Thursday, November 4, 2021

Companies: W. W. Waddell & Company

William White Waddell was one of Santa Cruz County’s most successful early capitalists. Born in Kentucky on January 31, 1818, he moved to Lexington, Missouri in 1837 where he became a successful merchant. Over the next fourteen years, he undermined his gains by investing in his friends’ endeavors, a practice that ultimately led him to lose everything in 1851. As a result, he moved to Santa Cruz County and started over.

Waddell's wharf at New Years' Point with New Years' Island in the distance, ca 1870. [Bancroft Library – colorized using DeOldify]

When precisely W. W. Waddell & Company was founded is not known with certainty—the first mention of it by name in local newspapers is 1864. Waddell built his first lumber mill on the Central Coast at Williams’ Landing at the mouth of Liddell Creek nine miles north of Santa Cruz. A few years later, he shifted his operations to somewhere within Rancho la Cañada del Rincón along the San Lorenzo River, and later still to Blackburn Gulch on Branciforte Creek. Finally, in 1861, in partnership with William A. Bowles, he established his largest and longest-surviving mill on a site approximately 2.5 miles up Waddell Creek north of Davenport.

Lithographic sketch of William W. Waddell, based on an original photograph, by McKean & Ort. From History of Santa Cruz County, California by E. S. Harrison (1892).

The first Waddell Creek mill built was a modest facility, though impressive for the time. The mill used steam power with water provided from the two branches of the creek, which formed the millpond just to the north of the mill. A substantial road was built to Waddell Beach, where a thousand-foot-long wharf was begun but never completed. During construction, solid rocks were encountered making it impossible for the pile-driver to install the wharf’s support piers. The expensive solution to this problem was to extend the road another three miles to Crescent Bay (Cove Beach), a small protected cove just east of New Years’ Point (Año Nuevo) where a 700-foot-long wharf could be erected. The road and wharf cost Waddell around $50,000 to build.

For the next three years, Waddell’s mill produced hundreds of thousands of board feet of lumber, mostly for the San Francisco market. Tall ships and steamships stopped at the New Years’ Point wharf regularly to pick up manufactured goods sent there from the mill. The facility had planing and shingle mills, and could produce railroad ties and grooved lumber, used in building construction.

All was going well when, on the evening of August 11, 1864, the entire complex burned to the ground. Although most of the machinery survived the inferno, the structures and around 75,000 board feet of lumber were destroyed amounting in a final loss of $8,000 for the company. Waddell wasted no time, though, in picking up the pieces and rebuilding. Just as Waddell was putting the finishing touches on the new mill, his wharf washed away in a heavy storm in late January 1865. That annoyance added an extra $7,500 expense to his account books and also meant that he could not ship lumber until the structure was replaced.

The Green Oak Dairy owned by J. C. Steele on New Years' Point, ca 1900. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

These two disasters were likely the final factors motivating Waddell to build a small railroad between his mill and the wharf. The first mention of the idea was in April 1864, but it was only a concept at the time. The completed railroad was built entirely of redwood crossties with polished, hard oak rails. Although Waddell had hoped to buy a steam locomotive for the line, he was forced to rely instead on four horses that ran cars between the mill and the wharf twice per day. Each trip transported 5,000 to 20,000 board feet of lumber to a yard beside the foot of the wharf, not counting shingles and other manufactured products made at the mill. Several local farms and dairies also used the wharf and railroad to transport fruit, cheese, and butter.

In 1868, Waddell petitioned the California State Assembly to formalize his railroad. Approval would grant him an exclusive 120-foot-wide right-of-way for the full six miles of the route and a monopoly on shipping at New Years’ Point for 25 years. After some debate over exclusivity, the legislature approved the request in late April, although it is unclear how much Waddell capitalized on this victory. Little more is said of the railroad except that the Santa Cruz Foundry produced its wheels and axles. Part of the wharf washed away during a storm in April 1871, but it was quickly repaired.

Remains of the Waddell mill's railroad right-of-way along the slide area north of Waddell Creek, ca 1900. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

The rebuilt mill was now capable of processing from 16,000 to 20,000 board feet of lumber per day, which made it the highest capacity mill in Santa Cruz County at the time. Waddell contracted out all steps of his business, with one group in charge of milling, another transportation to the wharf, and a third shipping from the wharf. This meant that all profits and risks were divided, and it also made the company more responsive to changes in the timber market.

The original Seaside School building on the bluff south of Waddell Creek, ca 1900. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

All of this activity attracted settlers to the area. A school that initially went by the name El Jarro was founded there in February 1868. Later, David Post opened a post office under the name Seaside on May 15, 1873. The school changed its name to Seaside two years later. By 1890, over 130 residents called the settlement home. The name Seaside, however, never really stuck and most residents continued to call the settlement Waddell. The Seaside post office eventually shut down on June 24, 1881, but it reopened under the name Waddell on February 18, 1890, cementing Waddell’s legacy. But William Waddell never saw his namesake hamlet at its height.

Waddell’s life was cut short on October 7, 1875 when he died from wounds sustained six days earlier from a grizzly bear mauling. While out deer hunting with a friend near the mill, his dog ran into a bear and fled to his master. Waddell, panicking, lost his footing and fell. The bear grabbed him by the leg and shook him violently. Waddell attempted to stab the bear with a knife, but the bear struck him on the head and then left him for dead. Although his friend was able to extract Waddel from the location, he soon lost an arm to his wounds. His doctor was hopeful that Waddell could recover but an infection quickly sapped him of his strength, leading to his somewhat unexpected death.

Remains of the Waddell mill railroad's right-of-way along Waddell Creek, September 27, 1953. Photograph by Paul L. Henchey [University of California, Davis, Archives & Special Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Because Waddell had divided responsibility over his milling operations, his death did not bring about an immediate end to the company. W. W. Waddell & Company leased the mill to Peter Werner in April 1878, who had the option to run the facility for the next five years. Unfortunately, the timber market collapsed in late 1878, leading to the closure of the mill. In April 1883, the company sold the mill’s machinery to the Union Mill & Lumber Company, operating on Lompico Creek north of Felton. Now abandoned, the remains of the mill burned down for a second time in September 1883, with the site further ravaged by a forest fire a week later. This time, it did not reopen.

The settlement named after Waddell endured to the end of the century, but it was no longer centered on the lumber industry. In any case, the opening of the California State Redwood Park (Big Basin) in 1902 ended any further timber prospecting up Waddell Creek. Eventually, the roads deteriorated and shipping mostly ceased along the windswept north coast. The Waddell post office permanently closed on May 8, 1891. The schoolhouse remained on the bluff just south of Waddell Creek, but in some years, it did not have enough students to operate. It finally moved to the hamlet of Swanton in 1907.

Citations & Credits:

  • Clark, Donald T. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Second edition. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2007.
  • Harrison, Edward S. History of Santa Cruz County, California. San Francisco: Pacific Press Publishing, 1892.
  • Various articles from the Santa Cruz Sentinel and San Francisco Examiner (1864-1883)
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