Thursday, November 3, 2022

Railroads: Bridge Creek Railroads

From the earliest years of logging activity within the Aptos Forest, the narrow canyon of Bridge Creek has attracted the interest of lumber companies. Three companies built railroads along the feeder creek's banks and each railroad required creative engineering to overcome the obstacles of such a confined space. Today, remnants of all of these railroads can be found in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park.

Carolyn Hansen and Christinia Johnston walking on the Big Tree Gulch railroad line near Hoffman's Camp, ca 1919. [Aptos History Museum – colorized using MyHeritage]

Bridge Creek Spur (1898)

When the Loma Prieta Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad was first constructed up Aptos Creek, the company and its associate, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, decided not to extend a track up Bridge Creek. The reason was rather straightforward: the west bank of the creek was owned by Timothy Hopkins, the east bank by the lumber company, and the headwaters by the F. A. Hihn Company. The complicated relationship between the three made any effort to extend a railroad through the narrow canyon something to postpone until all other timber tracts were spent. In the meantime, a long, switchbacking spur starting near Spring Creek meandered over the east bank of Bridge Creek so that logging crews could harvest the timber within the lumber company's land.

Location of the Bridge Creek Spur and Baird's skid road, 1898. Map by Ronald Powell.

In 1898, after the last timber was cut at the headwaters of Aptos Creek, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company finally decided it was time to harvest timber along Bridge Creek. The Hopkins property extended about 0.7 miles north of the Loma Prieta Branch just north of the village of Loma Prieta. The terrain through this section was fairly level, so the lumber company paid the railroad to extend a spur 1,700 feet along the west side of the creek to a point just north of the confluence of Bridge and Aptos Creeks. The route required at least four bridges, three small ones across seasonal streams and a more substantial bridge across Porter Gulch directly behind the Porter House.

William Baird built several long skid roads up China Ridge down to this new spur, the longest measuring around 3,000 feet. These met the spur at two points. The northernmost was in a roughly 500-foot-long cut, which allowed logging crews to roll logs directly onto waiting flatcars. The cut can still be seen today on the west bank of Bridge Creek. A little to the south, a loading ramp was built beside the track where logs brought down from Hinckley Ridge could be pulled onto waiting flatcars with assistance from a donkey engine that was installed across on the east side of the tracks. This loading ramp still existed until the storm of January 1982 washed all traces of it away. No known photographs of this short-lived spur survive.

At the end of the 1898 logging season, the lumber company decided to shift its focus further south to Love Gulch, so Southern Pacific tore up the tracks to repurpose them. Although most of Hopkins' land was logged out as a result of this harvesting effort, portions of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company's land on the east bank of the creek and all of the Hihn Company's land remained available for harvesting.

Splitstuff Area Railroad (1912–1918)

In coordination with the construction of the Molino Timber Company's railroad along China Ridge to Hinckley Gulch, the F. A Hihn Company decided in 1911 that it was time to harvest the timber in its property at the headwaters of Bridge Creek. The new railroad would be passing right above the property, so the opportunity was too good to let pass. The problem, however, was that the terrain was too steep from the top of the ridge to the shelf below, a distance of 350 feet, to actually connect the two areas. As a result, the Hihn Company built its own narrow-gauge railroad on the shelf and transferred pallets of splitstuff up to the other railroad via a cable hoist situated at Sand Point.

Approximate layout of the Splitstuff Area at the headwaters of Bridge Creek, ca 1915. Map by Ronald Powell.

The Molino railroad reached Sand Point around May 1912 and installed at least two short spurs to hold flatcars. From this point, the Hihn Company set to work laying the groundwork for its own railroad below. The so-called Splitstuff Area is actually two separate shelves that encompass about 100 acres. A 200-foot drop separates the upper from the lower shelf. The shelves are not level, but have a more even grade, which gave room for pieceworkers to cut splitstuff. Railroad tracks were only laid in the upper landing—the lower was accessed via a steep skid road that passed through a narrow cut.

The Loma Prieta Lumber Company's largest steam donkey operating on Bridge Creek, ca 1920. [Aptos History Museum – colorized using MyHeritage]

The upper landing grew into a maze of tracks, although it is likely that the tracks were moved once one section was cleared of usable timber. A long track ran from the bottom of Sand Point west before curving around the side of the hill toward today's West Ridge Trail Camp. Many spurs broke off of this main track, some curving in curious ways to follow the contours of the land and maintain a manageable grade. One spur even reached today's Hinckley Fire Road and followed it a short length before descending back down toward a feeder stream of Bridge Creek. The precise arrangement of the tracks and the order in which they were built remains a mystery since the Hihn Company did not document such details and no known photographs survive of the operations here.

A donkey engineer on his engine in a clearcut area of Bridge Creek, ca 1920. [Aptos History Museum – colorized using MyHeritage]

This isolated railroad relied upon the services of the company's Betsy Jane locomotive, which had been used at the Valencia Creek and Gold Gulch mills before disappearing from the records for a decade. The locomotive was disassembled, hauled to Bridge Creek in parts, and then reassembled on site.

Following Frederick Hihn's death in 1913, the F. A. Hihn Company was reincorporated as the Valencia–Hihn Company and continued operating as it had previously. However, low profits and tensions between Hihn family members finally led the company to sell its Bridge Creek holdings to the Loma Prieta Lumber Company in 1917. The lumber company immediately took over operations and expanded its vision for the area. The company would extend a railroad up Bridge Creek from the south and link into the railroad already at the headwaters. The issue of different gauges of track would be dealt with when the time came. In the meantime, Loma Prieta began sending large logs via highline from Hinckley Gulch to Bridge Creek. A new spur was extended across the Hinckley Fire Road specifically to collect these logs, which were directly loaded onto waiting flatcars. The cars took the logs to one of several small millponds, where they would await the extension of the Bridge Creek track to the Splitstuff Area.

Bridge Creek Railroad (1918)

By the spring of 1917, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company was already anticipating its coming acquisition of the Valencia–Hihn Company's Bridge Creek property. As such, it began grading a new railroad along the east bank of Bridge Creek from just behind the Porter House. While the ultimate plan was to connect this track with the Splitstuff Area, the interim plan was to extend the railroad to Maple Falls. To construct this line, Loma Prieta disassembled the Molino Timber Company's trackage beyond Sand Point and repurposed the tracks. Since that railroad was still operating in some capacity, Loma Prieta also bought a new narrow-gauge Shay locomotive that it could use along the new trackage.

Composite map showing the routes of the Molino Timber Company's railroad on China Ridge, the isolated Splitstuff Area railroad, the Bridge Creek railroad, and the Big Tree Gulch railroad, with modern trails noted, 1917-1921. Map by Ronald Powell.

Actual construction of the new line did not begin until after the 1917 logging season had ended. The route was about 1.85 miles long and crossed Bridge Creek twice. Indeed, at least fourteen bridges and half-bridges were needed to take the track this distance along an increasingly narrow gulch. Along a short section of track on the east bank, an intricate pile of redwood logs were stacked to allow the right-of-way to cross a deep depression. This feature still exists today along the Bridge Creek Trail as one of the only noticeable remnants of the former railroad grade. Near the end of the track, Camp 4 was established—retaining its numbering from the Molino Timber Company's camps—and several short spurs were built here for transloading stations.

Loma Prieta's Shay locomotive helping grade the Bridge Creek line, early 1918. [Aptos History Museum – colorized using MyHeritage]

The camp operated effectively through the 1918 season and plans were still in place to extend the line further north the next year, but fate stepped in. On the evening of September 11, an unusually violent storm struck the Aptos Forest with devastating effect. Both the Splitstuff Area and Camp 4 were devastated, with large sections of track destroyed or rendered unusable. The Betsy Jane, meanwhile, fell off its rails and into one of Bridge Creek's feeders, where it was soon buried under piles of mud and debris. Once all of the damage was inspected, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company decided to give up on the Splitstuff Area and abandon its Bridge Creek trackage in favor of a new line located further up the western ridge. The loss of so much track also led the company to abandon the Molino railroad along China Ridge so that it could reuse the tracks along the new railroad grade it intended to build to Big Tree Gulch on Bridge Creek.

Steam donkeys and a train operating on Bridge Creek, ca 1918. [Aptos History Museum – colorized using MyHeritage]

Big Tree Gulch Railroad (1919–1921)

Following the destruction of the Splitstuff Area and the lower railroad along Bridge Creek, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company decided to build a new track along the western wall of Bridge Creek gulch. The initial route was surveyed to be three miles to a section known as Big Tree Gulch due to an especially large tree that stood there. Like its predecessor, the company hoped to extend the line all the way to the Splitstuff Area so that it could recover its abandoned logs and harvest the remaining timber along the way.

Layout of Hoffman's Camp along the Big Tree Gulch railroad, 1920. Sketch by Ronald Powell.

To access the new railroad grade, a switchback was built behind and above the Porter House. The switchback had a 20˚ grade, which the company's two Shay locomotives could surmount, but only if they were hauling no more than four empty flatcars. Gravity and brakes were responsible for returning rolling stock to the bottom of the switchback. The main track only had a 3˚ grade but crossed over several gullies and sinks resulting in at least ten bridges and half-bridges, though none as substantial as those found on the lower track. Large portions of this right-of-way are now part of the Loma Prieta Grade Trail beyond the Porter House.

Hoffman's Camp viewed from a distance, ca 1920. [Aptos History Museum – colorized using MyHeritage]

Just within the boundary of the former Valencia–Hihn Company's land, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company built Camp 5, more commonly known as Hoffman's Camp. It featured one long spur, used mostly for maintenance, and a full camp for workers, including cabins, stables, a bunkhouse and cookhouse, and other amenities. The camp's superintendent was Louis Hoffman, and his wife served as the cook. The track extended 0.6 beyond the camp to Big Tree Gulch, where a final switchback brought the line to its terminus just beside the eponymous big tree. Frederick Hihn had left this and three other trees standing in the hope that they would be preserved as the last of the old-growth giants in the Aptos Forest. The lumber company only saw profit, though, and cut them down. A further extension of the line 1.5 miles to the north into the Splitstuff Area never happened, either due to lack of funds or insufficient timber to justify the expense.

Molino's shay hauling splitstuff shortly after it was moved to the Big Tree Gulch railroad, 1919. [Aptos History Museum – colorized using MyHeritage]

Logging crews worked along the Big Tree Gulch railroad for two and a half seasons before they were rather deceptively dismissed midway through the 1921 season. The truth is that the Bridge Creek operations did not result in a profit. The trees along the creek, especially in the Splitstuff Area, were poor quality, and there was also less timber available for harvesting than had been estimated. Costs had also gone up since the end of World War I. Thus, after the last of the Big Tree Gulch trees were harvested, the lumber company decided to wind up operations in the Aptos Forest. It shut down its mill on Aptos Creek and shipped its remaining uncut logs to the San Vicente Lumber Company's mill on Santa Cruz's West Side. The tracks and ties along Bridge Creek were pulled and sold for scrap, and the rolling stock was placed in storage to be sold. Over the years, the company sent crews to the Splitstuff Area at least two times to retrieve logs and pallets abandoned there in 1918, but these were hauled out by truck rather than train.

Large logs from Big Tree Gulch being hauled behind the Loma Prieta Lumber Company's mill on Aptos Creek, ca 1920. [Aptos History Museum – colorized using DeOldify]

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