Ghost Rail: The Brief, Troubled Life of the Ocean Shore Railroad

The footprints of the old Ocean Shore Railroad are there, on the coast of San Mateo County and down into Santa Cruz -- if you know where to look.

There are quaint, Edwardian buildings, heavily remodeled into restaurants, offices, and a private residence, that still stand near the sleepy shore. They once served as train stations and outdoor waiting areas for those riding the rails. At Devil’s Slide Trail, off the Pacific Coast Highway, you can walk the treacherous approximate path the trains once took. And sitting in a yard in Pacifica is the hull of car #1049, the last remaining passenger car bought by the Ocean Shore Railroad, which awaits the funds to refurbish it.

When a group of prominent San Franciscan businessmen incorporated the Ocean Shore Railroad in 1905, they had every reason to believe it would still be in service today. But nature, innovation, and progress would have other plans.

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From as early as 1873, there had been talk of building a railroad from San Francisco down to the burgeoning resort town of Santa Cruz and beyond. But the coast was rocky and unstable, and a serviceable road linking these areas had not even been built until 1866.

It was not until the turn of the century that the time appeared right. The country, at the height of its gilded age, was experiencing a boom in railroad construction and land speculation. According to historian Jack R. Wagner, author of "The Last Whistle: Ocean Shore Railroad:" 

H. Downey Harvey, a popular and magnetic businessman with roots in Southern California, was the railroad’s first president. Coffee king J.A. Folger was vice-president. On May 18, 1905, the company was officially incorporated. Construction began in September on opposite ends of the planned track, which would cover 80.26 miles.

ocean shore outcrop
Ocean Shore Railroad | Source: Pacifica History Wikispaces/Creative Commons

The enterprise seemed cursed from the beginning. The all-powerful Southern Pacific Railroad was determined to cripple the Ocean Shore, which they saw as unnecessary competition. They constantly blocked the right of way of the new railroad and convinced landowners to refuse to sell their land. Nowhere was this more evident than in Santa Cruz, where they forced the Ocean Shore to build their depot on the bluffs overlooking Santa Cruz, instead of in Santa Cruz itself. Railroads were a dirty business, and it seems the directors of the Ocean Shore may have engaged in bribery, which was rampant in Northern California at this time. It was whispered that Harvey had given San Francisco Mayor Eugene E. Schmitz a very valuable Turkish rug in exchange for support. It seems this gift had its desired result -- a station was soon built at 12th and Mission in the heart of San Francisco.

By early 1906, the Ocean Shore Railroad was well on its way. Construction on the northern end of the track had just reached the iconic Mussel Rock, outside Daily City. A big setback occurred on April 13, when $30,000 worth of railroad equipment, including what was supposed to be the railroad’s first car, went up in flames at the machine shop of H.L. Holman.

But this was only a tremor compared to the devastation to come. Five days later, the legendary San Francisco earthquake, 7.8 on the Richter scale, struck Northern California. And the closest landmark to the epicenter? None other than Mussel Rock. “During that early morning impact,” Wagner writes, “the ocean cliffs gave way and over 4000 feet of railroad track, while rolling stock and construction equipment, fell into the sea.”

The devastation stunned San Mateo county, and wiped out the resources of many of the Ocean Shore Railroad’s stockholders. However, the railroad decided to rebuild, and a portion of the southern part of the single track steam line was up and running by May, with the hope that it would generate some much needed revenues to complete the rail. The earthquake was seen as a business opportunity; it was thought that many San Franciscans, having lived through the horrors of the earthquake, would flee to the suburban sea, into tiny communities like Brighton, Salada Beach (now Pacifica), Moss Beach and El Granada. Using the railroad as a key selling point, realtors did lure many new residents, but most were from other states. “Midwesterners were the prime suspects,” Wagner explains. “Salesmen found them easy to convince that the fresh ocean air would add ten zestful years to their lives.”

ocean shore lead
Ocean Shore Railroad, 1910, Photo by Bruno Crenci | Source: Pacifica History Wikispaces/Creative Commons


pamphlet for ocean shore rail
Photo: Hadley Meares

The railroad became popular with day-trippers, and began earning large profits -- some from the transportation of California’s plentiful fresh produce. In 1908, it made $270,000 and serviced almost 3,000 people every weekend. However, a portion of the railway between El Granada and Swanton was never completed. To bridge the gap, passengers were unloaded onto Stanley Steamer autobuses and taken to the next rail station. Accusations of mismanagement also plagued the Ocean Shore. In 1909, the San Francisco Chronicle bemoaned this fact, and blamed the company’s bond holders for its unfinished state:

Things would only get worse. By 1911, the company was a financial disaster. It was forced into receivership and reorganized under new management. The railroad was still popular, mainly for its spectacular ocean views. A brochure put out by the company described a San Francisco passenger’s idealized experience:


former site of ocean shore railroad
Former site of Ocean Shore Railroad | Photo: Hadley Meares

But no amount of sightseeing wonders could save the Ocean Shore. The small towns that the original investors believed would flourish never grew. The redwood lumber and cement industries the railroad believed it would service went out of business or remained small. And most importantly, the first era of the railroad was passing. The automobile was the latest innovation sweeping the nation, and inter-state travelers began to prefer car trips over train trips. Devastating landslides (including one at the aptly named Devil’s Slide) and union strikes also contributed to the railroad’s demise.

By 1920, the railroad was losing thousands of dollars annually. The Ocean Shore Railroad was officially put out of service, and much of its track was taken up, only to be sold to the McCloud River Railroad in Shasta County. That year, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “now that the rails are being taken up, people are sorry:”

The people are now bestirring themselves in an effort to save the road. It is probably too late. It is not probable that any outsiders would pay junk prices for the property and undertake its rehabilitation and the people along the line presumably cannot raise the money…It was a vision which looked too far into the future. The time for the road was not ripe. It starved to death.

ocean shore railroad sunset
Sunset on the Ocean Shore Railroad | Source: Pacifica History Wikispaces/Creative Commons

Further reading:

"The Last Whistle: Ocean Shore Railroad" by Jack R. Wagner


Top Image: San Vicente Creek tunnel, Ocean Shore Railroad | Source: Jef Poskanzer/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

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