Walking the Rails through History
Sandy’s Aptos Village Railwalk
Some explorations don’t involve long hikes through state parks or open space. If you have a knowledgeable guide, such as a noted local historian Sandy Lydon, historian emeritus of Cabrillo College, you can absorb the Readers’ Digest version of a place and time in one walk. I walked Sandy’s tour of Aptos, so if you are pressed for time, you can read an even more compressed cheat sheet right here.
No one seems to know who or what Aptos means. Some think it was somebody’s name. We do know that Rafael Castro was granted 5500 acres as Aptos Rancho in 1831. He built his house near the confluence of Aptos and Valencia creeks.
This location seemed like a good place at the time, but as more people ma
de this home, being surrounded by creeks and deep canyons made development more difficult and less profitable. Building bridges and roads was expensive. So was flooding.
This didn’t stop what some call progress. In 1882, the Loma Prieta saw mill was built in Aptos Canyon. The town had an express office, stores, cabins, and a hotel. The next year, Southern Pacific Railroad laid a standard gauge track up the canyon.
Between 1883 and 1923, this combination of fat redwoods, railroad transportation, and an efficient mill produced 140-million board feet of lumber. Aptos grew to 3 hotels, 13 saloons, a pier, 2 railroad stations, and 5 railroad spur lines. It wasn’t pretty, but it built a town.
But Aptos wasn’t only about logging. In 1890, the locally famous lumber baron and entrepreneur Frederick Hihn built an apple packing plant behind the Bayview Hotel. In 1905, Lam Pon and Ralph Mattison developed a thriving apple-dryer business in downtown Aptos. Beyond the Bayview Hotel and a large meadow, now the site of an unimproved bike track, is an old apple- dryer warehouse. Barry Swenson, once a Summit area resident, is trying to develop the meadow.
Aptos was also famous for more than apples. In the 1920s, the Rio Del Mar beach was well known as an unloading site for bootleg liquor.
Aptos also grew as a tourist destination. In 1930, the concrete (not cement) ship Palo Alto was beached at Seacliff where it became a nightclub. Its 54- by 154-foot ballroom hosted the big bands of Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. You could also swim in their big swimming pool or enjoy dinner in a giant dining area, until the owners went broke, followed by a winter storm that cracked the ship in the middle. Although closed to the public in 2001, the concrete ship is still a highly visible symbol for Aptos and Seacliff State Beach.
Perhaps the most important developments were the opening of the Aptos campus of Cabrillo College and the dedication of Nisene Marks State Park, both in 1962, and the move of a few hundred feet by the Bayview Hotel in 1964.
Though I’m sure the Chamber of Commerce might disagree, not much has happened since. Cursed (or blessed) by an inactive railroad, two-lane roads, and a lack of industry, Aptos is a nice place to visit, and perhaps to live, but it isn’t developed. I think that the people who live there like it that way.
Sandy Lydon led us along a 3.7-mile loop around Aptos. We met at Aptos Creek Road, the entrance to the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. I’d heard that horses were not allowed in the park because someone in the Marks family had been hurt by a horse. Sandy set me straight. No one was hurt. The family didn’t want horses because they damaged trails.
We walked down to the left of the main road into Aptos Village Park. This 1.3-acre park is the site of weekend music festivals, picnics, weddings, and other special events. After an orientation, we walked back up the hill and across Aptos Creek Road, through a small strip mall, past the Bayview Hotel, and on to the railroad track leading to Watsonville. We walked over a bridge (built in 1948) above Highway 1, and continued through forest to Rio Del Mar. Shortly after walking under the Rio Del Mar bridge, we scrambled up the bank through a small opening, then doubled back on the road to Rio Del Mar Boulevard toward the beach.
After a short picnic on the beach, we continued northwest along the beach toward the concrete ship. Just past Aptos Creek, once the site of the “world’s biggest fresh water pool,” we turned inland along a path that replaced the Aptos Wharf Road. We took a narrow path that led left and up a hidden flight of stairs up to Seacliff Drive where we enjoyed views of Monterey Bay, the concrete ship, and the one-mile long Promenade Trail. We walked up Seacliff, took a legal trail through a large field, to Broadway, left on Center, than right on State Park Drive to the railroad track.
We followed the tracks back to the village center, but we made an unscheduled stop. One of our hikers, a local historian, invited us to see his rental home, believed to be the earliest building in Aptos (circa 1860). We also got a bird’s eye view of the Aptos Creek Bridge, a curving concrete bridge built in 1929.
These walks through history are all around us. Our thanks to the guides who show us the way.
For more history, visit www.sandylydon.com and www.aptoshistory.org. Map route created by Sandy Lydon.