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The Scandal of 1940: The Closure of the Southern Pacific Mountain Route

Back in 2011, a friend and I thought it would be interesting to look back into the archives of local history and see if there was any specific reason why the Southern Pacific Railroad shut down its railroad franchise in Santa Cruz in 1940. We’d heard rumors of financial misconduct, a terrible storm, the threat of Japanese invasion, and various other urban legends, but neither of us were accepting them at face value. Even Rick Hamman’s book made it seem a little vague what exactly caused the SP to give up on the Santa Cruz Mountain route and reroute everything through Watsonville Junction. Something just wasn’t adding up. So we went to the University of California, Santa Cruz, and looked it up in the archives of the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper.

Aaaaannnnddd I got off track—almost immediately. I decided that the February 1940 date for the storm that destroyed the mountain route didn’t sound right, so I started my research with November 1939 when another bad storm hit Santa Cruz. I had some evidence to support this earlier date, but naturally Rick Hamman was correct in pointing to the afternoon of February 26th, 1940 as the last run over the mountain—documentary evidence backs it up thoroughly. What I did find that November, though, was an interesting editorial letter written by the Sentinel‘s staff proposing that the San Lorenzo Valley be renamed “Big Trees Valley” after the redwood trees found throughout the region and specifically after Big Trees County Park (the future Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park). This topic took off and I explored it through to its conclusion in February 1940. An article on the topic even got published by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in its Redwood Logging & Conservation in the Santa Cruz Mountains—A Split History (History Journal #7) which is releasing on June 8th. Although the topic excited me, it distracted me from my original goal as well and it was another year before I resumed research on the closure of the line.

Looking through the Sentinel, the research began two days after the route was shut down by storms. The February 25th-27th storm was one of the worst in its history, with waves so strong that they were reaching the Boardwalk’s Casino and levies were overflowing in downtown. The entire county was cut off from the outside world for a few hours, as slides at Wadell Beach, on Highway 9, on Highway 17, at Mount Madonna and Chittenden Pass closed off everything except Highway 1 southbound. The damage to the San Lorenzo Valley was massive—Boulder Creek was cut off, parts of Zayante Road were in the creek, and the railroad tracks near the top of the grade were covered in sand with washouts and sinks knocking tracks out of alignment. When all was said and done, Santa Cruz County was forced to petition both the state and the federal government for assistance in restoring all services to the county, with the WPA coming to the rescue on multiple fronts. Largely unnoticed for the first two weeks, the railroad was quietly rerouted through Watsonville as Southern Pacific assessed the damage.

Although at first optimistic about the line’s reopening, quickly SP declared the entire branch lost to the storm and petitioned for its abandonment stating the costs of repair and future upkeep were too high. Thus the scandal began. The Sentinel recorded the public reactions to the debate while the Evening News maintained detailed summaries of each Santa Cruz chamber of commerce meeting. The SP became defensive as Santa Cruzans protested against the abandonment, and perhaps they were right—the franchise was theirs to control and it was clearly losing money, despite local protests. But the locals had a point too: SP was the only rail service in Santa Cruz and it didn’t seem fair that the company could pick and choose its lines without thought to the community that lived along them. The debate raged for months, with silences between the temporary abandonment hearing in late April and the formal abandonment hearing in early July. In the end, SP used some sneaky tactics to ensure that their line was closed, changing venues at the last minute and barring testimony from the newspapers who had spent months assisting the chamber of commerce in its research.

The Southern Pacific was granted permission by the Interstate Commerce Commission in November 1940, nearly half a year after the hearing doomed the campaign and after the German invasion of the Low Countries distracted the populace with foreign war exploits. Over the ensuing months, SP removed the track and sold it for scrap to help build weapons, then they contracted out to H.A. Christie & Sons to help demolish the tunnels. Christie sold the good quality tunnel support wood to local wood suppliers then closed the tunnel portals one-by-one—Summit, Glenwood, then Clems—finishing work by the end of April 1942. The Eccles Tunnel remained opened, though abandoned, until 1954 when the Western States Atomic Vault Company took it over for use to store important state documents in the event of nuclear war. The remaining two tunnels were retained by Southern pacific for use on the stub line between Santa Cruz and Olympia, where two sand quarries and Big Trees County Park justified the line’s continued existence.

An article was planned on this topic, but the article has gotten seriously out of hand. I’m at four pages already and so far I have cited two articles…out of 55 pages of articles. Yeah, I’m in trouble. I’ve decided that “The Scandal of 1940” may well become Santa Cruz Trains: The End of the Line, a short booklet (100ish pages) that I hope to publish through the Museum of Art & History next February, if they’re willing. It would follow a similar format to their Notes from Santa Cruz book on Santa Cruz’s musical history and would be equally as brief. I have a number of photographs of the line from 1940, all in terrible quality but that is all what is available (seriously, the originals were lost). I also am getting into contact with the owner of Will Whitaker’s collection, a man who took photographs of the line between 1936 and 1941.  Through these I hope to make a short tie-in book that will summarize the end of mountain railroading in 1940, as well as perhaps the earlier end of the Felton spur in 1928, the Boulder Creek branch in 1934, and the Los Gatos branch in 1959.

Any thoughts on this, submissions of photographs, or primary source documents would be greatly appreciated in this side-project. Thank you!