Friday, May 22, 2020

Freight Stops: Central Supply (Santa Cruz Union Depot)

Aggregate materials were not initially a common thing found at the Santa Cruz freight yard at the southern end of Chestnut Street. Despite several lime companies operating within the county, all of them had their own means of getting their goods to market via either steamship at the Santa Cruz wharves or via direct rail from their kilns. The freight yard catered primarily to lumber companies in the early years, but even as other freight patrons moved into the area, especially after the Union Depot was built in 1893 and the yard standardized around 1908, aggregate concerns did not follow. Indeed, the stretch of track between Sycamore (Jenne) Street and the end of Chestnut remained vacant throughout this period. However, the situation changed suddenly in the 1920s when Granite Rock Company spun off a retail aggregates business named Central Supply that needed quick and easy access to the railroad.

Suntan Specials parked on the sidings at the Santa Cruz Union Depot, c. 1950s. In the distance behind the freight depot can be seen the Central Supply Company's facilities along the aggregate sidings and spurs, with hopper cars at left and multiple bulk aggregate distributor towers high overhead. Photograph by Gene O'Lague Jr. [Jim Vail]
Graniterock had been running a highly successful quarry out of the Aromas area along the Pajaro River and Southern Pacific Railroad's Coast Line since 1900. The business picked up several important customers in the aftermath of the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 and continued to build its base as it acquired additional property and machinery across the Central Coast. Despite being based in San Benito County, the company had close connections to Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, with one of its founders being Warren R. Porter, a major owner and investor in the Aptos lumber industry. In 1924, after having already spun off Granite Construction Company as its own firm two years earlier, Graniterock president A. R. Wilson incorporated the Central Supply Company as the first and only retail outlet for the company. With the addition of Central Supply, Graniterock controlled most of the local aggregates and construction market, with rock material brought in from its quarry and used in public and private construction projects throughout the region.

Central Supply focused on ready-mix cement and building materials—the Home Depot of its day. But this required access to the public, something the Graniterock facility in Aromas lacked. Therefore, Central Supply purchased a vacant lot at the Santa Cruz Union Depot yard at the corner of Sycamore and Chestnut Streets, just across the street from the Union Ice Company. Southern Pacific, which catered to all of the transportation needs of Graniterock, installed a spur at the Central Supply facility where hopper cars full of aggregate material could be unloaded and sorted. The facility was rather small initially but grew over the years. Throughout the Great Depression and World War II, Graniterock alongside Central Supply provided material for thousands of building projects of all scales throughout the region, ensuring that it survives where many other businesses did not.

Soon after the war, Central Supply decided to increase its presence at the freight yard. In 1946, an aggregate warehouse was erected to enclose the rock material that was brought in from Aromas and elsewhere. Nine years later, a massive wooden bulk aggregate distributor bunker was installed, which became one of the most recognizable features of the Union Depot throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Other smaller aggregate unloading and loading equipment was also installed throughout these years including a concrete batching plant and a large materials yard. Graniterock also installed its own bulk aggregate distributor bunker near the Central Supply one, likely to ensure that there was plenty of material available for governmental projects as well as private.

The full extent of Central Supply's operations is unclear since the two sand quarries operating in Olympia during this time shared siding space with Central Supply and may have even provided some of the sand sold at the aggregate depot. Freight cars from Aromas and elsewhere refilled the rock, gravel, and sand pits every day, after which the materials were screened for debris and elevated to the top of the bunkers, from which dump trucks could be filled. Operations at the freight yard involved dozens of hopper cars operating on several spurs and sidings located at the southern end of the yard near the Central Supply tracks. It was truly the heyday of railroading in Santa Cruz, but Central Supply's reliance on trains was not to last.

Newspaper photograph of the Central Supply bulk aggregate distributor bunker on its last day before demolition,
August 8, 1968. Note the collapsed supports underneath. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]
By the late 1950s, trucks had become much cheaper to operate and train deliveries for short distances, such as that between Aromas and Santa Cruz, proved too expensive. In December 1964, the company purchased the Santa Cruz Aggregate Company facility on Coral Street north of Santa Cruz. Southern Pacific installed a new spur at the site, capable of holding two cars, albeit on the opposite side of the tracks from the aggregate facility. Shortly afterwards, Central Supply packed up at the Union Depot and relocated, abandoning the site. In October 1967, the vacant corporate offices of the company on Chestnut Street burned down and Central Supply decided to demolish everything that remained. By 1971, Southern Pacific designated all of the former aggregate sidings as disused, although it did not spike the switches at this time. Central Supply was reabsorbed into Graniterock in the early 1970s. The spurs and sidings that once catered to its sprawling facility at the Union Depot were finally removed in the early 1990s during the remodeling of the Union Depot yard.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9662N, 122.0287W

The site of Central Supply at the Union Depot was south of the intersection of Jeanne and Chestnut Streets, primarily occupying the current location of the Mariners Apartments until the bend in Chestnut Street, which marks the point where the freight yard once expanded substantially in all directions to the south. As with most of the area, nothing remains of the Central Supply facility.

Citations & Credits:

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