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Friday, November 9, 2018

Freight Stops: Holmes Lime Company

The town of Felton initially had two businesses that spurred its growth and the advent of the railroad in the San Lorenzo Valley. The first and most famous was the lumber industry, which dates back to the 1820s or earlier. But the second is the lime industry, the remnants of which still are scattered across the Santa Cruz Mountains. Felton was a hotbed of lime quarrying in the 1860s and 1870s, initiated by the efforts of Eben Bennett, who also ran and helped finance the toll road between Felton and Santa Cruz in order to bring his lime products to port more economically. Eben and Stanley Bennett owned a mill on what became Bennett Creek, while another early quarrier, Thomas Bull, built a kiln nearby on Bull Creek. Around 1869, a San Francisco investor named Henry Thomas Holmes entered the scene and began buying up tracts of land above Felton from Edward Stanly and other local landowners. Holmes incorporated  H. T. Holmes & Company in 1871 and quickly bought out or entered into partnerships with all the smaller local lime interests except the IXL Company, which operated along Fall Creek. Bull eventually left the industry in 1876 and the Bennetts left in 1879, after Eben died.

View of the H. T. Holmes lime kilns with a South Pacific Coast Railroad locomotive behind the main warehouse, c. 1900.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
Holmes Lime Company grounds on a Sanborn Fire
Insurance Company map, 1908. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections]
The coming of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad in 1875 did not have an immediate impact on the lime industry. There is only inconsistent evidence that the railroad hauled any lime at all during this period and no documentary evidence shows the precise railroad layout of the downtown Felton area. More importantly, Holmes was still using the Bennett kilns for most of his operations until 1885. Reincorporating as the H. T. Holmes Lime Company around 1880, Holmes gave day-to-day operations to William Russell, a local store owner. Production was increased with improved facilities erected throughout the early 1880s, and by 1885 up to 65,000 barrels of quicklime could be produced per year and the kilns were employing 65 men in kiln operations, lumber-cutting, and coopering. The numbers reached a peak around 1890 at 110,000 barrels per year. By this point, rail transportation was essential and the South Pacific Coast Railroad upgraded and maintained its track into Felton from the south in order to support the increased load. A warehouse was erected beside the old Santa Cruz & Felton depot to store outgoing lime barrels, while the old depot became a storage space for empty barrels. Both of these were located across from Maple (Hihn) Street. Whether filled lime barrels were sent to the Railroad Wharf in Santa Cruz or over the mountains to San Jose is unknown, but much of it went to building San Francisco in the years prior to the great earthquake.

Expansion of the railroad lines into the Holmes property probably occurred around 1895. A 1908 map, depicting the site immediately before its upgrading to standard-gauge later that year, shows a spur splitting on either side of the storage warehouse, mill, and cooperage, with the western track running between these buildings and the kilns and the eastern track passing beside a second warehouse. Various storage facilities are scattered across the area, some with easy rail access, others not. Photographs of this operation show boxcars parked on these tracks, indicating the type of rolling stock used to export the lime from the refinery. When the tracks were upgraded, it seems likely that the same configuration was retained within the facility, although the tracks in Felton itself were redirected over the San Lorenzo River beside the Felton Covered Bridge so that the mile-long branch line south of town could be abandoned. Indeed, the Holmes company was the only justification for tracks on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River in Felton at all, revealing the importance and profitability of this business.

Holmes Lime Company main refinery, with kilns at left and bricks and barrels in foreground, 1908. Photo by Ravnos. [Margaret Koch – Santa Cruz MAH]
The San Francisco Earthquake negatively impacted the Holmes Lime Company. Henry Holmes himself died in 1902 and his company began a long series of transfers and mergers. Meanwhile, lime was quickly being replaced with Portland cement as the best construction material, leading to declining sales. In 1914, the company rebranded itself as the Holmes Lime & Cement Company, reflecting new acquisitions elsewhere in the state and new investment in Portland cement. Operations continued in Felton sporadically for the next twenty years, although the site was used primarily for quarrying rock rather than kiln work during this time. In 1936, the facility finally shut down, at least partially due to competition from the Granite Construction Company, which operated a large sand and rock quarry high on the hills overhead. Indeed, Granite Construction actually purchased the former refinery under a subsidiary, Pacific Limestone Products, but whatever they intended to do there did not succeed and they closed the operation in 1938. The facility was dismantled in July 1939 and the tracks to Old Felton and the Holmes kiln, including the bridge over the river, were pulled in October. The area was soon parcelled into housing blocks and the Holmes kilns faded into memory.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.0486N, 122.0773W

The site of the original Holmes warehouse is now occupied by Felton Chinese Food and the Felton Center on State Route 9. The site of the kilns is now a small housing area up Hihn Street, just beyond the southwest turn in the road. Significant remains of the kilns can be viewed behind the homes on the hill side of the street. The long steep driveway at the Hihn Street turn marks the site of the dump tramway, while the road itself closely matches the route of the railroad spur into and through the Holmes Company refinery.

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