Published in the June 21 – July 4, 2017 of Morgan Hill Life
By Mike Monroe
Soon after Julie Cooper was assigned as the senior ranger at Mt. Madonna County Park on May 1, I had a conversation with her about the first wagon road over the Santa Cruz Mountains connecting Watsonville and southern Santa Clara County. As usual, I can never give a brief explanation and Julie was kind enough to allow me to spin a history tale.
The southern terminus of the Santa Cruz Mountains is officially at the Pajaro River, which also serves as the border between San Benito, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. An Ohlone trail following the course of the Pajaro River (today’s Chittenden Pass or Highway 129) probably was the original passage connecting the coast with the Santa Clara Valley. Many of us often take this route when driving to or from Santa Cruz because it is flat and has fewer twists and turns.
Before the Pajaro River was able to stretch to the ocean, the watersheds of Santa Clara and San Benito counties were impounded by a 400-foot natural dam that existed millions of years ago. This barrier formed Lake San Benito and its younger sibling Lake San Juan at the location of today’s Pajaro Gap. The plug in the Sargent Hills was finally breached by land movements along the San Andreas Fault system allowing the Pajaro River to run to the Pacific. Certainly the Native Ohlone peoples, the Kallentaruk of Watsonville and Castroville and the Amah-Mutsun from the San Juan Bautista area, created the first trails through the Gap perhaps six or seven thousand years ago.
The Amah-Mutsun living along the Uvas and Llagas creek watershed, undoubtedly also developed many pathways through the mountains including up and over Mt. Madonna. Typically the Spanish explorers followed the Indian trails, and oftentimes the American settlers did likewise, further developing and improving these routes. Orienting ourselves at the Chitactac-Adams Heritage Park on Watsonville Road, it is most likely the Ohlone Indians used a path that would have followed today’s Redwood Retreat Road across the mountains. Even with the strenuous hiking, many miles of walking would be saved by climbing the pass at Mt. Madonna.
Before Redwood Retreat Road and Mt. Madonna Road were so designated on modern maps, there was the original Watsonville Road. It followed an alignment similar to what we know today, extending from Morgan Hill, but upon reaching the intersection at Chitactac, three different variations of Watsonville Road evolved. This information can be found by reviewing the Thompson and West Map of 1876 and the Herman Bros. Map of 1890. Both indicate there was an “old” Watsonville Road which cut off near Chitactac taking a course over the ridgeline starting at El Matador Road and probably linking into Mt. Madonna at the Merry Go Round Trail. This trail followed the contours of the Blackhawk Creek watershed ascending to about today’s Poleline Road and continuing for a distance on the shoulder of Mt. Madonna before dropping into Corralitos.
To muddy the waters even more with name changes, the “old” Watsonville Road was known as the Pajaro Turnpike on the Watsonville side. So what began as an Ohlone trail used for trading among the various Indian villages, we are brought to 1860 when an enterprising individual or partnership arrived to develop a toll road using the Mt. Madonna Pass. Unfortunately, I have been unable to identify a person or family for whom I can recognize for this effort.
Subsequently, a “new” Watsonville Road, as identified on both maps, extended along Little Arthur Creek proceeding up to the grade of today’s Mt. Madonna Road. When this new version of Watsonville Road was built is not exactly known, but I presume it was about 1863 when the Sanders family arrived in Gilroy and moved out to Redwood Retreat. Envision driving today out to Fernwood or Martin Ranch wineries on Redwood Retreat Road — you’d turn left to travel up Mt. Madonna Road, or if you veered right you would be on what was once known as Sanders Road. The older maps refer to this area as Murphy Canyon as the family owned thousands of acres of South County land from the 1850s to the early 1900s.
Finally, the third leg of Watsonville Road continued until it reached today’s Hecker Pass or Highway 152. Before Hecker Pass was completed in 1928, it was called Bodfish Mill Road or just the Mill Road. The Bodfish brothers operated the first sawmill on the flanks of Mt. Madonna beginning in 1853. With the advent of rail transportation through Gilroy in 1869 and continuing through the Chittenden Pass into the Pajaro Valley in 1871, the toll road business suffered and in 1876 Watsonville Road was declared a public route.
Join me at Mt. Madonna for a pleasant walk in the redwoods. We can swap Indian stories, perhaps tales of ghostly encounters, and for sure learn the true saga of Charley Parkhurst — the famous stage and wagon driver who lived in the Aptos/Corralitos area when the “old” Watsonville Road was first established. Here’s a hint — the name may have been Charley or it might have been Charlotte. Keep on sauntering!
Gilroy resident Mike Monroe is a Morgan Hill business owner and naturalist. He is a docent for Santa Clara County Parks.