Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

Transportation: Railroads and Streetcars
by Susan Lehmann

Railroads and streetcars: Like so many isolated communities of the west, the City of Santa Cruz owes much of its early economic development, both industrial and tourist oriented, to the coming of the railroads. In 1870, no rail lines serviced Santa Cruz County. Within the next ten years, however, several lines were built connecting scattered communities, creating new ones and altering transportation and economic development patterns throughout the region. In spite of road building efforts, transportation before the railroads was chancy at best. Roadways were narrow, rutted and subject to flooding, landslides and other natural disasters. Some sections were impassable for months during wet winters and tolls made travel and transporting goods expensive. Businessmen wishing to increase profits and expand operations realized that the only way this would be possible would be through the construction of railway lines that could link up to systems outside the area. The first line to be developed was the Santa Cruz and Felton Railroad, a narrow gauge line incorporated in 1874 and completed in 1875. It ran between the lumber flume in Felton and the wharves of Santa Cruz, eight miles away but did not go beyond the County. The line was operated as an independent entity until the South Pacific Coast Railroad leased the tracks and rolling stock in 1879.

When the Southern Pacific Railroad declined to build a line from its railhead at Pajaro to Santa Cruz, a group of businessmen from Santa Cruz, Soquel and Aptos organized the Santa Cruz Railroad in 1873. The line was subsidized by the county and ran east from Santa Cruz through Soquel and Aptos linking up with the Southern Pacific at Pajaro. Although passengers could go on to other points by changing trains, the line was used primarily for hauling freight.

The most ambitious plan for a railway line was designed by Senator James Fair, a multi-millionaire who envisioned a route from the east side of San Francisco Bay, south to San Jose then on to Los Gatos and through the mountains to Felton. He incorporated the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1876 and immediately began building the segment from Dunbarton in the East Bay to Los Gatos. The most difficult part of the line, however, was the segment through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Plans called for a 6,000 foot tunnel at the summit as well as a 5,000 foot tunnel between the mountain towns of Laurel and Glenwood and six smaller tunnels along the line.

Photo of the Southern Pacific depot in Brookdale
Southern Pacific depot in Brookdale, undated.
Photo from the Library's collection.

A great majority of the labor needed to construct these railroad lines was provided by Chinese workers. The eight miles of track for the Santa Cruz and Felton Railroad was constructed in just eight months with all but the Mission Hill tunnel in Santa Cruz built by Chinese. That tunnel was constructed by [thirty-two] Cornish miners, employed because the city of Santa Cruz did not want a large crew of Chinese working in the center of the city.

While constructing the Santa Cruz Railroad, the Chinese workers lived in a tent camp a mile east of the city. Paid a dollar a day of which two dollars a week were deducted for food, the workers labored six ten hour days per week.

It was the construction of the South Pacific Coast Railroad over the Santa Cruz mountains that took the greatest toll on workers' lives. Six hundred men, hired by the Ning Yeung Company of San Francisco, provided the labor for all the grading, track laying and tunneling. The digging of tunnels, especially those near the communities of Wrights and Laurel was exceptionally dangerous and an explosion of coal gas in Wrights tunnel claimed the lives of five workers in February 1879. Eight months later, another explosion killed 24 Chinese workers with an additional 17 badly burned. Seven of those eventually died bringing the death toll to 31. The Chinese became convinced that the north end of Wrights tunnel was cursed and the railroad was forced to bring in a Cornish crew to complete the work on that end while the Chinese worked on the south.

All three of the original Santa Cruz lines were narrow gauge and subject to the same hazards that the county roads faced, including landslides and flooding. The destruction of the Santa Cruz Railroad's San Lorenzo River trestle by flooding in 1881 proved financially ruinous for the line and most of its stock was acquired by the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Southern Pacific's first move upon acquiring the company was to lay broad gauge line on the route between Santa Cruz and Watsonville and add a spur line from Aptos into Aptos Canyon. By the late 1880s, Southern Pacific also controlled the South Pacific Coast Railroad which was forced to lease the line due to financial problems.

New capital pumped into the system by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company allowed many advances and by 1883, there was at last a through line to San Francisco for both freight and passenger trains. The line served Santa Cruz, Soquel/Camp Capitola, Aptos and Watsonville linking towns and villages along the way and providing a fast, economic way for tourists to enjoy the scenic wonders that the railroads were happy to promote. Although the 1906 earthquake and an economic downturn on the west coast in 1908 brought an end to railroad construction in the Santa Cruz area, the period between 1910 and 1920 was a good one. Already existing lines carried less freight but provided service for an ever increasing number of tourists. In 1918 there were 18 passenger and six freight trains a day arriving and departing Santa Cruz. One of the most popular lines was the Scenic Local which ran from San Francisco to Monterey via Los Gatos, Santa Cruz, Aptos and Watsonville. By 1920 the automobile had begun to have an effect on train travel as more people purchased cars and the "good roads" movement took hold. Lobbying and fund raising previously devoted to getting railroads into communities were now aimed at improving local roads and hooking them up to a state highway system.

In an attempt to keep the tourist dollars coming, however, the Southern Pacific inaugurated its Suntan Special in 1927 and, coupled with the Seaside Company's Water Carnivals at the Plunge, it proved extremely successful. The first route was run on Sundays between San Jose and Santa Cruz and later lines were added from Oakland and San Francisco. As many as 5,000 people per day took the Suntan Special during its heyday. As roads improved, however, and competition from the automobile and trucking freight lines took its toll, the line was shut down, making its final run in 1940. In spite of the fact that railroads paid such an important part in the development of the city's history, little remains except a railroad tunnel between Chestnut Street and Mission [Hill] and two railroad trestles and a former freight station at the depot site on Washington Street.

It would be almost impossible to tell from the appearance of the City today that it once supported a thriving streetcar system which linked downtown to the boardwalk and outlying neighborhoods. An extensive and lavishly illustrated history of the system can be found in the book Surf, Sand and Streetcars, a Mobile History of Santa Cruz California by Charles McCaleb.

In brief, the City got its first streetcar line in 1875. The horse drawn vehicles ran on a line that connected downtown with Beach Hill and the wharf and eventually to east Santa Cruz along Soquel Avenue. The system was electrified and expanded in the 1890s and, by 1895, major new lines ran out Mission and down Younglove and Woodrow, as well as out Soquel and down Cayuga to Seabright. Housing was built along these lines and when additional lines were run out Water and Morrissey (from 1900 through 1910) housing followed suit.

What had taken years to develop literally disappeared in a few months when, in 1926, the streetcars were replaced with motorized buses. All that remains of the system are roads such as Woodrow and Younglove that were originally laid out with a center median strip for trolley tracks and are now just exceptionally wide residential streets.

[From: Fully Developed Context Statement for the City of Santa Cruz. Prepared for City of Santa Cruz Planning and Development Department. Chapter 3, Context I: Economic Development of the City of Santa Cruz 1850-1950, pp. 25-27]

View similarly tagged articles:

railroads, transportation


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.