If necessity is the mother of invention, then desperation is its favorite aunt...
Circumstances were dire and the outlook was bleak for many communities in California during the 1870s. With the mighty Central Pacific Railroad having laid claim to the title of "Trans-Continental" in 1869, the company had spent the ensuing years consolidating its hold on regional commerce into a monopolistic death grip from which local businesses found it nearly impossible to escape. Subjected to rampant price gouging and strong-arm tactics, and faced with a political system dominated by company officers, small-town farmers, merchants and the public in general found themselves squeezed ever tighter by the arms of Frank Norris's so-called "Octopus"; their economic life's blood slowly being drained away into the pockets of the robber barons.
But the genius of capitalism is its ability to find opportunity within the breadth of crisis, and a pair of brothers named Thomas and Martin Carter soon entered into this arena with an innovative business plan: A plan to profit by challenging the reach of the Octopus.
Although small in scale, the Carters and their company simplified the technology of railroading to a point where narrow gauge railroads could be financed, constructed and operated locally, using local resources and manpower in a manner that virtually eliminated dependency on materials imported from eastern industrial centers. It was an idea that proved beyond attractive to many communities yearning for emancipation from the virtual economic enslavement imposed by the Central Pacific, and a half-dozen Carter roads were soon under construction throughout Northern California: The greatest and most ambitious of these being the South Pacific Coast Railroad.
Started by local strawberry growers in 1874, the line ran from the Santa Clara/San Jose area to Dumbarton Point on the southern tip of the bay, where a ferry connection would transport their crops to markets in San Francisco. Originally known as the Santa Clara Valley Railroad, it would be purchased in 1876 by a Nevada silver baron named James Graham Fair and extended south into the dense redwood forests of Santa Cruz County. It was Fair's intention to tap the vast timber resources of the region by serving area lumber mills, and he re-christened this ambitious project as the South Pacific Coast Railroad.
Completed to the coastal resort town of Santa Cruz in May of 1880, the South Pacific Coast was an engineering marvel for its time. With a ruling grade of just 1.5% through the mountains, (the Central Pacific's famed Overland Route could only claim 2.25%), the route boasted 70 mile-per-hour operating speeds and featured seven tunnels with two bores stretching more than a mile each. Passenger coaches were equipped with Miller Hook couplers, (predecessors to the modern Janney automatic coupler), and all equipment featured Westinghouse air brakes. With the vast majority of American railroads not adopting these technologies until enactment of the Railroad Safety Appliance Act in 1900, the South Pacific Coast was an operation 20 years ahead of its time.
In terms of route, the South Pacific Coast was not one to mess around. Starting from their recently relocated wharf on Alameda Point, the tracks ran south across the tidal marshes of Santa Clara County through the communities of Newark, Campbell, Santa Clara, San Jose and Los Gatos. From this point at the base of the southern Coast Ranges, the tracks followed the watershed of Los Gatos Creek, ascending on a steady one-and-a-half percent grade through the towns of Lexington and Alma, jumping the creek six times to maintain a steady climb before arriving at the town of Wright's.
Perhaps the most significant community along the line between the tidal flats of the south bay and the beaches of Santa Cruz, Wright's was a veritable beehive of activity. A major shipping point for local produce, the town boasted two hotels, livery stables, a general store, depot, section house, telegraph office, engine servicing facilities and a pair of large packing sheds. Across the creek, a wooded area known as Sunset Park was a favorite place for picnics and special events, and was serviced by a 1,500-foot spur that branched directly off from the main line.
As mountain towns went it was certainly impressive, but the most impressive feature had nothing to do with the town itself. For Wright's marked the point at which the railroad left the southerly course of Los Gatos Creek and turned 90 degrees to the left, punching through a series of ridges on its way toward the coast. As such, the west side of town was dominated by a monolithic concrete construct that was part tunnel portal, part retaining wall, and part diversion dam.
Built following a massive landslide in 1893, the south portal of Tunnel # 2, or the Summit Tunnel as many called it, was designed to both brace the adjacent hillside and contain a seasonal creek that had previously undermined the portal's wooden predecessor. A high top-side parapet and a spillway set to the right of the portal directed runoff into a walled channel that was then directed through concrete pipes buried beneath the depot before being discharged into Los Gatos Creek.
For 6,208 feet the Summit Tunnel ran beneath the spine of the Coast Range. Then finally, after nearly 1.2 miles of smoky darkness, trains would emerge into the ancient stands of towering redwoods once again, cross Burns Creek, and enter the town of Laurel.
Smaller than Wright's, Laurel was nonetheless significant to the railroad, as it was home to the Fred Hihn Sawmill. Perched on a ridge above town and accessed by an incline hoist, the Hihn Mill would one day provide much of the lumber used in rebuilding San Francisco following the disastrous firestorms of April 1906. A boarding house, depot, blacksmith and carriage shop were all situated nearby, as was the gaping maw of Tunnel # 3.
Five thousand, seven hundred and ninety-three feet later, passengers would once again see daylight as they emerged from the earth into the resort town of Glenwood. A few miles of scenic travel through the redwoods could be enjoyed here as the train rolled along toward its next stop of Clems, but then darkness would once again envelop them as the train passed 907 feet beneath the summit of Mount Charlie to reach the small town of Eccles, along the placid banks of Zayante Creek.
From here the tracks turned south once again, following the rapids of Zayante Creek through Olympia to the town of Felton, where they picked up the San Lorenzo River for the remainder of their journey to the coast. All in all it would have been an impressive survey for any railroad, but for a three-foot-gauge line, the very concept of which had only been first proposed eight years prior in 1872, it bordered on being the eighth wonder of the world.
But superior technology and engineering were not enough to hold the forces of the free market at bay. The strength and reach of the Octopus were both immense, and even the rugged mountain ridges of Santa Cruz County were not beyond its grasp. Despite the best efforts of its founders, the South Pacific Coast was assimilated as a narrow gauge subsidiary of the Southern Pacific Railroad, (formerly the Central Pacific), in 1887. Operations would continue in this fashion until 1906, when the pre-dawn events of April 18th brought all operations to a crashing halt.
When the great quake struck shortly after 5:00 that morning, the havoc it wrought stretched far beyond the city limits of San Francisco. All along the California coast, cities and towns were laid to waste, and the South Pacific Coast was not immune. With their summit tunnel actually transecting the San Andreas Fault, the tectonic shift produced six feet of offset within the bore, requiring a complete re-engineering of the structure. Meanwhile, all along the line, the damage was immense. Trestles collapsed, roadbed shifted and landslides buried large sections of track. The damage would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair, and it would be three years before trains would run through these mountains once more.
By 1909 however, operations had returned to normal. With the track now broadened to standard gauge, produce and timber rolled north out of the mountains to the tidewater marshes of San Francisco Bay while sun-starved tourists rolled south toward the beaches and amusement parks of Santa Cruz. Both trains and profits flowed freely amongst the coastal redwoods.
But nothing lasts forever, and the bloom soon came off the rose. With the opening of Southern Pacific's newly built "Coast Route" in March of 1904, traffic levels along the mountain line had begun to decline and the rate of attrition only increased as the nation entered the era of the Great Depression. By the late 1930s traffic had been reduced to just one through freight per day and five passenger trains, despite the fact that passenger service along the route was losing money to the tune of $30,000 annually.
The final nail in the "Mountain Line's" coffin came on the afternoon of February 26, 1940, when weeks of heavy rains unleashed massive landslides near the town of Zayante. Although initial plans were made for reopening the line, an estimated $55,000 repair bill and a fully operational coast route quickly dampened enthusiasm.
And yet still, there was hope by some that the quirky mountain railroad would yet run again. But any remaining vestige of such hope for salvation was quashed a few short months later when a newly constructed state highway was officially opened to traffic, effectively paralleling the line for its entire length. Hobbled by massive costs and unstable ground, and flanked to either side by road and railroad alternatives, both of which proved its technical superior, the fate of the mountain line was sealed. An abandonment petition was filed, and on June 4th of 1940, the Los Altos-Santa Cruz Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad, Coast Division, San Francisco Subdivision, officially ceased to exist. By the end of that summer, the rails were gone, the bridges removed and the tunnel portals sealed with dynamite, bringing to an end nearly 60 years of railroad operations through the rugged beauty of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Today, few know the story of the South Pacific Coast, and even fewer know the particulars of what traces remain. The tracks between Santa Cruz and Felton remain in service as part of the Santa Cruz, Big Trees & Pacific tourist railroad, and beyond that, rusted rails still mark the route to the abandoned quarry at Olympia. Meanwhile, towns such as Glenwood, Laurel and Wright's have all but disappeared, bypassed by our modern highways and forgotten by the people who once depended upon the materials they produced.
The forces that have shaped and reshaped this region's topography over countless millennium are still hard at work, and have done much to erase physical traces of the railroad's presence. Decades of erosion and earthquakes have combined with naturally unstable geology to create countless landslides, washouts and cave-ins, and the area's abundant vegetation has hidden much of what remains. But if one knows just where to look, faint traces can still be found: Ghostly reminders of a railroad ahead of its time... cut down before its time had come.
The Camden Branch: In order to access the quicksilver mines at New Almaden, the SPC built the Camden Branch, south of San Jose, which opened in July of 1886. The line terminated at a terminal on the east side of Alamitos Creek and McKean Road. It was leased to Southern Pacific in July of 1887, and in 1888 the SP abandoned the narrow-gauge yard built by the SPC and constructed dual gauge track in their own yard on their The New Almaden Branch before converting the SPC Branch to standard-gauge in 1899.
The Camden Branch was primarily used to ship quicksilver north of San Jose to Alviso where it as shipped by boat to a smelter.
By 1922, service on the branch was down to a single train on Mondays, going from Campbell to New Almaden and back to Lick on SP's New Almaden Branch. In 1934, portions of the former SPC branch were abandoned when the mines shut down during the Great Depression, and then the entire SPC branch was abandoned by 1937. Southern Pacific deeded the branch right-of-way between Highway 17 and Almaden Expressway to Santa Clara County and it became part of what is now Camden Avenue.
The Los Gatos Branch: After the SPC came under the ownership of the Southern Pacific, some lines were renamed to fit within SP's naming conventions. The Los Gatos branch was that part of the SPC that ran between Los Gatos to the end of the line at Santa Cruz over the Santa Cruz mountains. It was cut back to Los Gatos in 1941, and ultimately abandoned in the mid-1950s.
Thanks to Paul Carr and Steven Cope for contributing information about this route.