Thursday, March 10, 2022

Companies: Molino Timber Company

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Rancho Soquel Augmentation still had thousands of acres of unharvested old growth redwood trees in the spring of 1910. Yet the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, which owned the land, had spent the better part of the past decade failing to harvest anything other than the most accessible acreage. Conservative in its outlook and methods, the company hesitated when it should have asserted. By 1910, it had abandoned operations in Hinckley Gulch and its small mill on Mill Creek north of Davenport was quickly running out of usable timber. If the company was to remain viable going forward, it needed help.

The Molino Timber Company's locomotive backing a train of empty wagons into the forest above Hinckley Gulch, 1910s. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Assistance came from Alfred Williams, Oscar E. Chase, Albretto "Bert" Stoodley, Fred Daubenbiss, and Fred Severance, who on May 31, 1910 joined forces to incorporate the Molino Timber Company. All of the men were employees of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company and retained their positions within the firm. The stated goal of the new company was to harvest difficult-to-access timber on behalf of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company so that the latter could eventually plant eucalyptus trees throughout its properties within the Augmentation. What the directors lacked in money they made up for in ambition and vision. Their first task was to send crews along Aptos Creek to chop up abandoned and overlooked trees for firewood. This would generate some initial revenue from which they could further invest in equipment. Then, in late 1910, the company was made a subsidiary of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company and given the contract for harvesting the remaining timber in Hinckley Gulch.

The flooded remains of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company's Hinckley Gulch mill following the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

This narrow, remote tributary of the East Branch of Soquel Creek had eluded thorough timber harvesting since 1901. The canyon was difficult to access and vulnerable to natural disasters such as flooding, landslides, and earthquakes. On April 18, 1906, several lumbermen and a Chinese cook were killed in a massive landslide triggered by the San Francisco Earthquake. The Loma Prieta Lumber Company never recovered from this loss and eventually gave up on the gulch and its millions of board feet of timber. But the Molino Timber Company had some ideas that were more risky and the Loma Prieta Lumber Company was keen to make money.

Narrow-gauge tracks on the old Loma Prieta Branch right-of-way, 1910s.  [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

The Molino directors reasoned that the only way to profitably extract the timber was via a railroad. But the Loma Prieta Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad had recently been cut back to the old village of Loma Prieta, far south of where any line to Hinckley Gulch would need to be located. Meanwhile, a route up Bridge Creek could potentially get to Hinckley Gulch, but at too high of an elevation to be useful. The conclusion the directors of the company came to was that any useful railroad would have to run along China Ridge, which was substantially higher in elevation than the current railroad grade. A 30-inch narrow-gauge railroad was the only affordable option and, in any case, would allow trains to make very sharp turns and pass through very narrow cuts. A switchback, meanwhile, could get the train to the top of the ridge. Unfortunately, over three miles of track would be needed to achieve this goal. In addition, another three miles would be needed to reach Hinckley Gulch, and four more miles to reach the heart of the the timberland. This was simply not practical.

The bottom of the Molino incline, 1910s. [The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

After much debate, the directors finally agreed on building a 2,250-foot-long, steam-powered cable incline. It wasn't the first in the county—a similar incline had run at Waterman Switch north of Boulder Creek, but that operation did not have a railroad running within Waterman Gap. This incline would serve as the midpoint of a timber-cutting network that would operate in two sections, one at the top of China Ridge using a small 10.5-ton Shay locomotive, and one along Aptos Creek using first a modified gas-powered Maxwell automobile and later a Scott-Hall gasoline rail speeder. The product brought out of Hinckley would not be logs, but rather splitstuff such as railroad crossties, grape stakes, fence posts, and shingle and shake bolts. This would keep the carloads light and obviate the need for ballast. The splitstuff would be hauled to the railroad grade either on pack mules or via highlines, where it would be loaded into waiting wagons.

Piles of splitstuff lining the dual-gauge tracks at Molino Junction, 1910s. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Splitstuff was also quick to produce. As a result, the railroad tracks from Loma Prieta to the southern boundary of the Augmentation were lined with stacks of splitstuff awaiting pickup by Southern Pacific trains. Even before the railroad was completed, the F. A. Hihn Company hired the Molino Timber Company to haul out splitstuff from its logging operation at the headwaters of Bridge Creek. Stacks of its splitstuff were placed side-by-side with Molino stacks, with the incline being used to haul both down to the Aptos Creek grade. It was the duty of the lumberjacks to keep straight which piles of splitstuff were Molino's and which were Hihn's.

The Molino train passing beside a water tower along the Molino grade, 1910s. [The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Construction of the line began in spring 1912. Southern Pacific readily agreed to allow a third rail to be added to its tracks between the end of the Loma Prieta Branch at the village of Loma Prieta and the former Schilling's Camp (today's Porter Picnic Area in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park). For the first time, the private switch at Molino, which had initially split off for the Molino shingle mill in 1884 and later for the main Loma Prieta mill from 1886, was upgraded to a formal stop by Southern Pacific. A former county engineer, Arnold Baldwin, was hired to build the line. Around 100 workers were employed that summer, half to build the railroad and the other half to cut splitstuff in the forest.

Molino workers posing for the camera at Camp No. 1, with the incline's cable hoist and the top of the incline in the center, 1910s. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

The Molino Timber Company's operation eventually had three camps and a waypoint along China Ridge. Camp No. 1 was at the top of the incline and included the massive donkey engine that operated the cable hoist, locomotive storage and repair facilities, homes for the hoist operators and mechanics, sidings for spare and under-repair rolling stock, a water tower and wood bunker to resupply the locomotive, a blacksmith shop, and other facilities for the small group of people that lived there. After 1912, no logging took place in the vicinity of Camp No. 1 and it only hosted a small population of workers.

Probably the F. A. Hihn Company's splitstuff camp at the headwaters of Bridge Creek below Sand Point, 1910s. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

In 1913, railroad construction crews reached Sand Point 3.5 miles beyond Camp No. 1, where Hinckley and China Ridges meet. It was here that the F. A. Hihn Company's splitstuff from the headwaters of Bridge Creek was hoisted up via highlines to the railroad grade for transfer to the incline and beyond. To support this effort, the location had at least two sidings to allow the loading of rolling stock. To reach Sand Point, ten bridges and numerous half-bridges were needed to cross all the gullies above Bridge Creek. These were crude structures made of stacks of logs and splitstuff and held together with the same. Unlike the Loma Prieta Branch, which was built to Southern Pacific standards, this route was a remote logging railroad and the Molino Timber Company cut costs wherever possible. The one-mile route from Sand Point to Camp No. 2 was even more rugged, crossing over several deep gullies via six more bridges.

Camp No. 2 on the slopes of Santa Rosalia Ridge, ca 1915. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

It was at Camp No. 2, reached in late 1913, that the majority of the workers lived in crudely-built shacks atop the adjacent hill. The place had the unfortunate monicker of "Jap Camp" due to the high number of Japanese lumbermen who worked here during the high season. The camp had many worker cabins and a dormitory, a cookhouse, and small amenities to keep the men occupied in the evenings. Around 70 workers lived in the forest during the harvest season, with some chopping trees, some stripping them, others cutting them and preparing them for transport. At the end of the day, most returned to Camp No. 2 except for the most hardy cruisers, who ranged deep into the forest to identify potentially profitable groves. The railroad built two spurs at the camp to park rolling stock. A switchback to the top of the ridge was also built to more easily access timber near the summit.

Workers posing with a wagon on a trestle bridge along the Molino grade, 1910s.  [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

The majority of the Molino Timber Company's logging operations were centered at Camp No. 2. Work crews took pack mules down into the gullies of Hinckley Gulch each day and returned in the evenings. Most splitstuff was cut on site and brought up to the railroad grade either by mule or via highlines that were suspended across the entire gulch, which spanned a mile from ridge-to-ridge. Larger logs were also sometimes hauled to the camp, where they were processed on site rather than in the gulch due to poor terrain for cutting. Most piecemakers—splitstuff cutters—worked by themselves or in tandem, and the Japanese workers in particular did not like working with each other. The railroad would make two to three runs on most days, hauling four to six cars per run. This system worked from late 1913 through mid-1916, when most of the available timber around Camp No. 2 was exhausted.

A wagon passing through a narrow cut along the Molino grade, 1910s. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

Beginning in late 1915, the railroad line was extended deeper into the forest toward the headwaters of Hinckley Gulch, but it did not reach Camp No. 3 until mid-1916. Part of the reason for this slow progress was the extreme terrain, which involved deep gullies, narrow cuts, and near-vertical drops. Another sixteen bridges and six deep cuts into the hillside were required to reach Camp No. 3, only two miles away from Camp No. 2. Once the camp was reached and the area prepared, Camp No. 2 shut down and the buildings and machinery were moved north. The large highline donkey engine was also relocated to the camp and work resumed.

Man pulling himself along the mile-long highline cable over Hinckley Gulch, ca 1916. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

In spring 1917, disaster struck the company when the mile-long highline snapped and all attempts at repairing it or replicating it with other lines failed to achieve profitable results. After nearly shutting down the operation permanently, management decided to extend the railroad further to the top of Hinckley Creek. However, it is unclear whether this decision was made by the directors or Timothy Hopkins, president of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company. To reach the new area, the railroad switchbacked twice before finally crossing the creek, where it terminated in two forks on the west bank. The landing here allowed cars to be loaded directly from nearby mule tracks, which reduced crews' reliance on highlines and donkey engines.

Workers posing for the cameraman at Camp No. 3, ca 1917. [Woods Mattingly Collection, Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

At the end of the 1917 season, all logging at the headwaters of Hinckley Creek ceased. It was a sudden decision sent by Hopkins after the workers had mostly left for the year. Although there was still useable timber in the area, it was deemed too difficult to extract and unlikely to generate sufficient profit. By the late autumn, Hopkins had sent in crews to remove most of the tracks beyond Camp No. 2 in order to use them on a new route the Loma Prieta Lumber Company was building along Bridge Creek. The track that remained continued to be used to remove splitstuff from the headwaters of Bridge Creek. It also supported a small group of pieceworkers that returned in spring 1918 to harvest the remaining timber on the slopes of Santa Rosalia Ridge, just to the north of Camp No. 2.

Molino locomotive somewhere along the line, 1910s. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

A disastrous storm in September 1918 severely damaged parts of the new track on Bridge Creek as well as the Molino Timber Company's grade and the tracks at the headwaters of Bridge Creek. The former F. A. Hihn Company's saddleback locomotive Betsy Jane was lost in the mayhem. As a result of the storm, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company salvaged what they could from what was available. The tracks along the ridge were pulled to replace the damaged tracks along the lower portion of Bridge Creek. In spring 1919, the Molino's Shay locomotive and the remaining rolling stock on the ridge were hauled down the incline. Crews then dismantled the remaining track and the incline. Lastly, the massive donkey engine that had run the cable hoist for the past seven years was lowered down to Aptos Creek. On December 1, 1919, the Molino Timber Company was voluntarily dissolved by its directors and all of its remaining assets were transferred to the Loma Prieta Lumber Company.

The Molino shay being lowered down the incline to the grade below, 1919. [Aptos Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

The legacy of the Molino Timber Company's route along China Ridge survives today in the form of the Aptos Creek Fire Road in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. After reaching the top of the switchback, hikers and bikers arrive at the site of Camp No. 1, the top of the incline. Continuing down the road, they follow the railroad right-of-way except where it originally deviated over bridges and half-trestles, remains of which can sometimes be found at the bottom of gullies. The Sand Point Overlook marks the start of the Hinckley Basin Fire Road, which once provided logging crews access to the headwaters of Bridge Creek. Continuing on along the main road, the railroad grade eventually veers off to the west while the road continues its climb north up the ridge. This is the site of Camp No. 2 and marked where the railroad first entered Hinckley Gulch. Because of the temporary nature of the camp, nothing survives today except the vague trace of a railroad grade disappearing into the forest.

Citations & Credits:

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

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