History Pages: 12 - Westside Mills and Tanneries

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Majors mill.png

During the 1850s, Santa Cruz began to lose its sleepy old-California look and acquire more of the characteristics of an American town. Although Santa Cruz was not incorporated as a town until 1866, Santa Cruz County came into being right after statehood in 1850 (remember that it was at first named Branciforte County). During the few boom years of the Gold Rush, roughly-constructed buildings sprang up all over today’s downtown area. Several businesses related to metal and woodworking opened on Elihu Anthony’s riverside lots, which fronted on the Main Street he laid out. The lower town’s first hotels and stables (the parking garages of their day) were nearby. Better-constructed residences also began to appear. William Blackburn’s house, built in about 1854, is one of the oldest surviving wood-frame structures in town.

Up the hill in today’s near Westside neighborhood, early industrial operations took advantage of the year-round running water in creeks fed by the Tres Ojos de Agua (literally "three eyes of water"). These springs had previously been tapped to provide water for Mission Santa Cruz and its operations. The padres built an in-ground stone-lined aqueduct (called a zanja) from the springs across the terrace to the Mission premises. A service path next to the aqueduct became today’s High Street. A branch from the zanja fed the mission tannery. Nothing remains today of that original water system, but you can see the remains of a similar (more elaborate) system at Mission Santa Barbara. The new businesses, including two (or maybe three) grist mills and a new tannery, were built along the creeks themselves instead of using water from the aqueduct.

Tres Ojos de Agua (Three Eyes of Water) was one of the last and smallest Mexican land grants in California. Oddly, the grant only included one of today's three springs: Westlake is just outside the western boundary, and the "upper" spring is just outside the northern boundary, with its creek flowing through the rancho. The grantee was Nicolas Dodero, an Italian-born sailor who left his ship in Yerba Buena (San Francisco) and moved “over the hill” from San Jose sometime after the 1844 grant. Dodero built a grist mill, along with its enabling dams and channels, about 150 yds downstream from the spring. It’s hard to find Dodero’s name on any signs today. A dead-end, unpaved Westside alley is named Dodero Street, but there’s no street sign. One of the small Tres Ojos creeks is named Dodero Creek, but only on the City’s Creek Management maps (thanks go to Dean Silvers, whose research on the Tres Ojos helped to answer questions about the Dodero mill).

Former frontiersman Joseph Majors (see earlier post) came down from Rancho San Agustin to build a new grist mill (or take over Dodero's mill) on upper Santa Cruz (now Laurel, once Majors) Creek, near today’s Laurel/Escalona junction. On the bluff above the mill, Majors later built his Santa Cruz home. Today’s Majors Street runs along one side of Westlake, which was created by damming one of the Tres Ojos springs, and is the source of Laurel Creek. The spring-fed creeks have mostly been channelized and/or undergrounded these days, but you can see a semi-“wild” bit of Laurel Creek from the deck at Emily’s Bakery on Mission Street, or at the Babbling Brook Inn on Laurel Street. In the Babbling Brook garden is a replica wooden waterwheel similar to some that may have been used in the area. The original Mission Santa Cruz grist mill was also on this creek, probably near the Babbling Brook. It probably would have used an "undershot" waterwheel, as at the Mission Santa Inez mill built by Joseph Chapman.

R.C. Kirby.jpg

A third early Westside entrepreneur was Richard C. Kirby, an Englishman who built his first tannery up in “Squabble Hollow”, whose later residents apparently found inner peace and renamed the area Happy Valley. In 1854, he moved his operation to the former location of the old Mission tannery, near the eastern end of today’s Escalona Drive. The site was supplied with water by a flume coming down the hill from the nearby aqueduct. Today’s Kirby Street is in the general area and the house he built in the 1850s (later moved from Mission Street) still stands on nearby Jordan Street.

These days, Kirby’s name is less-well-known than that of his wife. The former Georgiana Bruce married Kirby in 1852 and went on to become, along with her friend Eliza Farnham, a leading local social reformer. The Georgiana Bruce Kirby Preparatory School was named in her honor (now shortened to The Kirby School).

Kirby sold his interest in the Escalona tannery to partners Joseph Boston and Henry Jones in 1863, and built the new Laurel St tannery pictured in W. W. Elliott's 1879 Santa Cruz County, Calif. Illustrations. Kirby himself got a nice full-page portrait (as seen at left) and flattering bio in the book (presumably because he was the most generous subscriber).

Kirby’s Westside operation opened just two years before another tannery in town. The Grove Tannery, operated by William Warren and James Duncan, opened in 1856. Although initially much smaller than Kirby’s, the tannery survived several floods and ownership changes to eventually become Salz Leathers, which survived until 2001. Several of the old tannery buildings have been restored and incorporated into the Tannery Arts Center. In a future post, we'll find some other grist/lumber mills and tanneries that were built around the county during this period.

Next: History Pages: 12 - Pioneer German-Speakers of Santa Cruz County