Santa Cruz County History - Places

Coast Dairies Property: A Land Use History

[Excerpt from Coast Dairies Long-Term Resource Protection and Use Plan: Draft Exiting Conditions Report for the Coast Dairies Property, Section 1.0.
Figures and photos referenced in text are not included in this online version.]

1.3 - The Coming of Coast Dairies: Transformation


Since the 1860s, geologists had been confidently predicting that there was oil on the North Coast. The early years were dominated by miners and engineers trying to extract oil from the black asphaltum that oozed from the surface of the earth just north of Majors Creek on Rancho Refugio. Using retorts to heat and distill the oil from the mixture of oil and sand, a series of oil companies worked unsuccessfully to make the process pay (Sentinel 5/28/1864). It was much easier to mine the asphaltum material and use it for paving, a practice that began in the early 1880s. By 1887, many of the primary streets in Santa Cruz had been paved with the black material, and sixty tons per day were being taken out of the surface mines:

"The material is found in enormous quantities in the section commonly known as the 'petroleum district' from eight to ten miles up the coast from [Santa Cruz], where it exists in stratas of from four to forty feet in thickness, to an extent not yet explored. There are abundant outcroppings over an area of about two miles. The rock quarried thus far has been taken from...the upper canyon of the Cajo or Majors creek, but last spring good indications were discovered near the ocean shore, along the same canyon on the property of Pio Scaroni [19]." (Sentinel 10/6/1887) In 1889 the company shipped 300 tons from the North Coast mine to Seattle (Sentinel 2/14/1889). As with all North Coast resources, however, it was a continual challenge to get the bitumin to market. In the early 1890s a bitumin mine near San Luis Obispo could get their product to San Jose cheaper than the mine on the North Coast (Sentinel 11/9/1891). The bitumin was waiting for a railroad.

The first glimmer of the North Coast's transformation came in the opening months of 1901, when a gaggle of geologists began poking around the coastal terrace looking for oil. Logic suggested that, if oil-bearing sands emerged from the earth at that spot, there had to be pools of oil lurking underground somewhere in the vicinity. Spurred by reports of large oil deposits found throughout California and even larger fortunes earned by lucky investors, oil-drilling rigs popped up almost overnight throughout Santa Cruz County. The Santa Cruz Oil Company, funded by local investors led by the indefatigable Fred Swanton, negotiated a lease with a number of North Coast property owners (including Jeremiah Respini), and began drilling on the Scaroni property, very near the bitumin beds. Other companies quickly followed, and soon there were daily reports published in the Santa Cruz newspapers giving well depths and the cheerful predictions of the geologists.

Oil was found in some of the wells, but it was measured in buckets, not the barrels necessary to make the operations profitable. By early 1902, the Santa Cruz Surf said that the oil boom seemed to be "busted" (Surf 1/8/1902). The Santa Cruz Oil Company ceased drilling on the North Coast and the leases ran out. But the miners continued to work the bitumin pits just as they had since the 1860s, loading the heavy dark rock into wagons and hauling it to Santa Cruz for shipment.


Lime and limestone-derived products usually led Santa Cruz County's annual list of industrial production throughout the nineteenth century, and the phrase "Santa Cruz lime" was known and respected throughout California. (Sentinel 10/15/1870) Most of the production was controlled by the company owned by Henry Cowell, with its kilns on the hill above Santa Cruz and its long, sloped wharf extending off the cliff just west of town. Other companies tapped into the limestone on both flanks of Ben Lomond Mountain (including several companies on the North Coast), but Cowell had the singular advantage over his competitors of easy access to a dependable wharf and outside markets.

One of the lime-based products that grew increasingly valuable as the twentieth century began was Portland cement. Construction using brick and mortar (lime was used in making mortar) was giving way to concrete, in which the main ingredient was cement. Portland cement was made by burning a combination of limestone and shale, and then grinding the result into a fine powder. Ben Lomond Mountain had both ingredients in abundance, and at least one Portland cement operation had been operating off and on about a mile upstream on the San Lorenzo River since the early 1880s.

Where lime could be produced using a relatively simple technology--all that was needed was limestone, a kiln, lots of firewood, and strong men--Portland cement required some sophisticated equipment to get the proper combinations of ingredients heated to exacting temperatures. In Santa Cruz County, capital was the only factor missing from the equation, and it arrived in 1903 in the satchel of William Dingee, commonly known as the "Cement King." Dingee, through his Standard Portland Cement Company, owned cement plants in Napa California, Bellingham, Washington, and Pennsylvania. He saw the potential offered by Ben Lomond Mountain and proposed to build a cement plant on the brow of the hill just above Santa Cruz.

The debate that raged in Santa Cruz over Dingee's cement plant proposal has a very contemporary feel to it. Some, like the editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, argued that the plant would bring dependable economic benefits to the community. With the redwood forests fast being turned into lumber, the cement plant could provide a stable economic base for years to come. Others, however, were fearful of the impact that the plant would have on the town's air and ears. Arthur Taylor, the Editor of the Daily Surf, suggested that the plant could very well ruin the quality of life in the town. By 1904, it appeared that Dingee might not get the necessary support from the Santa Cruz Town Council.

Meanwhile, Dingee and Louis Moretti of Coast Dairies & Land Company had been talking. It is not clear whether Moretti approached Dingee or vice versa, but by early 1905 there were rumors flying in Santa Cruz that Dingee was moving his proposed cement plant from noisy and contentious Santa Cruz to the isolated canyons of the North Coast. In May of that year, Taylor's Surf reported that Dingee had optioned 130 acres of Coast Dairy land on the north side of the mouth of San Vicente Creek for a factory. By moving the plant up to the North Coast, however, Dingee was leaving behind the necessary access to transportation afforded by Santa Cruz's wharves and railroads. Dingee's stated plan was to ship cement off a new wharf at Davenport's Landing, but Taylor hinted that there was something else in the offing: "While independent shipping facilities will be provided, it is a moral certainty that if a cement factory is established a coast railroad will be constructed..."(Surf 5/6/1905)


Apparently Dingee had been talking to a lot of people, including the leadership of the Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR). Several weeks later, SPRR announced that it would be extending its line northward from Santa Cruz to San Francisco along the coast. In reality, as railroad historians have noted, the Southern Pacific had no intention of building all the way to San Francisco. Their goal was to build a twelve-mile line that would end at the cement plant. The freight generated by the cement plant would be enough to support its construction (Hamman, 1980).

The Ocean Shore Electric Railway

Meanwhile, in early 1905 and totally unrelated to the cement plant planned for the North Coast, a group of investors incorporated the Ocean Shore Electric Railway and began surveying for a railroad to run along the coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Their plan was to begin at both ends and work toward the middle, planning to meet somewhere in San Mateo County. As originally planned, it was to be an electric-powered railroad and would have two sets of tracks. The Ocean Shore Electric was born on paper on May 18, 1905. At the beginning of 1905, the North Coast had no railroads, but within six months it had the prospects of two, with three sets of track (Wagner, 1974).

The thought of the fledgling Ocean Shore competing side-by-side with the gargantuan, state-controlling, infamously ruthless Southern Pacific was daunting, but very early on the two railroads reached a moderately cooperative arrangement. The Ocean Shore was the first to begin construction northward out of Santa Cruz, but it had to bring its equipment in over Southern Pacific track. The two companies decided to lay their tracks side by side with the Ocean Shore taking the outer (ocean) side of the right of way and the SPRR the inner. Since there were to be three sets of tracks, the original right of way and the cuts and fills [20] were much wider than usual.

The Ocean Shore was the first on the ground and could take advantage of any of the freight being generated by the construction of the cement plant beside the San Vicente. However, the Ocean Shore also knew that, once its rival had completed laying their own track, they would lose all the cement plant freight and would have to depend on the revenues generated from daily traffic between San Francisco and Santa Cruz.

Construction of the Ocean Shore Electric Railway

While the Ocean Shore waited for materials to arrive, they leap-frogged a large crew of laborers up to Waddell Creek and blasted a railroad grade across the base of the historically pesky bluff: "The Ocean Shore engineers, with audacity and dynamite, are doing in a few days what Nature has been lazily working at for ages. In other words, they are blasting down the bluff to make a clear grade for railway and highway at this hitherto perilous place." (Surf 6/15/1905) Their reason for racing up to Waddell's was designed to block the Southern Pacific (or anyone else) from getting past that point without drilling a tunnel. They also purchased rights-of-way and made immediate cuts at other rocky points farther up the coast, San Gregorio Bluff and Mussel Rock Bluffs. The Ocean Shore believed that "[their] control of these places makes it absolutely necessary for a competing line to resort to tunneling to get past these places, requiring approximately four miles of tunnel in a distance of fifty (50) miles of road."(Surf 10/2/1907) Meanwhile, the railroad had to deal with the very issue they intended to solve: getting the necessary lumber delivered ahead of their northward march out of Santa Cruz. By August of 1905 large loads of Douglas fir poles were being loaded off ships and rafted to North Coast beaches and the trestle building began.

The Ocean Shore Trestles

The plan was to build the trestles across the gullies and lagoons and then fill them in with rock and earth. "All these trestles except the one just beyond Wilder's are to be filled and must be filled before heavy trains can pass over them. This work is on joint account between the two companies, and the embankments, when complete will be 36 feet wide at the top, capable of accommodating three tracks." (Surf 2/3/1906) Material taken from the cuts was loaded into special side-dumping gondolas and then dumped off the top of the trestles. The result was a string of huge earth-and-rock ramparts each one containing a reinforcing wooden structure as its heart (see Photo 1-4 and Photos 14, 15, and 16 in Appendix 1.3 for a depiction of the sequence of trestle filling).

The Ocean Shore Stream Tunnels

Rather than direct each stream through a culvert beneath the trestle, the railroad engineers chose to cut tunnels through the rock on the north side of each of the canyons. The engineers picked the north side of the canyons because they knew that the littoral drift on the coast was from north to south, and the tunnel mouths were much less likely to be filled with sand if they were on the "uphill" side of the beach drift. Further, each tunnel was drilled so that it emptied out a little above the land on the ocean side to insure that seasonal high sand levels did not block it. The pattern holds throughout the Coast Dairies Property: at each trestle fill there is a tunnel through the rock on the north side of the ravine.

One contemporary observer, Arthur Taylor of the Surf newspaper, was uncertain of the effectiveness of the tunnels, and in a remarkable article written in 1906, he expressed his skepticism: "Tunnels have been excavated in the solid rock walls of the canyon into which the running streams will be conveyed as fast as the fills are complete. The Old Settler shakes his head when he looks at these holes in the wall, but the Civil Engineer says they are of capacity to carry all the water that can come. Time will tell." (Surf 2/3/1906)

Now, almost a century later, after repeated earthquakes and floods, the tunnels continue to gather the upstream water and deposit it on north side of each cove.

The Legacy: The Railroad Ramparts

The effect of these huge earthen walls on the coastal landscape was, and continues to be, dramatic. Because they were built with a 36 foot width at the top, their bulk is such that when one is standing on them, they appear as if they had been leveled out of the existing landscape.

When viewed from the ocean side, the ramparts make the coast appear as one continuous, level wall. Each of the beaches along the rampart is backed by a huge, steep, smooth-faced slope. Some, like the fill that crosses behind the San Vicente beach, still exhibit their unconsolidated heritage by confronting the hiker with an unclimbable bank of scree. Since the fill slopes are too steep to walk, pedestrians have cut trails down to the beaches on the natural bluff faces, and many of them are precarious and rugged.

The effect on the landward side of the ramparts is even more dramatic. Standing at stream-level one cannot see the ocean at all, and the wall blocks the prevailing-onshore wind as well as the late afternoon sun. More importantly for the residents of the North Coast, the railroad fills blocked access to the beaches and lagoons, and since the original coast road looped in and out on the landward side of the railroad line, the residents in each of the coastal valleys were cut off from the immediate coast.

Even when the coast road was straightened and leveled with its own cuts and fills beginning in the late 1930s, the highway grade was below that of the railroad so that each time Highway 1 drops down into one of the valleys, there is a wall on the ocean side blocking any view of the beach. The tradition of hidden "secret" beaches is one of the railroad's legacies, with "clothing optional" beaches and homeless encampments dotting this coastline, effectively screened off from the highway by the walls of earth built by the Ocean Shore Railroad. It is possible to regularly drive along this coast and never know there are beaches at San Vicente, Liddell, Yellowbank or Laguna.

Editor Taylor of the Surf was particularly distressed with the effect of the railroad fill at Laguna Creek. Laguna was famous in the nineteenth century for a large stand of California laurel trees that grew upstream from its coastal lagoon, and many early accounts extol the virtues of the place as a picnic ground. Taylor expressed distress at what the railroad did to the grove: "Laguna, grown sacred as a shrine of summer rest and joy to thousands has been cut in twain by a trestle, which will soon become a solid embankment hiding the ocean and shutting off the heavens from the remaining part of the grove." (Surf 2/3/1906) Laguna continued to be the social center for the North Coast community and even today, there are picnics in the laurel groves inland from the railroad line. And there are still several old, gnarled laurels on the ocean side of the rampart, their bark etched with initials and carvings that may date to those days before the railroad came marching inexorably through.

Taylor saved his strongest words for the effect of the railroad and the burgeoning cement plant on San Vicente Creek. San Vicente had been the crown jewel of Santa Cruz County's trout fishing streams, always listed first in comparison to the San Lorenzo and Soquel with their industrially-fouled waters. In 1906 the San Vicente was showing the effects of being launched into the Industrial Age: "The San Vicente Creek, beloved of the angler and the artist, has its mouth stopped by a vast dyke, and its throat choked into a tunnel, a saloon on its border, and its bed for miles denuded of the granite cobbles and sand beds. A sawmill is swiftly cutting out the timber and dirt and debris defile the pools and clog the riffles where lurked the gamey trout." (Surf 2/02/1906)


Because there were no trestle-fill ramparts on the immediate coast north of Davenport, there are two beaches within the Coast Dairies Property that provide comparisons with the railroad rampart beaches. The beach at Davenport Landing was visible and accessible from the old coast road and only disappeared from view when the highway was straightened in the 1950s. Scotts Creek Beach is visible and accessible to the public because the modern highway drops down onto the sand itself. Both of these beaches are well known to the public and heavily used.

The Railroad Cuts

A word must be said about the cuts through which the present-day railroad makes its way between Santa Cruz and Davenport. By any measure, they are huge. From base to base they still measure around 30 feet, reflecting the original plan to have three sets of broad gauge rails run through them. Between 1907 and 1923, when both the Southern Pacific and Ocean Shore operated along the coast, there were two sets of rails in operation, but now the Union Pacific's rails are centered in the cuts, running on a raised platform of gravel ballast. From all appearances, the width of the cuts and the raised tracks are relatively easy to maintain. What few landslides have occurred in the cuts have fallen harmlessly at their base, well away from the tracks themselves.

Effects on Fishing

After 1906 the fish that had migrated freely up and down the streams were channeled through tunnels and in some places confronted with new obstructions that they could not surmount. By default, after 1906, rampartless Scotts Creek became an extremely important North Coast stream, a fact that was recognized by the State Fish and Game Commission when they declared the lower section a fish refuge. Scotts Creek's importance as a center of fish propagation on the North Coast is yet another legacy of railroad landscaping down the coast.

In a remarkable description written in early 1906, Arthur Taylor wrote of the immediate effects that the Ocean Shore's cuts and fills were having on the North Coast: "Enterprise has outraged Nature until the human heart must bleed in sympathy with her prostrate, mangled form. The fields where once the grain waved, the kine fed and the poppies spread over the uncultivated corners, are seamed and scarred and gashed; huge embankments as high as tree tops stretch across the canyons where they debouch into the ocean; and the coastwise brooks have all been ruthlessly taken out of their beds and driven through dark, gruesome tunnels. The alluring byroads and by-paths that led from the coast road across the fields to the Natural Bridge and its nearby beach, to Parson's beach to the little pebbly beach and the other cozy nooks along the shore have all been severed by strips of steel or gouged out by that cruel steam shovel." (Surf 2/3/1906)

Hundreds of laborers worked into the fall of 1905, and when the railroad's first locomotive arrived in October, the movement of materials and men to the railhead went much more quickly. Heavy rains in early 1906 slowed the work, but it was the earthquake on April 18 that captured everybody's attention.

The 1906 Earthquake

The early morning earthquake on April 18 interrupted all the North Coast construction projects. The Southern Pacific lost not only its corporate offices in San Francisco, but also suffered extensive damage along its Central California routes. Perhaps the most daunting was the blockage of the huge tunnel through the Santa Cruz Mountains on its South Pacific Coast branch line. It would take the railroad three years to re-open that section to traffic. With all the other challenges facing the Southern Pacific, the North Coast branch to San Vicente was delayed.

The effect on the stretch of Ocean Shore working toward the cement plant site north of Santa Cruz was minimal. There was some settling of the trestle fill just south of Laguna, but as one observer noted, the earthquake combined with the previous heavy rains probably accelerated the settling process all along the line. Since the Southern Pacific had not yet begun to build northward from Santa Cruz, the Ocean Shore immediately resumed work because of the promise of a temporary monopoly.

Work on the segment of the Ocean Shore building south from San Francisco halted for a time after April 18, and the earthquake would eventually prove to be fatal to the plans of the Ocean Shore's two-track electric railroad from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. The Ocean Shore's investors were never able to recover from the effects of the earthquake and its aftermath, economic recession of 1907. Ultimately the deeper pockets of the Southern Pacific corporation would prevail.

The first passenger train from Santa Cruz to San Vicente ran on June 15, 1906 just two months after the earthquake. Taylor described the day: "There was an odor of new-mown hay in the atmosphere, poppies spattered the wayside with their daytime starts, and the uplands were just commencing to show a tinge of the brown of the dry season, and the ocean lay alongside all the way-placid, without a murmur or even a monotone that could be heard a hundred yards. The locomotive still attracts the attention of cattle up the coast, and many horses resent its appearance..."(Surf 6/15/1906) In less than twelve months the Ocean Shore railroad had built twelve miles of improbable track and bed, spanning gulches, cutting down hills and leveling out Father Crespí's "tiresome" North Coast. Regular passenger service did not begin until the summer of 1907, but during the intervening year the Ocean Shore locomotives hauled equipment and building materials to the cement plant that was rising alongside the San Vicente. Two immediate effects of the Ocean Shore railroad were an increase in the value of real estate all along its completed and proposed route, as well as an estimated 20 percent increase in land being used for agriculture.

The Ocean Shore's monopoly on railroad traffic between Santa Cruz and San Vicente ended when the Southern Pacific completed its rails and began passenger service in July, 1907. With their hopes to build the railroad through to San Francisco still in place, the Ocean Shore was not overly concerned about losing the cement plant revenue. However, as the recession of 1907 deepened, and it became increasingly obvious that the railroad might never be completed, the Ocean Shore began to search for another source of paying freight to help support the cost of the branch north of Santa Cruz.

The Ocean Shore began working northward from San Vicente in October 1906, and to avoid a long trestle across the mouth of Scotts Creek, the railroad chose a route that followed the old coast road, running inland across Molino Creek and up the east side of Scotts Creek Valley. In October of 1907 the three-mile section between San Vicente and the junction of Scott and Little Creek was completed, and the construction crews departed for other projects while the railroad attempted to gather together enough funds to continue northward towards Waddell (Surf, 10/24/1906; 5/20/1907; 10/2/1907). One of the objectives of the Ocean Shore, were it completed between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, was to open the huge old-growth forests on the western slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The railroad estimated that over two billion board feet of lumber was standing in the canyons between San Francisco and San Vicente with over 700 million board feet in the watersheds of Waddell Creek, Scotts Creek, and the San Vicente (Wagner, 1974). Even if the railroad was not pushed northward beyond Scotts Creek, it was in a position to haul logs or lumber out of those canyons.

Other sections:

View similarly tagged articles:

cement plant, Davenport, fishing, geology, mining, North Coast, railroads


It is our continuing goal to make available a selection of articles on various subjects and places in Santa Cruz County. Certain topics, however, have yet to be researched. In other cases, we were not granted permission to use articles. The content of the articles is the responsibility of the individual author. It is the Library's intent to provide accurate local history information. However, it is not possible for the Library to completely verify the accuracy of individual articles obtained from a variety of sources. If you believe that factual statements in a local history article are incorrect and can provide documentation, please contact the Webmaster.