In 1861, the locally famous F.A. Hihn started a
corporation—the San Lorenzo Valley Railroad. Five years later, Hihn wrote
an article suggesting the need for a railroad connection from Santa Cruz.
A Sentinel editorial agreed, recommending a railroad up San Lorenzo
Canyon and on to Saratoga and Mountain View. Although less ambitious, the
company began construction of a line to Felton, only to be stopped by a
court injunction filed by major landowners Henry Cowell and Isaac Davis.
(Although railroads could gain property through condemnation, the
California Supreme Court ruled that landowners be compensated.)
But progress was unstoppable. Within six months, the
Santa Cruz and Felton Railroad Company was incorporated. And living up to
their name, they built a narrow gauge line up to Felton, where they
received timber from their sister company’s flume. They also gained
business from two limestone operations near Felton, and the California
Powder Works south of Rincon. They delivered it all to their own Santa
Cruz wharf. And when Santa Cruz hampered operations on Pacific Avenue,
they eliminated the Mission Hill bottleneck with a 927-foot tunnel that is
still used today.
In 1876, the South Pacific Coast Railroad was
incorporated. The plan—build a rail line from Alameda through San Jose and
the Santa Cruz Mountains to Santa Cruz. This is the railroad that built
the line from Los Gatos through Lyndon (later called Lexington), Alma,
Aldercoft, Eva, Call of the Wild, Sunset Park, Wright’s, Laurel, Glenwood,
Clems, Gibbs, Meehan, Eccles, Olympia, Mt. Hermon, and Felton. They built
seven tunnels, including the 6,208-foot Summit Tunnel and the 5,792-foot
Laurel Tunnel. They absorbed the Santa Cruz and Felton, rebuilt the line
to Santa Cruz, and enjoyed considerable success hauling timber, fruit,
produce, black powder, and other goods.
In 1886, the major stockholder sold his interest in the
South Pacific Coast to Southern Pacific. And the next year, the
subsidiaries were absorbed, falling under the control of Southern Pacific,
the company that managed the line for the next 18 years.
Today, Roaring Camp Railroads manages the line from
Felton to Santa Cruz, running tourist trains through redwoods and history.
It is only a novelty, but it reminds us of an interesting history.
A short walk from the parking lot took us to "Big
Trees." It was here that John Fremont camped while exploring California. A
"goosepen" hollow tree where he slept became famous as the "Fremont Tree,"
especially after he ran for president.
Joseph Welch made "Big Trees" into a private park in
1880, later to become Henry Cowell "Big Trees" State Park. A favorite
tourist destination, Big Trees has entertained many notables, including
President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited in 1903. A giant redwood in the
park carries his name.
We walked down the line through beautiful forest to
Felton Junction. Here, shipments were offloaded to wagons or rail lines up
to Felton and Boulder Creek. This was no little spur. In 1899, a narrow
gauge train from Boulder Creek brought 73 loaded freight cars, caboose,
tender, and engine to Felton. The train was almost a half mile long. Now,
it is a nice trail through the trees.
Continuing down to Butte Cut, we visited the site of
many attempts to maintain a tunnel through Devil’s Slide. We heard many
accident stories, and saw the remains of the tunnel entry at the south
We moved on to Rincon, once called Sawmill Flat.
Although Henry Cowell opposed the Felton line to maintain his lime
monopoly, he gave right of way to the railroad in 1874, so that he could
ship out lime brought down Rincon Road. In 1880, Rincon was where the
opening of a rebuilt line by South Pacific Coast was marred by a
disastrous accident that claimed 15 lives.
It’s not surprising that this accident was only one of
many. Although our walk down from Big Trees was a gentle
one-foot-per-mile, at Rincon the grade drops 137 feet-to-the-mile down to
Santa Cruz. Stopping trains required turning hand brakes on each car. Bad
track, a fallen tree, or too much speed spelled derailment.
Our group safely derailed at Paradise Park, a little
village owned by the Masonic order. Individuals can build houses, but the
property has been community-owned since 1924. It seems to work. The
grounds and homes are attractive and well-maintained. Our hosts shared
stories as we lunched in a beautiful picnic area shaded by giant trees.
Cindy Crogan then led us to the only covered bridge
still open to car traffic in Santa Cruz County. Built in 1872, the
183-foot long bridge was built for $4,000. Bridge preservationist Crogan
has received estimates to make necessary repairs at more than one million
In the 1860s, long before the formation of Paradise
Park, this area was developed by the California Powder Works. It was a
good site, with water power from the San Lorenzo River, wood and charcoal
from the local forest, and cheap labor, mostly in the form of young Irish
boys. The all-too-frequent explosions killed many boys, but the mountain
ridge usually prevented deaths in Santa Cruz. The walls from 12 of 13
powder milling houses have been incorporated into Paradise Park homes.
We walked along Highway 9 for a short distance, then
crossed the road and hiked up a steep trail back to the rail line.
(Highway 9 drivers made this the most dangerous part of the hike.)
Like some tattered refugee army, we walked past Pogonip
and into Santa Cruz where we met a serious obstacle called Highway 1. We
could have walked a half mile to the intersection with Highway 9, but
fortunately a local placed a reinforcing bar on the tracks, triggering the
signal gates closed. Although we had walked more than six miles, we
scampered across the highway, gleeful as we stopped hundreds of drivers in
their tracks. It’s good to be a train!
After a short, smelly tour of the Mission Hill Tunnel,
we caught the excursion train back to Rincon, then switched trains for a
ride on to Roaring Camp and Henry Cowell State Park.
Although this was a special Cabrillo College extension
rail/trail trip, you can visit many of these same locations, if you are
respectful of private property, quiet, and careful. Certainly, you don’t
want to be on a single-track trestle when a train comes through. Paradise
Park is private, but you can drive in the main entrance to see the covered
bridge without a problem.
I would have preferred catching a narrow gauge train at
Wright’s, Laurel, or Lyndon, picnicking at the once-notorious Sunset Park,
or riding the flume down to Felton, but Sandy Lydon and Bruce MacGregor
made history come alive. And that alone was well worth the walk.
Although Mike Hart and Rick Hamman of the Eccles and
Eastern proposed a practical plan to rebuild this rail line through to Los
Gatos they were defeated by a deceitful fear campaign in 1994 that claimed
the railroad would be financed by making Highway 17 a toll road.
Perhaps the line couldn’t be built because it used an
obsolete technology. But perhaps it never will be built because we lack
the will to support the common good. In the later stages of the Egyptian
dynasties, this once proud civilization lost the ability to build
pyramids. Haven’t we lost the ability to maintain our transportation
systems, schools, parks, and other public enterprises? Perhaps history
tells us more than we want to know.