Friday, March 13, 2020

Streetcars: Pacific Avenue Street Railroad

Downtown Santa Cruz was not always situated on the floodplain to the north of the San Lorenzo River below Mission Hill. In the 1790s, the Franciscan friars found this area to be too prone to flooding and centered their community on the hill, where it was protected. For the next sixty years, Mission Hill was the heart of downtown Santa Cruz, with the secular settlement of Branciforte situated on a similar hill across the river. But after California statehood in 1850, new settlers arrived and began construction a central business district in what was named at the time the Lower Plaza, spanning down Willow Street and Front Street from Mission Hill to Beach Hill.

A Pacific Avenue Street Railroad horsecar passing under the Grand Arch of the Native Sons of the Golden West celebration, September 1888. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Things changed quickly, though. By the mid-1870s, Willow Street had become Pacific Avenue and the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad had drilled a deep cut through Beach Hill to reach the Railroad Wharf which was under construction at the beach between the older Powder Works Wharf and still older Cowell Wharf. The Santa Cruz Railroad, largely financed by Frederick Hihn and still under construction at the time, had meanwhile widened the small outlet through Beach Hill where Neary Lagoon seeped out into the sea. Hihn took advantage of all this activity in the Lower Plaza to establish the first horse railway line, the Red Line, which opened on August 3, 1875.


Initial service ran from the St. Charles Hotel at the junction of Mission Street and Pacific Avenue, and then down Chestnut Street along the Santa Cruz Railroad line to the Leibbrandt bathhouse, where the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk sits today. It was an imperfect affair, but it worked...for a little while. Facing issues with mixed ownership, Hihn broke off the horsecar line from the Santa Cruz Railroad on January 12, 1877 and incorporated the former as the City Railroad Company. On August 31, 1877, Hihn also incorporated a second company, the Front Street Railroad, which he intended to run up Cliff Street and then around the backside of Beach Hill until it merged with Front Street (essentially the Laurel Street Extension today), ending in front of the St. Charles Hotel, as well. This latter franchise was never completely, however.

A horsecar trotting down Pacific Avenue on a rainy day, 1880s. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
By the time that Hihn's horsecar operation was in full swing, another player had entered the scene and barged right on through to the goals without bothering to consider its competition. The Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad was intended from the beginning to be a freight line that would run from Felton to the Railroad Wharf at the Santa Cruz beach. But part of this operation initially involved a railroad line that went straight down Pacific Avenue through the deep cut in Beach Hill. Annoyingly for the railroad, the city mandated in January 1875 that no steam operations could run south of Mission Street along Pacific Avenue, so horses were required to haul fully-laden lumber flatcars the final mile to the wharf. It was an inconvenience the railroad company eventually avoided by boring a tunnel through Mission Hill to the end of Chestnut Street, where the line could parallel the Santa Cruz Railroad to the beach.

A lumber team parked outside the Centennial Flour mill behind Beach Hill with a Pacific Avenue Street horsecar attempting to pass around the traffic jam, late 1870s. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
However, as part of the January 1875 agreement with the city, the railroad did not only agree to run only horsepower through downtown Santa Cruz, they were strongly encouraged to operate a horsecar line as well. On January 13, four days after the previous agreement, several investors in the railroad were given a horsecar franchise that could run from Mission Street down Pacific Avenue to the beach. The company was also required to maintain the roads through which its tracks passed. As it happened, the railroad itself opened to through operations to the beach on October 1875. The company was not required to run a horsecar line until 1877, and the investors waited as long as they could to do so. In October 1876, they incorporated the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad Company, again with many of the same investors as the larger railroad, although it was at this point that James P. Pierce of the Pacific Manufacturing Company in Ben Lomond first became directly involved with the various railroad projects in the county.

A lone horsecar travelling along the lower end of Pacific Avenue on its way to the beach, 1880s.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Pierce was a wealthy New Yorker who had some luck during the Gold Rush and became both a banker and manufacturer. In the mid-1870s, he was in the process of building a large lumber empire with the timber tracts above Ben Lomond and along Newell and Love Creeks as his main source. This gave him a definitive edge in the local railroad game, and made him somebody who could affectively complete with the incumbent juggernaut, Hihn. Within months of incorporation, the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad was taken over by Pierce, who was responsible for building, expanding, and supplying rolling stock for the entire line. To differentiate it from Hihn's Red Line, this new horsecar system ran as the Yellow Line.

A Pacific Avenue Street Horsecar parked outside Leibbrandt's Neptune Baths, 1880s.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The Pacific Avenue Street Railroad competed directly with the Red Line almost immediately, with trackage rights extended along the Santa Cruz Railroad route all the way to the Leibbrandt bathhouse on the beach. But Pierce was not quite as capable as he wished and his line languished as winter rains damaged the route and funds and supply problems meant he did not have the ability to repair and upgrade the tracks to resist this annual nuisance. The actual construction of the extension tracks to the bathhouse was not completed until January 1880, while the extension up Mission Street to the Upper Plaza at Walnut Avenue was finished in March. These expansions helped ensure the survival of the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad Company. Meanwhile, Hihn's franchise failed utterly at the end of 1880, culminating in the sale of the Santa Cruz Railroad and the City Railroad to the Southern Pacific Railroad on April 28, 1881. The next year, Southern Pacific abandoned the Red Line permanently and the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad found itself without any competition in the horsecar business.

Two Pacific Avenue Street horsecars along the Esplanade near the Neptune Baths on a busy summer day, late 1880s.
 [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The golden years of the Pacific Avenue horsecar line were the early 1880s, when Pierce convinced the Santa Cruz city council to grant him everything he wanted and needed for his line, including the installation of several switches to allow cars to pass at convenient locations. He also was allowed to abandon sections of track that were less profitable now that the company had no competition. The tracks terminus at the San Lorenzo River beyond the Leibbrandt bathhouse was cut back to immediately in front of the baths in early 1883. Meanwhile, Pierce attempted to abandon entire Mission Street extension in late 1883, but public opposition forced him to abandon the plan and ultimately resign as president of the company. Tired of all the local politics, Pierce left the area and ultimately abandoned the lumber industry as well, converting his mill town into Ben Lomond.

View of Pacific Avenue looking north with a Pacific Avenue Street Railroad horsecar at the end, 1880.
[W. C. Casey]
Pierce and his colleagues eventually sold the line outright in May 1887 to a new group of investors. They quickly began refurbishing the rolling stock and upgrading the trackage to support more cars running more frequently to meet demand. The fact that Charles B. Younger, a close friend of Frederick Hihn, was involved finally made the company respectable in the eyes of Hihn. The company's next move was to extend trackage outward. Approval to extend the Mission Street trackage was approved at the expense of a new firm which sought to expand horsecar services on the West Side. At the same time, the old Front Street route of Hihn's vision was finally approved, although it would only begin at Laurel Street and continue down Cliff Street.

Horsecar tracks heading down Pacific Avenue shortly before the line was replaced with electric streetcars, late 1880s. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Competition finally returned in the form of the East Santa Cruz Horse Railroad in December 1889, but this new company's domain was decidedly outside the zone of the Pacific Avenue lines. But it encouraged more localized competition. A lack of progress in extending the Mission Street lines gave more power to rivals who sought to build their own networks atop the marine terrace, especially once Garfield Park was established in 1890. The company was still debating its future plans when, in May 1891, a new player entered the scene that completely collapsed the local horsecar industry. Convincing the city council of the merits of an electric streetcar line, the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Electric Railway Company was quickly granted rights-of-way from Mission Street to Garfield Park, down Walnut Avenue to Front Street, and to various other important locations throughout the Lower Plaza, including along the Laurel Street Extension to the bathhouses. It was to be the end for the Yellow Line.

By November 1891, the first electric streetcars were running on the completed trackage. The end finally came when the city allowed the new streetcar line to install track down Center Street, two blocks away from Pacific Avenue, and down the esplanade. This completely surrounded or paralleled the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad's operations. On August 6, 1892, the railroad sold all of its franchise rights, rolling stock, and trackage to the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Electric line. Within months, the tracks were torn up and replaced with standard-gauge tracks and electrical wiring was installed to support the new operations. The old rolling stock was sold off in April 1893 and the last hint of the horsecar system disappeared

Citations & Credits:
  • McCaleb, Charles S. Surf, Sand & Streetcars: A Mobile History of Santa Cruz, California. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & History, 2005.

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