Railroad service to locations outside the county was the main goal of the local railroad companies of the 1870s, but Frederick Hihn and other rail investors also saw the newly installed rails as a different sort of opportunity – one with more local benefits. The Santa Cruz streets of 1875 were unpaved, and the fastest modes of local travel and freight movement still involved horses.
Carriages and wagons had become common on the county’s roads but, in the winter rainy season, movement ground to a halt in the sticky mud of deeply rutted local roads. Street paving was still years away, but rail systems, if properly designed and installed, offered a solution. The same rails that supported the chuffing steam locomotives could also support a more modest all-weather transportation alternative – horsecars.
By mid-1875, two rail lines were complete within the town of Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad had laid track on River Street and down Pacific Avenue to the new railroad wharf, while the Santa Cruz Railroad installed track from the west bank of the San Lorenzo River along the beachfront, curving around to follow today’s Chestnut Street to a terminus at the site of the future Mission Hill tunnel.
It would be more than a year, however, before the tunnel and the trestle over the San Lorenzo was completed, allowing the steam powered trains to cross the river and use those tracks. The SC&F line to Felton opened sooner, but the steam locomotives were not allowed to use the Pacific Avenue tracks. Those empty tracks created a window of opportunity for the beginnings of a privately-owned, rail-based local transit system. Hihn’s “red line” on Chestnut Street, using the SCR tracks, was the first horsecar line. The “yellow line”, using the SC&F tracks on Pacific Avenue and along the beachfront, soon followed.
Another early streetcar investor was downtown pioneer Elihu Anthony. Anthony had prospered since the days of , and had built a nice house on the bluff (at the end of School Street) overlooking his enterprises below.
The new River-Pacific yellow line rails ran right past his iron foundry and commercial building, promising even more prosperity. Anthony’s other properties were, however, mostly located on Front Street.
He joined Hihn and a group of other investors to plan a horsecar line (my sources don’t agree on whether this line was ever built) from the lower plaza down Front Street, along the river (today’s Laurel Street extension) and around the east end of Beach Hill to the Leibbrandt brothers’ Dolphin Bathhouse on the strand. The Dolphin was one of the first tourist-oriented businesses on the beach, a predecessor of today’s Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
There used to be a Dolphin Street connecting Beach and 2nd Streets, about where the Boardwalk parking lot entrance is now. The brothers are remembered in the area by today’s Leibrandt Street which, in another of those curious local spelling mishaps, dropped one “b”. In 1884, the Dolphin merged with the neighboring Neptune Baths.
The rail-based transport system continued to grow and expand for the rest of the century. The first streetcar companies were followed by many others – with varying degrees of success. One problem they all shared was meeting the town’s expectation of year-round, all-weather service.
The original contracts called for the companies to provide paving and/or planking between and adjacent to the rails. The paving served two purposes: to provide secure footing for the horses and to allow passengers to get on and off without getting muddy.
Because of the cost, however, the streetcar companies dragged their feet on those improvements, preferring instead to simply suspend service when the weather was too wet or the mud too deep. During the 1880s, this problem was mitigated downtown as the main streets were paved, but continued outside of the downtown area.
Early horsecars were succeeded by electric trolleys beginning in the 1890s and service reached its greatest extent during those years. After the turn of the century, rail-based transit gradually lost passengers to the newfangled automobiles. In 1924, gasoline-powered buses replaced the last trolleys. These days, the conversation has come nearly full-circle, as the debate about the future of public transportation once again includes rail-based options.
There’s another important episode of railroad history coming up in the 1880s, but there are some other interesting stories to tell before we get there.
Sources (available at Santa Cruz Public Library):
- Chase, John L. Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture (3rd ed. 2005)
- McCaleb, Charles S. Surf, Sand & Streetcars (1995)
- Rowland, Leon. Santa Cruz: The Early Years (1980)