History Pages: 18 - Civil War

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The first historical topic that really caught my childhood imagination was the Civil War. At age ten, those romanticized stories of courageous soldiers and epic battles really struck a chord. So it’s a bit deflating to look at that period in Santa Cruz history and realize that not much happened here. California was so isolated and sparsely populated that the North vs. South passions were mostly absent. The state’s main contribution to the war was gold. Locally, the first half of the 1860s were marked mainly by another economic slowdown caused by the departure of many young men to serve in the Union army (the fact that most Santa Cruz settlers came from northern states meant there was little secessionist sympathy here).The local economic effect was similar to but smaller than what happened during the Gold Rush.

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None of the local soldiers saw any actual combat, but they were exposed to some of the other dangers of 19th-century warfare. Four members of the locally-raised Company L, 2nd California Cavalry died from disease while on garrison duty in San Francisco. The first victim was Asa Anthony, an 18-year-old nephew of Main Street founder Elihu Anthony. Most of Company L worked for the Davis & Jordan Lime Company, as did the Captain, Albert Brown (foreman). Anthony is buried in the Grand Army of the Republic section of Evergreen Cemetery. Another Company L veteran was Michael Lodge, son of Rancho Soquel grantees Michael Lodge and Martina Castro.

A somewhat different wartime experience was that of Joseph Rodriguez, a member of that prominent Santa Cruz pioneer family. In 1863, Joseph joined Company A, 3rd California (Native) Cavalry, under Captain José Romero Pico (of the equally prominent Pico family). By this time, the deep divide between eastern-born anglo Californians and the native-born Californios was clearly evident. The west side of the river was becoming the “white” Santa Cruz, while the east side (including the old Branciforte pueblo) became “Spanish town”. While the 2nd Cavalry went north to San Francisco, the 3rd went south to garrison duty at the Drum Barracks in San Pedro. The irony of this sort of segregation in an army fighting to end slavery was apparently lost on the participants.

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The lime business suffered from the absence of so many employees, but other enterprises were more affected by the wartime disruption of supply chains from eastern factories. In particular, mining/quarrying and road-building activities were stymied by a shortage of blasting powder. In 1861, a group of San Francisco businessmen looked at the problem and saw an opportunity. The result was the California Powder Works, constructed at a site on the San Lorenzo River a few miles north of town.


The manufacturing plant produced its first barrel of black powder in 1864, and soon became the county’s largest employer. To get the product to town, the company built a covered bridge over the river and a road known today as Ocean Street Extension. They also bought and improved the Gharkey wharf at the foot of Main Street on Beach Hill. Later, when dynamite began to supplant black powder, company owners built a new dynamite plant on the east side of SF Bay. Today's town of Hercules started as a company town, given the brand-name of the company's blasting powder.

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The Santa Cruz plant gradually reduced its operations, finally closing for good in 1914. A few years later the property was purchased by the Masonic Order and renamed the Paradise Park Masonic Club. Historian Donald Clark found it ironical that a place once known for producing explosions should now be called Paradise Park. For what was once such a prominent institution in the county, it's odd that the California Powder Works has been so thoroughly erased from local memory. I found a grand total of two names on signs, and you have to be a hiker to see them. In Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, you'll find Powder Mill Creek, which empties into the San Lorenzo opposite the Powder Works site. Hikers can follow the creek partway down on the Powder Mill Trail.

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The San Lorenzo Paper Mill, located just downstream from the Powder Works site, had a slightly different raison d'être. Funded by another San Francisco post-Gold Rush capitalist, Henry Van Valkenburgh, the paper mill opened in 1861. The location was chosen because, according to local historian Barry Brown, all of the raw materials necessary for paper manufacturing were locally available: “straw, lime, wood, water, water power, and easy access to shipping”. The mill, which at first only made brown “butcher paper”, may have been the first paper mill in California. The mill was eventually absorbed by the Powder Company, and shut down at the same time in 1914.


Next: History Pages: 19 - Return of the Limeburners