Friday, January 31, 2020

Stations: Cement Works

In the decades immediately after statehood, California focused primarily on lumber, lime, and leather production, but other industries were also afoot. One in particular was garnering a lot of hype in March 1877. Deposits of lime were well-known in the county, and Davis & Cowell were already well on their way to cornering the market in 1877, but a firm felt that there was still space for some healthy competition, especially since it planned to produce an entirely different type of product: hydraulic cement, better known as Portland cement. The Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company established its base of operations in Hiram Abiff Imus’s orchard, immediately to the south of Gharkey’s orchard and to the west of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad right-of-way near where Costco sits today. Popularly known as the Cement Works, the company had a shaky and ultimately failed existence in the county from the beginning.

The site of the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company Cement Works, now occupied by a Graniterock aggregate yard on Coral Street, 2019. [Google StreetView]
The first year of operations began in October 1878 when a large fĂȘte was held to celebrate the opening of the facility. Only one of the shareholders, F. Adams, was from Santa Cruz and it was he who brought the company to the city. The company president, Captain Anthony Y. Easterby, was a prominent San Joaquin Valley farmer who was one of the first to plant wheat in California. The Cement Works included three patented pieces of machinery, the Davis Pulverizer being the showpiece of the operation. Outside to the east, a railroad siding was established around 1879. While it was never called anything officially by the South Pacific Coast Railroad, it was named Cement Works when Southern Pacific took over in 1887.

From the very beginning, the facility had troubles. It lacked a mixer or any furnaces, bringing its maximum capacity to only 25 percent of its potential. The company was also attempting to reverse engineer Portland cement rather than buy a recipe. While they had some successes in 1878 and and showed significant progress the following year, shareholders were not happy with the slow rate of return and rebelled. Around 1880, the company president obtained a mortgage for the property from the San Francisco Theological Seminary in order to finally build the necessary furnaces, but the cost of the machinery broke the company.

In January 1881, barely more than two years into its operation, the cement plant shut down. Nothing more was heard until 1888, when a laudatory editorial in the Santa Cruz Daily Sentinel made it clear that the company was still in business, but that the factory was not operating. Indeed, the article, quoting the San Francisco Chronicle, praised the quality of Portland cement made in Santa Cruz County, noting how well it compared to other domestic and foreign cements. However, it noted importantly, no Portland cement had been produced in the county for at least a few years, and speculation was rife over when a proposed expansion of the Cement Works would finally reopen the facility.

In 1890, the name Cement Works was stricken from Southern Pacific agency books. The next year, it was revealed that the Cement Works was not likely to reopen anytime soon. Although the company was a pioneer in Portland cement production in the state, the lack of activity in the 1880s meant that the San Diego cement plant at Jamul gained the notoriety for first commercializing this type of cement in the state. The dilapidated facility, with its tall smokestack sitting unused north of the city, regularly prompted questions from railroad passengers passing the unused siding. The writer of the article lamented the loss of the cement business greatly, asking, “Will it shock the cement silurians of the Santa Cruz works, if we gently suggest that they make a slight effort to avail themselves of the experience and experiments of the enterprising Jamul gentlemen, and see if they can not now find it profitable to resume the operations and revive the slumbering hopes of this cementless community? Shall we not be again gratified by the smoke rolling triumphantly upward from that lonely iron pipe?”

In 1895, the Cement Works property was sold at auction to the mortgagee, the San Francisco Theological Seminary, with a portion sold to S. Eppstein. A remaining section of the property was put up for sale five years later and sold to A. H. Fitch, who demolished the remaining machinery and buildings before putting the property back up for sale. With this, the last trace of the Cement Works was gone from the city. An editorial eulogy for the Cement Works was published by the Sentinel on August 10, 1900, describing the sorry history of the facility and concluding the 23-year legacy of the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company. One of its last vestiges, the railroad siding, probably lingered beside the mainline until 1907, when the Southern Pacific standard-gauged the tracks.

Little developed around the site until the 1930s, when the property was purchased by the Pacific Oil Burner Company. This later passed to Santa Cruz Aggregates, which installed a tall concrete batch mixer at the site and operated a supply yard on the property for many years. In 1964, Graniterock's subsidiary, Central Supply, sought to purchase the entire complex from Santa Cruz Aggregates, but one problem with the site was that it lacked railroad access. Fortunately, a solution was found directly across the tracks to the east.

Looking north at the Graniterock spur as it enters its fenced yard, where a container sits on the tracks, 2012.
[Derek R. Whaley]
The tract of land between the tracks and River Street had originally been owned by Frederick A. Hihn, who had sold the land in 1888 to Maria Edubina, the widow of Desiderio Ferrari. The property later came into the possession of Davenhill & Son, a fuel oil business eventually run by William Davenhill. After he died in 1957, his wife, Selma Anderson, decided to sell the business and the land. Santa Cruz Aggregates jumped at the opportunity, buying it in 1964 and then promptly selling both the aggregate yard and the Davenhill house to Central Supply. A new railroad spur was installed shortly afterwards by Southern Pacific to allow Central Supply to receive goods for the yard.

A single rail is visible in the dirt at the Graniterock spur as viewed from Coral Street looking south, 2012.
[Derek R. Whaley]
Just next door, Sea Berg Metal Fabricators also required rail access and negotiated an easement through the Central Supply Company’s newly-acquired property. However, it seems that Sea Berg rarely used the spur and soon abandoned the practice entirely. Graniterock eventually installed a gate across the spur in February 1973 via an agreement with Southern Pacific, probably marking the point that the spur went into disuse.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9844N, 122.0314W

The site of the Cement Works is still occupied by Graniterock (which absorbed Central Supply). A Home Center and aggregate yard still sits in a large tract along Coral Street across from Costco and beside State Route 1 and the railroad tracks. Likewise, the railroad spur still passes through the small property to the east, although most of the tracks are now covered by buildings, a container, and years of gravel. Roaring Camp still temporarily parks cars on the spur, but the track within the property has been long out of use. Trespassing on the railroad tracks and either of the Graniterock properties is not encouraged, although the Home Center and aggregate yard can be visited during open hours.

Citations & Credits:
  • Luther, Michael, personal correspondence.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, various articles, 1877–1900.
  • Southern Pacific Railroad Company, various documents, 1888–1973.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, coming soon.
  • Woolpert, Rose Ann, personal correspondence

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