The Yesteryear of Mission Hill Tunnel

Mission Hill tunnel, looking north toward the Potrero neighborhood.
Mission Hill tunnel, looking north toward the Potrero neighborhood.

Today’s Chestnut Street in downtown Santa Cruz, California is a quiet residential street, with the occasional passing of Roaring Camp’s Santa Cruz Beach Train filled with excited sightseers on a journey to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. However, a century ago, it was a bustling block brimming with foundries, warehouses, and other industrial activities.

When you visit Chestnut Street, look for the gate that closes off an old stairway that once descended from 133 Mission Street. Across the street from this secret pathway is the corrugated steel-sheathed Enterprise Iron Works, built by a former employee of the father of Santa Cruz, Elihu Anthony.

Mission Hill Tunnel. Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
Mission Hill Tunnel. Photo: Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

“Away We Fly Down Chestnut Avenue”

In the 1870s, the Mission Hill tunnel was created beneath Mission Hill, off the block of Chestnut Street. It was built under Mission to satisfy city businesses’ desire to keep freight trains from barreling through the Lower Plaza on their way to the wharves. Just outside of the tunnel was a passenger station . For arriving visitors, this intersection was their first view of Santa Cruz.

The first passenger trip through this tunnel travelled to Felton on October 14, 1874. One person’s account of this journey was described in the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

Opening the Tunnel
Steadily but surely and rapidly is Santa Cruz advancing in all that goes to make up a populous and prosperous city. Scarcely a week passes that the active journalist has not some accomplished improvement to note. The opening of the Felton Railroad Tunnel, a whole nine hundred and nineteen feet in length, was accomplished on Tuesday afternoon last.

At a few minutes past two o’clock, two cars, comfortably well-filled with gentlemen and ladies, guests of Capt. Garrett, started for Felton. Pope’s little giant engine was in the lead, and in three minutes after the bell rang it was evident to all present that the quickest time ever made on the road was to be recorded within the next half hour. Away she flew, up hill, over bridges, around points, downhill, continuously puffing and blowing, and never stopping for wood or water, arriving at the point of destination in the unparalleled short running time of twenty-five minutes. An hour and a half was spent in visiting Felton, the city of timber…. Twenty freight cars, carrying lumber and split timber to the amount of eighty thousand feet, were added to the train, when once more the bell rang and all were in motion.

The train was the largest ever hauled from Felton, but the little steamer was sufficient for the occasion, and slowly and gaily the serpent-like couches wound in and out like a thing of life. The scenery was grand. Lofty redwood and pine trees towered on either side. On the right were the granite ribbed and eternal hills, and the public road, with its carriages and horsemen, apparently half a mile distant and immediately above us. To the left and hundreds of feet directly below was the San Lorenzo River, white with foam and rolling sullenly to the sea. Through a short tunnel and the mills of the California Power Company are in view….

A mile distant and immediately in front is the city of Santa Cruz, the Bay of Monterey, and the Pacific Ocean, presenting one of the finest panoramas the eye can look on. Passing through vineyards and fields and orchards, we are at the eastern mouth of the Tunnel. The light fades and the smoke increases. Total darkness prevails. Light appears in front, and amid the clapping of hands and the waving of handkerchiefs, those on the banks returning salutes in answer to the salutes of those on the cars. Away we fly down Chestnut Avenue, passengers of the first train that passed through the Railroad Tunnel, all pleased with themselves and proud of the company in whose hands and by whose boon the noble work was wrought. (End of newspaper story)

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the Mission Hill Staircase Tour made possible by local history researcher Linda Rosewood. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.


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About The Author

Linda Rosewood

Linda Rosewood loves to research Santa Cruz history and has lived in downtown Santa Cruz for over 30 years. She loves to walk everywhere; that way she can find the next interesting local landmark to research. She posts her discoveries at her blog, History Right Here.

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