast Railroad took over the Santa Cruz & Felton in 1879, it replaced all of the latter's rolling stock, including its locomotives. The Felton, therefore, needed a new home and found its second life with the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company, with which it remained until 1914, when it was finally retired.

The Bridge Creek Locomotive
Unlike the Zayante Creek locomotive, which probably was never lost but continued to operate, there is one other locomotive in Santa Cruz County that was left behind, although it was never in fact lost but rather has since been lost. Ronald G. Powell relates in his extensive history of the Soquel area that Frederick Hihn worked out a deal with the Molino Timber Company in 1912 to harvest the timber in the 610 acres of Tract 10 within Shoquel Augmentation. This section was located to the south of the Loma Prieta Fire Road grade below Sandy Point or north of Maple Falls along the old Bridge Creek trail. The area was extremely isolated and cut off from the other trackage within the region due to the surrounding geography.

Hihn, however, was undaunted by the problem and decided the best solution was to build an isolated railroad network within the upper Bridge Creek watershed which he hoped to one day connect to the existing line lower down. And to work this network, he hauled in none other than his trusty Betsy Jane locomotive, which had originally been used on the Valencia Creek railroad line and spent the previous decade in Laurel where it worked mostly as a stationary engine to run machinery for the mill there.

The Betsy Jane on the Valencia Creek railroad grade near the Hihn company mill, late 1890s.
[Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]
The Betsy Jane was disassembled at Laurel in preparation for its move to Bridge Creek and then hauled via the Southern Pacific line to Opal outside Capitola, where it was then loaded onto several wagons and hauled up to Olive Springs, where it was transported as far as possible up old logging roads deep into Spignet Gulch. From the top of the Hinckley Ridge, the parts were then carted and slid down the road to a point near Maple Falls, at which point cables were rigged to haul the parts over the falls. At the top of the falls, the wagons were reassembled and continued another half mile to the timberlands in Tract 10. Once all the parts were together again, the locomotive was reassembled and placed on waiting tracks that had been installed by other crews in the meantime.

For the next six years, the Hihn-Hammond Lumber Company worked to harvest the so-called splitstuff area, regularly hauling loads of splitstuff up to the Molino railroad grade at the top of the ridge for transport by Molino crews down to the Loma Prieta Mill. It was a cooperative relationship between the two firms that benefitted both. But a storm in November 1918 wrecked much of the operations along Bridge Creek forcing crews to salvage anything they could and leave the area.

The Betsy Jane running a load of felled logs to the Valencia Creek mill, late 1880s. [Aptos Museum]
In 1964, Forest of Nisene Marks State Park ranger Nils Bergman went out on foot to survey the newly-opened park for potential trails and features to highlight to visitors. On a journey down the southwest ridge from Sandy Point he discovered to his amazement a locomotive abandoned along an old splitstuff rail bed. What surprised him even more was that the locomotive did not appear damaged or the result of a tumble from atop the Molino grade. It still had its smokestack and cab intact—the only thing missing was its bell (which was later to be found in the possession of a former employee). Bergman covered the locomotive with brush and kept the location of the locomotive a secret from his superiors and others to avoid treasure-hunters.

The problem with Bergman's plan is that he never actually revealed the specific location to anyone. In the rare instances when he did take visitors to the splitstuff area below Sandy Point, he avoided taking them to the locomotive, even appearing to intentionally deceive people about its location. He later claimed to have forgotten its location, while he told his supervisor in 1971 that he was too infirm to be able to visit the specific area anymore although he appeared to remember precisely where it was. He also implied that the area had been partially covered by a landslide in the late 1960s, further covering it up.

To this day, the precise location of the locomotive is unknown. Several terrible winter storms as well as the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake have greatly changed the landscape in the area, while much of the harvested timberlands have since grown to thoroughly change the landscape of the splitstuff area, making investigating the location of the locomotive even more difficult. Powell visited the area several times from 1974 to the mid-1990s and never found it, despite several potential leads from Bergman's friends and former colleagues. What is certain is that Bergman told many people over the years that he had found the locomotive and that it was located somewhere in the upper Bridge Creek watershed below one of the old railroad grades in the area. Assuming Bergman truly found what he claimed to find, it is the only confirmed lost locomotive in Santa Cruz County.

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1 comment:

  1. Great article Derek! I read with interest that the Mountain Route underwent
    an upgrade in 1937 as I found something years ago that may have been part of
    this. While hiking in 1991 between Zayante and Tank Siding, I glanced down
    on the east side of the railroad bed and was astonished to see a short concrete
    "canal" far below the grade. On descending, I found a long concrete drainage
    tunnel in perfect condition which the canal connected to and which I was
    easily able to walk through to the other side of the railroad grade which
    sat far above. I assume this must have been constructed in the final years
    of the line.


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