San Francisco to Santa Cruz: The Ocean Shore Railroad

A discussion of the Ocean Shore Railroad touches on many larger themes of general railroad history, including innovation, marketing, competition, land speculation, cost burden, and the eventual rise of the auto industry.

At its most basic, the Ocean Shore was built to connect the perpetually-growing city of San Francisco with the popular resort town of Santa Cruz. But as was the case for railroads big and small built in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the beginning and end points were only part of the story. Like the full-press promotion of western settlement connected to the biggest project of all, the Transcontinental Railroad, land speculation was the primary business activity linked to the Ocean Shore. 

Most histories of the Ocean Shore Railroad begin with the year 1905, when initial surveying and preparation began, only to be dealt a serious blow by the devastating toll of the 1906 earthquake. But the idea for the such an endeavor was actually discussed decades earlier and at Neatline we have recently come across a small pamphlet published in 1881 and titled: Report upon the San Francisco and Ocean Shore Railroad Company, California.

The pamphlet constitutes a statement from President W.W. Walker and Chief Engineer Lyman Bridges to the company’s Board of Directors and is imbued with optimism found so often with speculative projects: “the entire line has an unparalleled scenery of mountain, ocean, valley and plateau, with an ever-changing panorama of sea-side attractions.” The authors predict that the railroad will become a major player in freight, moving both coal and lime, and stimulate agricultural production. At the same time, the seaside will flourish, with Point San Pedro developing into the Coney Island of the west.

The pamphlet also includes a small map of the proposed route. The coastal line is similar, but the San Francisco section has an interesting difference. The actual San Francisco station for the Ocean Shore was at 12th and Mission, from which it traveled south roughly along the same route followed by Highway 101 today before veering off to the coast. The 1881 proposal, however, begins at City Hall itself, heading directly west on Fulton and D streets along the northern edge of Golden Gate Park, which itself receives no small praise: “it is being developed and beautified year by year, and will soon be one of the most beautiful parks on the Continent.”

Land along the San Mateo County coast south of San Francisco was marketed in two main ways, both of which attracted speculators eager for high returns on investment. First, the coastal communities were promoted as idyllic places to live or maintain a holiday house. Second, tourists were encouraged to escape the city and enjoy the beautiful coastline, stopping in resort towns like Granada, with its street grid designed by Daniel Burnham.

In the end, however, the ultimate goal of creating populations large enough to support train service was never realized. Housing plots became agricultural land as the railroad was plagued by unforeseen costs, especially associated with the stretch of coast that includes Devil’s Slide. Only Half Moon Bay developed into a significant tourist destination. After a short run, the Ocean Shore was finished in 1920. Much of the excavation, leveling, and other track preparation work would be used for roads as the automobile became the preferred mode of transportation.

Detail from a 1919 map of San Francisco showing the route of the Ocean Shore R.R. past Bernal Heights along a similar path to Highway 101 today.

The tracks of the Ocean Shore R.R. make a brief appearance along the east side of this 1917 Spring Valley Water Company contour map of area around Lake Merced.

Inset of the Bay Area from Godwin’s famous pictorial map of San Francisco; interestingly, although published in 1927, the route of the Ocean Shore R.R. is still depicted.

References and further information:

Hunter, Chris. Ocean Shore Railroad (Images of Rail). Arcadia Publishing, 2006.