Thursday, June 8, 2023

Companies: Union Mill & Lumber Company

The story of the Union Mill & Lumber Company shares its origin with the Alpine Lumber Company in that both began with Hubbard Wilson McKoy, an early settler in the Felton area. In 1871, McKoy’s daughter Sierra Nevada married the bartender of his Felton Hotel, Thomas Benton Hubbard. This link soon brought their two families into business together, prompting seventeen years of collaboration.

Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. mill on Oil Creek, one of the headwaters of Pescadero Creek, late 1890s. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Hubbard family had migrated from Missouri and were led by Thomas’s father, Daniel Campbell Hubbard, who went into business with McKoy in 1875. The following year, Thomas began working at George Treat’s mill near the toll house south of Felton, giving him both experience in the industry and a connection with an influential local capitalist. On September 5, 1876, Thomas joined McKoy to form McKoy & Hubbard. For the next three years, the partners ran a mill north of Felton on the line of the San Lorenzo Valley Flume. During this time, they owned a lumber yard near the Railroad Wharf and briefly partnered with Nathaniel Manson and Charles Cummins of Lompoc, operating together as the Santa Cruz Lumber Company. But Manson, Cummins, and Hubbard all wanted more direct control over their operations and eventually went their separate ways in spring 1879.

H. W. McKoy's Central Hotel in Felton, mid-1870s. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

Hubbard soon joined forces with another son-in-law of McKoy, Isaac Newton Hayes, and together they purchased stumpage rights to the lands of H. E. Makinney and T. H. Peterson on Marshall Creek in a gulch soon named after Hubbard. Their mill opened the week of May 22, 1880, and was placed under the management of veteran lumbermen Joseph W. Peery and J. W. Basham. At the end of the year, Hubbard was appointed to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to replace James F. Cunningham, who had resigned his post. Despite his unexpected shift into local politics, he remained focused on his lumber projects.

Hayes & Hubbard's mill on Marshall Creek, ca 1881. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

In May 1881, Hayes & Hubbard sold its mill on Marshall Creek to the Independent Lumber Company of San José, which planned to run the mill until the end of the summer and then relocate the machinery to Soquel Creek. Only two months later, Hubbard partnered with David Lynd Kent, William Armstrong, Isaac B. Kent, and Nathan Robbins Bowes to incorporate the Union Mill & Lumber Company. That same month, the firm opened its first mill a quarter mile upstream of Hubbard’s previous mill. Joe Nichols oversaw construction of the new facility, which had a capacity of 20,000 board feet of lumber per day. The mill opened the last week of August and employed 30 to 40 people.

D. L. Kent's General Merchandise store in Felton, ca 1880. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

Union Mill’s operations in Hubbard Gulch lasted for three seasons. During that time, the mill ran at peak efficiency but the San Lorenzo Valley Flume could not handle its increased output, so the company was forced to transport lumber to Felton by wagon on the County Road (Highway 9). Once in Felton, it was loaded onto waiting South Pacific Coast Railroad flatcars. This was an inefficient system, one that the company hoped to avoid at its next venue. In February 1883, the company bought 400 acres of timberland along Lompico Creek from Peter C. Van Allen for $6,000.

While its Hubbard Gulch mill ran for one last season, the Union Mill & Lumber Company set up a new facility near the confluence of Lompico Creek and Zayante Creek using machinery purchased from the late William Waddell’s defunct mill near Point Año Nuevo. Construction was slow, particularly because the basin was extremely narrow. Crews used this to their advantage and installed a 35-foot-high dam that allowed the millpond to snake up the creek for half a mile. At the top of this, they installed a 330-foot-long canal, which served as a catchment for logs pulled or lowered from above. Once completed, the mill had a capacity of 50,000 board feet of lumber per day, more than double the output of the Hubbard Gulch mill. Probably in early autumn 1884, the South Pacific Coast Railroad extended a 0.4-mile-long narrow-gauge spur to the mill. Ownership and maintenance of the track was split between the lumber company and the railroad, with Zayante Road marking the dividing line. Empty cars were lowered to the mill using gravity and brakes, while horses pulled loaded cars up to the railroad grade. An access road was extended from the mill to Zayante Road in September 1884, and the mill was ready for operation in October.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map of downtown Felton, showing the dilapidated Union Mill & Lumber Company's planing mill between the end of the Old Felton Branch of the South Pacific Coast Railway and the San Lorenzo River, 1895. [Library of Congress]

Around the same time the Lompico mill was being erected, the Union Mill & Lumber Company also erected a planing mill behind the old Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad’s freight depot on the west side of the San Lorenzo River. The steam-powered facility had a capacity of 8,000 board feet of lumber per day, and, in May 1884, it shipped five carloads of wood products every day. This planing mill was responsible for processing rough lumber, splitstuff, and other wood products that could not be manufactured at the Lompico site.

Fellers and piecemakers of the Union Mill & Lumber Company posing around a felled tree above Lompico Creek, ca 1886. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

A Sentinel reporter visited the Lompico mill in October 1885 and reported on the operations there:

This mill is running light at present, with a force of twenty-five men, and turns out about 12,000 feet of lumber per day, though its full capacity is 50,000 feet. This mill can boast of having the largest engine used in any saw-mill in the country, being one hundred horse-power. The system of bringing logs from the woods is different from all other mills in this part of the State, and has resulted in a great saving to the company, who formerly used sixteen yoke of oxen, while at present only four yoke are engaged in hauling the logs to a dam on the Lumbago creek, down which they are floated to within about one hundred feet of the mill, when they are attached to a chain and pulled by the huge engine to the saw. It is very interesting to watch this process, which is a well contrived plan and a much more rapid means of moving logs than was the old system.

Most of the wood products produced at the mill were sent to San José, where Hubbard moved in January 1885 to work as the primary sales agent for the Bay Area.

On January 20, 1886, there was a change in leadership at the Union Mill & Lumber Company when H. W. McKoy was elected president. McKoy had spent the previous three years running the Central Hotel in Felton, but he had been a principal an investor in the lumber company when it first formed five years earlier. As president, he moved to San José and took over the company’s yard there. He only remained in his position for two years, however. In January 1888, he sold his shares in the company and permanently left the lumber industry. He returned to running his hotel until a fire on October 20, 1889, burned much of Felton to the ground. He rebuilt, christening the new structure the Grand Central Hotel, and continued to run the hostelry until his death on August 22, 1895.

Not long after McKoy took over the Union Mill & Lumber Company, the firm acquired 356 acres of additional land in the Lompico basin from the estate of Charles McLaughlin via a judicial ruling. This solidified the company’s hold over the timber in the Lompico Creek basin. The next year, in July 1887, the company announced plans to build a new mill on San Pedro Street in San José for $32,000. There is some evidence to suggest that it was actually built. The company also acquired timberland four miles north of Boulder Creek and was operating a mill there in March 1887, though no further details of this operation can be found.

Hubbard’s relationship with the company after this point becomes murky, primarily because local newspapers had a habit of blurring the names of local businesses with the names of their owners. What is clear is that Hubbard was likely in charge of the planing mill in Felton during this time. That planing mill was scheduled to relocate to Lompico in March 1887, but it is unclear if it ever moved since it was still operating somewhere in Felton in February 1888. That same year in October, Hubbard entered into a new partnership with Daniel and Neil Carmichael of Saratoga to harvest timber along Oil Creek, a tributary of Pescadero Creek at the northernmost point of Santa Cruz County.

Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. first mill on Oil Creek, ca 1890. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Union Mill & Lumber Company must have gone inactive at around this time since the Sentinel notes that Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. relocated the Union Mill’s machinery to its new operation on Oil Creek prior to July 1890. Charles C. Smith is named as president of the Union Mill & Lumber Company in April 1889, but the firm is not mentioned against in newspapers after this date. It may have suffered during the economic downturn of 1893, which severely impacted the local lumber industry, and never recovered. What ultimately happened to the Union Mill & Lumber Company remains a mystery, but it was finally dissolved on December 14, 1905.

The former Union Mill on Union Creek within Big Basin, ca 1901. Photo by Andrew P. Hill. [History San José – colorized using MyHeritage]

The story of Hubbard and the physical remains of the Union Mill take different paths from this point. Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. sold the old mill structure and machinery to Henry L. Middleton in March 1895, who moved it to Little Basin northwest of Boulder Creek. Middleton employed around 40 workers at the mill during the three years that it operated there. He then moved the mill further north onto a 160-acre tract on today’s Union Creek within Big Basin that he harvested from 1898 to 1900 at a reduced capacity. This threat posed by this mill, along with a few others owned by Middleton, finally convinced the State of California to purchase land that would become the California Redwood Park in 1902. Following the sale, the mill was dismantled and removed to Boulder Creek in November. Joseph Grahamer later leased the site in 1904 and established the Union Mill Camp and Tavern, one of the earliest campgrounds at Big Basin. Unfortunately, the site was destroyed by fire on September 7, only a few months after it opened.

A Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. water wagon on Big Basin Road, ca 1901. Batista 'Bat' Mevin is driving. Photo by Andrew P. Hill. [History San José – colorized using MyHeritage]

Hubbard & Carmichael Bros., meanwhile, continued their operations on Oil Creek. The company may have closed the mill for a few years from 1893, which explains why the Union Mill was sold to Middleton during this time. When business resumed around 1896, the partners shifted operations downstream of their original mill site into San Mateo County. The mill was moved 0.75 miles off Saratoga Gap to a clearing beside Oil Creek. To get the cut lumber and other wood products to the top of the ridge, where the lumber yard was located, the company built a funicular cable railroad, the first of its type in the county. Horses pulled wagons full of lumber from the mill to the bottom of the incline, where they were attached to a cable and hauled up the grade to the yard. Once in the yard, crews would load wagons and send the material off to Saratoga and San Jose. The mill at this time employed around 50 men and cut 20,000 board feet of lumber per day. The Oil Creek mill remained in operation at this site for at least two seasons.

The original Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. mill on West Santa Cruz Street in San José, mid-December 1901. [San José Daily Mercury – colorized using MyHeritage]

In January 1900, Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. opened a new retail mill and yard on West Santa Clara Street in San José. It would remain the most stable aspect of the firm for the next three decades. The mill on Oil Creek shut down after the 1899 season and relocated to the Morrell Ranch on Two Bar Creek. But it only remained there for two years, shifting back to a new site on Oil Creek in July 1902. The mill resumed using the funicular railroad to bring lumber to Saratoga Gap, but the company’s primary focus had shifted to the hillside west of the mill, with felled trees dragged via cable to the millpond below. Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. finally ended its operations on Oil Creek at the end of the 1905 season, after which it relocated to Waterman Creek just below the California Timber Company’s property.

Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. workers in San Jose celebrating 100% union membership, ca 1913 [San José State University – colorized using MyHeritage]

During this time and for at least two more decades, Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. became a pillar of the San José lumber scene. The company briefly incorporated as Carmichael Bros. on October 27,1909, perhaps reflecting changes to the firm caused by the San Francisco Earthquake. This entity went out of business on April 13, 1914. Yet four years later, the older Hubbard & Carmichael Bros. was reincorporated and remained a legal entity until December 18, 1944. Not unexpectedly, Thomas Hubbard did not live to see the final end of his lumber empire. He died on November 23, 1917, after which his son Albert L. Hubbard succeeded him as president of the firm. From his start as a bartender in the upstart hamlet of Felton, Thomas became over forty years one of the most prominent lumbermen in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties, whose legacy lives on in the gulch named after him in Ben Lomond.

Citations & Credits:

  • California Office of the Secretary of State. bizfile Online.
  • San Jose Evening News and Herald. Various articles.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, Weekly Sentinel, Daily Sentinel, Morning Sentinel, and Evening Sentinel. Various articles.

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