Railroad Embankments on Santa Cruz’s North Coast: Why You Can’t See the Ocean More!

Railroad Embankments on Santa Cruz’s North Coast: Why You Can’t See the Ocean More!

If you’re a local you may have wondered why you can’t see the ocean very often when you drive between Santa Cruz and Davenport. It’s because every creek along the route has an earthen railroad berm or “embankment” across it that blocks the view. The embankment at Bonny Doon Beach is a great example of a really big one.

The inland view of the earthen berm on which the railroad tracks sit. The two arrows show the limits of the native bedrock, i.e., the Santa Cruz Mudstone.              In between the arrows is all fill for the embankment.
The inland view of the earthen berm on which the railroad tracks sit. The two arrows show the limits of the native bedrock, i.e., the Santa Cruz Mudstone. In between the arrows is all fill for the embankment.

Grandiose Railroad Plans

At the turn of the twentieth century, railroads were king and still expanding with easy money from business tycoons of the day. The railroad embankments we see today were originally part of the Ocean Shore Electric Railway (Ocean Shore) which was begun in 1905 and was to be a grand line from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. It was to have two parallel electric lines to run both passengers and freight and be completed in 1907. Southern Pacific (SP) was also building rail to Davenport at about the same time and there was definitely some hard ball and power politics between the two companies.

A More Humble Reality

Fate intervened. The 1906 quake caused huge damages to the northern end of the Ocean Shore line and their easy funding largely dried up. Construction continued though money had to be raised by local bonds. Southern Pacific secured the contract to transport cement and materials for the Davenport Cement Plant, taking away much needed revenue from Ocean Shore.

Construction of the Ocean Shore line circa 1905. Image from the collection of Alverda Orlando.
Construction of the Ocean Shore line circa 1905. Image from the collection of Alverda Orlando.

The details on how the collaboration ultimately occurred are hard to pin down but both Ocean Shore and SP did collaborate in building the embankments north to Davenport. The embankments are so wide because they were designed for three tracks (two for Ocean Shore and one for SP). They consist of wooden trestles filled in with local material to allow the structures to support the extreme weight of the cement cars.

This 1906 photo shows the wooden railroad trestle that crosses San Vincente Creek, at Davenport, partially filled in. There are many of these filled trestles between Davenport and Santa Cruz, including the one at Bonny Doon Beach. Photo from the collection of Gary Griggs and courtesy of Sandy Lydon.
This 1906 photo shows the wooden railroad trestle that crosses San Vincente Creek, at Davenport, partially filled in. There are many of these filled trestles between Davenport and Santa Cruz, including the one at Bonny Doon Beach. Photo from the collection of Gary Griggs and courtesy of Sandy Lydon.

By 1908 only portions of the rail on each end of the Ocean Shore line were running: Santa Cruz to Swanton, which is just north of Davenport, and San Francisco to Tunitas Creek, a few miles south of Half Moon Bay. The railroad never fully connected Santa Cruz to San Francisco. Ocean Shore stopped running trains by 1920 and never laid their second line. The Southern Pacific line was eventually sold to Union Pacific, who ran freight for the cement plant until the plant closed in 2010.

An aerial view of Bonny Doon Beach. The black rectangle encompasses the embankment made by the filled railroad trestle. The arrow on the left points to the tunnel through which Lidell Creek drains to the sea. Picture © Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project www.Californiacoastline.org
An aerial view of Bonny Doon Beach. The black rectangle encompasses the embankment made by the filled railroad trestle. The arrow on the left points to the tunnel through which Lidell Creek drains to the sea. Picture © Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project . http://www.Californiacoastline.org

Embankments and the Local Creeks

Creation of the railroad embankments meant completely blocking off the creeks and any associated estuaries and lagoons. Water flow was routed through tunnels made through the Santa Cruz Mudstone. The tunnels are on the north side of each beach and, despite large storms, have eroded little and have been adequate to handle the flow. In the picture above, the black arrow points to a tunnel where Liddell Creek comes out of the Santa Cruz Mudstone. You can follow the water to its exit at the ocean. The black rectangle shows the very linear railroad embankment that now defines the back of the beach.

Liddel Creek draining through the man-made tunnel (drilled in 1907/1908) in the Santa Cruz Mudstone
Liddel Creek draining through the man-made tunnel (drilled in 1907/1908) in the Santa Cruz Mudstone

The Rail Line’s Future

The railroad right of way from the Davenport to Santa Cruz and even beyond to Watsonville (a 32 mile stretch known as The Santa Cruz Branch Line) has been bought by the the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC). Planning and negotiating between several parties took more than a decade, but finally came together in 2012. The line is to be used for recreational, rail preservation, and future transportation uses, including passenger rail service, transit, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and freight rail service.

Iowa Pacific Holdings will run freight and passenger trains on the line. Iowa Pacific ran a special train to celebrate public ownership on November 17, 2012. For the latest information on rail plans go to Santa Cruz Branch Line Acquisition.

The Iowa Pacific Holdings train at the Westside of Santa Cruz during the November 17th, 2012 event to celebrate public acquisition of the Santa Cruz Branch Line.
The Iowa Pacific Holdings train at the Westside of Santa Cruz during the November 17th, 2012 event to celebrate public acquisition of the Santa Cruz Branch Line.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the North Coast Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

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Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store
  1. Sources Used

    • A Brief History of the Ocean Shore Railroad. San Francisco Trains Website.

    • The Geology from Santa Cruz to Point Año Nuevo—The San Gregorio Fault Zone and Pleistocene marine terraces. By Gerald Webber and Alan Allwardt. In: Stoffer PW, Gordon LC, eds. Geology and natural history of the San Francisco Bay Area: a field-trip guidebook: 2001 Fall Field Conference, National Association of Geology Teachers, Far Western Section: September 14-16. USGS Bulletin 2188; 2001:194.
    • Granada A Synonym for Paradise: The Ocean Shore Railroad Years. Barbara VanderWerf. El Granada, California: Gum Tree Lane Books; 1992.
    • The Last Whistle: Ocean Shore Railroad. Jack Wagner. Howell-North Books; 1974.
    • Living With the Changing California Coast. Gary B. Griggs, Kiki Patsch, Lauret E. Savoy. University of California Press; 2005.
    • North Coast Railroad Ramparts. Sandy Lydon. Sandy Lydon’s Central Coast Secrets Website. http://www.sandylydon.com/sec_07.html.
    • Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line Acquisition. SCCRTYC.org Website. http://sccrtc.org/projects/rail/rail-line-purchase/.
    • RTC Brings Rail-With-Trail Expertise to Coastal California. Jake Lynch. Communityrailstotrails.org Website. RTC Rail With Trail Expertise.
    • Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line Acquisition. SCCRTYC.org Website. http://sccrtc.org/projects/rail/rail-line-purchase/.



About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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4 Comments

  1. Derek Whaley

    What’s surprising about the “filling in” photograph above from 1906 is that only a single track is visible there where there should be two: one for the Coast Line Railroad and one for the Ocean Shore Electric Railroad. The fact that there is only one means that the Ocean Shore was exclusively responsible for filling the trestles and that the Coast Line only came in afterwards. What is more curious is that the Coast Line must have made room on those berms for its own track after the trestle was filled. The only real maps we have of this double-track arrangement are inaccurate Ocean Shore survey maps. The actual USGS maps for the period are woefully inadequate. It makes one wonder if the two railroads ultimately shared the same track from Wilder Ranch to Davenport.

    Reply
  2. Don B.

    Building a single trestle would have been the standard procedure for this type of construction at that time. With at least some cooperation between the Ocean Shore and SP at this stage of the construction process, one or the other company would have erected a single, temporary trestle as a means to bridge the gap. With the trestle in place, construction crews could then dump as much fill as the plans required, which could have included room for multiple tracks. The fill wasn’t necessarily there to support “heavy” trains so much as it was there to eliminate a wooden trestle that would require long-term care. A substantial trestle is sufficient to support all the weight you can throw at it, but they’re susceptible to fire, they wash out, and they require periodic inspections and maintenance. If the line warranted the expense, and the company had the capitol up front, fill eliminated a lot of headaches.

    If the usual maps are not showing you what you want to see, railroad evaluation maps from the WWI era might give you a better idea of track arrangements prior to OSE abandonment. Just a matter of whether or not the eval survey was conducted while the Ocean Shore was still intact.

    Reply

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