Friday, August 7, 2020

Curiosities: Blackburn Terrace

There was a time once when the most direct means of getting from the Lower Plaza of Santa Cruz to the Main Beach was taking the steep road over Beach Hill. Modern Santa Cruzans have taken for granted the fact that it was the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad that, in 1875, cut through Beach Hill in order to provide railroad access to the waterfront and the new Railroad Wharf it was erecting near the outlet of Neary Lagoon. By so doing, the railroad also cut off a short section of the marine bluff, turning the so-called Blackburn Terrace into a virtual island. Prior to then, the hill was continuous, running from a height just beside the lagoon's stream until reaching the floodplain of the San Lorenzo River at Beach Flats. Inconvenient geography and contested property rights required this cut to be made, and it changed the landscape of Santa Cruz forever.

Charles B. Gifford's painting of a Bird's Eye View of Santa Cruz, c. 1873. Note the relatively continuous hillside along the waterfront, with only a dip to allow for Pacific Avenue to cut through to the beach. [Bancroft Library]
William F. Blackburn of Harpers Ferry, (West) Virginia, was one of the most important Americans in Santa Cruz when the territory was annexed to the United States from México in 1848. He moved onto Isaac Graham's Ranch Zayante in 1845, where he worked for the season making shingles. After the season ended, Blackburn relocated to Santa Cruz and opened a general store and hostelry in one of the old adobé structures at Mission Santa Cruz. During and immediately after the Mexican-American War, he was appointed  alcalde (mayor-judge) of Branciforte by the military governor of California three times, although often alongside other prominent locals including William Anderson, Adna Hecox, and Joseph Majors. During the war, he also briefly served in General Frémont's battalion and afterwards attempted to strike gold in the Sierra Nevada. Following statehood in 1850, he served as a justice of the peace and ran for the judgeship of Santa Cruz, in which role he served from 1851 to 1854. He later was elected to the California State Assembly in 1857.

Lithograph of William Blackburn from
James Guinn's History of the State of California, 1903.
Members of Blackburn's family joined William in Santa Cruz in the 1850s, namely his brothers, Jacob Alt and James Hanson, who were instrumental in the introduction of apples to the Pajaro Valley. William himself settled in a stately home with a view of the ocean at the western end of Beach Hill, between Neary Lagoon and the Davis & Jordan Wharf. As payment for his role as alcalde, he had been given a grant of land in 1847 that stretched from Laurel Street to the ocean, with Pacific Avenue to the east and Bay Street to the west marking its other boundaries. With the help of another brother, Daniel Drew, William planted potatoes across Beach Hill and the flats beneath it near the lagoon. The income from these potatoes provided for Blackburn's income for the remainder of his life. In his final years, he later replaced the potatoes with apple orchards, visible also in the painting above, following the lead of his brothers in Watsonville. Elsewhere, the Blackburn family were responsible for building the sawmill in Blackburn Gulch along Branciforte Creek and later developing that area for housing.

A stump from redwood logging operations in Blackburn Gulch.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – Colorized using DeOldify]
As a brief aside, Neary lagoon along the northwest edge of the Blackburn property was originally the route of the San Lorenzo River at the time when the Spanish first settled in the area in the 1790s. The river, so long levied now, once meandered between the two ends of Beach Hill, shifting restlessly as one end silted up forcing it to transition to its other outlet. Indeed, even after California became a state, nearly all of the land immediately north of Beach Hill was unusable for almost two decades due to the intemperate nature of the river, which would sometimes flood the entire area between the lagoon and Beach Flats. In its early days, the body of water went by Laguna de la Playa (Beach Lagoon), and later Blackburn Lagoon. Irish immigrants James and Martin Neary purchased a section of land beside the lagoon from the Blackburns in 1862 and used it primarily for dairying and some minor agricultural pursuits. The Neary family continued to own it until 1962, when Alice M. Neary sold the property.

Pastel painting 3025 Neary Lagoon Santa Cruz City Park, Tule Marsh in Fall, October, by Ann Thiermann.
While William Blackburn is certainly important in understanding the history of Blackburn Terrace, his wife was the key player in the conversion of the west end of Beach Hill into an isolated bluff. Blackburn married Harriet M. Meade in 1859, only a year after she had arrived in California with her father. The couple had one son together who died as a toddler in 1864. William later died on March 25, 1867 in San Francisco and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz. Harriet then became mistress of the estate and continued to oversee the property well into the twentieth century. She never remarried but rather became a prominent widow in Santa Cruz society, helping lead the Ladies' Aid Society and becoming involved in several other local charities.

The Santa Cruz Main Beach, showing from left the S. J. Lunch house, the Blackburn house, the Sea Beach Hotel, the Douglas House, the Neptune Baths, the Miller-Leibbrandt Plunge, and the Kittridge house, c 1900.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – Colorized using DeOldify]
Harriet had less interest in her late husband's property, however, and immediately began selling lots to interested parties, even moving out of her old house and into a smaller cabin located nearby. Much of the lower flats were sold to Frederick A. Hihn, who plotted out a housing subdivision that never took off. Hihn decided to keep the apple orchard intact until his Santa Cruz Railroad scheme in 1874 finally found a different use for some of the land. Hihn, on behalf of the Santa Cruz Railroad, also acquired an easement through Blackburn's property alongside the Neary Lagoon outlet to the Monterey Bay so that the railroad could cross into the Lower Plaza and then down Chestnut Street. By using the outlet's existing channel through the marine terrace, the railroad avoided the need for a substantial cut and instead only required a minor cut through the western side of Beach Hill.

The West Cliff Drive bridge over the Southern Pacific tracks with the Magic Carpet Motel at right on Blackburn Terrace, 1977. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries – Colorized using DeOldify]
The only real casualty of this was the Bay Street viaduct, which originally crossed over the outlet and then wrapped around the front of Beach Hill from the top of the West Side terrace and on down the backside of Beach Hill over a natural low point in the hill. With this viaduct removed, access between West Side and the Lower Plaza was only possible further to the north down California Street. About a decade later, a Howe truss bridge was installed over the railroad tracks, once more establishing a crossing at the waterfront, but the route from Beach Hill down to the Lower Plaza first underwent a more drastic transformation.

Colorized lithograph of the Santa Cruz beachfront, circa 1882, showing Blackburn Terrace at center-left with the South Pacific Coast Railroad's beach station overly prominent to its right.
The Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad came late on the scene in Santa Cruz. Desirous of a wharf at the Main Beach, the company was blocked from reaching the Monterey Bay via the lagoon outlet due to the presence of the Santa Cruz Railroad. The railroad, therefore, was forced to find some other means of reaching the beach. The existing Gharkey's Wharf at the end of Main Street was slightly too far to the east to be usable and was also reaching its end of life. Therefore, the best solution was to build a new wharf beside it to the west, with a connecting wharf that could expand railroad access to it briefly while the new wharf was built. But the trouble remained: how to get the tracks to the other side of Beach Hill?

Property boundary map showing the newly-built routes of the Santa Cruz Railroad and Santa Cruz & Felton Railroads through Harriet Blackburn's land, 1877. [Santa Cruz GIS & Historical Maps]
The solution was brutal but effective. Buying land from Harriet Blackburn on the extreme east side of her property along Pacific Avenue where the marine terrace dipped low, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad blasted Beach Hill down to the same level as the Lower Plaza, thereby creating a deep cut that permanently isolated Blackburn's land from the rest of the bluff. The cut was also substantial. Using Chinese laborers, the railroad made the cut wide enough for two railroad tracks—one for the mainline to the wharf and one for a horsecar line to the beach—as well as a service road. Pacific Avenue, meanwhile, continued over the hill following its former path, exiting just across from the new wharf.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing Blackburn Terrace, lower Pacific Avenue,
and the Bay Street bridge, 1888. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections]
When the new bridge over the lagoon outlet was built in the 1880s, the road down from the bridge to Pacific Avenue remained dangerously steep and could only be used by horses and unladen wagons. Around 1920, Mayor Arthur Adelbert Taylor finally convinced the county to purchase another part of Blackburn Terrace for use as a viaduct that gradually descends along the Pacific Avenue side of the terrace until reaching the Lower Plaza near the Southern Pacific Union Depot. In later years, this stretch of road was realigned and became an extension of West Cliff Drive, with Bay Street becoming the new road down to the foot of the Municipal Wharf beside the Dream Inn.

Subdivision map for Blackburn Terrace showing property boundaries and the
proposed lots within the property, c. 1889. Note that Chestnut "Avenue" conceptually
shared the Santa Cruz Railroad's right-of-way beside the Nearys Lagoon outlet.
[Santa Cruz GIS & Historical Maps]
The remnant Blackburn land, now on a hill sandwiched between two railroad lines and Bay Street (West Cliff Drive from the 1940s), began its long second life. In 1889, Harriet subdivided her property as Blackburn Terrace, the first official use of the name, but the subdivision sold poorly. Only two homes were built there in the 1890s and another in the 1910s. The largest of the buildings was a vacation house named Concha del Mar, owned by San Francisco attorney John R. Jarboe and his wife, author Mary Halsey Thomas, pen name Thomas H. Brainerd. While Harriet hoped to sell the lots for vacation homes, by the 1910s most of the properties that sold were to the families of Italian fishermen who worked on the old Railroad Wharf and, later, the Municipal Wharf. The nearby La Baranca neighborhood along Bay Street became an Italian community, but some families also settled on nearby Blackburn Terrace. In 1907, the Ocean Shore Railway briefly planned to erect a massive viaduct across the terrace in order to bypass the Southern Pacific yard but was blocked in its plans.

Closeup of George Lawrence's Bird's Eye View of Santa Cruz, 1903, with Blackburn Terrace in the center. [Bancroft]
Harriet Blackburn died on October 11, 1920 in Santa Cruz and was buried beside her long-departed husband in Evergreen Cemetery. Her heirs were close relatives and friends who sold the tiny remaining property and divided the money between themselves over a protracted period of time ending in 1943. With the final disposition of the estate, the remaining Blackburn property was finally sold off and subdivided for use by the railroad, the city, hotels, private residences, and various businesses. By the late 1920s, the railroad tracks down the cut beside Blackburn Terrace were removed and Pacific Avenue redirected along that path, with the former route up Beach Hill established as an extension of Front Street.

Concha del Mar on Blackburn Terrace, 1896.
[The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture – colorized using DeOldify]
Development of Blackburn Terrace remained slow into the 1950s. Eventually several more homes as well as a hotel were built atop the terrace. The Concha del Mar remained an informal motel until 1966 when it was expanded to become the Magic Carpet Motor Lodge. This was replaced in 1996 with a Ramada Inn, which is now a Howard Johnson. The legacy of the Blackburn family survives primarily through a few roads named after the family, notably Blackburn Street within William and Harriet's old property, and Blackburn Terrace itself.

Citations & Credits:
  • Clark, Donald A. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Second edition. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2002.
  • Guinn, James Miller. History of the State of California and Biographical Record of Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo Counties. Chicago: Chapman Publishing, 1903.
  • Harrison, Edward S. History of Santa Cruz County, California. San Francisco: Pacific Press Publishing, 1892.
  • Santa Cruz Evening News, 1923.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1943.
  • Steen, Judith, ed. The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture. Third edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & History, 2005.
  • Stevens, Stanley D. "The Alcaldes of Branciforte-Santa Cruz (1802–1850)." Santa Cruz Public Libraries Local History. 2006.

1 comment:

  1. I found this fascinating as I've been trying to piece together this history. Would love the hear it as a live lecture where you could use a pointer on your maps, as I am having trouble making them out. Possibility?


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