Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

The Laguna Limekilns: Bonny Doon
by Robert W. Piwarzyk

[This article is excerpted from a manuscript titled, "The Laguna Limekilns: Bonny Doon," pp. 44-45. The maps, drawings, and photos of the manuscript are not included on this site. The manuscript is copyrighted 1996 by the author. It is used here with permission.]

The H.T. Holmes Lime Company

Thomas Bull (sometimes shown as Bohl) bought 450 acres in 1865 and began producing lime in 1866. The following year Eben Bennett bought 640 acres for $825 and built a kiln. In 1868 Bennett and Bull bought a small parcel (Jensen doesn't say where, but it was probably for storage near the wharf) and shipped their lime together the eight miles to Santa Cruz. They used a wagon and trailer with 6 mules to haul 100 barrels (about 10 tons of lime!) at a cost of 25 cents a barrel. The 1869 earthquake on the Hayward fault (sometimes also called the San Francisco earthquake) caused many of the new unreinforced brick buildings to collapse. These had replaced redwood structures, which were always burning down. But now brick and mortar had literally fallen out of favor. Production of lime from Santa Cruz took 9 years to regain pre-quake levels. After the railroad came to Felton in 1875, Bennett bought 200 more acres the following spring. Bull sold land and worked with a lime merchant from San Francisco, Henry Holms. They set up a new lime business in July, 1876, and soon thereafter Bull sold his share and retired from the lime business.

Holms then purchased 248 acres from the Bennett estate, plus the Bennett kiln for $600. This was the same year, 1876, that Eben Bennett died and that Thomas Bull put in a "patent kiln," a continuous burning kiln named "Monitor." Jensen uses the spelling Holms, but the name also appears as Holm, Holme, Homes, and Holmes. There are also references to "The H.T. Holmes Lime Company" existing in 1881, originally called "Russell and Holmes," perhaps because Russell ran the operation in Felton while Holmes marketed the product from San Francisco. Later, William Russell is listed as the superintendent at Felton, and W. Russell as a 1905 Bonny Doon property owner.

The mountain had enough ore to meet the demand, and in 1874 the IXL Lime Company was incorporated. San Francisco capital was invested in three large side-by-side kilns on the south fork of Fall Creek to the north of Bennett's kiln. This operation, along with Davis & Cowell's, and Holmes', became known as "the big three." By 1880, they produced 95% of the lime used in San Francisco and 50% of the lime used in the state! The 1890 annual report by the state mineralogist states that the Holmes Lime Company reported gross production in Santa Cruz County for the two years ending September 1, 1890, at 220,000 barrels of lime, and they still had adequate supplies of redwood. A later report refers to "The W.T. Holmes Lime Company." This may be an error or Henry died and a relative took over.

Cowell became the sole owner of "Davis & Cowell" in 1888. The economy failed nationwide in the "Panic of '93," and perhaps this was the reason that IXL went bankrupt in 1896. But Cowell, and Holmes, survived.

The turn of the century was also a turning point for the Santa Cruz lime industry --- 1900 was a very interesting year!

A report that the Holmes Lime Company was building a new kiln in Bonny Doon on Ice Cream Grade was released in December of 1899 (see following page). These were called "new kilns." The kilns in Felton are shown as "old Felton kilns" on a 1908 Sanborne insurance map, but the "old" may refer to "old Felton." With the addition of a railroad depot, the other side of the river had become "new Felton." Henry Cowell purchased the dormant IXL Lime Company in 1900, anonymously through a third party, for $5.00 in back taxes. This included the kilns and a few hundred acres of land. Cowell already owned land adjacent to IXL, to the north up Fall Creek. The author suspects that Cowell was trying to deny IXL a ready supply of fuel! Cowell also began operating the "Bonny Doon kilns" in this year, according to Clark. Cowell had been busy buying land all up and down the coast. His holdings extended from San Luis Obispo in the south to the Vancouver islands in the north. He owned around 12,000 acres in Santa Cruz County alone. As was the case with "Limekiln Beach," our new state park to the south of Big Sur, Cowell bought out companies and closed them down, never operating them himself, but simply getting rid of the competition.

Besides having a half dozen or so lime deposits in Santa Cruz county, Holmes operated a facility in the Tehachapi Mountains. That product was handled by the Union Lime Company of Los Angeles which controlled the southern market. Cowell fought a rate war and managed to keep lime produced by the Roche Harbor Lime Company (the largest on the West Coast) out of the central market by buying up 35% of their stock. Then he announced the purchase of "The Cienega Lime Company" near Tres Pinos in San Benito County. According to the Santa Cruz Surf article of November 17, 1900 (see following page), Cowell had already acquired all the lime properties in the northern part of the state, except for Holmes' holdings. More research is needed to determine what the status of the Davenport properties were at that time. In any event, a conference was called in the office of "Henry Cowell & Co.", with Henry Holmes attending, and a "combine" was formed with the expressed purpose of increasing prices.

It would seem that Cowell truly was the "reputed master of the lime trade." Did he create an alliance with Holmes in order to put pressure on the Davenport interests? We may never know. But Cowell was a shrewd businessman, perhaps a little too shrewd, and he was shot over a boundary dispute shortly thereafter, and died from the wound the following year, in 1903. He did not live to see the rise of "The Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company."

Henry Cowell had seen the industry shift from lime to cement. When his partner, Davis, died in 1888 he had renamed the company "The Henry Cowell Lime & Cement Company." Cowell established a trade in cement with Belgium. Perhaps his ships returned to Santa Cruz with firebrick made in Belgium?

Perhaps because of Cowell's bad reputation with the city of Santa Cruz, a competitive project was considered. William J. Dingee, known as the "cement king," was looking at a site within the city limits as early as 1903. The story of how he opened "The Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company" in 1905, in Davenport, is well documented by Orlando.

Other forces were at work tearing apart the empires of Henry Holmes and Henry Cowell. The continuous burning kilns that were more labor efficient did not work well with the high grade ore of the Santa Cruz Mountains. They were prone to jam which required cooling down and cleaning out the kiln. This may be the reason that Holmes built the old style pot kilns at Laguna, or it may have been more practical to construct these at the remote site rather than haul in a "patent kiln." Also, the supply of wood for fuel was at an end. Cowell installed an oil burning kiln (the square structure at the UCSC campus gate kilns) which proved too costly due to the distance from the railroad. His son later built four oil burning continuous kilns at Rincon, in 1906 or 1908, along the railroad his father had fought to stop. These kilns did not work well, and three oil burning pot kilns (which appear in photographs to be constructed of concrete) were added in 1920. They selected the proper ore for burning in each type.

The Laguna limekilns were certainly affected by all of this. In addition, transportation costs for shipping barrels and lime over Ben Lomond Mountain to the railhead in Felton must have been excessive. The kilns did not operate for very long. Ruth Adams Trotts told of her uncle and father hauling wood to the Laguna and Felton kilns. Ernest Wildhagen tells of seeing the incline railroad ore cars operating above Felton, but how, when he walked down Ice Cream Grade in 1912, "everything was dead by then."

By 1921, "The W.T. Holmes Lime Company" became &;quot;The Holmes Lime and Cement Company." Holmes operated oil burning continuous kilns in Felton, on a railroad siding. The industry shifted to areas with lower grade of ore and easier access to fuel oil. The industry was also shifting to P.C.C., Portland cement concrete. The need for aggregates for the concrete was met in Davenport where shale deposits were in close proximity to the limestone.

There had been a leveling off of the demand for "building quality" lime which was sustained by the need to rebuild after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The Holmes Lime and Cement Company continued producing lime in Felton into the 1930s, while the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company operated IXL until 1919 and Rincon into the 1940s.

>>Continue with: The Bonny Doon Kilns.


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Bonny Doon, Henry Cowell, kilns, mining, quarries


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