Friday, September 11, 2020

Maps: Downtown Santa Cruz

The 1.9 miles of trackage between the eastern portal of the Mission Hill tunnel and the bridge over the San Lorenzo River saw much change of the decades. The first track through this area was probably set in early 1875 by the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad and since that time the section has undergone five distinct phases in development, each demonstrating its own unique characteristics.

A Southern Pacific excursion train on Chestnut Street with the remnants of the second track recently paved over at left, c 1950s. Photography by L. L. Bonney. [Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
The first phase was the brief period from 1876 to 1883 when the city hosted two narrow-gauge railroads and all of its horsecar lines were owned by or derived from those two lines. The Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad maintained a track initially down Pacific Avenue and, following the completion of its tunnel under Mission Hill in 1876, later down Chestnut Street. Its former Pacific Avenue track was subsequently spun-off as the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad, a horsecar line that ran up Mission Street on one side and ultimately to the San Lorenzo River at the beach on the other. The Santa Cruz & Felton was also responsible for building the Railroad Wharf—it's southern terminus—and a connection to the adjacent Powder Works Wharf, which was soon afterwards demolished in 1882. The railroad supported a small selection of customers north of Beach Hill including the Centennial Flour Mills and Olive & Foster, but otherwise was mostly focused on delivering lumber and lime products from Felton. When the South Pacific Coast Railroad took over the line in 1880, it added a new passenger depot outside the portal of the tunnel and expanded the freight yard beside Neary Lagoon to add more sidings for Grover & Company and later lumber customers. Little else changed for the company until 1893.

A short South Pacific Coast Railway train outside the Santa Cruz Union Depot, late 1890s.
[Harold van Gorder Collection, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – Colorized using DeOldify]
The division between the first two phases was really more represented by the other railroad in town, the Santa Cruz Railroad. Completed in 1876, the system began as a narrow-gauge route and operated its own City Railroad horsecar line using its existing trackage between Cherry Street and the bathhouses at the beach. It likely had at least one crossover with the Santa Cruz & Felton near Cherry Street, where the two tracks began their parallel route down Chestnut Street, but there appears to have been little cooperation between the two lines. Focused more on customers further to the east, the Santa Cruz Railroad had no freight customers in the Lower Plaza of Santa Cruz. Fiscal and natural disasters in 1881 led to the railroad's sale to Southern Pacific, which promptly ended the City Railroad and standard-gauged the route to Watsonville.

Map showing Santa Cruz city trackage, including horsecar lines, c 1892. [Derek R. Whaley]
This prompted the second phase, which lasted 1883 until 1892, where rival gauge track crisscrossed downtown. The South Pacific Coast, which was leased to Southern Pacific in 1887, maintained a narrow-gauge alongside the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad, the East Santa Cruz Horse Railroad, and the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Railroad, while the Santa Cruz Branch of the Southern Pacific had a standard gauge. Two separate passenger depots for the railroads faced each other across Cherry Street and rolling stock could not properly interchange between the tracks, leading to transfers of cargo and the Railroad Wharf becoming dual-gauge. Meanwhile, no standard-gauge traffic could go north of Mission Hill while no narrow-gauge traffic could head east.

The Santa Cruz Union Depot after the tracks were standardized, 1910s.
[M. Jongeneel Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – Colorized using DeOldify]
The opening of the Santa Cruz Union Depot in 1893 inaugurated the third and least known phase. Most of the trackage between the Mission Hill tunnel and the Railroad Wharf were dual-gauged and the old depots opposite Cherry Street both closed and were replaced with a new combined depot at the end of Washington Street beside the old Santa Cruz & Felton freight yard. A few new freight customers moved in including the Santa Cruz Lumber Company, formed from a merger of several other companies, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, and the Union Ice Company. Meanwhile, the trackage was simplified somewhat with the main track migrating from the Beach Hill cut to the Neary Lagoon outlet.

Excursion train on the Davenport leg of the wye at Santa Cruz, July 21, 1951. Photograph by Wilbur C. Whittaker.
[Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
During this time, standard-gauge tracks to Davenport via both the Coast Line Railroad—a Southern Pacific subsidiary—and the Ocean Shore Railroad led to the expansion of the maintenance and turning yard to facilitate the addition of a wye and switchback from the Lower Plaza to the marine terrace to the west. A spur was also added at the beach for the Cowell Lime & Cement Company, ostensibly to serve the company but obviously to block the Ocean Shore's ability to build a pier into the Monterey Bay.

Map showing Santa Cruz city trackage, including streetcar lines, c 1920. [Derek R. Whaley]
When the route reopened in 1909, all of the trackage in Santa Cruz was standard gauge and the entire freight yard around the Union Depot was reorganized, prompting the fourth and longest phase of trackage within the city. From 1904 to 1926, the Union Traction Company held a monopoly on the local streetcar services, standard-gauging, simplifying, and electrifying all of its lines. When the company finally replaced its streetcars with buses, it pulled all of its municipal trackage. Meanwhile, from 1909 to 2003, the layout of the freight yard only changed a little, despite many customers coming and going over the decades and the depot itself closing in 1973.

A double-headed excursion train on Chestnut Street with the remnants of the second track recently paved over at left, April 25, 1948. Photograph by Wilbur C. Whittaker. [Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
A few substantial changes occurred, though, including the closure of the Ocean Shore Railway in 1920 followed by its track abandonment three years later, the removal of tracks from the Municipal Wharf in 1931, and the demolition of the turntable and engine house in 1942. The end of scheduled passenger service to Watsonville in 1938 and to San José in 1940, followed later by the end of the Suntan Special in 1959 and all special excursion trains in 1965, also marked an important turning point for the city. Slowly, structures began to disappear, largely due to fire, but the tracks remained down Chestnut Street, there was still siding space for sand hoppers at the depot, and the iconic wye is a fixture even today.

An excursion train turning onto Beach Street, June 25, 1939. Photograph by Wilbur C. Whittaker.
[Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
The fifth phase of Santa Cruz trackage history began approximately in 1985 when the Santa Cruz Big Trees and Pacific Railway began running tourists between Felton and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. By this point, only a few freight customers remained at the Santa Cruz yard and most other than the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company only used the trackage sporadically. A more formal start to this final period came in 2003, seven years after Union Pacific took over the line, when the municipal trackage was completely removed with the exception of the three main tracks to Davenport, Felton, and Watsonville and a single short spur. Freight and the Big Trees train continued to pass through the area but no longer stopped there for any reason except allowing trains to pass.

The Routes Today:
The primary arteries of the routes through the city still exist and can largely be followed legally. The track begins near the junction of Chestnut Street and Green Street just west of downtown and continues down Chestnut Street for nearly a mile. Along the way, a few century-old wigwags still can be found and they continue to operate when a train runs down the street. The dual tracks down Chestnut Street have long since been removed and replaced with a single track down the middle. After crossing Laurel Street to the south, the old freight yard area is entered and can be followed along either of its branches.

A view down Chestnut Street today, 2020. [Google Streetview]
Nothing substantial remains except the spur and three ends of the wye, although a few foundation blocks and a maintenance area still occupy the former site of the turntable. While there is no trespassing allowed within the yard, a new trail will soon open allowing people to parallel the tracks. The tracks continue under West Cliff Drive to the San Lorenzo River, and this entire area is paralleled with pedestrian footpaths. No remnant of the wharf spur remains. Similarly, the former Ocean Shore right-of-way above the marine terrace to the west has also been built up and is no longer discernible nor should exploration in this area be attempted. All evidence of the former Union Traction Company trackage has long since disappeared.

Citations & Credits:


  1. I remember where I was on Sunday, August 1, 1965. I was at my father's
    birthday party at Alma College. I was fuming because I wanted to be over
    the hill at Felton to either ride or photograph what I did not realize at
    the time was the final Southern Pacific excursion train to Felton. Early
    in 1966, much to my dismay, Western Railroader said Southern Pacific would
    not be running another passenger train to Felton because the track was
    "being maintained for light freight service only." August 1, 1965 is a
    date which keeps slipping through the cracks although it was shown in
    an article some time ago here with a photo of the train parked on the
    the siding at Felton on that day, the open end observation car in the
    foreground. In other words, 1964 was not the final year for the S.P.
    excursion trains on Chestnut Street. Great article as always Derek!

    1. Noted and corrected. I'm not sure why I keep getting that date wrong. Maybe it's because 1964 was the last year you personally took the excursion train. Who knows. I will be certain to get the date right in any published books going forward. Cheers!

  2. The shot of the excursion train on Chestnut Street is one of the rarest photos I've seen of the Santa Cruz Branch: A pair of San Diego & Arizona Eastern locomotives, in passenger service no less. I've never seen any other photos of SD&AE engines on the branch.

    No. 26 was the only Southern Pacific class T-58 4-6-0 engine. It was transferred to SP from the SD&AE in June 1941 and renumbered SP 2386. It was renumbered back to No. 26 in November 1948 and was scrapped in 1951.

    Trailing engine No. 103 was a class C-9 2-8-0 that was returned to SP in 1941 as their No. 2523. It also was renumbered back to its SD&AE number in 1948. I’m guessing the excursion ran up the Olympia line and No. 26 was added at Watsonville Junction or Santa Cruz to help with the grade to Felton. I believe the engines are facing south on Chestnut Street toward the Santa Cruz yard.


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