Friday, January 24, 2020

Freight Stops: A. K. Salz & Company

During the Spanish and Mexican periods, California was known predominately for its leather industry. Cattle ranches spanned the state, especially along the coast, and with most of these ranches were leather tanneries, which used tanbark oils to turn cattle hides into various leather products including shoes, saddles, furniture, and clothing, among other uses. Santa Cruz County was no exception and several such tanneries were built on the roughly two dozen ranchos that populated the coast from the Pajaro River to Point Año Nuevo.

The San Lorenzo Tannery main office on River Street, c. 1880s. [Tannery Arts Center]
Following the United States annexation of California in 1848 and its ensuing statehood two years later, American businessmen moved into the county and took over many of the established industries. In 1856, James Duncan and William Warren erected a tannery on an eight-acre tract of land on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River on the edge of the former Potrero pastureland of Mission Santa Cruz. It struggled to find its footing and was severely damaged in 1862, when a winter storm characteristically destroyed many of the facility's structures. The entire complex was rebuilt and expanded over the next three years, and then promptly sold to Anton Fischer and Wygand A. Matthew. They, in turn, sold it to a Prussian immigrant, Jacob F. Kron, the next year.

Salz Leather Tannery along the San Lorenzo River. The Southern Pacific right-of-way is barely visible at the top-left, with River Street running down the center-left of the photograph. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
It was under Kron's leadership that the San Lorenzo Tannery Company hit its stride. By 1870, the leather industry in Santa Cruz County produced half of all saddle leather produced in California, with San Lorenzo Leather producing a significant portion of that output. Kron's death on April 22, 1879 did little to slow progress as his sons Henry and Frank took over the business and continued in the industry for another thirty years. During this time, the firm of Kullman, Salz & Company from Benicia joined the company as investors and helped keep the business afloat during difficult times.

Salz Tannery work crews posing for a photograph, 1890s. [Tannery Arts Center]
Moses Kullman was a German immigrant who had run a tannery in Stockton alongside another German, Charles Wagner, coming together in 1869. A brother, Herman Kullman, came on the next year, followed by a nephew-by-marriage, Jacob Salz, in 1874. Moses committed suicide in 1878, leaving the company to his immediate family—Herman, Jacob, and a nephew, Charles Hart. They purchased a tannery in Benicia in 1881 and abandoned their Stockton operation to Wagner. It was during these years that Kullman, Salz & Company became invested in the San Lorenzo Tannery, as well as another operation in San Francisco.

Workers taking a hard-earned break at the Salz Tannery, 1955. Photograph by Vester Dick. [Tannery Arts Center]
The Krons finally suffered sufficient hardship by 1915 that they were unable to pay their debts and the San Lorenzo Tannery went into receivership. Kullman, Salz & Company were there to pick up the pieces, merging their independent tannery business in Benicia with that in Santa Cruz in 1918. This partnership continued for over ten years until the crash of 1929 forced the company into liquidation. By this time, Ansley Kullman Salz, Jacob Salz's son, represented the family interests in the firm and, not wanting to lose the precious company that they had been involved with for decades, decided to invest his own money in keeping the business alive, reincorporating as A. K. Salz & Company. His partners in the new enterprise were two longtime plant managers, Stuart Miller and Joseph Bellas.

Various products sold by the A. K. Salz Company, c. 1950s. [Tannery Arts Center]
Despite a terrible fire in 1934, the company continued for another seven decades. They developed the "California Saddle Leather" brand and began exporting leather throughout the United States and abroad. In 1954, Norman Lezin, Salz's son-in-law, became president of the company. That same year, Ansel Adams visited the tannery and took dozens of photographs of the facility and workers. Lezin made several controversial decisions over the ensuing years. In 1956, the company was sold to Pacific Industries, but it returned to Beck in the mid-1960s. Then, around 1970, the firm was sold to Beck Industries, a New York conglomerate, but the company went bankrupt in 1977 and Lezin once again acquired the tannery.

Crews moving around tan bark at the Salz Tannery, 1954. Photography by Ansel Adams.
It was while the company was under Lezin's leadership that the Southern Pacific Railroad finally became involved in the facility. For many years, truckloads of tanbark and tan oil had been shipped to the tannery from outside the county, since most of the local tan oak trees had been harvested out by the end of the nineteenth century. Trains were also necessary for some exports. But the facility was a block away from the railroad right-of-way and, despite some mostly-abandoned storage warehouses, built across River Street from the Salz Tannery, the company did not in fact own the section of land between the road and the tracks.

The Salz Tannery spur within the Las Animas Concrete property, 1970s. Note the tanker car and box car. [Las Animas]
In June 1963, Provenzano Brothers, Inc., a successor to the Cowell Lime & Cement Company, sought permission by the city council to establish a building materials and supply warehouse across from the tannery. The final decision had been deferred multiple times but the site was appropriate for the purpose and was finally confirmed in August. Provenzano, however, were required to either remove or rehabilitate the three tannery buildings on the property, which were used for tan bark storage. Whether the railroad directly delivered the bark to these sheds or shipped it from the Union Depot is unknown. In any case, Provenzano decided almost immediately to extensively renovate the property. A railroad spur was installed to the center of the property and, in December 1864, plans were announced for a large rental warehouse and heavy transit exchange. It was probably at this time that the firm of Las Animas also became involved.

Aerial photograph showing the Salz Tannery and the Provenzano warehouses and transit yard, 1970s.
[Tannery Arts Center]
Around 1968, the Provenzano property was split in half, with the portion along the tracks containing the spur taken over by Las Animas Concrete. It is unclear if Provenzano or Las Animas built the well-known cement tower present at the site today. Provenzano appears to have never used the spur it commissioned and Las Animas never needed it, but the Salz Tannery began using it via an agreement with Provenzano and Las Animas almost immediately. Extant photographs and aerial images from the 1970s shows both tanker cars and poorly-sealed boxcars parked on the spur, suggesting the railroad delivered tan oil and exported leather. A sign at the spur read "For Hide Service Only," further emphasizing that the concrete firm did not use the tracks.

The Salz Tannery spur, just north of Encinal Street, 2012. [Derek R. Whaley]
How long this operation continued is unknown, but it likely ended around 1985, when Southern Pacific sold the branch line north of Santa Cruz to Roaring Camp Railroads. Meanwhile, due to competition from China and other developing countries, Salz Leathers increasingly struggled to make a profit. Various attempts to make the business more central to Santa Cruz history, such as awarding it landmark status in 1973 and registering it in the Santa Cruz Historic Building Survey in 1976, failed to stem the tide indefinitely. The tannery finally closed in 2001. It was the oldest operating leather tannery west of the Mississippi River. 

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.98 69N, 122.0324W

The Salz Tannery spur is one of only two spurs that still exist today along this stretch of track. It sits near 146 Encinal Street, which is today occupied by Las Animas Concrete. It has been out of use now for over forty years and the tracks are deeply packed with sand, cement, and other aggregates, although they are still hypothetically usable. Trespassing onto the property is not advised, but it can be visited during operating hours so long as visitors check in at the office first. The site of the tannery itself can also be visited and is now occupied by the Tannery Arts Center, which is an arts community complete with apartments, studios, a theater, dance studio, art gallery, cafe, and offices.



  1. Avocet got its leather for bike saddles at Salz.

  2. In September 1984 I photographed two Southern Pacific GP9s pulling a Union Pacific boxcar off the spur. All the other boxcars I saw for Salz were Burlington Northern cars with "For Hide Service Only" stenciled on their sides. Railfans were overjoyed when the Santa Cruz Local arrived in town with one of these cars in the consist since it meant a movement on the renmant of the Olympia line. Sometimes on the way back to the yard the crew would park the engines at the south portal of the Mission Hill tunnel and go to lunch.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.