Santa Cruz Tramway Heritage

Construction of the Santa Cruz Railroad by State Assemblyman FA Hihn began in 1874, completing its first 5 miles of track south of the San Lorenzo River in December, even before its route was determined through the city. On February 3, 1875, the city council approved a train route entering Santa Cruz through the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, then along the main beach and through “the split” between Beach Hill and Blackburn Terrace, then to Chestnut Street, with a depot at the foot of Green Street.

On the same day, the franchise for a Street Railway (horse-drawn carriage) was also granted to directors of the Santa Cruz Railroad. It would run from Lower Plaza to Mission Street, Vine (North Cedar), Cherry (East Chestnut), then take Chestnut to the Dolphin Bath House (Boardwalk). Chinese workers built both the railway and the tram lines. Since the Chestnut-Cherry Street corridor was known for its cherry orchards, Hihn’s carts were painted red and became known as the “Red Line”. The franchise limited fares to no more than 6¼ cents.

The line became independent from the railroad in January 1877 when it was incorporated as the “City Railroad Company”. Hihn incorporated a second line in August called “Front Street Railroad Company”. In October 1877, James Pierce’s Santa Cruz-Felton Railroad opened the Pacific Avenue Streetcar, or “Yellow Line”, organized by Charlie Silent (who had established the first western streetcar line in San Jose in 1868). The streetcar line ended at the mouth of the river and had a branch at the railway platform. The line suffered in the first winter from not laying wooden planks between the rails, leaving the horses mired in mud and unable to work.

In September 1878, Hihn extended the red line to Wood’s Lagoon. Then, in September 1879, the Yellow Line extended its service to Mission Street. Some of the Yellow Line tracks almost replicated Hihn’s Red Line, which declined after the Yellow Line lowered its prices to a nickel a ride, or 25 tickets to the dollar. The Hihn Railroad was also on the brink of financial abyss, and when the San Lorenzo River Bridge collapsed, the Red Line train and streetcar went bankrupt in 1881, running out of funds for repairs. Both were sold to the Southern Pacific, which appointed Charles Crocker to lead the Red Line carriage, then raised its tracks and folded.

The Yellow Line took over the Mission branch, with sidings encouraged in front of the John Warner and William Effey stores, but was forced to remove one in front of the Sentinel offices. When Southern Pacific rebuilt its newly purchased broad-gauge Santa Cruz Railroad line in 1883, it also removed competing Yellow Line tracks along Beach Street and promised—but forgot—to replace them. Ridership plummeted and improvements to the yellow line were abandoned. Pierce sold the Yellow Line in 1887 to Elias Swift and Thomas Cole. Swift ran three hotels along this line, improving service within a year, with a franchise to expand his trolley to Fair Street’s Bay View Racecourse and Garfield Park, and he hoped to make it the first electric trolley in the Where is. Swift’s sudden death in 1889 at the age of 41 put a shocking end to that dream.

East Side Trolley

William Ely was part of a competing group trying to gain a franchise in Garfield Park circles. But he found East Side homeowners more anxious for a cart during an Eastside building boom. Ely therefore established a line down Front Street and Soquel Avenue to Arana Gulch, with a branch line down Cayuga and Seabright, then taking East Cliff to Twin Lakes. The two branches met at his wagon barn in Soda Junction (named after Lodtman’s soda factory), where Lodtman Hall served as a community center and hospital.

The Eastside Trolley opened on May 1, 1888 and, although very popular, the track was above road level, making it difficult for vehicles to pass. So, by order of county officials, Ely raised the level of the road to meet the bed of the track, creating a steep arch in the middle of the road that is still notable in places today. The Cayuga branch in Twin Lakes was opened in 1889. The wagon was known to be coming because Ely’s horses carried bells.

electric trolley

Fred Swanton brought electricity to Santa Cruz, and in 1891 hoped to establish an electric cart on Pacific Avenue. However, San Jose pioneered the west’s first electric cart, which proved to be a costly failure in 1890. The Santa Cruz City Council refused to permit an “experimental” cart on Pacific Avenue. When Swanton insisted it would work, they granted him permission to electrify the Mission Street line, if he completed an abandoned plan to complete the line to Garfield Park (terminating at West Cliff and Woodrow from today).

Swanton did, and its success convinced the city council to allow Swanton to install a power line on Pacific Avenue. In the meantime, to boost ridership on its demonstration line to West Cliff, it built a trolley park at the end of the line, which included a museum, a Cliff House observatory, a casino ballroom and a ball park where the trolley sponsored team “The Electrics” played baseball. This tram park was the precursor to the development of the Swanton promenade a decade later. Swanton’s electric blue carts displayed red flags if only going as far as Pope House (now the Mission Hill school grounds), and displayed a blue flag if going to West Cliff, and sometimes the flag announced “Game Today”. The line offered free rides to police officers and officials on city business. Swanton electrified the Yellow Line in 1893.

Trying to keep up, the Eastside Line introduced a steam carriage in 1895 named for “William Ely”. But four months later the craft was declared a public nuisance and limited to two runs a day, so the horse service returned for the rest of the runs. Ely retired its steam carriage in 1897 and service fell off.

Swanton bought the Eastside line in 1902 and electrified it the following year. With it came the franchise to extend the streetcar line to Capitola. This was organized as a separate line, reaching Opal Cliffs in 1904. Swanton’s daughter Pearl served as conductor for a fund-raising excursion for the library, raising the most money from appeals and stupid fees. The route ran on a low trestle over Twin Lakes Beach and served as a school bus. The students remembered winter storms, when the beach disappeared under the choppy waters of the ocean and occasional waves splashed the side of the wagon.

Union Traction Co.

Meanwhile, the old Blue Line changed hands in 1904 and incorporated as “The Union Traction Company”. A new carriage barn was built on the corner of Pacific and Sycamore, and the West Cliff carriage park was sold to Norris & Rowe Circus in 1905 for their winter quarters. The Union Traction Co. was briefly sold to the Ocean Shore Railroad, which intended to build an electric railroad from San Francisco to Santa Cruz along the coast. But the Ocean Shore stopped making payments after the 1906 earthquake, and the streetcar company reverted to its former owners. The streetcar line suffered only a few twisted rails and disconnected wires, which were quickly repaired.

The Union Traction Co. was bought by John Martin, co-founder of PG&E and Swanton’s main financial backer in rebuilding the promenade grander than ever, after a fire destroyed the 1904 casino. improved the line, changing their lanes to broad gauge, with double lines in a street, so the trolley could follow the direction of traffic. The trolley company’s sales offices were moved to San Francisco and expanded to handle a larger trolley network. The new carts were from their Sacramento line.

The Union Depot in Santa Cruz included a wagon depot in 1907, extending a line to De Laveaga Park in 1908. But thanks to a stock market crash that year, the line opened as the last horse-drawn wagon in the county. It was finally electrified in 1910. The 1911 Casa Del Rey hotel across from the promenade had its own streetcar that ran up Cliff Street to the front door. By 1912, the local streetcar carried about one million passengers a year on three lines: Capitola, West Cliff and De Laveaga Park. This figure was 1.3 million in 1914. The Water Street overhead crane built in 1914 was so beautiful that the Water Street utility overhead crane was demolished and replaced with an identical copy of the overhead crane.

Disaster of “improvements”

What started as a 1922 upgrade of Birney safety coaches ended up costing the company more due to increased maintenance. In addition to this, the city hoped to improve roads for a growing car population, requiring the streetcar company to pave between its tracks and two feet on each side. These rising costs led the company to obtain permission from the State Railroad Commission in 1924 to abandon its Eastside, De Laveaga, and Capitola lines and replace them with bus service. The irony was that the buses could not be forced to pave or maintain the roads as the streetcar company had done. The West Cliff line was dismantled in 1925 and Pacific Avenue in 1926.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Union Traction Co. now sought to drop its Capitola bus line. The city council protested and the bus system was taken over briefly by Auto Transit and then by the South Pacific bus company called Pickwick Stages. A former Pickwick driver, Ralph Heple, bought the operation in 1930, which became the Santa Cruz Transit Co. After the 1955 flood, tourism and local businesses were hit hard, with the collapse of a number of downtown businesses and private bus service. After various bus rescue programs, the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District was established in 1968.

Further reading

“Surf, Sand & Streetcars”, History of the Santa Cruz Streetcar by Charles S. McCaleb.

Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

Jose P. Rogers