Thursday, November 19, 2020

Streetcars: Santa Cruz Electric Railway

There were two very different breeds of streetcars in Santa Cruz County in the nineteenth century. There were the three old, slow-moving horsecar lines that together meandered from Walnut Avenue on the West Side to Arana Gulch and Twin Lakes on the East Side. And there was chic, new electric streetcar lines, that eventually spanned from West Cliff Drive to Capitola and Delaveaga Park. The electric lines did not emerge out of nothing, though—the first company began as a modest rival to the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad, intent on outpacing its horses and moving Santa Cruz into the twentieth century.

A Santa Cruz, Garfield Park and Capitola Electric Railway streetcar at the end of Front Street beside the tracks for the Pacific Avenue horsecar line, 1891. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections — colorized using DeOldify]

The Pacific Avenue Street Railroad was doing extraordinarily well in 1890. It had already beaten out its competition, Frederick Hihn's Santa Cruz City Railroad, and faced only peripheral competition from the newly-built East Santa Cruz Railroad horsecar line. But despite the success, the fact was that horsecar lines were only so fast and efficient. The idea of an electric streetcar line was attractive to many, especially recent arrivals from the East Coast and Europe, where electric metropolitan lines were widespread. Raised in Brooklyn, Fred W. Swanton was one such man with a vision for an electric future. He teamed up with H. H. Clark to bring electricity to Santa Cruz via the Santa Cruz Light and Power Company. Shortly afterwards, he began to advocate for an electric streetcar system similar to that installed in San José in 1890. He was aided in his vision by James P. Smith from New York. Together they held a meeting on May 19, 1891 where they discovered an abundance of support from the public. They quickly had sufficient subscribers to move forward with their plans.

Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Electric Railway (1891–1892)

The Santa Cruz Common Council approved their proposed streetcar line and, as a result, on June 2, 1891, the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park and Capitola Electric Railway was incorporated. The proposed route was from the northern boundary of Santa Cruz (near Vernon Street), down River Street, along N Pacific Avenue, down Front Street to Minnesota (Soquel) Avenue, down Minnesota and then up Pacific Avenue to Walnut Avenue, up Walnut to Mission Street, down Mission to Younglove Avenue, and then down Younglove and Garfield (Woodrow) Avenue to the cliffs, where the end of track was to be marked by the Vue de l'Eau station and ocean observatory. Permission was also granted to continue from Garfield and Pelton Avenue, down Lighthouse Avenue and Bay Street before continuing to the Santa Cruz Main Beach bathhouses. At Riverside Avenue, the route would turn inland, continue down Leibbrandt Avenue, the Laurel Street Extension, and Front Street and then turn down Cathcart Street and onto Pacific Avenue, where it would meet its other end at the bottom of Minnesota Avenue. The total distance of the proposed route was five miles and permission was granted by the city for the electric streetcar line to share the rails of the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad and the East Santa Cruz Railroad.

The Santa Cruz, Garfield Park and Capitola Electric Railway offices and car shed at the corner of Front and Cathcart Streets, 1892, with a young boy in the foreground. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections — colorized using DeOldify]

This sharing agreement was a major blow to the two horsecar lines but the city's leaders simply didn't care. The idea of the electric system was years in the making and had the capital support of two wealthy and ambitious investors. These facts alone pushed it over the edge but when incorporation came, almost every major investor in the city came forward to provide funds, including William T. Jeter (future city mayor and California lieutenant governor), J. Harvey Logan (superior court judge), Frank McLaughlin (future city mayor), Frank W. Ely (son of the owner of the East Santa Cruz Railroad), Edward G. Greene (former Vermont legislator), and Swanton himself (future city mayor). While Frederick A. Hihn did not invest, the project had the potential to greatly benefit his Camp Capitola resort, which was projected to be the eastern end of the line.

A Santa Cruz, Garfield Park and Capitola Electric Railway car parked outside a freshly-renovated Sea Beach Hotel, 1892. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections — colorized using DeOldify]

The streetcar company planned to adhere to a narrow gauge but of heavier rail and a slightly wider gauge than that used by the existing horsecar lines, meaning that no track would actually be shared. Work on the line began almost immediately with a viaduct installed along Front Street and a carbarn at the junction of Pacific Avenue and Cathcart Street. Work progressed quickly as rolling stock arrived and was assembled. The initial route had its trial run on November 1 and ran into several problems, with derailments, insufficient power to make it up Weeks' Hill on Walnut Avenue, and other issues, but these were soon resolved and full operations began on November 25.

An electric streetcar at the lower end of Pacific Avenue, ca 1894. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections — colorized using DeOldify]

Both of the branches of the streetcar network proved popular. People caught the 20-minute cars to the Vue de l'Eau regularly for a picnic and walk on the cliffs, while beachgoers hopped on the beach route along the San Lorenzo River to relax on the shore or visit the bathhouses. In the first year of operation, cars were often packed from morning until midnight. The immediate success of the company led the financiers to install a third branch down Center Street and on to the waterfront, where the track paralleled the Southern Pacific and the Pacific Avenue horsecar tracks down the middle of Beach Street, with the route eventually connecting to the other beach branch at the end of Riverside Avenue. This move proved too much for the old horsecar line and on August 6, 1892, the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad Company sold out to the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park and Capitola Electric Railway. 

Santa Cruz Electric Railway (1892–1904)

With all these changes and the acquisition of new property and rights, the company reincorporated as the Santa Cruz Electric Railway on August 23, 1892. Most of the board of directors were the same but plans to connect the Vue de l'Eau to the beach and install a route to the city limits along River Street were abandoned. The horsecar line up Mission Street to Walnut Avenue officially shut down for upgrading and electrification in December and the tracks down Pacific Avenue were upgraded to a wider gauge and heavier rail in March 1893 with the last horsecar running around March 20. Six new streetcars were built to operate down the Pacific Avenue line. The first run to Vue de l'Eau on the upgraded Lower Plaza to Walnut Avenue tracks began on April 2, while the Pacific Avenue route to the beach reopened to electric traffic around April 30.

A Santa Cruz Electric Railway car cruising down the Front Street viaduct, ca 1898. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections — colorized using DeOldify]

Over the next several years business continued apace, as did accidents along the line. Derailments, vandalism, electric problems, washouts, cut wires, and every other problem impacted the city's first electric streetcar line. Not long after upgrading the Pacific Avenue tracks, the Center Street route was quietly abandoned since it was no longer necessary—it had achieved its purpose. Meanwhile, the old horsecar line into the freight yard was upgraded to become an occasional route for streetcars desiring to meet morning trains. A small shelter was also erected on Pacific Avenue just across from the new Union Depot for people to transfer between the trains and streetcars. After trouble establishing official stops, the streetcar company decided that any street corner could serve as a car stop so long as the driver was flagged enough in advance.

A Santa Cruz Electric Railway car on Pacific Avenue with men on top repairing electrical lines, April 1894. The recent fire has devastated the buildings between Pacific Avenue and Front Street. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections — colorized using DeOldify]

A recession beginning in late 1893 followed by a devastating fire downtown in April 1894 slowed growth. The offices and old carbarn for the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park and Capitola Electric Railway, located at Front and Cathcart, were destroyed, prompting the company to relocate permanently to the former and more spacious Pacific Avenue Street Railroad carbarn at Pacific and Sycamore. Yet the company was otherwise uneffected and service resumed the next day. The Vue de l'Eau Casino was erected that summer off West Cliff Drive and streetcar service was extended to the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, where the city had installed a dam to form a large lagoon area. To draw tourists to this new river venue, James Smith promoted the popular Venetian Water Carnival in 1895 and 1896. Meanwhile, Fred Swanton tapped a new power source north of Davenport through his Big Creek Power Company, which quickly became the primary source of electricity for the city, including its streetcars. The upgrade of power led to the firm replacing the old carbarns on Sycamore with an entirely new, greatly-expanded complex in April 1897.

Southern Pacific Railroad (left) tracks beside the tracks of the Santa Cruz Electric Railway running behind the Neptune Bathhouse with the Sea Beach Hotel in the distance, ca 1900. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections — colorized using DeOldify]

Nonetheless, simplification of the line was inevitable. After the second water carnival, the line was cut back to Riverside Avenue and the Walnut Avenue section was abandoned since the Mission Street trackage obtained from the Pacific Avenue horsecar line covered much of the same area. Plans to extend the route to Capitola were shelved until the economic situation improved. This finally item proved to be a mistake, though. Swanton, desiring capital to invest elsewhere, sold Big Creek Power in February 1900 and soon used the proceeds to buy most of the attractions at the Santa Cruz Main Beach. The new owners, R. C. P. Smith and John M. Gardiner, had a vision of their own: to build an electric streetcar system that spanned the Monterey Bay from Santa Cruz to Pacific Grove and inland to Salinas. As part of this project, they began buying power companies throughout the area. With their sources of energy secured, Smith and Gardiner then incorporated their own Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway Company on September 11, 1902. 

Passengers detraining a crowded Santa Cruz Electric Railway streetcar at the Neptune Bathhouse, ca 1900. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections — colorized using DeOldify]

The Santa Cruz Electric Railway had been outmaneuvered with the help of one of its own financiers. A fight soon ensued in the spring of 1903 over rights-of-way in the Lower Plaza. The Santa Cruz Electric had rights to most of the major thoroughfares in the city, leaving the new Capitola line on the periphery, largely adhering to the existing East Santa Cruz horsecar line's boundaries. But the new company wanted more, such as access to the Union Depot and more solid access to the Lower Plaza, especially after it revealed plans to extend a line across the San Lorenzo River at Water Street and up Ocean Street to the Odd Fellows Cemetery and the California Powder Works. Despite all the back and forth in newspapers and public discourse, it was clear that the Santa Cruz Electric held the high ground. Yet, after several court cases and meetings, the Capitola line retained all of its advantages and its competitive edge, leaving the Santa Cruz Electric Railway with few options left except to improve services in the hope it would block its rival's progress.

Two Santa Cruz Electric Railway streetcars on the esplanade outside the newly-opened Neptune Casino with the Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway tracks at far right with a car parked beside the casino in the distance, 1904. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections — colorized using DeOldify]

Beginning in May 1903, the older streetcar line once more extended its tracks to the river along the beach and restored service along Walnut Avenue to Mission Street. It also streamlined its timetable, designating official stops in order to make service more consistent, and it resumed full service year-round rather than reducing service in the winter. New cars were brought in and the route as a whole was repaired and upgraded. But it was too little and too late. With most of the old East Santa Cruz horsecar line electified by  by June 1904 and the new track to Capitola nearly completed, the two streetcar lines were at an impasse. Neither could expand services much further and both still retained a unique competitive advantage over the other: West Side access for the older line, East Side and Capitola access for the newer.

Changing times—a Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway streetcar at Vue de l'Eau following its merger with the Santa Cruz Electric Railway in 1904. [Jim Vail – colorized using DeOldify]

Following weeks of speculation, James Smith finally sold the Santa Cruz Electric Railway to a newcomer, F. S. Granger of San José, on June 21, 1904. Granger immediately set to work improving the line further, with plans to reopen the Vue de l'Eau Casino and expand service to the Powder Works. He also opened up negotiations with the Capitola streetcar line to coordinate schedules more closely, apparently ending the short rivalry between the firms. In reality, though, he was negotiating with Smith and Gardiner. On September 2, 1904, the Santa Cruz Electric Railway was reincorporated as the Union Traction Company. That same day, it was revealed that the Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway had merged into this new entity as well. The board of directors of the new company included members of both former companies, with several major investors remaining on as silent financial partners. The consolidation marked the end of Santa Cruz County's first electric streetcar line, but also heralded the beginning of a standard-gauge, unified streetcar system that would dominate municipal transportation in the county for the following twenty years.

Citations & Credits:

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

1 comment:

  1. Amazing, so interesting, love to read about the history of Santa Cruz and trains ...


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