Friday, December 6, 2019

Curiosities: The Henry Cowell Lime & Cement Company

Tourism is by far the most popular industry in Santa Cruz County today, and it has been for nearly fifty years. But that was not always the case. From its settlement by Spaniards in the 1790s to the end of the Mexican period, leather production and ranching were important industries, ones that continued until quite recently. Logging was probably the most famous industry, with formal redwood timber operations begun by Isaac Graham in the 1840s and significant cutting happening across the county well into the 1920s, and still continuing today along the North Coast. But another industry once held a strong grip on Santa Cruz County, that of lime production and processing.

Closeup of a lithograph of Santa Cruz showing the Davis & Cowell Lime warehouse at the
bottom of Bay Street above Cowell Beach, with the beginning of the Cowell Wharf at right, 1889.
[Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District]
The roots of Ben Lomond Mountain, which stretches from the west bank of the San Lorenzo River to Big Basin and Waddell Creek, is rich in veins of limestone, evidence that the mountain once served as the bottom of a great shallow ocean millions of years ago. Until the manufacture of Portland cement was made more efficient in the late nineteenth century, lime-heavy products were staples in building and construction in the United States. Quicklime, for example, was used in steelmaking, in plaster and mortar, as an acidity regulator in food, as a type of lighting (limelight), in paper production, and in several chemical processes. Most notably, lime mortar framed and mixed with sand produces sand-lime bricks (white bricks), which were used in construction projects for thousands of years until the early twentieth century when Portland cement (concrete) came into normal use.

Diseño of El Rancho Cañada del Rincón en el Río de San Lorenzo de Santa Cruz, about half of which Davis & Jordan purchased in 1859. [Bancroft Library]
From the Mexican period, the Santa Cruz region has produced limestone in some small quantity, but it was only after statehood in 1850 that commercial amounts were produced. Many companies sprang up in the mountains, especially in the vicinity of Rancho Rincon and in the area now occupied by Pogonip County Park, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (including the Fall Creek Unit), and the University of California, Santa Cruz. The lime vein through this part of the county was long and rich and provided plenty of limestone to aspiring companies. It was to this environment that two men were attracted by the rumors of easy wealth and relatively simple access to the limestone.

Portrait of Albion Jordan, c. 1860s. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
Isaac Elphinstone Davis and Albion Paris Jordan were unassuming engineers from New England when they first traveled to California in 1849 in search of gold. They first met each other in Trinity County and joined in partnership in 1851 to run a steamship between San Francisco and Stockton. Davis already knew of the lime potential of Santa Cruz County, having visited briefly in 1849, and both men were very interested in entering the lime industry. After discovering lime deposits near Palo Alto, the men opened their first kiln and began selling commercial lime in June 1851. Shortly afterwards, Jordan opened a second kiln outside Lexington, south of Los Gatos. Finally, in mid- to late-1853, the partners opened their first kiln outside Santa Cruz.

Crews working at the lime quarry on the northeast side of the Davis & Cowell property, c. 1880s.
[Friends of the Cowelll Lime Works Historic District]
Their first kilns were near the top of Bay Street while their quarry was downhill to the east, within Rancho Rincon. Renting the land at first, Davis & Jordan quickly bought everything they could in order to own the entire operation. Lacking roads and railroads to export their goods, the partners bought the wharf at the bottom of Bay Street in 1854 so they could ship their lime products. Two years later, they extended the wharf and bought the Santa Cruz, a tall ship that could transport people and products between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. With their operations in full swing, Davis & Jordan made the bold move to purchase much of Rancho Rincon in 1859, acquiring over 5,800 acres of redwood-rich land that could be cut and used to fire the kilns, as well as provide new sources of limestone. Soon, tramways and skid roads criss-crossed the gap between the limekilns at the top of the hill and the timber tracts, sawmill, and quarries to the east.

Worker cabins on the Cowell Ranch, c. 1880s. [University of California, Santa Cruz]
Despite some financial ups and downs, Davis & Jordan beat out the competition and were well on their way to dominating the local lime market when Jordan became ill in 1865 and sold his interest in the company on July 1 to Henry Cowell. He died in November 1866 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery beside other local lime industry pioneers. Davis, meanwhile, shifted corporate operations to San Francisco, where he became a well-known magnate and was urged several times to run for office. After Jordan's death, he continued to live in the city while Cowell took on the role of local operator.

The Davis & Cowell Lime Works at the top of Bay Street, Santa Cruz, 1866.
Stereograph by Lawrence & Houseworth. [Getty Museum]
For nearly twenty-five years, Davis & Cowell operated the largest lime operation in Santa Cruz County. Cowell himself was not well-loved by the community. Almost immediately after coming on a partner, he entered into a long legal dispute with Frederick Hihn over the right-of-way of the San Lorenzo Valley Railroad, which was planned to pass directly through Rancho Rincon. Cowell fought Hihn to a standstill, eventually taking their case to the California Supreme Court, which ruled that a railroad must compensate property owners for trees and other features destroyed or upended by the railroad crews. Like Jordan and Davis, Cowell was from New England and came to California during the Gold Rush. In San Francisco, he co-founded a mercantile store with his brother, John. While there, Cowell invested in the Queen of the West, a schooner used frequently to transport lime for Davis & Jordan.

Portrait of Henry Cowell.
[Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District]
Cowell saw the potential of the Santa Cruz lime industry immediately and tried to get into it in any way possible. He tried to purchase part of Rancho Rincon. When that didn't work, he tried Rancho Zayante, also to no avail. He then invested in Davis & Jordan, which positioned him to buy out Jordan in 1865. He, his wife, and their six children moved to Santa Cruz shortly afterwards to manage the business on behalf of Davis.

Portrait of Isaac Davis, 1868. Photograph by Ralph H. Shaw.
[Center for Sacramento History]
Cowell was ruthless in managing the company, and for good reason. Squatters and cordwood thieves were very common and Cowell paid people to keep them off his land. Plans to build a toll road through Rancho Rincon between Felton and Santa Cruz were briefly hijacked by Cowell, who offered land for the road in exchange for collecting the toll. A compromise was made and a new route and road were built (the future State Route 9), but Cowell continued to throw roadblocks at it, slowing its construction and miring the toll company in lawsuits. Cowell also attempted to acquire the entire main beach, from the bottom of Bay Street to the San Lorenzo River, but the governor intervened. Most of these measures, as well as the lawsuit against the San Lorenzo Valley Railroad, were intended to stop competitors, who were mostly located around Felton at the time, from getting their goods to market.

Portion of a Davis & Cowell receipt, 1889. [Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District]
Nonetheless, Davis & Cowell thrived during the 1860s to 1880s. They acquired a moderate-sized competitor on Adams Creek in 1869, and drove most other competition out of business. By the time that Davis died in September 1888, only the IXL Lime Company on Fall Creek and the H. T. Holmes Lime Company in Felton still provided any competition. Meanwhile, Santa Cruz County had become the single largest producer of lime in the state, with nearly one-third of all lime made in California coming from just these three firms. After Davis's death, Cowell purchased a controlling interest in the company and it was rebranded Henry Cowell & Company. Besides continuing the lime business, Cowell invested heavily in real estate, especially in Marin, San Mateo, San Benito, and Monterey Counties, and the Sacramento Valley.

Lime barrels being loaded onto a steamship at the end of the Cowell Wharf, c. 1890s. [UCSC]
The lime company saw a lot of expansion between 1888 and 1920. Even as the Bay Street kilns continued to put out thousands of barrels of lime per year, the newly-acquired kilns on Adams Creek were upgraded and also put into full production. The Cowell Wharf at the end of Bay Street was still in heavy use, catering to two company-owned steamships and several other ships (hence Steamer Lane), until 1907, when a storm washed out a huge portion of it. At this time, the company decided to shift toward shipping via rail and set up a third kiln along the railroad tracks at Rincon, where the company once operated a sawmill and had a barrel warehouse. He also managed to finally buy out the IXL Lime Company in Fall Creek around 1901, leaving only Holmes to rival him in the county. Outside the county, Cowell diversified his investments, eventually owning property in twenty-three counties in California and investing in dozens of different industries, from bitumen and asphalt to cattle ranching.

The Cowell family on the Cowell Ranch, c. 1890s. [Cowell Historical Society]
In December 1898, Cowell reincorporated his business as the Henry Cowell Lime & Cement Company, a move that brought four of his children onboard and suggested a shifting in priorities toward [Portland] cement production. Five years later, on August 4, 1903, he died from a combination of old age, shock at the sudden death of his daughter Sarah, and lingering problems caused by a gunshot wound delivered to him by an insane man. Cowell was never a popular man and generally avoided the limelight except in courtrooms. After his death, his eldest son Ernest V. Cowell took over management of the company.

Portrait of Ernest V. Cowell, 1880. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The Cowell company lost almost all of its possessions in San Francisco during the earthquake and fire of 1906, but Ernest used the opportunity to expand fully into the Portland cement industry, building a new plant near Mt. Diablo in 1908 that operated for nearly forty years and ensured the longevity of the firm. While the Bay Street and Rincon kilns continued to operate, the Adams Creek and Fall Creek kilns were eventually shut down due to their remoteness.

Two of Henry Cowell's daughters in front of the family's ranch house, 1880s. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Ernest died suddenly in March 1911 and Samuel "Harry" Cowell became the next president. Harry oversaw the closure of the kilns on Bay Street, which left the Rincon kilns the only remaining Cowell lime operation in the country. The problem was that Harry was not especially interested in the lime and cement industry. He loved raising livestock, such as bison and elk, and was not much of a traveller like his father and brother had been. The remaining Cowell children, Harry and his sisters Isabella and Helen, also were unmarried and had no children, leaving the future of the company in doubt.

Cowell employees posing at the main quarry at the northeast corner of the Cowell Ranch, c. 1890s.
[Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District]
In the final years of the Rincon plant, Harry did not employ new workers and kept the operation going primarily to give the old staff something to do. The workers were all too old to fight in World War II and the lime industry had mostly collapsed by the 1940s, but Harry just ate the loss and kept it going. The facility finally shut down in 1946, at which point the Henry Cowell Lime & Cement Company essentially shut down. Harry was the last member of his family, dying in February 1955. Helen died in 1932 and Isabelle in 1950. Thus, Cowell and his descendants are gone, but their legacy lives on.

Remnants of the lime works on the University of California campus at Santa Cruz, 2015.
Photograph by Julia Gaudinski. [Santa Cruz Waves]
While Henry Cowell had never been much of a philanthropist, except to his church, Ernest gave a large bequest to the University of California and Santa Cruz High School. He also left large amounts to his workers in Santa Cruz, especially those who had worked for the company for many years. Harry liked a bit of quid pro quo in his deals, but he still was immensely generous in the end. In 1952, Harry donated the westernmost part of the Santa Cruz main beach—Cowell Beach—to the city, while also gifting new money to his father's old Sunday home, the Congregational Church of Santa Cruz. The next year, he negotiated with the State of California to donate all of his family's portion of Rancho Rincon to the state to create a park, so long as the Santa Cruz County Big Trees Park was included and Henry Cowell's name was included in the title.  Thus, it became known as Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. His S. H. Cowell Foundation later donated millions of dollars toward establishing hospitals and, most importantly, the land for the University of California, Santa Cruz, which is situated on the former Cowell Ranch. Further funds were used to finance Cowell College and the Cowell Student Health Center. The organization continues to fund education programs and other non-profit activities throughout Northern California today.

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