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The Story Behind Those Old Train Tunnels in the Santa Cruz Mountains

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A South Pacific Coast Railroad train stopped for a photograph in San Lorenzo Gorge in the 1880s. (Courtesy of Derek Whaley)

These days, if I want to get to Santa Cruz from my San Francisco apartment, I hop in my hatchback, head south on Interstate 280, then cut over to Highway 17. Ninety minutes later (pandemic aside), I’m watching the Giant Dipper roller coaster dive into free fall, fish tacos in hand.

The South Pacific Coast Railroad Route, which debuted in 1880, could take passengers from Alameda to Santa Cruz in just under four hours. (Wikimedia Commons)

But, 150 years ago, that same trip would have meant rattling around in a horse-drawn carriage for four days. The long, expensive journey meant only upper-class people could afford to go. All that changed when a guy named James Graham Fair got the audacious idea to build a railroad through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Fair, or “Slippery Jim” as he was known in business circles, made his fortune mining silver in Nevada. But he saw railroad barons like Leland Stanford getting rich in the railroad business and he wanted a piece of the action.

“If there’s only one person you need to know, it’s probably him,” says local historian Derek Whaley, who grew up in Santa Cruz County and wrote two books about the railroad. “He had a lot of money, a lot of influence and just a huge vision.”

Railroads were big business in the late 19th century. Everything from shipping to logging, mining, farming and tourism depended on them. Fair’s “vision” was to compete with the big train lines — namely the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads — that had staked claim across the western United States.

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Rich with redwood timber and strategically located between San Francisco Bay and the port of Santa Cruz, Fair identified the Santa Cruz Mountains as the ideal place for his railroad. The problem was, he didn’t know much about trains.

“But he also had a bit of a henchman who was the on-the-ground person that was overseeing daily operations,” Whaley says. The henchman’s name was Alfred Davis, but everyone called him “Hog.”

“He was an interesting guy, apparently quite friendly most of the time,” Whaley says. “But he also had a bit of an attitude when he wanted to.”

Davis also had a ton of railroad savvy. What came to be known as the “Mountain Route” never would have gotten built without the combination of Fair’s deep pockets and Davis’ know-how, says Whaley.

A group visits the town of Wrights, a major stop on the South Pacific Coast Railroad, on a push car, circa 1880. (Rodolph Brandt/The Bancroft Library)

The South Pacific Coast Railroad was an engineering marvel for its day. Laying tracks through 25 miles of rugged mountain terrain was a massive undertaking. While standard train tracks measure about 5-feet wide, the “narrow gauge” tracks of the Mountain Route measured just 3-feet wide, making it easier to curve around the rolling hills. To make it through the steepest grades, laborers dug eight tunnels through the mountains. To cross the region’s winding creek beds, they built just as many trestles.

The Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel described the construction in 1879:

“With its great bores … its powerful bridges … its heavy rails, its easy curves … its expensive right of way, its smell of money from one end of the line to the other, we say .. . nobody else would build this road. Few can do it.”

Tragedy in the Tunnels

The South Pacific Coast Railroad featured two tunnels that spanned over a mile. Carved along the San Andreas Fault, the Summit Tunnel near the town of Wrights Station, measured over 6,000 feet and once held the record for the longest railroad tunnel in all of California. But digging it came at considerable human cost: the lives of dozens of Chinese migrant workers.

Inseparable from the story of California’s railroads is the exploitation of Chinese migrants, who often did the most dangerous jobs for a fraction of what white laborers were paid.

In his book “Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region,” local historian Sandy Lydon wrote that, “Between 1875 and 1880, the Chinese built three separate railroads, laid 42 miles of track, drilled 2.6 miles of tunnels to stitch Santa Cruz County together. For every mile of railroad, one Chinese died.”

Crews haul mud from the Summit Tunnel, circa 1880. (Courtesy of Derek Whaley)

Construction of the Summit Tunnel began in 1878 and was plagued from the start. Underground, crews complained of suffocating fumes and oil oozing from the earth. The air got so bad that workers began to pass out. Eventually, methane gas that had been building up inside the cavern ignited into a fireball.

A Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel article dated Nov. 18, 1879 described its devastation:

“The explosion was followed by a sheet of lurid flame, which the great mountain belched forth, consuming everything before it.”

The blast killed 32 Chinese workers. “Most of their bodies were returned to China,” Whaley says. “But there were several years where there was a Chinese cemetery up in the mountains where some of the workers had been buried.”

After the explosion, the gas leak was fixed. But for years the tunnel was said to be haunted by the ghosts of those who died digging it.

The Railroad Opens for Business

In May of 1880, the South Pacific Coast Railroad opened for business. Despite the ghastly death toll leading up to its debut, the train was an overnight success. Riders lined up to escape city life for an afternoon taking in Santa Cruz’s sandy beaches and Boardwalk amusements. San Franciscans took a ferry across the bay to Alameda, before hopping on a train that took them south. In the 1920s, the line earned the nickname “The Sun Tan Special.”

“Especially during the summer,” Whaley says, “it would bring tourists from all over the Bay Area, thousands of people on busy days.”

For others, the pristine wilderness and fresh air of the Santa Cruz Mountains was the main draw. Mountain retreats and picnic areas, like Sunset Park, drew crowds on the weekends.

The main yard at the Frederick A. Hihn sawmill at Laurel in 1902. The South Pacific Coast Railroad’s biggest exported was redwood timber processed at mills along the route. (Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

“The ride is one which rivals anything up the Shasta division or over the Sierras, for tho’ the mountain groups are not so massive, the effects are equally fine,” wrote H.S. Kneedler in his 1895 book “Through Storyland to Sunset Seas.”

Along with tourism, industry flourished. Owners of sand quarries, quicksilver mines and a gunpowder factory used the train to ship their goods. Farmers shipped apples and sugar beets. There was even a brief oil boom.

But the railroad’s biggest export was the sturdy lumber harvested from redwood trees. Builders used the timber to construct San Francisco houses, and lumber companies shipped their boards all over the world.

“They had lumber sent over to Hawaii,” Whaley says. “They had it sent down to Mexico.”

The first band saw in California operating at the Hihn sawmill at Laurel in 1902. (Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

Logging, tourism and other industries gave life to towns like Alma, Wrights and Laurel, which was known for its sawmill. Stops along the route become destinations in themselves, including one named Call of the Wild. Its log cabin station invoked a scene from Jack London’s Gold Rush-era novel.

In 1887, with business booming, Fair sold his upstart railroad to the Southern Pacific Transportation Company, one of the industry giants he’d set out to challenge. The sale earned Fair a reported $6 million, which is roughly the equivalent of $160 million today.

Fair’s legacy in the Bay Area outlasted his stake in the railroad. His daughter built the Fairmont Hotel atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill and named it in his honor.

The End of the Mountain Route

In 1940, California built Highway 17, a paved road that ran parallel to much of the train line. As car ownership soared, the railroad’s profits plummeted. To make matters worse, loggers had stripped the mountains of redwood trees, the railroad’s major export. Whaley says the redwoods we see in the mountains today are primarily second growth trees, unlike the 1,000-year-old trees found in places like Muir Woods.

A portrait of James Graham Fair, one of the founders of the South Pacific Coast Railroad. (Library of Congress)

In February of 1940, with the railroad barely scraping by, a storm hit the Santa Cruz Mountains. Without trees to hold the hillside in place, the earth collapsed.

“It caused huge chunks of the line to sink,” Whaley says. “There’s a couple of spots where you can actually see the tracks hanging off the ledge.”

After the storm, Southern Pacific decided the repairs weren’t worth the cost. Most of the tunnels were sealed with dynamite or left to decay. And the once-booming mountain towns faded off the map. The town of Alma, arguably the most bustling stop on the line, was eventually flooded to create what’s now the Lexington Reservoir south of downtown Los Gatos.

The final stretch of the track between Felton and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk survived the storm. These days, Roaring Camp Railroads runs trains on the weekends for tourists.

Railroad Revival?

As traffic on Highway 17 has picked up over the years, some locals have discussed reviving the old railroad. The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors debated the idea in the 1990s.

“Almost every feasibility study has said that, yes, the route through the mountains is a good idea,” Whaley says. “And the current existing route is probably the most logical one.”

But these efforts have been opposed by groups arguing that a commuter train would spoil Santa Cruz’ identity as a locals-only beach town. Whaley believes Santa Cruz has already become a satellite community of Silicon Valley, and that an alternative to Highway 17 would make everyone’s life better. He dreams of one day riding a train that traces the same sharp curves as the old Mountain Route.

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