Thursday, January 5, 2023

Stations: California Street

The Coast Line Railroad had already been operating for six years when it established a flag-stop at the intersection of Bay Street and California Street on the West Side of Santa Cruz. While the reason for the station is not entirely clear, it does follow a pattern begun in June 1910, when the railroad added five new flag-stops along its route, probably to undermine the customer base of the rival Ocean Shore Railway. Some of these stops later became permanent stations. On November 16, 1913, California Street first appeared on employee timetables.

A Southern Pacific Railroad excursion train crossing Bay Street at California Street on its way to Davenport, ca 1947. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

Why the railroad created a flag-stop at California Street is not entirely clear. Since it does not appear in agency books, the station was likely considered within the boundaries of the Santa Cruz freight yard. Its inclusion as a flag-stop in employee timetables, however, suggests it was primarily a passenger stop. If so, the easiest explanation for its existence is that it was the nearest stop to Santa Cruz High School. Students who lived north of the city along the Coast Line Railroad route could catch a morning southbound passenger train and get off at California Street, where they could then walk the half mile to the school.

The original Santa Cruz High School on fire, October 1, 1913. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using MyHeritage]

The timing of the station’s opening is important, though. The June 1913 timetable does not show the station, while the November timetable does. An intermediate timetable released on September 21 has been lost. As a result, it is unknown if the station was established before or after the October 1 fire that burned the high school to the ground. Assuming it was founded after that fire, the flag-stop was probably intended to support students moving between various teaching locations, since classes were decentralized until the school was rebuilt. When the new facility opened in fall 1915, the railroad left the flag-stop on its timetables to continue to support students who lived north of Santa Cruz. As late as the mid-1920s, the station was mentioned in property advertisements as an incentive. A Southern Pacific survey map from 1949 even shows a shelter shed at the location, though no further description of this structure seems to have survived. However, on August 1, 1932, California Street was removed as a flag-stop when regular passenger service ended along the Davenport Branch.

Southern Pacific proposed improvement map showing the Bay and California Streets intersection. Although dated September 15, 1949, this is clearly based on an earlier plan since it shows both a station shelter and the start of the pumpworks spur. [California State Archives]

California Street also marked the junction point of the municipal pumpworks spur with the Davenport Branch. The construction of a sewage pumping station on the west side of Neary Lagoon had been approved in a special election held on June 20, 1887. Bids for construction only went out in March 1888 and the facility was completed in August. In addition to pumping sewage, the Santa Cruz Electric Light and Pump Company was able to produce electricity through the excess power created from the seventy-two horsepower Pitchford Improved Corliss steam engine, which ran the pump.

Lands acquired along the Davenport Branch for the sewage pumping plant, 1927. [Santa Cruz GIS]

A spur off the Coast Line Railroad to the pumpworks was a natural conclusion since the right-of-way passed directly beside the facility. The idea was first suggested in June 1908 and Southern Pacific quoted the city $891 to install a 580-foot-long spur. The primary purpose of this spur was to park oil cars that would provide fuel to the plant. Relocating the oil tankers to this spur would also allow the old oil tanker spur on Park Street, at the site of the former Santa Cruz Railroad depot, to be abandoned. In November, the price was accepted but the spur was not installed due to a dispute over payment between the city and railroad. Southern Pacific finally laid the spur in March 1909, but would not allow the city to use it until the city paid the amount that it owed for the installation. When this amount was paid is unknown.

Sanborn fire insurance map showing the pumping station and incinerator, 1917. [Library of Congress]

The next year, the city announced its intention to build a garbage incinerator beside the wastewater pumping station. The matter went to a long public debate with the plant only opening at the site in early 1915. The facility featured a 176-foot-high chimney and was oil powered, allowing it to use the adjacent oil cars on the spur track. Below the incinerator, the city’s dump quickly emerged, attracting rats, foul odors, and widespread complaints.

View across Neary Lagoon looking toward the Santa Cruz Union Depot, ca 1920. [UCSC Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

By the 1920s, the company that controlled the pumpworks had merged with other local power companies to become Coast Counties Gas & Electric. Under increasing pressure from the public due to water pollution in Neary Lagoon and Cowells Beach and vile smells emanating from the incinerator and wastewater, Coast Counties and the city began downsizing its operations along the Bay Street spur. The incinerator and dump were closed in early 1927 with a new city dump opening on the Scaroni Ranch four miles north of Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, Coast Counties shut down the old sewage plant and relocated it in 1928. Responsibility for the spur and oil tankers was taken over by Central Supply Company also in 1928. Over the next few years, the plant came to rely less on crude oil for fuel. At the same time, a new oil tanker spur had been installed in 1932 on the northern edge of the city limits at the end of Vernon Street. The city eventually negotiated the sale of the old incinerator property in June 1933 for $800 and, at the same time, asked Southern Pacific to remove the spur. 

The empty lot beside the railroad tracks where the California Street shelter once stood, 2022. [Google StreetView]

The Santa Cruz Wastewater Treatment Facility still occupies the southern end of the property. The former site of the incinerator is now the location of the Neary Lagoon Park tennis courts and playground. Between these and the lagoon is the former dump site, which is now reclaimed forest. The site of the California Street flag-stop still exists as the undeveloped section of land beside the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line at the corner of California Street and Bay Street.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9636N, 122.0357W

The railroad right-of-way across California and Bay Streets is included within Segment 7 of the Santa Cruz Coastal Rail Trail, which is currently under construction and scheduled to be completed in summer 2023. Once completed, pedestrians and bicyclists will be able to pass directly beside the site of the former flag-stop. Currently, the location is still a stop for Metro buses. Perhaps at some point in the future, when passenger rail service is restored, passengers may be able to entrain and detrain at the Bay Street/California Street stop once again.

Citations & Credits:

  • Koch, Margaret. Santa Cruz County: Parade of the Past. Santa Cruz, CA: Western Tanager Press, 1991.
  • Santa Cruz Evening News, various articles, 1908-1932.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, various articles, 1888-1933
  • Santa Cruz Surf, various articles, 1887-1888.
  • Southern Pacific Railroad, various records, 1905-1941.

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