Thursday, October 29, 2020

Railroads: Scott Creek Railway

Some railroads are founded with bold ambitions. Others are a means to an end. The Scott Creek Railway was the latter. By late 1906, the Ocean Shore Railway had reached the south bank of Scott Creek north of Davenport. Ultimately, the railroad would never cross that creek and the history of the main line of the Ocean Shore in Santa Cruz County ends at this relatively barren place with more than twenty miles separating it from the remainder of the line in San Mateo County. But the Ocean Shore was not dead and developments in 1908 ensured that the failing railroad would still serve a purpose in the county, if not what was originally intended.

Women posing beside the tracks above Little Creek, late 1910s.
[Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History — Colorized using DeOldify]

On May 8, 1908, the San Vicente Lumber Company was formed to harvest thousands of acres of timber located within Rancho San Vicente, which was located at the headwaters of Little and Big Creek above the small hamlet of Swanton. The firm had acquired the land from the estate of Fritz Tischer in January and quickly concluded that the Ocean Shore Railway was the best means of getting the timber to its proposed mill on Moore Creek (now Antonelli Pond). Before even formally incorporating, the company entered negotiations with both the Ocean Shore and Southern Pacific to determine which would provide them with better options in the long term.

Ocean Shore Railroad train near Swanton with members of the Mattei family, late 1910s.
 [Mattei Family Collection, MAH — Colorized using DeOldify]

On June 19, 1908, the Ocean Shore Railway Company amended its articles of incorporation to add an extension track from a point just beyond Scott north of Davenport (today, the vicinity of the Swanton Berry Farm) to the hamlet of Swanton at the bottom of Little Creek. At the same time, a group of men affiliated with the Ocean Shore incorporated the Scott Creek Railway, which was tasked with forging a 2.5-mile-long route up Little Creek to reach the sprawling redwood timber tracts that were located within Rancho San Vicente. The new and unlikely company was capitalized at a modest $50,000 by J. Downey Harvey, John B. Rogers, and Bert Corbet.

Members of the Mattei family posing beside a San Vicente locomotive at one of the later lumber camps, possibly Camp No. 5, late 1910s. [Mattei Family Collection, MAH — Colorized using DeOldify]

Some owners along the right-of-way, such as Oliver P. Staub, had few qualms and sold the requested land for a right-of-way to the railway. But Timothy Hopkins, a Southern Pacific Railroad investor and partial owner of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, sued in early July to stop the nascent railway from condemning 30.5 acres of his land near Swanton. The Ocean Shore and Hopkins had been negotiating a right-of-way since early June but had failed to come to an arrangement. As a result, Ocean Shore founded the Scott Creek Railway to handle the liabilities of the resulting lawsuit. Evidence for this is the simple fact that after the lawsuit was settled, the Scott Creek Railway is never mentioned by name again and seems to have been entirely constructed and operated using Ocean Shore equipment and rolling stock from the start.

Tracks on the Scott Creek Railway above Little Creek, late 1910s.
[Mattei Family Collection, MAH — Colorized using DeOldify]

The Scott Creek Railway vs. Timothy Hopkins trial began on October 20, with the majority of local lumber personalities serving as witnesses in support of Hopkins, largely because they too were partially invested in the Loma Prieta Lumber Company and likely feared competition with the San Vicente Lumber Company. The superintendent of the Loma Prieta mill at Swanton argued that a substantial bridge and fill the Scott Creek Railway intended to build across Hopkins' land would make it very difficult to haul timber out of the area. Making little headway with the jury, the entire court visited the proposed right-of-way on November 6 to survey the area. An illness by one of the jurors that same day prompted the case to be dismissed on November 10 and subsequently settled out of court. The settlement involved the purchase by the San Vicente Lumber Company of all of Hopkins' land along Big Creek, Little Creek, and Boyea Creek, a total of 1,100 acres.

A San Vicente work crew posing at the first switchback above Camp No. 1, c. 1910.
[University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify

Although all mention of the railroad disappears from history and newspapers from this point, the railroad itself continued to exist as a wholly subsumed subsidiary of the Ocean Shore Railway. The first report of new trackage to be built by the Ocean Shore came before incorporation—in March 1908—where the proposed length of the track was listed at 7.5 miles, although this seems to have included the branch line to Swanton as well as the track to the Gregory Ranch on the boundary of Rancho San Vicente. A week later, a second notice informed the public that the Ocean Shore would build the track to Swanton itself as a branch line and from there the lumber company would operate using its own rolling stock, including two Shay locomotives, although the reality was a bit more mixed. By April, it was clear that the Ocean Shore intended to build at least some of the route up Little Creek since surveyors for the railroad were actively searching for a viable route.

Members of the Mattei family at one of the later camps, perhaps Camp No. 5, late 1910s.
[Mattei Family Collection, MAH — Colorized using DeOldify]

Around June 15, the Pratchner Company began the task of grading and installing the new track between Scott and Swanton. Over 200 men were employed working on the line, with surveyors and graders already making some inroads along the future route of the Scott Creek Railway line despite the outstanding condemnation suit. Two bridges were planned along the Swanton Branch and more along Little Creek, as well as a switchback just beyond Camp No. 1 at Chandler Creek. On July 1, a special traction locomotive arrived for use by the San Vicente Lumber Company to shuttle logs down the Scott Creek Railway grade for transfer to waiting Ocean Shore trains at Little Creek Junction just south of Swanton, although initially it was used to aid in the construction of the Little Creek line. The route between Scott and Swanton was completed in less than a month, with the final spike driven on July 9. At the same time, over half of the route to the San Vicente timber tract was graded.

A San Vicente locomotive operating over one of the switchbacks above Camp No. 2, c 1915.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify]

The lumber company wasted no time in using the graded road from its timber tract to Swanton, hauling logs to Santa Cruz where it was cut into crossties, piles, bents, and other materials to construct the remainder of the route. The company likely used a temporary shingle mill at Moore Creek since the actual mill would not be completed until early 1909. Work on the portion of the line through Hopkins' land appears to have stopped until mid-October, when the lawsuit was settled, delaying the opening of the mill until March 1909. By that time, and probably no later than the end of November 1908, the entire Scott Creek Railway line was constructed to Camp No. 2 on the old Gregory Ranch. The Ocean Shore Railway decided at this time that future extensions of the line—and there would be several miles of it—would be the responsibility of the San Vicente Lumber Company.

A San Vicente log train leaving from above Camp No. 2, c. 1909.
[Margaret Koch Collection, MAH – Colorized using DeOldify]

The first load of logs to pass over the Scott Creek Railway and on to the new mill on Moore Creek operated on March 29, 1909. The route included several steep grades, although the steepest grades were reserved for places along the lumber company's private lines. Although the locomotives were designed to operate on steep grades, derailments were common and the first occurred only weeks after the line opened in April. Nonetheless, the Scott Creek Railway endured probably until October 9, 1911, when the Ocean Shore Railway reincorporated as the Ocean Shore Railroad, at which time the little subsidiary was probably either absorbed into its parent or sold to the San Vicente Lumber Company. Regular operations along this stretch of track continued until September 1923, when the area was declared clear of sufficient saleable timber and the mill shut down. The tracks were soon sold for scrap and the right-of-way became a private access road and de facto fire road still in use today.

Citations & Credits:

  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Press, 2007.
  • Santa Cruz Evening News, 1908-1909.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1908-1909.

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