Thursday, June 20, 2024

Stations: Swanton

Santa Cruz County has many towns and villages that found their footing once the railroad arrived. Most of the communities along the North Coast, though, existed in some form by the time the Ocean Shore Railway graded its ambitious route to San Francisco. The only exception was a tiny hamlet on the south bank of Scott Creek about one mile inland from the coast. Swanton, as it was known at the time, was not even on the route of the railroad until circumstances and a commercial opportunity convinced the company’s directors to extend a track from the end of the Folger wye to the community in 1908.

Ocean Shore Railroad workers posing on the station platform at Swanton with the Laurel Grove Inn in the background, circa 1918. [Roy D. Graves Collection, Bancroft Library – colorized using MyHeritage]

In its earlier days, Swanton was known as Laurel Grove after a scenic grove of laurel trees that drew the attention of travelers from the 1860s. Located two and a half hours north of Santa Cruz by stage coach, the grove was directly on the route of the Coast Road, a rugged trail that connected Santa Cruz with its one-time northernmost communities of New Year’s Point and Pescadero. By the 1870s, Laurel Grove had grown into a popular rest stop and attracted seasonal picnic parties, as well. People camped along Scott Creek and its tributaries, Little Creek and Big Creek, where they fished for trout and hunted wild game. The Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1880 gushed that Laurel Grove “is a very pretty place. The thick foliage and the delightful aroma emanating from laurel trees; the pure and sparkling waters of a little stream that flows through the grove; the bright plumaged birds with their rich musical notes, all tend to make this spot a favorite resort for persons seeking a few days’ rest from the busy toil of urban life. It is a favorite resort for Santa Cruz campers also, especially those who have a relish for fine speckled trout and healthy mountain quail.”

Gianone Hill north of Swanton, circa 1930. Photo by Harry A. Kay. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Despite its popularity with travelers, Laurel Grove and the Scott Creek valley were only sparsely settled. The land had originally begun as Rancho El Jarro, granted by the Mexican government to Hilario Buelna in 1839. El Jarro was likely the Spanish name for Scott Creek. Buelna lost possession of the property in 1843 and it passed to Ramón Rodriguez and Francisco Alviso under the name Rancho Agua Puerca y las Trancas. This name references the southern and northern boundaries of the property: Agua Puerca Creek just north of Davenport and Arroyo las Trancas, immediately south of Waddell Creek. Most of the population of the former rancho settled around Davenport Landing and on the coastal terraces, but the Coast Road followed the south bank of Scott Creek for several miles before crossing and ascending Gianone Hill, thereby returning to the coast. In 1867, James Archibald purchased the rancho from the Rodriguez family and set up his ranch at the bottom of Archibald Creek. He invited Ambrogio Gianone, a Swiss cheesemaker, to settle on his land around 1870 and the two turned the valley into a dairy farm. Gianone leased a large portion of the rancho into the 1890s, eventually purchased the northern third, while Archibald’s widow sold the property in 1883 to Joseph Bloom.

A large nutmeg tree in Swanton, 1955. [Santa Cruz Sentinel – colorized using MyHeritage]

Laurel Grove was included within the El Jarro School District in 1865, the only school for which was on a coastal terrace near Waddell Creek. This is where David Post established the area’s first post office, called Seaside, in 1873. Two years later, El Jarro School was renamed Seaside School. The post office shut down on June 24, 1881 and around the same time the school moved to the top of Gianone Hill, likely to make it easier for children from the Scott Creek valley to travel to school.

Big Creek Electric Power & Water Company powerhouse in Swanton, circa 1896. [The Street Railway Review – colorized using MyHeritage]

Meanwhile on Big Creek, big things were happening. Fred Swanton, who would found the Boardwalk a decade later, decided to focus his entrepreneurial efforts toward bringing electricity to Santa Cruz. He selected Big Creek as an out-of-the-way, underutilized waterway with sufficient flow to power a voltage-producing waterwheel and founded the Big Creek Electric Power & Water Company to achieve his goal. Construction began in early 1896 and a full current first ran to Santa Cruz on April 9, 1897. In its first years, electricity would be used primarily to operate sewer pumps, provide electrical street lighting, and supplement the power needed for the Santa Cruz Electric Railway, partially owned by Swanton.

Some workers posing outside the Coast Counties Gas & Electric Company powerhouse shortly after it was bought by Billing and Packard, circa 1903. [Images of America: Davenport – colorized using MyHeritage]

The activity on Big Creek led to a sudden increase in population along Scott Creek. A local stage coach driver, Pasquale Sonognini, decided it was time for the area to have a post office again and applied to create Trancas Post Office. The Post Office Department, in its usual bureaucratic indifference, accepted the proposal but rejected the name. When it approved the new office on May 28, 1897, the name attached to the branch was Swanton, after the power company’s chief promotor. The post office was situated within a new grocery store Sonognini opened beside a campground that took advantage of the eponymous laurel grove. Within the grove, he erected a large dance floor and other amenities to entertain guests in the summer months. By the summer of 1899, there was also a public hall nearby for indoor events. Swanton divested himself of the power plant in February 1900 and sold it to F. W. Billing and John Q. Packard, two wealthy Utah miners. This ended Swanton’s involvement with the community named after him three years earlier. This likely led to a drop in enrolments at Seaside School, which closed at the end of the school year.

Pasquale Sonognini, circa 1890. [Find A Grave – colorized using MyHeritage]

Swanton, still called Laurel Grove by most locals and in advertising, remained a popular tourist destination despite the drop in population. Sonognini’s campground continued to expand and attract travelers each year, prompting him to erect a small boarding house no later than summer 1904. It seems likely that this house was in fact Sonognini’s home and grocery store, expanded with the addition of guest rooms and an enlarged kitchen. This theory is further reinforced by the fact that Riccardo Mattei was granted a liquor license to operate a saloon from Sonognini’s building in Swanton in June 1905, suggesting that the structure was being used for more than just a grocery store and was Sonognini’s only building in the hamlet. Sonognini himself died while fighting a fire up Big Creek on September 6, 1904, leaving ownership of his property to his three young children and his widow, Theresa DaVico, also of Switzerland. On January 29, 1906, Mattei married the widowed Theresa.

Ocean Shore Railroad No. 4 at Swanton, circa 1918. [Images of America: Davenport – colorized using MyHeritage]

The promise of the Ocean Shore Railway, incorporated in 1905, revigorated interest in the Scott Creek valley. Company surveyors were sent along the coast searching for the best route north to Pescadero and San Francisco. Yet, the railroad did not initially venture far into the valley. In 1907, crews reached the mouth of Scott Creek and turned up it, but only far enough to reach the first large meadow, which had been subdivided and named Folger, after the coffee magnate who was also an investor in the railroad. On this field the company installed a wye to allow trains to turn around and return to Santa Cruz. The actual passenger and freight station for the valley was further south at today’s Swanton Berry Farm, where the Ocean Shore Railway intersected the Coast Road on its way up Scott Creek. Another stop near the creek mouth, Scott Junction, was where the railroad planned to continue north, though that would never happen in reality. Thus, Swanton was within reach of a railroad, but still had no direct service.

Seaside schoolhouse in Swanton, Feb 29, 1952. Photo by Paul L. Henchey. [UC Davis – colorized using MyHeritage]

In the aftermath of the San Francisco Earthquake, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company found itself unable to properly harvest timber in its Hinckley Gulch property outside Soquel. In response, it bought stumpage rights to 1,000 acres along Mill Creek, a tributary of Scott Creek located just north of Swanton. The company hoped to use the Ocean Shore Railway once a spur was extended to Swanton, but for its first two seasons, that did not happen. As a result, lumber was hauled out of Swanton to Scott or Davenport, where it was then loaded onto flatcars for shipment to the yards in Santa Cruz, Capitola, and Watsonville. This increase in activity in Swanton from mid-1907 led to the reopening of Seaside School the following year, with the schoolhouse moved for a second and final time to Schoolhouse Gulch.

An Ocean Shore Railroad train outside the Mattei's boarding house in Swanton, circa 1918. [Sandy Lydon – colorized using MyHeritage]

Everything changed in 1908 when the San Vicente Lumber Company announced its plans to harvest the massive untapped timber tracts along the headwaters of Little, Big, Archibald, and San Vicente Creeks. A cash-strapped Ocean Shore Railway could not help but support the scheme and by the end of the year, it was actively extending its track from Folger into Swanton, with a short spur to support the Loma Prieta Lumber Company’s mill and a branch railroad called the Scott Creek Railway extended up Little Creek to the site of the first San Vicente lumber camp. Between Little Creek and Archibald Creek, a small freight yard was built with several sidings to hold flatcars for the various operations in the area. Meanwhile, the Sonognini–Mattei family’s boarding house became the de facto passenger station for the railroad in Swanton, with the tracks running directly beside it.

James Gray poses with his auto buses at the Swanton House in Pescadero, circa 1918. [Mattei family collection, Santa Cruz MAH – colorized using MyHeritage]

The history of Swanton during the Ocean Shore years is very poorly recorded. Riccardo—commonly known as Richard or Dick—served as the local official in charge of capturing fish for the Brookdale Fish Hatchery from 1907. He served in this role until around 1924. He proved less proficient as a saloonkeeper when he had his license revoked in September 1909 for keeping a disorderly house. This led to Theresa taking a more active role in management of the hospitality business. Little was said of Swanton for the next five years. By the summer 1914 season, the boarding house was known as the Laurel Grove Inn, with Theresa as proprietor. Meanwhile, Riccardo took an interest in automobiles and bought a Ford touring car in July 1914. This passion was shared with his step-son-in-law, James W. Gray, who was vice president of the Ocean Shore Auto Company and who had just begun running Stanley Steamer passenger coaches between Swanton and Tunitas to fill the 26-mile gap in the Ocean Shore Railroad’s route. Gray and Elvezia M. Sonognini married on November 30, 1914.

Map of Rancho Agua Puerca y las Trancas shortly before the San Vicente Lumber Company left Swanton, March 1922. [Santa Cruz GIS]

The closure of the Ocean Shore Railroad in October 1920 and the end of logging above Swanton in 1923 led to the quick decline of the community as a population center. Industrial workers moved away and took their children with them. Automobiles, meanwhile, passed through the town but did not linger. For a shore while, Gray managed to continue his passenger service and expanded into freight following the collapse of the Ocean Shore Railroad. The last mention of the Laurel Grove Inn in newspapers is in July 1924, though the Matteis continued to host events on their property for at least a decade afterwards. The family ran the post office until December 31, 1930. Riccardo died at his home on May 11, 1932. Theresa died nine years later on September 21, 1941 at her home in Santa Cruz.

Swanton historical marker at site of Laurel Grove Inn, Jan 3, 2013. Photo by Barry Swackhamer.

In 1938, the Poletti and Morelli families had purchased much of the lower Scott Creek valley, and the United States entry into World War II three years later led to the further depopulation of the area. Farms shut down and local industry shifted to artichokes and Brussels sprouts, with cattle ranching on the side. Bereft of students, Seaside School shut down for the last time after the 1960 school year. Students afterwards were sent to Pacific School in Davenport. Albert B. Smith, a former Southern Pacific Railroad employee, bought the property that comprised much of the former hamlet in 1978 and donated it as Swanton Pacific Ranch to California Polytechnic State University, San Luís Obispo, upon his death in 1993.

Citations & Credits:

  • Donald Clark, Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary, 2nd edition (Santa Cruz: Museum of Art & History, 2002).
  • Rick Hamman, California Central Coast Railways, 2nd edition (Santa Cruz: Otter B Books, 2007).
  • Mildred Brooke Hoover, Hero Eugene and Ethel Grace Rensch, and William N. Abeloe, Historic Spots in California, 3rd edition (Stanford: University Press, 1966).
  • Charles S. McCaleb, Surf, Sand and Streetcars: A Mobile History of Santa Cruz, California, 2nd edition (Santa Cruz: Museum of Art & History, 2005).
  • Ronald G. Powell, The Shadow of Loma Prieta: Part 3 of the History of Rancho Soquel Augmentation (Santa Cruz: Zayante Publishing, 2022).
  • Jeanine Marie Scaramozzino, “Una Legua Cuadrada: Exploring the History of Swanton Pacific Ranch and Environs,” thesis submitted toward an MA in History, California Polytechnic State University, San Luís Obispo (December 2015).
  • Al Smith, “The History of Swanton” (July 1990).
  • Various articles from the Evening News, Sentinel, and Surf.

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