Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

The California Powder Works

[The California Powder Works was incorporated in 1861 and began manufacturing powder in May 1864. The company ceased operating in Santa Cruz in 1914. For fifty years, it was a major employer in the county, employing between 150 and 275 men. The Powder Works was located on a flat, which came to be known as Powder Mill Flats, adjacent to the San Lorenzo River, three miles north of the Bay.

The following is an excerpt from "Santa Cruz County; a faithful reproduction in print and photography of its climate, capabilities, and beauties." 1896. pp. 26 and 27. RAP-ed.]

The California Powder Works, situated on the San Lorenzo River two and a half miles north of the city of Santa Cruz, have been for thirty years the chief industrial feature of the county. They were established for the purpose of supplying the Pacific Coast with blasting powder for mining and railroad work, and with sporting and military powders. But in process of time dynamite replaced blasting powder for the most part, and brown and smokeless powders superseded black gunpowder.

Photo of workers at the Powder Works
Workmen at the California Powder Works, 1901
Courtesy of the
Santa Cruz City Museum of Natural History.

In these improvements the California Powder Works rather led, until they comprised six distinct plants, every one of them on a scale worthy of an independent company. These are:

  1. The original black powder mills.
  2. Dynamite works at Pinole, on the bay of San Francisco.
  3. Gun cotton works at Pinole.
  4. Brown prismatic powder works at Santa Cruz.
  5. Smokeless powder works at Santa Cruz.
  6. A cartridge factory at Santa Cruz. The quality of the goods turned out at these works is made apparent by the light of these facts:

1. The black blasting powder is valued, wherever used, at twenty-five cents per keg more than any other powder of its kind.

2. Dynamite.--Three-fifths of all the dynamite consumed west of the Rocky Mountains is manufactured and sold by the California Powder Works under the name of HERCULES POWDER, besides an immense quantity exported to countries bordering on the Pacific Ocean, -all honest goods, containing the percentage of nitroglycerine purported by its marks.

3. Gun cotton, the basis of smokeless powders, and for torpedoes, etc., is made by the hydro-cellulose process, which alone permits perfect nitration of the fibre. This process is followed only at these works, although known to all chemists and approved by them. The "hank" process is followed at other works because it is easier.

4. Brown prismatic powder for high-power breech-loading cannon. --Of this the press invented by Mr. William C. Peyton, Assistant Superintendent of the works, delivers up prisms of powder of absolutely uniform specific gravity. This enables the artillerist to calculate with precision the effect of every shot, and is so much esteemed by the Government that it has delivered, at the company's proving ground, an equipment of modern guns for use in the testing of the powder before its acceptance for service. All the powder required for the Pacific and Asiatic fleets of United States ships, and for Pacific harbor and coast defense, is obtained from these works.

5. Smokeless powder.--When the Krag-Jorgensen .30 calibre rifle was adopted by the United States Army, the Ordnance Corps procured samples of all the smokeless powders manufactured in Europe and America for competitive tests. The sample offered by the California Powder Works under the name of PEYTON POWDER was judged to be the best of all, and from that time to this the Peyton Powder, made at Santa Cruz and transported across the continent, has been exclusively employed in the manufacture of cartridges for the new weapon. Its properties are fully described in the Ordnance Reports. The same powder has proved equally efficacious for field artillery, and its adaptation to the heavier calibres is now being carried out.

6. Smokeless shotgun powder.--After four years of study and experimentation this has recently been perfected in a powder called C. P. W. SMOKELESS, upon which the company bases its reputation when the cartridges are loaded at their factory, or rightly loaded elsewhere. Cartridges are so loaded for two uses: those for clay-pigeon trap shooting are known as NATIVE SON CARTRIDGES; the others are used for live birds at the trap and for field shooting. No sportsman shooting a Native Son cartridge, with aim straight at the pigeon, fails to bring it down, nor does he, after once using the Native Son, ever trust another brand. This powder has an equally good reputation in nitro shells for general field purpose. In quickness it is unexampled, with never a "hang-fire," whilst for safety, pattern, penetration and cleanliness it is unsurpassed.

The California Powder Works are rated as second to none in Europe or America, whether the magnitude of their operations be considered, or their skillful use of the best knowledge of their art; and it is certain that their high position in the manufacturing world will never be lightly surrendered.

The California Powder Works are very fortunate in respect to location. The canyon of the San Lorenzo supplies them with an abundance of wood and water, and their proximity to the sea and to the railway gives them the requisite facilities of transportation.

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dynamite, mining, powder works, San Lorenzo River


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