Santa Cruz Trains: Inspiration Point, or the legend of Coon Gulch

Coon Gulch from Inspiration Point, circa 1930s. Courtesy Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.

Inspiration Point — the beautiful overlook between Felton and Santa Cruz along Highway 9.

Coon Gulch — a name that does not provoke the ire of anyone except, perhaps, Roaring Camp Railroads.

These two locales are intimately connected to the history of the Southern Pacific Railroad in Santa Cruz.

When the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad began constructing its route down the San Lorenzo River in 1875, Coon Gulch proved to be nearly impossible to cross. Placed high above the river beneath Eben Bennett’s toll road — the future Highway 9 — the railroad track clung to a thin ledge of granite prone to severe landslides.

At its tightest squeeze, a short truss bridge linked two edges of a 150-foot-high precipice.  Smaller trestles dotted the canyon wall further to the south. Just to the north, a tight curve around a promontory of solid granite limited train speeds to 10 miles per hour.

When the South Pacific Coast Railroad took over in 1879, the entire situation proved untenable.

Plans were immediately drawn up, though never implemented, for a complete overhaul of the trestle. At the promontory, they dug a 300-foot tunnel to lessen the curve, but a slide at the tunnel in April 1880 delayed the opening of the line for a month. Many more slides followed.

By the time the Southern Pacific Railroad took over in 1887, Coon Gulch had a reputation as the worst stretch of track in the county. Slides were frequent, with one in 1901 crushing an engine, killing the engineer, and nearly sending the entire passenger train into the river 150 feet below. The railroad continued to extend the tunnel further south in the hope that future slides would pass over the tracks.

In 1907, standard-gauging of the line finally forced the upgrading of the old truss bridge. The new trestle was a beautifully crafted concrete arch built into the hillside to provide extra support. It became the object of dozens of postcards and its visibility from the road above made it a popular tourist sight.

As automobiles became popular in the 1910s, the overlook above the tunnel took on the name Inspiration Point. Many photographs show trains, especially the Suntan Specials, passing over the arch on the way to or from Big Trees, now Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The bridge can still be seen from both the overlook and the tracks.

The tunnel was never so popular. Used for nearly a decade as a feature on the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway, the redwood-timbered tunnel burned down in January 1993 while undergoing repairs and upgrades. Today, the railroad once again goes around the promontory as it did 140 years ago.

- Derek Whaley is a local historian specializing in the railroading past of Santa Cruz County. For more information, visit his website at http://www.SantaCruzTrains.com/.

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