Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

"If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools."

– Plato


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Lumber, Oil, Coal . . . In Los Gatos?

     Almost immediately after the fishing trip described in my previous post, Gayle and I traveled to Los Gatos, the town where we both grew up.  It was not a surprise that we found ourselves stuck in bumper to bumper traffic moving through town slower than I could walk an hour after knee surgery. 

            Days later, as we left for home, the traffic heading for Santa Cruz was even worse.  Four lanes of cars were literally at a stop from Stevens Creek Road in San Jose to Los Gatos, where Highway 17 funnels cars into two lanes for the slow trek to Santa Cruz.   

             But it wasn’t that way when I was a kid.
            Back then the railroad still came through Los Gatos and ran to Santa Cruz.  Called the “Suntan Special” by locals, it was the most popular way to travel to the beach.  Many years prior, the train hauled logs out of the Santa Cruz Mountains to lumber mills in Lexington and Alma, just outside of town.  Most of the roads through the Santa Cruz hills today were originally lumber roads.  The lumber industry was very big back then and lumber mills dotted the local mountains. It’s hard to imagine that today.

The town of Lexington was once the economic center of the area and is now under Lexington Lake.  But the town of Lexington and Alma weren’t all that was buried as the complexion of Los Gatos and the Santa Clara Valley began to transition into Silicon Valley.

Oil and coal had been discovered in the mountains above Los Gatos.  This may surprise you.  There was a period of time when the entire area went nuts with oil fever.  But the oil and coal business didn’t last long and the oil rigs were buried during construction of the highway to Santa Cruz.  I have friends who have actually seen parts of oil rigs protruding from the ground in the hills above Los Gatos

Los Gatos had also become the stopping place for lumber haulers in the 19th century with carts and horses or oxen hauling first growth redwood out of the hills.  There were a dozen lumber mills in the area.  Lumber cart oxen wore bells to warn stage coach drivers coming in the opposite direction on those old dirt roads.  The bells avoided head-on collisions or rear-enders on blind corners. 

But the lumber carts couldn’t keep up with the loggers, so the railroad began to take up some of the slack.  The train carrying logs made at least two runs a day, eventually stopping at the old wooden depot in Los Gatos.  This original Rail Road Depot was finally remodeled in 1924.  A few of you may have seen the old depot before it faded into the history books.

            Construction of the railroad was a major project and it was built without modern equipment.  More than 60 men were killed during its construction.  Most were killed by tunnel explosions.  There were between 600 and 1000 men working on that railroad.  Most were Chinese laborers.  I wonder if the progeny of some of those Chinese guys were selling firecrackers to my buddies and me back in the fifties in the China town section of San Jose.

Evidently back in the 1800’s Los Gatos had a problem with boys “jumping the cars,” as they called it then.  Adventuresome boys were hopping the train and riding the cars back and forth to the ocean.  The local officials were evidently incapable of stopping the practice.  The town finally passed an ordinance in 1895 against these “outlaws,” but that didn’t have an impact on the energetic boys and the activity continued unabated.

I guess the practice of “jumping the cars” continued into the ‘50s, because I did it myself.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but my friends and I had kept a 100 year old tradition alive.  We would hop the train when one leg of track still went into Santa Cruz.  We were too young to drive and the allure of the Boardwalk was too strong to ignore.  What could be more fun than hopping a train for an exciting ride to the beach?

You had to run fast enough to catch up with the train, grab the ladder on a boxcar, swing up, and hang on tight.  It was a great ride hanging onto the side, ducking trees and bushes.  As the train slowed, we would jump off just outside the Santa Cruz depot so we wouldn’t get caught.  I can relate to those boys in the 1800’s and I don’t blame them for “jumping the cars.”  

Sadly the old commuter train made its last run to Los Gatos in 1959 after 85 years of service.  Some of you may still remember the celebration when the line was closed.  It was covered by the news media, including the San Jose Mercury.  Many of the kids who once put pennies on the railroad tracks were there for that closing ceremony. I know that some of my Los Gatos friends were there.

A train ride on the old “Suntan Special” through those beautiful mountains would sure beat the parking lot on Highway 17 during a summer weekend today.

                                                       *  *  *

(Most of this article was taken from my book, “The Huckleberry Days of the ‘50s.  Growing up in Los Gatos.”  Copies are available for $10.00 plus $4.00 s/h by request @ higgins@digitalpath.net.  It is also available as an eBook on Amazon.  Football Coach, Pete Denevi will take you even further back in the history of Los Gatos in his book, “Pietro,” which I was privileged to ghost write.  It is also available on Amazon or purchased directly from Pete.  His life story will amaze you.)


  1. Ralph I enjoyed the history of Los Gatos. I remember the "Suntan Special". And Easter Vacation was spent in Santa Cruz if you could convince your parents to let you go.

    Even San Jose, back in the 50's, was mostly agriculture, except for the heart of downtown San Jose.

    My living in Red Bluff is not much different than the 50's in which I was raised as a kid. In fact, many of the people I talk with now, have moved up here from the Bay Area in order to be in a smaller community with less traffic.

    There are times when I miss the Bay Area, but not the traffic. When living in Santa Clara, just traveling across town to Almaden, it would take close to an hour. So as times passed, I saw less and less of my family who had moved out to Almaden.

    I'm glad you and Gayle go down as often as you do. There is nothing better than being with family and friends.

    1. We do try to go to Los Gatos and San Jose, where our kids and grandkids live, but it seems to get harder as the years pass. Our kids work, so they don't have a three or four day period to drive here. The last time my oldest daughter and her family drove up, it took them around 8 hours to get thru the bay area traffic and up to our place.

      We leave early tomorrow morning for another journey to civilization.

  2. Higgins, what are you doing! Have you given up on communications? This is one of the longest periods with you in silent mode. What's going on?

    1. Thanks for shaking me out of my slumber. It must have been a senior moment that lasted longer than usual.