Alameda to Santa Cruz

The South Pacific Coast Railroad

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Map submitted by Paul Carr.

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A map of the South Coast Pacific Railroad as of the 1880s. The line is now abandoned from Vasona, just northeast of Los Gatos, to Olympia, just northeast of Felton. The branch to the north of Felton has been abandoned entirely. The line became part of SP when it was standard gauged. (Submitted by Richard Vantine)

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.

Historic ICC Abandonment Filings

SOUTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD
Docket Number: 10067 Date: 7/5/1933 Section: 1
App. of Southern Pacific RR. Co., Southern Pacific Co. and South Pacific Coast Ry. Co. for certificate to abandon the following parts of the East Bay Electric Lines: the Ellsworth Street Line in Berkeley, a length of 1.594 miles; that part of the California Street Line between Oakland and Berkeley, a distance, of 2.574 miles; that part of the California Street Line in Berkeley, a length of 0.148 miles; the Eighteenth Street Line in Oakland, a length of 3.231 miles; that part of their line in Oakland, a length of 0.622 miles; and application of Southern Pacific Co. to abandon operation of that part of its California Street Line, owned by Southern Pacific, RR. Co. in Berkeley, a length of 0.546 miles; all in Alameda County, California.
Length: 8.715 miles Citation: 193 ICC 432  
SOUTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD
Docket Number: 10120 Date: 8/30/1933 Section: 1
App. of South Pacific Coast Ry. Co. and Southern Pacific Co., its lessee, for certificate to abandon that part of the Boulder Creek Branch between Felton and Boulder Creek, Santa Cruz County, California, a distance of 7.024 miles.
Length: 7.024 miles Citation: 193 ICC 635  
SOUTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD
Docket Number: 10196 Date: 10/23/1933 Section: 1
App. of Southern Pacific RR. Co., South Pacific Coast Ry. Co., and Southern Pacific. Co., their lessee, for certificate to abandon the following parts of the New Almaden Branch; (1) between Alamitos and New Almaden, a distance of 4.087 miles; and (2) between Le Franc and Almaden Junction, a distance of 4.360 miles; all in Santa Clara County, California.
Length: 8.447 miles Citation: 199 ICC 43  
Also under this filing: The New Almaden Branch   
SOUTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD
Docket Number: 11703 Date: 6/24/1937 Section: 1
App. of South Pacific Coast Railway Co. And of Southern Pacific Company, its lessee for authority to abandon a portion of its Le Franc Branch, about 3.85 miles at or near Campbell and Le Franc, all in Santa Clara County, California.
Length: 3.85 miles Citation: 221 ICC 713  
SOUTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD
Docket Number: 12815 Date: 3/25/1940 Section: 1
Application for authority to abandon portion of its so-called San Jose-Santa Cruz Branch 15.167 miles between points near Los Gates and Olympia, located partly in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz County, Calif.
Length: 15.167 miles Citation: 242 ICC 484  
SOUTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD
Docket Number: 20236 Date: 6/16/1958 Section: 1(18)
App. for auth. to abandon its so-called Los Gatos Branch and operation thereof, between M.P. 53.054 at or near Vasona Junction, and the end of said branch line at M.P. 54.507 at or near Los Gatos, a dist. of approx, 2.972 mi. and that portion of the Los Altos Branch at or near Vasona Junction between M.P. 47.859 and M.P. 48.158, a dist. of approx. 0.229 miles of track, with the Wye track between M.P. 53.055 on the Los Gatos Branch and M.P. 47.859 on Los Altos Branch, a dist. of approx. 0.24 miles, together with all sidings, spur tracks and appurtenances, located in Santa Clara County, Calif.
Length: 2.972 miles Citation: 307 ICC 802  

The sections immediately recognizable/locatable today are from Mt. Hermon to Santa Cruz, downtown San Jose to Los Gatos, San Jose to Newark, and from Newark to Oakland. The section between San Jose and Newark is part of the present day Capitol Corridor route. The ROW section between San Jose and Los Gatos is being used for a VTA light rail line, currently to Campbell. The section between Mt. Hermon and Santa Cruz is used today by the Roaring Camp rail road - a tourist line. The tunnels shown between Alma and Clems still exist and are locatable on older topo maps. SP abandoned the line between Los Gatos and Mt. Hermon around the 1940 timeframe, after a large storm caused major damage. The Los Gatos to Vasona segment lasted until the 1950s.

Richard Vantine
San Jose, CA
1/31/2009

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The photo of the restorted Depot at Newark is NOT. This is a fake and not a replica of the Newark depot. The colors may suggest that is was a depot but it never was . It was built new in the 90's.

Vic Neves
San Leandro, CA
4/12/2009

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The Roaring Camp rail road is actually the Santa Cruz, Big Trees & Pacific Railway. In my imagination, the ROW between Mount Hermon & Vasona Junction was rebuilt between 2005 & 2008. It stops at Scotts Valley, Summit Road, Los Gatos, Campbell, San Jose Diridon & Santa Clara Caltrain Station.

Andy Sammonds
San Jose, CA
12/18/2009

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I go on Camden Avenue practically everyday. I would have never known I was driving on an old railroad ROW the whole time!

Andy Sammonds
San Jose, CA
4/18/2010

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I lived for years on the west end of Moongate Place, just where the railroad crossed present-day Almaden Expressway. I found bits of railroad iron in the yard (short spikes) back in the early 1970s.

Joe Gilman
Belchertown, MA
7/29/2010

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Few people know that the Mt. Hermon narrow gauge depot still exists trackside. It was called Tuxedo in NG days. It is north of the Felton depot, just the other side of the railroad bridge. ID'd by a cement ramp which led down(leads) to some doors.

Stan Jefferson
Avondale, AZ
3/6/2011

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What? No mention of the Boulder Creek branch? Or the Centerville branch?

John Haskey
Bonny Doon, CA
5/28/2012

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Just did a thorough scrub of the old Mountain Route a week ago - - last Saturday. After breakfast in downtown Los Gatos at Gilley's, went to the site of the old Los Gatos station, which is now a city park.

We checked out the Wrights Station tunnel portal and environs. Dropped down to the bridge piers across Los Gatos Creek. (But where is the memorial to the 33 Chinese shovel men who died building the tunnel in November 1879? Has the location of the grave been forgotten? Were the bodies later exhumed and shipped back to China for reburial?)

Next was the Laurel portal - - and we then drove down the narrow paved road on the old right of way until a car at a private residence blocked the route. On a previous trip, I came to the conclusion that the south portal of the Summit Tunnel is buried in a mudslide, and is no longer visible or accessible.

So from reading "Abandoned Rails," it seems like a large cleared homestead up on Laurel Road was actually the site of the Hihn Lumber Mill that was highly active after the Great Earthquake.

We also checked out the Glenwood Portal underneath the road, and after some searching around, found the Clems portal.

Apparently the other side of the Clems Portal is inaccessible, as it exists on private land far away from any public roads. (We tried and tried...)

We also drove up Olympia Station Road to the end of the existing rails, and walked down the old abandoned right away, past Eccles - - it was reportedly only a brief jaunt from Olympia to Eccles - - until another residence located directly on the route made it seem unwise to continue.

I think the short tunnel located above the hamlet of Zayante which is currently used as a records storage facility by Iron Mountain was just beyond.

We also checked out the Roaring Camp shops, and ended up driving by the Mission Street portal.

So my sense is that the complete abandonment of the Mountain Route in 1940 was one of the great transportation planning disasters of Bay Area history. The whole line should have been mothballed, and the entire route kept basically intact. No Lexington Reservoir, no Los Gatos redevelopment. In the 1970's/ 1980's, the route would have been brought back as one of the world's most scenic light rail lines. It grieves me to realize that this opportunity has been lost forever, as there is no chance of reclaiming the route now. (I interviewed years ago a planning director of the Santa Cruz County Metropolitan Transportation District at his office, and we discussed the planning study they conducted about the feasibility of rebuilding the mountain route - - there was considerable interest in this idea in the late 1970's.)

My personal connection with the legacy of the South Pacific Coast includes a father who was a career mechanical engineer working out of SP's 60 S. Market San Francisco headquarters. Also a close friend of mine is the stepson of Richard Truesdale, the co-author of "Centennial: A History of the South Pacific Coast."

On a more historical note, I am curious about what kind of freight hauling the old Mountain Route was seeing in the 1930's. Did they actually have the "sand train" going over the hill, heading north? Also, when did the lumber traffic finally cease? Was the last mill still shipping by rail the Hihn Mill in Laurel? Or did a trickle of lumber traffic continue out of Boulder Creek almost til the end? (Ironically, there was a landlocked lumber hauling railroad operating in the remote Pescadero Creek drainage right up until 1949/1950. By San Lorenzo Lumber Company.)

Finally, I don't think there were still five passenger trains a day going over the hill in the 1930's. Maybe one daily at best. Except for the summer Suntan Special runs.

Are there still timetables in existence in some collection of what kind of daily, year round passenger schedule was taking place on the Mountain Route in the 1930's?

Douglas Hawes
San Jose, CA
6/2/2012

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So whatever happened to the classic steam locomotive that the Eccles & Eastern Railroad people were trying to rebuild back in the mid/late 1990's? It was being kept on a siding on Swift Street in Santa Cruz. I remember reading about it in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and so I subsequently tracked down the locomotive.

The steamer - - a medium sized road engine rather than a yard switcher - - was in very good shape, and was being kept behind a carefully constructed chain link fence.

Douglas Hawes
San Jose, CA
6/3/2012

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These filings are very interesting. Where did you find them and do you know where the ICC's decisions are stored regarding these filings? A number of Santa Cruz historians, partially led by me, are searching for the precise information regarding the closures of the Mountain Route beginning with Boulder Creek in 1933 and ending with Los Gatos in the late 1950s. Your site has been a great source because of these filings, but without the resulting decisions (and explanations by the ICC), they are just requests. We are also highly interested in factual evidence regarding the last railroad journey over the mountain route in c. 1940. Thank you for anything you can provide.

Derek Whaley
Zayante, CA
1/28/2013

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Douglas, I thought I'd let you know that all of the tunnel portals are accessible still. The southern Summit Tunnel portal, in fact, is the best in the series, but is a pain to get to. Look for Troy Road near Summit Road, park at the end of it then walk down the road/driveway, heading right down a small dirt trail. It will widen out and go steeply downhill. After about 1/4 mile through the woods, there will be a fairly steep turn left (the trail will also continue ahead). Take this turn and head down the hill. At one point, there is even a rope to help you down the path. Walk carefully around a ledge and down a last embankment to find yourself in front of the Summit Portal (south). Make sure to bring a flashlight because this portal you can enter for nearly 300'! It's simply amazing. Beware of black widows along the walls, creepy-looking pools of standing water, etc., in the tunnel. Across from the tunnel you can see pilings leading toward that dirt road that turns into a driveway near Laurel.

The Clems Tunnel (south) is also accessible and was, until recently, the only tunnel that was open to the public due to an internal slide that opened it up from inside. Unfortunately, another slide in the winter of 2011 closed it again. To reach this tunnel, drive up East Zayante Road in Felton past the Zayante Market and a couple of bridges. You will head up the road for a few more miles before reaching another bridge, at which point Zayante Creek continues straight but the road turns left. There is a fireroad on the right near this point. Find a parking spot (there is one just back down the road a few feet) and climb to the top of the fire road. You are on the right-of-way at the place where Zayante Station was built. The fire road was once a very steep logging spur that ran to a lumber mill in the 1910s or so. Continue to the left for about two miles following the right-of-way. At one point, the fire road will end, with a dirt road heading left and right. Continue straight ahead through the Scotch broom (watch for ticks) for another few hundred feet and you will find yourself at Clems Tunnel (south). This is the most remote of all the tunnels, I'd say.

Hope these directions help. Feel free to check out my website www.santacruztrains.com.

Derek Whaley
Zayante, CA
1/28/2013

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Great article! I grew up on a hill overlooking the community of Glenwood back in the '70s & '80s. Our property bordered the right of way for the Glenwood tunnel, a hundred yards or so back of the portal. Back in the day I did quite a bit of research on the local history of Glenwood that sparked an interest in railroading (particulary old railroads) that continues to this day. I have a number of slides taken back in the late '70s as part of a historical presentation I put together while in high school. Several slides are of the remains of the railroad through the Glenwood Valley. I'll try to dig them up and send them to you.

A little tidbit about Glenwood. If memory serves me, during the narrow gauge era Glenwood had a South Pacific Coast division yard and the only turntable between Los Gatos and Felton (and an "armstrong" turntable at that!).

Jeff Escott
Livermore, CA
7/27/2013

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I'd love to see these photos! All of them. I have a website at SantaCruzTrains.com. Email me at whaleyland@gmail.com.

Whaleyland
Santa Cruz, CA
7/28/2013

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Here is the website with information on the SP #2706 that was on Swift St. http://colusasteam.com/News.php

Mike Hart sold it to John Manley, who is currently resoring it in Colusa,Ca.

Karen Hamman

Karen Hamman
Santa Cruz, CA
1/12/2014

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