Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

by Susan Lehmann

Years before the gold rush of 1849 brought about the transformation of California, several American adventurers had recognized the potential for development of Santa Cruz County's abundant natural resources. Known to the Mexican authorities as "foreigners," these men established the first industries in what was to become Santa Cruz County.

With the coming of statehood for California in 1850, more Americans moved to the County, buying up Mexican land grants and establishing industrial plants at a number of locations. 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 live 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 located on the San Lorenzo River in what is now Paradise Park. The Powder Works was started in 1861 to provide blasting powder to the mining industry and was a major source of employment during its years of operation.

Within twenty years, however, the seemingly unlimited supply of timber was seriously depleted and, as a result, continued growth of Santa Cruz County as a prosperous manufacturing area did not continue much past the turn of the century. All of the area industries were dependent of local natural resources including redwood trees for lumber and for use as fuel for the lime kilns, and oaks for the tanneries. As supplies were depleted, an effort was made to import the basic materials by rail and on ships. This, however, proved economically unfeasible. With the exception of a few holdouts, the lumbering and the lime industry dwindled and the black powder manufactured by the California Powder Mill was eventually replaced by dynamite made elsewhere, causing the mill to close.

Commercial fishing, though never as extensive as in Monterey, nonetheless was an important part of the city's early development. It all but disappeared during World War II and except for some sport fishing, there is little reminder of the fleet of boats that were once a common sight on the bay.

The Santa Cruz described by the glowing promotional literature of the 1890s was virtually unrecognizable by 1910. Although relatively short lived, this thriving industrial economy provided the funds to establish the town and was responsible for its basic layout and orientation with the port. Only one representative of these early manufacturing industries survives today, the Salz Leather Company.

Concurrent with industrial development, ... tourism began about 1865 when John Leibrandt built a bathhouse, swimming tank and entertainment house. During the late 1880s, the tourist industry received its biggest boost in the person of promoter Fred Swanton who envisioned a grand seaside development equivalent to New York's Coney Island. Aided by national publicity and a hook up with the existing railroads that served resorts in the Santa Cruz mountains, converting the city's economy from industrial to tourist oriented proved very successful throughout the 1920s. The Great Depression and the popularity of the automobile, however, changed the nature of tourism in the years preceding World War II. The grand hotels closed or were destroyed by fire and not rebuilt. They were soon replaced with tourist camps and attractions aimed more at day travelers than visitors who stayed several weeks. In spite of the restrictions of the War, the boardwalk managed to survive and continues to this day, a mixture of new rides and attractions with the historic roller coaster and carousel.

Until the earthquake of 1989 devastated downtown, the historical development of the city could be seen in its commercial buildings which displayed a broad range of architectural styles and periods. Only a relatively few examples remain in the city center and it is now the outlying neighborhoods that are, for the most part, the repositories of the broad stylistic diversity that [makes] up the city's architectural and visual heritage.

Industrial remnants, such as the lime kilns located at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the buildings of the Salz tannery, can be counted on one hand. They are in danger, through neglect in the former case and the pressures of business in the latter, of disappearing altogether. There are isolated examples of old industrial buildings being adapted for other purposes including the Enterprise Iron Works on Chestnut Street and some of the larger Cowell ranch buildings at UCSC. Perhaps the biggest and brightest success story, is the Sash Mill on River Street which [was] converted to a variety of uses in the 1970s and now includes artists studios, offices and a winery tasting room.

Remnants of the early tourist industry are everywhere. Although the grand hotels are all gone, replaced first by motor courts and then by motels, there are pockets of charming survivors. These run gamut from stately Victorian vacation houses on West Cliff Drive to tiny cottages that line the streets of Seacliff. The Boardwalk, although continually adding new attractions, pays tribute to its beginnings as well. A recently created website celebrates the Boardwalk history and its company logo features the casino and the Giant Dipper. Most importantly, the roller coaster and the carousel have been preserved and continue to operate.

On Beach Hill, the City owned Carmelita Cottages, once used as vacation rentals, are now a youth hostel. The last reminder of the era of grand hotels is La Bahia, a housing complex that served as long term rental units for the Casa del Rey Hotel at the beach.

To know something of the history of economic development in the city is to understand the way it appears today -- its architecture, its street layout, its relationship with the coastline and the forests that surround it. How the environmental movement was born at the start of the twentieth century is easier to understand in the context of the 19th century philosophy that preceded it. The taming of the wilderness and the exploitation of its resources were central to the early prosperity of the West resulting in destruction that [gave] rise to a new ethic. The success of that ethic in Santa Cruz was due, in large part, to the economic benefits of tourism which replaced heavy industry with the selling of mountain scenery, beach front attractions and healthy air to visitors from all over the county. This effort was initially successful because of heavy advertisement by the railroads and through the efforts of local promoters. The prosperity brought by tourism began to wane beginning in the late 1920s and continuing on through the 1950s. This was due to a number of factors including the Great Depression, the popularity of the automobile, and the coming [of] World War II. The glory days of the "Coney Island" of the West were never to be seen again and the city's current economic base of day tourism, the University and high tech is a story that has yet to be written.

[From: Fully Developed Context Statement for the City of Santa Cruz. Prepared for City of Santa Cruz Planning and Development Department. Prepared by Susan Lehmann, October 20, 2000. Chapter 3, Context I: Economic Development of the City of Santa Cruz 1850-1950, pp. 7-8]

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