Thursday, August 10, 2023

Curiosities: Railroad School and District

Santa Cruz County was still an isolated community in the late 1860s when the first suggestion of a railroad to San Francisco entered the columns of local newspapers. From 1863 to 1866, an increasing number of articles discussed the feasibility, practicability, financial costs, and benefits of such a connection. Debates raged over the best routes and whether Watsonville or Santa Cruz was a more important destination. In 1865, rival survey teams were plotting courses up the San Lorenzo River and along the Pajaro River, with both attempting to prove their route was the best option. Meanwhile, the Southern Pacific Railroad announced plans to extend its San Francisco & San Jose Railroad south to Gilroy, which would mean the Southern Pacific mainline would only be a short seventeen miles away from Watsonville. On January 9, 1868, the Santa Clara and Pajaro Valley Railroad Company was incorporated as a Southern Pacific subsidiary to fulfill this promise.

Railroad School, 1940s. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Everyone knew that a railroad would eventually connect Gilroy and Watsonville—the only questions left were when and how would it do it? Frederick A. Hihn, Charles Ford, Nathaniel W. Chittenden, Lucius Sanborn, and other prominent Pajaro Valley elite decided in mid-June 1867 that they would not leave the matter to chance. They incorporated the California Coast Railroad Company, with the stated goal of connecting the two points via the most practicable route. Only five months later, Southern Pacific strongly suggested that it would continue a branch line from Gilroy to Watsonville and the Salinas Valley as soon as it completed the Santa Clara & Pajaro Valley Railroad to Gilroy. This had the effect of killing the stock-sale drive of the California Coast Railroad's plans, but it invigorating local interest in a railroad.

Boundaries of Railroad School District, from the Official Map of Santa Cruz County, 1889. [Library of Congress]

All of this talk of a railroad got the better of some locals. This fact is no clearer than in the optimistic creation of the Railroad School District two miles east of Watsonville. Since the 1850s, dozens of farming families had settled along the north bank of the Pajaro River between the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Watsonville town limits. This area had been under the jurisdiction of the Carleton School District for several years, but by January 1868, it had sufficient population to justify a division. The boundaries of the new district followed the surveyed route of the California Coast Railroad between Pajaro Gap and Watsonville: it ran from the eastern boundary of Santa Cruz County west along the north bank of the Pajaro River, creating a triangular section that encompassed the lands of the Silliman, Wiley, Driscoll, Fining, Carleton, Folgey, and Casserly families.

USGS map showing the location of Railroad School and the original alignment of Riverside Road, 1913.

The earliest history of the school is not well documented. Classes were first held on Max Jones' property, either in his home or in an adjacent existing structure. A small purpose-built schoolhouse was erected nearby in 1869 and later moved to Riverside Road on the land of the Kelly–Thompson family. Today, this site is at the intersection of Riverside Road and Carleton Road. This first schoolhouse was eventually bought by O. H. Willoughby, Sr., in 1878 to allow for the construction of a new, larger building. Willoughby moved the old schoolhouse to his property where he used it as a stable. The second schoolhouse was built by John Aston on the same site. For the next twenty years, very little is said in local newspapers about the school, but it served as a polling place for the local community. In April 1890, a flagpole was installed outside the school and an American flag was raised, the first school to have such a flag in the Pajaro Valley. It became a point of pride to the local population, many of whom pitched in to buy the pole and flag.

Railroad School, ca 1900s. [Pajaro Valley Historical Association – colorized using MyHeritage]

A controversial district vote in November 1899—which saw a 4-hour polling window and only 18 people voting in favor of a new schoolhouse out of 35 total voters—led to the erection of a third schoolhouse at the site. The old structure was sold for $100 to the Silliman family and moved to their ranch, where they used it as a cookhouse into the 1930s. The new structure was designed by William Henry Weeks and constructed by a man surnamed Thomas on a budget of $1,200. The structure likely was first used during the 1900-1901 school year.

The new schoolhouse was anything but perfect. The Railroad School District was often cash-strapped and as a solution, it hired two female students to work as janitors. By 1913, the schoolhouse was covered in cobwebs, the plaster walls were cracking, and the toilets were in disrepair. It was advised by the Santa Cruz Evening News that the district should hire a janitor and install modern septic tanks and toilets, but this still had not been done by 1927. Several additions were made to the school over its nearly fifty years of existence, though, including new classrooms and offices for staff.

Railroad School, ca 1920s. [Adi Zehner – colorized using MyHeritage]

Like most rural schools, the district only supported one full-time teacher for much of its history, and most of its teachers only served for a year or two. In later years, the district supported up to three teachers as well as a principal. Newspapers do not list all of the staff, but one of the earliest teachers in his first assignment in the county was John William Linscott. Another was George W. Furlong, who had a long tenure at several different Pajaro Valley schools in the 1880s. Other teachers included Allie Culverwell, Kara Allen, Louise Kidder, Jennie Ross, Ida A. Nohrden, Thomas J. Ready, Eileen Keefe, Irene Strazich, Ruth Sommers, Eldon John Covell, Gladys I. Zobel, Elma Hockabout, Helen Lorentzen, Anna Jensen, Ann Cikuth, Ann Stolich Moe, and Sue Gilbert.

As fate would have it, the school never lived up to its name. When the Southern Pacific Railroad did eventually complete a branch line down the Pajaro Valley in January 1872, it mostly stuck to the south bank of the Pajaro River and never entered into Watsonville. The only part of the Railroad School District that actually had a railroad was a 2.5-mile-long section through Chittenden, at the extreme eastern end of the district's jurisdiction, but this easternmost section was split off from the Railroad School District by 1886 and joined the Vega School District, which spanned the Pajaro River to San Benito and Monterey Counties. In the 1920s, Vega was split along the county line and the Santa Cruz County portion reverted to the Railroad School District, once more allowing the district to live up to its name, albeit barely.

Railroad School's students and faculty, 1935. [Dee Mosegaard – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Railroad School District was united to other local primary schools in February 1946 to become a part of the Salsipuedes Union Elementary School District. Railroad Elementary School lingered for another two years before shutting down in the summer of 1948. The schoolhouse was put up for auction in August 1949 for a statutory $500, but received no bids. It's ultimate fate is unknown. The property reverted to the Kelly–Thompson family but is currently the undeveloped lot where Riverside Road turns onto Carleton Road.

Citations & Credits:

  • Clark, Donald Thomas. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Second edition. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2008.
  • Hatch, Andrew Jackson. "Official Map of Santa Cruz County." San Francisco, CA: A. J. Hatch, 1889.
  • Lewis, Betty. "Railroad Hotel and school remembered." Register–Pajaronian (Sept. 1, 2000), 5.
  • Various articles from The PajaronianSanta Cruz Evening News, Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Santa Cruz Surf.

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