Santa Cruz Rail


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A Brief History of the South Pacific Coast

By Brian Liddicoat


1869: Transcontinental Railroad (CPRR) completed to Oakland.

1876: James Fair incorporates the Southern Pacific Coast RR Co., to build a narrow-gauge railroad from Alameda, through his new development town at Newark, past San Jose and Los Gatos, through the mountains to Felton and Santa Cruz.

June 1877: Line is open to Los Gatos, construction of the “Mountain Division” now begins.

Feb and Nov 1879: Massive gas explosions in the Summit Tunnel kill 37, injure scores more. The Summit Tunnel takes 27 months to complete.

1878-79: Slowly, the line pushes through the mountains to Santa Cruz, at a far greater cost in time, money and men then ever expected. Cost probably exceeds $2 Million (more than $100k per mile over 25 miles). This is more than five times the original estimate of $20,000 per mile.

May 15, 1880: Opening Day of the Los Gatos – Santa Cruz line is marred by a horrible derailment at Rincon Crossing: 15 killed and scores injured.

Late 1886: Fair sells the SPC to Southern Pacific RR (SPRR) for $5.5 Million. II. 1886 – c. 1920: THE GOLDEN AGE

Enormous demand for 1) redwood timber from the San Lorenzo Valley and also 2) passenger and excursion traffic from San Francisco/Oakland to the Santa Cruz mountain and seaside resorts makes the line perhaps the single most profitable narrow- gauge rail line in America. The line becomes widely known as one of the most beautiful rail passenger journeys in N. America. President Theodore Roosvelt visits March 1903.

From November 1904 – April 1906, due to increasing demand, the line is “broad- gauged” (switched to standard-gauge track) and its bridges/tunnels are rebuilt, widened and reinforced. The work was completed just days before the 1906 Earthquake, which collapsed the Summit Tunnel: it took almost 2yrs to fully re-open the line.

III. c. 1920 – 1940 DECLINE

The coming of the automobile and Highway 17 cripple demand for passenger traffic and the end of the Boulder Creek timber industry and the Great Depression almost eliminate demand for freight on the line. The incredibly high cost of maintenance remains. SPRR looks for a way to close the line. In 1934 the Felton – Boulder Creek line is closed and the tracks removed, replaced with bus service on the new Highway 9.

IV. 1940-1942FINIS

March 3, 1940: the last train to cross the mountains arrives in Santa Cruz. That night, a late winter storm causes heavy landslides that close the line above Zayante. Trains will never run on it again.

Summer-Fall 1940: SPRR applies for and wins government approval to abandon the line, despite intense opposition from the mountain communities that it serves.

1941: SPRR contracts with a private railroad salvage firm (H.A. Christie) to remove all track between Los Gatos and Olympia (just N of Felton), as well as all bridges and other equipment between those points. When that is done, the entrances of the major tunnels will be dynamited (due to liability issues, not because of the attack on Pearl Harbor). The line from Santa Cruz to Felton and Olympia will remain open to serve the sand quarries N of Felton.

April 1942: Christie’s salvagers complete their work by dynamiting the portals of the Summit, Glenwood and Mtn Charlie Tunnels. Again, contrary to legend, the decision to destroy these tunnels was made well before the attack on Pearl Harbor and was purely a business decision, not motivated by war concerns. The military was not involved.

1953: The new James Lenihan Dam creates Lexington Reservoir, submerging the once-thriving towns of Lexington and Alma and the old railbed that once served them. The Zayante Plug tunnel is converted by “Western Atomic Vaults, Inc” into a bombproof storage vault for government documents. It continues this service today.

1982: In the wake of damage from the storm of 1982, SP ends the “sand train” service to quarries at Olympia. Soon after, Roaring Camp begins using the line from Felton to Santa Cruz for its popular “beach train”. Roaring Camp formally purchases the present line from SP in 1992.

1990-91: Historian Rick Hamman campaigns to re-open the SPC line to Los Gatos as a commuter rail line. The initiative fails to win government approval.

THE TUNNELS (2.8 miles total of tunnels)

Tunnels in italics have been daylighted and no longer exist [Tunnel 1; Los Gatos; 191ft long; collapsed and daylighted 1904] Tunnel 2, Summit/Wrights/Big Tunnel; 6,207ft long (under Summit Ridge) Tunnel 3, Glenwood Tunnel; 5,792ft long (Laurel to Glenwood; under Hwy 17) Tunnel 4, Clems/Mtn Charlie Tunnel; 910ft long (Glenwood to Zayante) Tunnel 5, Zayante Plug Tunnel; 250ft long (now used for document storage) [Tunnel 6; Butte Cut Tunnel (Inspiration Point); 338ft long; daylighted in the 1990s] [Tunnel 7; Hogback Rincon Tunnel; 282ft long; daylighted] Tunnel 8; Mission Hill Tunnel; 918ft long

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Brian D. Liddicoat Attorney at Law Tel: (831) 594-4418


FURTHER READING: South Pacific Coast; Bruce MacGregor; 1968 Narrow Gauge Portrait: South Pacific Coast; Bruce

 MacGregor; 1975 California Central Coast Railways, Rick Hamman; 1981 The Birth of California Narrow Gauge; Bruce MacGregor; 2003