Friday, July 3, 2020

Freight Stops: Centennial Flour Mills

Santa Cruz County has never supported a successful flour industry, but several attempts have been made over the years. Joseph Majors attempted to grow wheat and refine flour in the 1840s near Scotts Valley but gave up soon afterwards. Frederick A. Hihn also ran a small grain mill out of his shop on Pacific Avenue in the 1850s, but gave up. Over the hill in Los Gatos, the Forbes Mill and its successors tried for years to commercially refine wheat only to experience endless hardship and multiple bankruptcies. Other companies and people attempted to produce commercial-grade flour as well throughout the 1860s and 1870s, but the Central Coast is simply not a profitable grain-growing region. That fact, though, did not stop J. E. Butler of San Mateo from trying.

The Centennial Flour Mills building on Pacific Avenue in a dilapidated state, late 1880s.
Note the piles of lumber indicating that Grover & Company has taken over the mill.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – Colorized using DeOldify]
Newspaper advertisement for the
Centennial Flour Mills, August 10, 1878.
[Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel]
In early 1876, Butler incorporated the Centennial Flour Milling Company, a name chosen in honor of the United States' centennial. Butler hoped to tap the existing grain growers on the North Coast of Santa Cruz County and encourage more elsewhere in the region to join them in order to refine commercial grade grain products for mass market distribution. The towering mill he built in Santa Cruz on Mill Street (later the bottom of Pacific Avenue) was the tallest structure in the city when it opened. In its four stories, it was able to produce flour, bran, corn meal, barley, graham flour, grist, and various other grain products. The land had been purchased directly from the Blackburn Estate and was noted as being the site of an Ohlone food drying place in pre-Spanish times. The mill opened in mid-June 1876 to much excitement.

The mill cost $20,000 to construct and was truly impressive for the time in many ways. Although the building was made of wood, it sat on a solid stone foundation. The machinery was freshly purchased from the Lick Mills in Santa Clara County, which had just replaced its machinery. Grain was stored on the bottom floor alongside the corporate office. The boiler and engine rooms were set off in a two-story lean-to with a smokestack that rose above the hight of the building. The second floor was where the grain was processed into flour via two large grindstones. The top two stories were primarily machinery-oriented, although additional grain was stored on the fourth floor to be fed into the mill. Large chutes ran between floors to allow for the easy movement of grain and products. An external commercial chute was also located on the second floor that could drop bags of product down into waiting wagons. At maximum capacity, the mill could produce 200 barrels of flour per day via a 200 horsepower steam engine.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the Centennial Flour Mills on Pacific Avenue, 1883.
[University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections]
Centennial Flour was one of the first private firms to use the tracks at the Santa Cruz freight yard to export and import goods. Before the mill even opened, the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel advertised that the company would connect to both the Santa Cruz & Felton and Santa Cruz Railroads, but a connection was only ever made to the former. A freight spur for the mill was installed around June 9, 1876 and extended from an existing track that connected to the railroad's Pacific Avenue horsecar line (later the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad Company). A large single-story warehouse was erected in July between the main spur and the mill to store unprocessed grain that was sent in from the fields and sacks of processed grain products for shipment via the Railroad Wharf. A triangular platform jutted out from the warehouse beside the company's spur while a long boardwalk beside the spur provided additional space for loading boxcars and also a means to access the mill without walking across dirt and mud, which could contaminate the products in the mill.

Newspaper advertisement for
Bay View Flour Mills, January 28, 1882.
[Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel]
For two years, the Centennial Flour Mills operated without significant interruption and weekly ads appeared in the Sentinel. When it did close for the first time in June 1878, it was to upgrade its machinery and the company continued to advertise until September 14, 1878, when all mention of the company in the newspaper ceased without explanation. Apparently, the mill resumed operating, however, only without advertising since it was noted as closing July 1, 1880, implying it had been running before that time. In August, the mill underwent reconditioning to fix mistakes originally made by the millwright. These improvements cost between $3,000 and $4,000, which was quite high for a small industry that was facing increasing competition via other local mills and cheap grains imported via steamships and the newly-completed South Pacific Coast Railroad's line. The mill reopened in September but was forced to shut down again in January 1881 when Butler had his credit called in by the Santa Cruz Bank. Lacking available funds, he forfeited the mill. In June of that year, Robert Orton nearly leased the property, but in mid-July, it came under the management of Luke Lukes of Dixon. As soon as he took possession, he had a new two-ton fly wheel installed in order to reopen the mill. Lukes ran the company for eighteen months under the name Bay View Flour Mills before being declared insolvent in court on January 10, 1883. By this point, the mill appears to have been not operating for several months and was entering a state of decay.

In November 1883, it was speculated in the Sentinel that Grover & Company, which owned the adjacent lumber yard and mill, were interested in purchasing the entire flour company. They likely took over the property within the next two years since lumber piles are shown scattered throughout the flour mill's yard and the grain warehouse is storing hay in the 1886 Sanborn Fire Insurance map. Somewhat unexpectedly, perhaps, Grover expressed interest in reopening the facility in 1888 as a flour mill, estimating that it could produce fifty sacks of flour per day. Grover leased the mill to J. M. Jordan for this purpose, but these plans appear to have fallen through and by 1892 the facility was undergoing conversion into a new planing mill to replace the aging adjacent mill. The converted planing mill remained in operation for the next fifteen years, initially under Grover, then under Grover, Cunningham & Company. Grover joined in the Santa Cruz Lumber Company joint venture but shortly afterwards went bankrupt, passing all of its possessions to the Santa Cruz Savings & Loans Bank, which entrusted it to the Loma Prieta Lumber Company.

Throughout its years operating as a flour mill, the facility was heavily prepared for fires, which were known to be frequent in the often dry environments inside flour mills. Large water cisterns were installed on each level of the mill and steam pumps could lift water to hoses and a hydrant on all of the levels as well. The Centennial Flour Mills also employed a watchmen to ensure no fires were lighted when the mill was not operating. The watchmen was retained through subsequent managerial changes and one remained employed in the winter of 1904. On February 19, the watchman was settling down for his mid-night lunch when he noticed a flickering light in the second floor of the old flour mill. The Santa Cruz Surf reported:
Not in ten years has Santa Cruz had such an illumination as was to be witnessed this morning between 2 o'clock and daybreak, Broad sheets of flame a hundred feet high reflected against an opaque cloud covered sky, giving light enough to distinguish small objects for miles around. People who viewed the illumination from a distance were at first unable to locate the fire, but the bright relief in which Sunshine Villa, Mr. Bowman's residence, and adjacent places on Beach Hill were thrown soon showed that it was the old Centennial mill and the Loma Prieta Lumber Company's mill and lumber sheds that were on fire.
Within fifteen minutes of the time the alarm sounded there was an acre of flame rising skyward, without a puff of wind to deviate its course.... As a spectacle it was very magnificent.
The fire was so hot that it cracked the windows of buildings that sat along Third Street at the top of Beach Hill. It also destroyed several nearby structures including the old grain warehouse and the long-since-repurposed Grover planing mill that once sat beside the flour mill, although much of the nearby mill's lumber was saved by quick action by employees and the fire department. Old planing mill machinery and tools, custom mouldings, and some high grade lumber were all inside the warehouse when it caught fire, amounting to over 200,000 board feet of lost wood products.

The fire coincided conveniently with Southern Pacific's plans to standard-gauge the Santa Cruz Union Depot yard and shift the freight presence away from Pacific Avenue, which had been largely bypassed when the Union Depot opened in 1893. Nothing of the old Centennial Flour Mills facility survived the fire and the entire Pacific Avenue freight zone lost its remaining rail access shortly afterwards. The Surf noted this as a good thing since the city planned to develop lower Pacific Avenue in the coming years, although this never happened and the lot remained vacant as a lumber yard for two decades. Throughout its three operators, the flour mill repeatedly lost money and proved that Santa Cruz County was not a viable place to produce commercial grade grain products.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9659N, 122.0252W

The Centennial Flour Mills building was located at 407 Pacific Avenue. The site is now occupied by the Neptune Apartments complex and Sanitary Plumbing & Heating Company, which buildings have occupied the location since 1924. No remnants of the Centennial Flour Mills survives.

Citations & Credits:
  • Harrison, Edward Sanford. History of Santa Cruz County, California (1892).
  • Samuel Hopkins Willey, "A Historical Paper Relating to Santa Cruz, California: Perpared in Pursuance of the Resolutions of Congress for the National Centennial Celebration, July 4, 1876: At the Request of the Common Council of Santa Cruz" (Printing Department of A.L. Bancroft, 1876).
  • Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, 1875–1893.
  • Santa Cruz Surf, 1904.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

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