Much of Pacifica's layout owes its beginnings to a small, little-known railroad company. Incorporated in 1906, the Ocean Shore Railway Company planned to run a high-speed electric railway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. To attract weekend excursions and tourists, the route would hug the shoreline as closely as possible. That decision was probably its undoing.
Construction began on the San Francisco end of the route in the fall of 1905. Railroad building had just reached Mussell Rock, where the San Andreas fault dives into the Pacific Ocean, when disaster struck. Early in the morning of April 17, 1906, an 8.1 earthquake started a rockslide above the new rail line. Ocean cliffs collapsed, dumping over 4,000 feet of railroad track, along with rolling stock and construction equipment, into the sea. Huge cracks opened up along the roadbed. Of the track that remained, much was twisted and contorted to such a degree that it resembled a roller-coaster. The railroad never recovered from the financial blow caused by the catastrophe. Investors dropped out, and, with less money, the directors decided to substitute a single-track steam line for the planned two-track electric railway.
Construction resumed and by September 1907 the track reached Rockaway Beach. There, they laid track on a ledge cut above the ocean that rounded Rockaway Point, headed uphill to Tobin station (San Pedro Point) and met one of the most difficult engineering obstacles on the entire line-the solid rock of Point San Pedro. First a ledge was cut into the cliff face from Tobin station to Shelter Cove. Then they bored a tunnel through the point itself. To get supplies and materials to the site, they anchored a ship offshore and transported materials along an aerial tramway. The railroad was rapidly running out of time, money and patience. To create a level bed for tracks on Devil's Slide, they stuffed nine tons of black powder into a specially constructed tunnel and literally blew the top off the mountain. Instant roadbed.
By the end of 1907, the railroad ran from 12th and Mission, along present-day Alemany Boulevard in San Francisco to the Pacific, then along the oceanside to Tobin station in present-day Pacifica.
The Route Through Pacifica
The railroad line had several stops in Pacifica-Edgemar, Salada, Brighton, Vallemar, Rockaway, Tobin-before plunging into a 354-foot tunnel through San Pedro Mountain. It resurfaced at the edge of the high cliffs, 700 feet above the crashing surf. This dramatic ride caused a great deal of trouble for the rail line, because the roadbed was built on an unstable piece of shifting mountainside known, appropriately, as Devil's Slide. Numerous slides damaged the roadway. One landslide, on January 15, 1916 closed the line for more than two months and required over $300,000 in repairs.
The round-trip fare averaged about 20¢ (based on the purchase of a $5 monthly ticket). Excursion trips were popular. On Sundays, the railroad supplemented the traditional cars with open flat cars topped with picnic benches.
The trip from San Francisco to Salada Beach took 57 minutes, though it was advertised as taking 25 minutes. Unfortunately, the trains were often delayed. Travel was often interrupted by the results of a heavy rain that caused culverts under the tracks to jam with debris, washing away the roadbed. Local wits maintained that all it took to cause a washout on the Ocean Shore was a good heavy fog, and there was always plenty of that.
Rail lines ran from San Francisco south to Tunitas Glen and from Santa Cruz north to Swanton. The middle leg of the line, 26 miles between Tunitas Glen and Swanton was never completed. Passengers wishing to continue disembarked from the train and boarded a special Stanley Steamer to reach the railhead at the other end. Four trains (two round-trips) ran daily and six on Sundays and holidays.
The Real Estate Game
A major impetus for the railroad was the real estate game. Fast-talking promoters lured city-weary prospects to the coastside by offering free trips on the railway, open air concerts and free lunches. The ads claimed that the towns had "no taxes and no saloons." Salada Beach, near the natural lagoon known as Laguna Salada (in the Sharp Park golf course), was designed to be a major watering hole. Ads extolled its allure and the "beautiful, balmy climate." A promenade, bandstand, casinos, cafes and several large hillside hotels were envisioned surrounding the lake, which was much larger than the present size. Of those grandiose plans, only the bath houses on Clarendon Avenue and the concrete pillars for a dance pavilion in the center of the lagoon were built. Lots sold at Salada Beach started at $250 for a 25 x 50 foot parcel. You could get one for $10 down, $3 a month. Nearby Vallemar was a bit pricier. There, you needed a $5 down payment.
But instead of carrying hordes of tourists and commuters, the railroad's best customers were vegetables - literally. Artichokes, beans, Brussels sprouts, peas, potatoes and other coastside produce were in high demand. Most ended up in East Coast homes and restaurants. Coastside farmers were paid 5 1/2 ¢ a choke. Artichokes went for 75¢ each in New York.
The End of an Era
The competition created by the newly popular automobile sounded the death knell for the little railroad. It had rarely made a profit and, in 1920, was forced to stop operations. Most of the Ocean Shore right of way was paved over and turned into Highway 1, reputed to be the most spectacular road on the West Coast.
Railroad Sights in Pacifica Today
Rail buffs can still see signs of Pacifica's early railroad days. Portions of the right of way can be seen along the Rockaway headlands and along the railway berm in Pedro Point. The huge cut between Fairway Park and Vallemar was blasted out by railroad engineers. Three railroad stations still stand. One is camouflaged as the ERA Dolphin Real Estate office at the corner of Manor Drive and Oceana Blvd. One is now the Vallemar Station Grill, located at 2125 Coast Highway. The third is Tobin Station on San Pedro Point (corner of Danman Avenue and Shelter Cove Road). The former outdoor shelter was enclosed many years ago and is now a private residence.
- "Salada Beach", Western Realty Company, date unknown (probably 1907 or 1908)
- "Salada: The Beach in Reach", Ocean Shore Land Company, 1908.
- "Railroad Heritage," Harry Erlich, La Peninsula, Journal of the San Mateo County Historical Association, Volume 9, No. 1, February 1961.
- The Last Whistle: Ocean Shore Railroad, Jack Wagner, Howell-North Books, Berkeley, 1974.
- Barbara VanderWerf, Granada: A Synonym for Paradise - The Ocean Shore Railroad Years, Gum Tree Lanes Books, El Granda, 1992.
- "Rum and a Railroad-How Salada Beach Grew", Tom Johnston, Pacifica Tribune, November 9, 1977.
- The California Highway One Book, Rick Adams and Louise McCorkle, New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.
- Half Moon Bay Memories, June Morrall, Moonbeam Press, El Granada, 1978
Links of Interest
Copyright © 1996, June Langhoff. All rights reserved.