Friday, March 6, 2020

Freight Stops: Mission Orchard

Below Mission Hill at the southern end of the former Mission Orchard, later called Eblis, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad ran into a problem: its otherwise straight route between Pogonip to the Santa Cruz Main Beach was blocked by Mission Hill. The solution was simple enough: run the train around Mission Hill and down Pacific Avenue to the beach. This idea was fine in theory, but proved unpopular in practice, namely because lumbering steam trains hauling a dozen over-laden cars down the center of the commercial district was not conducive to good business. While the company decided at this point that a tunnel through the hill would be the best option going forward, it also decided that the clearing beside River Street in the shadow of the hill would have to suit for its engine house.

The Mission Orchard engine house near Mission Hill, 1870s. [Randolph C. Brandt]
Since the late 1860s, River Street (including North Pacific Avenue) along the eastern side of Mission Hill served as the industrial district of town. The arrival of the railroad in 1875 made this even more the case. The Santa Cruz & Felton engine house was located in the vicinity of where San Lorenzo Lumber & Home Center sits today. It was a crudely-built wood structure with not much to offer, but it provided adequate housing and repair facilities for the company's two locomotives and some of its rolling stock. A generous yard between the hillside and River Street gave room for spare crossties and rails, as well as replacement machinery for the stock. Its location also made it easy for crews to get to work early and return home at respectable hours.

The Santa Cruz Foundry on River Street (North Pacific Avenue), c. 1880s. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Just next door along River Street was a series of heavy industrial businesses that often supported the railroad. Down the street from the engine house was the Santa Cruz Foundry, owned by Thomas and Morton Amner. Beside that was the Santa Cruz Gas Works, across from which was the New Foundry, run by W. H. Martin. Both foundries worked on commission for all of the local railroads, but had an especially close relationship with the Santa Cruz & Felton, helping it build rolling stock, repair the locomotives, and craft rails, spikes, frogs, and other metalworks for use on the line. The relationship between the gas company and railroad is less certain, but it likely provided oil and grease used in the company's operations. At the end of the block, the St. Charles Hotel marked the end-of-track for steam service from 1875 to 1876 and was also the de facto passenger station throughout the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad's independent existence, which ended soon after the South Pacific Coast Railroad purchased the line in 1879.

The acquisition of the railroad by the South Pacific Coast marked the closure of the Mission Orchard engine house. The larger locomotives used by the South Pacific Coast meant it needed a larger house, which was built further down the line where the Santa Cruz Union Depot would later be erected. Meanwhile, the Mission Orchard was abandoned by the railroad. The Pacific Avenue Street Railroad, a horsecar line, had shared space with the Santa Cruz & Felton near its engine house and likely continued to use the track throughout the 1880s, possibly until shortly after James P. Pierce sold the line in 1887 and it was renovated and expanded. Not long after the horsecar line left, the trackage between the St. Charles Hotel and the point where the track entered River Street was cut. The only remnant was a short spur between the mainline and River Street around Mission Hill.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing the Cunningham & Company Planing Mill & Lumber Yard, 1892.
[University of California, Santa Cruz Digital Collections]
A new tenant took over the Mission Orchard site in 1889. James F. Cunningham had been a Felton merchant before he became a major investor in the lumber industry north of Boulder Creek. By the time the Felton & Pescadero Railroad was completed to Boulder Creek in 1885, he had begun shifting operations north. He took over the former flume mill around 1887 and then assisted in the construction of the Dougherty Extension Railroad through the next year. With his lumber mill and timber operations in the north secured, he shifted his focus to downtown Santa Cruz, where he built a large planing mill along the old spur outside the Mission Hill tunnel. The mill had storage space for 1,500,000 board feet of lumber accessible from the spur or a tramway. But the move to Santa Cruz brought him into direct competition with both Frederick Hihn's Santa Cruz Lumber Company and the megalithic Loma Prieta Lumber Company, as well as smaller players such as the Grovers. Within two years, Cunningham was pushed out of Santa Cruz and his business merged with Grover & Company in 1894 and was completely dissolved in 1897.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the Cascade Steam Laundry facility off River Street, 1905.
[UCSC Digital Collections]
The vacated buildings were soon taken over by A. E. Stumer and his Cascade Steam Laundry company. The mill became the main laundering facility while the lumber sheds were converted to wagon sheds or abandoned. Stumer sold out to Lindsay L. and M. R. Morrison in 1897, although Morrison left in 1901 and was replaced with Andrew Denison. Whether the company used the railroad spur during this time is unknown, but it seems unlikely. In any case, the company vacated the site by mid-1905 and relocated to the corner of River Street and Water Street.

An inaccurate Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing the City Corporation Yard in 1917. The spur line likely no longer existed when this map was updated. [UCSC Map Collections]
In its place, the Santa Cruz Cement Block & Brick Company took over the site, but the San Francisco Earthquake in April 1906  seems to have ruined the business. The entire company was sold to W. H. Booth, who continued to run it for a fear years from the site, but he eventually sold or leased the lot to the City of Santa Cruz for use as a gravel plant for paving local roads. It is unclear whether the tracks continued to pass into the property at this time—the existing Sanborn Fire Insurance map is simply an edited copy of an earlier map and does not accurately show the conversion of the railroad line to standard gauge in 1908. If the rails did still exist, they were likely not upgraded and disconnected from the mainline. Aerial photographs from the late 1920s certainly do not show a spur passing into this property.

The site of the Mission Orchard spur at left, now occupied by San Lorenzo Lumber & Home Center, 2012. Mora Street in the foreground. [Google StreetView]
The Santa Cruz City Corporation Yard remained at the site until 1966, when it was moved north to near Salz Tannery. The Santa Cruz Lumber Company owned by George N. Ley took over the property shortly afterwards. They had been operating out of the former Sinkinson & Sons planing and sash mill across the tracks and north two blocks, but they wanted to have a more visible commercial presence in the city and felt that the corporate yards would provide them that desired visibility. There is no evidence that the company ever used the railroad tracks, despite the fact that they pass directly behind the property and other former Santa Cruz Lumber sites did accept rail deliveries. The  In 1986, the company became Redtree Properties and promptly sold the retail business to the family of a former employee, the Butchers, who incorporated the San Lorenzo Lumber Company. They continued to run the company until 2004, when it was absorbed into Lumbermens, which became ProBuild in 2006. Popular resistance to the name reverted it to San Lorenzo Lumber & Home Center four years later.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9793N, 122.0287W

The site of the Mission Orchard engine house and its successors is in the trapezoid west of River Street between Mora Street and Mission Hill. The corner is entirely dominated by the San Lorenzo Lumber & Home Center, the main building of which approximately occupies the site of the former Cunningham planing mill. A former road, Quintana Street, now serves as most of the parking lot to the center. The railroad track continue to pass behind the facility, but no remnant of a spur remains.

Citations & Credits:

  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, forthcoming.

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