Friday, March 2, 2018

Freight Stops: Hihn Mill at Laurel

The town of Laurel had always had a relationship with the logging industry. Before it was even founded, Frederick A. Hihn, who owned the entire portion of Rancho Soquel Augmentación that included the town, had leased out tracts of timberland to various companies to sell to the South Pacific Coast Railroad. Nonetheless, the town never thrived under these conditions. But the exhaustion of timber resources in Gold Gulch near Felton in February 1899 caused Hihn to look shift his gaze toward his vast tracts of virgin redwood at the headwaters of Soquel Creek.

Main yard at the Frederick A. Hihn mill at Laurel, 1902. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
Construction of the mill at Laurel began tentatively in 1900. The initial milling equipment was brought over from Gold Gulch while new timber structures were erected at the site. The mill opened in November and operated the same 45,000 board foot capacity saw that had operated at Gold Gulch. Soon afterwards, a box mill was erected capable of producing 1,000 fruit boxes/day. A shingle mill was also built nearby which could produce 30,000 shingles, grape stakes, and other split stuff per day. A mill pond was formed to the north of the camp, at the confluence of Burns and Laurel Creeks and under the Hotel de Redwood stage coach bridge. To the south of the mill, a large lumber yard sprawled out above Soquel Creek, which was culverted around the site. By the middle of 1902, over 100 people were employed at the mill in various capacities. The single men lived on site in two bunkhouses built between the mill and the cookhouse, and the married men lived in the town of Laurel above in small homes built along the hillsides overlooking town.

Flatcar being hauled up the incline tramway to the railroad grade, 1902. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
In August 1901, construction was completed on a 1,600-foot-long cable narrow-gauge tramway that connected the mill yard with the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks at Laurel. At the top of the grade beside the western portal of the tunnel to Glenwood, a warehouse was built that housed a stationary railroad locomotive attached to a steel drum. A 1-inch-thick cable was wound around the drum and used to pull loaded flatcars up the incline to the railroad grade from the mill. At its steepest point, the railroad grade reached 13%. No railroad locomotive operated along the tramway or in the mill yard—all cars were hauled in the yard by mule and horse teams and taken up the grade by the cable line. Oxen were also not used at the Laurel mill; rather, steam donkeys were moved around the hills as woodcutters harvested timber and moved on. The loads of felled timber were hauled to the mill pond on skid roads by mule and horse or steam donkey.

View of the Hihn mill at Laurel from the front of the cookhouse, 1902. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
This initial mill operated near peak efficiency for over a year, but then disaster struck. On September 1, 1902, a fire broke out and destroyed virtually everything on the site. The cookhouse and mill office were the only structures to survive. Over 1,500,000 board feet of lumber burned in the inferno, costing the F.A. Hihn Company thousands of dollars in lost revenue. Since it occurred so late in the season, the company decided not to rebuild until the next spring, after the end of the rainy season.

The first band saw in California, operating on the top story off the Hihn mill at Laurel, 1902. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
Upgraded tramway tracks heading toward the Hihn mill
at Laurel, c. 1909. [George Pepper]
The new mill opened in Spring 1903. The new mill hosted a 50,000 board foot per day capacity band saw, which was the first to operate in California. A new shingle mill was built nearby that could produce 50,000 units per day. Worker bunk houses and other support structures were also rebuilt, with everything operating at full capacity by summer. For the next two years, the mill did not experience any further delays and much of the Soquel Creek basin was logged. By February 1906, plans were in place to extend the tramway track down the west bank of Soquel Creek downstream until it eventually reached Capitola, at which point the line would be upgraded to a standard-gauge railroad route. However, these plans came to an abrupt end in April, when the San Francisco Earthquake struck, completely cutting off Laurel and the Hihn mill there from the outside world.

The F.A. Hihn Company decided to relocate operations to King's Creek since no timber could ship out of the Laurel basin for the foreseeable future. Excess crews were loaned to the railroad to help reopen sections of track between Los Gatos and Wright, and Glenwood and Santa Cruz. In late 1907, the Summit Tunnel finally reopened and over the winter, railroad crews upgraded the track through Laurel to standard-gauge. At the same time, Hihn upgraded the tramway to standard-gauge and replaced his rolling stock with appropriately larger flatcars.

The mill reopened at Laurel in May 1908 with a full complement of workers, but demand for lumber was so low that the mill closed again in June. Half the crew was fired and the other half went to King's Creek. Contrary to popular belief, the Laurel mill did not provide any large quantity of redwood to the rebuild of San Francisco in the first three years after the earthquake. Most of the lumber used in the city came from King's Creek, Aptos Creek, and Little Creek north of Davenport. In 1909, when the entire route through the mountains reopened to through traffic and Hihn reopened the mill permanently.

Skid road heading up Burns Creek from the mill, with top of mill pond in the foreground, 1902. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
For the next five years, the mill at Laurel operated at varying capacity. In 1910, most of Soquel Creek south of the mill had been logged, but the areas above the town remained untouched. Rather than rushing to finish the logging job in the area, Hihn scaled back operations. The shingle mill continued to operate year round, but the mill only operated for a few months each year. Lumber from the mill was used to build the Casa del Rey Hotel in Santa Cruz at this time, but most of the lumber went to the Hihn-Hammond planing mill in downtown Santa Cruz for further processing.  The last big push at the Laurel mill occurred in 1913 and 1914, after which the F.A. Hihn Company abandoned the site and relocated to a small operation off Aptos Creek.

Laurel Mill Lodge as it appears today off Redwood Lodge Road. [Alejandro + Allegra Wedding]
The site of the mill went through numerous permutations in the years after the mill closed. In 1915, the lumber yard was converted into a small orchard, but the business failed to produce commercially viable crops. Two cabins were constructed by repurposing old structural materials found in the old mill pond's dam and elsewhere on site. In 1943, the site was purchased by Alan Medlen, who setup a foster home for boys there. They built a swimming pool and a campground, while also expanding the former site office and cookhouse and the two older cabins. By the 1960s, the location had been upgraded into a small retreat and massage school known as the Redwood Lodge. A second swimming pool and a jacuzzi were added and all the buildings were upgraded and modernized. However, damage from the 1982 winter storms forced the retreat to shut its doors. After repairs were made, the location briefly became a nudist resort, accessible via ropes and ladders installed along Redwood Lodge Road, but that business went bankrupt a few years later. In 1991, it was purchased by Esther Seehof and Bob Kundus, who run the facility as the Laurel Mill Lodge and host events and workshops at the site.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.117˚N, 121.961˚W

The precise location of Hihn's Mill at Laurel is just south of where Laurel and Burns Creeks divide Soquel Creek. It can also be found on a map by locating the sharp curve in Redwood Lodge Road—the mill site is in the center of this curve. At the site, portions of the old mill remain in the creek and the former site office and cookhouse remain a part of the Laurel Mill Lodge. Access to the site is currently restricted, but can be visited by contacting Esther Seehof and Bob Kundus, owners of the Laurel Mill Lodge. The route of the cable tramway is modern Morrell Mill Road, which is also accessible from the Laurel townsite.

Citations & Credits:


  1. Seeing all the mud in these photos, I can understand the storm damage that occurred throughout the years; striped of vegetation there is no holding steep hillsides in place. I still feel the 1940 and 1982 storms were simply convenient excuses to abandon the line with the remoteness of the area hiding the truth.

    1. "Stripped of vegetation" he meant to say, and maybe add another comma, too.

      Frederick Hihn undermined the tracks and ruined the area for years. The people were different then, living under stressful circumstances, and limited in their knowledge when safety and the environment were being shorted. I'm almost too stunned to notice any progress or good happening. The lack of concern by the railroad - bad drainage from the roadbed, no rerouting, and no demands that this trench be filled (I'm guessing) - indicates that this line was of little use to them: one must look for quality in the earlier narrow-gauge era.


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