Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…unless you’re fighting bumper-to-bumper beach traffic on Highway 17. Even navigating from one side of town to another is an ordeal on summer weekends. Multiple attempts to eliminate cut-through traffic haven’t resulted in a permanent fix. But Caltrans is now conducting an Environmental Impact Report for a project to widen Highway 17 to three lanes between Lark and S. Santa Cruz Avenue, so there may be relief for all of us someday. 

In the meantime, we can only imagine what it must have been like when there was regularly scheduled railroad service over the hill all the way to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. 

Although there were passenger trains to and from the coast beginning in 1880, weekend service was limited. In the summer of 1927, Southern Pacific experimented with special holiday express trains to Santa Cruz with a single stop for picnickers at Henry Cowell State Park. By 1930, the experiment had become such a huge financial success that the railroad decided to make it a permanent offering and began advertising the holiday beach trains as the “Suntan Special.” A year later, the popular service was expanded to run every Sunday, and then every weekend throughout the summer months. 

Suntan Special ad
RIDE TO THE BEACH – An advertisement for Southern Pacific’s Suntan Special rail service, which traversed the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. (submitted)

Passenger cars pulled by powerful steam locomotives ran across tall wooden trestles built over creeks and canyons, and through four dark, narrow tunnels, one of which was over a mile long. In fact, the Summit Tunnel was once the longest railroad tunnel in the country. It’s infamously known as the only railroad tunnel that was built directly above the San Andreas Fault. 

The mountain route to the coast was a marvel of 19th century engineering. Hundreds of Chinese laborers risked their lives for little pay under grueling conditions with few, if any safety precautions. More than 60 were killed during construction, many in methane gas tunnel explosions. They became so superstitious about the tunnels that work crews from the New Almaden Quicksilver mines had to be brought in to finish the job.

Ever since the first shovelful of dirt was removed, Mother Nature was relentless in her battle against the tunnels. After multiple methane gas explosions, mudslides, fires, cave-ins, floods, and an earthquake, she finally prevailed. Even though it was the most expensive railroad construction project of the era, Southern Pacific determined that it was just too costly to maintain, and the line was permanently closed in 1940. 

But the end of the mountain route didn’t spell doom for the Suntan Special. In fact, other special excursion trains were already running from both San Francisco and Oakland to Santa Cruz through San Jose, Gilroy, Watsonville, Capitola and Aptos. The Suntan Special continued to be popular with beachgoers until its last official run on Labor Day, 1959. 

There have been multiple attempts to revive passenger rail service along the coast over the past 60 years, but none have been successful. And there’s no chance for a resurrection of the mountain route. The right-of-way has long since been abandoned, the tunnels have been dynamited, the rails and trestles have been removed, and our railroad depot is now the Town Plaza park. You’ll have to take the historic Roaring Camp Railroad Beach Train from Felton to Santa Cruz to experience what it might have been like to ride the long lost Suntan Special. 

Content and photos from “Discover LOST Gatos” historical walking tours by Alan Feinberg, Peggy Conaway-Bergtold and Sandy Decker. Download the free mobile app from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

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