Thursday, December 31, 2020

Streetcars: Watsonville Transportation Company

Watsonville was not immune from the excitement of the streetcar age nor did it miss an opportunity to undermine Southern Pacific's relative monopoly on rail services around the Monterey Bay. The Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad was incorporated in 1889 partially for this purpose, but it quickly failed in its goal and became almost exclusively a freight hauler for the Western Beet Sugar Company owned by Claus Spreckels. A different sort of excitement came with the incorporation of the Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway in September 1902, which hoped to build an electric streetcar line linking the Santa Cruz Main Beach to Capitola, Aptos, and Watsonville.

Watsonville Transportation Company car #2 on a maintenance spur, 1904. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Progress on the new line did not begin until the next year, and it seemed to many that the Watsonville aspirations of the company's directors were more wishful thinking than reality, with Capitola and Aptos the primary initial targets. To complicate matters further, there were no good spots on the shoreline north of the Pajaro River for a port, yet Watsonville sorely needed one if it wanted to avoid the Pacific Coast Steamship Company's monopoly on coastal trade.

Map showing the original route of the Watsonville Transportation Company's line in relation to the other local railroad lines. Drawn by H. W. Fabing. [Western Railroader]

The solution to all of these problems was to create a new locally-owned railroad and streetcar line that would also interact with a brand new port that was all Watsonville's. Thus, on February 13, 1903, several local financiers and entrepreneurs founded the Watsonville Transportation Company. The leader of these men was William J. Rogers, who was appointed general manager of the line. Other officers of the company included President Robert E. Eaton, Vice President and Treasurer Fred A. Kilburn, and Secretary H. H. Main, with Stephen Scurich serving as a director. The capital goal of the company was set at $200,000 and the goal was to attract mostly local money.

Workers building Port Rogers, using a flatcar to shuttle supplies and lumber, early 1904. [Louis L. Stein, Jr. – colorized using DeOldify]

The articles of incorporation described the plans of the company as thus:

To construct a single or double track railroad of either narrow gauge or standard gauge, operated by steam engines, electrical power, gasoline motors or any lawful means of power, from the city of Watsonville along any feasible route to Monterey Bay at an estimated distance of five miles. Also to erect and maintain telephone and telegraph facilities and furnish electric current for such use as it may be put to use.

The proposed pier at the beach was to be named Port Rogers after the general manager, while the steam schooner the company planned to buy would be branded the F. A. Kilburn, after the company's vice president and treasurer. In reality, it became known as the 'berry boat,' probably because its primary function was shipping berries to San Francisco. The Kilburn was built by the H. B. Bendixsen Ship Building Company of Eureka. The 175-foot-long ship was known to be fast and reliable. It had 45 rooms for travellers on the top deck and a large hold below for freight.

Port Rogers with a Watsonville Transportation Company streetcar rounding the curve, ca 1904. [Randolph C. Brandt]

The narrow-gauge line was planned to begin at the intersection of Main Street and Wall Street (Beach Street) and from there run parallel to Beach Street all the way to the beach, where the track briefly zigged north around Camp Goodall before turning back toward the bay where it would end on the Port Rogers pier. The reason for this zigzag was to move the line out of the domain of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, which owned the rights to all port access south of Watsonville Slough. Almost the entirety of the route was level and, with the exception of the two curves, ran in a straight line to the beach. The track ran on the road for half the length and then shifted to the north side of Beach Street from near the Lee Road crossing. The only bridge on the route was a short span of unknown design across the slough.

Colorized postcard of F. A. Kilburn docked beside Port Rogers on its maiden
voyage and at the grand opening of the pier, April 16, 1904. [Pacific Narrow Gauge]

At the beach, the company hoped to build a resort around the base of the pier. Construction on the pier began in April 1903 and progressed rapidly. The total length, once done, was 1,300 feet and it was designed in the manner of a wide trestle with a flat deck on top. Meanwhile, the company hired William Henry Weeks to design a dance pavilion at the foot of the pier. The building was to measure 50 feet by 20 feet and would provide views from across the Monterey Bay. These two structures attracted large crowds when the F. A. Kilburn had its maiden voyage on April 16, 1904. Much of the city turned out for the event. The steamship began regular service soon after, leaving Port Rogers in the evening and arriving in San Francisco the next morning, where goods could be sold on the open market.

1908 Sanborn map with annotations showing a likely layout (black) of the Watsonville Transportation Company's maintenance yard trackage (black) in relation to the Pajaro Valley Consolidate Railroad's line (blue) and the Southern Pacific's Santa Cruz Branch (red). [Library of Congress]

As the pier was completed and regular traffic began, work on the streetcar line became the next priority. The directors of the Watsonville Transportation Company entered negotiations with the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad to arrange an interchange between their respective lines. On Beach Street, the streetcar company erected its power house, which operated on oil. Behind it and beside the Adamson Fruit Company's warehouse, it built a large warehouse and streetcar barn, as well as a smaller car barn for the company's boxcars. The warehouse had platforms on the west and south sides and it was near the Pajaro Valley line's tracks, suggesting that the interchange was located at the warehouse, where goods could be easily transferred. The narrow-gauge of the streetcar line was likely in order to fluidly exchange with the railroad, and together the two could bypass the Southern Pacific monopoly even more effectively.

Car #2 on Third (Wall) Street beyond the railroad depot, ca 1905. [Main Line – colorized using DeOldify]

In reality, the exchange between the two railroads was rarely used and probably only by the streetcar line to borrow rolling stock—the Pajaro Valley line had a more reliable deep water port at Moss Landing and had little use for Port Rogers. However, in July 1904, the success of the streetcar line thus far inspired its directors to approve funding for an extension inland to Rancho Vega, San Juan Bautista, Hollister, Gilroy, and ultimately Fresno. These may have all reflected a hope of extending the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad's sugar beet network, thereby binding together the destinies of the two railroads.

View of Port Rogers from the pier, ca 1905. [Main Line – colorized using DeOldify]

The streetcar line was composed of either two or four heavy-duty interurban-style electric cars, four flatcars (later increased to ten), and two boxcars. The tougher electric cars were chosen since they were capable of carrying passengers but could also haul several cars behind it. Photographs only show Car #2 and Car #4 and available sources are contradictory, so the actual number of electric cars remains unknown. The first runs on the line began in mid-November 1903. Passenger revenue in the first year amounted to a modest but promising $13,750. Meanwhile, freight gross reached $36,250. These positive numbers were both key factors in the company's approval of the line's extension east.

Car #4 beside a flatcar on the Port Rogers pier, possibly assisting in construction, ca 1904. [Main Line – colorized using DeOldify]

Unfortunately, problems began to mount in late 1904. The speed at which the pier was built came at a price: worms began eating it as soon as it was constructed and a storm in November washed away 200 feet of the damaged pier. Redwood piles were brought in and the pier was repaired by the end of December. However, early the next year, 500 feet of the pier collapsed in another storm and the cost to repair was estimated at $35,000.

Watsonville Transportation trackage north of the railroad depot along Third (Wall) Street, ca 1905. [Randolph C. Brandt – colorized using DeOldify]

Around the same time, a lawsuit broke out against Rogers and Main, who had served as the company's chief promoters. Stockholders were disappointed with the compensation Rogers and Main claimed for their promotional efforts. On August 12, 1905, a grand jury in Santa Cruz indicted the men for misappropriation of funds and falsifying records. Although the two men were later absolved by an appellate court, the damage to the company's reputation was done. That same day, the Pajaro Valley Bank called in a $19,000 balance due on a loan taken out by the streetcar company's financiers. Unable to pay the loan or attract enough goodwill, the company declared bankruptcy on September 8, 1905.

Streetcar tracks down Beach Road looking south, with the Loma Prieta planing mill at left and the Earl Fruit Company warehouse at right, ca 1910. [Randolph C. Brandt – colorized using DeOldify]

For the next five years, the streetcar line languished, although Rogers would not let the railroad tracks be torn up. Whether a streetcar operated during any part of this time is unclear. When Edward White attempted to dispose of the tracks and rolling stock, Rogers filed an injunction with the California Supreme Court claiming that he was owed money by the railroad. He was eventually given $2,500 in settlement in 1907. With the lawsuit resolved, Rogers quickly moved on selling the firm and reformed it into the Pacific Railroad & Steamship Company in February 1907. He then promptly sold this new firm to the Monterey, Fresno & Eastern Railway Company, which was a subsidiary of the Ocean Shore Railway incorporated on December 28, 1906.

The F. A. Kilburn off the coast, ca 1906. [Worthpoint – colorized using DeOldify]

The new railroad company hoped to use the Watsonville streetcar line as its Monterey Bay port since access to the bay had been blocked by Southern Pacific in Santa Cruz. Its plans to link San Francisco to the San Joaquin Valley via a coastal route, thereby bypassing the Southern Pacific monopoly on the region, required port access and rights-of-way. The Ocean Shore had already briefly leased the Union Traction Company's streetcar lines in February 1906, but the earthquake in April led them to abandon that contract. Yet the option of taking it up again and extending the tracks to Watsonville remained. Once in Watsonville, the tracks could link up to the Watsonville streetcar line and continue up the Pajaro River. To accomplish another phase of this plan, the San Juan Pacific Railway was incorporated on May 4, 1907 with a long-term goal of building a line from Chittenden to Hollister via San Juan Bautista.

The F. A. Kilburn docked at Port Rogers, ca 1905. [Derek R. Whaley – Colorized using DeOldify]

The Kilburn was a key part of the Monterey, Fresno & Eastern negotiations. On April 1, the steamship entered service between Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. It was forced to bypass Watsonville at the time while the pier was repaired and upgraded. After the new railroad scheme fizzled in late 1907, the steamship was sold to Fred Linderman, a former stockholder in the streetcar company. He added the ship to his other steamship operations between San Francisco and Oregon where it operated for several years. It eventually sunk following a fire off the coast of Key West, Florida, on June 16, 1918.

The F. A. Kilburn off the coast of Eureka, California, ca 1916. [Derek R. Whaley – colorized using DeOldify]

The Monterey, Fresno & Eastern project failed for several reasons, but locally it was because the company attempted to bypass local laws regarding maintaining roads through which its tracks passed. In June 1907, the company attempted to standard-gauge the line and abandon a stretch of track downtown, which immediately prompted an injunction and a lien on its two streetcars. Shortly afterwards, the Panic of 1907 struck and many of the investors lost their ability to pay bondholders what was owed. The next January, the company was sued, with former Watsonville Transportation Company directors claiming their company was acquired through fraud. A two-year lawsuit ensued with Edward White managing the local properties until the suit was settled.

Colorized postcard of Port Watsonville Beach, 1911. [Derek R. Whaley]

Even before the suit was settled, White attempted to auction the railroad equipment, tracks, and franchise on June 11, 1910. Only one bid was offered for the lot by A. N. Judd, who represented a group of Watsonville businesspeople hoping to reopen the line and port. Rogers intervened to stop the sale claiming that the Monterey, Fresno & Eastern still owned the route, but his case was dismissed. An offer in July by bondholders of the railroad proposed an entirely new structure for the company, but the offer was also declined. A second round of bidding in February 1911 finally led to the sale of the lot to a different group of Watsonville investors, who founded on April 22, 1911 the Watsonville Railway and Navigation Company.

Watsonville Railway tracks down Beach Road looking east at the point where the tracks shifted to run along the east side of the road, with a streetcar on the tracks in the distance, ca 1911. [Randolph C. Brandt – colorized using DeOldify]

There was no overlap between the old firm and the new. The stated purpose of the Watsonville Railway and Navigation Company was to rehabilitate the decaying line, restore steamship service between Watsonville and Santa Cruz, and resurrect interest in the beach. The first goal was to restore the streetcar line, which resumed service only a week after the company was founded. However, the range was reduced to between the Southern Pacific depot at Walker Street, thereby abandoning the track beyond to Main Street. In addition, the company only had one streetcar and ten flatcars left in its fleet. The other streetcar had burned down in a fire at the carbarn in 1909. Several of the flatcars had seats installed as a stopgap until the streetcar could be properly rehabilitated for service.

A young Preston Sawyer on the Port Watsonville wharf, ca 1911. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The Port Rogers pier had fallen into such a sorry state that it was decided to demolish it and erect a new, longer wharf. The Marine Concrete Construction Company was awarded a $60,000 contract for the job and the new wharf was set at 1,900 feet long, with a wider section at the end for a freight warehouse and double tracks. Something happened, though, that caused this contract to be cancelled. A few months later, a new contract with the San Francisco Bridge Company for a redwood timber wharf of 1,700 feet was commissioned, with parts of the Port Rogers pier repurposed where possible. This made it the longest wharf on the California coast at the time.

Construction on the expanded facilities at Calpaco at the foot of the Port Watsonville wharf, ca 1911. [Derek R. Whaley – colorized using DeOldify]

With Rogers out of the equation, the seafront was renamed Port Watsonville. And since this new company did not plan to compete with the railroad or established shipping firms, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company was one of the first to request access to the wharf.

Port Watsonville with a streetcar coming off the wharf and a steamship docked at the end, ca 1911. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Meanwhile, property developers began subdividing and designing a resort on the shore at the base of the wharf and just northwest of Camp Goodall. F. E. Snowden, the new streetcar company's president, founded the California Pacific Company and began developing Calpaco, a tent city resort on the beach. A boardwalk and running water were installed between over sixty tent cabins. A baseball field and horse racing track were built nearby.

Port Watsonville in its prime, with the pier in the distance, William Week's dance pavilion on the beach beside a windscreen wall, and tent cottages in the foreground, ca 1912. [Adi Zahner – colorized using DeOldify]

William Week's dance pavilion was renovated and a new outdoor stage erected beside it. The resort opened on July 4, 1911 and the streetcar was so crowded that flatcars were brought back online to add seats. Estimates put the Fourth of July crowd at nearly 1,500 visitors. The popularity of the resort and wharf lasted for two well-remembered summers.

Port Watsonville wharf with streetcar tracks removed from the end and a wind screen visible on the sandbar in the distance, ca 1913. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Unfortunately for everybody, the use of wood pilings rather than concrete on the wharf proved once again to be a mistake. A huge storm swell in December 1912 destroyed 160 feet of the wharf and flooded Calpaco with damage valued at $40,000. Rather than pay the cost, Snowden sued the San Francisco Bridge Company for faulty construction, but the suit was dismissed. The relatively cheap repair could not be made due to a lack of financial support from local investors. The wharf was patched up as best as possible and service resumed the next year, but fewer steamships called in and fewer passengers were drawn to the beach and wharf. Meanwhile, Snowden sought out potential buyers of the line and the Calpaco resort.

Streetcar tracks down the center of Beach Road with the Loma Prieta planing mill at left and the Earl Fruit Packing Company at right, ca 1910. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

During the summer of 1913, the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad used the streetcar's tracks for sugar beet operations on Beach Street, but the profits were insufficient to recoup any losses. In October, the company filed for bankruptcy and was dissolved on February 24, 1914. It was sold in its entirety to the San Francisco Bridge Company, which was still owed for work related to constructing the problematic pier. In 1915, a group of Los Angeles investors attempted to revive the entire network, but nothing came of it and the wharf was finally dismantled in August. The tracks languished for two more years and were finally removed in January 1917, likely to be sold for scrap to be used in the war. The abandoned dance pavilion and clubhouse were also sold at this time and relocated, putting an end to Calpaco.

Beach Road near the beach where the tracks crossed to wrap around Watsonville Slough on its way to Port Watsonville, ca 1920. [Randolph C. Brandt – colorized using DeOldify]

Following abandonment, several ties were left alongside Beach Street toward its western end, reminding locals of the short-lived streetcar line. After the tracks were pulled, a short portion of the right-of-way continued to be discernable on the road to Pajaro Dunes and modern property maps still show a railroad easement paralleling Shell Road to the east and continuing beyond the entryway. Meanwhile, two rails from the line remained imbedded on Beach Street near Main Street for decades until they were paved over. These likely still sit beneath the surface. The name Port Watsonville has since been borrowed by an unrelated housing subdivision beside Sunset Beach north of the original port.

A baseball game at Port Watsonville after the demolition of the pier and removal of the streetcar tracks, 1920s. [Adi Zahner – colorized using DeOldify]

Citations & Credits:

  • Fabing, H. W. "Watsonville Transportation Company," The Western Railroader 29:11 (November 1966).
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • Lewis, Betty. Watsonville: Memories That Linger, Volume 1. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 1986.
  • Ramsdell, Ed. "Last Month's Do You Recognize." The Main Line: The Monthly Bulletin of the New England Electric Railway Historical Society Libraries 12:5 (July 2020): 2-6
  • McCaleb, Charles S. Surf, Sand & Streetcars: A mobile History of Santa Cruz, California. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & History, 2005.
  • Various newspapers, 1906-1910.

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