Friday, December 27, 2019

Stations: Powder Works

When people think of Santa Cruz County, explosive power is not something that usually comes to mind. But when the American Civil War was raging in the east, a group of California investors thought it prudent to prepare for the possibility that the war could migrate West and engulf the continent. They also thought the price of explosive powder, which had to be shipped from the East, had become simply unaffordable. As such, the California Powder Works was incorporated in San Francisco in late 1861 as the first explosive powder refinery on the West Coast.

Cartridge label for a pack of twenty-five 10-gauge bullets produced by the California Powder Works, c. 1900.
[Public domain]
It took the firm two years to decide on an ideal location for its primary facility, but it eventually settled on the broad floodplain of the San Lorenzo River just south of the Hogsback and north of the Santa Cruz city limits. The location was ideal: the surrounding oak, madrone, hazel, and alder provided key materials for barrel-making and charcoal production. The river supplied a constant source of water to run pumps, steam machinery, and essential fire suppression equipment. And the redwood could be cut into timber and used to build structures that had a higher resistance to both fire and explosions than many local woods. Other necessary materials, such as saltpeter and sulfur, were shipped from overseas.

The Powder Works office and community center, 1904.
[Brian and Ollie Hoefer – Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The nearby paper mill owned by John Simes built the initial facility in early 1864. The powder works included twenty-one powder mills, ten shops, six magazines (warehouses), and thirty-five support structures, such as worker cottages, offices, stables, and the cookhouse. The entire project cost $1,000,000, which was a substantial amount at the time. The powder works opened for business in May 1864, and within the first year, 150,000 kegs of powder weighing 25 lbs. each had been produced. To keep this operation running, John H. Baird, the company president, hired up to 275 men to work year round at the site. To streamline the shipment of powder, the company purchased Gharky's pier at the end of Main Street in Santa Cruz, converting it into the Powder Works Wharf.

A five-horse team driven by Thomas H. Rountree hauling two boxcars to the main entrance
of the Powder Works for the difficult haul up to the railroad grade, c. 1904. [Public domain]
For the first twelve years that it operated, the powder works shipped out all of its products via wagon and steamship. The company extended its wharf to support larger ships, while it improved the southern end of the Bennett Toll Road into Santa Cruz to better withstand the rigor of laden wagons. Within the facility itself, the company installed an extensive horse-powered narrow-gauge railroad system that ensured fluid movement of materials and products between buildings without being encumbered by wet ground and rocks, which in extreme circumstances could cause barrels of explosive material to break and explode.

The covered bridge over the San Lorenzo River at the California Powder Works, June 1890.
Photograph by Clarence Cardoga. [Giannino Collection – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
Over the San Lorenzo River, a 168-foot-long covered bridge was built in 1872 to resolve a longstanding problem of bridges being washed out in every winter storm. The bridge was a relatively rare Smith truss design and, despite its substantial length, it has withheld the rigors of time to survive to this day as the oldest covered bridge in the county. The bridge spanned the river, linking the superintendent houses on the east bank, as well as some random out buildings, with the primary complex on the west bank of the river.

The tall entry gate along the county road at the point where River Street turned into
West San Lorenzo Drive (the future State Route 9), c. 1890s. [Public domain]
It took very little time for the California Powder Works to see the potential in rail transportation all the way to the Santa Cruz Main Beach. Indeed, it supported the San Lorenzo Valley Railroad project of the late 1860s and early 1870s, which would have passed directly through its property, but the project ran into several legal obstacles and eventually fell apart. A new venture, slightly less convenient for the powder company, came about in late 1874 as the narrow-gauge Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad. Although the route ran far above the powder works, the powder works immediately entered negotiations to find a way to connect their internal rail network to the line between Felton and the Santa Cruz beach, where the railroad was erecting its own Railroad Wharf.

A four-horse team hauling a boxcar up the hillside to the railroad grade, with a brakeman standing atop the car, c. 1880s. [Public domain]
The solution was twofold and required changes at both ends of the powder work's supply line. At the main facility, a tedious, steep switchback was installed between the main entrance of the powder works at the top of River Street (the future State Route 9) and the railroad grade high above. The switchback was completed in 1877 and required two landings for horses to be re-rigged at the opposite end of the boxcar. Conveniently, the grade was so steep that empty boxcars could simply be rolled down the grade by a single brakeman, so horses were only ever required for the climb up to the top.

The Powder Works Wharf in the distance, connected via a short wharf to the Railroad Wharf, c. 1880.
[Public domain]
At the beach, the newly-erected Railroad Wharf, which sat at the end of Pacific Avenue (near the present site of the Municipal Wharf) was connected to the Powder Works Wharf two blocks over via a long, serpentine connection wharf that was slightly wider than a single narrow-gauge track. This allowed the powder works to ship goods directly by rail from its facilities along the river to its wharf at the beach via the Santa Cruz & Felton's tracks. In 1882, the South Pacific Coast Railroad, which took over the Santa Cruz & Felton in 1879, decided that the situation at the beach had become a bit excessive and negotiated a new shipping deal with the powder works that allowed them to use the Railroad Wharf directly. This allowed the powder works to demolish its old wharf and the short-lived connection.

A powder monkey standing outside the Powder Works powerhouse, late 1880s. [Public domain]
Little changed for the powder works of the next three decades. The facility did not expand substantially after it bought the San Lorenzo Paper Mill in 1872, and the relationship with the railroad did not change despite the Southern Pacific Railroad taking over the line in 1887. With the completion of the railroad route through the mountains in 1880, some of the explosive powder began being shipped through the mountains rather than via steamships, and this increased slowly throughout this time, eventually resulting in a powder magazine being setup at a place called Bermingham outside of Los Gatos in 1900. This powder was shipped almost exclusively to the New Almaden quicksilver mines for use in extracting mercury. The 1906 Earthquake, however, triggered a fire within the magazine, which exploded the powder and destroyed the facility.

Overhead view of the foundry and charcoal burner on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River,
with the worker village on the east bank, 1905. [Brian and Ollie Hoefer – Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Indeed, there was a constant risk of explosion when working with gunpowder and it impacted operations at the main facility several times over the decades. Despite building concrete walls with collapsable roofs, frictionless-horse railways throughout the facility, and minimizing the presence of open flames, explosions still happened. In September 1897, 100,000 lbs. of powder exploded in the middle of the night, although nobody was injured due to the hour it happened. A few months later, in April, a series of explosions tore through several buildings in the complex, shaking buildings in Santa Cruz and causing many to flee to the ocean shore in terror. By the end of the day, the storehouses for nitroglycerin and guncotton, several smokeless powder warehouses, and the dryhouse were destroyed, as well as a portion of the workers' village. Meanwhile, part of the surrounding forest was one fire. Fortunately, locals and the Naval Reserve came quickly and stopped the fires from spreading further.

The aftermath of an explosion at the Powder Works, c. 1904. [Brian and Ollie Hoefer – Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Perhaps the most famous incident involving the railroad, though, was when a boxcar full of explosive powder became decoupled from a departing train and started to hurl its way toward Santa Cruz at full speed. Powder Works station at the top of the grade was near the summit of the route, and the right-of-way to the beach was quite steep, especially at the beginning, so away went the boxcar and its inevitable derailment and explosion. Out of sheer luck, nothing impeded it on its way to the beach nor did the boxcar derail. As it passed through the Potrero District and the Mission Hill tunnel, it finally began to slow, coming to a stop just before reaching the base of the Railroad Wharf. Nobody was injured and the boxcar survived to be shipped off to San Francisco.

Powder monkey posing in the black powder magazine, surrounded by tins of powder, c. 1904.
[Brian and Ollie Hoefer – Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Things began to change quickly around the time of the earthquake. In 1898, Colonel Bernard Peyton had taken over the facility and he married into the DuPont Corporation shortly afterwards. DuPont had been an investor in the California Powder Works since 1876 but bought a controlling interest in 1903. The earthquake prompted DuPont to reincorporate its California facilities as the E. I. du Pont de Nemours Powder Company.

The station point for the California Powder Works on the railroad grade, with the siding at left, c. 1910.
[Harold van Gorder – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
At the same time, the standard-gauging of the Southern Pacific tracks at the top of the grade in 1908 was a change the powder works wasn't really prepared for. Within their facility, they continued to use their old narrow-gauge tracks, but the standard-gauge tracks only went down the first switchback, where a large tanker car was parked to provide the powder works with oil. Despite an enlarged siding and transfer siding installed at the top of the grade, the amount of labor required to move dozens of heavy barrels of blasting powder from one boxcar to a bigger boxcar proved untenable.

View of the California Powder Works from the railroad grade high above, 1885.
Photograph by Taber of San Francisco. [William B. Becker – Toledo Museum of Art]
In 1912, an antitrust action against DuPont forced the company to separate its two California powder works (the other being in Hercules). Sant Cruz drew the short straw in the situation, though, and DuPont decided to pull out of the county and focus all of its efforts on its Hercules plant. Many of the staff relocated to the other facility when the California Powder Works shut down in 1914. For the past decade, the Santa Cruz facility had been having some financial hardship, made worse with the inadequate rail facilities prompted by the standard-gauging of the line. The closure was also a massive blow to the community, since the company employed so many people.

The modern entrance to Paradise Park Masonic Resort, where once stood the entry gate
to the California Powder Works, 2012. [Google]
For a decade, the power works sat abandoned, its machinery removed but many of its buildings and its iconic covered bridge left standing. Then, in 1925, the Paradise Park Masonic Club, which had formed the previous year for this purpose, purchased the property to use it as a campground for members. One of the members, Carlotta Scott, provided the name Paradise Park. Like most seasonal communities in the Santa Cruz Mountains, what began as a retreat slowly morphed into a permanent housing subdivision. Most of the former powder works land is now owned by Paradise Park or its residents, although the section to the west of State Route 9 is now privately-owned and the site of the former superintendent houses, which once sat high on the eastern hilltop along Graham Hill Road, have since been demolished.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9997N, 122.0384W

The site of Powder Works station is not legally accessible to the public and currently sits along the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway's right-of-way high above State Route 9. The former switchback right-of-way that once took boxcars up and down the grade is now a private, one-way road known as Big Tree Manor. Similarly, Paradise Park Masonic Resort is a privately-owned residential subdivision—access is permitted by request or invitation only. The main road between the entry park and the main park, Keystone Way, once was the primary artery of the internal, horse-run railroad network. Very little survives from the time of the California Powder Works within the park except some scattered concrete relics and the covered bridge, which has been on the United States National Register of Historic Places (#15000279) since 2015.

Citations & Credits:
  • Brown, Barry. "The California Powder Works & San Lorenzo Paper Mill". Santa Cruz County History — Santa Crux Public Libraries. Accessed on 13 July 2012. <>
  • "The California Powder Works". Santa Cruz County History — Santa Cruz Public Libraries. Accessed on 13 July 2012. <>
  • Secrest, William B., Jr., and William B. Secrest, Sr. California Disasters, 1812-1899: Firsthand Accounts of Fires, Shipwrecks, Floods, Epidemics, Earthquakes and Other California Tragedies. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2005.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.


  1. I found a flattened can today that was stamped "CPW Santa Cruz" along what appears to be an old railroad grade. It was north of Dog Valley, California. Now I now more about it.

  2. The Isaiah West Taber (1830-1912) photographs, here and on the Shady Gulch and Big Trees Hotel pages, should be dated 'c. 1882-88' until more information becomes available. The 'B 1885' is only a serial number.

    The 'powder monkey' photo is a classic (depending on how high a resolution it was taken), maybe not as wonderful as the hi-res version of the Charles Wallace Jacob Johnson (1833-1903) photo of a man reading a paper in front of the Big Trees Hotel, but up there. A Santa Cruz touchstone.


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