Union Street in Santa Cruz was originally called Park Street, named after Rincon Park and its beautiful cherry trees. But when FA Hihn helped establish the Santa Cruz Railroad between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, land was needed for a depot, and so the cherry orchard became the Park St. Depot around 1877, keeping many trees. A beautiful two-story Alpine Stick-style depot was built where the Goodwill Building now stands, using Hihn Co. redwood. In addition to its waiting room and ticket office, there were covered lanes at the rear, so that passengers could board even in the rain.
Beyond was a freight depot, accessible from Depot Lane (now Squid Row). To the west of this was an engine hub and a carriage barn. Along the boardwalk in front of the depot, hotel carriages lined up to take customers to an unlimited number of hotels free of charge, often seeking to convince those without accommodation to book with them. The main hotel on Pacific Avenue was the Pacific Ocean House, with Plaza Lane as the access route to the station. Because the upper portion of Pacific Avenue was known as Uptown, the railroad station was sometimes referred to as Uptown Station.
Hihn also duplicated the Uptown station with an exact copy east of Depot Lane. This was for his Hihn Co. headquarters, with offices to oversee his railroad, lumber, real estate, and water company interests. This depot location gave her first chance to people entering Santa Cruz. His building included its own rail spur in the back and was only a block from Hihn’s three-story mansion, within walking distance via a lane called Kings Lane.
While the railroad had been built for better shipping rates, its value to tourism exceeded expectations. Still, most came to see the natural wonders and preferred to pass through Santa Cruz for the more historic attractions of the Monterey Peninsula. Santa Cruz needed to have reasons for tourists to stay, and in 1877 a quick-talking auctioneer named Budd Smith convinced them to build a fancy opera house. If that was the first thing you saw when leaving the Uptown station, it would show that culture has arrived in Santa Cruz. So Hihn supplied the lot, and wagon-man James P. Pierce sold the timber to Smith, all on credit. But Smith was forced to sell his interests at a low price to cover the personal inversions, receiving $65 from Jarvis & Lay.
The opera opened on November 23, 1877 with “The Bohemian Girl”. Residents of Santa Cruz were amazed by the beautiful auditorium, with its resemblance to Ford’s Theater in Washington DC. However, the real drama was with Smith, who had left town without paying anything, and was soon known for a number of elaborate bunko schemes in San. Francois. Still, Santa Cruz turned out to be the winner, as the Opera House became a popular venue for high art, vaudeville, and local talent.
Few thought Santa Cruz had a history, compared to Monterey. So in May 1881, Hihn put up a large sign on his building advertising the clubrooms and archives of the new “Society of California Pioneers of Santa Cruz County”. These were located on the second floor of the offices of Hihn Co., where Hihn served as the founder and sole chairman. In 1882, Hihn purchased the Pacific Ocean House, which was still the main downtown hotel.
Meanwhile, in 1878, James Fair purchased the Santa Cruz Railroad from Felton, and in 1880 completed construction of his South Pacific Coast Railroad over the Santa Cruz Mountains. When the winter storm of 1881 knocked down part of the San Lorenzo River Railroad Bridge, Hihn sold the Santa Cruz Railroad to Southern Pacific, having brought at least one major railroad to Santa Cruz. The South Pacific widened the line in 1883, and now Park Street Station was often referred to as the Broad Gauge Depot, while the South Pacific Coast Tunnel Side Depot was called the Narrow Gauge Depot. In 1886, Fair leased its South Pacific Coast Railroad to Southern Pacific for 55 years.
In 1889, South Pacific Superintendents A. C. Bassett of Broad Gauge County and L. Fillmore of Narrow Gauge County determined that Santa Cruz had outgrown its Uptown site and needed a new location to consolidate operations. An area next to Neary Lagoon was ideal, given its central proximity to the waterfront and downtown, with adjacent businesses engaged in shipping. The property was owned by Mrs. Harriet Blackburn and was leased to the Santa Cruz Lumber Co., and its owner George Olive offered to move his planer mill from part of the site for $4,500. After negotiations, Olive settled for $2,000, of which Southern Pacific would pay $1,250, with the rest coming from the local Chamber of Commerce (Chamber of Commerce).
Called Santa Cruz Union Depot, it opened in 1893 with two waiting rooms, one for the South Pacific Broad Gauge and one for the South Pacific Coast Narrow Gauge. The building was designed in the Alpine Stick style, in keeping with its advertisement as “Switzerland of America”. He had a heavy scale at ground level, to weigh trunks on wheels or carry-on luggage. There was a telegraph office, a rack of free destination brochure promotions, a shop selling magazines, camera film, and travel necessities. Upstairs were bedrooms for traveling SP workers to freshen up or spend the night.
The yard had sidings that could accommodate up to six passenger trains at a time, and on the other side of the depot were sidings and freight warehouses, which eventually included an ice warehouse for ship perishables like produce and seafood. Behind Blackburn Terrace was a turntable for running the engines or placing them in the engine room. It soon included a triangular track called the Wye, to run an entire train.
Meanwhile, the Uptown depot had all but one track removed, its station converted to storefronts downstairs and overnight apartments upstairs for railroad crews. After the 1906 earthquake, as SP assessed the mountain route, Hihn moved his Uptown Station building to the backyard of his Pacific Ocean home for additional rooms. When the 46-year-old building was dismantled in 1923, it was noticed that the redwood planks were still quite fresh.
In 1905, the Ocean Shore Electric Railway began construction to link San Francisco with Santa Cruz along the coast. Santa Cruz had reached Davenport by the 1906 earthquake, which destroyed much of the San Francisco section of track. Southern Pacific also had a parallel line to Davenport, creating the third line joining at Union Depot. The Santa Cruz cement plant in Davenport had its own railroad in the San Vicente Hills. The Davenport line not only brought cement to Santa Cruz, but was the school bus for Davenport high schoolers (dropping them off at the foot of the hill at Walnut Avenue) and the commuter line for employees of cement or lumber companies .
The streetcar company built its own station at Union Depot in 1907, while hotel shuttles continued to line up outside the depot. Also, a railway line ran out at the railroad wharf, and when the 1914 municipal pier was built, it had a railway line to bring steamboat passengers to Union Depot, or freight from steamships to freight warehouses. It had become a “multimodal transit hub,” where a person could arrive in Santa Cruz by rail or steamboat, and be immediately transferred to another form of interconnected transportation such as a trolley, shuttle, or bike.
America went to war with Germany in April 1917, and the United States Railroad Administration nationalized all railroads and express delivery services as part of the war emergency . The government established the American Railway Express Co. on June 30, 1918, and built an office that year adjacent to the Santa Cruz Union Depot. This service guaranteed delivery of anything nationwide at low cost and within five days, even odd things like livestock or machinery, including a green truck marked with a red diamond symbol for l bring to your door. After the war private ownership of the railroads was restored and a dozen railroads purchased leading shares in what became the Express Rail Agency. At one time it was as big as FedEx and UPS, but went out of business in 1979.
Meanwhile, Southern Pacific ended passenger service from the county around 1962, and the depot building housed a series of restaurants, one being “Gandy Dancers”, slang for the crews who maintained the rail line. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a displaced El Palomar restaurant kept it as a prestigious destination. On September 11, 1996, Union Pacific purchased Southern Pacific and ceased leasing the depot. The Historic Preservation Commission became concerned after two years and visited the abandoned monument, only to find the smell of sewage throughout the building from broken toilets and mountains of vagrant rags.
The Historic Preservation Commission warned Union Pacific that they needed a house sitter if they weren’t going to guard the rented place. They said they weren’t in the business of renting or maintaining properties, and when the building burned down in 1998 because of vagabonds, they seemed puzzled by the commission’s anger.
In 2000, the Depot Site Task Force was formed to determine the future of Union Depot. They saw it as an important example of a “multimodal transportation hub,” a model so needed today as a way to reduce total automobile dependence, through links to alternative modes of transportation.
In 2005, a railroad excursion to Roaring Camp celebrated the 130th anniversary of Santa Cruz Railroading, with myself as one of the speakers, and a baggage car full of bikes for bike adventures.
Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.