Thursday, August 12, 2021

Curiosities: The Ocean Shore Railway's 26-Mile Gap

The Ocean Shore Railway—a project over thirty years in the making—began with a bang and then died a slow and painful death as natural disasters, financial crises, bankruptcy, and mismanagement doomed the most optimistic railroad in the history of the Central Coast of California. On top of all the drama and failure, though, the most remarkably fact about the Ocean Shore Railway is how close it came to succeeding in a task that had dogged so many companies before it. The Ocean Shore's story is truly that of the Little Engine That Could, pushing on despite everything to finish its visionary route from San Francisco to Santa Cruz along the windswept margins of San Mateo County's foggy coastline.

An Ocean Shore Railway construction train atop a bridge near Davenport, 1907. [Western Railroader – Colorized using DeOldify]

Of course, the Ocean Shore Railway had not intended to fail. Indeed, right up until its declaration of bankruptcy in 1911, the company was working feverishly to achieve its primary goal. The Ocean Shore Railway Company had been incorporated in May 1905 to build two parallel eighty-mile-long standard-gauge electric railroad tracks down the coastline from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, where it would have linked up with other subsidiary networks and ultimately meet the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad at the Nevada state line. A branch line was planned for the hills above Pescadero with a possible extension to Big Basin and Boulder Creek. Other branches, most temporary for logging purposes, would likely have followed. Several town development projects were planned along the coast, most notably at Montara and El Granada north of Half Moon Bay.

An Ocean Shore construction train pouring fill below the bridge over San Vicente Creek south of Davenport, 1907. [Uncertain provenance – Colorized using DeOldify]

One immediate problem for the Ocean Shore Railway was the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Octopus controlled most land transportation on the West Coast and was not going to let an upstart railroad get in its way. Indeed, Southern Pacific preempted the Ocean Shore's incorporation by a month when it established its own Coast Line Railroad in April 1905 with almost identical goals as its rival, sans double tracks and electrification. Yet the Ocean Shore knew that Southern Pacific only really wanted the lucrative cement plant contract in Davenport, while the Ocean Shore hoped that the timber in the Pescadero and Butano basins would more than justify the loss of the plant's patronage. Nonetheless, Southern Pacific was certainly duplicitous in some of its dealings with the Ocean Shore Railway.

Ocean Shore Railway's depot in Santa Cruz overlooking the Southern Pacific yard, 1907. [Louis L. Stein, Jr. – Colorized using DeOldify]

In Santa Cruz, Southern Pacific leased land from the Cowell Lime Company at the beach and built a short spur for loading lime, conveniently blocking the Ocean Shore's access to land it had purchased to erect a deep-water pier. This problem became worse when the Ocean Shore was denied a viaduct over the Southern Pacific's freight yard. This viaduct was essential for accessing the company's proposed central depot in downtown Santa Cruz. Together, these two actions effectively stranded the Ocean Shore in West Santa Cruz with no outlet south, thereby imperilling its plans for a route across the county and beyond.

Meanwhile, the two railroads actually hired the same contractor to build both of its tracks north. Since the Ocean Shore had more ready cash and planned to build a double track, one of its tracks was built first. This benefited the Ocean Shore immensely in 1906. The earthquake delayed construction of a second track (Southern Pacific's) by a year, meaning that the Ocean Shore was able to profit off the cement plant's initial output during that time. However, once Southern Pacific did reach Davenport in 1907, it conveniently installed its wye in such a way to deny the Ocean Shore any further access to the cement plant. Elsewhere in the Bay Area, the completion of the Bay Shore Cut-off and the Mayfield Cut-off reduced travel time between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. This drastically reduced the competitiveness of the Ocean Shore regarding passenger traffic between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, although the potential view along the picturesque coastal trackage was unquestioned.

Work crews in the process of filling the tall trestle bridge over Panther Beach beside the Yellowbank Dairy, with the Coast Road visible through the bridge, 1906. [Covello and Covello – Colorized using DeOldify]

Construction of the Ocean Shore in Santa Cruz County began in mid-1905 and continued apace through to the earthquake on April 18, 1906. Although constructed using the same contractors as the Coast Line Railway, the Coast Line was running behind schedule so the Ocean Shore's initial single track was built to Davenport first. In February 1906, the Ocean Shore leased the Union Traction Company in order to extend its network further south to Watsonville—the anticipated next step in its scheme to build the line to Nevada. Beyond Davenport, grading crews made it to Scott Creek where they built a wye beside a small resort area the company hoped to develop called Folger, named after the coffee magnate. Freight traffic to Davenport began in late January 1906 and, following short delays from the earthquake, regular passenger service to Davenport began on June 15. Meanwhile, the track to Scott Creek was completed by October, several months behind schedule, but still not too far above upper estimates.

The long, partially filled trestle bridge across San Vicente Creek and Davenport Beach, 1906. [Gary Griggs – Colorized using DeOldify]

Along the route south of San Francisco, progress was moving more slowly. Track layers had only reached Mussel Rock outside Daly City by the time of the earthquake, but grading had been completed for many miles further south, with much of the equipment located on Devil's Slide, which was the most precarious part of the route. This proved disastrous when the earthquake struck, since much of that machinery was either buried or tossed into the sea. While railroad crews in San Francisco used its rolling stock to help remove debris following the quake and fires, the construction crews further to the south had weeks of work ahead of them recovering machinery, restoring rights-of-way, and reinforcing hillsides against further slides.  It was several months before actual progress resumed on the Northern Division, but work did slowly resume. Regular passenger service only began in October 1907 to Tobin (Pedro Valley).

The Ocean Shore Railway's Pedro Point Tunnel north of Devil's Slide following abandonment of the line, 1928. [Uncertain provenance – Colorized using DeOldify]

Unfortunately for the Ocean Shore Railway, many of its wealthier financiers pulled out of the company in the months following the earthquake. A few were ruined by the earthquake, but others just decided to be more cautious with their money. The resort at Folger was probably one of the casualties of this restructure even though construction on the Southern Division continued without more than a hitch. The railroad found more investors and scraped together enough funds to continue building through the rest of 1906 and into early 1907. Construction to Half Moon Bay resumed after the Devil's Slide mess was cleared. Meanwhile, a new contract was made with Shattuck and Desmond to continue building the line from Scott Creek to Pescadero. In June 1908, the subsidiary Scott Creek Railway was incorporated to extend a track up Scott Creek and Little Creek to the timber tracts of the San Vicente Lumber Company. This proved to be the Southern Division's most profitable and reliable customer throughout the 1910s.

Advertisement for the San Juan Pacific Railway, 1907. [Unknown provenance]

Optimism was always the Ocean Shore Railway's greatest strength and weakness. The earthquake led to the Ocean Shore abandoning its purchase agreement of the Union Traction Company, although it retained an option to purchase it at a later date. On December 28, 1906, the railroad incorporated its first subsidiary, the Monterey, Fresno & Eastern Railway, and soon afterwards this company leased the Watsonville Transportation Company in the hopes that it could extend the small interurban line to Hollister and Fresno. In February 1907, alongside the lease of the interurban, Ocean Shore incorporated another subsidiary, the Ocean Shore & Eastern Railway, which was intended to build a railroad line from Santa Cruz to Watsonville, likely using the Union Traction line, although it did not resume its deferred payments at this time. In April 1907, the San Joaquin Valley Western Railroad was founded to connect Watsonville to Fresno, and in May the San Juan Pacific Railway was incorporated to link Chittenden to San Juan Bautista and its new cement plant, with plans to eventually extend its line further south through the Gabilan Range. All but the last of these projects came to nothing.

Ocean Shore Railway train on a high fill across a beach near Davenport, ca 1908 [Western Railroader – Colorized using DeOldify]

The nail in the coffin of the Ocean Shore Railway proved to be neither Southern Pacific interference nor the 1906 earthquake. Instead, it was the Knickerbocker Crisis which led to the Panic of 1907. A stagnant economy following the earthquake had led to a recession and by October 1907, the New York Stock Exchange was half the value it had been the previous year. The actual panic occurred when several banks, most notably the Knickerbocker Trust Company, failed to seize control of the United Copper Company. The collapse of Knickerbocker led to a run on money and the withdrawal by many from high-risk investments. Although the crisis was short-lived, it led to many of the remaining and new investors in the Ocean Shore Railway to pull out. Funds were solicited locally in early 1908, allowing construction to continue, but the railroad was running entirely on rapidly-increasing debt.

Idealized postcard of Granada Depot on the Ocean Shore line, 1908. Image produced by Charles H. Kendrick Company. [Cambridge Lutece – Colorized by DeOldify]

Despite everything, optimism remained through 1908. Property along the San Mateo County coast was selling quickly, while farmers, quarriers, and lumber companies were eager to begin shipping via the completed railroad. Construction on the Southern Division was primarily focused on the Scott Creek Railway line rather than the route north, although surveyors were likely busy determining the best means of crossing Scott Creek. In the north, passenger and freight service to Granada opened in June 1908 and Half Moon Bay in October, while tracks were laid across the Tunitas Creek bridge by January 1909. Another bridge was built a mile south over Palmer Gulch (Trestle Beach), but no tracks were ever installed here. Grading, meanwhile, had progressed as far as Pigeon Point. At Pomponio Beach, two short tunnels were in the process of being bored when construction ceased on the line.

Ocean Shore Railway auditor Ted F. Wurm on right with family members standing on the tracks near Davenport, ca 1910. [Marvin T. Maynard – Colorized using DeOldify]

The end result of the Ocean Shore Railway's three and a half years of effort was approximately 54 miles built of an 80-mile-long railroad. The missing section, 26 miles between the southern bank of Tunitas Creek to the southern bank of Scott Creek, was never completed. However, grading south from Tunitas, including a bridge and two tunnels, was partially completed for around 12.5 miles to Pigeon Point, and possibly even further to the south, meaning that only 13.5 miles remained of heavy work on the line. Some of this may have been damaged in the heavy winter storm of 1909 that wrecked large portions of the right-of-way, effectively shutting it down until late April. This storm mixed with creditors finally calling in their debt put an end to the reckless optimism that had been motivating the company previously. The company was $2,321,740 in debt and had nowhere left to turn for help.

The Ocean Shore Railroad beside Islais Creek and Mission Street outside San Francisco, 1915. [OpenSFHistory]

The Ocean Shore Railway went bankrupt on December 6, 1909 and was reincorporated as the Ocean Shore Railroad on October 9, 1911, following nearly two years in receivership. Although the new firm stated its intention to fill the 26-mile gap between Tunitas Creek and Scott Creek, it never had the funds to do so. Estimates in 1911 placed the cost of finishing the line at $1,351,115, over $35,000,000 in 2021 money. Thus, the new company, sans the debts of its predecessor, never bothered to finish the final 26 miles of its route, which was the only way the railroad would survive in the long term. Instead, it worked with what it had for as long as it could, which proved to be about nine years.

An accident at Little Creek switch outside Swanton, 1916. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify]

Possibly as early as 1908, regular horse-drawn stage coach service connected Davenport or Swanton in the south with Tunitas or Half Moon Bay in the north. The details of this early connecting activity are obscure, although it is known that the Ocean Shore Railway funded the service in order to maintain the premise of their coastal railroad. However, it was slow, poorly patronized, and couldn't compete once automobiles began appearing on the coast in the early 1910s. A solution had to be found and the new Ocean Shore Railroad had an idea.

An Ocean Shore Auto Stage Stanley Steamer leaving Tunitas for Santa Cruz, ca 1914. [Uncertain provenance]

Rather than providing rather typical coach service between the railroad's two termini, it purchased a Stanley Motor Carriage Company autobus to bridge the 26-mile gap via a new subsidiary, the Ocean Shore Auto Stage Company, incorporated in March 1914. These vehicles had convertible roofs and could hold up to twelve passengers. They were operated by a thirty horsepower steam engine designed in a novel and space-saving manner, although they were known for burning through water quickly. Due to the initial popularity of the service, a second Stanley Steamer was added to the roster on June 10.

Both Ocean Shore Auto Stage Stanley Steamers in Pescadero, 1914. [Bob Gray]

Service between Tunitas and Swanton began on April 1, 1914 under the direction of James W. Gray, a former Ocean Shore brakeman. The second steamer was operated by Harry L. Staples. Through service from San Francisco to Santa Cruz via rail and steamer cost $4.50 a ticket and took a total of 8:15 hours northbound and 7:50 hours southbound. The Stanley Steamers called in at Waddell Creek, Gazos Creek, Pigeon Point, Pebble Beach, Pescadero, San Gregorio, Tunitas Glen, and Torquay, providing transportation to and from some of the most remote communities on the Central Coast. A separate bus service also transported people from Torquay to the California Redwood Park (Big Basin). During wet winters, when portions of the railroad's right-of-way were washed out or otherwise damaged, the steamers also provided service shuttling passengers around inoperable sections.

The never-used Palmer Gulch bridge, 1920s, already showing a distinct slump in the center. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – Colorized using DeOldify]

Most Ocean Shore Railroad services ceased on August 17, 1920. The Southern Division was subsequently leased to the San Vicente Lumber Company while the Northern Division was scrapped. Remnants of the right-of-way survive all along the coast, especially in San Mateo County. Between Tunitas Creek and Scott Creek, some cuts and fills can be found beside Highway 1, but much more was once visible. The bridges over Tunitas Creek and Palmer Gulch remained for many decades until they either collapsed or were demolished. The two incomplete short tunnels at Pomponio Beach existed into the 1970s before they collapsed or were demolished for safety reasons.  Another tunnel south of Pescadero Beach appears on the 1961 USGS quadrangle map but has also now disappeared. 

A Stanley Steamer somewhere along the 27-mile gap with its roof up, ca 1918. [Randolph Brandt]

Meanwhile, the autobuses of the Ocean Shore Auto Stage Company continued to operate across the entire line under emergency provisions. On January 14, 1921, Gray and Staples were granted a permanent franchise to continue running buses between San Francisco and Pescadero, which led to the incorporation of the Coastside Transportation Company later that year. Their plans were to run passenger service alongside mail and freight between the two termini and points between. The Railroad Commission, however, limited the franchise repeatedly, forcing Gray to redirect traffic to Colma and San Mateo, drastically reducing his potential profits. He became frustrated and looked for interested buyers of his franchise.

Coastside Transport Company advertisement from the Santa Cruz Evening News, March 15, 1940.

On July 16, Gray sold the company to Edward Serretto, Louis Alfred Mattei, and Emile Michel. In 1925, the company under William Azevedo petitioned to run freight between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay but was again denied by the Commission. The firm's persistence finally paid off in March 1927 when it received permission to run passenger, freight, and express service across the entirety of the old Ocean Shore route including all settlements along the way. Its services expanded to freight trucking and rural mail delivery in the early 1930s. The firm declared bankruptcy in late 1933 only to reform with the same franchise rights as the Coastside Transport Company in November of that year. The company eventually abandoned passenger services on August 25, 1937, with the Southern Pacific Railroad-backed Pacific Greyhound Company taking over, while Coastside shifted its focus entirely to freight and parcel delivery. Coastside survived for another five years before selling out to Highway Transport Company on August 4, 1942.

Citations & Credits:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.