Friday, April 26, 2019

Freight Stops: Morrell Mill on Two Bar Creek

Just over a mile north of Boulder Creek, an oddly-named tributary of the San Lorenzo River meanders through a wooded gulch down the western side of Mount Bielawski. The so-called Two Bar Creek has never been the most prominent or important stream in the area but it did host a single mill with a succession of owners.

Ephraim Bradbury Morrell—or just Brad—a native of Maine, began his career in Santa Cruz County not on Two Bar Creek but in Cleveland Gulch near the Glenwood-Laurel Tunnel in 1881. In May of that year, Morrell erected a sawmill with a capacity of 25,000 board feet of lumber per day. For three years, he shipped out lumber cut at this mill via the railroad station at Highland (later Laurel) via a hauling road that is now Morrell Mill Road.
Official Map of Santa Cruz County by W. S. Rodgers, 1889, showing the tracts harvested by Morrell and the McAbees.
[Library of Congress]
In April 1884, with little left to harvest along the headwaters of Soquel Creek, Morrell packed up his equipment and shipped it to Two Bar Creek to the property of E. P. Reed, who owned a 450-acre parcel through which the San Lorenzo Valley flume passed. Reed acted as site superintendent, as well. Morrell probably used Bear Creek Road to get his machinery to the site, since transporting it up the future State Route 9 would have been difficult and more roundabout. The new mill opened in May and likely harvested the timber on William Maitland's extensive property further up the creek, since Maitland worked at the mill in 1885. By 1886, the mill had a daily capacity of 12,000 board feet of lumber and employed twenty men. During this time, Morrell was under contract with the San Jose Mill & Lumber Company to deliver 3,000,000 feet of lumber annually, all of which was shipped by ox team over Bear Creek Road rather than flume, but a dispute arose over payment, ending the arrangement.

With the arrival of the Dougherty Extension Railroad in 1888, Morrell's mill switched to using the railroad to ship its goods. Indeed, around February, it became one of the first freight stops along the new line and a spur was soon installed to the mill. For several years, little is known about the mill, but the economic recession of the mid-1890s impacted operations there. In August 1896, the mill shut down. It would not reopen under Morrell's management. For the following two summers, it remained closed. Around 1899, the firm of Hubbard & Carmichael, which had harvested previously in the Ben Lomond area, was brought on to cut the remaining timber on Morrell's lands. They finished operations there in September 1900 and relocated to Oil Creek near the headwaters of Pescadero Creek. Morrell himself lived in Boulder Creek until his death at 68 on July 5, 1903.
The Morrell Mill on Two Bar Creek with railroad tracks in the foreground, c. 1904.
[UC Santa Cruz Special Collections]
In late 1900 or early 1901, either Morrell or Hubbard & Carmichael sold the former Reed property to two brothers, Orrin L. and Williard O. McAbee. The Sentinel reports in April 1901 that they struck a vein of coal on Twobar Creek, although this ultimately proved an unprofitable venture. The brothers were better associated with the area to the north of Big Basin, where they owned a large timber property above Pescadero Creek harvested by Homer M. Rider, a well-known Corralitos mill owner. Rider and the McAbee brothers went into partnership as McAbee Bros & Rider Company in May 1904 and purchased the old Morrell mill as well as the timber rights of William F. Horstman, who owned the last significant tract of old growth redwood along Two Bar Creek. Orrin was designated superintendent of this operation and, despite plans to relocate it further up the creek, the old mill remained at its former site beside the railroad tracks at the bottom of Two Bar Creek. For two years, the Horstman tract was cut and the felled timber hauled to the bottom of the gulch, where it was cut at the mill and then loaded onto railcars for shipment to Boulder Creek.

As the senior partners, the McAbee Brothers renamed their corporation McAbee Bros Timber Company in June 1904 and purchased timber rights to 320 acres of G. H. and Kate Harrington's land on the western side of Big Basin near China Grade. They also began plans to establish a subdivision named Sequoia upon the property. Early on, disaster struck and a fire in September burned much of their land and their sawmill. Meanwhile, operations continued on the Horstman lands along Two Bar Creek.

In November 1905, Rider sold his interest in the McAbee Bros Timber Company to the Henry Cowell Lime & Cement Company, which owned several tracts of timberland north of Boulder Creek. Preparations began immediately to remove the former Morrell mill from its location at the bottom of Two Bar Creek to a site at the headwaters of Boulder Creek to the west. This location was originally two properties: a homestead owned by J. W. Sylvester who sold it to Davis & Cowell; and a 160 acre tract originally owned by Samuel Grosh and purchased by Davis & Cowell around 1881. Together, they comprised around 800 acres of timberland. The mill was moved early in 1906, but additional parts needed to complete the complex were delayed due to the San Francisco Earthquake, which struck in April. Once operations finally began, the partners reincorporated as the Southern Lumber Company and purchased the Chase Lumber Company yard at the Santa Cruz Union Depot and a smaller yard alongside Boulder Creek in the town of Boulder Creek. In 1909, they further increased their local production capabilities by buying L. F. Pitt's shingle mill and box factory situated in the Boulder Creek freight yard. The improved mill, meanwhile, relocated to a location deeper within the timber tracts in April 1910. This marked the height of Southern Lumber operations in Santa Cruz County.

On February 2, 1918, the shingle mill and box factory burned down, and this likely marks the end of any significant presence in Boulder Creek or the San Lorenzo Valley. Southern Lumber had spread its wings throughout the 1910s and established a distribution yard in San José and other mills throughout the Central Coast. The McAbees themselves remained in town, however. Orrin died suddenly in 1925 from a drowning incident, while is brother passed away nine years later. They had relinquished control over their company in the years prior and moved on to other ventures. In April 1936, the company was taken over by Ed Pohle whose family has controlled the firm ever since.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Approx. 37.1435N, 122.1323W

The location of the Morrell mill was probably at or near the current location of Lee & Associates Rescue Equipment at the end of Two Bar Road, between State Route 9 and the San Lorenzo River. The Dougherty Extension Railroad passed directly through this property, as did the flume before it. It is currently a private residence and trespassing is not encouraged.

Citations & Credits:

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