Santa Cruz County History - Transportation

140 Years of Railroading in Santa Cruz County
by Rick Hamman

Part 1

[This article was first published in the Aptos Times, in March 1996 and April 1, 1996 issues. It is reproduced here by generous permission of the publisher of the Aptos Times and the author, Rick Hamman. ]


To describe the last 140 years of area railroading in 4,000 words, or two articles, seems a reasonable task. After all, how much railroad history could there be in such a small county?

In the summer of 1856 Davis & Jordon opened their horse powered railroad to haul lime from the Rancho Canada Del Rincon to their wharf in Santa Cruz. Today, the Santa Cruz, Big Trees & Pacific Railway continues to carry freight and passengers through those same Rancho lands to Santa Cruz. Between the time span of these two companies there has been no less than 37 different railroads operating at one time or another within Santa Cruz County. From these various lines has already come sufficient history to fill at least eight books and numerous historical articles. Many of these writings are available in your local library.

As we begin this piece the author hopes to give the reader an overview and insight into what railroads have meant for Santa Cruz County, what they provide today, and what their relevance could be for tomorrow.

Before There Were Railroads:

As people first moved west in search of gold, and later found reason to remain, Santa Cruz County offered many inducements. It was already well known because of its proximity to the former Alta California capital at Monterey, its Mission at Santa Cruz and its excellent weather. Further, within its boundaries were vast mineral deposits in the form of limestone and aggregates, rich alluvial farming soils and fertile orchard lands, and billions of standing board feet of uncut pine and redwood lumber to supply the construction of the San Francisco and Monterey bay areas. All that was needed was a way to transport people and materials. Thus, as the area entered the early 1860's, local stage and freight lines were found in operation, wharves had been established around Monterey Bay at Santa Cruz, Soquel, Aptos, Pajaro, Moss Landing and Monterey, and local sloops, schooners, sailing ships and small steamships plied the deep waters.

Early local stage transportation was usually provided by McLaughlin's daily Concord Coaches. A typical trip to San Francisco left Santa Cruz at 5:00 A.M. and stopped at points like Soquel, Aptos and Watsonville on the way to San Juan (Bautista). Usually that stage met the Monterey to San Jose stage at 1:00 P.M. in San Juan for the final leg of the trip via Gilroy. The next morning you were on William Hall's stage to Alviso where you made connections with the steamship Sophie McLane for the 9:00 A .M., four-hour trip to San Francisco. If you were a more hearty soul you took McLaughlin's stage from San Jose up the Peninsula to San Francisco for a second full day's travel. The cost, not including the overnight in San Jose, was $2.00 each way.

Famed team handler Charley Parkhurst (found to be a woman at death) was one of the excellent whip's for McLaughlin. In later years when Hall operated the stage line, the "Incomparable Henry Whinnery" was usually the driver. Likewise, early famous whips turned proprietors; Ward & Colgrove, were offering an exhilarating, short-cut ride over the mountains by the late 1860's. It was a great trip on warm summer days, but terrible during the winter. If you were more inclined to comfortable passage in your own stateroom, and could pay the fare of $5.00 to $9.00 each way, you could go by steamship. Davis & Jordoti's Santa Cruz and Queen of the West left the wharf at 9:00 P.M. and had you in San Francisco the following morning by 5:00 AM. After a full day of business you could reboard at 2:00 PM and be back in Santa Cruz by 10:00 PM that same night. The 157 ton steamship, Salinas, under captain Robert Sudden's watchful eye, provided similar service from Brennan's Landing up Elkhorn Slough (later Port Watsonville), Moss Landing and Soquel.

Railroad Links Whispered:

After almost fifteen years of planning, reorganization, and sporadic construction, the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad was completed in January of 1864 between the same named cities. While it greatly reduced travel times for local and long distance travelers, its high cost kept other services in operation. In 1865 the Southern Pacific Railroad Company was incorporated to build that portion of the Atlantic & Pacific transcontinental line between San Francisco and the Southern California/Arizona Territory border at the Colorado River. The original map indicated the line would be routed along the coast to Santa Cruz, on to Aptos, over to Watsonville and then south down the Salinas Valley.

By 1868 the hopes for a railroad in Santa Cruz County had been dashed. The Southern Pacific had been taken over by Central Pacific interests (Crocker,Hunington, Hopkins and Stanford) and had purchased the San Francisco & San Jose. Their planned route were now south from San Jose to Gilroy, on to Hollister and then Bakersfield.

Connections Everywhere:

The Southern Pacific plans, however, were far greater than any imagined. They incorporated the Western Pacific to build from the Central Pacific at Sacramento, to Stockton, Tracy and San Jose. They went north into Oregon, and south down the San Joaquin Valley. Later to be known as the "Octopus", they laid out lines everywhere. One of those lines, the 45 mile California Southern, was set up to build from Gilroy via Pajaro to Salinas. On November 21st, 1871 the first scheduled train left Pajaro for San Francisco.

During the years from 1865 to1871 much talk and planning had gone on by local folks regarding the need for a railroad into Santa Cruz County to get the wheels of industry and commerce moving. Lead by Fred Hihn, a railroad committee had been formed in 1869 to pursue such a railroad. After much discussion, debate and an approved ballot measure, the County came out in support of the Santa Cruz & Watsonville Railroad around the time service to Pajaro began. The plan: the County would finance it, the Southern Pacific would take it over.

To shorten a very complicated piece of important history, suffice it to say that a nationwide finanial panic found the Southern Pacific over-extended in 1873. Its plans to build south beyond Hollister were put on hold. Other plans to be part of the Santa Cruz to Watsonville Railroad were canceled.

This left the County of Santa Cruz again without a railroad. Undaunted, Fred Hihn convinced the local folks to build the railroad themselves. Rather than building it as a standard gauge line like the Southern Pacific (4 ft, 8 inches between the rails) he opted to make the line narrow gauge (3 ft. between the rails). This meant the line could be built for much less because the cars and engines were lighter and the track and structures required underneath them were much less substantial.

On May 16th, 1875 the first revenue train in the county ran from Santa Cruz to Aptos. Starting on the weekend of May 22nd, fifty cent excursion service between the same points began. It was hoped that full service to Watsonville and Pajaro would be in effect by January1st of 1876. Unfortunately, one very bad rainy season later, the first through train finally did happen on May 7th, 1876. Thus, the Santa Cruz Railroad, as it had come to be known, was a reality.

At the same time the 21 mile Santa Cruz Railroad was under construction, another 7 mile narrow gauge railroad from Santa Cruz to Felton was also being built. The Santa Cruz & Felton as it was known had already begun its service between the same named communities in mid October of 1875. In addition to the railroad, a 1378 ft. wharf had been built at Santa Cruz along with an eight mile flume from Felton to the Cunningham Mill above Boulder Creek. By the time the Santa Cruz Railroad began its operations, lumber had been going from the Cunningham Mill to waiting ships at the wharf in Santa Cruz, over the SC&F, for many months.

While the Santa Cruz Railroad seemed like a good idea, several factors would cause its downfall. First, being a different gauge than the Southern Pacific at Pajaro meant that cars were not interchangeable and all freight and passengers had to be transferred to different trains at Pajaro. Likewise, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, a major California coastal water carrier, was offering better freight rates at the wharf in Santa Cruz than was any joint rate offered by the Santa Cruz/Southern Pacific combination. Therefore, it saw very little freight business. Finally, a bad storm in 1881 and poor financial conditions forced the Santa Cruz Railroad to sell to the Southern Pacific at a loss. It should be noted that a similar narrow gauge railroad, the Monterey & Salinas Valley, was built between the Southern Pacific at Salinas and the wharf at Monterey on the opposite side of the Bay at about the same time. It suffered the same fate for the same reasons.

Big Money Comes to Town:

As soon as the Southern Pacific took over the lines around Monterey Bay they pumped in lots of capital. Replacing the rails with standard gauge made both lines more competitive. Through freight and passenger trains serving Santa Cruz, Soquel/Camp Capitola, Aptos and Watsonville were in operation to San Francisco by November of 1883. At last, Santa Cruz County had its primary connection. Actually, they had two such connections.

Comstock millionaires James Flood and James Fair became well aware of the wealth of Santa Cruz County as they planned for a narrow gauge railroad to Colorado back in 1876. Thus, it was decided that rather than end their railroad in San Francisco, they would extend it from Alameda, down the east side of San Francisco Bay to Santa Clara, west to Los Gatos and then through the Santa Cruz Mountains to Santa Cruz. Rather than build unnecessary new lines, they would take over the Santa Cruz & Felton. Fair knew, because of his mining engineer experience, he could put in 12,000 feet of tunnels, keep the summit down to 900 feet and cut 40 rail miles out to Santa Cruz, Suffice it to say the line, the South Pacific Coast, was in place by May of 1880. For a two year period it was actually possible to ship a narrow gauge carload all the way from Watsonville to San Francisco via the Santa Cruz and South Pacific Coast railroads.

With two railroads and the Pacific Coast Steamship Company providing local freight and passenger competition for many years, the economy of Santa Cruz County was that much better off. The multiple service, forcing freight rates lower, allowed local shippers to compete effectively with their counterparts from other areas and markets within California.

>>Continue with: Part 2.

Copyright 1996 Aptos Times. This article was first published in two segments in the March 1996 and April 1, 1996 issues of the Aptos Times. It is reproduced here by generous permission of the publisher of the Aptos Times and the author, Rick Hamman.

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