Friday, August 9, 2019

People: James F. Cunningham

James F. Cunningham as portrayed in a
woodcut published in E. S. Harrison's History
of Santa Cruz County, California
, 1892.
Among the less notable but inarguably most important people in Santa Cruz County's history, James "Jim" Farnham Cunningham sits near the top. A French-Canadian by birth, having been born in Petersville, New Brunswick on October 23, 1844, Cunningham began life as a farmer. This clearly did not appeal to him as a long-term career, so he became a merchant's apprentice at the age of thirteen and remained in that roll for three years. These early years in agriculture and training in the mercantile business gave him most of the experience he would later need to become such a prominent county resident.

As a Canadian, Cunningham had no mandate to join in the United States Civil War, but he did all the same and relocated to Maine at the age of seventeen, where he enlisted in the 15th Maine Infantry. The next year, his regiment helped capture New Orleans, securing navigation of the Mississippi River for the Union forces. After spending four years in the army, Cunningham was mustered out at the end of the war having achieved the rank of First Lieutenant. Suffering from a minor wound that would act up the rest of his life, he soon moved to New York City, where he resumed his previous career as a dry goods salesman in Brooklyn. He tired of the city, though, and relocated to Mobile, Alabama, where he finally established his own business. It would not be his last.

On October 10, 1869, James Cunningham arrived in San Francisco. Within months, he lost all of his money when his investment bank went bust, his illness returned with a vengeance, and his dreams of opening his own store in the city evaporated. Out of luck and running out of options, Cunningham moved to Santa Cruz and squatted in a hut along Fall Creek in the San Lorenzo Valley. He regressed to his rural roots and stripped tan bark and cut split stuff for a living. He used the earnings to co-found a new store in downtown Felton alongside H. W. McCoy in October 1870. When Kent retired in early 1872, Cunningham brought on David L. Kent as a partner and they ran the store together for six years, selling it to Kent in 1878.

Newspaper sketch of Cunningham, probably dated to
his time as a state assemblyman, c. 1881.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
For a brief period, Cunningham entered local politics. For two one-year terms, he sat as a member of the County Board of Supervisors for the San Lorenzo Valley. This gave him the appropriate leverage to be elected as the 5th District representative to the California State Assembly in 1880. But his political aspirations concluded in 1883, when his term ended, and he never lost his entrepreneur spirit even while in elected office. In fact, while an assemblymember, Cunningham opened a new store across from his old store in Felton in 1881, inspired undoubtedly by the arrival of the South Pacific Coast Railroad and the likelihood that a railroad line would likely run through Felton on its way up to Boulder Creek in the near future. For this same reason, he also purchased and ran the Big Tree House next door to his new store, and added a livery stable. The hotel was renamed the Cunningham House in 1882. But Cunningham was ever the strategist.

When the town of Felton made it nearly impossible for the railroad to run its tracks through town to Boulder Creek, Cunningham saw the signs and closed shop. He sold his store and hotel to Captain Trask and, within a few months, relocated to Boulder Creek. His first order of business was to help the railroad clear and remove the stumps for the trees growing on the proposed site of the Boulder Creek freight yard and depot. He had first engaged in the lumber industry when he arrived in the San Lorenzo Valley in early 1870, but his efforts were renewed in 1881 when he purchased a small shingle mill located just to the east of downtown Felton alongside the river. South of Boulder Creek and across the river there, Cunningham took over the abandoned Grover & Company mill and ran another shingle mill to process the wood removed from the Boulder Creek depot grounds. After the Southern Pacific Railroad took over in 1887, it named the stop "Cunningham's" for the mill.

Cunningham's chief interest in Boulder Creek remained mercantile. As soon as the grounds were cleared and the railroad was able to reach the freight yard, Cunningham erected a large general store directly to the west of Boulder Creek Station along the main county road. His business was run with the help of Henry L. Middleton, a prominent Boulder Creek-area entrepreneur and lumberman, and it was soon joined by James Dougherty, whose firm, the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company, was anticipating a relocation to a site four miles north of Boulder Creek in the near future. Together, the three partners, as well as Cunningham's brother, Jeremiah "Jere" W. Cunningham, formed Cunningham & Company.

Within a year, the general store was providing supplies to nearly all of the local businesses and it was making Cunningham rich. He decided to once more venture into the lumber industry in late 1886, undoubtedly tipped off by the Doughertys that they planned to extend the railroad to their mill above town. Cunningham and his associates had access to 2,000 acres of old growth redwood timber on various parcels roughly two miles north of town. To maximize access to these resources, they situated the 40,000 board feet capacity sawmill near the confluence of Kings Creek and the San Lorenzo River. This placed the mill on the path of the future railroad, on the ever-creeping county road, and at a good location to harvest timber in the surrounding region, including up Kings Creek, where he moved the Felton shingle mill's machinery. While the large mill processed most of the timber, the two shingle mills were capable of cutting 12 million items of split stuff (shingles, shakes, grape stakes, railroad ties) per year, which was itself significant.

Woodcut image of the Cunningham & Company planing mill in Santa Cruz, 1892.
[From E. S. Harrison, History of Santa Cruz County, California]
At the beginning of 1891, Cunningham & Company was at its absolute height. The firm had purchased a property on the north side of Mission Hill in Santa Cruz on which they intended to build a planing mill and lumber yard on the modern-day site of the San Lorenzo Home & Garden Center. The completed mill could manufacture doors, sashes, blinds, and other items used in constructing homes and businesses. But this project was a gamble too far. The Loma Prieta Lumber Company, Grover & Company, and the Santa Cruz Lumber Company, owned by Frederick A. Hihn, dominated the Santa Cruz coastal lumber trade and did not appreciate interlopers and fought against Cunningham in marketing campaigns and price fixing schemes. By February 1891, Middleton and Dougherty were out and Cunningham sold them the general store in Boulder Creek. But this was only the beginning of the end and Cunningham knew it.

In October 1891, Cunningham shut down his mill north of Boulder Creek and sold it to the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company, which needed new machinery since its own mill two miles to the north had burned down (again). With no need for him to oversee operations at the mill, Cunningham retired to his Indigo Ranch in San José in December. Jeremiah continued running Cunningham & Company, opening up a new, albeit smaller, mill in Boulder Creek in 1892. But this provided a fleeting affair and the entire firm was merged with Grover & Company in 1894, creating the awkward Grover, Cunningham Mill & Lumber Company. The Grovers moved the machinery from Mission Hill to the new Santa Cruz Union Depot, where they had an expansive lumber yard, and the former planing mill property was sold to the city, which used it as a public utilities lot for several decades. Cunningham finally sold his stake in the company to Robert Dollar in August 1897.

Throughout all of these highs and lows, James Cunningham had his family beside him. He had married Sarah L. Glynn on September 9, 1873 in Santa Cruz, and, although they were childless, he had his brother Jeremiah by his side, who named his own son James Farnham in 1886. He also had a brother who was a priest at Santa Clara College and a sister who had married David Kent's son, I. B. About a decade after Cunningham moved to San José, Jeremiah followed and James parcelled off some of his land to him. Their original property was a sprawling farm in East San José that ran from the Lanai-Cunningham to Evergreen subdivisions, lending his name to a large pond there. He also owned land in Mountain View, which would later become Moffett Field. Cunningham & Company also continued to operate a general store near Market Street downtown, the last vestige of a once-great empire. Cunningham died on his farm in San José on November 23, 1907. A lifelong Catholic owing to his Canadian origins, he was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Santa Cruz with full military honors.

Citations & Credits:

1 comment:

  1. I'm really interested in who logged the land near Bracken Brae/Forest Springs. 2 articles in the Sentinal say that a feeder flume went up Boulder Creek 2 miles. Bracken Brae owns the land in this region. We have an old dam on our creek with large pipes through the face and I'm wondering if it fed the feeder or if it was for a water powered mill or farm irrigation. There is also evidence of a couple forest fires. I see trees where the spring board slots got burned indicating they were cut before the fire and springboard slots that have been cut through a burned side of the trunk, exposing fresh wood. It would seem those burned at different times.


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