Hiking the rails through history
Roaring Camp to Santa Cruz
Neil Wiley

In late May, Sandy Lydon, historian emeritus from Cabrillo College, and Bruce MacGregor, the leading California railroad author-historian, led me and more than fifty other history buffs on a trip to Santa Cruz via the Roaring Camp’s Big Trees and Pacific line. It was a wonderful walk and ride through history.

Our trip began at the parking lot of Henry Cowell State Park in Felton. There we heard an overview of mountain railroad history. We learned about successive, and not necessarily successful, railroad companies and their attempts to build a rail line through the mountains.

A short history

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.

The hike

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 end.

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 dollars.

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.


(c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 mountain network news All rights reserved.