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Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains by John V. Young

August 18, 2017

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At the beginning of the summer, we moved back to California from Texas, into a nook of the Santa Cruz Mountains south of Los Gatos. The area has a wild history, inhabited for a long time by various tribes of Native Americans, explored by the Spanish, then by a host of adventurous folks looking to make a life homesteading, logging, mining or farming.

This book is a collection of news stories that originally appeared in The San Jose Mercury Herald in 1934. Young published the full collection in 1979 with some updates, and his daughter republished them in 2002.

The Santa Cruz mountain region is known for its shifting earth—Loma Prieta, the mountain named for the fault line upon which it sits, looms about six miles to our east. But this book deals more with the shifting of the local populations in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The region provides a natural (but not easy) passageway from San Jose to Santa Cruz. As modes of transportation evolved, the area was knitted with a network of hunting trails, then logging roads, wagon-worn dirt roads, railways, then eventually highways. Small towns popped up throughout the mountains, but as routes detoured or disappeared altogether, many towns declined and disappeared as fast as they came. Some exist on the map only in the names of roads or, in some cases, as the names of the reservoirs that now cover them entirely.

Stories of the homesteaders who came into the area in the early 1800s read like tall tales. One of the most famous, Mountain Charley, had part of his skull caved in by a grizzly. The doctor pounded a plate out of Mexican nickels and nailed it to Charley’s head. Another Charley—Silent Charley—was one of the greatest stagecoach drivers anyone had ever seen. It wasn’t discovered until his death that he was actually a she—also the first known woman to have voted in a U.S. general election (as a man, in 1868). There are many stories of property disputes, the most colorful of which ended after an armed standoff with one of the parties hacking a corner off the other party’s house, which he claimed came over his property line, so that he could build a fence.

Our property is spotted with redwood stumps, and a couple weeks ago I came across the remains of an old mill on the creek near our house. Both are reminders that 150 years ago, the mountains were alive with loggers, felling giant trees and then lugging them by ox to the mills, sending down the flumes to the Pacific and eventually up the coast to San Francisco.

From the late 1800s to the 1920s, the area was a popular vacation destination, train cars full of tourists arriving from San Francisco every weekend. The mountains were spotted with various resorts, picnic spots, wineries, and an artist’s commune. More than one religious cult sprang up. But as automobiles came into fashion, San Franciscans looked further out to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe for their leisure. Logging fell off as an industry. The railroad was no longer profitable and was replaced by roadways, eventually Highway 17. Still more towns disappeared.

This book may be of little interest to anyone who doesn’t live in the area, but I found it fascinating. It certainly gave me a lot to explore, a few clues as to the history of the land we live on,* and a handful of entertaining stories and trivia about the area.


*After a little additional research, I believe our land is part of what is known as the Rancho Soquel Augmentation.

In the late 1700s, the Spanish empire extended from South and Central America far north into what was then called Alta California, which included all of present-day California and several other western states. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish explorer, led a land expedition through present-day California to the site of what would become San Jose and San Francisco. A member of his party was Joaquin Isidro Castro.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1822, Alta California was won with it. And as a part of a large land grant, the great grandchildren of Joaquin Castro each received land. One of those was Maria Martina Castro, who had been born in the colonial town of Villa de Branciforte near Santa Cruz. She and her husband, an opportunistic Irish sailor Michael Lodge, received a 1,668-acre grant called Rancho Soquel. The grant included present-day Soquel, part of Capitola and land to the east. In 1844, Martina, likely at the urging of her husband, complained that cattle from her brother’s ranch to the south were crowding into her ranch and applied for a second grant. This one was a mere 32,702 acres and extended well into the mountains. The governor granted her the massive extension—the Rancho Soquel Augmentation.

When the U.S. defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War four years later, Alto California was ceded to the U.S. But the U.S. Land Commission confirmed the land grants. In the years that followed, the land was divided amongst Martina’s children, several of them with the surname Lodge. Whether our area, Redwood Lodge, is named for the people or because there was once a lodge there (vacation destination or lumberjack barracks seem equally likely) is unclear. But as best I can tell, we live on a very small part of the 1844 Rancho Soquel Augmentation.

 

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