Thursday, December 24, 2020

Bridges: San Lorenzo River Mouth

On the eastern edge of the Santa Cruz Main Beach, the San Lorenzo River meanders gently, pulsing with the tides as it exits into the Monterey Bay. After the Santa Cruz Railroad incorporated in June 1873, the river would prove to be one of its greatest obstacles. Most of the problem was funding, but the geographic terrain at the river's mouth was always going to be an issue. A large sandbar ends the beach, jutting in between the bending river and the relentless sea. The beach was smaller then and the river was wider and deeper. At the time, there were no developments at the eastern end of the beach, with only grass and ice plants keeping the sand from washing away with the tide. The task of conquering this tenuous terrain was difficult but not impossible, but it was a constant struggle between human ingenuity and the tireless power of nature.

A Southern Pacific freight train steaming across the second bridge over the San Lorenzo River at the Santa Cruz Main Beach towards the Boardwalk, August 1946. Photograph by Ed Webber. [Fred Stoes – colorized using DeOldify]

The first railroad bridge over the river required a monumental feat of construction and funding to accomplish since it was erected by the ever cash-strapped Santa Cruz Railroad. Begun in November 1874, it was completed on April 17, 1875. Once done, the bridge was approximately 600 feet in length, with around 350 feet comprised of a trestle viaduct and the remainder an elevated, wooden double-intersecting Warren truss span through which trains could pass. The span was anchored on the eastern side by an abutment installed on the cliff, while the western side sat atop a large wooden pier. Like the other bridges along the line, the San Lorenzo River bridge was painted white using a lime and oil blend in hopes of protecting it from rot and fire.

The first bridge over the San Lorenzo River at the Santa Cruz Beach, ca 1890. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

For two years, the bridge served its purpose while the railroad route was completed and regular service began. But the poorly-built structure was destined to fail, especially during the harsh Santa Cruz winters when powerful waves lashed the coast. The first such failure happened in late 1877, when part of the trestlework collapsed. Railroad investors were asked to hand over their profits from the previous year to fund repairs. They did so begrudgingly and the bridge was repaired. In late 1878, to protect the bridge's single pier from being undercut, wooden cladding was attached to all sides of it and the pier was weighted down with heavy rocks to give it more weight.

The first bridge viewed from the north showing severe damage following a winter storm in January 1881. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Winter storms struck again on January 27, 1881, and over fifty feet of the viaduct collapsed. The Santa Cruz Weekly Courier on May 4, 1881, explained: "The violence of the elements last winter was more than a match for his [Frederick A. Hihn's] patient investments, and when the bridge across the San Lorenzo went out to sea, it was the death knell of the Santa Cruz Railroad." The damaged pieces were not actually washed out, but rather were collected and taken to a warehouse awaiting reassembly. However, Hihn, the chief promotor of the railroad, was unable to convince investors to pay for the repairs. It marked the end for the Santa Cruz Railroad, which struggled to compete with the recently-opened South Pacific Coast Railroad.

The first bridge viewed from the south following the storm of January 27, 1881. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

In May 1881, the Southern Pacific Railroad bought a controlling interest in the Santa Cruz Railroad and set to work repairing the line. The bridge was quickly restored and reopened on June 4, 1881. Over the next two years, the structure was reinforced and repaired repeatedly, and it was eventually expanded and heavily reinforced to allow it to carry standard-gauge trains. The core structure of the bridge—the truss span over the river—appears to have survived all of these storms and crises unscathed, so the real trouble was the viaduct, which was more exposed. Initially, the railroad seems to have simply driven additional piles into the sand. This allowed the upgraded standard-gauge bridge to reopen on November 15, 1883 along with the rest of the route.

People posing at the beach along the river with the first bridge and the vehicular bridge over East Cliff Drive visible in the background, ca 1895. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Over time, Southern Pacific replaced all of the piles with heavy-duty redwood logs and installed stronger bents to keep them stable. At some point in the 1890s, the railroad also belatedly added claddings to the entire truss span, turning it into a covered bridge.

The first bridge with the truss span covered in wood cladding, ca 1900. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

As activity at the beach warmed up, interest in a new bridge arose. In February 1904, Fred Swanton, promotor of what would become the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and a major investor in the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville streetcar line, hoped to complete the extension of his line to Capitola and beyond. He viewed a route across the river mouth as the best option and began negotiations with the city and Southern Pacific to install a parallel track beside the existing railroad bridge. In addition, he hoped to have a pedestrian bridge installed to provide easy pedestrian access to Seabright from the Main Beach.

The first bridge over the San Lorenzo River viewed from the south, with the truss in wood cladding, ca 1900. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Although the streetcar bridge was never built, Southern Pacific apparently took the initiative and began upgrading the former Santa Cruz Railroad bridge. On May 5, the Sentinel reported that a train was dumping gravel on either side of the viaduct at the beach to turn it into a fill. On May 15, news broke that the railroad intended to replace the old wooden truss with a modern steel bridge. Similar projects were announced across the county. Speculators hoped that Santa Cruz would become the main route of the Coast Division for San Francisco—Los Angeles traffic once the route through the mountains was standard-gauged and the Mayfield Cut-off was completed. Nothing so grand would come, but the new bridge would be built.

Earliest known photograph of the second bridge over the San Lorenzo River at the Santa Cruz beach, with not structures in the immediate vicinity and a pedestrian walkway beside the bridge, ca 1906. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collcetions – colorized using DeOldify]

The actual construction was a prolonged affair since neither local businesses nor Southern Pacific wished to negatively impact summer traffic to the beach. While the fill work was completed before the start of the summer season, most of the supplies for the new bridge only came in the Autumn. Loads of cement for the piers and abutments arrived on October 4 and it took over three months for the piers to be completed. The job was still not done by May, when the Sentinel reported that construction continued with trains using the older wooden bridge in the meantime. This is the only mention of both bridges coexisting during this period, and it means that their alignments were not identical. Even as construction was wrapping up, Seabright residents came to an agreement with Southern Pacific to install a permanent steel foot-bridge beside the new bridge.

Boaters beneath the second bridge over the San Lorenzo River with the L. A. Thompson Scenic Railway in the distance and some structures at right, ca 1915. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections]

The structure, which was completed around mid-July 20, 1905, was approximately 305 feet in length, with the remainder of the old bridge completely buried in fill. Approximately 65 feet of the new bridge was a prefabricated steel plate girder open deck span that was anchored on one side by a concrete abutment and the other by a concrete pier. The pier also served as the western foundation for a 120-foot-long prefabricated Warren truss span with verticals. This was anchored to another concrete pier after which an identical truss connected to the eastern cliffside via a concrete abutment. The two truss bridges were open deck bridges through which trains could pass, as with the previous bridge. Southern Pacific officially designated the bridge #119.67 (based on the mile marker) on the Santa Cruz Branch.

A Southern Pacific excursion train heading to Watsonville over the second bridge over the San Lorenzo River. Below the bridge, the tracks for the miniature Sun Tan Jr. Railway head to the Shoot-the-Chutes at River Park, ca 1930. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Since it was built, the bridge has become a popular object for photography, with photos of the bridge spanning its entire history. Indeed, the very history of the lower end of the Boardwalk and the river mouth can be followed partially through photographs of this bridge. Most famously, the bridge featured in the 1987 film The Lost Boys, although it has appeared in other less well-known films and has become an iconic feature on the Santa Cruz waterfront. Every summer, thousands of people use the bridge and its adjacent pedestrian walkway to walk to and from the Boardwalk and Seabright.

The lower end of the Boardwalk in the 1930s with beachgoers lounging beside the San Lorenzo River and the second bridge in the distance. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Today, the second bridge across the river remains intact, but in a decreasing state of repair. A report delivered on August 31, 2012 commissioned by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, which owns the bridge, noted the bridge to be in poor condition with potentially high rehabilitation costs. That being said, it also noted that the bridge was in surprisingly good condition for its age and is cheaper to repair than to replace. The primary concern relates to long-term damage from two earthquakes. Built in 1905, the bridge sustained minor damage in both the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. These two events caused the bridge to shift northward slightly in relation to its piers and anchors, although thus far these have not negatively impacted its stability. Ultimately, the bridge will need to be replaced in no more than 25 years even if repaired.

A Southern Pacific passenger train crossing the second bridge over the San Lorenzo River at the beach with beachgoers watching from below, ca 1920. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Until that time, the railroad bridge over the mouth of the San Lorenzo River remains a legacy of the Southern Pacific at its height and the Santa Cruz Main Beach right at the moment that it evolved from a scattering of bath houses into a full amusement park. The bridge is old and deteriorating, but represents an earlier age of rail and tourism. And to the many people who cross it legally on the adjacent footpath or illegally by hopping the crossties, it represents a core component of the Santa Cruz waterfront.

Citations & Credits:
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • MacGregor, Bruce. South Pacific Coast: A Centennial. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1980.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1904-1905.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Coast. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, forthcoming.


  1. Great article - thank you! One correction: this bridge was not featured in Lost Boys. While most of the movie was filmed in Santa Cruz, the bridge scenes were filmed at the Iron Horse Trailhead trestle bridge in Santa Clarita (near Magic Mountain). Look closely at the bridge in the film and pictures of Iron Horse. Not Santa Cruz.

  2. Thanks for Sharing! In my youth, I walked over this bridge many times while working at The Boardwalk. I never thought about it's age or originals, it was just a nice shortcut! Thanks for enlightening me.


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