Friday, March 20, 2020

Tunnels: Mission Hill (Tunnel 8)

Before the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad was even completed in October 1875, the City of Santa Cruz had ruled that locomotives could not travel down Pacific Avenue as originally intended by the railroad. This put the company in a bind since hauling heavily-laden flatcars of lumber and lime individually by horse down the one mile to the Railroad Wharf was simply not feasible in the long term. The solution they chose was to bore a tunnel directly underneath Mission Santa Cruz and the Upper Plaza.

South Pacific Coast Railroad Tunnel 8 from the eastern portal, c. 1900. Note the standard-gauge ties stopping just before the tunnel portal. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
Unlike so many aspects of local Santa Cruz history, the construction of the second railroad tunnel in Santa Cruz County was documented by one of the railroad company's locomotive engineers, Fowler Pope. Bruce MacGregor included all of Pope's diary in his The Birth of California Narrow Gauge, but it is also available free to download from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. In the diary, Pope explains how beginning in January 1876, he made several runs taking chalk rock out of the tunnel. This continued through September. The first train into the tunnel was on September 6, but it was another month before the tunnel was bored through on October 2. By the end of that week, the tunnel was sufficiently completed that trains could begin regular runs through. The first train to use the complete route from Felton through the tunnel and onto the wharf operated on October 10.  From that day forward, all through railroad traffic went via this route and the old Pacific Avenue line was converted to a horsecar route eventually operated by the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad.

Southern Pacific double-header emerging out of the eastern portal of Tunnel 6, c. 1939.
Photographed by Wilbur C. Whittaker. [Jim Vail]
The completed tunnel measured 918 feet in length and required extensive timber supports throughout to keep the ceiling from caving in. Mission Hill was not an especially high coastal terrace and the tunnel was not so deep underground that the soil was solid. To make matters more haunting, the old mission cemetery is located directly above the tunnel and bones have been known to drop to the tracks over the years in their gradual migration downward, no doubt aided by the once daily vibration of trains passing underneath.

View inside Tunnel 6, looking south, 2012. Photographer unknown.

The South Pacific Coast Railroad took over the line in 1879 and the tunnel was soon given the name Tunnel 8, the southernmost of the company's eight tunnels between Los Gatos and the Santa Cruz Main Beach. The railroad strengthened the tunnel and installed its passenger depot directly outside the eastern (southern) portal at the junction of Cherry Street (Chestnut Street Extension) and Rincon Street (Chestnut Street proper). This situated it at odds with the Santa Cruz Railroad's depot, which was just across the street at the corner of Park Avenue. While the Santa Cruz Railroad maintained several spurs and a siding in the area, the South Pacific Coast never had any such facilities nearby.

The eastern portal of Tunnel 6 as viewed from Chestnut Street, c. 1950. Photographed by Margaret Koch.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
The Southern Pacific Railroad took over the Santa Cruz Railroad in 1881 and the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1887, but the two routes maintained separate gauges of track and, therefore, remained separate from each other. Southern Pacific trains continued to use the tunnel for the next twenty years. But the migration of the deceased into the tunnel was certainly not aided by the enlarging of the tunnel to support standard-gauge trains around 1907. This enlargement saw the rounded Santa Cruz & Felton tunnel portals replaced by square-framed portals that remain in place today and the lengthening of the tunnel to 927 feet, probably by excavating down slightly and widening the interior. The ceiling too was lifted to a dangerously shallow depth from the Upper Plaza, but it has since been reinforced repeatedly, although water constantly drips inside the tunnel due to the thin, chalky soil. Prior to and during standard-gauging, two other tunnels were daylighted resulting in the tunnel beneath Mission Hill becoming Tunnel 6.

The eastern portal of Tunnel 6, 2012. Photographer unknown.
Roaring Camp Railroads purchased the line, including Tunnel 6, in 1985 and has since been responsible for its regular upkeep. A tunnel maintenance and repair car is often parked on the Eblis siding outside the western portal. To keep out vagrants and avoid accidental fires, the tunnel is now typically gated except during the day in the summer when the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway's Beach Train makes regular trips through the bore. With the destruction of the tunnel below Inspiration Point in 1993, the Mission Hill Tunnel remains the only railroad tunnel in Santa Cruz County still used for its original intent.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Western Portal: 36.9791N, 122.0296W
Eastern Portal: 36.9765N, 122.0299W

The western portal of the tunnel is located behind San Lorenzo Home & Garden Center off Mora Street. The eastern portal, meanwhile, can be found near the intersection of Chestnut Street, Chestnut Street Extension, and Green Street. Under no circumstances should people enter the tunnel without the expressed permission of Roaring Camp staff. Indeed, even walking down the tracks beyond the limits of the sidewalks can be dangerous since the right-of-way is especially narrow in places.

A Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway locomotive heading into the western portal of Tunnel 6, 2012.
Photographer unknown.
Citations & Credits:


  1. Is this the tunnel that John Linley Frazier used to stash the green Oldsmobile station wagon after he committed the Ohta murders in 1970?

    1. No, that was the inspiration point tunnel up the San Lorenzo River canyon. Since daylighted.

  2. The "double header" shown in the photo (c. 1939) is Train 34, the daily
    morning passenger train from San Francisco.

  3. It's easy to date the photo with the semaphore as post-1940 by its milepost number. It indicates the location is 121.4 miles from San Francisco via Watsonville Junction. It was MP 78.4 when the line ran via Los Gatos. The concrete bases for the signals were there for years after the signals were removed.

  4. There ain't no bones coming down 🤣 I work in there all the time

  5. Are there any recent surveys or project scopings to rebuild the canyon line between (Felton) tunnel 6 and rail connection to San Jose? Direct SF/Santa Cruz train connection would be more than "Just Nice To Have"...

    1. Well the Roaring Camp train runs between Felton and Santa Cruz, so that line is operating as it always has. For the record, Tunnel #6 (now numbered Tunnel #5) was lost in a fire in 1993 but has been bypassed via a cut. However great reopening the line between Felton and San José would be, I just don't see it happening any time soon. The last survey was done over 25 years ago and nothing new has been done since.

  6. Did the train have to run past Amat Street just prior to entering tunnel?


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