Friday, July 10, 2020

Freight Stops: Railway Express Agency

Parcel services are something that we take for granted today. Before 1918, the United States did not have a consistent, nationwide network of parcel service. Even the United States Post Office did not deal in anything bigger than what could be held in a hand until 1913. For most of the country's history, small, local, independent firms managed parcel shipping, while similarly small, local, independent firms managed receiving and delivery. In Santa Cruz, that service was handled by the Daniels' Transfer Company, which worked with Southern Pacific Railroad, the Pacific Steamship Company, and the various long-haul parcel companies such as American Express and Wells Fargo to ensure that parcels arrived at their destination. Efficiency and supply-line problems prompted by World War I, however, forced the country to move forward. The United States government took control of the country's railroads in 1917 to aid the war effort, and this meant that all railroad contracts with parcel firms were suddenly terminated. A solution had to be found to ensure that parcel delivery could resume.

The former Railway Express Agency building at Depot Park, 2018.
It was the United States Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo who proposed the idea of a unified railroad parcel company in early 1918. In July, the American Railway Express Agency was founded, taking control of the parcel services of American Express, Wells Fargo, Southern Express, and Adams Express companies. American Express was left largely in control of the new agency since it contributed to 40% of the assets, although not in Santa Cruz County. The United States Railroad Administration remained in control of the country's railroads until March 1920 but did not release its influence over the American Railway Express Agency until March 1929. During these years, the REA expanded service to Chicago, which was not originally included in its range, and also opened an Air Express Division in 1927.

The American Railway Express Agency office beside the Santa Cruz Union Depot, 1920s.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – Colorized using DeOldify]
When precisely the American Railway Express Agency structure was erected at the Santa Cruz Union Depot yard is unknown, but it was probably built between late 1918 and 1920. It was located directly to the north of the main station building along Washington Street. Where previously people would have had to arrange transportation of parcels by visiting the Daniels' Transfer office or visiting the main downtown post office, instead people could go to the Union Depot, where a station agent would receive parcels and then, after appropriate labeling, store them in the adjacent express warehouse to await shipment. In many ways, it streamlined the process, although Daniels' remained in business as an alternative parcel shipper. The building itself was a high-roofed, single story, wood framed building with a plain, stucco exterior done in a vaguely Spanish revival style. The building measured 30 feet wide and 85 feet long and was probably exposed timber inside.

The Railway Express Agency warehouse to the left of the Santa Cruz Union Depot, late 1940s. [Tom Hambleton]
In March 1929, the government finally relinquished its influence over the organization and it reincorporated under new terms. The new name became simply Railway Express Agency and, rather than being owned by the pre-war express agencies, was jointly owned by eighty-six railroad companies in direct proportion to the average amount of parcel service they carried along their lines. Attempts by other companies to compete with the REA began as early as 1922 with the San Francisco-based Pioneer Express Company, but Santa Cruz County proved loyal to the REA through World War II, with few local competitors really presenting a challenge.

World War II once again challenged local parcel services and most switched to using trucks for much of their short- and medium-haul trips. REA, in response, moved into the refrigerated goods transfer business via a fleet of refrigerator cars, since trucks were still not quite capable of staying refrigerated for long periods of time. This changed in the mid-1950s and by the end of the decade, even this service was suffering dramatically. REA finally adopted trucks itself in 1959 and began to phase out its fleet of rolling stock. In 1960, the company reincorporated as REA Express, Inc., marking its transition from a principally railroad-based business to all forms of transport. The company continued until 1969, when it was sold to several of its employees. Rail service had dropped by this time to 10% of its entire business and REA itself only constituted 10% of all parcel service transactions in the United States. A series of lawsuits against UPS and the Brotherhood of Railway Workers in the early 1970s led to the final demise of the company due to insolvency. The company went bankrupt in November 1975 and all of its goods were sold at auction.

Santa Cruz Sentinel notice noting closure of local REA Express office, July 23, 1971.
In 1961, the REA agency in Santa Cruz became the only operating office in Santa Cruz County when the office at Watsonville permanently shut down. A decade later, in July 1971, the office closed and all REA shipments were routed to Salinas, where couriers would have to pick up deliveries and route them to Santa Cruz via truck. In 1973, the building became Washington Square, a boutique clothing showroom and store owned by Tom Cahill. It underwent a significant facelift with arched, covered windows and decorative plants around the building. Cahill died in December 1980 but his business lasted until May 1984, at which point it shut down. The location appears to have remained unoccupied afterwards, although it continued to be used for community functions on an as-needed basis. It survived the earthquake unscathed and became the base for the Homeless Garden Project in 1994, which continued to use the building through 1998.

Washington Square shortly after opening, July 19, 1973. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]
The Railway Express Agency building survived the fire that engulfed the adjacent Union Depot station on January 5, 1998. It was vacated later in the year and was included in the plans for the transformation of the depot area into Depot Park. By the time that the park opened in March 2005, the former Express Agency building had been upgraded for use as a public hall and restroom facility and remains so today. It received a Blue Plaque noting its historical importance to Santa Cruz County history from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History on May 5, 2012.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9468N, 122.0273W
119 Center Street

The former Railway Express office is now the only surviving structure at the Santa Cruz Union Depot grounds. The building itself has been upgraded superficially to have rust orange walls over the stucco façade and the roof has modern shingling. The placement of the windows remain original. The structure was shifted slightly when the park was made but it remains within the vicinity of its original location. The interior of the building has been entirely gutted to create the public hall with no hints left as to its original purpose. The walls have soundproofing along all four walls and florescent lights now shine down from overhead. The building hosts several regular programs including yoga classes and parts of it can be viewed during these times or simply by using the restroom.

Citations & Credits:
  • Bender, Henry. "SP San Jose to Santa Cruz (ex-South Pacific Coast Ry.)." Unpublished notes. 2013.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1971–1994.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Freight Stops: Centennial Flour Mills

Santa Cruz County has never supported a successful flour industry, but several attempts have been made over the years. Joseph Majors attempted to grow wheat and refine flour in the 1840s near Scotts Valley but gave up soon afterwards. Frederick A. Hihn also ran a small grain mill out of his shop on Pacific Avenue in the 1850s, but gave up. Over the hill in Los Gatos, the Forbes Mill and its successors tried for years to commercially refine wheat only to experience endless hardship and multiple bankruptcies. Other companies and people attempted to produce commercial-grade flour as well throughout the 1860s and 1870s, but the Central Coast is simply not a profitable grain-growing region. That fact, though, did not stop J. E. Butler of San Mateo from trying.

The Centennial Flour Mills building on Pacific Avenue in a dilapidated state, late 1880s.
Note the piles of lumber indicating that Grover & Company has taken over the mill.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – Colorized using DeOldify]
Newspaper advertisement for the
Centennial Flour Mills, August 10, 1878.
[Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel]
In early 1876, Butler incorporated the Centennial Flour Milling Company, a name chosen in honor of the United States' centennial. Butler hoped to tap the existing grain growers on the North Coast of Santa Cruz County and encourage more elsewhere in the region to join them in order to refine commercial grade grain products for mass market distribution. The towering mill he built in Santa Cruz on Mill Street (later the bottom of Pacific Avenue) was the tallest structure in the city when it opened. In its four stories, it was able to produce flour, bran, corn meal, barley, graham flour, grist, and various other grain products. The land had been purchased directly from the Blackburn Estate and was noted as being the site of an Ohlone food drying place in pre-Spanish times. The mill opened in mid-June 1876 to much excitement.

The mill cost $20,000 to construct and was truly impressive for the time in many ways. Although the building was made of wood, it sat on a solid stone foundation. The machinery was freshly purchased from the Lick Mills in Santa Clara County, which had just replaced its machinery. Grain was stored on the bottom floor alongside the corporate office. The boiler and engine rooms were set off in a two-story lean-to with a smokestack that rose above the hight of the building. The second floor was where the grain was processed into flour via two large grindstones. The top two stories were primarily machinery-oriented, although additional grain was stored on the fourth floor to be fed into the mill. Large chutes ran between floors to allow for the easy movement of grain and products. An external commercial chute was also located on the second floor that could drop bags of product down into waiting wagons. At maximum capacity, the mill could produce 200 barrels of flour per day via a 200 horsepower steam engine.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the Centennial Flour Mills on Pacific Avenue, 1883.
[University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections]
Centennial Flour was one of the first private firms to use the tracks at the Santa Cruz freight yard to export and import goods. Before the mill even opened, the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel advertised that the company would connect to both the Santa Cruz & Felton and Santa Cruz Railroads, but a connection was only ever made to the former. A freight spur for the mill was installed around June 9, 1876 and extended from an existing track that connected to the railroad's Pacific Avenue horsecar line (later the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad Company). A large single-story warehouse was erected in July between the main spur and the mill to store unprocessed grain that was sent in from the fields and sacks of processed grain products for shipment via the Railroad Wharf. A triangular platform jutted out from the warehouse beside the company's spur while a long boardwalk beside the spur provided additional space for loading boxcars and also a means to access the mill without walking across dirt and mud, which could contaminate the products in the mill.

Newspaper advertisement for
Bay View Flour Mills, January 28, 1882.
[Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel]
For two years, the Centennial Flour Mills operated without significant interruption and weekly ads appeared in the Sentinel. When it did close for the first time in June 1878, it was to upgrade its machinery and the company continued to advertise until September 14, 1878, when all mention of the company in the newspaper ceased without explanation. Apparently, the mill resumed operating, however, only without advertising since it was noted as closing July 1, 1880, implying it had been running before that time. In August, the mill underwent reconditioning to fix mistakes originally made by the millwright. These improvements cost between $3,000 and $4,000, which was quite high for a small industry that was facing increasing competition via other local mills and cheap grains imported via steamships and the newly-completed South Pacific Coast Railroad's line. The mill reopened in September but was forced to shut down again in January 1881 when Butler had his credit called in by the Santa Cruz Bank. Lacking available funds, he forfeited the mill. In June of that year, Robert Orton nearly leased the property, but in mid-July, it came under the management of Luke Lukes of Dixon. As soon as he took possession, he had a new two-ton fly wheel installed in order to reopen the mill. Lukes ran the company for eighteen months under the name Bay View Flour Mills before being declared insolvent in court on January 10, 1883. By this point, the mill appears to have been not operating for several months and was entering a state of decay.

In November 1883, it was speculated in the Sentinel that Grover & Company, which owned the adjacent lumber yard and mill, were interested in purchasing the entire flour company. They likely took over the property within the next two years since lumber piles are shown scattered throughout the flour mill's yard and the grain warehouse is storing hay in the 1886 Sanborn Fire Insurance map. Somewhat unexpectedly, perhaps, Grover expressed interest in reopening the facility in 1888 as a flour mill, estimating that it could produce fifty sacks of flour per day. Grover leased the mill to J. M. Jordan for this purpose, but these plans appear to have fallen through and by 1892 the facility was undergoing conversion into a new planing mill to replace the aging adjacent mill. The converted planing mill remained in operation for the next fifteen years, initially under Grover, then under Grover, Cunningham & Company. Grover joined in the Santa Cruz Lumber Company joint venture but shortly afterwards went bankrupt, passing all of its possessions to the Santa Cruz Savings & Loans Bank, which entrusted it to the Loma Prieta Lumber Company.

Throughout its years operating as a flour mill, the facility was heavily prepared for fires, which were known to be frequent in the often dry environments inside flour mills. Large water cisterns were installed on each level of the mill and steam pumps could lift water to hoses and a hydrant on all of the levels as well. The Centennial Flour Mills also employed a watchmen to ensure no fires were lighted when the mill was not operating. The watchmen was retained through subsequent managerial changes and one remained employed in the winter of 1904. On February 19, the watchman was settling down for his mid-night lunch when he noticed a flickering light in the second floor of the old flour mill. The Santa Cruz Surf reported:
Not in ten years has Santa Cruz had such an illumination as was to be witnessed this morning between 2 o'clock and daybreak, Broad sheets of flame a hundred feet high reflected against an opaque cloud covered sky, giving light enough to distinguish small objects for miles around. People who viewed the illumination from a distance were at first unable to locate the fire, but the bright relief in which Sunshine Villa, Mr. Bowman's residence, and adjacent places on Beach Hill were thrown soon showed that it was the old Centennial mill and the Loma Prieta Lumber Company's mill and lumber sheds that were on fire.
Within fifteen minutes of the time the alarm sounded there was an acre of flame rising skyward, without a puff of wind to deviate its course.... As a spectacle it was very magnificent.
The fire was so hot that it cracked the windows of buildings that sat along Third Street at the top of Beach Hill. It also destroyed several nearby structures including the old grain warehouse and the long-since-repurposed Grover planing mill that once sat beside the flour mill, although much of the nearby mill's lumber was saved by quick action by employees and the fire department. Old planing mill machinery and tools, custom mouldings, and some high grade lumber were all inside the warehouse when it caught fire, amounting to over 200,000 board feet of lost wood products.

The fire coincided conveniently with Southern Pacific's plans to standard-gauge the Santa Cruz Union Depot yard and shift the freight presence away from Pacific Avenue, which had been largely bypassed when the Union Depot opened in 1893. Nothing of the old Centennial Flour Mills facility survived the fire and the entire Pacific Avenue freight zone lost its remaining rail access shortly afterwards. The Surf noted this as a good thing since the city planned to develop lower Pacific Avenue in the coming years, although this never happened and the lot remained vacant as a lumber yard for two decades. Throughout its three operators, the flour mill repeatedly lost money and proved that Santa Cruz County was not a viable place to produce commercial grade grain products.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9659N, 122.0252W

The Centennial Flour Mills building was located at 407 Pacific Avenue. The site is now occupied by the Neptune Apartments complex and Sanitary Plumbing & Heating Company, which buildings have occupied the location since 1924. No remnants of the Centennial Flour Mills survives.

Citations & Credits:
  • Harrison, Edward Sanford. History of Santa Cruz County, California (1892).
  • Samuel Hopkins Willey, "A Historical Paper Relating to Santa Cruz, California: Perpared in Pursuance of the Resolutions of Congress for the National Centennial Celebration, July 4, 1876: At the Request of the Common Council of Santa Cruz" (Printing Department of A.L. Bancroft, 1876).
  • Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, 1875–1893.
  • Santa Cruz Surf, 1904.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Stations: Santa Cruz Union Depot

There was a time once when Santa Cruz had two rival city railroad depots. On either side of Cherry Street outside the mouth of the Mission Hill tunnel, the South Pacific Coast Railroad built its main Santa Cruz depot directly across the road from the Santa Cruz Railroad's depot. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. The Santa Cruz Railroad had gotten there first back in 1875, before the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad had even finalized the location of its planned bore through Mission Hill. With few freight customers in Santa Cruz due to the Steamship Wharf, the Santa Cruz Railroad felt it only needed enough space in the city for a turntable, a small yard for its rolling stock, and an area where the company's horsecars could cut through on their way to the beach.

The Santa Cruz Union Depot on April 25, 1942. Photographed by Wilbur C. Whittaker.
[Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
Rather than obstructing the path of the Santa Cruz & Felton, the Santa Cruz & Felton used the St. Charles Hotel downtown as its passenger station and continued its line down Chestnut Street to its own Railroad Wharf, which was linked to the Steamship Wharf with a connection. It soon moved its freight facilities to the area below Blackburn Terrace, between Washington Street and Neary Lagoon. When the South Pacific Coast Railroad took over the line in 1879, it split its Santa Cruz depots. As it began upgrading the freight facilities at the Washington Street location, it installed a new passenger depot below Mission Hill just outside the tunnel portal across from the Santa Cruz Railroad depot. A second Santa Cruz station was also installed at the beach, which served as a freight depot for goods coming in via steamship and as a transfer point for the horsecar line heading to the beach.

The success of the South Pacific Coast Railroad and poor fortune by the Santa Cruz Railroad led the latter to go bankrupt in 1881. Southern Pacific took over the latter that year and standard-gauged the tracks in 1883. Soon afterwards, in 1887, it leased the South Pacific Coast Railway, but standard-gauging was not an economical option at the time due to the complex nature of the line through the mountains. Thus, the city of Santa Cruz had three railroad stations in two locations servicing separate lines of different gauges. Unification of the stations and lines was desperately needed.

A heavily altered colorized postcard of the Santa Cruz Union Depot, possibly depicting its opening day, 1893.
Public encouragement for unification began in 1888 but plans were not finalized until 1892 when Southern Pacific chose as the site of its Union Depot the junction of Washington Street, Center Street, and Pacific Avenue, essentially the place where the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad had originally established its city freight yard. Although Southern Pacific had continued to use the turntable, water tower, and engine house there for its narrow-gauge trains, the existing facility was inadequate for the union yard. Fortunately, most of the nearby freight businesses had either shut down or were able to move, so Southern Pacific in coordination with the city government began laying out a formal plan for the area. Washington Street was extended via a slight curve all the way to Pacific Avenue, with Center Street merging into Washington just before the junction. Since most of the freight at the yard was lumber brought in from the San Lorenzo Valley, narrow-gauge spurs were reinstalled to access the two lumber yards at the yard. Chestnut Street was also extended and the local Chinese community moved to its southern end beside Neary Lagoon in order to build the new station and yard.

Colorized postcard of a narrow-gauge South Pacific Coast Railway train on the dual-gauge tracks beside the Santa Cruz Union Depot, c 1900. Note the standard-gauge boxcars on the left beside the obscured freight depot and the streetcar parked on a track on the far right.
Throughout 1892, nearly all of the trackage at the yard was realigned and all of the existing railroad structures were replaced. Many of the tracks were also converted to triple rails to support both standard-gauge and narrow-gauge trains. Southern Pacific had planned from the time of its acquisition of the South Pacific Coast to standard-gauge the line, but that project was slow through the mountains so retaining the narrow-gauge to the Railroad Wharf remained essential. The original Santa Cruz & Felton narrow-gauge track through the cut of Pacific Avenue to the wharf remained in place as standard-gauge, but nearly every other track had a third rail installed. A new mixed-gauge roundhouse was built near the site of the original, with a water tank, turntable, coal pile, oil tanks, and two oil pump houses installed nearby to support the maintenance of the rolling stock. Smaller structures were added or removed from the yard as needed.

View of the Santa Cruz freight yard with four separate Suntan Specials parked, late 1930s.
Note the long freight depot at the left. [Gene O'Lague Jr. – Colorized using DeOldify]
The most important change at the yard, however, were the additions of purpose built freight and  passenger depots that sat across the tracks from each other. The freight depot essentially replaced the need for the old Santa Cruz Beach station, which was removed at the same time, while the new passenger depot led to the decommissioning of both passenger depots on Cherry Street. The freight depot was a fairly standard Southern Pacific no-frills structure. It was tall and long but not especially wide with a long platform that fronted a track that ran along the west side of the yard. An office for the depot's freight agent was located about midway down the length of the building.

The Santa Cruz Union Depot, c 1900. Note the passenger cars parked behind the depot—these narrow-gauge cars were on the wharf spur and ready to return over the mountain to San José. [Vernon Sappers – Colorized using DeOldify]
The Santa Cruz Union Depot in 1912. [Vernon Sappers]
The crowning glory of the Union Depot was the new passenger station. Opened on January 1, 1893, the two-story late Victorian-style building with a double-gabled dormer upstairs was built in a non-standard, Eastlake style that closely resembled the San Luis Obispo depot, which opened the following year. The bottom floor consisted of an office station agent's office situate between two waiting rooms, with a large, single-story baggage room set off on the north side of the building. The station agent and his family lived in the upstairs part of the building. A large chalk board was located between two ticket windows on the track side of the building and the agent was responsible for updating train times each day. Initially, the station also was the receiving point for small parcels and mail, while the station agent doubled as a Western Union telegraph operator. A low concrete platform ran along the side of the tracks outside the station but no outdoor seating was originally available.

Passengers buying tickets at the Santa Cruz Union Depot's ticket office, 1911. [Colorized using DeOldify]
Passengers waiting outside the baggage room of the Santa Cruz Union Depot, 1915.
[Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
For fifteen years after the Santa Cruz depots were unified, little else changed at the yard. The tracks remained mixed gauge, a few spurs were added, but little else was altered. But the destruction of portions of the mountain route, especially the Summit Tunnel, in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 finally allowed Southern Pacific to upgrade all of its remaining track in the county to standard-gauge. The end result of this was in fact relatively minor, at least in regard to the Union Depot. The old Santa Cruz & Felton track to the Railroad Wharf was finally abandoned and all rail service to the wharf ended. By this point, it had become primarily a crowded pier for local Italian fishing firms in any case. Over narrow-gauge freight spurs were also either removed or upgraded at this time and all of the triple track was made standard-gauge. The Union Traction streetcar company also used the disaster as an excuse to standard-gauge its own lines, including its connections to the Southern Pacific trackage at the Union Depot, beginning in September 1907.

An excursion train passing returning from Davenport and passing the Santa Cruz freight yard, July 21, 1951,
Photograph by Wilbur C. Whittaker. [Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
Coinciding with this standardization was also the conversion of the yard into a wye owing to the expansion of Southern Pacific trackage to Davenport beginning in late 1905 (although the route would not be completed until late 1906). One side of the wye was essentially a branch off of the yard's maintenance spur that once passed through a bay in the engine house. The southern branch was a new track that crossed Neary Lagoon's tiny creek and then met up with the other track just as the grade began ascending the hill to Bay Street. A branch off this second track also linked to a steep track that allowed rolling stock to be exchanged with the Ocean Shore Railway line that remained at the top of the bluff. Around the time that the wye was installed, a team track area was also placed at the end of Chestnut Street where Chinatown had been fifteen years earlier. Six parallel spurs, all terminating before reaching the Neary Lagoon stream behind the freight depot, allowed rolling stock to park while it awaited a passing train. These spurs may have been intended for the lumber companies but saw their heaviest use by the two aggregate firms that moved into the Olympia area north of Felton in the 1920s.

SP2915 on the turntable at Santa Cruz, 1930s. Photograph by Fred Stoes. [Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]


Southern Pacific engineering crew standing beside SP2918 at the Santa Cruz engine house, c. 1930s.
[Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
Following standard-gauging, little more changed at the yard over the next sixty years. The opening of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf in 1914 allowed for railroad service to the wharf to resume, although few customers other than the Cowell Lime Company and a few local canning companies appear to have actually used it. This track broke off from the main yard track just below the West Cliff Drive vehicle bridge. An increase in passenger customers by 1918 also prompted Southern Pacific to install a covered umbrella shed projecting from the south of the depot, which provided shade for several rows of benches. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Ocean Shore Railroad in 1920 followed by the closure of the San Vicente Lumber Company's mill in 1923 removed the need for the connecting track to the Ocean Shore line off the wye. Lastly, the end of the Union Traction Company in January 1926 soon led to the abandonment of the track along Pacific Avenue, including the removal of the backlot spur that ran from the company's car barn.

Santa Cruz freight yard's engine house and turntable, late 1930s. [Vernon Sappers – Colorized using DeOldify]
Several locomotives, probably Suntan Specials, parked at the turntable at Santa Cruz, late 1930s.
[Gene O'Lague Jr. – Colorized using DeOldify]
Although the depot and yard remained the same, things were changing, especially once the Great Depression set in. Regular passenger service to Davenport ended on August 1, 1932. Six years later, on February 7, 1938, all regular passenger service along the coast ended as well. The big hit, however, was the closure of the route through the mountains on February 26, 1940. With all regular passenger service ended, things began to wind down at the Union Depot. The presence of the wye and the retirement of the switch engine at the yard meant that the turntable and engine house were no longer needed and were removed on October 21, 1942. The lack of passengers other than aboard Suntan Specials and excursion trains, which were seasonal and catered primarily to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, meant that there was no more need for the passenger shed, so that was removed in 1953. The end of Suntan Specials in 1959 put an end to any scheduled passenger trains that called at Santa Cruz, although irregular excursion trains continued until 1964.

Suntan Specials on various sidings beneath Blackburn Terrace at the Santa Cruz yard, early 1950s.
[Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
The Santa Cruz Union Depot on a mildly busy weekend day with Suntan Special passengers milling around the station, 1955. [Colorized using DeOldify]
The depot still functioned as a bus depot and ticket office for Southern Pacific, however, so it remained in use, albeit barely. The freight services, however, were limited almost entirely to two sand quarries near Olympia and the Davenport cement plant, so the need for a dedicated freight depot was gone. The building was closed on September 9, 1960 and demolished in 1963. The permanent agent assigned at the passenger was finally laid off on December 15, 1973, which marked the formal closure of the structure by the railroad. The station itself, although not the structure, was briefly revived for passenger service in 1986 when the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railroad ran its inaugural annual journey to Santa Cruz, but it soon was able to negotiate usage rights to the Southern Pacific track in front of the Boardwalk and this short-lived service to the Union Depot ended.

A Southern Pacific diesel locomotive at Santa Cruz switching a long sand train after picking up
a load from the Olympia quarries, early 1970s. [Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
The Union Depot with the inaugural Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railroad train parked beside it, 1986.
From this time, the station building entered its short second life as a local restaurant. The interior of the station was almost entirely overhauled to convert spaces into kitchens and dining areas. The first patron to lease the building was The Big Yellow House in 1974. A few other businesses leased it afterwards ending with the Gandy Dancers Restaurant, which closed following the Loma Prieta Earthquake in October 1989. El Palomar moved into the building for three years following the earthquake but vacated once their older structure downtown was renovated and earthquake retrofitted. The building then sat abandoned at the end of Washington Street, a relic of a time when the depot was one of the most important meeting places in the city. By this point, some windows were boarded up and the structure was entering a state of decay common to century-old buildings.

The staff of the Big Yellow House outside Santa Cruz station, late 1970s. [Rick Hamman]
Beginning in 1995, the Historic Preservation Commission began work to keep the building for future use by advocating for a night watch, installing automatic lighting, and keeping the internal sprinklers maintained, but all of this ended when the Union Pacific Railroad took over in 1996. The sprinklers had always leaked and Union Pacific did not want to repair them so disabled the system in 1997. The lack of attention to the building made it appealing to the local homeless community, who began to congregate inside. On January 5, 1998, a group of homeless accidentally allowed a camp fire to get out of hand within the building and within minutes, the entire structure was ablaze. The Historic Preservation Commission issued in its report afterwards that the fire was "a completely avoidable tragedy," but property developers, the City of Santa Cruz, and Union Pacific likely wished for the building to go away.

A Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railroad train passing beside the Railway Express Agency building, 2012.
In late 1998, a plan was put forward to redevelop the entire area around the old Union Depot yard. Between 1999, all but one of the old sidings and spurs were removed and the northern end of the wye was brought further south. This allowed for a new subdivision to be developed at the end of Chestnut Street beside Neary Lagoon. The former depot site was also extensively redeveloped and converted into a city park that was christened Depot Park when it opened in March 2005. The location of the depot was marked by a large concrete circle beside the tracks. The only original structure remaining is the Railway Express Agency office building, which now serves as a community building and restroom for the park. The one spur left was actually the former mainline track but is now reserved for the rare instances when one or two cars need to get out of the way of passing trains. Plans to once more use the location as a train stop for various local railroad operations have been announced on several occasions since the late 1980s but none have come to fruition. The yard is currently owned by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission with usage rights shared by Roaring Camp Railroads and Progressive Rail.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9643N, 122.0270W
Formerly 123 Washington Street

The site of the Santa Cruz Union Depot is located within Depot Park at the junction of Center Street, Pacific Avenue, and West Cliff Drive. The precise site of the station building is now the center of the larger circular courtyard beside the Express Agency building. The area is open to the public and free parking is provided, although often full. No remants of the actual station structure survive but the

Citations & Credits:
  • Bender, Henry E., Jr. "SP San Jose to Santa Cruz (ex-South Pacific Coast Ry.)." 2013.
  • Bender, Henry E., Jr. Southern Pacific Lines Standard-Design Depots. Wilton, CA: Signature Press, 2013.
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second Edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Otter B Books, 2007.
  • Whaley, Derek W. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA: 2015.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Freight Stops: Santa Cruz Lumber Yard

Over a decade before ground was broken on the Santa Cruz Union Depot, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad began the slow process of turning the area between Neary Lagoon and Pacific Avenue north of Blackburn Terrace into the Santa Cruz freight yard. The area was convenient for several reasons. The lagoon and a seasonal stream that passed through the area made formal development difficult. At the same time, it was where the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad line met with the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad's mainline before the tracks passed through the Beach Hill cut and split again at the Main Beach for the wharves and bathhouses. The proximity of the Santa Cruz Railroad, which bypassed the yard in a wide loop to the west, also meant that there was more space for expansion. Whether any lumber was stored there at this time is unknown, but it seems likely that excess lumber brought down from the San Lorenzo Valley flume awaiting shipment from the Railroad or Steamship Wharves may have been stored in the vicinity. In any case, by 1878, the Santa Cruz & Felton was prepared for expansion and moved its engine house to the area and installed a turntable and water tower. That same year, the first private lumber company leased space at the yard.

Crowds at the Santa Cruz Union Depot seeing off troops going overseas, 1917. Note the various lumber company-related structures in the distance to the right along Center Street. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The Grover brothers had been operating a commercial lumber mill in the hills above Soquel since 1866 and shipped its goods from the Soquel Landing Wharf. Why the company decided to relocate operations to Santa Cruz in May 1878 is unknown, but it was likely to tap into the larger ships that could call in at the Santa Cruz wharves. How the lumber got to Santa Cruz is also a mystery, but it may have been transported on the Santa Cruz Railroad or via smaller coastal ships that shuttled between Soquel and Santa Cruz. The earliest existing Sanborn Fire Insurance map of the area from 1883 shows that Grover & Company owned a mid-sized planning mill with a spur between the two tracks of the horsecar line. Two additional spurs to the northwest of the mill and beside the South Pacific Coast Railroad's mainline were used for accessing stacks of railroad crossties and lumber produced by Grover. At this time, all of the tracks were narrow-gauge and remained as such until the yard was converted around 1907.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the original lumber yard at Santa Cruz, 1883.
[University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections]
In 1881, George Olive established his lumber yard on either side of the Grover & Company yard, possibly along an otherwise undocumented backlot spur. His initial property was a small lot along Pacific Avenue in the shadow of the Centennial Flour Mill. It had no milling structures, only some storage sheds. His lumber was derived from a tract high above Laguna Creek twelve miles north of Santa Cruz, so why he decided to move his operations downtown rather than use the Davenport Landing wharf or build their own wharf to ship lumber is not known. In any case, Olive took on a partner, Howard Foster, in 1883 and their combined firm became Olive & Foster. They soon expanded their operations from split stuff and shingles to full-sized lumber via a new planing mill at the northern end of the freight yard. The 1888 Sanborn map shows the mid-sized structure sitting directly across from where the South Pacific Coast and Southern Pacific Railroad tracks crossed on Chestnut Street, in the vicinity of today's Jenne Street. A second larger lumber yard was built beside the mill, but the old yard was also retained, and the Sanborn map shows a suspicious right-of-way connecting the two, suggesting a private railroad spur may have linked the two facilities.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the Santa Cruz freight yard in 1886. [UCSC Digital Collections]
Foster left Olive & Foster in 1886 and the company was renamed George Olive & Company. Around the same time, Grover & Company took over the abandoned Centennial Flour Mill property, taking over the majority of the yard. The company initially intended to use the mill to produce flour and then abandoned that idea to use the building as a second planing mill. Neither idea came to fruition, though, and the structure sat vacant from about 1886 to 1897. Olive reincorporated again in 1889 as the Santa Cruz Lumber Company and bought stumpage rights to a new timber tracts on Liddell Creek seven miles north of Santa Cruz. It appears that Olive ceased using his lumber yards and planing mill in Santa Cruz at this time, although both remained his property. The yards may have been leased to Grover & Company but the mill was converted into a hay barn. After only four years, Olive abandoned his Santa Cruz properties and sold the entire Santa Cruz Lumber Company to Frederick A. Hihn. That same year, the Santa Cruz Union Depot opened, which led to the reorganization of much of the trackage in the area. In 1897, Hihn leased the Grover & Company property in the area, thereby obtaining complete possession of the lumber yards at the union depot.

Final Sanborn Fire Insurance map before he conversion of the yard to the Santa Cruz Union Depot, 1892.
[UCSC Digital Collections]
The Santa Cruz Lumber Company was in reality a collective of local lumber businesses, including his F. A. Hihn Company, Grover & Company, Cunningham & Company, George Olive & Company, and several other local concerns. The unification of the yards in 1893 did not unify the gauge of the tracks, so all of the lumber spurs remained narrow-gauge until around 1907. The former Olive planing mill was heavily upgraded and reopened for use by the Santa Cruz Lumber Company alongside the old track near the end of Washington Street. Across Washington, a larger new planing mill was erected with around a dozen stacks of lumber spanning both sides of the road, possibly with railroad spurs running down the street to reach them. Across Center Street to the east, the Sinkinson & Sons yard with its smaller planing mill also operated briefly before moving to the Mission Orchard to the north of Mission Hill. Sinkinson, which specialized in sashes and shingles, was likely affiliated with the Santa Cruz Lumber Company since it had little space to store lumber on its small property.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the new alignment of the Santa Cruz Union Depot yard, 1905.
[UCSC Digital Collections]
Two other lumber companies also established themselves at the Santa Cruz Union Depot yard in this time. The largest was the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, which had a sometimes friendly but often competitive relationship with Hihn's various businesses. Loma Prieta moved onto the property of Grover & Company with the blessing of Hihn and as a part of an agreement to work together. But the cooperation ended in 1898 when economic conditions made such a partnership unprofitable. A fire in February 1904 destroyed most of its structures but allowed the lower end of Center Street and Washington Street, as well as the Pacific Avenue curve, to be realigned and the seasonal creek to be entirely culverted. This effectively marked the end of freight customers on Pacific Avenue but increased the freight presence in the section of road between Laurel Street and the junction of Center and Washington. Loma Prieta eschewed rebuilding its planing mill, since it already had sufficient mills at its lumber sites, and instead extended its lumber yard across both sides of Center Street.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the Cash Lumber Company yard on Chestnut Street, 1905.
[UCSC Digital Collections]
Newspaper advertisement for the Cash Lumber Company, 1903. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]
Across the yard to the west at the corner of Chestnut Street and Laurel Street, the Cash Lumber Company moved in in early 1903 as the only known lumber company to operate on the standard-gauge tracks. Cash appears to have sold mostly doors, sashes, and other specialty wood products similar to Sinkinson & Sons. It may have been owned or operated by the Big Creek Power Company since it was that corporation that sold the yard in January 1906 to J. Q. Packard, the president of Big Creek Power. Packard likely bought the firm in order to subdivide the land and parcel it off. However, Loma Prieta Lumber Company bought the Packard's lumber assets in May. The newspapers in June reported that the reason for this purchase was to increase the price of wood products in the region. Cash was a lumber wholesaler that regularly undercut the prices of rivals. With Loma Prieta suffering from the loss of its mill in Hinckley Gulch in the San Francisco Earthquake and facing a difficult financial future, it clearly felt it was wise to ensure higher prices for its lumber in the immediate future by purchasing its rival. Despite the buyout and the threat of shutting down the yard, it appears that an H. S. Holway continued to run the yard throughout 1907, but the company disappears after February 1, 1908, suggesting Loma Prieta finally delivered on its promise. The property was soon taken over by the Daniels' Transfer Express Company.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the Santa Cruz Union Depot following the removal of all of the lumber patrons from the yard, 1917. [UCSC Digital Collections]
The Santa Cruz Lumber Company shut down when Hihn sold out to the A. P. Hammond Company in 1909. By 1911, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company had vacated the freight yard and sold its property to the Hihn-Hammond company, which promptly sold it. Hihn-Hammond, in turn, ended operations at the yard in the summer of 1913 when it was sold to the Central Lumber & Fuel Company, a subsidiary of the San Vicente Lumber Company. From this point forward, only Central Lumber and its successors retained a freight presence at the yard. In 1921, the company petitioned for a new spur to be extended through the old backlot parallel to Pacific Avenue. This gave the company direct freight access at approximately the location of the original Olive & Company lumber yard between Pacific Avenue and Cedar Street. Central Lumber was sold to the Homer T. Hayward Lumber Company in 1923, who continued to use the spur to receive deliveries of wood products from outside the county. In 1932, Hayward sold the property to Lloyd M. Hebbron, who purchased some of the vacant Loma Prieta Lumber Company land on Center Street. It was during this period that the spur to the lumber yard was permanently removed and the use of the railroad by local lumber companies came to an end at the Santa Cruz Union Depot.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Because the layout of the Santa Cruz freight yard has changed considerably over the past 145 years, the location of the older lumber spurs are not immediately apparent or certain. Most sat within the grounds of what is today Depot Park, but the surrounding roads were very different, with neither Washington Street nor Center Street reaching Pacific Avenue. In later years, the lumber yards stretched between Chestnut Street and Front Street, although not all at once. Nothing remains of the lumber yards and most of the land has since been developed into homes and businesses.

Citations & Credits:

Friday, June 12, 2020

Freight Stops: Washington Street Spur

While narrow-gauge railroad spurs criss-crossed the lower parts of Chestnut Street and Pacific Avenue in the early days of Santa Cruz County Railroading, the area near the southern end of Washington Street was relatively undeveloped. A railroad spur may have reached the southern end of the road in order to reach high piles of lumber, but otherwise the section was poorly developed. Olive & Company followed by Grover & Company maintained the lumber stacks but did little else with the land. An old planning mill between Chestnut and Washington, which was converted to a hay barn by the 1890s, was the only significant railroad-related structure in the vicinity.

Colorized postcard showing the Santa Cruz Union Depot with the open field and planing mill structures at the end of Washington Street visible at right, c. 1905. This property was owned by the Santa Cruz Lumber Company at the time, although the lack of lumber suggests the photograph was taken during the off season.
Not long after the opening of the Santa Cruz Union Depot at the freight yard in 1893, things began to change at the yard. The Railroad Exchange Hotel opened at the corner of Center Street and Pacific, and activity at the yard had shifted further to the north. The Santa Cruz Lumber Company, which was a composite company that merged the lumber interests of Grover & Company and the F. A. Hihn Company, used the opportunity to establish a planing mill and lumber yard between the railroad tracks and Center Street, spanning both sides of Washington. There is no evidence that railroad tracks crossed into the property and the yard layout does not leave room for rails, but the large warehouse erected beside the tracks makes clear that the company still relied on rail for most of its transport needs. Between Washington and Center a large mill was built alongside a mouldings workshop, kilns, a space for dressing lumber, and some warehouses. The operation persisted until the early 1910s, when the Hihn Company was consolidated into the Hammond Lumber Company, which promptly took over the facility and then shut it down within a few years.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the southern end of Washington Street at the Santa Cruz Lumber Company's planing mill and lumber yard, 1905. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections]
The vacant structures of the lumber company were converted for use as a paper mill throughout 1917.  However, this project ran into some ill-timed snags. The plant was intended to produce craft-grade paper using redwood fiber through a proprietary process developed by George M. Pillsbury. But Pillsbury died in April 1917 before the plant opened. The project continued without him, opening to test the process and materials in August, but it proved economically unviable. In November 1918, all the of the machinery was removed and the structures taken over by the Santa Cruz Canning Company.

The canning company was interested in commercially canning sardines in Santa Cruz. The company's primary structures were initially located on the old Railroad Wharf, but after the city refused to grant a permit to establish a formal cannery at the base of the old wharf, the directors decided to purchase the old planing mill near the Union Depot and remodel it into a cannery. It was they who requested the spur from the mainline Southern Pacific Railroad track near the turn of Pacific Avenue across Washington Street and into the facility in October 1918, although it was not actually installed until mid-1920. This track would remain a feature of the yard into the 1960s and was the only track to run directly behind the depot building and through its parking lot. The cannery officially opened in early July 1919 following several difficulties moving machinery and getting the facility ready for business.

From the time of its opening, the cannery was not a particularly popular business with local residents or tourists. The sewer for the facility drained into Neary Lagoon, both polluting the water at Cowell Beach and making the entire area smell like dead fish. The corporation was purchased by L. A. Pederson of San Francisco in 1919 who immediately began expanding the facilities on Washington Street. Nonetheless, complaints continued to hound the company. Oil and runoff into the sewers had begun to clog pipes, leading to the company using Hihn's old wooden drains instead. But these proved inadequate. The company did not resume operations until August 1921 after several upgrades to alleviate complaints and meet new city decrees. But it was not enough. The company closed down permanently at the end of 1922 and sold the land to the Wood Brothers Company.

George W. Wood bought the property in mid-June 1923 in order to begin producing products for the Charters Incubator Company. However, within a few years the location became the company's primary kit-built home factory, as well. George Wood worked double time for both his own firm and the East Side Lumber Company for nearly three decades until March 1939, after which he established a new lumber and brokerage firm on Soquel Avenue. He sold Wood Brothers to George Ley's Santa Cruz Lumber Company, which already operated at numerous sites in Santa Cruz so did not require the property on Washington Street.

The Santa Cruz Union Depot on a slow day, June 11, 1939, with a boxcar parked on the Standard Oil spur at right. The tall oil tank of the company must have been brand new in this photograph and can be seen in the distance to the right of the depot. Photograph by Wilbur C. Whittaker. [Jim Vail – Colorized using DeOldify]
Standard Oil purchased the lot as well as a lot at the intersection of Pacific Avenue and Washington Street. At the junction, they built a service station, but the start of World War II led to its closure only two years after it had opened, likely due to gasoline rationing and a lack of traffic due to curfews. The station became overgrown in the war years but a popular neighborhood victory garden was planted in the empty lot beside it. On the old planing mill property, Standard Oil erected a large vertical oil storage tank beside the spur. Probably after the war ended, two more tanks were added. Each was surrounded by flooded moats to prevent leaks and the spread of fire. A small storage warehouse sat just beside it and may have been left over from one of the previous operations at the site.

Aerial photograph of the Santa Cruz Union Depot area showing the Standard Oil spur crossing Washington Street and passing into its yard near the center-right, late 1940s. [Tom Hambleton – Colorized using DeOldify]
Oil was delivered multiple times a week via tanker cars delivered to the spur. Lumber may have been shipped from the spur occasionally too since stacks can be seen in the photograph above beside the spur on the opposite side from Standard Oil. This land was likely retained by the Santa Cruz Lumber Company. Standard Oil only appears to have operated its depot into the 1960s at which point the depot shut down and the tanks and infrastructure removed. The spur was abandoned shortly afterwards and all trace of it was gone by the Southern Pacific yard map that was produced in 1973. The property became a light industrial factory within a few years but did not utilize the railroad any further.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9663N, 122.0271W

The site of the Standard Oil depot is now split on either side of Washington Street at its junction with Center Street. Originally, Washington Street continued to the south until meeting Pacific Avenue but was redirected in order to make space for Depot Park in the late 1990s. While part of the lot is now a sports field, the section north of Washington Street is occupied by Sea Engineering, Broprints Custom Screenprinting, and Skateworks. No remnant of the original plant remains.

Citations & Credits:

Friday, June 5, 2020

People: Chinese Railroad Crews

Most railroad companies have their secrets and those that operated in Santa Cruz County were no different. When railroad fever hit California shortly after the Civil War, it coincided with a lack of viable and affordable workers to build the many dozens of planned routes throughout the state. Famously, the Central Pacific Railroad arranged the importation of thousands of Chinese workers to construct its route through the Sierra Nevada and across the Great Basin to Promontory Summit, Utah where it connected with the Union Pacific Railroad, thereby creating the first transcontinental railroad. They were not the first Chinese in the state—several thousand had moved to San Francisco and the Gold Country in the late 1840s and throughout the 1850s—but they were the largest influx in the region's history. As soon as the railroad project was done in 1869, Chinatowns and Chinese villages popped up in every moderate-sized settlement in Central California and cheap manual labor flooded the market.

Chinese workers making a cut along the Monterey Extension Railroad near Pacific Grove, 1889.
[California State Library – Colorized using DeOldify]
Central Pacific quickly realized that their dream of connecting the continent was only the first step in a grand plan to dominate the Western United States, including Santa Cruz County. Acting quickly, Central Pacific bought the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1868 and immediately relocated some of its Chinese workers to San José, where they were employed in building the Santa Clara & Pajaro Valley Railroad to Gilroy between 1868 and 1870. Following that project, they continued on by grading the California Southern Railroad, which became Southern Pacific in October 1870. It was this route that first brought the railroad within range of Santa Cruz County and allowed for the plausible construction of a railroad line along the county's coast to the town of Pajaro.

The Chinese fishing village at China Beach (New Brighton State Beach), 1880s.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – Colorized using DeOldify]
Like most California coastal towns, Santa Cruz had Chinese fishermen from early on, and they had a small settlement within modern-day New Brighton State Beach. Chinese laundries popped up in Santa Cruz and Watsonville as well, and at least one Chinese fruit dryer was active in the 1870s in Watsonville. These businesses formed the nascent cores of Chinatowns that arose in Santa Cruz and Watsonville in the 1860s, places where the local Chinese community congregated, traded goods, and often lived. Initially, they were almost entirely composed of working men and prostitutes, but over time families transformed these crude neighborhoods into insular villages within predominantly white towns.

The Front Street Chinatown beside the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, late 1880s. [Colorized using DeOldify]
Racism forced these communities to be transient at times, with them often relocating as necessary to protect their residents. The first community in Santa Cruz was located on Pacific Avenue (Willow Street) between Lincoln and Walnut Streets. When the street was renamed around 1872 and the business district moved down from the Upper Plaza, Chinatown moved to Front Street, where it remained throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Following the relocation of the Santa Cruz railroad depots to the freight yard in 1893, Chinatown relocated beside it, between Chestnut Street and Neary Lagoon. The Watsonville Chinatown was initially located at the corner of Maple and Union, but it was forced to move across the Pajaro River to along Brooklyn Street in 1888.

Chinese workers working along the Monterey Extension Railroad near Pacific Grove, 1889. [California State Library]
California was geographically the nearest state to China and, as such, received the vast majority of Chinese immigrants into the United States. As the numbers of Chinese grew, so too did anti-Chinese sentiment, especially in the Bay Area where the population was the highest. As early as 1850, the Chinese were driven out of the gold industry and in 1858, a law was passed barring the entry of any Asian person into California, but this was overturned by the state Supreme Court in 1862. The depression of the 1870s led to further anger at the Chinese, whom many saw as stealing white people's jobs despite no evidence that this was actually the case. Indeed, the only reason the state government continued to allow Chinese to settle in California was because of their taxable income. By the late 1870s, Asians made up a quarter of California's wage-earning population but used almost no state resources since most were relatively young, healthy men without families. The final straw came in 1879, when California included the exclusion of Chinese in its new constitution, a decision that was expanded by the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But this did not stop opportunists like the railroads from employing Chinese workers in their construction efforts. With so many veteran workers of the transcontinental railroad stranded in California, it was worth the risk of fines and public censure for companies to hire cheap Chinese labor to affordably build their railroads.

In 1870, the population of Santa Cruz County was mostly poor and agrarian and had no time or money to build railroads, despite the need. The wealthy were more optimistic, but lacked the clout and money to hire locals to build their dream railroads. Thus, Chinese workers were brought into the county to do the work. It is unknown whether the grading for the San Lorenzo Rail Road, begun in 1868 but halted shortly afterwards due to property disputes, used Chinese laborers, but it seems likely considering the fact that all other railroads built in the county until the end of the century used them. The first railroad to be successfully built in the county, the Santa Cruz Railroad between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, certainly employed Chinese to do the grading and track-laying. A tent city was built beside the right-of-way in the vicinity of Live Oak where crews slept and enjoyed evenings before working long days at the end of track as it slowly progressed southeast toward the Southern Pacific tracks at Pajaro. These workers did not come from the established local Chinatowns and did not live in them, although they would visit them on their days off to buy food and enjoy the pleasures that such a community provided. Lotteries held in the Chinatowns advertised to the workers and runners collected bets in the morning and returned the next day with any prize money, undoubtedly taking a sizeable percentage for the trouble.

The Chinese worker village either along the Loma Prieta line or the Valencia Creek line, 1880s.
[Pajaro Valley Historical Association – Colorized using DeOldify]
Sandy Lydon in his book Chinese Gold outlines the forms of compensation that workers of the Santa Cruz Railroad received. These figures and benefits, with minor variances, can be assumed for all of the local railroads regardless of the company. On average, crews worked ten-hour days, six days a week at a rate of one dollar per day. Two dollars were deducted per week for food and another dollar was usually lost to pay for clothing, recreation, and upkeep, leaving workers with around three dollars per week in income. The railroad companies did provide tents and spaces to pitch them, but offered few other amenities. One benefit—or so it seemed at the time—was that any medical expenses for injuries sustained while on the job were covered by the railroad company and living expenses would also be paid for men unable to return to work. Since workers rarely had families with them at this time, no provisions were given for the care of wives and children.

The second railroad project in the county and the first to be completed was the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad between Santa Cruz and Felton high along the west bank of the San Lorenzo River. For eight intense months from late 1874 to mid-1875, Chinese workers scaled the sides of San Lorenzo Gorge cutting an at-times tenuous path along the hillside. It was these workers that built the first railroad tunnel in the Santa Cruz Mountains through the Hogsback of Rancho Rincon near today's Paradise Park. No worker died in these endeavors, although minor injuries were common. Since the city of Santa Cruz was staunchly anti-Chinese by this time, it did not allow construction crews to operate within the city limits, so construction of the Mission Hill Tunnel was done by Cornish miners while the Railroad Wharf and other bridges along the line were built by the all-white Pacific Bridge Company. Non-Chinese workers proved costly and a good portion of the overall cost of construction was to pay the wages of these workers.

Even before the Santa Cruz Railroad was completed, construction had begun on the South Pacific Coast Railroad along the East Bay. Like all the other railroads in the state, the company used Chinese workers extensively in the construction of its line from Alameda Point to Santa Cruz. The reason for this was sheer practicality, proven by the recent cost overruns of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad: Chinese workers could be employed cheaply and were, in the eyes of their employers, entirely expendable and replaceable. Through political bargaining and Comstock Lode money, the South Pacific Coast was able to safely ignore prohibitions on employing Chinese workers in the railroad industry and push to build its route through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

By 1878, 600 of the South Pacific Coast Railroad's 700 construction workers were Chinese. Crews working for the company were mostly from the Ning Yeung Company of San Francisco, which specialized in finding jobs for out-of-work Chinese manual laborers. Most work crews were composed of twenty to thirty men under a Chinese contractor, with a white site supervisor in charge of relaying tasks from the general manager. Rather than paying workers directly, the South Pacific Coast paid the Ning Yeung Company, which then sent funds to the supervisors to pay to the employees. Attempts by Santa Clara County to tax the workers mostly failed largely due to threats to the tax collectors' lives by the workers. The workers did everything from grading and track laying to tunneling and ballasting. The only thing they didn't do was build the bridges, which was handled by the Pacific Bridge Company.

Injuries were common in railroad construction projects and the Chinese workers received the brunt of the injuries. On the Santa Cruz Railroad in its final months of construction, several workers were maimed and severely injured and one man was killed when the construction train's brakes failed and ran over a group of workers. Indeed, for every mile of railroad built in Santa Cruz County, a Chinese worker died. And the deadliest place to work in the region was in the Summit Tunnel along the South Pacific Coast route along Los Gatos Creek.

A Chinese laborer outside the worker shanty at Wrights, c 1883.
[Bancroft Library – Colorized by Derek R. Whaley]
Wrights had been established around 1877 as a worker camp with around four dozen Chinese living outside the tunnel's north portal. A similar settlement arose on the opposite side along Burns Creek so that the tunnel could be bored from both ends. The tunnel crossed the San Andreas Fault and leaked methane and petroleum from a deep coal vein on the Wrights side. Initially, this threat was dealt with by regular burn-offs of the gas and oil, but more accumulated as crews dug deeper. The first major incident occurred on February 13, 1879, when a burn-off ignited a pocket of oil and fire roared out of the tunnel, singeing worker and timber alike. The intensity of the heat caused the tunnel to act like a cannon, blasting away machinery and structures near the entrance. Around a dozen workers were severely burned and five eventually died from their injuries, with many of the rest sent to San Francisco for treatment.

Chinese workers, white supervisors, and train crew working outside the Summit Tunnel, probably in early 1880.
Fear of returning into the tunnel led to several fights between supervisors and crew. The crews were briefly replaced by Cornish miners in late March, but these workers were even more problematic and new Chinese crews were convinced to work at an increased rate of $1.25 per day. Still, fear and animosity persisted between supervisors and workers, with Nick Borrosey shooting and killing a worker in June 1879. Despite adopting many different techniques to alleviate the gas and oil problem in the tunnel, disaster struck again on November 17. A stick of dynamite unexpectedly exploded igniting a massive cloud of gas and oil. Twenty-one workers and two supervisors were in the tunnel at the time, and another twenty workers ran into the tunnel to rescue their friends following the explosion. But the worst was yet to come. A second explosion followed shortly after the first, and twenty-four Chinese workers were killed instantly. The remainder as well as the supervisors were badly burned as they hobbled out of the tunnel portal into the smokey night air. Seven more workers died from their injuries after being transported by rail to Chinatown in San Francisco.

By January 1880, a permanent fire was alighted at the source of the gas leak in the Summit Tunnel and work resumed. Although new Chinese workers were coaxed into resuming construction, their efficiency and morale were so low that the railroad decided to bring back Cornish workers and reassign the Chinese workers to the other end of the tunnel, which had not experienced the same problems. This finally worked and the two crews raced each other to complete their ends. With the tunnel completed, air could flow through it regularly, dispersing the gas and reducing the risk of further fire and explosions. An out-of-the-way cemetery was established near the tracks at Wrights to mark the graves of the two dozen men who died there in November 1879, but the markers have long since disappeared and the location is now lost. No further workers died while building the line to Santa Cruz.

While the disaster in the Summit Tunnel was certainly the worst felt by Chinese railroad workers in the county, a mudslide in Felton in 1881 was a close second. Following the completion of the South Pacific Coast route, worker camps were established across the line, especially in the mountains, to maintain the trackage, top up ballast, and repair tunnels and bridges. Around twenty workers lived north of Felton, probably along Zayante Creek, when a mudslide fell on their settlement during a winter storm in February 1881. A dozen bodies were found in the slide but many more are thought to have been washed down the creek and river or been left buried.

Chinese crews heading out to work on the Loma Prieta Railroad, 1882.
[California Historical Society – Colorized using DeOldify]
When the Southern Pacific Railroad took over the Santa Cruz Railroad in 1881, it brought in thousands of Chinese workers for the dual task of standard-gauging the railroad and building a new branch line up Aptos Creek for the Loma Prieta Lumber Company. Broad-gauging took two years and in mid-1883, crews were redirected to the redwood forest of Aptos Creek to cut a crude railroad into the heart of the mountains. After reaching the new town of Loma Prieta, crews turned to the northeast and reached the narrow gorge nicknamed Hell's Gate, which proved to be the only obstacle in Santa Cruz County that required workers to hang on ropes from above to cut a grade in the cliffside. While major construction along the line ended in 1888, a reduced crew remained to oversee the continuous expansion of trackage deeper into the mountains.

The slide zone on the Boulder Creek Branch near Brackney were some Chinese workers died cutting the grade, 1885.
At the same time that the Loma Prieta Branch was under construction, the South Pacific Coast Railroad was building a new route up the San Lorenzo Valley from Felton to Boulder Creek. Most of the workers were veterans of the railroad's main route through the Santa Cruz Mountains. The route to Boulder Creek was less troubled than that through the mountains, but the difficult terrain in the Brackney area required careful construction and several Chinese workers died in the effort. These men may have been the last Chinese lives lost for the cause of Santa Cruz railroading. When the branch was completed, most of the crews were transferred to the Almaden Branch.

Chinese crew carving out the Valencia Creek grade, 1886. [Aptos Museum – Colorized using DeOldify]
Three private railroad projects were the last to utilize Chinese labor in the county. In 1886, Frederick Hihn hired Chinese crews to build a narrow-gauge railroad along Valencia Creek between Aptos and his mill three miles to the north, as well as the tracks' extension into the forests beyond the mill. Meanwhile, north of Boulder Creek, the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company likely used Chinese labor in early 1888 to build a low-budget narrow-gauge railroad on the San Lorenzo River. And in the Pajaro and Salinas Valleys in the early 1890s, Claus Spreckels employed multiple crews of Chinese workers to construct the Pajaro Valley Railroad along the Monterey Bay so that sugar beet farmers could more easily get their products to the large Western Beet Sugar factory in Watsonville.

Chinese workers on a flatbed car on the Monterey Extension Railroad near Pacific Grove, 1889.
[California State Library]
The mass employment of Chinese by the railroads ended around the turn of the century. By this point, the Chinese Exclusion Act had been in force for two decades and adherence to it had become more societally expected than in the boom days of the 1880s. Most of the Chinese men living in the state had been doing so since the 1860s and were now considered too old to work efficiently. Furthermore, outbreaks of plague in Chinatown in San Francisco beginning in 1898 led to further negativity toward the Chinese which added to the public opinion that the Chinese were unclean and diseased. Thus, when the Ocean Shore Railway and Coast Line Railroad projects to build a route along the coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz were initiated in 1904, both companies chose not to employ Chinese workers. Chinese men and their families continued to live and work in several industries throughout the county, but their time as a labor force for the railroad was at an end.

Citations & Credits:
  • Lydon, Sandy. Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region. Capitola, CA: Capitola Book Company, 1985.
  • Whaley, Derek W. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, forthcoming.