Chinese Pioneers and the Santa Cruz Mountains Industrial Past

Next time you go on a hike in the Santa Cruz Mountains, look for remnants of its industrial past and Chinese pioneers from over a century ago.

By Naomi Friedland

Oct. 25, 2023—It’s easy to forget that about a century ago, the Santa Cruz Mountains, now home to an abundance of parks and quaint towns, was a major site for the railroad, logging, and lime industries. Also almost forgotten is the role of Chinese laborers, many hired on a contract basis, in doing the difficult work to produce the area’s infrastructure.

San Lorenzo Valley Museum’s Felton location at the Belardi Gallery showcases the local history of the touring California Historical Society exhibit, Chinese Pioneers: Power and Politics in Exclusion Era Photographs. Showing until Nov. 12, the exhibit reveals the brutal treatment of Chinese workers in the San Lorenzo Valley during the era and helps explain why remnants of this past are almost hidden just about 100 years later.

Panels fill the room with enlarged images of record-keeping documents, newspaper articles, and photographs of the Chinese population in California at the time. Lisa Robinson, president of the museum, curated the local-specific aspects of the exhibit.

Towards the beginning of the exhibit is a map of China highlighting the southern Kuangtung Province, where most of the Chinese immigrants to California during the Gold Rush era came from. Initially working in the mines, Chinese immigrants were required by an 1852 to leave to provide work for white men, which led them to seek employment largely in road and rail construction followed by jobs in agriculture, domestic service, as camp cooks and laundrymen.

Discrimination against Chinese immigrants was always present in California, further solidified into legislation in the 1860s. The 1862 Chinese Police Tax limited Chinese immigration to California in order to protect white laborers from competition. Two decades later, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by congress, limiting immigration and barring the courts from granting citizenship to Chinese people living in the United States. The act expired in 1892, but congress extended it with further restrictions until 1943, requiring Chinese residents to obtain a certificate of residence or risk deportation.

The San Lorenzo Valley was particularly anti-Chinese, Robinson says, pointing out that white locals were known to attack Chinese workers.

“Logging and mills employed lots of Chinese,” she says. “Why [others] were so violent towards them is not entirely clear.”

Records show that 524 Chinese people (largely men) lived in Santa Cruz County in 1880, making up just over 4% of the county’s population. However, because much of their work was contract-based, there were presumably more Chinese men working in the county than those who lived there permanently.

Pockets of the Santa Cruz Mountains became hubs for Chinese laborers. In 1880, 21 percent of the Felton population were Chinese workers who largely worked building infrastructure. South Pacific Coast Railroad employed many of the Chinese workers, but fired all except tunnel-builders, who were employed by a sub-contractor, during the anti-Chinese movement. Tunnel building was hazardous work. Dangerous build up of gases would cause explosions and many Chinese workers lost their lives. Thirty-one died in the largest tunnel explosion. “After the Chinese were killed in the tunnels, they wouldn’t [work on tunnels] anymore, as they were too afraid,” ” says Robinson.

Working in the Fields

In the Pajaro Valley, Chinese men turned towards agricultural work. In 1877, 200 of them worked in the sugar beet industry, according to an old Santa Cruz Sentinel article that Robinson found in the archives.

Robinson says that most of the evidence of Chinese life from the Exclusion Act era and before is gone. She says she could only find two photos of railroad workers and only one with the Loma Prieta Railroad in the background. However, you can see the remnants of Chinese life from more than 100 years ago along many of the trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A good portion of trails were built on railroad grades and within old industrial plants and mines. Chinese workers also planted trees and vegetation used for medicine and cooking that you can still see today, including the Tree of Heaven or Ailanthus altissima.. “When you see mustard at the side of the road, you can think of the Chinese,” Robinson says.

Trails Featuring the Santa Cruz Mountains’ Industrial Past, Old Railroads, and the Legacy of Chinese Laborers

Forest of Nisene Marks
“Most of the trails in the Forest of Nisene Marks follow old railroad grades used by the Southern Pacific Railroad or Molino Timber Company," says local railroad expert Derek R. Whaley. Some of the trails that best showcase the old railroad grade are the Aptos Creek Trail, Loma Prieta Grade Trail, Bridge Creek Trail, and Aptos Creek Fire Road to Loma Tree Prairie.

Castle Rock State Park
The Saratoga Toll Road Trail parallels part of the Dougherty Extension Railroad. The historically relevant toll road was completed in 1870 by the Saratoga and Pescadero Turnpike and Wagonroad company to shuttle fruit, lumber, and wine between the two cities.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
The Rincon Fire Road passes directly through the old Cowell Lime Company’s Rincon kilns. “There was also a Southern Pacific Railroad station named Rincon here, which catered to the kiln,” Whaley says. If you pay close enough attention to the foliage on the Fall Creek Trail you may come across the Ailanthus altissimaor Tree of Heaven, which is native to China. Chinese immigrants brought over the tree’s seeds due to its use in traditional Chinese medicine, primarily as an astringent.

Soquel Demonstration State Forest
Almost all the roads and trails were previously built for logging and are remnants of the Monterey Bay Redwood Company.

San Vicente Redwoods
Many of the trails follow old railroad grades built by the San Vicente Lumber Company.

Pescadero Creek Park
Old Haul Road, a 5.7 mile long trail now open to equestrians, cyclists, and hikers, was a railroad grade run by the Santa Cruz Lumber Company and once used to haul logs to various mills in the Santa Cruz Mountains.