History Pages: 41 - Approaching the Gilded Age: Santa Cruz Enters the 1880s

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Centennial flour mill.jpg

A few History Pages ago, the year 1880 in Santa Cruz was described as “the end of the old [stagecoaches] and the beginning of the new [railroads] in travel”. 1880 was also, in many ways, near the top of the curve for Santa Cruz County as an industrial center. As historian Susan Lehmann wrote in "Economic Development of the City of Santa Cruz, 1850-1950" :

“By 1879, Santa Cruz County had developed into a notable manufacturing area. There were five shipping points within the county limits, mills turned out 36 million board feet of lumber a year; five lime kilns, employing over two hundred men, produced the highest quality lime for mortar in the state. There were four flour mills, a sugar manufacturing plant, a chair factory, a glue factory and several tanneries. The largest and most important of the County's manufacturing facilities was the California Powder Works.”

The photo at right, from around 1880, shows one of those four flour mills and one lumber yard. The Centennial Flour Mill, on lower Pacific Avenue, was built in 1876 and burned down in 1886. The wagon in front is hauling rough lumber south on Pacific Avenue to the Grover family lumber yard and planing mill, where stacks of lumber can be seen to the left. The Grovers had timber rights and a sawmill above Soquel. Other signs of the times - the Second Empire-style mansard roof, and the horsecar at far right.

All of the industries mentioned were at or near their peaks in 1880. They had grown rapidly in the preceding decades, but began to plateau around 1880, finding a decade or two of stability before later declines. Some older industries, like raising cattle for hides and tallow, were already fading away.

Grovers Mill.jpg

The timber and lumber industry was still in its expansion phase, assisted by the arrival of railroads with their ability to efficiently transport large quantities of heavy and bulky materials, and by construction of the San Lorenzo flume that brought rough-milled planks from Boulder Creek down to the trains at Felton. Steam engines also powered larger and faster sawmills than the previous water-powered versions.

Once the two rail lines into the county were operational, the local rail network branched out into untapped timber lands throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains where hundreds of loggers were employed, like those at Grovers Mill, posing for the 1861 photo at left. Even that resource, however, which still seemed inexhaustible in 1880, was mostly gone by the turn of the century, taking with it many small mountain communities and wood-related businesses.

Commercial agriculture continued a steady pace of growth, although specific areas within the industry came and went. Wheat and sugar beets declined, while wine and apples increased. Most of today’s important crops, like berries, cut flowers and winter vegetables, were still in the future.

1880 N Pacific Ave.jpg

The 1880 photo at right shows the north end of Pacific Avenue. At far left, a corner is visible of the 1868 McPherson building that still stands today at the corner of Pacific and Locust. Another Pacific Avenue Street Railroad horsecar can be seen at the head of Pacific - perhaps the same one as in the top photo. Behind the horsecar is a narrow 2-story building with a sign saying "French and Sonoma Wine Depot", evidence of the growing (literally) interest in wine. Local vintners the Jarvis family also had a wine store in this block (on the right but not visible in this photo). The wide wood plank sidewalks border streets yet unpaved - bituminous rock sidewalk paving was just beginning to replace wood.

Tourism, another of today’s dominant local industries, was growing but still a decade away from the beginning of its peak years. The first bathhouses had appeared at Main Beach, and Hihn's Camp Capitola was up and running, but tourism's heyday was just beginning. The story of gilded-age local tourism is inextricably intertwined with the story of promoter Fred Swanton.

The end of locally-owned railroads came in 1881, when F. A. Hihn split with his partner in the Santa Cruz Railroad (SCR), Claus Spreckels. Soon after, Hihn sold the failing company to Southern Pacific. The SP brought many changes to Santa Cruz over the following decades, including the gradual conversion of all the narrow-gauge tracks to the wider tracks still in use today. The narrow-gauge tracks on Pacific Avenue remained in use by Hihn’s horse-car line, which he also sold off to concentrate his energy on the lumber business. Subsequent owners expanded the light-rail system into new Westside and Eastside neighborhoods, and on to Capitola.

Another industry was growing in other parts of the state, but failed in Santa Cruz County – oil. Not completely, however – most of the local petroleum was locked up in layers of sedimentary rock. This “bituminous rock”, as it had come to be known, gave rise to a new industry – production of a natural paving material similar to modern manufactured asphalt paving. Local pioneers in this new industry included Walrath, Thurber and Cowell.

The population of the County continued to grow rapidly, although more slowly than in the previous three decades. Eastside and Westside Santa Cruz expanded and filled in, Capitola began its conversion from tourist tent-camp to town, and Watsonville grew along with the agriculture of the Pajaro Valley. Spreckels’ sugar plant became a major employer, although actual sugar beet farming moved steadily into the Salinas area.

Many successful county pioneers in industry and commerce were ready to ease up and enjoy the fruits of their labors. New residential neighborhoods provided space for their new homes large and small. Most of our best-preserved and treasured examples of residential architecture were constructed during the 1880s and 90s. These homes included Edison’s newfangled electric lighting, and some had the even newer telephone.

Next: History Pages: 41 - Southern Pacific took over Santa Cruz County railroads in the 1880s