Friday, August 21, 2020

Freight Stops: Cowell Spur

The history of the Henry Cowell Lime & Cement Company on the Santa Cruz Main Beach begins before California statehood. In 1849, early American settler Elihu Anthony erected a potato chute at the top of Bay Street in order to get his crops to passing ships quickly without the need for boats that had to fight heavy waves off the beach to get to waiting ships offshore. In the end, the chute was still impractical since the waves at the bottom of what would become Steamer Lane (named after the steamships that would later dock there) were often too violent. As a result, Anthony decided to expand the chute into a pier by making it longer and wider. The chute had been a steep decent to the bottom and the new pier was no different, but Anthony made this work. Anthony's business partner, Edward S. Penfield, built a large warehouse at the top of the pier to store goods awaiting shipment.

The Cowell Wharf at the end of Bay Street with the Railroad Wharf visible through the pilings, c 1890s.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – Colorized using DeOldify]
A great and permanent change overtook the pier around late 1853 when Isaac E. Davis and Albion P. Jordon began using it to ship lime products to market. Earlier that year, Davis and Jordan had opened a large limestone quarry at the top of Bay Street and the convenient location of the pier at the bottom of Bay Street could not be ignored. By January 1854, the partners had purchased the pier and warehouse for $7,000. When they paid off the mortgage on the properties the next year, they began expanding rapidly. They spent $20,000 reconstructing the pier into a substantially longer wharf that could serve not just as a shipping point but as the primary public wharf in the city. They hoped to ship most of the goods produced in the region from the wharf, and also hoped to attract passenger traffic. The final structure was 600 feet long with redwood piles sheathed in copper. In 1857, Davis and Jordan expanded it another 400 feet to support larger ships.

Lithograph of the Davis and Cowell Wharf at the end of Bay Street with a ship docked at its base, c 1870. Gharkey Wharf in the foreground with cattle grazing nearby. [Vischer's Miscellaneous Views]
It was inevitable that competition would arrive to challenge Davis and Jordan's dominance of the bayshore and it came in May 1857 when David Gharky erected a second thousand-foot wharf at the end of Main Street. Within months of completion it was shipping the lime of rival companies as well as lumber and other local products. It also began receiving passengers. Davis and Jordan gained one important customer in 1864, however: the California Powder Works. The company had moved onto a site on Davis and Jordan's land in Rancho Rincon along the San Lorenzo River and Jordan became an investor in the powder-making scheme. The Powder Works began using Penfield's old warehouse on Bay Street as a powder magazine and used the wharf to send and receive shipments of goods.

A ship docked at the bottom of the Cowell Wharf with barrels of lime being hauled onto the ship, c 1900.
[Santa Cruz MAH – Colorized using DeOldify]
Everything changed in the summer of 1865, though. Henry Cowell purchased Jordan's share of the lime company and immediately started a power play within the firm and in Santa Cruz politics in general. This led to a rift with the Powder Works, which purchased Gharky's wharf in late 1865 and ceased using the limeworks' wharf. Cowell fought back by attempting to buy land across the foreshore and Santa Cruz beach, as well as lots on the coastal terrace in order to stop the Powder Works from expanding its shipping operations outward. Over the next decade, the Cowell Wharf, as it became to be known, evolved into the major West Side shipping point but lost much of its other revenue sources, while the Powder Works Wharf became popular with smaller freight concerns and gained the patronage of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, which earned it an alternative name: the Steamship Wharf.

View of the Santa Cruz Beach showing the Cowell Wharf in the foreground, followed by the Railroad Wharf, connecting wharf, and Powder Works Wharf, c 1880. [Bratton Online – Colorized using DeOldify]
With the addition of the Railroad Wharf in late 1875, the Cowell Wharf became increasingly dedicated to just lime shipments. At the top of the wharf, the old warehouse had evolved into a massive 50 feet by 275 feet structure that kept barrels of lime dry while awaiting shipment out. A tramway from the warehouse to the bottom of the wharf was installed and its cars could hold sixteen barrels each. They went down the wharf via a gravity system with a man on each car controlling the brake. They were returned to the warehouse via horsepower. Barrels were loaded onto ships via slings held aloft by overhead booms.

Cowell Wharf with its large warehouse on the cliff at the end of Bay Street beside the Railroad Wharf, 1906. Excerpt from George R. Lawrence's Bird's Eye View of Santa Cruz. [Santa Cruz MAH – Colorized using DeOldify]]
The completion of the Santa Cruz Railroad in 1876 and, more importantly, the arrival of the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1880 marked the decline of coastal shipping in the city. For most of the local freight concerns, it was cheaper, more efficient, and safer to ship via rail. Cowell continued to use the wharf, however, into the early 1900s when a series of storms led to the wharf's dismantling. In late 1907, a storm knocked out the center section of the wharf. Cowell repaired this but further storms in 1908 ensured it could no longer function and Cowell switched entirely to shipping via rail. Most of the remains of the wharf were removed in 1914, with a single truncated pile lasting into the 1950s.

The remains of the Cowell Wharf following the storm of 1907 with the Railroad Wharf and Sea Beach Hotel visible in the distance. [Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History – Colorized using DeOldify]
With the transition to exclusively rail transport beginning as early as the mid-1880s, it is perhaps not surprising that a railroad spur was eventually installed for Cowell's operations on the coast. Indeed, Ernest Cowell, the president of the company, had been advocating for such a spur since at least 1904 and possibly many years earlier, but Southern Pacific had been hesitant. In 1905, duelling tracks were installed through the West Side by the Ocean Shore Railway and the Coast Line Railroad, a Southern Pacific subsidiary. While the Coast Line only wanted to reach the new cement plant at Davenport, the Ocean Shore had a grander vision of a line that would run between Santa Cruz and San Francisco along the coast.

Santa Cruz Harbor and Vicinity survey map showing the Cowell spur of the Southern Pacific Railroad blocking further progress by the Ocean Shore Railway at the beach, 1910. [U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey]
Part of the Ocean Shore's plan included building a substantial railroad wharf on the Santa Cruz waterfront between the Cowell Wharf and the Southern Pacific Railroad's wharf. Indeed, as one of its first constructions in Santa Cruz County, the Ocean Shore had run a track around the bluff above the Southern Pacific's Union Depot yard with the track ending just beside Bay Street (now West Cliff Drive), where it had to stop pending permission to cross the road and an easement through Cowell's land. Had it been realized, the wharf the company planned to build would have likely replaced the rapidly deteriorating Cowell Wharf and provided Cowell's lime company with an alternative to using Southern Pacific. But Southern Pacific realized this and quickly ensured that no such wharf would ever be built.

The crossroads at the bottom of Pacific Avenue from the porch of the Hotel St. James, showing the Cowell spur with boxcars at right (the truncated tip of the Cowell Wharf is just visible beyond it) and the Railroad Wharf at left, c 1909. [Ken Lorenzen – Colorized using DeOldify]
Only a week after incorporation, the Ocean Shore filed a condemnation suit against the Henry Cowell Lime Company on June 23, 1905 in order to gain access to the bay through the company's land. But Southern Pacific replied in force by sending out a team of fifty workmen to install a short spur through its land at the base of the Railroad Wharf and then up around the coastal bluff onto the Cowell company's land. The Sentinel quite rightly jumped to the conclusion that the sole reason for this spur was to cut off the Ocean Shore's access to the bay, but Ernest Cowell denied these claims and stated that it was he who requested the spur in order to replace his unused station at Rincon. He added that he had never considered selling the waterfront land to the Ocean Shore, hence the latter's condemnation suit. Regardless of the truth of the matter, it gave the Cowell company a direct connection to Southern Pacific trackage on the coast. The Cowell company almost immediately began using the spur to load barrels of lime into waiting boxcars that parked there and to unload barrels of oil. The company installed two 1500 barrel oil tanks beside the spur in order to support the exchange. George Lawrence's panorama above, taken in early 1906, as well as the photographs above and below show boxcars on the steep spur beside the Railroad Wharf.

Same view as above taken from the bottom of Bay Street, c 1909. [Ken Lorenzen – Colorized using DeOldify]
Precisely how long this spur survived is unknown but it is last mentioned in the Santa Cruz Evening News in August 1918. By that point, the Ocean Shore Railroad's dreams for a coastal line to San Francisco were almost entirely abandoned and the company limped on until late 1920 when a worker strike led to the railroad's effective dissolution. The land where the wharf and spur had once stood remained largely empty for decades until they were purchased for the erection of the Dream Inn hotel. The adjacent beach, meanwhile, was eventually gifted to the city in 1954.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9621N, 122.0243W

The location of Cowell Wharf was just across from the end of Bay Street between the Dream Inn and Sea & Sand Inn. The last piling was removed many decades ago and nothing now remains of the wharf or the warehouse at the top of the cliff. The spur's location is now occupied by the lower portion of the Dream Inn on the beach as well as its loading zone, the Cowell's Beach Main Parking Lot, and the Pacific Avenue–Beach Street–Bay Street roundabout. Again, nothing remains except vague boundary lines visible on property maps.

Citations & Credits:
  • Perry, Frank, Barry Brown, Rick Hyman, and Stanley D. Stevens. "Notes on the History of Wharves at Santa Cruz, California." June 2012.
  • Perry, Frank A., Robert W. Piwarzyk, Michael D. Luther, Alverda Orlando, Allan Molho, and Sierra L. Perry. Lime Kiln Legacies: The History of the Lime Industry in Santa Cruz County. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & History, 2007.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

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