Sidewalks of Washington Street

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The years 1908-1910 saw a major change in the appearance of downtown Santa Cruz and adjacent residential neighborhoods. For the first time, city sidewalks and curbs were constructed from concrete. The change was made possible by two related developments - one technological and one economic. On the technological side, the 1907 opening of the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company plant at Davenport made large quantities of durable concrete available for local construction use. The new plant also reduced the local cost of concrete, making it the cost-effective choice when the city embarked on an ambitious sidewalk-construction program in the next year.

Quite a few sections of those original concrete sidewalks and curbs still exist. In addition, many of those stretches of concrete bear the identifying stamps of the various local contractors who constructed them. These stamps often include dates, which allow us to follow the progression of the sidewalk-building program through 1910, when it mostly ended, although there are 1912 stamps on School Street and Berkeley Way.

Washington Street probably has more of the dated concrete-contractor stamps than any other street in Santa Cruz. Beginning at the corner of Lincoln Street and Washington, however, the first such stamp to be seen is from a later era. It reads:


Unlike many later contractors, James Dunn included a date in the stamp identifying his concrete work (see note 1). Walk down the east side of Washington toward Laurel to find more of these stamps. There are a surprising number of them, including another James Dunn, dated 1972. Mr. Dunn was evidently in business for quite a few years. But then, in the middle of the block between Elm and Maple, is this stamp:

2 1908

1908! That’s not unusual for a house in this neighborhood, but remarkable longevity for a sidewalk. Continuing to walk all the way to the end of Washington Street at Depot Park, and then back on the other side, there are many more of these humble little monuments to the paving contractor’s craft, including several more McFADDEN + MELVILLE stamps; most from 1908 but one incongruously dated “2 1902” (likely an error). Just around the corner on Maple, there's another 1908 stamp, with the name A H JONES. On Chestnut, two more 1908 stamps can be found, with the name BOYEA & SAWYER. Over on Center Street, just north of Elm, are a couple of "J. D. Ellis 1908" stamps. Apparently, each street had its own sidewalk contractor in 1908.

Another feature of the older Washington Street sidewalks is the stamping of street names in the concrete curbs at street corners. The stampings occur at the corners of Lincoln, New, Elm and Maple streets. At the NW corner of Maple Street, a McFADDEN + MELVILLE stamp occurs in the sidewalk section adjacent to the corner. This shows that at least some of the stamped curbs are part of the original concrete. A couple of misspellings add a human touch; “WASINGTON STREET” at one corner; “MAPEL STREET” at another. The permanent nature of concrete still makes designers and builders nervous; mistakes can remain visible for a long time.

This form of street signage can be found on other corners where the concrete sidewalks date from the same few years. A few of them are: Cedar and Elm streets, Sycamore and Cedar streets (there's also a contractor stamp at that corner dated 1910), Green and Cross streets, Leonard and Dakota streets, Berkeley Way and Branciforte Avenue, several on Lighthouse Avenue. There used to be more but only these few remain. By now, most street corner curbs have been replaced by more pedestrian-friendly and accessible ramps. On Washington Street, the opposite approach was used—the street paving was raised to match the level of the curbs at the street corners.

Before concrete

Finding these old sidewalks led to curiosity about the history of street and sidewalk paving in Santa Cruz. Prior to the explosive growth of California following the gold rush and statehood, Santa Cruz streets were graded dirt at best (turning, of course, to rutted mud in the rainy season). Continuous sidewalks were pretty much nonexistent. Commercial and residential buildings of those days usually included a covered wooden porch out front, providing a place to get out of the rain and knock some of the mud off before entering. With the development of the downtown business district in the second half of the 1800s, the buildings and porches ran together, forming more-or-less continuous wood plank walkways (like in all the western movies) well before the first street paving. Some of the more upscale residential streets, with houses set back from the roadway, also featured plank sidewalks.

Hihn mansion.jpg

The photo at right of the Hihn Mansion (see note 2), built in 1872 on Church Street (later used as the City Hall, then demolished and replaced with the present City Hall), shows one such sidewalk, separated from the dirt street by a landscaping strip.

The discovery of deposits of bituminous rock, a type of porous sandstone naturally impregnated with bitumen (a naturally-occurring highly-viscous form of petroleum, often called "tar") gave rise to the local production of a bituminous rock paving material, sometimes referred to in those days as “asphaltum”. Modern asphaltic concrete, commonly called “asphalt” or “blacktop”, is similar, but manufactured by an entirely different process. The deposits of bituminous rock were primarily found up the coast toward Davenport (see note 3), in an area that came to be known as the “petroleum district”. One of the old open-pit mines is still shown (labeled “Asphalt Pit”) on the current USGS topographic map. Local mining of this material peaked in 1896-7, when the annual dollar value briefly exceeded that of the lime industry (see note 4). In addition to local use, large quantities of bituminous rock were shipped up the coast to San Francisco.

The first bituminous rock paving of sidewalks (and streets) was on Cooper Street in 1883, followed soon after by Pacific Avenue. In 1887, the Santa Cruz Surf noted that Church and Maple Streets (among others) “have unbroken lines of bituminous rock sidewalk”, and that Santa Cruz had “many miles of walks and crossings of this material” (see note 5).

1900 - 0138 Hihn paved-curbstone-dirt.jpg

The later photo of the Hihn Mansion at left (see note 6) shows that the earlier board sidewalk has been replaced with a bituminous rock sidewalk, with a curb of cut granite stones (also quarried locally). From 1887 through the 1890s, local newspapers carried regular reports on the latest streets to receive bituminous rock or “asphaltum” sidewalks.

The south side of Lincoln Street, between Center and Washington, once had a bituminous rock sidewalk. In a couple of spots, old curbstones are exposed where later concrete (installed by James Dunn in 1948, perhaps?) has broken away. Broken concrete curbs on Washington Street do not reveal any curb stones, so either they were not used, were set farther back than today’s curbs, or were removed before the concrete curb and sidewalk were laid. Neither was evidence found that Washington Street ever had any previous sidewalks, except at Laurel School (now London Nelson Community Center and Laurel Park, see note 7).

At the upper end of Green Street, on the east side, a narrow concrete sidewalk (probably from the 1908-10 period, but lacking dated stamps) was simply laid over the top of a wider bituminous rock sidewalk. The cut-stone curb was left in place, creating the rare place where both sidewalk types still coexist.

Use of bituminous rock paving for sidewalks, pathways and industrial floors continued into the mid-1900s, but the invention of “Portland cement” led to development of much stronger and more durable concrete paving. Then, following the opening of the Davenport cement plant in 1907, concrete began to replace bituminous rock as the preferred local material for sidewalk paving.

In December of 1907, the City of Santa Cruz advertised a contract to be awarded for paving the sidewalks on both sides of Washington Street with concrete “from Lincoln Street to Washington Street extension” (see note 8). Work commenced in January, 1908. That report agrees with most of the dates in the McFADDEN + MELVILLE stamps; apparently they won the contract (see note 9).

But what about that one stamp from 1902? I found no newspaper references to concrete paving in Santa Cruz before 1905, so that date appears to be a mistake (similar to the street name misspellings?). The workers may have been spelling-challenged, but they constructed some long-lasting sidewalks. The durable concrete also preserved some interesting historical artifacts for us to rediscover more than one hundred years later.

Reference Notes

  1. Tom Ralston Concrete and one or two others are modern exceptions to the no-date trend.
  2. Santa Cruz Public Library Local History Photograph Collection: photo number 0131
  3. Laizure, C. McK. Mineral Survey of Santa Cruz County – "Bituminous Rock". Santa Cruz County History articles on the Santa Cruz Public Library website.
  4. Laizure, C. McK. Mineral Survey of Santa Cruz County – "Table of Mineral Production: Santa Cruz County, 1894-1924". Santa Cruz County History articles on the Santa Cruz Public Library website.
  5. Santa Cruz Surf, October 26, 1887, 2:2. See also History Pages: 43 - Petroleum in Santa Cruz, Then and Now
  6. Santa Cruz Public Library Local History Photograph Collection: photo number 0138
  7. Santa Cruz Surf, January 6, 1894, 2:1
  8. Santa Cruz Surf, December 7, 1907, 6:2. [My evidence is not conclusive, but I believe that Washington Street changed to Washington Street Extension about three hundred feet south of Laurel Street, where Spruce Street used to dead-end into Washington. At that point, Washington Street entered the private property of the Santa Cruz Planing Mill and Lumber Yard (as shown on the 1905 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map)].
  9. Santa Cruz Surf, January 7, 1908, 8:1

Next: History Pages: 55 - The Big Fire of 1894