A look at the rail corridor’s history reveals a struggle for local control
The origins of the 32 miles of railroad that spans the distance between Watsonville and Davenport, once linking the county’s port-side communities with the outside world, resembles a David and Goliath story—the little guy taking on the giant, says local historian Sandy Lydon. But in this version, the little guy loses.
The tale revolves around local business people who, in competition with the state’s largest and most historically ruthless corporation, started their own local railroad, but eventually lost it all to the giant.
Last month, a new chapter began in the story of the railway and, this time, Lydon says, the people of Santa Cruz County win. The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) bought the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line from Union Pacific, the railroad’s owner since 1996, for $14.2 million, returning it to local control. The purchase was the culmination of an 11-year negotiation in which the county sought to acquire the railway.
To commemorate the public acquisition, the RTC is hosting a community celebration called Right on Track on Saturday, Nov. 17. People are invited to attend “whistle-stop” gatherings along the rail corridor in Watsonville, Aptos, Capitola, Live Oak and Santa Cruz, says Karena Pushnik, senior planner/public information coordinator for the RTC.
Each community will put on their own event with their own local flavor, she says. The events begin at 9 a.m. in Watsonville and will move north throughout the day.
Because the train is not currently ready to carry passengers, community members can travel to each stop by tour bus. The Right on Track celebration will focus on the potential uses for the newly acquired rail line. RTC and others envision the line being used for local businesses’ freight operations and eventually passenger service between Aptos and Santa Cruz.
Lydon will share his knowledge about the history of the Santa Cruz Railroad during the whistle-stop tour. He will also give a free lecture about the origins of the Santa Cruz Railroad at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 16, in room 450 at Cabrillo College.
The story behind the rail line—which is on its way to becoming an exciting feature of Santa Cruz County—extends back over 150 years and is rich with hope, conflict and loss.
Attendees will learn about how, in the year 1869, Southern Pacific—then regarded as the most powerful private corporation in California—was busy building its rail empire by extending its tracks eastbound from Sacramento to Utah in order to link up with the westbound Union Pacific Railroad. Their connection would create The First Transcontinental Railroad. Around the same time, the corporation was also laying track from San Francisco southward, Lydon says.
They skirted along the edge of Santa Cruz County, curved west along the Pajaro River, built a trestle across it, and then continued on to Salinas, finishing the route in 1872. The line was near enough to Watsonville to be of use but left the majority of Santa Cruz County cut off.
Southern Pacific was known for predatory business practices and hated by many, Lydon says. The routes they chose could spell life or death for cities and towns.
In those days, “any town that was bypassed by the railroad was finished,” says Live Oak historian Norman Poitevin.
For example, he explains, San Juan Bautista’s stockyards and businesses packed up and left after Southern Pacific routed around the town.
The citizens and businesses of Santa Cruz County, however, refused to be left out in the cold.
Local business leader Frederick Hihn, a German immigrant who started his fortune with a general store downtown, decided to take matters into his own hands and began organizing a railroad company to connect Santa Cruz with Watsonville and link up with Southern Pacific’s line.
Hihn successfully lobbied for a public subsidy from Santa Cruz County, which the people voted on and approved, to help build the railroad, although the citizens of Watsonville, who already had access to the Southern Pacific line, protested loudly. The subsidy covered about $120,000 of an estimated $300,000 needed to complete the line. Hihn then went to Southern Pacific’s president, Leland Stanford, with a request that Southern Pacific chip in the difference and build the tracks across the county.
Upon hearing Hihn’s proposition, Stanford declined.
He said the route between Watsonville and Santa Cruz would cost too much because of the need to traverse the many arroyos that flowed from the mountains to the sea, describing the route as a “washboard.”
Hihn, in defiance, said, “By God then, we’ll build it ourselves!” recounts Lydon.
Hihn’s deal with the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors for the subsidy was that he had to lay the first five miles of track before he could tap into the first $30,000 of county money, forcing him to dig even deeper into his own pockets.
And so it came to pass that, in direct defiance of Southern Pacific, Hihn, with financial investment from another wealthy local named Claus Spreckels, footed the remaining cost of the railroad. They cut their expenses by laying narrow gauge track, which was just 36 inches rail to rail, compared to the standard gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches.
Hihn, the primary investor and president of the railroad, contracted Chinese workers from San Francisco who were paid a dollar a day to dig cuts for the tracks, lay rail and build trestles, Lydon explains.
“By 1876 the Santa Cruz Railroad was cooking,” he says.
Two years later, Santa Cruz County’s industries were booming, second only to San Francisco’s in production rates, according to Lydon. Lumber, limestone, and tanned leather were all hot commodities, and hooking into Southern Pacific-controlled railroads gave businesses access to outside markets for the first time.
Around that same time, says Lydon, other small railroad entrepreneurs started laying track.
The South Pacific Coast Railroad, started by a group of Santa Clara strawberry farmers, began laying narrow gauge rail from the East Bay down to Santa Cruz by way of tunnels through the mountains.
Another company, the Santa Cruz and Felton Railroad, put down track from Felton into Santa Cruz to ship lumber off the wharf, and a fourth, The Monterey & Salinas Valley Railroad, was being built from the Salinas out to Monterey in order to ship wheat.
Small, independent railroad companies were popping up around the Monterey Bay, but, unfortunately for them, the behemoth Southern Pacific had its eyes trained on the little guys.
“Southern Pacific was a monster,” Lydon says.
Southern Pacific’s voraciousness was depicted by the author Frank Norris in his 1901 novel, “The Octopus: A Story of California.”
“What Southern Pacific brought to places like Santa Cruz County was really a double-edged sword,” Lydon says. “They helped bring these places into the industrial age, but they also took complete control. It was the most reviled and hated organization because of its power.”
Southern Pacific created a powerful monopoly on state-wide transportation, setting prices and driving competitors out of business until they controlled everything.
“It’s not by chance that they call the Southern Pacific ‘The Octopus,’” Lydon says. “What they do [back then] is lower their rates and drive the little railroad from Salinas to Monterey out of business. And then they buy it up, taking over that side of the bay.”
In 1881, eight years after it began operation, Hihn’s Santa Cruz Railroad took a major hit when a storm flood knocked out the trestle over the San Lorenzo River. The damage was more than Hihn could afford, and the rail line went up for auction at the county courthouse. Of course, Southern Pacific was there to buy.
By the late 1880s, Southern Pacific had acquired all four of the local rails and converted them to standard gauge.
The octopus had wrapped its tentacles around every part of Santa Cruz County’s rail system.
Lydon, who describes the rail corridor as one of the most beautiful, albeit very long and skinny, coastal properties in the country, says that the recent acquisition of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail line by the county is an apt conclusion to the Santa Cruz Railroad’s David and Goliath railroad story: this time the little guy triumphs, bringing the story full circle, back into the hands of locals.