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A Railroad for Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, California, was typical of hundreds of small towns throughout the American Midwest, South, and Far West: citizens dreamed of a railroad connection, knowing full well that their town could not prosper economically without one.

Santa Cruzans built their own railroad, since the biggest railroad in California at the time would not build the necessary spur line to the little coastal town. The Santa Cruz Railroad opened for business in 1876, and its locomotives “Neptune” and “Jupiter” pulled trains of passengers and freight the 13 miles between Santa Cruz and Watsonville - where there was a junction with the Southern Pacific Railroad and connections to all the rest of the nationwide rail network.

Santa Cruz and Watsonville both prospered - but in ways unexpected by the Santa Cruz Railroad’s managers and investors.

Industry grew in Santa Cruz. By 1900, though, tourism was the thing, as more and more vacationers from San Francisco and elsewhere in central California enjoyed the town’s beaches and nearby redwoods. And between 1876 and 1900, Watsonville became part of an agricultural revolution that eventually spread throughout California’s coastal regions and vast central valley.

Steam locomotive Jupiter, built in 1876 for the Santa Cruz Railroad in California, by the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia.
Steam locomotive Jupiter, built in 1876 for the Santa Cruz Railroad in California, by the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia.
Click on this image to find out more about the Santa Cruz Railroad's Jupiter.

The key for both towns was the rail network, which not only brought more industry and tourists to Santa Cruz, but allowed the agricultural produce of the surrounding area to reach new markets.

What was grown and what was transported then changed in response. Watsonville growers (in the Pajaro Valley, a dozen miles inland from Santa Cruz) found that sugar beets grew well there. The expanding market for sugar led to the building of a big Spreckles Mill in Watsonville, which processed beets into raw sugar. This output was sent for refining to San Francisco — on the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had connected to Watsonville several years before the little Santa Cruz Railroad was born in 1876.

As marketing opportunities were opened up by the rail network, various crops expanded: apple production grew rapidly, since apples could go safely by rail throughout the West and across the country. Then farmers changed successfully to perishables, such as strawberries. Railroad cars refrigerated with ice could carry strawberries as far as Chicago and, later, occasionally as far as New York and Washington, DC. Thus American diets changed.

In Santa Cruz, industries that were there grew further: lumber, fishing, tanning, lime production. Tourism, too, began to grow, since people from San Francisco and the region could more easily enjoy Santa Cruz's beaches.

Large model of refrigerator car, with doors open
Large model of refrigerator car, with doors open

Ice to cool the car's interior was loaded into bunkers at either end. (The small hatches at the roof corners opened into the ice bunkers.)

Ice was cut from lakes in the high Sierra Mountains during winter and carried by rail to "ice houses" (icing stations on rail sidings) located in agricultural towns that shipped perishables. Packed in straw in a large room at each ice house, the ice lasted well into summer. By the 20th century, refrigerated ice plants produced ice locally in towns in the fruit-growing regions.

Demographics, too, changed. In Santa Cruz and Watsonville, the same Chinese who had built many of the railroads in California shifted to agricultural work. Ultimately, California’s population of today was shaped by the agriculture and industry that grew there in the 20th century. Hence the population was shaped by the many immigrants pursuing economic opportunity — Japanese, Filipino, Latino, other European, African American — who followed Spanish, whites, Chinese, and others in pursuit of better lives.

For the little Santa Cruz Railroad itself - as for many smaller railroads built in the late 19th century - its story was briefer. The line could not generate sufficient levels of passengers and freight to survive by itself. By the early 1880s the line was insolvent and it was sold to the much larger Southern Pacific.

When the new owners converted the Santa Cruz-Watsonville line to standard gauge (the same gauge - width between the rails - as most of the rest of the nationwide rail network), the convenience of using the line was improved: passengers and freight no longer had to change cars at Watsonville.

Elsewhere in California, however, many farmers objected to rising shipping charges, and controversy arose about the role of big railroads and other big industries in American life.

Workers picking strawberries, Pajaro Valley, California, 1980s
Workers picking strawberries, Pajaro Valley, California, 1980s

But compared to earlier forms of transport by wagon road and canal before the Civil War, railroad transport was about ten times cheaper and ten times faster. In 1860, railroads carried 3.2 billion ton-miles of freight. By 1900, that figure was 141 billion ton-miles - a stunning 44-fold increase.

Table: Tonnage of Freight on U.S. Railroads.

(A ton-mile, the standard measure, is one ton carried one mile.)

———Year and Ton-Miles (billions)———

1860 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3.2 (est.)

1870 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9.0 (est.)

1880 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32.3

1890 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 79.1

1900 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141.1

(Source: J. H. White, The American Railroad Freight Car, Table 1.2. 1860 figure from A. Fishlow, American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-Bellum Economy. 1870 figure: author White's estimate is 8.0-10.0 billion ton-miles. 1880: from U.S. Census. 1890 and 1900: from Poor's Manual of Railroads for years cited.)

'Centennial American Republic and Railroad Map of the United States and of the Dominion of Canada,' published in 1875
"Centennial American Republic and Railroad Map of the United States and of the Dominion of Canada," published in 1875
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