Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Scandal of 1940: The Closure of the Southern Pacific Mountain Route

Back in 2011, a friend and I thought it would be interesting to look back into the archives of local history and see if there was any specific reason why the Southern Pacific Railroad shut down its railroad franchise in Santa Cruz in 1940. We'd heard rumors of financial misconduct, a terrible storm, the threat of Japanese invasion, and various other urban legends, but neither of us were accepting them at face value. Even Rick Hamman's book made it seem a little vague what exactly caused the SP to give up on the Santa Cruz Mountain route and reroute everything through Watsonville Junction. Something just wasn't adding up. So we went to the University of California, Santa Cruz, and looked it up in the archives of the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper.

Aaaaannnnddd I got off track—almost immediately. I decided that the February 1940 date for the storm that destroyed the mountain route didn't sound right, so I started my research with November 1939 when another bad storm hit Santa Cruz. I had some evidence to support this earlier date, but naturally Rick Hamman was correct in pointing to the afternoon of February 26th, 1940 as the last run over the mountain—documentary evidence backs it up thoroughly. What I did find that November, though, was an interesting editorial letter written by the Sentinel's staff proposing that the San Lorenzo Valley be renamed "Big Trees Valley" after the redwood trees found throughout the region and specifically after Big Trees County Park (the future Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park). This topic took off and I explored it through to its conclusion in February 1940. An article on the topic even got published by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in its Redwood Logging & Conservation in the Santa Cruz Mountains—A Split History (History Journal #7) which is releasing on June 8th. Although the topic excited me, it distracted me from my original goal as well and it was another year before I resumed research on the closure of the line.

Looking through the Sentinel, the research began two days after the route was shut down by storms. The February 25th-27th storm was one of the worst in its history, with waves so strong that they were reaching the Boardwalk's Casino and levies were overflowing in downtown. The entire county was cut off from the outside world for a few hours, as slides at Wadell Beach, on Highway 9, on Highway 17, at Mount Madonna and Chittenden Pass closed off everything except Highway 1 southbound. The damage to the San Lorenzo Valley was massive—Boulder Creek was cut off, parts of Zayante Road were in the creek, and the railroad tracks near the top of the grade were covered in sand with washouts and sinks knocking tracks out of alignment. When all was said and done, Santa Cruz County was forced to petition both the state and the federal government for assistance in restoring all services to the county, with the WPA coming to the rescue on multiple fronts. Largely unnoticed for the first two weeks, the railroad was quietly rerouted through Watsonville as Southern Pacific assessed the damage.

Although at first optimistic about the line's reopening, quickly SP declared the entire branch lost to the storm and petitioned for its abandonment stating the costs of repair and future upkeep were too high. Thus the scandal began. The Sentinel recorded the public reactions to the debate while the Evening News maintained detailed summaries of each Santa Cruz chamber of commerce meeting. The SP became defensive as Santa Cruzans protested against the abandonment, and perhaps they were right—the franchise was theirs to control and it was clearly losing money, despite local protests. But the locals had a point too: SP was the only rail service in Santa Cruz and it didn't seem fair that the company could pick and choose its lines without thought to the community that lived along them. The debate raged for months, with silences between the temporary abandonment hearing in late April and the formal abandonment hearing in early July. In the end, SP used some sneaky tactics to ensure that their line was closed, changing venues at the last minute and barring testimony from the newspapers who had spent months assisting the chamber of commerce in its research.

The Southern Pacific was granted permission by the Interstate Commerce Commission in November 1940, nearly half a year after the hearing doomed the campaign and after the German invasion of the Low Countries distracted the populace with foreign war exploits. Over the ensuing months, SP removed the track and sold it for scrap to help build weapons, then they contracted out to H.A. Christie & Sons to help demolish the tunnels. Christie sold the good quality tunnel support wood to local wood suppliers then closed the tunnel portals one-by-one—Summit, Glenwood, then Clems—finishing work by the end of April 1942. The Eccles Tunnel remained opened, though abandoned, until 1954 when the Western States Atomic Vault Company took it over for use to store important state documents in the event of nuclear war. The remaining two tunnels were retained by Southern pacific for use on the stub line between Santa Cruz and Olympia, where two sand quarries and Big Trees County Park justified the line's continued existence.

An article was planned on this topic, but the article has gotten seriously out of hand. I'm at four pages already and so far I have cited two articles...out of 55 pages of articles. Yeah, I'm in trouble. I've decided that "The Scandal of 1940" may well become Santa Cruz Trains: The End of the Line, a short booklet (100ish pages) that I hope to publish through the Museum of Art & History next February, if they're willing. It would follow a similar format to their Notes from Santa Cruz book on Santa Cruz's musical history and would be equally as brief. I have a number of photographs of the line from 1940, all in terrible quality but that is all what is available (seriously, the originals were lost). I also am getting into contact with the owner of Will Whitaker's collection, a man who took photographs of the line between 1936 and 1941.  Through these I hope to make a short tie-in book that will summarize the end of mountain railroading in 1940, as well as perhaps the earlier end of the Felton spur in 1928, the Boulder Creek branch in 1934, and the Los Gatos branch in 1959.

Any thoughts on this, submissions of photographs, or primary source documents would be greatly appreciated in this side-project. Thank you!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Closure of the Route, 1940: Clipping

I've been doing some extensive newspaper microfilm research into the closure of the mountain route between Los Gatos and Olympia in 1940. During my research today, I ran across this lovely article that pretty much sums up all angles of the debate in fluid sarcastic anger. Enjoy!

[All spelling errors are my own unless I note them specifically in brackets]

Source: Santa Cruz Evening News
April 1st, 1940 (Issue 65:280, Pages 1:6, 2:4)

Judah Urges City To Fight Proposed Rail Abandonment As Protection To Community 
By H. R. Judah, Associate Editor  
Santa Cruz is approximately 78 miles from more than one million people who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. 
The Southern Pacific main line from San Francisco to Santa Cruz via Los Gatos, one of the oldest routes in the history of California railroading, has served the travel needs between the California metropolis, neighboring cities and Santa Cruz since the “eighties.” 
Passenger travel from Santa Cruz northerly to the Bay Cities in recent years has fallen off on account of competitive services by bus lines and on account of the growth in personal car registration in the sate and the great improvement in the highways. 
The fact remains, however, that people still travel by train—railroad advertisements call for more travel by train—which accounts no doubt for the railroad executive’s belief that train travel is to be definitely encourages for the present—and the future. This situation does not exactly tie in with a petition for the discontinuance of a line that has served one of the best known recreational areas in the West. 
What is the future of railroad service, by the way? Suppose within a year the rail engineers develop a locomotive with some new form of propulsion and the light construction capable of haling lighter trains over the Los Gatos route at lower cost than at present, and that meanwhile the discontinuance of service order has been granted. The Southern Pacific Company would not petition for a renewal of service, we feel sure. But the trouble is—that no other railroad is in a position to give this service. 
It must be conceded that every franchise in public interest has, by its non-competitive nature, certain obligations that are a part of the right to carry on business. Unprofitable branches must be supported by profit making lines, or the unprofitable branch must be made to pay by investment of new capital with new appeals to the traveling public. 
The psychology of discontinuance of train service to this city “over the hill” would be highly detrimental to this city. Santa Cruz has been a recognized terminal for nearly 60 years. Santa Cruz has been off the MAIN LINES of travel in California since it became a city of growing importance, but it has at least been served by forms of transportation that it must hold onto at all costs—if for no other reason than the fact that geographically the city is so placed that transportation is a part, and an important part, of its present and future economic existence. 
The interpretation of a discontinuance order on rail service to Santa Cruz throughout the state would be that Santa Cruz is “slipping”; Santa Cruz is not of sufficient importance to warrant train travel from a great metropolitan area by the most direct and shortest railroad line; Santa Cruz, the home of the world famous Big Trees, the oldest publicized grove in the state, can be reached no longer by the rail line that runs right through the grove, but must be reached by the changes from rail to bus, or vice versa, and maybe more than once, while the traveler is in transit. 
Let each one take home to himself the reactions he gets when he is told that he must “change cars” to reach a destination that is at the longest is only 78 miles from the starting point. That certainly gives one of the plain ideas of “branch line” service. Santa Cruz has been on a “branch” of state transportation service for too many years. We must not let it get worse. 
Now as to costs and earnings on the S.P. line via Los Gatos. We notice that the railroad company touches on the lack of passenger travel between Santa Cruz and Los Gatos on the short line. But what of the passengers on the 7 a.m. train out of Santa Cruz every week-day who fill the train up before it reaches San Francisco? 
Los Gatos, San Jose and Palo Alto passengers have filled the train every time the writer has ever used it. We will bet that if the petition for the discontinuance of the Los Gatos-Santa Cruz line were granted that the railroad company would see to it that Los Gatos, San Jose and Palo Alto passengers using that morning service would be protected and if not the protests would soon settle it. 
I can see the Southern Pacific side of this question up to a certain point. We can not see the fairness of rail isolation of an area of 25,000 people. We are not convinced that Eastern rail parties would take kindly to changes of transportation forms to reach the Big Trees or any other natural attraction in this county. This business would be materially affected to the detriment of the whole area.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Maps, Maps, Maps

The railroad between Santa Cruz Depot and Vasona Junction was 31.1 miles long. Separated out, that is 6.8 miles between Santa Cruz Depot and Felton Depot, 9 miles between Felton Depot and Laurel, and 15.3 miles between Laurel and Vasona Junction. And we cannot forget the 6.3 miles between Felton Depot and Boulder Creek. Or the roughly 8 miles of the Dougherty Extension Railroad north of Boulder Creek. Or even the 1.7 mile Old Felton branch. I could, perhaps sadly, go on.

Railroads in the Santa Cruz Mountains were a vast network that trunked off of the main line to make branch lines, and subbranch lines. Some were short-lived, and others were not. Trying to stick all of these on a map...well that's darn-near impossible. Yet, it is something I am required to do because geography is everything.

Simply stating geographic coordinates isn't enough, nor is noting distances between stations and stops. All of these things are helpful, yes, but they are best understood when looked at together on a map. I do not possess mapmaking skills, but I can trace. Fortunately, the United States Geological Survey program has published many maps over the past century and they have been largely digitalized for public download at various repositories such as the USGS website ( and the University of Texas at Austin's Perry-CastaƱeda Library ( By using these maps and then superimposing rivers, streams, and rail lines on them, a better idea of how everything links together is possible. These maps also help in determining where specific lines and spurs existed, though they are not always as accurate as they appear, especially regarding the railroad.

The following map is a sample of the map of Felton. The final version of the map will stretch all the way to Santa Cruz and will probably cut a bit more off the top. The railroad lines will hopefully be straighter (these were hand drawn digitally), though the creeks are pretty well off. Captions for the creeks and river will also be more fluid and cling to their bodies of water more accurately. Creeks are shown as smaller than the San Lorenzo River. Likewise, the narrow-gauged tracks between Old Felton and Felton Junction are thinner in scale than the other standard-guaged tracks. These differences will be noted in a scale at a later point in development. A scale rule will also be included to measure distances and a notation pointing true north will be added.

By looking at this map, you can learn a lot about where things were and how active an area was. To give a general idea to the scale, since a rule is lacking at present, this map is roughly 2 miles vertically and 1-1/4 mile horizontally. This alone tells you that a lot of stuff was happening in a small space. One thing it doesn't tell you, nor will, is when this activity was taking place. If one were to look at this map, they would assume that Big Trees Landing and Big Trees (accidentally cut off) were adjacent to each other simultaneously, but in reality one succeeded the other. This map is not a chronological history of the Felton area.

What this map does tell you, though, is that there were tracks on both sides of the river at one point or another, that Roaring Camp is midway between Felton Depot and Big Trees, and that there were six major trestles in the area (not counting culverted creeks like Bull Creek or other smaller streams). It also shows that the network of water bodies defined the railroad more than roads, therefore roads have been removed due to a lack of relative importance. The locations of station structures are noted as well as their placements, but their sizes and importance are not included. Finally, notes at the fringes of the map point out where other locations (and, presumably, maps) are in relation to this location.

Thus maps provide a helpful means of providing information, but are not exhaustive in their abilities. The articles themselves will provide dates of operation, the type of station (freight, flag, full agency), the lengths of trestles and tunnels, the number of sidings, spurs, etc. These types of things could fit on the map, but it would crowd out the basic features, which are essential to the map. As I further refine and develop these maps for each section, I hope to make them more informative while still keeping it as simple as is reasonable.

Please send me suggestions, recommendations, comments, and whatnot to me. I'd love to hear input and see what things may be of interest to others that I may have overlooked. Cheers!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Problems with Names

If there's one thing I have discovered in my research, it is that many locations went by many different names. They are not consistent, sometimes not even within their own time period. Perhaps the most problematic name is "Wright's Station". This small village began life as "Wright's Station" but quickly became simply "Wright's". Then, naturally, people got lazy and the apostrophe was removed, turning it into "Wrights". Finally, around 1890, the s was dropped entirely, turning it into "Wright". This last name is what stuck, according to the Southern Pacific Railroad, but most people still seem to call the town site "Wright's" regardless of its longest-established name.

Other more varied names have crept up, though, some with annoying consequences. Brackney, for instance, began its life as "River Station", located near the later site of Bonny Brae. It quickly progressed to "Riverside" then "Pettis". This is where things get strange. From Pettis, it moved, literally, a mile north to become a few years later "Brackney" (originally misspelled "Brockney"). Then, just for good measure, "Bonny Brae" popped up near the site of River Station's original location. During the earliest period, another stop, "Kent's Spur", also appeared near the same general geographic place, though it's clear it was not identical to any of those previously listed stations above.

I'll end this rant with Mount Hermon, a site that prior to 1880 was called Arcadia. When the South Pacific Coast trucked through the area, it was renamed "Tuxedo" to avoid confusion with another Arcadia located elsewhere. But on timetables, it was simply called "Campus", except in the year immediately prior to its closure. Around 1903, the Mount Hermon Association took over, and the stop was listed alternately as either "Mt. Hermon" or "Mt. Hermon Assoc. Grounds". At the end, it finally reverted to the much simpler "Mt. Hermon," the name it still bares today (though it more properly is labelled "Mount Hermon" on signage outside the station house).

With frequent name changes come confusion. While the changes are fairly easy to document in-text, labeling the individual articles has become somewhat of a burden because of this. Which name is the best name for the site? The first? The last? The most grammatically proper? The longest-established? Issues such as these will have to be resolved and, fortunately, most lend themselves to easy resolution. Still others, though, such as "Wright's" above suggest that the most popular rendition, even if used only for a short while, may be the most appropriate.

Moving on to one further issue regarding names, the tunnels and trestles in the Santa Cruz Mountains were not always named. At least not officially. Formally, the tunnels were numbered 1 through 8, beginning with the short tunnel in Cats Canyon. After standard-gauging, they were renumbered 1 through 6, with the Summit Tunnel becoming the first in the new numbering. Yet even in this example, it becomes obvious that some of the tunnels have names, even if they never formally did. The "Summit Tunnel" is the best-known, but the "Eccles Tunnel", now the Atomic Vault; the "Clems" or "Mountain Charlie Tunnel"; and the "Mission Tunnel" in Santa Cruz are also all well-known. Should these tunnels simply be numbered as the Southern Pacific intended, or should their popular names be used. Again, in-text there is little issue, but the titles of articles beg a name even while logic dictates that the number is enough.

Trestles are even more difficult. The Southern Pacific did not appear to number their trestles, at least not in any standardized system. Making things more difficult, three separate branches crossed the San Lorenzo River at various points, with the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company crossing it more times north of Boulder Creek. What do you name these trestles? There were nine crossings of the river by the Southern Pacific, but they were not all there at the same time. The first crossing was at the river's mouth and falls out of the purview of this book, yet it needs to be mentioned, I suppose. The third crossing in Felton was only installed much later than the others. Does it cause everything to get renumbered or is it just called something else? For the most part, I have adopted the method of naming trestles after the body of water (or land) they cross and numbering them from downstream to upstream. Trestles caused by spur lines are named separately, even if they cross the same body of water. Thus the trestle in Felton is the "Felton Trestle" to separate it from the older trestles along the route. The Los Gatos trestle to the Forbes Mill is the "Forbes Mill Trestle" since it is on a spur as well. Fortunately all the SCVM&L Co. trestles are north of Boulder Creek and do not complicate the numbering scheme much. Since the Southern Pacific railroad failed to number or name these trestles in any helpful way, mostly instead just naming it "trestle between [blank] and [blank]", the method I have chosen will hopefully work just as well.

As usual, give me your thoughts and opinions. For issues such as these, I have been very flexible. Some trestles and tunnels will get articles of their own while others will be meshed in with station and spur articles. This is to keep page numbers down a bit and because, quite frankly, there isn't a lot of information on a lot of the trestles.