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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Ocean Shore Railroad

In May 1905, the public was thrilled when newspapers announced that a new enterprise was to build a railroad on a scenic route between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. The Ocean Shore Railway Company, incorporated May 18, 1905, intended to construct an electric railway of eighty-three miles along the seashore, routing through Half Moon Bay. It was a grand idea. But, devised as it was by well-heeled entrepreneurs with no railroad experience, Ocean Shore’s problems were just beginning.

At first, Ocean Shore was winning. In court, president J. Downey Harvey and the board of directors won suits for a San Francisco site they wanted for their terminal; won an injunction against Southern Pacific Railroad for laying a spur from SP’s main line across land in Santa Cruz that Ocean Shore intended to lay track on itself; and won the charter for a commercial railroad from the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, prevailing over the protests of United Railroads as well as various property owners along the proposed route. By quickly filing criminal charges and engaging the Pinkerton Agency, the directors even managed to avert a scandal when one of their headquarters employees absconded with the $1,100 in cash a visiting banker had placed in the company’s vault for safekeeping overnight.

Meanwhile, the company created more public excitement when it purchased two large properties on which to build sumptuous resort hotels for its future customers: three ranches in Half Moon Bay including the 750-acre Presho Ranch, which extended from the beach to the foothills of the coast range; and a 2,000 acre ranch in Santa Cruz, which encompassed the famed Laurel Grove camping ground. Funds were invested in an electric plant and other costly equipment.

Roadbed construction got underway in September, but Ocean Shore’s months of good fortune were coming to an end. In December, Southern Pacific Railroad Company—older, larger, and much better capitalized—announced its plan to build a competing electric railroad from San Francisco to San Jose. Southern Pacific’s plan amounted to an outright declaration of war against upstart Ocean Shore, for a share of the anticipated revenues from the coastal districts. Two months later, Ocean Shore Railway suffered a serious setback of a different kind. On February 22, 1906, a trestle collapsed, sending an engine and six dump cars used in construction toppling twenty feet to embed themselves in a creek.

True disaster struck just as construction at the San Francisco end had reached Mussel Rock. On the morning of April 18, 1906, the earthquake that devastated the city started a rockslide above the new rail line. Rolling stock, construction equipment, and 4,000 feet of railroad track crashed into the sea as ocean cliffs collapsed and huge cracks opened up along the roadbed. The costly double-track electric rail construction was destroyed; the electric plant rendered useless. After the earthquake, Ocean Shore Railway made do as a standard gauge steam railroad.

The original stockholders never recovered financially from the catastrophe. Still, in early March 1908, the company placed half-page ads in several California newspapers promoting the sale of its railroad bonds (face value $100, price $96, terms $16 down and $10 a month); $2,189,000 already sold! While admitting that the road was yet incomplete for the entire 83 miles, the ad stressed that the road was in operation, transporting passengers and farm produce 16 miles from Santa Cruz north to Scott’s Creek, plus 18 miles starting from Twelfth and Mission streets in San Francisco, south to Point San Pedro. A final assurance: Ocean Shore was the grandest scenic railway in the world, and its bonds were a safe, long-term investment.

However, by 1911 the company had been forced into receivership. New investors formed a new company under the name Ocean Shore Railroad (rather than Railway), and continued construction at both ends with tunnels, trestles, and numerous bridges, only to encounter fresh obstacles: notably, the landslide at Devil’s Slide in 1916, which closed the line for more than two months and cost $300,000 in repairs. The little railroad struggled on—popular with tourists and weekend day-trippers for its breathtaking ocean views—until the rising popularity of the automobile finally wrought its demise.

Ocean Shores Railroad quit running scheduled trains in late August 1920, and closed altogether on October 20, 1920. Even though the tracks from San Francisco had reached south of Half Moon Bay to Tunitas, and the tracks from Santa Cruz were extended as far north as Swanton, the “middle” section of rail was never completed, the luxury resorts were never built, and drawing-board towns never materialized.

Beginning in the 1930s—and in various stages thereafter—most of Ocean Shore’s right of way was paved over to become Highway 1, said to be the most scenic road on the California Coast.

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