Thursday, January 28, 2021

Railroads: Valencia Creek Railroad

Santa Cruz County hosted several private railroad lines that were built economically in order to achieve a specific goal and them promptly disappeared out of memory. History books have afforded these railroads little room and even contemporary photographers found them less than inspiring, leaving a dearth of photographic evidence. Thus, little is known about Frederick A. Hihn's narrow-gauge railroad line that once meandered along the east branch of Valencia Creek except what historians Rick Hamman and Ronald G. Powell have revealed in their investigations.

The Betsy Jane with passengers on a flatcar beside the Valencia Mill's pond, August 14, 1891. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Unlike the nearby Loma Prieta Company's mill on Aptos Creek, which had been years in the making by the time it finally opened in June 1884, Hihn's milling operations in the Aptos area, which began in May 1883, developed more gradually. Both companies harvested timber from properties in Rancho Soquel Augmentation, with Hihn personally owning thousands of acres throughout the former Mexican rancho. But whereas the Loma Prieta mill was located within the Augmentation and hauled processed lumber out via a standard-gauge Southern Pacific Railroad branch (initially the wholly-owned subsidiary Loma Prieta Railroad), Hihn situated his first mill at the junction of Trout Creek and Valencia Creek just outside of Aptos on land he purchased from the Bernal family. He used wagons and skid roads to haul uncut logs 1.5 miles from the Augmentation to the mill for processing. It was an inefficient system to say the least.

Sanborn map showing Aptos with Hihn's 'Aptos Milling Company' lumber yard sprawling behind the main commercial block, May 1892. [Library of Congress]

Hihn's mill in Trout Gulch had a 30,000 board foot per day capacity, which was considerable for the time, though competitive with the Loma Prieta mill. Everything produced at the mill was shipped via the newly standard-gauged Santa Cruz Railroad, now a Southern Pacific subsidiary. And since Hihn owned much of downtown Aptos, he ensured that he had prime real estate for his lumber yard on the backlot adjacent to Aptos Depot and behind the Bay View Hotel. Delays on the construction of the Loma Prieta Railroad meant that one of Hihn's first contracts was to provide lumber on behalf of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company until the latter could fire up its mills. Nonetheless, the problem of hauling large redwood logs on skid roads and wagons down the grade from the Augmentation to the mill was ultimately untenable. By the end of the second season, Hihn realized that a solution needed to be found to his transportation issues, but it took several years to fully address.

Lumber crew posing on the railroad grade near the Valencia Creek mill, late 1880s. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

For two summer seasons, Hihn's lumber crews harvested the timber up Trout Gulch in the Augmentation using the system explained above. In late 1884, however, he decided to abandon the remaining timber near the head of the creek and relocate his mill to the confluence of Valencia Creek and Cox Creek located on the southern boundary of the Augmentation. To the east of the mill, he established a tiny hamlet he named Valencia where workers with families and others could live. Meanwhile, beside the mill, more workers cottages and dormitories sprang up for unmarried men and between the two locations, several other facilities eventually were erected including a school, general store, and community hall that doubled as a church on occasion. With the mill now three miles closer to the timber, lumbermen did not have to haul the logs so far and wagons could cart full loads of lumber the rest of the way to the lumber yard in Aptos. Yet this new arrangement did not greatly increase efficiency and the Loma Prieta mill still had an output substantially higher despite the two mills being similar in maximum capacity.

A transloading platform along Valencia Creek where a skid road met with the Valencia Creek Railroad's grade for loading logs onto flatcars, 1889. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

For two seasons, Hihn allowed this reduced output to persist, but he knew it wouldn't work as a long term solution. When the mill was first moved, the hills around Valencia were still being actively harvested, but by the end of 1885, timber crews had moved further up Valencia Creek, away from the mill, meaning that they were once again dragging logs ever longer distances. This meant a lower return for Hihn since either fewer trees could be cut or more lumbermen were required. Meanwhile, the Loma Prieta company was building railroad spurs up onto the hills above its mill at Monte Vista, quickly hauling the felled trees to the mill for processing. At this point, the two mills were almost incomparable in output due to the restrictions impacting the Valencia operation.

Chinese crew carving out the Valencia Creek grade, 1886. [Aptos Museum – Colorized using DeOldify]

Hihn changed tact after the 1885 season ended and finally decided to invest some hard cash into his Valencia Creek milling operations. He decided to build a railroad, but a mule- and horse-drawn line. During the late winter and early spring, while fellers were in the forest cutting trees, Chinese work crews were brought on to grade a 2.76-mile-long narrow-gauge railroad line from Aptos Depot to the mill. Roughly three-quarters of the line was along a level grade, running either above the creek or almost in the creek bed, which had a controlled flow due to the millpond and its requisite dam. Not far from the mill, a 3,400-feet-long stretch of track ran at a relatively steep grade of 3% downhill, but gravity could take cars through this section and empty returning cars found little trouble surmounting this grade. Beyond the mill, the track initially was extended a mile but was gradually extended further over subsequent years in order to reach ever more distant timber tracts.

Mules hauling flatcars with logs to the millpond at the Valencia Creek mill, ca 1886. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]
A mule team hauling small logs around the last turn before the pond of Valencia Creek mill, ca 1886. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

The summer of 1886 proved to be a bonanza year for Hihn and his Valencia Creek mill. With the increased efficiency of the mule-driven railroad line, the mill was able to increase daily capacity to 40,000 board feet. This still lagged behind the Loma Prieta mill, but it confirmed Hihn's suspicions that his biggest problem was transportation. As a result of the boom, more jobs were made available and the town of Valencia began to bustle. Things were finally looking up for Valencia. So naturally, a fire destroyed it all. On November 28, the mill burned to the ground but most of the logs and lumber survived. Fires were no uncommon occurrence in lumber mills, but this was Hihn's first fire. But it happened at a perfect time. Operations were wrapping up for the year so the loss was less than it could have been. And Hihn was a generally optimistic man, so he saw the task of rebuilding as an opportunity for expansion and improvement.

Betsy Jane hauling flatcars with logs to the millpond at the Valencia Creek mill, ca 1890. [Aptos Museum]

In late winter 1887, construction began on the new mill, but Hihn no longer wanted to lag behind the Loma Prieta operation. So he built a much larger mill capable of producing 70,000 board feet of lumber per day. Beside it, he erected a box factory and planing mill, meaning that a wider range of products could be shipped finished directly from the mill. But with these new products, more than a simple mule-led railroad were required: Hihn needed steam. He upgraded the trackage of the four mile railroad and purchased a saddleback locomotive that he named Betsy Jane after the first locomotive that he brought into the county a decade earlier. Along with the locomotive came a new set of flatcars, one of which was upgraded with seats and railings for passengers to ferry workers, their families, and tourists up to Valencia and the mill. All of these entered full operations by July 1887.

Excerpt from the Hatch Map of Santa Cruz County, 1889, showing the route of the Valencia Creek Railroad (right), compared to the Loma Prieta Branch at the same time (left). [Aptos Museum] 

This enlargement of the mill and upgrading of the railroad line marked the peak of railroading in the Valencia Creek basin. For the next six years, from the summer of 1887 through the summer of 1892, lumber crews tore down nearly every old growth redwood tree that they could find and access on the hills either side of Valencia Creek. These trees were dragged to the railroad grade and then hauled on flatcars led by horses, mules, or the Betsy Jane to the millpond, where they were processed into lumber, boxes, and other wood products and shipped via train to Aptos, where the Aptos Milling Company, as it was popularly (though inaccurately) named maintained its yard. Regular freight trains passing through Aptos would pick up prepared standard-gauge flatcars of lumber and products from the yard for shipment to locations across California and beyond.

The Valencia Creek mill with high piles of lumber beside several railroad spurs, ca 1889. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]
The Valencia Creek mill during its peak years, ca 1890. [Aptos Museum – coloried using DeOldify]

With the improvements to the mill, Hihn could also finally compete with the Loma Prieta mill, which had just reached new tracts of timber in the vicinity of Five Finger Falls far up Aptos Creek. The mill crews, who often interacted on weekends and on days off in downtown Aptos, began a fierce production competition in the summer of 1888. Despite the set capacities of the mills, these could be stretched if workers were prepared in advance and the machinery was well tended to. The extent of this became clear on July 30, 1887, when the Loma Prieta crew cut 93,000 board feet in a day. The next year on August 15, Hihn's crew doubled its maximum capacity and cut 143,000 board feet. Loma Prieta would not be beat, though, and cut 181,000 board feet on October 8, and that in less than seven hours! This race could not be sustained both because of available logs to cut and the amount of energy it took to cut them. Loma Prieta set the state record for most lumber cut in one day, which it held for several years.

Tourists standing on logs on a flatcar beside the millpond, with the Valencia Creek mill in the background, 1888. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The Valencia Creek mill continued to operate until the autumn of 1892, when the major machinery was removed and relocated to Gold Gulch south of Felton. While some crew remained behind to gather the remaining split stuff and cut the few remaining trees, the operation was largely considered to be at an end. With the move to Gold Gulch went the Betsy Jane, which thereby left the Valencia Creek Railroad all but abandoned except for some light hauling by horses and mules. Many of the workers remained behind, either to work for the Loma Prieta company or to raise families on tracts sold to them at low rates by Hihn within the former timber tracts. Much of the land was converted into apple orchards, and the railroad tracks remained behind for some years to help former employees and new settlers transport equipment and building materials into the relatively isolated Valencia Creek backcountry. The town of Valencia persisted but never thrived over the next two decades. A post office was established there in 1893 but shut down in 1909. The school remained open until around 1931.

Workers cottages above the Valencia Creek mill at a transloading site, with mules leading a train of logs beside empty flatcars, ca 1886. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Nothing is left of the Valencia Creek Railroad today except some parts of the right-of-way that have been repurposed for private driveways. Even the precise route is unknown, although much of it ran just above the creek-bed and, therefore, has suffered landslides and sinks. The former apple barns that sat beside the railroad tracks in later years remain in Aptos but have been moved from their original site, where they hosted an antique mall for many decades.

Citations & Credits:

  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2007.
  • Powell, Ronald G. The Reign of the Lumber Barons: Part Two of the History of Rancho Soquel Augmentation. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, forthcoming.

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