Thursday, July 15, 2021

Maps: Aptos Area

The Loma Prieta Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad was a surprisingly long-lived affair despite its only significant function being the hauling out of lumber from Rancho Soquel Augmentation. Built in late 1883 and early 1884 by the Pacific Improvement Company under the name Loma Prieta Railroad, the route eventually reached near the headwaters of Aptos Creek and Bridge Creek. Meanwhile, the Pacific Improvement Company itself ran a long twisting tramway down the east bank of Aptos Creek to the southern boundary of the Augmentation and maintained a mill at Molino to the north.

The original Loma Prieta Lumber Company mill on Aptos Creek at Monte Vista, ca 1885. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

After the Loma Prieta Lumber Company finished its intended harvesting job, the closely-related Molino Timber Company installed a meandering narrow-gauge line along the top of China Ridge, with several long spurs venturing down tributary streams of Hinckley Creek far below. Later operations also returned to Bridge Creek to finish the harvesting of timber there. Even while all these operations were ongoing, the F. A. Hihn Company built its own narrow-gauge railroad up nearby Valencia Creek to its mill just inside the Augmentation. The track continued for a long distance beyond the mill and remained in place until 1895. Two decades later, the Hihn Company returned to harvest timber on the ridge between Bridge and Hinckley Creeks, building a small isolated railroad deep in the mountains and using highlines to haul the logs out. The last operations along the lines were small mills built outside Aptos hauling in logs from small uncut tracts.

All of the branch lines, sidings, and spurs of the Loma Prieta Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad, 1883–1936. Also, the narrow-gauge Valencia Creek Railway, owned and operated by the F. A. Hihn Company, 1886–1895. Not all streams and roads marked. Click image for a larger size. [Derek R. Whaley]

The Loma Prieta Railroad, later Branch, was built in several stages over a period of over forty years if the various long spurs are considered. The primary track initially, built from April 1883, ran a distance of 5.0 miles from the Southern Pacific station at Aptos to the original Loma Prieta Lumber Company mill at Monte Vista. The route was surveyed by the Southern Pacific Railroad and its construction was overseen by W. F. Knox and a Mr. Partridge, who together managed a crew of 200 Chinese workers. While none of the line survives today, nearly all of the original right-of-way is still fully accessible to the public as a part of The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Some of the long spurs, namely those of the Molino Timber Company along China Ridge and Bridge Creek, are also accessible as public trails.

The crossing of the Loma Prieta Branch and the Valencia Creek Railway behind Aptos Station, 1916. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections]

The 5-mile route to Monte Vista began at a wye constructed in Aptos just west of the station at the bottom of today's Aptos Creek Road. The route then more or less followed the path of the current road as it parallels Aptos Creek on its east bank. The first substantial bridge was a 188-foot-long span over Mangles Gulch just north of town. From there, the grading work mostly involved several short cuts until the right-of-way finally crossed Aptos Creek over a 189-foot-long bridge 1.75 miles north of Aptos. This location is just northeast of the current vehicular bridge. After passing through two longer cuts, the railroad entered Rancho Soquel Augmentation, where the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, the Pacific Improvement Company, and Frederick Hihn owned extensive timber acreage.

A bridge under construction along the Loma Prieta Branch, ca 1883. [Roy Graves Collection, Bancroft Library]

Once inside the Augmentation, the route continued north passing through more cuts and across several short bridges over gullies. This route today is identical to the Aptos Creek Fire Road to the Porter Family Picnic Area (the last gate). Beyond the gate, the railroad followed today's Loma Prieta Grade Trail across Love Gulch to the Porter House site. The two routes then separated with the Grade Trail continuing up Bridge Creek and the main line of the railroad crossing Aptos Creek over a 210-foot-long bridge to the current Fire Road. The village of Loma Prieta was located here, on the east bank of the creek 3.7 miles from Aptos. Almost nothing survives of this area, with even the building foundations gone or buried deep in brush.

Molino in the mid-1880s before the Loma Prieta Lumber Company relocated its primary mill along the spur. [Timothy Hopkins Collection, Stanford University]

Even before the main railroad was completed, the Pacific Improvement Company began its bold plan to carefully harvest the timber south of the village of Loma Prieta. It did this via a very rugged and complex railroad route that paralleled the Loma Prieta Branch on the east bank of Aptos Creek heading south. This standard-gauge track broke off from the branch line just north of the Porter Picnic Area at a site called Molino and turned sharply to the east until the grade of the hillside was too steep. It then backed down to the creek level via a switchback and turned south. The railroad crossed the creek almost a dozen times with a total of at least twenty-one bridges required as it made its way south to the boundary of the Augmentation. A mid-sized shingle mill just below the Picnic Area processed all of the wood cut along this track. In order to not undermine the picturesque qualities of the Loma Prieta Branch, the Pacific Improvement Company left a solid wall of foliage between its track and the main track so that passengers could barely see the heavily-harvested forest beyond. The Porter Trail follows parts of this route and the Porter Family Picnic Area sits on the route, but much of it is now overgrown and difficult to discern.

The Loma Prieta Branch served as Main Street in the village of Loma Prieta, ca 1888. [Aptos Museum]

Returning to the main branch line, it continued beyond the village of Loma Prieta and followed or closely paralleled today's Aptos Creek Fire Road through five cuts of various lengths. Where the road crosses Aptos Creek to begin its climb to the top of China Ridge, the tracks continued on, crossing Aptos Creek via a 280-foot-long curving bridge that immediately passed into a deep cut. After two short bridges, another long cut, and a 210-foot-long bridge over Aptos Creek, the Loma Prieta Railroad made its final journey to Monte Vista. This route stuck closely to the steep northwest bank of Aptos Creek, crossing over several short bridges before making a final descent into the mill grounds at the 5.0 mile marker.

Early photograph of the original Loma Prieta mill at Monte Vista with the millpond spur faintly visible above the mill at the top of the photograph. [Aptos Museum]

Almost immediately after it was built, the line had to be extended and corrected to address the poorly anticipated fact that the canyon was too narrow for the mill. The initial solution, likely begun immediately after the mill was opened in March 1884, was to build a long spur across Aptos Creek just west of the mill. This spur ran along the southeast bank of the creek to a switchback, at which point it continued further northeast above the millpond so that logs could be dumped into the water. But this system was not very effective and the Loma Prieta Lumber Company soon decided to relocate the mill further south to Molino, just north of the Pacific Improvement Company's shingle mill. A convenient fire in 1886 accelerated the move.

A siding and a spur beside the millpond of the Loma Prieta mill on Aptos Creek, ca 1890s. [Aptos Museum]

The new mill, which opened in 1887, involved many different railroad spurs and sidings in the vicinity of Molino. From the shingle mill spur, a new track went north across Aptos Creek where it split into three parallel spurs, all ending in front of the mill. On the west bank of the creek beside the mainline, several new sidings broke off to allow cars to dump logs into the mill pond, while three new spurs were also installed for maintenance work and to park unused cars. To the northeast of the village of Loma Prieta, another spur broke off the mainline and headed south, paralleling today's Aptos Creek Fire Road a short distance, while a branch off this spur briefly paralleled the wagon road to Trout Gulch (today's Trout Gulch Trail). One last spur sat just across from today's vehicular bridge across Aptos Creek from the bottom of the China Ridge switchback. Most of these short spurs were used to park unused cars or repair rolling stock.

The F. A. Hihn Company mill on Valencia Creek, ca 1890. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Even as the final tracks were laid for the initial plan of the Loma Prieta Branch, Frederick Hihn was busy building his own narrow-gauge railroad along Valencia Creek in the spring of 1887. This track interchanged with the Southern Pacific Railroad at Aptos via a dual-gauged section where lumber could be loaded onto stacks for standard-gauge cars to later pick up. Much less of this right-of-way survives today and even its exact route is not entirely clear since it was built privately. For the most part, the track ran along the west bank of Valencia Creek between today's Valencia Road and the creek bed, with some reports suggesting the track actually sat immediately beside the creek for much of its length. Where the creek splits, with Cox Creek heading to the east, is the boundary of the Augmentation.

Valencia School in the village of Valencia, date unknown. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Hihn set up both his village of Valencia and his mill just north of the Augmentation boundary, 3 miles north of Aptos. The village was slightly to the east of the confluence at the junction of Valencia and Bear Valley Roads. The mill itself sat in the creek bed just to the northwest. The only surviving remnants of any of this are the Valencia Hall and schoolhouse that are still situated near their original sites. The right-of-way of the railroad continued north beyond the mill through an increasingly-narrow canyon for 3 more miles, crossing over Valencia Creek at its only significant bridge about 2 miles north of the mill. It is unknown how many spurs and sidings Hihn's company built aside from the main track and, unlike the Loma Prieta Branch, this railroad rarely ran passenger service other than for employees and their families. The entire route was pulled in early 1895 for reuse in Gold Gulch south of Felton. Some sections of this route still exist as private roads, such as Bark Road, but all of it is now private property and very difficult to access. 

Chinese workers building the Loma Prieta Branch, ca 1884. [Aptos Museum]

Returning to the Loma Prieta Branch, not long after the mill pond was built for the new mill north of Molino, a spur was installed up Spring Creek. The purpose of this was to harvest timber from the southern face of China Ridge, although Spring Creek itself was only lightly touched since the water from this creek supplied the drinking water for the nearby village. The track crossed Aptos Creek at the end of a deep cut that is still visible along the Aptos Creek Trail just east of the bottom of the Fire Road switchback. After crossing the creek, the track split into several switchbacks that climbed up the ridge. One line went east along the northwest bank of Aptos Creek, while the other climbed Spring Creek briefly and then paralleled the longest part of today's Fire Road switchback. At the western curve of the switchback, the track turned sharply around and then continued west until stopping just above Bridge Creek. It then switchbacked one final time to nearly Aptos Creek. This track was probably expanded over several seasons and then taken up for the track to be used at the end of the main branch line.

People posing on either side of Aptos Creek somewhere along the Loma Prieta Branch north of the village, late 1880s. [Aptos Museum]

By March 1888, most of the lower tracts along Aptos Creek were harvested and the Loma Prieta Lumber Company wanted to move further up the creek. Southern Pacific obliged and extended the track an additional two miles along the steep western bank of the creek. Around a dozen short bridges were required to cross myriad gullies and gulches before crossing Aptos Creek just outside a second Monte Vista, 6.4 miles north of Aptos. This route can still mostly be followed today by taking the Aptos Creek Trail, although many of the bridges are now detoured around and there is a substantial switchback bypass at Marijuana Gulch. Upstream from this gulch, a massive landslide has erased all of the right-of-way but diligent explorers can find it again further north, where they can follow it to the site of Monte Vista and Five Finger Falls beyond. This spot marks the northern end of the Aptos Creek Trail but not the end of the track.

Postcard of a boy beside Five Finger Falls above Monte Vista, 1890s. [Aptos Museum]

The area from the second Monte Vista to the end-of-track was still built of the highest quality but was not viable for passenger service. At Monte Vista, a compound bridge split into two tracks with one forking to end at a small mill and the other continuing around the mill and its millpond to then wrap around Five Finger Falls over a long viaduct that crossed Aptos Creek twice before finding its footing again on the east bank of the creek above the falls. From this point, the track practically straddled the creek from the east bank until just short of the 1,000-foot elevation point, where a long viaduct was indeed built directly over the creek. Initially, the track ended just at the bottom of Bassett Gulch, where Aptos Creek forked. A later extension around 1890 extended the track further up the gulch to the 7.04-mile mark, where it ended at the 1,200-foot elevation point. This effectively marked the end-of-track for the line and over the next twelve years, it was progressively cut back to the village of Loma Prieta as logging ended along the upper tracts of Aptos Creek.

A Southern Pacific locomotive operating somewhere along the Loma Prieta Branch, date unknown. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum]

Other spurs appeared across the line even as the main line was slowly cut back. Indeed, the removed track was frequently repurposed for use elsewhere. Several short spurs were built just upstream from Aptos Creek's confluence with Spring Creek. The Aptos Creek Trail passes directly through this area when it crosses Aptos Creek, but only some bridge remains and a single cut on the south bank of the creek mark the location. A more ambitious right-of-way was installed along the east bank of Aptos Creek across from today's slide area south of the second Monte Vista. Because of how briefly it existed and the slide activity, most traces of this track are gone, but it originally crossed Aptos Creek over a high bridge and then switchbacked within the current slide area, ending a little west of Marijuana Gulch above today's Aptos Creek Trail switchback. This was the last substantial logging operation along the upper parts of the creek.

Pack mules at Schillings Camp south of Molino, ca 1901. [Aptos Museum]

In 1897, focus shifted to logging south of Loma Prieta. Short spurs were extended up Bridge Creek and Love Gulch, where they linked up with skid roads. The Bridge Creek Trail follows the former right-of-way while the remains of the latter can be seen from the Loma Prieta Grade Trail just north of where it crosses Love Gulch. Further south in 1901, a split stuff mill was built along a short spur called Schillings Camp at the present site of the Porter Family Picnic Area. All activity effectively ceased along the line for the next ten years as focus shifted to harvesting timber on Hinckley Creek and, after 1906, Scott Creek north of Davenport. However, the tracks to the old Monte Vista site remained in place for later use. 

Molino Timber Company Camp No. 1 with steam winch, ca 1913. [Aptos Museum]

The final stage of railroad expansion along the Loma Prieta Branch was overseen by the Molino Timber Company, which was founded by employees of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company. In 1912, the company installed a third rail on the Loma Prieta Branch between a new, smaller mill at Molino and to a point just before the long curving bridge across Aptos Creek upstream. Here, it installed a narrow-gauge incline directly up the southern slope of China Ridge just to the west of Spring Creek. Camp No. 1 was built at the top of the ridge where a steam winch was installed to ferry short flatcars up and down the line to a landing below. Today, the site of the top of the incline is marked along the Aptos Creek Fire Road while the bottom of the incline was located where the Aptos Creek Fire Road crosses Aptos Creek at the bottom of the switchback.

The Molino Timber Company's train crossing a deep gulch along China Ridge, ca 1913. [Aptos Museum]

From Camp No. 1, the Molino right-of-way followed the ridge line along the same route that now constitutes the Aptos Creek Fire Road along China Ridge, with only a few detours across short bridges. To navigate the tight turns of the route, a short locomotive and short cars were used. The first section built was between the Loma Prieta Branch and Sand Point, a distance of 3 miles. This was soon extended another 0.9 miles to Camp No. 2, which was located on a hillside far above Hinckley Creek. Today, this is a relatively flat but otherwise unremarkable point along the Fire Road.

Highlining a pallet of splitstuff from Hinckley Gulch up to China Ridge, 1910s. [Aptos Museum]

Shortly after the Molino Company began its operations in 1912, the F. A. Hihn Company reassembled its small narrow-gauge locomotive, the Betsy Jane, and shipped it along the Molino grade to Sand Point, where it was hauled down on cables to the headwaters of Bridge Creek along the southern slope of Hinckley Ridge. Here, the Hihn Company built a dizzying network of narrow-gauge tracks that switchbacked and corkscrewed across the hillsides, isolated from the rest of the network. Splitstuff that was processed in this remote basin was loaded until pallets and hoisted up to Sand Point via highline cables. Plans to connect this track to the former grade further to the south along Bridge Creek never materialised and Betsy Jane was eventually abandoned to become the lost locomotive of the Forest of Nisene Marks. Parts of this right-of-way can be found along the Hinckley Basin Fire Road and West Ridge Trail west of Sand Point.

Molino Timber Company Camp No. 3 near Sand Point, overlooking Hinckley Creek, ca 1916. [Aptos Museum]

Returning to the Molino mainline, the original right-of-way separates from the modern Fire Road at Camp No. 2 and descended down to Hinckley Creek on a gradual, meandering route 1.7 miles long to Camp No. 3. Unlike the rest of the right-of-way, this section had a steep grade, exceptionally sharp turns, and required at least six cuts. Today, the cuts and some crude bridge remains are the only real evidence of this right-of-way, and they are difficult and dangerous to find. The route did not actually end here, though. The only place where a railroad ever crossed Hinckley Creek was just beyond Camp No. 3 along a 0.8 extension that ended just across the creek from the camp. Around the same time, a second highline rig was installed between the Hihn Company's track and a new landing area just north of Sand Point above Hinckley Creek. This was the last trackage installed along China Ridge.

Worker replacing ties along a Bridge Creek spur, date unknown. [Aptos Museum]

As operations wrapped up along the ridge, the Molino Timber Company installed tracks along the west bank of Bridge Creek beyond the site of the Porter House beginning in 1918. This is the pair of rights-of-way so well known today as the Bridge Creek Trail and the Loma Prieta Grade Trail, and both trails follow the original Molino railway routes almost exactly. The Bridge Creek route was a new track that partially followed the old standard-gauge spur. It continued all the way to Maple Falls, a distance of 1.6 miles, although Camp No. 4 was 0.4 miles to the south, where the Loma Prieta Grade Trail crosses Bridge Creek to join the Bridge Creek Trail. The well-known landmark, the bridge of logs, is a part of this branch just south of Camp No. 4, and other bridge remains can also be seen along the route.

Molino Timber Company Camp No. 5, now Hoffman's Historic Site, 1918. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum]

The final section of the Molino line broke off from the Bridge Creek track at a switchback where today's trails divide north of the Porter House site. It then continued—following today's trail—for 1.4 miles until reaching Camp No. 4 "Camp Liberty," now known as Hoffman's Historic Site. This didn't mark the end of the right-of-way, though. This branch continued on, following today's trail, for another 0.8 miles to Big Tree Gulch, where some of the last standing redwood giants of the Aptos Creek basin were felled. This is roughly the point where the Loma Prieta Grade Trail turns toward Bridge Creek After this operation ended in 1919.

Ruins of the Molino Timber Company's mill at Molino, March 8, 1952. Photo by Paul L. Henchey. [University of California, Davis, Library, Archives and Special Collections]

In a strange twist, the Loma Prieta Branch was used one final time in 1920 by Ruth Ready, a daughter of Frederick Hihn. Following Hihn's death, he left property near the right-of-way to Ruth and she had two spurs built on either side of the first bridge over Aptos Creek, naming the station Ready. Today, the southern landing is George's Picnic Area. This operation ended in 1921 and the branch sat more or less abandoned for 15 years until the Southern Pacific Railroad formally abandoned the branch and tore out the remaining tracks to the former village of Loma Prieta. Logging continued within the Augmentation for three decades but trucks were used to haul out logs. Eventually, the land was transferred to the state to become the Forest of Nisene Marks in 1965.

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, 2021.
  • Powell, Ronald G. The Shadow of Loma Prieta: Part Three of the History of Rancho Soquel Augmentation. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, 2022.

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