Santa Cruz County History - Places

Coast Dairies Property: A Land Use History

[Excerpt from Coast Dairies Long-Term Resource Protection and Use Plan: Draft Exiting Conditions Report for the Coast Dairies Property, Section 1.0.
Figures and photos referenced in text are not included in this online version.]

1.2 - A Humanized Landscape

Most discussions about Santa Cruz County's North Coast emphasize the scenic natural beauty of the coastline, and indeed some aspects of today's scenery have evoked the same reactions for many generations of residents and visitors. Yet, as we begin to review the historic period, we find a landscape heavily altered by long and often intensive human use. On the Coast Dairies Property, sunsets are viewed while standing on massive structures, now unrecognizable as railroad trestles, looking across fields of Brussels sprouts, to a western edge broken by the towers of the cement plant. Streams have been dammed, diverted through tunnels, flumed and in several instances encased in pipes and carried away to serve the citizens of Santa Cruz. Road cuts and fills slice the landscape, and everywhere one can see concrete abutments, truncated water pipes and bolts protruding from the earth, monuments to an industrial (or at least an entrepreneurial) past.

This section of the Existing Conditions Report is an effort to bring the human story to the forefront, to highlight the remarkable ingenuity and energy that came to the North Coast and tried to transform it--to put the human communities that lived or migrated here into the ever-changing landscape beside the animals, plants, and the physical environment.

The story of the North Coast is really two histories, before and after the incorporation of the Coast Dairies & Land Co. in 1901. The combination of the Moretti and Respini family assets, together with the leadership of Louis Moretti, provided a catalyst for an explosion of activity more like the booms of the gold fields or Silicon Valley than the pastoral landscape we value today. The Coast Dairies Corporation was the major agent for change in the early twentieth century. The over-arching theme of both is that of a treasure trove of natural resources locked up and isolated by a formidably rugged landscape. Many who came to the North Coast marveled at its potential--the forests, limestone, bitumin, fresh water, rolling grasslands, terraces--all ripe for utilization, and then added "if only we had..." followed at different times by the phrase "dependable road," "protected harbor," "railroad," "straight highway," or even "freeway." The North Coast is dominated by the long, narrow coastal terrace perched a hundred feet or so above the ocean, offering little access when approaching by sea, while the rugged and irregular Santa Cruz Mountains provide a parallel barrier on the east. The northern end of the terrace was blocked by a mudstone bluff that comes down to the ocean's edge just north of Waddell Creek, which forced early travelers into the surf to get past. The only easy access to this terrace is from the southeast, but its length is so dissected by gullies and valleys that, until the coming of the railroad in 1905, it was extremely difficult to traverse. "The road to Pescadero is thirty-six miles in length, follows along the coast, and is one of continuous ups and downs," wrote one observer in 1880. "It would be a slander to say it is a comfortable road over which to ride." (Sentinel 1/31/1880).

The natural landscape blunted the forces of development and forced them into slow motion, creating a thirty-year lag compared to areas north or south. While the railroad connection between Santa Cruz and the outside world was completed in 1876, the North Coast wasn't connected until 1906; likewise, the big sawmills came to the redwood canyons on the east side of Ben Lomond Mountain in the 1880s, but didn't reach the North Coast until 1909.

The North Coast's isolation became an asset when harried citizens from the San Francisco Bay Area sought relief in the sheltered campgrounds that grew up at every stream crossing. The "secret recesses and wildest haunts" lured fishermen, hunters and campers away from the "comparatively bleak valley of Santa Clara." (Sentinel 5/18/1872)

Finally, and fortunately for the future of the Coast Dairies Property, some developments never came at all. The coastal subdivision frenzy of the 1920s that saw the entire coastline from Santa Cruz to Aptos divided and sold into houselots was slowed enough that, when it finally arrived in the late 1960s, the community rose up and stopped it.

A Landscape for Everyone

There are a multitude of landforms compressed between the surf and the top of Ben Lomond Mountain. Rainfall amounts double in that distance and a mere turn in a canyon can change the visitor's experience from bright, open landscape to deep, redwood forest. The North Coast offered something for everybody; most immigrants could find a familiar niche within which to live and work. And for some, like the Swiss, for whom the coastal hills evoked Switzerland's Canton Ticino, that was an impetus to settle. Azorean whalers worked from Pigeon Point, Japanese farmers tilled the coastal terraces, Chinese abalone hunters prowled the rocks, Swiss and Portuguese dairymen tended their herds, Filipino and Mexican farm laborers worked under the sun, and Italian farmers coaxed the land to grow artichokes and Brussels sprouts. Greek stonecutters risked their lives quarrying a living out of the San Vicente Canyon.

Other sections:

View similarly tagged articles:

development, geology, North Coast, roads


It is our continuing goal to make available a selection of articles on various subjects and places in Santa Cruz County. Certain topics, however, have yet to be researched. In other cases, we were not granted permission to use articles. The content of the articles is the responsibility of the individual author. It is the Library's intent to provide accurate local history information. However, it is not possible for the Library to completely verify the accuracy of individual articles obtained from a variety of sources. If you believe that factual statements in a local history article are incorrect and can provide documentation, please contact the Webmaster.