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Riding the Sun Tan Special

Sun Tan Special, 1947 First service after WW2, July 4, 1947
Sun Tan Special, 1947 First service after WW2, July 4, 1947

In the early decades of the last century, coming to the Boardwalk by train was THE WAY many thousands of visitors traveled. The Sun Tan Special was one such train. Inaugurated in 1927, it ran on Sundays and holidays during the summer months until 1959.

Arrival of Southern Pacific Sun Tan Special at Beach
Arrival of Southern Pacific Sun Tan Special at Beach, greeted by Santa Cruz Beach Band, 11:30am, 1941

The Sun Tan’s arrival at the Boardwalk was always an anticipated event, especially for me. I like trains and as a kid being so close to one was heaven! Around 11am on a Sunday morning the puffing sound of the engine and its piercing whistle would be heard as it made its way onto the San Lorenzo River trestle bridge. The Seaside Company Band would then strike up arrival tunes from its place on the Cocoanut Grove’s steel exit stairs, located where the Sunroom entrance is today. Slowly the train came to a stop. Hundreds of expectant travelers then disembarked and mingled with their arrival spectators to begin a fun-filled day at the beach.

The Sun Tan Special at the Casino Station looking west, 1936

My grandfather Mike Mihelitch was a 40-year employee of Southern Pacific Railroad. He was the station agent at the Santa Cruz Depot when one could still buy a train ticket there. As a railroad employee he had a pass and could ride a Southern Pacific train anytime. For a special summer treat, he would bring me and one or two of my siblings to board the empty train and “ride the wye,” as he called it.

When the Sun Tan was empty of thrill seekers, we would hop on an olive-green Harriman coach and watch Beach Street slowly drift by. The engines pulled well above where the sewer treatment plant is now and stopped. Then the train deliberately backed onto depot tracks where it would stay until time to return to the Boardwalk at day’s end. We got off at the depot after enjoying our humble morning train ride.

Promotional photo for the Sun Tan Special featuring Mary Ann Arras of Boulder Creek, 1958

Around 4:30pm, the Sun Tan would leave the depot, stopping at the Boardwalk to retrieve its passengers. Around 5:00pm, the blasts of the whistle signalled the start of the Sun Tan’s return run to San Francisco and points along its route. While working at an ice cream stand as a youth, I can still remember frantic passengers grabbing that last Boardwalk treat and racing for their departing train which was sometimes already in motion.

Do you remember the Sun Tan Special? Did you ever ride it?

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