Thursday, April 7, 2022

Curiosities: Local Railroads in Film

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In the era before World War II, Santa Cruz County provided a perfect location for dozens of film productions. From the Santa Cruz Beach to the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River to the fields of Watsonville and the distant North Coast, film crews came and recorded hundreds of hours of content. The earliest known local movie was the silent film A Diamond in the Rough released in December 1911 by the Selig Polyscope Company. At Laveaga Park, the Fer Dal Film Manufacturing Company, run by Edward Ferguson of Soquel, filmed around a dozen silent films beginning with The Tip in 1916. All considered, over 100 films have been wholly or partially filmed within the county to the present.

Film crew for The One-Way Trail recording from a log raft on the millpond at the Loma Prieta Lumber Company mill on Aptos Creek, 1919. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The popularity of film mixed with the ubiquity of railroads in the first half of the twentieth century meant that several local film productions featured local railroads in some capacity. Although the railroads depicted were never portrayed as local, they nonetheless served as an important setting. The following films are those where local railroads feature prominently in the plot or where other railroad-related locations are used.

Promotional poster for Sudden Jim.

Sudden Jim (1917)

The earliest confirmed film to involve local railroads in some capacity is Sudden Jim, filmed in early 1917 by Triangle Film Corporation. Based on a novel by Clarence Budington Kelland, it stars Charles Ray in the role of James "Jim" Ashe, Jr., who takes over a clothespin manufacturing plant from his father. However, Moran, a local strongman, tries to ruin Jim by withholding a lumber contract he had made with Jim's father. In retaliation, Jim and his workers seize control of the railroad that shuttles the lumber to the small town of Diversity. Left with no other choice, Moran is forced to fulfil the contract and Jim's business is saved. The film released July 22, 1917.

The San Vicente Lumber Company's mill in Santa Cruz. [UCSC Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The mill scenes were all filmed at the San Vicente Lumber Company mill on the northern edge of the Santa Cruz city limits, where Antonelli Pond is today. A portion of Boulder Creek was transformed into the town of Diversity for the film, and Felton Depot served as the train station. The film also included scenes taken at Gregory Ranch and elsewhere in the mountains. Other than one or two marketing photographs, no visual elements of this film, including the original recording, have survived.

Promotional poster for False Evidence. [Colorized using DeOldify]

False Evidence (1919)

Perhaps the only film on this list to leave a long shadow, False Evidence's main claim to fame is accidentally perpetuating false information about Welch's Big Trees. The film, originally titled "Madelon of the Redwoods," was an adaptation of Mary E. Wilkins' novel Madelon. It was filmed by Metro Pictures in March 1919 and released on April 21. It features Viola Dana in the role of Madelon MacTravish, a betrothed young women seeking a way out of her obligations. After several hijinks including a stabbing, coercion, and a near-hanging, a redwood tree falls on Madelon's betrothed freeing her to marry the man she loves.

A night-time scene in False Evidence, filmed on location at the Welch's Big Trees hotel. [UCSC Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Although the film does not feature any of the local railroads, one of its main set pieces is the former resort hotel that was at Welch's Big Trees, which today is the redwood loop of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Postcards sold by the Welch family in the years following the film's production often included a description of the former resort complex as the "Old Pony Express Office." In reality, this was a fabrication created for the film that remained after the production left. The establishment of the hotel postdated the Pony Express by fifteen years and, in any case, there was never a Pony Express office in Santa Cruz County. As with Sudden Jim, False Evidence is considered a lost film and most promotional material for the film has been lost. Fortunately, a decent collection of behind-the-scenes photos have been preserved and are available to view at the UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections website.

Newspaper advertisement for The One-Way Trail.

The One Way Trail (1920)

The following year saw the release of one of the best-photographed local films, The One-Way Trail. Starring Edythe Sterling and Gordon Sackville, the film was produced by Republic Pictures and filmed at the mill of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company on Aptos Creek in Autumn 1919. According to a summary by the Dayton Daily News:

The timberland of Canada is the locale of "The One Way Trail"... The action is not unlike that of the ordinary western thriller, there being quick drawing of weapons, much gun-play, the conflict between crime and law and order, and other things so dear to the heart of the movie fan. But the story is very different and the settings, too, are Canadian instead of Western United States. Views of the lumber mill in operation are particularly interesting. The story centers around Wanda Walker, whose father once had been sent to prison for a crime he did not commit and the effort of the real criminal to win Wanda for his own by threatening to expose him as an escaped convict.  But, fortunately, there is the brave limb of the Canadian mounted police on hand to thwart the arch-conspirator and criminal and to bring retribution for his crimes upon his head. And there is Wanda, second only to him, to fight for the father and the man she loves. 

The film was released in February 1920 to relatively little fanfare. Only a single, low-quality promotional photo and no movie posters have survived.

An epic train disaster from The One-Way Trail, filmed on location along the Bridge Creek railway in the Aptos Forest. [UCSC Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Of all the lost films of Santa Cruz County featuring railroads, this is the one to mourn the most. The Evening News wrote of the film on November 29, 1920: "The most spectacular and natural scenes were those taken at the Loma Prieta mill, showing actual milling and logging operations, as well as railroad operations." Although the film is lost, dozens of production photos survive showing the actors and crew on location in the mountains and elsewhere. These photos provide an incomparable look at the final years of operation on the Loma Prieta Branch along Aptos Creek and can be found at the UCSC Digital Collections website.

Marketing supplement for The Kingdom Within.

The Kingdom Within (1922)

In April 1922, Director Victor Schertzinger, who had directed Sudden Jim, brought a large film crew to Santa Cruz to continue the tradition of using the San Vicente Lumber mill as a movie set. This production, The Kingdom Within (originally titled "The Red Geranium") by Hodkinson Pictures, focuses on Amos Deming and Emily Preston, the former of whom is disabled and the latter of whom has an ex-con as a brother. Because of this, their town dislikes and distrusts the pair. After the local mill's owner tries to peg another crime on Emily's brother, Amos intervenes only to have his disability miraculously fixed during the fight. With the boss defeated and Amos and Emily having redeemed themselves and their families, the couple lives happily ever after. The film released on Christmas Eve 1922 to general acclaim.

Amos standing up to the mill owner in a newspaper photograph from The Kingdom Within. [Colorized using DeOldify]

The film is notable for recording scenes at several locations around the county. In addition to the mill, crews recorded in Felton and at Big Trees, as well as at the California Redwood Park (Big Basin) and around Santa Cruz. Promotional shots, advertisements, and production photos survive of the film, but the film itself does not. A small selection of set photos can be found at the UCSC Digital Collections website.

Promotional poster for The Amazing Vagabond.

The Amazing Vagabond (1929)

A film named The Amazing Vagabond must surely include railroads—and indeed it does. Filmed in late 1928 by FBO Pictures, the movie was one of the last silent films produced in the county. Similarly to most previous railroad-related films, the focus of this was on a lumber town in the redwoods. Jimmy Hobbs is the reckless son of a wealthy lumber baron who flies stunt planes and chases women. To punish him, his father sends him to a lumber mill, but the plan backfires when Jimmy falls in love with the superintendent's daughter and discovers that the mill foreman is selling lumber off the books. By outmaneuvering the foreman, Jimmy wins the respect of his father and the superintendent. The film had lackluster reviews when it released on April 7, 1929.

Promotional still for The Amazing Vagabond.

Shifting to yet another area of the county, Glenwood north of Scotts Valley features heavily in The Amazing Vagabond. As such, it showcases much of the surrounding area on the cusp of the Great Depression. Rather humorously, during filming, there was an incident involving a boxcar that was parked on a siding at Glenwood. In September 1928, Perry Murdock, an actor, was napping in the boxcar before a scene when he was locked in! The rest of the crew, not realizing their mistake, went to shelter from poor weather at nearby Glenwood Station. When the weather didn't clear up, crews began to pack up to leave when Thelma Daniels, another actor, realized she had lost her purse. While searching for it, two members of the crew found Murdock in the boxcar yelling for help. Like all the silent movies of Santa Cruz County's railroads, this film is now considered lost.

Promotional poster for West Bound Limited.

West Bound Limited (1937)

The Great Depression led many film companies to cut their budgets, especially since "talkies" required more time to produce and edit. This meant that most on-location films shifted to within a few hours' drive from Hollywood to save money. As a result, Santa Cruz County's golden age of film came to an end. From Black Tuesday to Pearl Harbor, only eleven feature films included scenes recorded in the county and only one featured a local railroad.

Promotional photo for West Bound Limited.

In spring 1937, Universal Film Company and Hollywood glitterati descended upon Santa Cruz County to film an action movie deep in the mountains entitled West Bound Limited. The Hotel Palomar in downtown Santa Cruz became the temporary home of celebrity director Ford Beebe, famed art director Ralph DeLacy, associate producer Henry McRae, and popular actor Lyle Talbot. Other actors, such as Henry Hunter, Polly Rowles, Henry Brandon, and Frank Reicher, joined them, spending their free time at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and other local sites.

Lyle Talbot in a promotional still for West Bound Limited. [Colorized using DeOldify]

The film follows the story of Dave Tolliver (Talbot), a night dispatcher in the town of Hargraves who works for a short-line railroad. While on duty, the payroll for the Bonanza Gold Mine arrives and a masked man steals it. Tolliver tries to retrieve the stolen goods, but unwisely abandons his post in the process, resulting in a deadly railroad collision. He is imprisoned for manslaughter but escapes to a rural town where he takes over for a local dispatcher who has become ill. While there, he discovers the identity of the thief and reveals him, exonerating himself.

Santa Cruz Sentinel photograph of the production set of West Bound Limited at Zayante Station. [Colorized using DeOldify]

This movie features a lot of the San Lorenzo Valley's railroad infrastructure only three years before the route through the mountains was ended. The otherwise poorly documented Zayante Station was chosen as the primary set for external scenes due to its remoteness, the sounds of rushing water from Mountain Charlie Gulch and Zayante Creek, and its accessibility via train and road. A special studio train brought in production materials and shuttled the crew and actors daily from Santa Cruz to Zayante, where a temporary train order tower was erected across from the actual Southern Pacific station shelter. Interior scenes were filmed at Felton Depot, while others scenes were completed at Big Trees, Olympia, and Inspiration Point on Highway 9. Production lasted for a week and involved the studio renting a passenger and a freight train from the Southern Pacific. Al G. Hemmerstram from the railroad remained on site to ensure the authenticity of all railroad scenes. 

Sentinel photograph of the cast and crew of West Bound Limited eating at a long table sandwiched between Zayante's station shelter and a Southern Pacific passenger train. [Colorized using DeOldify]

Production was hampered by intemperate weather, an unimpressive stream, and numerous landslides along the tracks. These were all common and predictable occurrences for the San Lorenzo Valley that time of year. Additionally, a special lightning effect nearly exploded, but Talbot and Beebe were able to defuse it before it injured any of the nearby and unaware crew. Zayante’s remoteness kept down the usual number of visitors to the filming location, but dozens of local extras were employed in scenes in Felton and elsewhere. Filming wrapped on May 3, only days before a Federated Motion Picture Crafts strike was scheduled to begin. Cast and crew were feted at one final well-attended dinner at Hotel Palomar before heading back to Hollywood. The release of the film on July 11, 1937 marked the last substantial film focused on local railroad infrastructure.

The film is available on DVD from the Mountain Parks Foundation Nature Store at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Promotional poster for The Lost Boys.

The Lost Boys (1987)

The final film on this list is not a local railroad movie and is only included here to correct a misconception. The Lost Boys, distributed by Warner Bros. and directed by Joel Schumacher, was primarily filmed in various places in the Santa Cruz County in 1986, most notably at the Boardwalk and Pogonip. However, one of its early iconic scenes, of Michael Emerson and several of his new vampiric friends leaping off of a railroad truss bridge, was not filmed locally. Contrary to popular belief, the bridge in the film is not that over the San Lorenzo River beside the Boardwalk but rather a bridge in Santa Clarita on today's Iron Horse Trailhead. Presumably this location was chosen because the bridge was near the film studio and was suspended over a seasonal creek rather than a year-round river. The Lost Boys Bridge, as it is called on the trail, and much of the former railroad right-of-way has been converted into a pedestrian trail.

Production still of actors or stuntmen hanging off the truss bridge in Santa Clarita, ca 1986.

If you know of any other studio films that depict Santa Cruz County's railroads, please let us know! Click one of the "Contact" options to the right of the screen or email

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