History Pages: 29 - How the trains came to Santa Cruz (part 3)

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ESC horsecar.jpg

For a table of contents, see History pages.


Railroad service to locations outside the county was the main goal of the local railroad companies of the 1870s, but Frederick Hihn and other rail investors also saw the newly installed rails as a different sort of opportunity – one with more local benefits. The Santa Cruz streets of 1875 were unpaved, and the fastest modes of local travel and freight movement still involved horses. Carriages and wagons had become common on the county’s roads but, in the winter rainy season, movement ground to a halt in the sticky mud of deeply rutted local roads. Street paving was still years away, but rail systems, if properly designed and installed, offered a solution. The same rails that supported the chuffing steam locomotives could also support a more modest all-weather transportation alternative – horsecars.

1880 N Pacific Ave.jpg


By mid-1875, two rail lines were complete within the town of Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz & Felton (SC&F) Railroad had laid track on River Street and down Pacific Avenue (as seen in the ~1880 photo at right) to the new railroad wharf, while the Santa Cruz Railroad (SCR) installed track from the west bank of the San Lorenzo River along the beachfront, curving around to follow today’s Chestnut Street to a terminus below Mission Hill (prior to completion of the tunnel). It was more than a year later, however, before the trestle over the San Lorenzo was completed, allowing the steam powered trains to cross the river and use those tracks.

The SC&F line to Felton opened sooner, but the steam locomotives were not allowed to use the Pacific Avenue tracks, and then the Mission Hill tunnel allowed the SC&F to stop using Pacific Avenue at all. Those empty tracks created a window of opportunity for the startup of a privately-owned, rail-based local transit system. Hihn’s Pacific Avenue Street Rail Road Company was the first horsecar service. In addition to the tracks laid by the two railroads, rails were extended up the hill on Mission Street and out past the Pope House hotel.

Another early streetcar investor was downtown pioneer Elihu Anthony. Anthony had prospered since the days of manufacturing and selling iron picks to gold miners, and had built a nice house on the bluff (at the end of School Street) overlooking his enterprises below. Anthony’s other properties were, however, mostly located on Front Street. He joined Hihn and a group of other investors to plan a horsecar line (sources don’t agree on whether the line was built at that time - it existed by the 1890s as an electric streetcar line) from the lower plaza down Front Street, along the river (today’s Laurel Street extension) and around the east end of Beach Hill to the Leibbrandt brothers’ bathhouse on the strand. It's unclear whether this line ever connected with the beachfront tracks.

Dolphin bathhouse.jpg

The Leibbrandts' Dolphin Bathhouse was one of the first year-round tourist-oriented businesses on the beach, a predecessor of today’s Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. There's disagreement among sources about when the structure shown in the photo was built, but my guess is that it was soon after the rails were laid (it was right next to the tracks). There used to be a short Dolphin Street connecting Beach and 2nd Streets, about where the Boardwalk parking lot entrance is now. The brothers (and the route of the streetcar line) are remembered in the area by today’s Leibrandt Street which, in another of those curious local spelling mishaps, dropped one “b”.

The rail-based transport system continued to grow and expand for the rest of the century, into the Westside and east all the way to Capitola. The first streetcar companies were followed by many others – with varying degrees of success. One problem they all shared was meeting the town’s expectation of year-round, all-weather service. The original contracts called for the companies to provide paving and/or planking between and adjacent to the rails. The paving served two purposes: to provide secure footing for the horses and to allow passengers to get on and off without getting muddy. Because of the cost, however, the streetcar companies dragged their feet on those improvements, preferring instead to simply suspend service when the weather was too wet or the mud too deep. During the 1880s, this problem was mitigated downtown as the main streets were paved, but continued outside of the downtown area.

Early horsecars were succeeded by electric trolleys beginning in the 1890s and service reached its greatest extent during those years. After the turn of the century, rail-based transit gradually lost passengers to the newfangled automobiles. In 1924, gasoline-powered buses replaced the last trolleys. These days, the conversation has come nearly full-circle, as the debate about the future of public transportation once again includes rail-based options.

There’s another important episode of local railroad history coming up in the 1880s, but there are some other interesting stories to tell before we get there.


Next: History Pages: 30 -


Sources