Thursday, February 2, 2023

Curiosities: Storms and the Railroads

The watersheds of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay have never been kind to the region’s railroad infrastructure. From the earliest days of local railroading, landslides, sinks, cave-ins, and flooding have been commonplace, rendering various regional branch lines out of commission for months while bridges, tunnels, and rights-of-way are repaired. Because winter storms in particular have historically been so destructive, it is not surprising that some of these have been photographed by the railroad companies and interested parties. However, many storms have gone little recorded and unphotographed. making the creation of a full history of storm damage to local railroad lines nearly impossible.

A major washout at Edric near the southern (railroad east) portal of the Summit Tunnel, 1909. [Courtesy Neil Vodden Collection, courtesy Jack Hanson – colorized using MyHeritage]

As with similar blog posts of this nature, this article will evolve over time as more information and photographs come to light. If you know of any storms that significantly impacted local railroads not recorded below, or have photographs of any local railroad infrastructure damage from storms, please share your information on Facebook in the Santa Cruz Trains group.

The Storms of 1875-1876

Not long after the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad opened in 1875, a winter storm threw a section of track south of Felton below Inspiration Point into the San Lorenzo River far below. This became an annual occurrence and the short line railroad did not have the funds to finance a more formal fix to the situation. Each year, the company just cleared slides and repaired damage right-of-way along the stretch of track known as Coon Gulch, and then resumed operations.

When the South Pacific Coast Railroad took control of the right-of-way in 1879, it attempted to remedy the worst of the problems. It reinforced the hillside trestles along the gulch and built a tunnel underneath Inspiration Point to avoid an especially sharp turn around a rock outcropping that was prone to rockslides. Yet these did not stop the problem—they only made the problem easier to repair. Each year, more rocks would fall on the tracks and the Southern Pacific Railroad (after 1887) gradually extended a shed over the tracks to protect them from these falls. Meanwhile, the largest of the hillside trestles was eventually replaced in March 1905 with a beautiful concrete arch bridge, which has since been the subject of many photographs since it can be viewed from Inspiration Point. Even these adaptations, though, only lessened the financial impact of slides; they did little to stop them from happening. Today, Roaring Camp Railroads clears slide activity along this stretch regularly after even the mildest storm or windy day.

One other result of the storms of 1875-1876 was the destruction of the Santa Clara Valley Railroad between Alviso and Dumbarton Point. This line was incorporated to build a railroad from Oakland to Santa Cruz via a route through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Its destruction in the storm led to its reincorporation as the South Pacific Coast Railroad in May 1876 with new financial backing but a similar proposed route.

The Storm of 1881

Storms did have a habit of undermining the short-line railroads of the region. An aggressive January storm in 1881 went so far as to wash out large portions of the Santa Cruz Railroad line, which had experienced annual storm damage since it had first opened less than five years earlier. By January 1881, the company was running on fumes with much of its revenue lost to the South Pacific Coast Railroad, which had a more direct route to the Bay Area. On January 27, the railroad bridge at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River was completely destroyed. The cost to repair the bridge and the rest of the line was too much, so the company fell into receivership. Not long afterwards, it was purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad in a bankruptcy auction. While the line was rebuilt, it was now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Southern Pacific.

Collapsed trestlework at the approach to the San Lorenzo River bridge in Santa Cruz, January 1890. [Courtesy University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Storms of 1889–1890

December 1889 was an exceptionally wet month across California that saw damage to nearly every railroad line in the state. Slides and fallen trees were the main hazard to the railroad and shut the route through the mountains and to Boulder Creek down on multiple occasions. As had become a trend, the steep hillside below Highway 9 and south of the Inspiration Point Tunnel (Tunnel No. 6, later No. 5) collapsed. Other slides happened near the Powder Works station and south of Glenwood above Bean Creek. The entire Boulder Creek Branch was out of commission, with slides most likely happening in the vicinity of Brackney, where the hillside was steepest.

Another major storm struck in late January 1890 which caused far more destruction than the first. All of Front Street in Santa Cruz was under water on January 25, but more troubling was that the railroad bridge over the San Lorenzo River at the beach had fallen off its foundations. A logjam piled up under the bridge, putting immense pressure on its piers. Crews spent the week after the storm repairing the bridge and also clearing several slides and sinks from across the route to Watsonville. The station in Watsonville, meanwhile, was under water. Elsewhere in the county, the bridge over Newell Creek on the Boulder Creek Branch was heavily damaged, though still in place, and the long bridge over Zayante Creek near today’s Mount Hermon was in a similar condition.

By the end of the 1889-1890 rainy season, over 124 inches of water had fallen in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The damage was so widespread across the region’s railroad lines that the Santa Cruz Surf speculated it may be easier to grade entirely new routes than restore caved-in cuts and repair sinks, especially south of Felton. Damage to the northern end of the route between Oakland and San Jose was also immense, with much of the trackage flooded around Alviso.

Reconstruction of the west portal of the Summit Tunnel, 1893. [Colorized using MyHeritage]

The Storm of January 1893

The year 1893 was ushered in by yet another monstrous storm. In addition to widespread damage throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, the main casualty of the tempest was the northern (railroad west) entrance of the Summit Tunnel (Tunnel No. 2, later No. 1) at Wright’s Station. About 100 feet inside the portal, a complete cave-in occurred that resulted in a total reconstruction of that end of the tunnel. In the meantime, the Southern Pacific Railroad’s mountain route was closed and all traffic diverted through Watsonville. The new tunnel that was constructed was made of concrete in an oval shape with a concrete channel beside it to divert run-off from the hillside above.

Reconstruction of the Summit Tunnel nearing completion, Spring 1893. [Colorized using MyHeritage]

One benefit of this reconstruction was that the tunnel was built to standard-gauge scale, meaning it did not have to be rebuilt when the line was standard-gauged from 1906-1909. It also was of sufficient quality that it suffered only minor damage in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. However, a downside is that it was also built of slightly inferior materials, so when the tunnels were dynamited in 1942, the portal at Wrights exploded, whereas the other seven abandoned portals have survived to the present.

The Storm of 1899

While the Loma Prieta Branch north of Aptos was always an industrial line focused exclusively on logging, it did offer some passenger and excursion services on request and the occasional alternative freight was shipped on the route. Nonetheless, it was a storm in March 1899 that cut the life of the line short. Logging north of the village of Loma Prieta had been on the decline for a few years when the mid-March storm struck. The initial damage to the route was focused in the vicinity of Hell’s Gate, an especially narrow section of Aptos Creek on the road to Monte Vista near Five Finger Falls. While slides along this stretch were not uncommon, the ones in 1899 were severe. Initial reports suggested that the line would be shut down and Monte Vista abandoned, but that wasn’t strictly true. Southern Pacific did, in fact, repair the line and continued to harvest timber beyond it for the next three summers. But the cost of restoring the line to full operations likely convinced the railroad company to downgrade it and wrap up operations north of Hell’s Gate. The passenger station at Monte Vista closed in November 1899, and the route to Monte Vista was abandoned on June 30, 1902.

A temporary trestle installed south of Rincon above the San Lorenzo River, 1909. This has since become a permanent raised section of track. [Neil Vodden Collection, courtesy Jack Hanson – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Storm of 1909

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake did a number on all of the region’s railroad lines, knocking the route through the mountains completely out of commission in the process. Rather than repair and reopen, Southern Pacific decided to keep the line closed until all of the tracks could be upgraded to standard gauge. This meant enlarging all six remaining tunnels along the mountain route and rebuilding or expanding many bridges. Most of this work was completed by early 1909 when a sudden storm swept through the Bay Area on January 20.

Receding floodwaters beside the Southern Pacific track at Ellicott, 1909. [Neil Vodden Collection, courtesy Jack Hanson – colorized using MyHeritage]

The next day, Santa Cruz County was struck by the storm and the Pajaro Valley flooded. Traffic between Santa Cruz and Watsonville was cut, while traffic along the Boulder Creek Branch was also paused due to slides. At Laguna (Nuga), railroad crews dumped hundreds of carloads of ballast into Watsonville Slough in an attempt to stabilize the right-of-way, but most of it washed away soon after being dumped. In the fruit-packing district along Walker Street, the tracks were undermined and washed away. Meanwhile, the main road and railroad between Alma and Wrights at Eva washed out, cutting railroad service between Los Gatos and Laurel. It was only after repairs to the line were made that Southern Pacific was able to finally reopen the full mountain route following three years of closure.

Landslide covering the tracks across from the east portal of the Summit Tunnel, February 29, 1940. [Courtesy Bruce MacGregor – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Storm of 1940

Jumping ahead several decades, the storm of the night of February 26, 1940, was the most catastrophic to local railroading. Over one night, such extreme damage from weather impacted the railroad route through the Santa Cruz Mountains that Southern Pacific estimated it would cost $46,220 ($966,180 today) to repair. The company’s usual annual cost of maintaining the right-of-way between Los Gatos and Felton was already the relatively high amount of $25,000 ($522,600 today) for about 20 miles of track. Thus, one storm incurred almost double the cost of annual repairs of the line. Only three years earlier, Southern Pacific had spent a considerable sum upgrading track, smoothing curves, reinforcing retaining walls, and making other repairs to the line to ensure its long-term feasibility. Yet none of that mattered in the face of a powerful storm.

Shifting ground across from the water tower at Tank Siding, March 1, 1940. [Courtesy Bruce MacGregor – colorized using MyHeritage]

After long discussions and public debates, Southern Pacific decided to abandon 17 miles of track between Los Gatos and Eccles, north of Felton. It would operate the two lines separately. All of the track and infrastructure worth salvaging was removed in 1941 and 1942, and then three of the tunnels were dynamited by the Army Corps of Engineers around late April 1942. Whereas earlier storms had led to buy-outs, reincorporations, and abandonments of short segments of track, this storm led to the end of a 60-year-old railroad route. It also marked the end of regular railroad passenger service in Santa Cruz County, since all earlier passenger lines had already converted to autobuses.

Collapsed Soquel Avenue bridge over the San Lorenzo River, January 1982. [Courtesy Gary Griggs, Santa Cruz Sentinel]

The Storm of 1982

One final line in Santa Cruz County was abandoned because of a storm. Over the winter of 1981-1982, constant heavy rains pounded Santa Cruz County, inundating the soil and causing slides and sinks across the northernmost 8.8 miles of the Santa Cruz Branch between Santa Cruz and the former Eccles station. This section had been retained by Southern Pacific because of the two sand quarries located in the Olympia area above Zayante Creek, but by 1981 the company had increased prices such that the remaining company decided to shift to trucks for freight. Southern Pacific was likely to abandon this section anyway, since it was expensive to maintain, but the storm made the decision easier. With so much damage on a line that paid almost nothing, Southern Pacific finally had the excuse it needed to abandon this 107-year-old railroad line. F. Norman Clark had a different idea, though.

The owner of the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad, Clark saw the potential of the standard-gauge railroad line to Santa Cruz and offered to buy it from Southern Pacific. He knew that acquiring the line would mean his small amusement park would become a common carrier for San Lorenzo Lumber, other local businesses, and any future quarry traffic. He also knew that his company would be responsible for any annual damage to the line. Despite all of this, he decided to buy anyway. On August 12, 1985, Clark incorporated the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway and purchased the line. It has been running between Felton and Santa Cruz almost continuously ever since as the Beach Train.

Undermined tracks beside Gallighan Slough outside Watsonville, 2017. [Courtesy Ben Rylander]

The Storm of 2017

Even in more recent times, storms continue to impact local railroading. Besides annual maintenance required along the Beach Train’s line, the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, now routed from Pajaro to Davenport, has required constant repairs. Between 1996 and 2012, this was done by the Union Pacific Railroad, but in more recent years it has been the responsibility of common carriers acting on behalf of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, which now owns the line in trust for the people of Santa Cruz County.

Overgrown tracks and mud at the washout, October 2017. [Courtesy Derek Whaley]

Iowa Pacific Holdings, operating as the Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway, was the first firm to take responsibility for local lines. However, in early 2017, winter storms undercut the right-of-way beside Gallighan Slough outside Watsonville rendering the entire line beyond that point unusable. Storm water from adjacent agricultural fields was allowed to drain into the right-of-way, which had no drainage system to address this issue, so the result was undermining of the tracks. The storm damage and repair quickly became a political talking point, delaying repairs for over two years. Iowa Pacific pulled out of its contract and Progressive Rail, operating as the St. Paul & Pacific Railway, took over.

Crews cutting down a fallen tree on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, June 2017. [Courtesy Howard Cohen]

Due to all of these delays, other portions of the right-of-way have since fallen into disrepair, including multiple large bridges that have been condemned, a perpetually flooded right-of-way near Wilder Ranch, and a migratory sand dune south of Davenport that has entirely consumed the railroad tracks. Roaring Camp Railroads now operates trains along the line on behalf of St. Paul & Pacific, but when rail traffic beyond Ellicott can resume remains an open question. In the meantime, freight traffic remains restricted to the first few miles of track from Pajaro, while separate traffic can hypothetically operate between Olympia, Wilder, Santa Cruz, and Capitola.

Citations & Credits:

  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways, second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2007.
  • Powell, Ronald G. The Reign of the Lumber Barons: Part Two of the History of Rancho Soquel Augmentation. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, 2021.
  • Santa Cruz Evening News, Sentinel, and Surf. Various articles.

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