Thursday, October 22, 2020

Streetcars: East Santa Cruz Street Railroad

The city of Santa Cruz had already been host to two horsecar lines before 1890. One of these—the City Railroad—had gone defunct early on due to poor management and competition with the surviving line, the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad. For a decade, the latter company ruled the local transportation network, but its reach never went beyond the West Side of Santa Cruz, leaving everything east of the San Lorenzo River, which was largely composed of scattered farms and a few village, ripe for expansion. The East Santa Cruz Street Railroad Company heard the call and incorporated on December 12, 1889 to serve the people of Branciforte, Seabright, Live Oak, and Capitola and open those areas to commercial and residential development.

An East Santa Cruz Street Railroad car on Atlantic Avenue between the beach and Woods Lagoon, 1890s.
[University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify]

East Santa Cruz, as the area between downtown and Capitola was called in the late nineteenth century, was a mostly rural area composed of marine terraces bisected by several seasonal creeks—Pilkington, Arana, Leona, Rodeo, and Moran—most of which fed into marshy estuaries: Woods, Schwan, Corcoran, and Moran Lagoons. On the terraces were farms, ranches, and small industries that lined the Southern Pacific Railroad's tracks. The area was not known for its seaside resorts, but the long beach between Arana and Leona Creeks—popularly called Twin Lakes due to the two nearby lagoons—and the beach at the mouth of Rodeo Creek were both chosen by religious groups to serve as summer retreats. Meanwhile, the cove at Seabright, which had briefly been serviced by the City Railroad in the late 1870s, was already in the process of becoming a small camping area by 1890. Despite the low population, many Santa Cruz financiers and property speculators saw spectacular growth potential in East Santa Cruz and hoped that a horsecar line into the heart of the area would bring them favorable returns.

Financiers of the East Santa Cruz Street Railroad standing in car no. 1 at the end of track on Soquel Avenue and Doyle Street, 1890.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify]

The East Santa Cruz Street Railroad was the brainchild of William Ely, a New York native who became a cattle rancher in Santa Cruz before becoming a major investor in several local enterprises. After hosting several public meetings in mid-1889, Ely convinced enough people to invest in his proposed horsecar line, which received county support on December 3 and city support on December 10. His initial plan was for a route to run from the Lower Plaza of downtown Santa Cruz, up Front Street to Minnesota Avenue (Soquel Avenue), across the San Lorenzo River, and then up Soquel Road (also Soquel Avenue) all the way to Arana Creek. In exchange for permission to build and run this line, he promised to run cars daily over the entire length—about two miles—and to use standard-gauge, flat-rail tracks He was allowed to run the streetcar system using horsepower, mules, electric motors, or even cables, but he chose horses as they were still the most economical at the time.

East Santa Cruz Street Railroad car no. 2 parked at the end of track with a woman seated in the car, c 1891.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify]

The horsecar line was formally incorporated on December 12 with a capital stock of $20,000 funded by five investors: Ely, Oliver H. Bliss, Isaac L. Thurber, Jackson Sylvar, and William D. Haslam. Ely was open to expanding the list of contributors but not eager and planned to invest more of his own money before soliciting additional help. In truth, Ely wanted to control the company completely and became its chief engineer, construction superintendent, and president. He ordered crossties and bridge components from Cunningham & Company, which was reaching its peak at this time. He had all of the rolling stock built in Santa Cruz by Evan Lukens, who owned a wagon and carriage shop on Park Street. The bridges themselves, including a substantial one over the San Lorenzo River, were erected by the San Francisco Bridge Company. Despite his agreement with the city council, Ely installed narrow-gauge tracks on curved T-rails and the city was left to deal with it. Construction of the line began March 10, 1890 and was completed April 5 except for the river bridge.

Sanborn insurance map showing the carbarn and stables of the East Santa Cruz Street Railroad at the intersection of Soquel Avenue and Doyle Street, 1892. [Library of Congress]

The East Side horsecar line officially opened on May Day to great crowds and celebrations, with free runs along the line for the entire day. Three cars were ready at this time, one enclosed and two open, and most of the work along the line was completed. A carbarn and stables were built at the eastern terminus at the junction of Soquel Avenue and Doyle Street. Regular service began May 5 with a 5¢ fare from the Lower Plaza to Cayuga Street. Two relatives, William and George Ely, as well as John Soper ran the three cars the first summer. All signs from that summer suggested the horsecar was a success and Ely planned to expand almost immediately.

The Baptist resort at Twin Lakes beside Schwan Lagoon, 1890s.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify]

On March 3, 1891, Ely petitioned the Board of Supervisors for permission to extend the track from its current eastern terminus to the end of Cayuga Street, clearly as the first step in a planned extension to Seabright Beach and the Baptist resort grounds at Twin Lakes. Hesitantly, the board approved the request so long as the grade down Front Street was flattened and the track to Arana Creek was completed first. The new extension fully realized would continue down Cayuga, turn at Pilkington Lane (Pine Street), and then go to the end of Railroad (Seabright) Avenue, at which point it would turn down Atlantic Avenue and cross Woods Lagoon to terminate at Twin Lakes on a piece of track at the bottom of Central Street (where East Cliff Drive turns towards 7th Avenue). It would prove to be one of the most crooked streetcar lines on the West Coast and the extension encompassed 1.5 miles of additional track. It opened in late August to muted fanfare but was used heavily used and immediately began boosting the value of homes in the vicinity of Seabright and Twin Lakes. The shorter extension to Arana Creek was also completed by late summer.

The East Santa Cruz Street Railroad's only enclosed car, 1890s.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify]

The East Santa Cruz Street Railroad reached it peak in the summer of 1892. Waiting benches were installed across the line and three more formalized stations were erected at Woods Lagoon, Soquel and Cayuga, and at the Lower Plaza. To alert people that a horsecar was arriving at a stop, bells were affixed to the horses. Even as the Pacific Avenue horsecar line was replaced with an electric streetcar in April 1893, Ely's East Santa Cruz horsecar line continued operating without a hiccup. By 1892, fourteen cars operated across the line, driven by fifteen horses, and revenues were up. Plans were approved for extension tracks to the Oddfellows cemetery on Ocean Street and a route that would cross the mouth of the San Lorenzo River to access the bathhouses. Just as work was set to begin, however, the stock market crashed in February 1893 and the economy stagnated for the next four years. With a lack of investors, Ely was forced to maintain his horsecar network as it was without substantial changes or improvements.

East Santa Cruz Street Railroad tracks passing in front of the Peters Block near the intersection of Ocean Street and Soquel Avenue, 1890s. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify]

A reprieve came in 1895, though, when Ely obtained permission to replace horsepower along the line with a steam engine, which he named Wm. Ely after himself. It first went into use on July 6 but quickly came to annoy most of the people who lived along the streetcar's route. In November, Ely was forced to reduce the hours that the steam engine operated to only twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening, and only between Twin Lakes and Soquel Road, at which point horses were required to take passengers into downtown. For all this trouble, Ely had agreed to level and realign the tracks down Front Street and pave the road, a process that was not completed until summer 1897, nearly two years since the steam venture had proved to be a failure. The horsecar line began bleeding money and service to Twin Lakes was reduced to first one roundtrip daily and then none in 1899.

Two boys playing on a parked East Santa Cruz Street Railroad car, early 1890s.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify]

In 1900, the Board of Supervisors pushed Ely to restore and expand service. After only a year, though, he gave up and put the East Santa Cruz Street Railroad up for public sale. Eager to sell it but also hopeful for its future, Ely offered it at an affordable price in the hope that somebody with money and vision would expand it to De Laveaga Heights and the further along the coast. This hope was realized in August 1902 when a group of local investors purchased the line and shortly reincorporated as the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway Company with plans to convert the line to electric and extend it further than Ely had ever dreamed. Within months, the old horsecar line was gone and a new era of electrified streetcars in Santa Cruz had begun.

Citations & Credits:

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

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