With all of this weekend’s festivities related to the County’s acquisition of the Watsonville-to-Davenport rail corridor, now seems like a good time to return to the story of how the railroads first came to Santa Cruz County. Readers who want to catch up on past blog entries on this subject can follow these links:
- Part 1
- Part 2
- Part 3
In Part 3 of this tale, Santa Cruz finally got a rail connection to the outside world when the locally-owned Santa Cruz Railroad completed its connection to the Southern Pacific line at Pajaro. Most of the rail corridor just acquired by the County (from Pajaro to Santa Cruz) consists of the old SCR right-of-way. The stretch of track from Santa Cruz along the coast to Davenport wasn’t built until later. From Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz & Felton line continued north into the San Lorenzo Valley, but stopped at the bottom of the log flume on the west side of the San Lorenzo River in Felton.
At the same time, however, another railroad was tunneling its way into the County (literally) from the north. One of the men behind this effort invested heavily at the Santa Cruz end of his railroad, and thus became a local “Name on the Signs”. James Graham Fair (no relation to local pioneer Isaac Graham), like many Californians of this period, made his fortune in mining. Unlike earlier California Gold Rush beneficiaries, however, Fair’s luck was in silver, from the Comstock Lode in western Nevada.
Older readers may remember the long-running TV western series called “Bonanza”, which was nominally located somewhere in western Nevada. The TV ranch was called the “Ponderosa”, so where did the name of the series come from? From history - the big silver strike in that area became known as the “Big Bonanza”, and the popular nickname for Fair’s silver mining company was “the Bonanza Firm”.
Suddenly a wealthy tycoon, Fair invested in San Francisco real estate – and a railroad. In 1876, Fair and others established the South Pacific Coast Railroad (the acronym on its rail cars was SPC, not to be confused with the SCR (Santa Cruz Railroad) or the SC&F (Santa Cruz and Felton Railroad), which the SPC bought and improved to serve as its final leg. Fair was involved in several later notable developments in Santa Cruz, including a race track on the Westside in the general area of the street bearing his name. In 1881, he was elected a U.S. Senator from the state of Nevada, making him possibly the only U.S. Senator other than John C. Fremont to have a Santa Cruz street named for him (please correct me if I’m wrong – no extensive research backs up that statement, and I’m not counting senators who later became president, like Andrew Jackson).
Beginning near the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, the narrow-gauge South Coast Railroad began in 1876 to push its way southward toward San Jose, then on to Los Gatos, and finally over the mountains to link up with the Santa Cruz & Felton tracks at Felton. That last leg was a much more challenging proposition than skirting the edge of San Francisco Bay, and it was not until 1880 that the first South Pacific Coast Railroad train arrived in Santa Cruz.
Fair was a mining man, so his natural impulse was to go through the mountains rather than around them. The Santa Cruz Mountains, however, presented a different set of challenges from the silver mines of Nevada, especially at the summit, where the 6,200 foot long Wrights tunnel encountered pockets of natural gas which resulted in an explosion that killed thirty Chinese laborers.
The persistence necessary to success in mining served Fair well, and the connection at Felton was finally completed and the first SPC train rolled into Santa Cruz in 1880. Along its route from Los Gatos, the train traveled down several remote canyons full of virgin redwood forest, and lumber operations were immediately established in those newly-accessible areas. The lumber operations, in turn, created new towns along the rail line. Most have disappeared except for maybe a historical marker, like the one at Patchen. A few of the names survive as residential communities like Laurel and Glenwood.
The much larger Southern Pacific Railroad acquired all of the Santa Cruz County rail lines in the 1880s, and gradually broad-gauged them over the next twenty years. Then, after a bad winter in 1940, the line to Los Gatos was abandoned. A short spur from Felton to Olympia survived because it served the sand quarry there. Even that last rail customer has now shut down, and the remaining dead-end track is mostly unused, although still crossing Graham Hill Road and connected to Santa Cruz through Roaring Camp.
* Hamman, Rick. 140 Years of Railroading in Santa Cruz County. Santa Cruz Public Library online local history articles.
* Lydon, Sandy. (1985) Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region. Capitola, CA: Capitola Book Co.
* MacGregor, Bruce A. (1975). Narrow gauge portrait: South Pacific Coast. Felton, Calif: Glenwood Publishers.