Friday, July 13, 2012

California Powder Works & CPW Junction

The California Powder Works first opened in 1861 and began its manufacturing of black powder in May of 1864. Throughout its life, it was the only significant West Coast powder manufacturer and it contributed greatly to the supply of various types of gun powder in California during its existence. It was built at the modern-day site of the Paradise Park Masonic Resort just north of Santa Cruz along Highway 9. From the time it first opened, it was one of the major employers in Santa Cruz County, hiring up to 275 men at its hight. It also left a mark on the local railroad history.

Despite its common use in weapons, black powder produced by the CPW was primarily intended for use in mining and railroad tunnels. Black powder slowly went out of vogue during the 1890s but the company continued operations until 1914. As a location, situated beside the San Lorenzo River provided the CPW with abundant amounts of water and wood, both items absolutely necessary in the safe manufacturing of black powder.

At right, a crew of powder mill workers stand beside tin cans of black powder, posing for the photographer.

The CPW Office and town center, taken in the 1890s by O.V. Ort
The actual history of the CPW site is interesting, if not entirely relevant to the topic of the railroads. The site first hosted a paper mill in 1860. The CPW began operations nearby the next year and in 1972 purchased the paper mill property after the company had closed. In 1868, the Du Pont Corporation, which owned most of the East Coast gun powder mills, bought an interest in the CPW. Soon after, William Peyton, the son of the owner of the CPW, married a Du Pont daughter. In San Francisco, the CPW experimented in various ways in building a dynamite plant, finally settling on Point Pinole in 1879. Du Pont Corporation finally bought a controlling share of the CPW in 1903 and in 1906, the company was formally renamed to E.I. du Pont de Nemours Powder Company. When a Sherman Anti-Trust decision broke up Du Pont Corporation in 1912, the local mill was renamed Hercules Powder Company, though it was already in the midst of closing down operations. The mill finally shut down in 1914 after demand had dried up and residents were moving too close to the mill for safety. Freemasons purchased the site in 1924 as a campground after most of the original buildings had been demolished. Today, permanent houses scatter the site along original CPW roads.

The CPW's relationship with the railroad began early, in 1875, when the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad first passed near the cite of the powder works company. It was apparent to all that the CPW could use the SC&F RR to transfer its cargo to waiting ships, and the California Powder Works Junction was soon setup on the ridge 300 ft. above the mill to facilitate such an exchange.

Freight would be collected and stored in boxcars throughout the mill site and rigged to horses or mules to haul the boxcars up the ridge. In the photograph at right, Thomas H. Rountree leads a crew of five horses hauling two loaded box cars from the upper flat to the lower flat of the CPW plant. The photograph was taken around 1904 during the final years that trains probably hauled CPW cargo to the wharf.

To bring the freight up the tracks, a switch-back was built leading up from the mill situated beside the river to the junction with the South Pacific Coast mainline. Most of the route of the switchback still exists, with it leading out the modern-day entrance of the resort, crossing the highway, and switchbacking through what is now Big Trees Manor, a single-lane, paved private road.
A large wooden gate was built at the entrance to the CPW mill to keep out tourists and act as minor protection against an explosion. The Toll Road which became Highway 9 passed in front of the CPW gate just as the road passed in front of the Masonic resort today. The climb to the tracks was too steep for train engines, so horse- and mule-driven boxcars were hauled to the top of the grade.

Once at the top, one would find the Powder Works junction house, a small wooden platform with a not-entirely-useful shack on top. A siding would allow boxcars to park while awaiting the arrival of a freight train that could take the car to the wharf or to San José via the Mountain Route.

Railroad tracks were scattered around the CPW mill as well to help transfer and collect freight between locations. The photograph above shows a "powder monkey" standing beside the main powerhouse beside tracks that led toward the Paper Mill property purchased in 1872. The photograph was taken in the late 1880s.

The covered bridge that spans the San Lorenzo River was primarily to haul freight from one end of the mill site to the other, although the owner's mansions were also located on the opposite side of the river and the bridge acted to link them to the mill. It was built by the Pacific Bridge Company in 1872 to replace an older bridge that had washed away. It is the second covered bridge along the San Lorenzo River and one of the oldest covered bridges on the West Coast, though its location currently in the Masonic resort leaves it relatively unvisited by tourists. There is conflicting evidence that the bridge may have supported a narrow-gauge train line beside the normal wagon access, and indeed train tracks can be seen beside the bridge in the photograph above, but other historical photos showing the mouth of the bridge show no tracks exiting.

The California Powder Works also ran and operated the Powder Works Wharf (later Steamship Wharf and formerly Gharky's Wharf) until it was demolished in 1882. It purchased the wharf in 1866 to help facilitate the transfer of gun powder from the powder works in three miles north to awaiting ships. From 1875, the CPW used Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad, and later South Pacific Coast, trains to haul its dangerous cargo to the wharf, which was connected to the Railroad Wharf in 1877 with a special Connecting Wharf. When the wharf was demolished, the CPW shipped directly from the Railroad Wharf.

The California Powder Works Wharf (background) connected via a short wharf to the Railroad Wharf.

Today, the tracks still pass above the Paradise Park Masonic Resort where they have passed since 1880. The route to the CPW cite is long gone, probably removed around 1906 when the mainline tracks were upgraded to broad-gauge, since it is unlikely the Du Pont plant at that time upgraded their own tracks. In any case, by the time the SunTan Special was running every Sunday to the Santa Cruz Main Beach, nothing remained of this trackside curiosity and its railroad connection to the local history has been largely forgotten.

  • "The California Powder Works". Santa Cruz County History — Santa Cruz Public Libraries. Accessed on 13 July 2012. <>
  • Brown, Barry. "The California Powder Works & San Lorenzo Paper Mill". Santa Cruz County History — Santa Crux Public Libraries. Accessed on 13 July 2012. <>

1 comment:

  1. I found a flattened can today that was stamped "CPW Santa Cruz" along what appears to be an old railroad grade. It was north of Dog Valley, California. Now I now more about it.