It goes without saying take we all unique personal journeys to become the photographers and railfans that we are today. For most of us, it’s the cumulation of seemingly random events and experiences that came together and define who we are. My path has definitely been circuitous, but with hindsight, I can now see how a few events converged to draw me into railroad photography. These memories were re-kindled when I went deep into my digital photo library and found my first railroad photography project folder. These images were made during a business trip to Santa Cruz in March of 2008. With a decade of perspective, I can now see how events leading up to this trip all coalesced and came together at the right time to ignite the passion I have for railroad photography.
The first event was the purchase of a new digital camera by my work office; a Canon Rebel SLR with zoom lens. I used this camera in my design profession for about 6 months and quickly came to appreciate the new digital workflow and creative opportunities it opened up to me. While I’ve had film cameras most of my adult life, I just never shot enough to be technically proficient and because of that, never achieved the creative potential that I knew the medium had. Reviewing my images right after taking them, allowed me to make immediate adjustments while still in the field and quickly become technically proficient. Without having to worry about getting a good exposure, I could concentrate on the creative aspects of photography. For me, that changed everything.
About this same time, I met Bryan Bechtold, who would not only become a great friend, but was also a great railroad photographer. Just two months prior to my San Francisco trip, he showed me some images that he had taken on Union Pacific’s Potash Branch and on Soldier Summit that Winter. Trains had fascinated me since I was a kid, but I had spent the past decades modeling them, not photographing them. My false assumption was that contemporary railroading was boring and monotonous and that there was nothing interesting trackside. Bryan’s images dispelled that assumption for me and I found his photography beautiful and evocative. He didn’t know it, but he planted a seed in my mind about railroads and photography that would linger.
The third element was serendipity.
After landing in San Francisco early in the day, I drove my rental car down to Santa Cruz, aiming for the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad facility just out of town. I have a weakness for logging railroads and seeing the Shays at Roaring Camp had been on my bucket list for years. The railroad wouldn’t be running, as it was the off-season, but I hoped that there would be a way of getting into the shop and seeing the Shays. When I arrived, the engine house doors were wide open and there was a lone employee performing some maintenance work on one of the shays. I introduced myself and he extended an invitation for me to come inside and look around. The narrow-gauge Shays the railroad rostered were well kept and infused with logging history. I took a few photos, but mostly absorbed the scene and walked around observing each of their idiosyncrasies. After about an hour, I saw what I needed and didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I said thank you and decided to head into downtown Santa Cruz.
Tracks run through the center of Santa Cruz and street running has always been a source of fascination for me. It was something I wanted to emulate on my model railroad and wanted to see if I could glean some interesting details there. Trains and cars share the main road through the center of Santa Cruz and to my delight, this narrow corridor also separates the beach from the businesses on the inland side of the street. I parked my car next to the beach, went for a walk down the street and found a nice beachside bench to sit on. Soaking up the sun, I recalled that the Southern Pacific Railroad used to run their Suntan Specials from San Francisco to here. With the tracks about 30 feet from the sand, I surmised that the train must have stopped right here to unload.
Lost in thoughts of the past, my pondering came to an end when a sound cut through the racket and brought me back into the present…a train horn. I tuned out my surroundings to listen intently and after a five-minute period of attentiveness, again heard the distinctive sound of a train blowing for a grade crossing. The sound was low and north of me, but it was definitely a train. Not knowing the territory nor how the railroad operated through here, I decided to seek it out, instead of waiting here for a train that might not come my way.
The rail line was easy to follow, and it didn’t take long for the townscape to give way to country farmland. The highway and the railroad right of way paralleled each other as they skirted the coastline of the Pacific Ocean. The scenery was stunning and not something that I had expected to see. This was a grand place for a railroad line and after a few miles of following the tracks, railroad cars could be seen in the distance ahead of me. I quickly caught the short train and pulled even with the two locomotives. Both were former Rio Grande units that seemed so out of place. Locomotives from a railroad whose slogan is “Thru the Rockies – Not Around Them”, just didn’t seem to fit with the sea-level route that I was witnessing.
After pacing the train, a bit, I wanted to capture the moment and get a photo with the ocean behind the train. As I drove on, every place looked good, yet nothing did. While the scenery was stunning, it was difficult to decide where to stop and I kept driving. The road went up and down on the rolling seaside hills and on one of the crests, I finally pulled over to get my first ‘chase’ photo. Even though I was a mile ahead of the train, it was on me within a few minutes – way before I had time to evaluate the scene and compose a good shot. In my excitement, I would make this mistake for most of the day. Not only did I not give myself enough time, but I didn’t know this terrain and where the shots might be. After stopping at a mediocre location, I would constantly see a better shot a short drive further, but see the train be too close in my rear-view mirror to attempt a stop. This was turning into my first chase and I was making a lot of mistakes, but the experience was exhilarating and unforgettable!
The train skirted the coast all the way up to Davenport, where a large cement plant was located. I immediately recognized this facility from images that are ingrained in my mind from one of my favorite books, Richard Steinheimer’s Backwoods Railroads of the West. The plant had its own electric narrow-gauge railroad that brought limestone from a quarry to the plant that Steinheimer has made some lasting images of. Other than the railroad siding that brought rail cars into the plant, public access seemed restricted. While it would have been nice to look around and see if this railroad still operated or if there were any remnants, this would have to await another day. The crew finished switching the plant and I followed the train back towards Santa Cruz. Retracing my route, I could now clearly see many locations that would have made a good photo as the train came north. I cursed myself that I missed them and hoped that I could return someday for another attempt. I took a few shots of the train along the coast and then recalled the street running section in Santa Cruz. That was my original draw into town and wanted to capture the train there.
In Santa Cruz, another rookie mistake was made. Arriving ahead of the train, but unsure of how much time I had, pulled over at the beginning of the street running section to wait. Anxious that the train would appear at any moment, I stayed there and didn’t take the time to wander and look for a better shot. What I didn’t know was that the crew was on the outskirts of town adding a bunch of empty center-beam cars to the train. While waiting, I could have positioned myself on the other end of town to capture the train coming down the street, towards me. When the train finally showed up, I realized my error in judgement, but it was too late.
The train passed, and I decided to continue the chase even though I had no idea where it would lead and how long it would take. Having the entire day free was a gift, and for once time was on my side. The chase eventually led into Watsonville where I found a nice section of street running and was able to get the shot that I had envisioned in Santa Cruz. The train came down the street, immediately crossed a river and was in the yard. My first chase was over.
On the drive up to San Francisco that evening, I reflected back on the experience, both the joys and the mistakes. It was a personal awakening that I could again be excited by contemporary railroading. Having avoided the trackside scene since the mid ‘70s when I was a teenager, my false assumption was that nothing ‘good’ remained to be seen nor discovered. I had not come to Santa Crus with the expectation of chasing a train, but the combination of scenery, train, luck, new digital camera and available time drew me into a new experience. It was exhilarating to chase this train and I did get some shots that have survived the test of time. There were also plenty of photographs that I missed…I saw that during the chase and can see even more now, but that’s the benefit of training my vision for a decade.
Since then, I have chased too many trains to remember, but that trip to Santa Cruz will always be special to me as the time it all came together and started a passion for railroad photography.
I’m sure we all have similar stories…. what is yours?
Within a year of my March 2008 visit, the recession that started later that same year would bring about significant changes to the operation and ownership of the line. Union Pacific had inherited the line when it took over the Southern Pacific and operated the line as its Santa Cruz branch, a 32-mile line from Watsonville Junction to Davenport. Its largest customer was at the end of the line, the CEMEX plant, which warranted UP running a daily train to service it. The recession hit the plant hard and it temporarily closed during March of 2009. The UP immediately cut back its local to a once a week job and the next year CEMEX announced that the closing would be permanent. With a significant reduction in car volume, the UP announced its desire to sell the branch. Santa Cruz County purchased the entire line in 2011 with the intent of keeping it open for rail served business as well as future recreational use. They awarded Iowa Pacific the operating agreement, which soon started up a new railroad; the Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway. It continues to operate today with a few freight customers and a decent tourist train business. The narrow-gauge electric railroad at CEMEX was long gone by time of my visit as it closed in 1970. In addition to Steinheimer’s photographs, Ted Benson covered the operation in a double-page spread in his book, One Track Mind.