Friday, June 12, 2020

Freight Stops: Washington Street Spur

While narrow-gauge railroad spurs criss-crossed the lower parts of Chestnut Street and Pacific Avenue in the early days of Santa Cruz County Railroading, the area near the southern end of Washington Street was relatively undeveloped. A railroad spur may have reached the southern end of the road in order to reach high piles of lumber, but otherwise the section was poorly developed. Olive & Company followed by Grover & Company maintained the lumber stacks but did little else with the land. An old planning mill between Chestnut and Washington, which was converted to a hay barn by the 1890s, was the only significant railroad-related structure in the vicinity.

Colorized postcard showing the Santa Cruz Union Depot with the open field and planing mill structures at the end of Washington Street visible at right, c. 1905. This property was owned by the Santa Cruz Lumber Company at the time, although the lack of lumber suggests the photograph was taken during the off season.
Not long after the opening of the Santa Cruz Union Depot at the freight yard in 1893, things began to change at the yard. The Railroad Exchange Hotel opened at the corner of Center Street and Pacific, and activity at the yard had shifted further to the north. The Santa Cruz Lumber Company, which was a composite company that merged the lumber interests of Grover & Company and the F. A. Hihn Company, used the opportunity to establish a planing mill and lumber yard between the railroad tracks and Center Street, spanning both sides of Washington. There is no evidence that railroad tracks crossed into the property and the yard layout does not leave room for rails, but the large warehouse erected beside the tracks makes clear that the company still relied on rail for most of its transport needs. Between Washington and Center a large mill was built alongside a mouldings workshop, kilns, a space for dressing lumber, and some warehouses. The operation persisted until the early 1910s, when the Hihn Company was consolidated into the Hammond Lumber Company, which promptly took over the facility and then shut it down within a few years.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the southern end of Washington Street at the Santa Cruz Lumber Company's planing mill and lumber yard, 1905. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections]
The vacant structures of the lumber company were converted for use as a paper mill throughout 1917.  However, this project ran into some ill-timed snags. The plant was intended to produce craft-grade paper using redwood fiber through a proprietary process developed by George M. Pillsbury. But Pillsbury died in April 1917 before the plant opened. The project continued without him, opening to test the process and materials in August, but it proved economically unviable. In November 1918, all the of the machinery was removed and the structures taken over by the Santa Cruz Canning Company.

The canning company was interested in commercially canning sardines in Santa Cruz. The company's primary structures were initially located on the old Railroad Wharf, but after the city refused to grant a permit to establish a formal cannery at the base of the old wharf, the directors decided to purchase the old planing mill near the Union Depot and remodel it into a cannery. It was they who requested the spur from the mainline Southern Pacific Railroad track near the turn of Pacific Avenue across Washington Street and into the facility in October 1918, although it was not actually installed until mid-1920. This track would remain a feature of the yard into the 1960s and was the only track to run directly behind the depot building and through its parking lot. The cannery officially opened in early July 1919 following several difficulties moving machinery and getting the facility ready for business.

From the time of its opening, the cannery was not a particularly popular business with local residents or tourists. The sewer for the facility drained into Neary Lagoon, both polluting the water at Cowell Beach and making the entire area smell like dead fish. The corporation was purchased by L. A. Pederson of San Francisco in 1919 who immediately began expanding the facilities on Washington Street. Nonetheless, complaints continued to hound the company. Oil and runoff into the sewers had begun to clog pipes, leading to the company using Hihn's old wooden drains instead. But these proved inadequate. The company did not resume operations until August 1921 after several upgrades to alleviate complaints and meet new city decrees. But it was not enough. The company closed down permanently at the end of 1922 and sold the land to the Wood Brothers Company.

George W. Wood bought the property in mid-June 1923 in order to begin producing products for the Charters Incubator Company. However, within a few years the location became the company's primary kit-built home factory, as well. George Wood worked double time for both his own firm and the East Side Lumber Company for nearly three decades until March 1939, after which he established a new lumber and brokerage firm on Soquel Avenue. He sold Wood Brothers to George Ley's Santa Cruz Lumber Company, which already operated at numerous sites in Santa Cruz so did not require the property on Washington Street.

The Santa Cruz Union Depot on a slow day, June 11, 1939, with a boxcar parked on the Standard Oil spur at right. The tall oil tank of the company must have been brand new in this photograph and can be seen in the distance to the right of the depot. Photograph by Wilbur C. Whittaker. [Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
Standard Oil purchased the lot as well as a lot at the intersection of Pacific Avenue and Washington Street. At the junction, they built a service station, but the start of World War II led to its closure only two years after it had opened, likely due to gasoline rationing and a lack of traffic due to curfews. The station became overgrown in the war years but a popular neighborhood victory garden was planted in the empty lot beside it. On the old planing mill property, Standard Oil erected a large vertical oil storage tank beside the spur. Probably after the war ended, two more tanks were added. Each was surrounded by flooded moats to prevent leaks and the spread of fire. A small storage warehouse sat just beside it and may have been left over from one of the previous operations at the site.

Aerial photograph of the Santa Cruz Union Depot area showing the Standard Oil spur crossing Washington Street and passing into its yard near the center-right, late 1940s. [Tom Hambleton – Colorized using DeOldify]
Oil was delivered multiple times a week via tanker cars delivered to the spur. Lumber may have been shipped from the spur occasionally too since stacks can be seen in the photograph above beside the spur on the opposite side from Standard Oil. This land was likely retained by the Santa Cruz Lumber Company. Standard Oil only appears to have operated its depot into the 1960s at which point the depot shut down and the tanks and infrastructure removed. The spur was abandoned shortly afterwards and all trace of it was gone by the Southern Pacific yard map that was produced in 1973. The property became a light industrial factory within a few years but did not utilize the railroad any further.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9663N, 122.0271W

The site of the Standard Oil depot is now split on either side of Washington Street at its junction with Center Street. Originally, Washington Street continued to the south until meeting Pacific Avenue but was redirected in order to make space for Depot Park in the late 1990s. While part of the lot is now a sports field, the section north of Washington Street is occupied by Sea Engineering, Broprints Custom Screenprinting, and Skateworks. No remnant of the original plant remains.

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