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Friday, May 17, 2013

Holmes Kiln Spur

Google Map rendering of the right-of-way in Old Felton.
The Felton Branch of the South Pacific Coast Railroad hosted two major spurs of its own, the longer lasting of the two being the Holmes Kiln Spur. While the day-to-day operations of this limekiln was not entirely catalogued, there are numerous images of the kiln in existence, as well as an expertly-rendered overhead sketch of the arrangement of the factory and its railroad spurs.

The history of the kiln itself is well documented. Founded in July 1876 by Henry T. Holmes, a San Francisco lime merchant, the company set up shop in a region outside the town of Felton on land sold to Holmes by Eben Bennett, who owned the Santa Cruz-Felton Toll Road. Bennett already had a small kiln on the property but it was Holmes that took it up a notch. Henry Holmes generally remained in San Francisco and his superintendent, William Russell, ran the operation in Felton for the company. During the heyday of the kiln, it, with Henry Cowell's Limeworks and the IXL Lime Company in Fall Creek, produced 95% of the lime shipped to San Francisco and 50% of the state's lime. During a two-year span, Holmes's mill produced 220,000 barrels of lime. In 1896, the IXL Lime Company went bankrupt due to a financial panic, but Cowell and Holmes survived into the 20th century. During this period, Holmes expanded his operations to Bonny Doon and into Southern California, helping to fill the increased demand caused by the 1906 Earthquake. Also sometime during this period, Henry Holmes died and a relative, W.H. Holmes, took over management of the company. In 1921, the organization was renamed the Holmes Lime & Cement Company but the enterprise was already failing as Portlant concrete was taking over the lime market, and the new factory in Davenport was exceeding demand. The Holmes Company was finally forced to shut down its Felton operations in the early 1930s, soon after the Felton Branch of the railroad had ceased.

1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map of H.T. Holmes Kiln.

The original right-of-way to the kiln mostly followed Laurel Drive in downtown Felton, turning at the top of the road into a private residence and following Bull Creek on its east side. The kiln sat beside and slightly below this creek in a clearing. The Google Map image above is superimposed from a 1889 surveyor map of the town of Felton.

A 1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map documents this lime kiln at its height, showcasing a slightly later period than the surveyor map with the two short freight spurs now connected and continuing out of the image at bottom, though its eventual destination, if any, is unknown. The primary kilns were on the left, above the rest of the operation where wagons could unload the unprocessed lime into the tops of the kilns. They were processed in the clearing below the kilns, where a pair of railroad sidings straddled the primary cooperage and freight house. Other outbuildings were littered around the area, while the tracks returning to Felton headed north.

An excellent image of the mill is below showing the mill during a busy day. A box car sits on the tracks in the distance and hundreds of bricks are stacked in the foreground. A second image similar to this is available in Lisa Robinson's Images of America: San Lorenzo Valley (Arcadia Press, 2012). At least one other image taken from roughly the same spot is published in another book which I hope to reproduce here if found.

W.H. Holmes Lime Kiln, probably in the 1890s. A box card sits on the tracks in the distance and the lack of continuing track into the foreground suggests this photograph dates before the tracks were connected on the southern side of the factory. Bricks sit in the foreground beside workers propping up barrels. (Courtesy Anthony Tyler)
Remains of this mill are said to still exist within private property west of Felton, though this author has not seen the artifacts nor heard a first-person account of them. The introduction to Lime Kiln Legacies mentions that of the five pot kilns and two continuous kilns originally present at the site, a few of the pot kilns may still be visible, though they have been repurposed. The right-of-way itself is almost entirely on private property, though it is visible in plain site on the south side of Laurel Drive until the road turns into a private driveway. One last note, the Holmes Kiln should not be confused with the Bull Creek Kilns located behind the Felton Post Office. No railroad access was ever granted to that kiln and its history is unrelated.

Citations:
  • Frank Perry, et al., "Introduction", Lime Kiln Legacies (Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & History, 2007).
  • Robert W. Piwarzyk, "The Laguna Limekilns: Bonny Doon", Santa Cruz Public Libraries (1996).

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