Thursday, February 25, 2021

Streetcars: Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway

California was undergoing a growth period at the turn of the nineteenth century and electric streetcar lines helped spread people further and further out into suburbia. In Santa Cruz, the successful Santa Cruz Electric Railroad meandered through downtown, out to the beach, and up to Mission Hill and the West Side. However, the old East Santa Cruz Railroad, a horsecar line built a decade earlier, still was the only service available to people on the East Side, and no attemp t had yet been made to connect Santa Cruz to Capitola, Aptos, and Watsonville by a streetcar network of any type.

Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway streetcar at Twin Lakes on its way to Opal above Capitola, December 29, 1903. [Charles Smallwood Collection, University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Things were changing in 1902, though. Gilroy, Salinas, and Monterey were all looking to add or expand electric streetcar service under the guidance of R. C. P. Smith and John M. Gardiner. They were interested in expanding to Santa Cruz and Watsonville, too, but local businessman Fred W. Swanton acted first. The principal financier for the Santa Cruz Electric Light and Power Company, Swanton had quietly purchased a controlling interest in the East Santa Cruz Railroad and used it as leverage when negotiating with Smith and Gardiner. On May 5, Swanton sold his power company to Smith and Gardiner with part of the deal involving the expansion of streetcar service throughout the county.

A former East Santa Cruz Railroad horsecar converted into a passenger waiting shelter at Atlantic Avenue near Wood's Lagoon, ca 1920s. [Preston Sawyer Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Although nothing else had been revealed yet, surveyors began defining a route between Twin Lakes and Capitola in August. Finally, on September 11, 1902, the Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway Company was incorporated, with a capital stock of $350,000 and pledges of an additional $100,000 from the streetcar line's financial backers, among whom were Smith and Gardiner of Los Angeles, Martin V. McQuigg and O. Z. Hubbell of Ontario, Henry Willey of Santa Cruz, and Warren R. Porter of Watsonville.  The goal of the company reflected a wider dream of connecting a narrow-gauge electric railroad line down the coast from San Francisco to Salinas and beyond. Therefore, the charter included transport by steam, electricity, or any other motive power, and permission to run ships.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville conductor and motorman standing beside their streetcar, with two boys seated at right, ca 1903. [Santa Cruz Public Library – colorized using DeOldify]
While the surveyors finished their work, the company began acquiring necessary permissions from the city government and purchasing easements through properties on the East Side. In December, the company received permission for a short line from Front Street to Center Street and then south to the Santa Cruz Union Depot in order to meet with arriving Southern Pacific Railroad and South Pacific Coast Railway trains. In January 1903, it received permission to electrify the East Santa Cruz Railroad. And on February 16, Swanton finally convinced city operators to give the company permission for a track adjacent to the Southern Pacific tracks to the Plunge at the Main Beach. This effectively halved the benefits of the Santa Cruz Electric Railroad's line, which now only claimed exclusivity of service on the West Side with both companies sharing beachfront patronage.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville streetcar at Twin Lakes, ca 1903. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Grading of the line began in early February 1903 with multiple teams working to both improve the old horsecar line's infrastructure and expand the track beyond Twin Lakes. Besides installing heavier rail and new crossties, much of the route required new bridges. culverts, cuts, and fills. Construction on the section across Twin Lakes Beach and up the hillside to East Cliff Road was especially difficult. Meanwhile, the streetcar company also looked at future prospects. An obvious candidate was a short branch line to the top of Ocean Street at the I.O.O.F. cemetery, which they received permission to build on February 25. The next target was the Lower Plaza, where the company hoped to leach even more profit from the suddenly struggling Santa Cruz Electric Railway. This proposal was not received as graciously.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville streetcar passing the Southern Pacific Railroad station at Seabright, with the Seabright Hotel next door, ca 1905. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
The owners of the older streetcar line, primarily I. Philip Smith and former district judge James Harvey Logan, had spent years developing their streetcar line into the successful service it was in 1903. Despite the threat of the new line to its beach services, it still held a monopoly at the Lower Plaza and on the West Side, two things it did not want to give up. And people genuinely liked Smith, Logan, and the company in general. By March, the fight between the two companies had become such that the local newspapers published letters from angry citizens almost daily, most in favor of the older line. A hearing on April 6 granted the new streetcar company permission to build a slightly modified route to the Lower Plaza, but nothing more was accomplished at the time. For the next three months, lawsuit after lawsuit attempted to block the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway from extending track down Pacific Avenue to the Lower Plaza, but all these attempts failed and the Santa Cruz Electric shifted to improving service to undermine its rival's efforts.

Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville car #1 at the original end-of-track at the Lower Plaza, with the Santa Cruz Electric Railway's streetcar line at right, ca 1903. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections]
Construction continued on the line throughout 1903 with the branch from the Lower Plaza to the beach opening in June and the separate branch along the old East Santa Cruz Railroad line and its extension to Opal Cliffs operating by July 25. Meanwhile, rolling stock orders had been placed in April and the first cars were completed in mid-June including two open bench cars, five combination cars, and a parlor car. Full service along the completed branches began on June 28. On July 17, the first Capitola car ran up Pacific Avenue on track that the Santa Cruz City Council had deemed joint use, despite protests from the Santa Cruz Electric which had built and maintained the track.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville streetcar outside the Tent City Office at the Santa Cruz Main Beach, ca 1904. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
In January 1904, the company finally relocated to new offices on Soquel Avenue downtown, where they setup a waiting room beside the main track to Capitola. At the beach, the track was extended slightly to curve into the new Neptune Casino complex, which opened in June, allowing direct access between downtown, the Union Depot, and the casino without any need for transfers or hikes through the dirt. Work on the extension to Capitola finally neared completion in early 1904 once property disputes were resolved and equipment was moved into place to carve a path down to Camp Capitola from Opal Cliffs high above. Actual grading began in April while the route was only clear for the laying of rails in May after shifting several buildings from their foundations.

The Neptune Casino at the Main Beach with Santa Cruz Electric streetcars on the left track and Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville streetcars at the far right track in the distance, 1904. [Preston Sawyer Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Ironically, the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway never finished its planned route to Capitola and never started its route to Watsonville. On September 2, 1904, as track layers were nearing completion of the line into Capitola, the Union Traction Company was formed by the board of directors of both the Santa Cruz Electric Railroad and the Capitola line. Its sole purpose was to consolidate the two electric streetcar companies into one unified operation. The official announcement of the merger came on October 4, the same day that regular service began from Santa Cruz to Capitola. As the larger and better-funded system, the Capitola management dominated the board with newcomers F. S. Granger and E. A. Cole taking over daily management of operations.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway streetcar passing over the new bridge into Capitola, ca 1905. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Over the next two years, old board members began to drop out and sell their shares as the old Capitola line began to lose its independent identity. The first casualty was the beachfront trackage, which was reduced back to a single streetcar track while the Capitola branch went back to operating from the beginning of Soquel Avenue. A brief leasing of the Union Traction Company to the Ocean Shore Railway in early 1906 came to nothing once the San Francisco Earthquake severely curtailed the company's expansion plans. Meanwhile, any involvement Swanton still retained in the company, including in plans to build a short-cut bridge over the San Lorenzo River to connect the streetcar tracks between the beach and Seabright, fizzled when his casino went up in flames in June 1906.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonvile liveried streetcar outside the Hotel Capitola, ca 1905. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
The purchase of Union Traction by John Martin of the Coast Counties Power Company (PG&E) on July 8, 1906, likely marked the corporate end for the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway. Throughout 1907, all of the narrow-gauge track was torn out and replaced with standard-gauge trackage, while a new electrical plant was installed and new rolling stock purchased to replace the smaller-gauged stock. These were the last vestiges of the Capitola line other than the rights-of-way.

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. Interesting article, but would be about 100% more so if it included a map or two for the benefit of those of us in faraway places!

    1. Check the "Maps" link at the top of the page and scroll to the interactive Google Map. All of the streetcar lines are included on the map.


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