Friday, June 26, 2020

Stations: Santa Cruz Union Depot

There was a time once when Santa Cruz had two rival city railroad depots. On either side of Cherry Street outside the mouth of the Mission Hill tunnel, the South Pacific Coast Railroad built its main Santa Cruz depot directly across the road from the Santa Cruz Railroad's depot. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. The Santa Cruz Railroad had gotten there first back in 1875, before the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad had even finalized the location of its planned bore through Mission Hill. With few freight customers in Santa Cruz due to the Steamship Wharf, the Santa Cruz Railroad felt it only needed enough space in the city for a turntable, a small yard for its rolling stock, and an area where the company's horsecars could cut through on their way to the beach.

The Santa Cruz Union Depot on April 25, 1942. Photographed by Wilbur C. Whittaker.
[Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
Rather than obstructing the path of the Santa Cruz & Felton, the Santa Cruz & Felton used the St. Charles Hotel downtown as its passenger station and continued its line down Chestnut Street to its own Railroad Wharf, which was linked to the Steamship Wharf with a connection. It soon moved its freight facilities to the area below Blackburn Terrace, between Washington Street and Neary Lagoon. When the South Pacific Coast Railroad took over the line in 1879, it split its Santa Cruz depots. As it began upgrading the freight facilities at the Washington Street location, it installed a new passenger depot below Mission Hill just outside the tunnel portal across from the Santa Cruz Railroad depot. A second Santa Cruz station was also installed at the beach, which served as a freight depot for goods coming in via steamship and as a transfer point for the horsecar line heading to the beach.

The success of the South Pacific Coast Railroad and poor fortune by the Santa Cruz Railroad led the latter to go bankrupt in 1881. Southern Pacific took over the latter that year and standard-gauged the tracks in 1883. Soon afterwards, in 1887, it leased the South Pacific Coast Railway, but standard-gauging was not an economical option at the time due to the complex nature of the line through the mountains. Thus, the city of Santa Cruz had three railroad stations in two locations servicing separate lines of different gauges. Unification of the stations and lines was desperately needed.

A heavily altered colorized postcard of the Santa Cruz Union Depot, possibly depicting its opening day, 1893.
Public encouragement for unification began in 1888 but plans were not finalized until 1892 when Southern Pacific chose as the site of its Union Depot the junction of Washington Street, Center Street, and Pacific Avenue, essentially the place where the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad had originally established its city freight yard. Although Southern Pacific had continued to use the turntable, water tower, and engine house there for its narrow-gauge trains, the existing facility was inadequate for the union yard. Fortunately, most of the nearby freight businesses had either shut down or were able to move, so Southern Pacific in coordination with the city government began laying out a formal plan for the area. Washington Street was extended via a slight curve all the way to Pacific Avenue, with Center Street merging into Washington just before the junction. Since most of the freight at the yard was lumber brought in from the San Lorenzo Valley, narrow-gauge spurs were reinstalled to access the two lumber yards at the yard. Chestnut Street was also extended and the local Chinese community moved to its southern end beside Neary Lagoon in order to build the new station and yard.

Colorized postcard of a narrow-gauge South Pacific Coast Railway train on the dual-gauge tracks beside the Santa Cruz Union Depot, c 1900. Note the standard-gauge boxcars on the left beside the obscured freight depot and the streetcar parked on a track on the far right.
Throughout 1892, nearly all of the trackage at the yard was realigned and all of the existing railroad structures were replaced. Many of the tracks were also converted to triple rails to support both standard-gauge and narrow-gauge trains. Southern Pacific had planned from the time of its acquisition of the South Pacific Coast to standard-gauge the line, but that project was slow through the mountains so retaining the narrow-gauge to the Railroad Wharf remained essential. The original Santa Cruz & Felton narrow-gauge track through the cut of Pacific Avenue to the wharf remained in place as standard-gauge, but nearly every other track had a third rail installed. A new mixed-gauge roundhouse was built near the site of the original, with a water tank, turntable, coal pile, oil tanks, and two oil pump houses installed nearby to support the maintenance of the rolling stock. Smaller structures were added or removed from the yard as needed.

View of the Santa Cruz freight yard with four separate Suntan Specials parked, late 1930s.
Note the long freight depot at the left. [Gene O'Lague Jr. – Colorized using DeOldify]
The most important change at the yard, however, were the additions of purpose built freight and  passenger depots that sat across the tracks from each other. The freight depot essentially replaced the need for the old Santa Cruz Beach station, which was removed at the same time, while the new passenger depot led to the decommissioning of both passenger depots on Cherry Street. The freight depot was a fairly standard Southern Pacific no-frills structure. It was tall and long but not especially wide with a long platform that fronted a track that ran along the west side of the yard. An office for the depot's freight agent was located about midway down the length of the building.

The Santa Cruz Union Depot, c 1900. Note the passenger cars parked behind the depot—these narrow-gauge cars were on the wharf spur and ready to return over the mountain to San José. [Vernon Sappers – Colorized using DeOldify]
The Santa Cruz Union Depot in 1912. [Vernon Sappers]
The crowning glory of the Union Depot was the new passenger station. Opened on January 1, 1893, the two-story late Victorian-style building with a double-gabled dormer upstairs was built in a non-standard, Eastlake style that closely resembled the San Luis Obispo depot, which opened the following year. The bottom floor consisted of an office station agent's office situate between two waiting rooms, with a large, single-story baggage room set off on the north side of the building. The station agent and his family lived in the upstairs part of the building. A large chalk board was located between two ticket windows on the track side of the building and the agent was responsible for updating train times each day. Initially, the station also was the receiving point for small parcels and mail, while the station agent doubled as a Western Union telegraph operator. A low concrete platform ran along the side of the tracks outside the station but no outdoor seating was originally available.

Passengers buying tickets at the Santa Cruz Union Depot's ticket office, 1911. [Colorized using DeOldify]
Passengers waiting outside the baggage room of the Santa Cruz Union Depot, 1915.
[Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
For fifteen years after the Santa Cruz depots were unified, little else changed at the yard. The tracks remained mixed gauge, a few spurs were added, but little else was altered. But the destruction of portions of the mountain route, especially the Summit Tunnel, in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 finally allowed Southern Pacific to upgrade all of its remaining track in the county to standard-gauge. The end result of this was in fact relatively minor, at least in regard to the Union Depot. The old Santa Cruz & Felton track to the Railroad Wharf was finally abandoned and all rail service to the wharf ended. By this point, it had become primarily a crowded pier for local Italian fishing firms in any case. Over narrow-gauge freight spurs were also either removed or upgraded at this time and all of the triple track was made standard-gauge. The Union Traction streetcar company also used the disaster as an excuse to standard-gauge its own lines, including its connections to the Southern Pacific trackage at the Union Depot, beginning in September 1907.

An excursion train passing returning from Davenport and passing the Santa Cruz freight yard, July 21, 1951,
Photograph by Wilbur C. Whittaker. [Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
Coinciding with this standardization was also the conversion of the yard into a wye owing to the expansion of Southern Pacific trackage to Davenport beginning in late 1905 (although the route would not be completed until late 1906). One side of the wye was essentially a branch off of the yard's maintenance spur that once passed through a bay in the engine house. The southern branch was a new track that crossed Neary Lagoon's tiny creek and then met up with the other track just as the grade began ascending the hill to Bay Street. A branch off this second track also linked to a steep track that allowed rolling stock to be exchanged with the Ocean Shore Railway line that remained at the top of the bluff. Around the time that the wye was installed, a team track area was also placed at the end of Chestnut Street where Chinatown had been fifteen years earlier. Six parallel spurs, all terminating before reaching the Neary Lagoon stream behind the freight depot, allowed rolling stock to park while it awaited a passing train. These spurs may have been intended for the lumber companies but saw their heaviest use by the two aggregate firms that moved into the Olympia area north of Felton in the 1920s.

SP2915 on the turntable at Santa Cruz, 1930s. Photograph by Fred Stoes. [Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]

Southern Pacific engineering crew standing beside SP2918 at the Santa Cruz engine house, c. 1930s.
[Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
Following standard-gauging, little more changed at the yard over the next sixty years. The opening of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf in 1914 allowed for railroad service to the wharf to resume, although few customers other than the Cowell Lime Company and a few local canning companies appear to have actually used it. This track broke off from the main yard track just below the West Cliff Drive vehicle bridge. An increase in passenger customers by 1918 also prompted Southern Pacific to install a covered umbrella shed projecting from the south of the depot, which provided shade for several rows of benches. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Ocean Shore Railroad in 1920 followed by the closure of the San Vicente Lumber Company's mill in 1923 removed the need for the connecting track to the Ocean Shore line off the wye. Lastly, the end of the Union Traction Company in January 1926 soon led to the abandonment of the track along Pacific Avenue, including the removal of the backlot spur that ran from the company's car barn.

Santa Cruz freight yard's engine house and turntable, late 1930s. [Vernon Sappers – Colorized using DeOldify]
Several locomotives, probably Suntan Specials, parked at the turntable at Santa Cruz, late 1930s.
[Gene O'Lague Jr. – Colorized using DeOldify]
Although the depot and yard remained the same, things were changing, especially once the Great Depression set in. Regular passenger service to Davenport ended on August 1, 1932. Six years later, on February 7, 1938, all regular passenger service along the coast ended as well. The big hit, however, was the closure of the route through the mountains on February 26, 1940. With all regular passenger service ended, things began to wind down at the Union Depot. The presence of the wye and the retirement of the switch engine at the yard meant that the turntable and engine house were no longer needed and were removed on October 21, 1942. The lack of passengers other than aboard Suntan Specials and excursion trains, which were seasonal and catered primarily to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, meant that there was no more need for the passenger shed, so that was removed in 1953. The end of Suntan Specials in 1959 put an end to any scheduled passenger trains that called at Santa Cruz, although irregular excursion trains continued until 1964.

Suntan Specials on various sidings beneath Blackburn Terrace at the Santa Cruz yard, early 1950s.
[Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
The Santa Cruz Union Depot on a mildly busy weekend day with Suntan Special passengers milling around the station, 1955. [Colorized using DeOldify]
The depot still functioned as a bus depot and ticket office for Southern Pacific, however, so it remained in use, albeit barely. The freight services, however, were limited almost entirely to two sand quarries near Olympia and the Davenport cement plant, so the need for a dedicated freight depot was gone. The building was closed on September 9, 1960 and demolished in 1963. The permanent agent assigned at the passenger was finally laid off on December 15, 1973, which marked the formal closure of the structure by the railroad. The station itself, although not the structure, was briefly revived for passenger service in 1986 when the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railroad ran its inaugural annual journey to Santa Cruz, but it soon was able to negotiate usage rights to the Southern Pacific track in front of the Boardwalk and this short-lived service to the Union Depot ended.

A Southern Pacific diesel locomotive at Santa Cruz switching a long sand train after picking up
a load from the Olympia quarries, early 1970s. [Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
The Union Depot with the inaugural Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railroad train parked beside it, 1986.
From this time, the station building entered its short second life as a local restaurant. The interior of the station was almost entirely overhauled to convert spaces into kitchens and dining areas. The first patron to lease the building was The Big Yellow House in 1974. A few other businesses leased it afterwards ending with the Gandy Dancers Restaurant, which closed following the Loma Prieta Earthquake in October 1989. El Palomar moved into the building for three years following the earthquake but vacated once their older structure downtown was renovated and earthquake retrofitted. The building then sat abandoned at the end of Washington Street, a relic of a time when the depot was one of the most important meeting places in the city. By this point, some windows were boarded up and the structure was entering a state of decay common to century-old buildings.

The staff of the Big Yellow House outside Santa Cruz station, late 1970s. [Rick Hamman]
Beginning in 1995, the Historic Preservation Commission began work to keep the building for future use by advocating for a night watch, installing automatic lighting, and keeping the internal sprinklers maintained, but all of this ended when the Union Pacific Railroad took over in 1996. The sprinklers had always leaked and Union Pacific did not want to repair them so disabled the system in 1997. The lack of attention to the building made it appealing to the local homeless community, who began to congregate inside. On January 5, 1998, a group of homeless accidentally allowed a camp fire to get out of hand within the building and within minutes, the entire structure was ablaze. The Historic Preservation Commission issued in its report afterwards that the fire was "a completely avoidable tragedy," but property developers, the City of Santa Cruz, and Union Pacific likely wished for the building to go away.

A Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railroad train passing beside the Railway Express Agency building, 2012.
In late 1998, a plan was put forward to redevelop the entire area around the old Union Depot yard. Between 1999, all but one of the old sidings and spurs were removed and the northern end of the wye was brought further south. This allowed for a new subdivision to be developed at the end of Chestnut Street beside Neary Lagoon. The former depot site was also extensively redeveloped and converted into a city park that was christened Depot Park when it opened in March 2005. The location of the depot was marked by a large concrete circle beside the tracks. The only original structure remaining is the Railway Express Agency office building, which now serves as a community building and restroom for the park. The one spur left was actually the former mainline track but is now reserved for the rare instances when one or two cars need to get out of the way of passing trains. Plans to once more use the location as a train stop for various local railroad operations have been announced on several occasions since the late 1980s but none have come to fruition. The yard is currently owned by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission with usage rights shared by Roaring Camp Railroads and Progressive Rail.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9643N, 122.0270W
Formerly 123 Washington Street

The site of the Santa Cruz Union Depot is located within Depot Park at the junction of Center Street, Pacific Avenue, and West Cliff Drive. The precise site of the station building is now the center of the larger circular courtyard beside the Express Agency building. The area is open to the public and free parking is provided, although often full. No remants of the actual station structure survive but the

Citations & Credits:
  • Bender, Henry E., Jr. "SP San Jose to Santa Cruz (ex-South Pacific Coast Ry.)." 2013.
  • Bender, Henry E., Jr. Southern Pacific Lines Standard-Design Depots. Wilton, CA: Signature Press, 2013.
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second Edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2007.
  • Whaley, Derek W. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA: 2015.


  1. Do you have a copy of Rick Hamman's California Central Coast Railroads? Theres a real nice two page map of the Santa Cruz yard that he put together showing all the industry tracks and switching leads as well as the connection to the union traction company and the silly pointless spur that kept the ocean shore off the wharf.

  2. It is possible to date Southern Pacific Railroad photos by what is on the
    tenders of their steam locomotives. "Southern Pacific Lines" will be found
    on any locomotive tender I have ever seen from the 1930's, not the locomotive
    number. Hence, the photo by Gene O'Lague of the roundhouse area
    must have been taken much earlier as these locomotives all have numbers on
    their tenders and appear to be of much older origin. For one thing, the
    headlights are up by the smokestacks instead of further down as you will
    find in most, but not all, S.P. locomotive photos from the 1930's. Sometime
    around 1945 and after, the tenders were painted as "Southern Pacific" instead
    of "Southern Pacific Lines". On another note, all of the excursions through
    Santa Cruz in the 1960's were bound for Felton, an annual event concluding
    with the final run on August 1, 1965.


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