In the days before Highway 9 and Highway 17, the most efficient way for Santa Cruz County residents to travel was by train. From the 1870s until the eve of World War II, railroad tracks snaked their way through the landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains, with lines connecting Santa Cruz and San Jose, as well as traversing the San Lorenzo Valley.
As the railroads expanded, transporting logs, passengers, and other goods, all manner of settlements sprang up around the lines. Some flourished with the arrival of the railroads, with such familiar names as Glenwood, Boulder Creek, and Felton. Others, such as Eccles, Wrights, and Meehan, have long since faded.
Seventy-five years after the last Southern Pacific passenger train wound its way around and through the hills between Santa Cruz and San Jose in 1940, a local historian has made it his goal to memorialize the railroads of Santa Cruz County and the settlements that they helped shape.
In his recently published book “Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains,” historian Derek Whaley explores the routes of the old railroads, and attempts to comprehensively document the histories of the various towns, sidings, stations, and spurs that accompanied them.
“I’m focusing specifically on the station stops and why they were there,” said Whaley, 31, a Felton native and 2002 graduate of San Lorenzo Valley High School. “I look at locations and their relations to the railroad; I look at the towns, I look at the stops, and I look at the stations.”
He said he was inspired to study the history of the railroad in 2011 after he attended a presentation by local historian Brian Liddicoat about the history of the tunnels of the former Santa Cruz to San Jose line – the entrances to which still exist today.
“I went to the lecture, I got excited about it, and went exploring the tunnels,” Whaley said.
The next several months were spent searching for the tunnel entrances, and hiking the former right-of-ways, which – save for the absence of actual tracks – are more or less intact.
“(I wanted to see the) state of the right-of-way as it exists today,” he said. “Every place that I was able to access without getting in anybody’s way, I hiked and explored.”
As Whaley spent time hiking and bushwhacking his way around the former railroad, he found evidence of the past in the forms of foundations, old telegraph poles, drainage culverts, and trestle remains.
To gather information for his book, Whaley opted for what he describes as a “crowdsourced approach.”
He created a website, SantaCruzTrains.com, where he posted weekly blog entries about various settlements and points of interest that he was researching, and used that as a method of reaching out to the historical community to compile original materials and information.
“That’s where I get a lot of the people – I post (weekly articles) around and I get feedback, emails, posts on the websites,” he said. “We get a dialogue going … maps, sources, tips, leads … they’ll give me tips, links, and people to follow up with.”
Whaley said that his research was originally based on open sources, such as those available through the Santa Cruz County Public Library.
“After I started getting a base, and getting comfortable with my sources, I felt more comfortable getting original sources,” he said. “Once that started is when I realized there was enough material here for a book.”
To his knowledge, Whaley said, his book is the first of its kind as its focus is on the towns serviced by the trains of Santa Cruz County, rather than on the trains themselves.
“The scope of this book is the Santa Cruz wharves through Los Gatos – all the little stops and stations in between,” he said. “It’s not about the train as much as the locations the trains went through.”
The book took Whaley three months of writing, and two months of editing – courtesy of his wife, Kara Kennedy, and a month of formatting before he was ready to self-publish.
Whaley, who is currently studying for a doctorate in History at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, says that he plans to continue updating his website, and intends to update the book periodically as new information comes to light.
“There’s always the chance something big will come about,” he said.
The book is available to purchase for $30 online through the Santa Cruz Trains Web site, or on Amazon.
For more information, visit www.SantaCruzTrains.com.