As we well know, the local economy goes through booms and busts. Santa Cruz had two booms and one bust in the 1850s. The first boom was caused by the Gold Rush. The middle years of the decade saw a slump as the influx of miners slowed to a trickle. The slump was most acutely felt by the County's potato farmers, who had been exporting huge shipments of the tubers to feed the hungry 49ers. Business picked up again toward the end of the decade as locals returned with their sacks of gold dust and immigrants from other states looked for places to settle down in California.
Many new ships, especially the new steamships, were built to carry supplies along the coast to San Francisco, and up the Sacramento River to the gold country. The expansion of shipping traffic proved to be permanent, and coastal towns like Santa Cruz saw an increase in maritime trade. The Anthony Wharf (now owned by Davis & Jordan) proved inadequate to handle the increased traffic, so in 1857 David Gharkey led the effort to build a second wharf. Gharkey was one of those 49ers who came to California for the gold and ended up here, apparently with some money to spend. His wharf was located close to today’s Municipal Wharf (see photo), and was later rebuilt to handle railroad cars. According to Clark, Gharkey came originally from Ohio, died in 1877, and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery. He’s remembered on the signs of Gharkey Street on the Westside.
The end-of-decade growth also brought two newcomers fated to become closely connected in later years. One of these was a newspaper. The Pacific Sentinel moved north from Monterey in 1856, and stayed on to become the area’s oldest newspaper. The other 1856 arrival was the McPherson family, from New York by way of the Placerville gold fields. Sixteen-year-old Duncan grew up to become the owner of the Sentinel, and the McPherson family became one of the names most associated with civic involvement in Santa Cruz.
By 1860, when F. A. Hihn’s brother Hugo built the two-story brick “Flatiron” Building at the tip of the block where Main and Willow Streets (today’s Front and Pacific) met, the Santa Cruz business center had definitely shifted down the hill from the Mission Plaza (see photo). Although Davis & Jordan had been shipping lime to make mortar since 1853, it took awhile for brick (non-adobe) buildings to catch on here. The Flatiron Building was possibly the first in town – certainly the only one in the 1860 photo. The building activity of that year was soon to be interrupted by a different kind of calamity - the Civil War.
Note: Boom times are usually accompanied by a rise in new construction, so one of the best ways to identify those periods in the past is by looking at the construction dates of historic buildings. The indispensable guide to that information is John Chase’s Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture. With that book as a guide, it’s possible to trace the development of Santa Cruz through those boom-bust cycles.
- Chase, John L. Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture (3rd ed. 2005)
- Clark, Donald Thomas. Santa Cruz County Place Names (2nd ed. 2008)
- Elliott, W. W. Santa Cruz County Illustrations 1879 (indexed ed. 1997)
- Rowland, Leon. Santa Cruz: The Early Years (1980)