History Pages: 42 - Southern Pacific took over Santa Cruz County railroads in the 1880s

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Cherry St RR depot today.jpg

Except perhaps on a summer weekend when the Roaring Camp train rumbles up Chestnut Street and through the tunnel, you'd never guess that the quiet residential neighborhood tucked up against Mission Hill (shown in the photo at right) was once Santa Cruz' first railroad yard.

Cherry St SP depot.jpg

Compare the modern view at right to the photo at left from the mid-1880s, to see how thoroughly the place has changed. The white two-story building at top center was the town's first train depot. In today's view, the one remaining line of tracks can be seen at bottom left, curving left toward the tunnel beyond.

Frederick Hihn’s Santa Cruz Railroad (SCR) never became profitable after its opening in 1875, and Hihn’s 1881 split with his principal partner, the “Sugar King” Claus Spreckels, was the last straw. Hihn declared the railroad bankrupt, and Southern Pacific swooped in to acquire the assets, including the right-of-way from Pajaro to Santa Cruz, the rolling stock, and most of the employees. SP immediately began to replace the flimsy narrow-gauge track with the heavier and wider broad (or standard) gauge in use today, which could support larger, more powerful trains. By the end of the century, this work was complete.

At the north end of the line in Santa Cruz, SP also acquired the SCR depot and service yard. The depot stood on the street now named Union, almost across the street from the Opera House and right about where the Goodwill store is now. In those days (at least on the 1877 Sanborn map), the street was called Pine, but the name was changed to Park sometime before 1883 and later to Union. It was a handy location for owner Fred Hihn, whose mansion was only a couple of blocks away. Note that this is not the “old” depot that used to stand at today’s Depot Park at the south end of Center Street. Although that property was also included in the SP takeover, the Union Depot wasn't built there until 1893.

Beginning in 1877, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company created a series of very detailed maps of Santa Cruz, Watsonville, and other built-up areas of the county. The Sanborn maps are a gold mine for historical researchers because they show not just streets but individual structures, their uses and often their names (for commercial and institutional properties). Perhaps even more importantly, changes in succeeding map editions allow us to narrow down the date of a structure's creation to a range of a few years. Comparing Sanborn maps from 1877 and 1883 shows the expansion of the railroad facilities during those years.

Railroad yard (1877 Sanborn).png
Railroad yard (1883 Sanborn).png

The two Sanborn maps show the progression of the SP takeover very clearly. In 1877 (left), there’s only the SCR depot building. Between 1877 and 1883 (right), an expanded SCR railroad yard included several other SCR buildings and a turntable. By the time the next Sanborn map was published in 1886, the yard was re-labeled as belonging to SP. New on the 1883 map is the separate depot belonging to the competing South Pacific Coast railroad.

Enterprise Iron.png

Also new between 1883 and 1886, Enterprise Iron Works opened on Cherry Street (called Bear on the 1877 map – now Chestnut). It makes sense for a metal foundry to be near a railroad yard. The original corrugated-metal part of the building still stands - it and the original part of the house next door (shown on the 1883 map at right) are the two oldest buildings in the block. Division Street on the Sanborn map above is today’s Squid Alley.

Through all this activity, the South Pacific Coast Railroad (SPC) continued to run its narrow-gauge trains from Alameda to Santa Cruz, through the Mission Hill tunnel, and on down Chestnut Street to its terminus on the "railroad" wharf. Southern Pacific completed its Santa Cruz monopoly with the purchase of the SPC from James Fair & company later in the 1880s.

SPC San Jose depot.jpg

The SPC depot, built in 1880, was a long open shed over the tracks and platform, with a small adjoining building housing the ticket office. No exterior photos were found, but narrow-gauge scholar Bruce MacGregor speculated that the shed was probably a smaller version of the railroad’s other main depots, including the one in San Jose shown in the photo at right. The depot structure probably remained in use until the 1893 opening of the newer SP "Union" depot. The SPC service yard north of the tunnel probably remained in use a few years longer - until SP completed the broad-gauging of the former SPC tracks, and the equipment of the two rail lines finally became completely interchangeable.


  • MacGregor, B. A. (2003). The birth of California narrow gauge: A regional study of the technology of Thomas and Martin Carter. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Next: History Pages: 42 - Go, Team, Go: The First Team Sport in Santa Cruz, ca. 1880