Friday, April 19, 2019

Freight Stops: Alameda Lumber Mill

North of the town of Boulder Creek, there are several tributaries of the San Lorenzo River that meander up either side of the valley's walls. Bear Creek, the second such stream, hosted several lumber mills along its length over the years, but the mill operated by the Alameda Lumber Company, owned by Austin S. and Oscar R. Harmon, was the longest-lived and most well known. The brothers were natives of Maine but moved to the San Lorenzo Valley in 1867 to work at Joseph W. Peery's mill on Two Bar Creek. After that mill closed, they tried some other professions before returning to the lumber industry.

In 1873, the brothers founded the Bear Creek Toll Road Company and spent two years creating a road between the small town of Lorenzo and Lexington south of Los Gatos. The goal of the project was to make it easier for lumber and split stuff to be hauled out of the upper San Lorenzo Valley to the Santa Clara Valley. Unfortunately for the Harmons, though, soon after the road was built, the San Lorenzo Valley Flume was completed, creating a more efficient and easier way to ship out lumber. Santa Cruz County eventually purchased the failed toll road in 1890 and it became Bear Creek Road.

Excerpt of the Official Map of Santa Cruz County, 1889, showing the location of the Harmon Brothers' timber tract along Harmon Gulch (top right) in relation to Boulder Creek (bottom left). [Library of Congress]
Once the flume was built and the unprofitability of the toll road proven, the Harmons decided to return to the lumber business. In 1876, the brothers incorporated the Alameda Lumber Company and began purchasing timberland north of Boulder Creek. They purchased several tracks on either side of the San Lorenzo River about a quarter mile north of town, but their main tract was up a seasonal tributary of Bear Creek now called Harmon Gulch. Like many other lumber firms in the area, the Harmons harvested lumber on their own lands as well as on adjacent lands through lease agreements.

For its first few years, the Harmon Gulch mill was a relatively small-scale affair that focused primarily on cutting railroad crossties. All of the cut timber was hauled to the small mill via oxen teams that dragged the cut logs down skid roads to the mill near the gulch's base. From there, they likely shipped the ties over their toll road to Lexington and beyond. In 1880, the brothers gave up completely on their road and began sawing lumber to send downstream along the flume at the bottom of Bear Creek.

The arrival of the Dougherty Extension Railroad in August 1887 replaced the increasing problems with the flume and provided the Harmons with a truly profitable way to ship their lumber. While no railroad tracks ever came near the mill, a spur at the bottom of Bear Creek was probably installed for the mill's use. By 1889, the mill had a daily capacity of 10,000 board feet of lumber and employed 45 men.

A series of tragedies led to an eventual end to the Harmon Brothers' venture up Harmon Gulch. In 1887, Austin Harmon died from a head wound received in the field. Three years later, the mill burned down, although Oscar Harmon rebuilt. At the end of the 1898 cutting season, Oscar retired and sold the land to J. H. Olsen, who sold the property to the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company two years later. Oscar, meanwhile, died in 1899. The remaining timber was harvested throughout 1901 and then the mill was sold to the Enterprise Lumber & Development Company, which ended up abandoning the structures and machinery the next year.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Approximately 37.1437N, 122.0897W

The site of the mill still hosted machinery into the 1920s, at which time it disappeared and was developed into a private residence. Its location was probably in the vicinity of Fernwood Drive across from Harmon Gulch Road approximately 2.5 miles up Bear Creek Road.

Citations & Credits:

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