Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

The California Powder Works & San Lorenzo Paper Mill: Introduction
by Barry Brown


The first Europeans to set foot in the Monterey Bay area, the sole domain of Native Americans for thousands of years, were Spaniards, in 1769, led by Don Gaspar de Portola who gave the San Lorenzo River and Santa Cruz their current names. By 1791, the Spanish had established Santa Cruz’s first mission and the Villa de Branciforte, one of the three original pueblos in Upper California, the other two being San Jose and Los Angeles. By the 1820’s, cowhides were being shipped from this area, soon followed by lumber, lime, and for a time, potatoes, especially to feed California’s burgeoning population of 49ers. As the demand grew for these products, wharves were built into the Bay to facilitate shipping. Within a hundred years, Santa Cruz had become a major point of commerce on the west coast and in 1866, was incorporated as a city. San Francisco entrepreneurs, hoping to take advantage of Santa Cruz’s local natural resources, harbor, and shipping facilities, developed sites for the San Lorenzo Paper Mill and the California Powder Works along the San Lorenzo River.

The San Lorenzo Paper Mill was established in 1860 when Henry van Valkenburgh purchased land in what is now the southern portion (Section 6) of Paradise Park Masonic Club. The Paper Mill made brown wrapping paper for the San Francisco market.

The California Powder Works was established in 1861 by San Francisco capitalists in order to meet a need created by the outbreak of the Civil War when all shipments of black gunpowder from the East Coast to California had been discontinued due to the fear that Federal gunpowder would fall into the hands of Confederate raiders. This left mining, railroad, and construction industries along the West Coast in dire straits. After exploring several sites in California, Santa Cruz was settled upon as the best location because it provided a combination of the three most important elements for manufacturing gunpowder: a consistent and plentiful water supply (the San Lorenzo River), availability of an abundant supply of wood in the forests surrounding the site, and proximity to an ocean harbor to both transport supplies in and ship product out. In 1863, the CPW purchased land just to the north of the Paper Mill and began construction of various mills and the necessary dam, flume and tunnel to transport water from the San Lorenzo River to power the machinery. By 1864, the CPW had become the first black powder producer on the West Coast and eventually became the largest and most important producer of explosives, including brown prismatic powder and guncotton (smokeless powder), west of the Mississippi River. In 1872, the CPW also acquired the Paper Mill’s land when that company went out of business.

The DuPont Corporation, the largest and most influential gunpowder manufacturer on the East Coast, bought an interest in the CPW in 1868. This business relationship was strengthened when William Charles Peyton, the son of the CPW Superintendent, married one of the du Pont daughters.

In 1869, the CPW built a dynamite plant near San Francisco in the area which became Golden Gate Park, but as San Francisco’s population grew and expanded westward toward the Pacific, the company was forced to relocate for safety reasons. Consequently, in 1879, the CPW bought a substantial parcel of land at Point Pinole in the San Francisco Bay in Contra Costa County where they established their Hercules plant, named after a potent black powder first made in Santa Cruz. A close relationship was maintained between the two plants - each provided the other with necessary materials for their operations; however, the main product produced at the Hercules plant was dynamite, while the main product produced in Santa Cruz was black powder.

In 1903, the DuPont Corporation bought a controlling interest in the CPW, and in 1906, they changed the name of the company to the E. I. du Pont de Nemours Powder Company. Later in 1912, when the DuPont powder trust was broken up under a Sherman Anti-trust decision, the corporation was re-organized and re-named the Hercules Powder Company.

Over the 50-year history of the California Powder Works in Santa Cruz, many things changed: wooden barrels were replaced by metal cans to better preserve the quality of the powder; water power was eventually replaced by steam and then electricity as they became available in the area; and shipment by sea was discontinued after the railroad was built through the Santa Cruz Mountains from the Bay Area.

As Santa Cruz's population grew and moved ever closer to the CPW plant and as the market for black powder declined, the Santa Cruz operation began to shut down and was closed completely in 1914. Most buildings were dismantled and sold for scrap and still useful machinery was transferred to the Hercules plant. The old CPW site lay abandoned for the next ten years, save for one caretaker.

In 1924, a group of Freemasons from Fresno bought the old site to provide campsites under the redwoods for their families as an escape from the summer heat of the Central Valley. Slowly, life began to return in the lower San Lorenzo Valley, and what originally were only campsites developed into the more permanent community you see here today.

Photograph of the Paradise Park Masonic Club
The Paradise Park Masonic Club

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View similarly tagged articles:

dynamite, powder works, San Lorenzo River


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