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Riding the Sun Tan Special

May 17, 2018

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.

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.

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. 

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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