Friday, May 3, 2019

Freight Stops: Cunningham Mill

At its junction with Kings Creek. the San Lorenzo River makes an unusual set of turns around a small square outcropping of rock, forming in the process a near-complete square. It is in the center of this square that the San Lorenzo Valley Flume & Lumber Company erected its primary mill in 1875. From this point, prefabricated pieces of v-flume were sent down the completed portion of the flume, at which end workers appended the new section. This continued throughout much of 1875 until the flume reached Felton over eight miles to the south. After this point, the mill became just one of several that shipped lumber down the flume during the twelve years of the flume's existence. Little about the mill is known from this time and only one deteriorated photograph of the mill survives.

With the arrival of the Felton & Pescadero Railroad to Boulder Creek in 1885, operations at the flume mill slowed and other nearby lumber ventures were incorporated or began increasing their output. James F. Cunningham was one such entrepreneur. Cunningham had made a name for himself in the San Lorenzo Valley as a businessman and financier, and he had his hands in many different cookie jars. In Felton, he began in 1871 as part owner of the town's general store before opening up his own rival store in 1873. At this time, he was also an investor and secretary of the San Lorenzo Valley Railroad Company, which collapsed in 1874. Once the flume opened in late 1875, Cunningham's store became as much a hardware and lumber shop as a general store and the mercantile venture made Cunningham a successful local magnate. He became a county supervisor in 1878, became Felton's postmaster, and took over management of the Big Tree House. In 1880, he became a state assemblyperson.

Cunningham's interest in the lumber industry began around 1882, when he opened a shingle mill in Felton. By 1884, he was shipping ten flatcars of shingles per day from the mill and had become the second largest producer of timber in the San Lorenzo Valley. It was for this reason that the South Pacific Coast Railroad hired his firm to harvest the timber near the Turkey Foot (Boulder Creek) in preparation for the new freight yard the company intended to build there. Cunningham relocated his mill to the floodplain and was granted land along the main road, upon which he built a general store and private home. Cunningham quickly joined forces with James Dougherty and Henry L. Middleton, owners of the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company, and together they began to make plans for harvesting the lumber north of Boulder Creek.

Cunningham & Company crews with family members posing in front of the mill, c. 1890. James Cunningham with large white hat at right. [San Lorenzo Valley Museum]
As early as 1886, Cunningham took over operation of the flume mill and possibly the flume itself, which now terminated in the freight yard that was partially owned by Cunningham. In May 1888, the old mill was either replaced or heavily upgraded to produce 60,000 board feet of lumber per day. To support the mill, the river was dammed, thereby creating a mill pond. Forty people were employed at the mill during the summer months and for the first year of operation, crews worked around the clock to fulfil a contract for the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company, which was recovering from a fire at its Zayante mill and delayed in relocating operations to a new site north of Cunningham's mill.

The Dougherty Extension Railroad was ostensibly built to support the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company's mill, but delays meant that it was Cunningham that primarily benefited from it during its first year of operation. Spurs and sidings were installed within the mill property, while a small truss bridge over the millpond was located just to the north. Unfortunately for Cunningham, his location was not sustainable in the long term since the area had already been harvested heavily for a decade.

In 1889, Cunningham attempted to break into the Santa Cruz market, directly challenging the status quo maintained by the Loma Prieta Lumber Company and Grover & Company. As production at his mill declined and the rivalry downtown intensified, Cunningham found himself with few friends. Dougherty and Middleton deprived him of his Boulder Creek general store in 1891 and Cunningham took it as a sign and moved to San José. He sold his mill to the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company late that year and the machinery was eventually moved up to Deer Creek, where a new mill was established in 1902. The mill pond was destroyed in 1904 to allow fish to properly migrate upstream. In 1894, Cunningham merged his company with Grover & Company, but mounting debts led him to sell the company to Grover outright in 1897. He left the area permanently afterwards and died in San José in 1907. Second-growth redwood trees quickly overtook the former mill site north of Boulder Creek and it remains a heavily-wooded area today.

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37.1519N, 122.1368W

The site of the Cunningham Mill is accessible from State Route 9 along Riverside Drive just south of Garrahan Park. The area is now a small housing subdivision and no remnants of the original railroad right-of-way or the former mill survive in this area, although reminders of it still appear on property surveys. Trespassing on the properties of local residents is not encouraged.

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