Friday, April 10, 2020

Streetcars: City Railroad

Streetcars and Santa Cruz once went hand-in-hand, and for over fifty years, they held sway over interurban transportation. This was only possible, however, because of the creation of the county's two pioneer railroads, the Santa Cruz Railroad and the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad, which brought tracks directly to the Lower Plaza of Santa Cruz and accelerated the transition of commercial life in the city from Mission Hill to the downtown of today. And as with many of the county's earliest urbanization and commercial development projects, Frederick A. Hihn was at the forefront of the streetcar revolution.

Only known photograph of the City Railroad Red Line in front of the Hihn flatiron at the corner of Pacific Avenue
and Front Street, probably taken opening day of the line, August 3, 1875.
[William Wulf. Colorized using DeOldify]
The Santa Cruz Railroad was still incomplete on August 3, 1875 when the first run of the Red Line took to the tracks at the corner of Mission Street and Pacific Avenue and headed down the railroad grade to the San Lorenzo River at the end of the Santa Cruz Main Beach. The railroad project was the brainchild of Hihn and he had spent much of the past decade promoting local railroads in the hope of linking Santa Cruz directly with the Santa Clara Valley and San Francisco. A tangential result of these schemes, though, was the possibility of joint use of the rail line for interurban horsecar transport, specifically from the front of Hihn's flatiron building at the corner of Pacific Avenue and Front Street to the San Lorenzo River, where construction on the railroad bridge over the river was still ongoing. The horsecar project was very low risk: all of the trackage except for a spur down Cherry Street (Chestnut Street) to the Front-Pacific intersection was required for the Santa Cruz Railroad anyway, so no additional trackage would be required for his horsecar line. The only additional costs would be maintenance for the car and feed and housing for horses.

The Leibbrandt Brother's Dolphin Bath House, c. 1880.
[W. C. Casey, "How the Trains came to Santa Cruz – Part 3," Patch. Colorized using DeOldify]
From the day the Red Line began operations, it was a huge success. Over a thousand tickets sold in the first three days of operation, with four rides only costing 25¢ or nine rides for 50¢. The Leibbrandt Brother's Dolphin Baths on the Main Beach quickly turned into a year-round dance hall and Hihn quickly gathered enough funds to purchase a second horsecar for the line, possibly necessitating the instillation of a passing siding somewhere in the vicinity of Neary Lagoon. Ten trips from the Lower Plaza to the beach ran daily from the summer of 1875 to the spring of 1876.

Sketch of the Santa Cruz waterfront, 1880. The horsecar at left is on the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad trackage
(running as the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad—the Yellow Line) while the train is running along the Santa
Cruz Railroad trackage, jointly used by the City Railroad horsecar—the Red Line.
[W. C. Casey, "Comparing Four Views of the Santa Cruz Wharf Area," Patch]
Change came rapidly, however, when the Santa Cruz Railroad finally was completed on May 7, 1876, and the Red Line was suddenly forced to share track space with much larger steam locomotives. Several close calls between locomotives and horsecars plagued the Red Line throughout 1876 and there was a growing concern from the company that the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad would act on its own license to run a horsecar line down Pacific Avenue to the beach, which would provide a more direct route on a separate line, disconnected from any train traffic.

In an attempt to address these concerns, Hihn incorporated the City Railroad Company on January 12, 1877, formally disconnecting the Red Line from the Santa Cruz Railroad. At the same time, the San Lorenzo River station was abandoned in favor of a stop directly in front of the Dolphin Baths. This relocation was linked to a scheme Hihn had envisioned in 1872 when he served in the California State Assembly and proposed a horsecar line from the Leibbrand Bathhouse to the Pacific Avenue-Mission Street intersection via Front Street, thereby creating a ring-route. On August 31, 1877, he incorporated the Front Street Railroad Company to realize this dream.

Note: The Red Line briefly continued to Wood's Lagoon to the east.
By summer 1877, there were two horsecar lines running between the Lower Plaza and the Dolphin Baths, and both were succeeding in finding passengers but struggling to maintain their routes. Seasonal rains in early 1878 washed out both roads and rails, forcing expensive upgrades to the lines. The city government was also unhappy with the horsecars since the companies had failed to properly plank the rails and gravel the streets, leading to further washouts and general erosion of the roadbeds. Hihn's company, which had become the minority player in the game since the Pacific Avenue route—the Yellow Line—included service to the Upper Plaza and Mission Street, sought to expand service outward. In September 1878, he extended the line over the San Lorenzo River to Wood's Lagoon (the Harbor) as an on-demand service. However, most talk of extending a second line down Front Street had ended by this time.

Hihn's jockying for control of the horsecar industry ultimately failed to impress. In January 1880, the Yellow Line completed its route to the Main Beach. Shortly before this, it had dropped its ticket prices dramatically in a bid to run Hihn's City Railroad out of business. The scheme worked. Despite a generally successful summer season in 1880, the line was forced to close at the end of the year due to maintenance reasons caused by seasonal storms. By this point, the Santa Cruz Railroad was floundering and Hihn was tired of the railroad game. Rather than repair his dilapidated lines, he suspended services. In February, he laid off all City Railroad staff and sent maintenance workers for the Santa Cruz Railroad home. On April 28, 1881, Hihn sold both companies to the Southern Pacific Railroad via a bankruptcy sale. Southern Pacific, uninterested in running a short-line horsecar in Santa Cruz and desiring to upgrade the tracks to standard-gauge, petitioned the city council in March 1882 to end the franchise and abandon the tracks between the Mission-Pacific intersection and its depot on Park Street. The council granted the request on April 3 and the City Railroad formally ceased to exist in July.

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

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