Few of us living now in peacenik Santa Cruz can imagine a time when our town was home to the largest explosives manufacturer west of the Mississippi – the California Powder Works. It was just up the road from town, at what is now a bucolic residential area known as Paradise Park. After years of procrastination, I finally went to take a look at the historic site. Local historian Barry Brown, the expert on all things related to the Powder Works, led a walking tour through the former manufacturing complex. It was surprising how much remains to be seen when pointed out by someone who has studied the area so thoroughly.
The tour was part of a series of historical walks sponsored by our Museum of Art and History (MAH for short). The museum website described it as: “…a series of historical walks in Santa Cruz, where walkers can enjoy a breath of fresh air and history with local historians. All walks are organized by local author Geoffrey Dunn…No one knows the Powder Works like Barry Brown, author of a forthcoming book on the subject.”
Armed with a wealth of new information courtesy of Mr. Brown, this is a good time to update an old post from this blog (originally posted November 26, 2011). At the same time, I can restore lost links and photo captions, and add a new photo from the tour. Also appropriate at this time is a shout-out to the volunteers involved in Evergreen Cemetery restoration. Our oldest cemetery, final resting place of many Civil War veterans, has never looked so good.
The updated post follows:
The first historical topic that really caught my childhood imagination was
the Civil War. At age ten, those romanticized stories of courageous soldiers
and epic battles really struck a chord. The sesquicentennial of that conflict has given Civil War buffs lots of new stories to read.
It’s a bit deflating, however, to look at that period in Santa Cruz history and realize that not much happened here. California was so isolated and sparsely populated that the North vs. South passions were mostly absent.
The state’s main contribution to the war was gold. Locally, the first
half of the 1860s were marked mainly by another economic slowdown caused by the
departure of many young men to serve in the Union army (the fact that most
Santa Cruz settlers came from northern states meant there was little
secessionist sympathy here).The local economic effect was actually similar to
what happened during the Gold Rush.
None of the local soldiers saw any actual combat, but they were exposed to some of the other dangers of 19th-century warfare. Four members of the locally-raised Company L, 2nd California Cavalry died from disease while on garrison duty in San Francisco. The first victim was Asa Anthony, an 18-year-old nephew of Main Street founder Elihu Anthony.
Most of Company L worked for the Davis & Jordan Lime Company, as did the
Captain, Albert Brown (foreman). Anthony is buried in the Grand Army of the
Republic section of Evergreen Cemetery.
Another Company L veteran was Michael Lodge, son of Rancho Soquel
grantees Michael Lodge and Martina Castro.
A somewhat different wartime experience was that of Joseph Rodriguez, a member of that prominent Santa Cruz pioneer family. In 1863, Joseph joined Company A, 3rd California (Native) Cavalry, under Captain José Romero Pico (of the equally prominent Pico family). By this time, the deep divide between eastern-born Californians and the native-born Californios was already evident.
The west side of the river was becoming the “white” Santa
Cruz, while the east side (including the old
Branciforte pueblo) became “Spanish town”. While the 2nd Cavalry
went north to San Francisco, the 3rd
went south to garrison duty at the Drum Barracks in San Pedro. The irony of
this sort of segregation in an army fighting to end slavery was apparently lost
on the participants.
The county’s largest pre-war industry, the lime business, suffered from the absence of so many employees, but it and other enterprises were more affected by the wartime disruption of supply chains from eastern factories.
In particular, mining/quarrying and road-building activities were stymied by a shortage of blasting powder. Shipping of powder to California from East Coast factories was halted by fears that it would be captured by Confederate raiders. In 1861, a group of San Francisco businessmen looked at the problem and saw an opportunity.
The result was the California Powder Works, constructed at a site on the San Lorenzo River a couple of miles north of town. The site had year-round water power for machinery and forests for wood to produce charcoal, one of three main ingredients in black powder. The manufacturing plant produced its first barrel of powder in 1864 and soon became the county’s largest employer.
To get their products to market, the company sent wagons loaded with barrels of the highly-explosive powder down what is now Highway 9, through the middle of Santa Cruz on Pacific Avenue, and out to their wharf (formerly the Gharkey wharf) at the foot of Main Street on Beach Hill.
In 1872, the Powder Works built a covered bridge over the river to expanded operations on the east side. From the bridge, Powder Works road (now Ocean Street Extension) was built paralleling the river past the end of the hills to a point where it could join the San Jose Road (now Ocean Street). The “Smith through truss” covered bridge remains in service today (thanks to the stewardship of Paradise Park), the second-oldest of only 21 surviving covered bridges country.
Bonus quiz: another of the 21 covered bridges is not far away – do you know where?
In 1879, CPW owners built a new manufacturing plant and a new town to house employees, named for the company’s brand name – Hercules. The East Bay location was far from other towns at that time – a wise precaution considering the dangers of the work. During the 50-years of the Santa Cruz operation, at least 36 workers lost their lives in explosions, and many more were injured.
The Santa Cruz plant gradually reduced its operations, finally closing for good in 1914. A few years later the property was purchased by the Masonic Order and renamed the Paradise Park Masonic Club. Historian Donald Clark found it ironical that a place once known for producing explosions should now be called Paradise Park.
For what was once such a prominent institution in the county, it's odd that the California Powder Works has been so thoroughly erased from local memory. I found a grand total of three names on signs, and you have to be a hiker to see two of them. In Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, you'll find Powder Mill Creek, which empties into the San Lorenzo opposite the Powder Works site. Hikers can follow the creek partway down on the Powder Mill Trail. Where Graham Hill Road crosses Powder Mill Creek, there’s one of those round blue signs that have appeared at many creek and river crossings in recent years.
Barry Brown was one of those who petitioned the county to add the Powder
Mill Creek sign on Graham Hill Road, and he now has another plan: to restore
the original name to Powder Works Road. Does anyone really want to keep Ocean
Just downstream from the Powder Works was an even earlier industrial enterprise: the San Lorenzo Paper Mill. Funded by another San Francisco post-Gold Rush capitalist, Henry Van Valkenburgh, the paper mill began construction in 1860, only to be washed out by the San Lorenzo during its second winter. Van Valkenburgh himself was killed by a falling tree, and the mill was eventually absorbed by the expanding Powder Works.
The mill location was chosen because, according to Barry Brown, all of
the raw materials necessary for paper manufacturing were locally available:
“straw, lime, wood, water, water power, and easy access to shipping”. The mill,
which at first only made brown “butcher paper”, may have been the first paper
mill in California.
Brown, Barry. The California Powder Works & San Lorenzo Paper Mill self-guided tour : Paradise Park Masonic Club, Santa Cruz, California (2008). Available online at the Santa Cruz Public Library website.