Friday, May 31, 2019

Freight Stops: Chase Lumber Company Mill on Feeder Creek

A mile beyond the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company mill on the San Lorenzo River and five miles north of Boulder Creek, James B. Sinnott owned a homestead. When he first moved there in the mid-1880s, he probably cut down the redwood groves and sent them downriver either on the flume or on skid roads to Boulder Creek for processing into lumber. Afterwards, he established "Sky Ranch," upon which he likely raised some cattle and horses. Very little is known of the Sinnott family of Sky Ranch, but members of it remained there into the 1920s. The property itself was leased in the late 1880s to the business partners Peery & Steen to harvest lumber.

In 1889, when the Dougherty Extension Railroad was lengthened for the first time beyond Doughertys, the route encountered Sinnott's ranch. An agreement between the lumber company and Sinnott was struck allowing the railroad tracks to pass through a corner the property. The next year, the Chase Lumber Company purchased a tract of timber northwest of Sky Ranch and decided that the most feasible way to get the timber to market was to build a spur off the Dougherty Extension Railroad to the mill. The Sinnott family was once again asked to grant a right-of-way through their land and, once they allowed this, Sinnott Switch became an informal stop along the rail line marking where the Chase mill spur broke off from the main extension railroad line. There is no evidence that the Sinnotts ever used the railroad at their mill, but several members of the family were active in local lumber operations so it is possible that they used the track to get to Doughertys and Boulder Creek, possibly through an arrangement with the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company.

The Chase Mill on Feeder Creek around 1895, showing the main structure in the back, a tramway at right, and the spur tracks somewhat obscured at left with a lumber car parked in the background. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
The Chase Lumber Company was a local firm run by Stephen H. Chase, who had been active in the area for longer than the Dougherty brothers. He began with a small lumber mill near the Summit in 1863, the first operation in the Santa Cruz Mountains to haul its lumber to San José. The success of the venture prompted Chase to expand operations and build a planing mill in San José. One of his new mills was erected on Boulder Creek in 1884, which gave him a better idea of the San Lorenzo Valley logging industry as a whole. He initially used Bear Creek Road to ship his lumber, but switched to using the Felton & Pescadero Railroad when it was completed in 1885. The next year, he founded S. H. Chase & Company and, in 1889, he bought space in Santa Cruz for a lumber yard, thereby entering the competitive Santa Cruz market against Frederick A. Hihn, the Grovers, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, and Cunningham & Company. To support this increased business, Chase purchased from Cunningham & Company several parcels near the headwaters of Feeder Creek five miles north of Boulder Creek.

Google Map showing the rough route of the Chase Mill Spur, with
Sinnott's Switch at bottom and the Chase Mill at top. [Google Maps]
In 1891, Chase reincorporated as the Chase Lumber Company and began construction of the mill alongside the installation of a one-mile-long spur along the south bank of Feeder Creek from Sinnott Switch. Like the line it connected to, the spur was narrow-gauge and crudely made, but it did require a bridge across the San Lorenzo River, which may have been an impressive structure since the river cuts a broad and deep gulch in this section. The mill opened at the beginning of the 1892 season but shut down shortly afterwards due to a poor economic climate. In late autumn of the same year, much of the railroad trackage was destroyed in a landslide, forcing Chase to invest more in a mill that had yet to turn a profit. He decided to close the mill on Boulder Creek and turn all of his focus on the Feeder Creek mill. But profits would never come.

In 1893, a lumber racket emerged in the Bay Area which encouraged price fixing. Chase refused to join and the Southern Pacific Railroad, which was invested in the scheme, retaliated by increasing Chase's freight costs at Boulder Creek. Chase fought the racket and eventually settled out of court. In the meantime, his mill finally began to make money in the mid-1890s. At peak capacity, the mill processed 25,000 board feet of lumber per day, which amounted to five carloads. The company continued to operate along Feeder Creek until around 1899, eventually relocating its operations to a tract along Laguna Creek near Davenport, followed by a small tract along Smith Grade in Bonny Doon. In 1905, Chase sold his lumber yard in Santa Cruz to the California Timber Company and left the county permanently.

Chase died in 1915 but his son, J. A. Chase, continued to run the corporation for several more decades, albeit with a shifted focus on Northern California. The firm probably shut down in the late 1950s. The former trackage to Feeder Creek was seriously considered by Southern Pacific as a viable route to the Pescadero Creek basin until the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 forced it to abandon all plans for future expansion in Santa Cruz County and its environs. The tracks to the mill were probably pulled around 1900 but may have lingered along with the rest of the Dougherty Extension Railroad until 1917.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.1918N, 122.1525W

Almost nothing of the Chase Company mill or the spur to get to the mill survives today. The area through which the spur passed has remained uninhabited, a forgotten path on the south bank of Feeder Creek just south of Fern Drive north of Boulder Creek. Only a few cross-ties remaining visible, with most either buried or rotted away. A single piece of track stuck in a tree near the bottom of the grade is the only strong evidence remaining of the spur. The mill property is still a large block of land spanning almost all of the Feeder Creek basin and is rated for industrial use, though it is not currently being utilized for such. The junction of Feeder Creek with a smaller creek marks the rough site of the mill and some abandoned timber used in the construction of the mill still sits in disorderly piles around the site. Curiously, Google Maps records the address of the mill as 480 Chase Mill Road, despite the fact that no such road actually appears on any map. Clearly the legacy of Chase mill lives on.

Citations & Credits: 
  • Hamman, Rick. California Central Coast Railways. Second edition. Santa Cruz: Otter B Books, 2002.
  • "Nicholas Paul Sinnott", Monterey County: Biographies.
  • Payne, Stephen Michael. "Felling the Giants", Santa Cruz Public Libraries. (From Stephen Michael Payne, A Howling Wilderness: A History of the Summit Road Area of the Santa Cruz Mountains 1850-1906, Santa Cruz: Loma Prieta Publishing, 1978).
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

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