Thursday, April 25, 2024

Railroads: San Vicente Lumber Company Railroad

Far up Santa Cruz County’s north coast, Scott Creek winds inland from the Pacific Ocean along a gradually climbing path up to its source near Little Basin. Less than two miles from the coast is a tributary, Little Creek, a comparatively shorter stream than its neighbor, Big Creek. Passing through a narrow canyon, Little Creek runs 2.8 miles to the northeast in the direction of Bonny Doon. And it was atop this strange mountain plateau created by the headwaters of Little Creek, Big Creek, and San Vicente Creek that the San Vicente Lumber Company focused its effort to harvest over 615,000,000 board feet of timber beginning in the summer of 1908.

One of the San Vicente Lumber Company's shay locomotives with crews loading logs onto flatcars above Swanton, with a large steam donkey at left, 1909-1922. [Margaret Koch Collection, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – colorized using MyHeritage]

The San Vicente Lumber Company was incorporated on May 8, 1908, and immediately contracted with the Ocean Shore Railroad to extend a track along Scott Creek between Folger near the coast and Swanton 1.4 miles inland. The Pratchner Company was hired to install the tracks and, according to the Santa Cruz Evening News, had a crew composed of a dozen teams to build the line. On June 19, a new railroad company, the Scott Creek Railway, was founded as an Ocean Shore subsidiary to extend the new line from San Vicente Junction south of Swanton 2.5 miles up Little Creek to the site of Camp No. 2. At the junction, several spurs and sidings were installed to park flatcars for use on the line up Little Creek.

A hand-drawn survey map based on observations and GPS recordings by George Pepper and Rick Hamman.

Construction of the Scott Creek Railway finished sometime before mid-March 1909. Camp No. 1 was established a mile east of Swanton at the confluence of Little Creek and its largest tributary, Chandler Creek. Here ox teams and steam donkeys hauled cut timber from along Chandler Gulch to the railroad grade. Camp No. 2, the site of the worker village, required a switchback to climb up roughly 500 feet in elevation to Stoney Point and then a further mile east to a flat clearing, where timber from upper Little Creek and the headwaters of Berry Creek could be pulled over the ridge via steam donkey. The extension of the line beyond Camp No. 2 was a task done by the lumber company rather than the railroad company. The mill itself was erected in Moore’s Gulch at the western limits of Santa Cruz and was completed around March 22, 1909. Yard tracks were not installed at the facility until the weeks before it opened, and no logs were shipped over the route until March 23.

The main San Vicente Lumber Company forest crew, ca 1912. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

The company employed around 225 men annually, over half of whom worked in the forest and lived in the camps. They were an eclectic mix of Italians, Greeks, Irish, Swedes, and other people of mostly European descent. In its first year, Camp No. 2 hosted around 50 cottages, which supported both workers and their families. Famed California reporter Josephine Clifford McCrackin visited Camp No. 1 in late September 1909. She reported that “the company has built very pretty cottage for its employees… At the general store goods are sold at Santa Cruz prices; and at the market meats and vegetables can be bought just as in Santa Cruz.” In addition, the camp featured a boarding house for visitors, a cookhouse, and a bunkhouse for single men. The anticipated influx of children led to Seaside School moving from Gianone Hill to Swanton. Swanton, too, grew when it became the northern terminus of the Southern Division of the Ocean Shore Railway. Its hotel became the transfer point for Ocean Shore-sponsored buses heading to the southern end of the Northern Division at Tunitas, and a few commercial businesses may have arisen around the old Laurel Grove Hotel.

One of the San Vicente Lumber Company's shay locomotives running up a grade above Swanton, ca 1915. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

The San Vicente Lumber Company’s railroad used two Shay locomotives for its logging operations, although Ocean Shore Railway trains ran irregularly to Camp No. 2 to provide passenger and switching services. 36-foot-long flatcars with air brakes were used to haul full logs from the hills to the mill. Several spurs were kept at Camp No. 2 for yarding and storage, and photographs show that several boxcars were converted into makeshift buildings for the company. Beyond Camp No. 2, bridges were built as needed using available resources—namely felled pine trees—and some of these bridges rose up to 90 feet in height. Because the area was prone to slides and heavy rainfall, bridges and half-trestles were preferred over fills, and both switchbacks and tight curving trestles were used to achieve quick increases the gradient in confined spaces. Nonetheless, gradients of up to 8% were not unknown on this railroad.

A section of the original Scott Creek Railway trackage between Swanton and Camp No. 2, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

Logging was continuous but probably did not move into the San Vicente Creek watershed until 1912. The first major extension of the railroad took it up Little Creek and over it in a tight loop in order to gain elevation. It then switch-backed and continued to the headwaters, where another switchback allowed the route to finally exit the Little Creek watershed and climb atop the plateau at the top of the grade. From there, the track swung to the south and curved around a hill, on the other side of which Camp No. 3 was established. The camp was placed here since it intersected with a rugged county road between Davenport and Bonny Doon, the southern part of which is today’s Warrenella Truck Trail. Camp No. 3 was established to gather timber from the West and East Forks of San Vicente Creek.

Two women standing beside the San Vicente Lumber Company's tracks, probably between Camp Nos. 1 and 2, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

Tracks were slowly extended beyond Camp No. 3, probably between late 1912 and 1913. On one of the tightest curves on the railroad, known as the Bear Trap, the track crossed the West Fork of San Vicente Creek and then headed south until stopping just before the creek’s fork with its other branches. Here a switchback brought the track alongside the Middle Fork. As before, crews used donkey engines here to pull out logs from the surrounding forest, loading them onto flatcars and sending them down the line.

The impressive series of trestles spanning the Bear Trap above the West Fork of San Vicente Creek, ca 1912. [UC Berkeley – colorized using MyHeritage]

When the West and Middle Forks were harvested, the railroad moved again, this time north around the headwaters of the West Fork to Camp No. 4, known as White House Camp because of the presence of an abandoned whitewashed house at the site. This move likely happened in 1914 and was perhaps the shortest-lived camp. It focused on harvesting the headwaters of the West and Middle Forks, and may have also pulled down material from atop the ridge that separated the San Vicente Creek and Big Creek watersheds.

A high lead and gin pole above the San Vicente Lumber Company's tracks above Swanton, ca late 1910s. [Fritz–Metcalf Collection, UC Berkeley – colorized using MyHeritage]

Around 1915 or 1916, the track was extended to the east between the Middle and East Forks of San Vicente Creek, with a substantial curve and switchback in the middle of the route to lower the grade and avoid a hill. The track then continued south, bringing it directly opposite the main settlement area of Bonny Doon. Camp No. 5 was, therefore, appropriately named Bonny Doon Camp. This camp was responsible for harvesting all of the timber within Rancho San Vicente from the East Branch of the creek—the property boundary—and the Middle Fork. These operations likely wrapped around 1918, perhaps delayed by World War I and the influenza pandemic that followed.

Three women standing on a steam donkey platform probably near Camp No. 6 during the final phase of harvesting, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

Following the war, the company pursued its final drive to harvest timber to the northwest along the headwaters of Big Creek. A new switchback was built near the headwaters of Little Creek with the tracks heading to the west around several short hills and gulches. It finally reached a pond in a high clearing, where Camp No. 6 was established just above Big Creek. The main track wrapped around the camp from the south and descended to the creek via a single switchback. It then continued along the creek through Deadman Gulch and up the East Branch of Big Creek before terminating near its headwaters. Presumably San Vicente Lumber only had rights to harvest timber east of Big Creek’s main course, and it spent its last four years harvesting this dense forestland from above and below.

Members of the Mattei family and friends posing beside a cottage, probably at Camp No. 2, with converted train car cottages and permanent cottages in the background, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

It is not entirely clear whether Camp No. 2 remained the main camp for families or if the entire camp relocated every few years. Logically, it makes sense if the camp remained in place throughout this time. Camp No. 2 marked the end of the Scott Creek Railway and Ocean Shore trains could still reach it to shuttle children between the camp and the school in Swanton. It would also be directly connected with southbound trains so people and camp businesses could easily resupply. Rick Hamman, however, states that the camp moved each time, with the cabins loaded onto flatcars and then placed on the ground at each new location. This seems a rather large burden to do every two years, though, and there is no evidence that this was in fact done. What was done, though, is the removal and reinstallation of track as the line moved. Whenever a section was cleared of usable timber, the rails and ties would be pulled and reused, when possible, to build the next extension. The downside of this is that a new section of track could not be built while an old section was still being used.

An Ocean Shore Railroad passenger car separated from its wheel truck by presumably a runaway flatcar that crashed into it, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

Because of the steep grades, sharp turns, and switchbacks, the railroad was prone to many incidents. The number one issue was runaway rolling stock. Both of the Shay locomotives escaped the engineers’ control on several occasions, and flatcars escaped constantly. Fortunately, most incidents at worst resulted in the stock in question crashing into a hillside at the end of a switchback or tearing of the ties after derailing. Many of the switchbacks, however, we designed in such a way that they rose up near the end to decelerate runaways without damaging the stock. Most of the time, operations along the railroad ran remarkably smoothly considering all the compromises that had to be made. The same cannot be said of the workers, who were frequently injured on the job resulting in several maimings and a few deaths.

Four women posing beside a section of cut forest with the San Vicente Lumber Company's railroad tracks heading into the distance, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage] 

The San Vicente Lumber Company’s railroad outlasted the Ocean Shore Railroad, that had helped build and support it. Around the end of 1920, the company bought the Southern Division of the Ocean Shore, which had effectively gone defunct in October following a worker strike. As part of the deal, they acquired Ocean Shore engine no. 4, which they used as their primary locomotive to transport logs to the mill. The railroad continued to haul logs until the end of the 1922 season, at which point the company began wrapping up its operations. In January 1923, the mill was shut down and crews began dismantling the railroad and workers’ village. Henry G. Stoddard of the Nibley–Studdard Lumber Company continued to run the company’s lumber yard for about eight months, but all other operations at the mill ended in February and the large plant was partially dismantled with usable parts destined for a new mill at Cromberg, California.

A woman shyly posing beside a San Vicente Lumber Company locomotive crew at Swanton, ca 1920. [Mattei Family Collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

Much of the former rights-of-way survived in the mountains, with a few repurposed as private access roads or county park trails. Others have degraded into nearly unrecognizable paths, with the August 2020 fires destroying some of the last artifacts from the age of logging in the area. Prior to the fires, George Pepper carefully hiked the hills with a GPS recorder to identify the former railroad grades, making several corrections to Hamman’s map. The entire area remains private property, but the Santa Cruz Land Trust is working on creating a trail network within the area, called San Vicente Redwoods, some of which trails will closely follow the rights-of-way of the former San Vicente Lumber Company’s railroad.

Citations & Credits:

  • Articles of incorporation for the Scott Creek Railway Company. Courtesy Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • Pepper, George. Personal correspondence.
  • Santa Cruz SentinelSurf, and Evening News, 1908-1923.

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