Labor Day honors the unsung workers who built this nation, manufactured its goods, and sometimes risked their lives for low wages.
The 1848 Gold Rush put California on the fast track for statehood. But some wanted a Northern California free state, and a Southern California slave state. Abolitionists hated slavery for its injustice, while some labor groups felt slave labor unfairly devalued wage labor throughout the South. Leaders decided to bypassed being a territory, and simply declare California an undivided free state in 1850.
Yet the Gold Rush was bringing slave holders to the state, who used slave labor in gold mining. As a Free State, the enslaved population either freed themselves (like Watsonville’s Jim Brodis), negotiated liberties from their enslavers, or bought their freedom and stayed (like London Nelson of Santa Cruz, Dave Boffman of Happy Valley, and Dan Rodgers of Watsonville). James Gadsden’s 1851 petition to make Southern California a slave state failed, but the state passed a ban on black testimony in court. In 1852 South Carolina and Florida slave-holders petitioned for a slave-owners’ colony in California. The issue was tabled, but California’s Fugitive Slave Law of 1852 suspended its anti-slavery clause, and while some refused to enforce it, others used it to re-enslave free Blacks. Yet the state’s fugitive slave law was dropped in 1855.
Then the Andres Pico Act of 1859 was introduced to make California a slave state from San Luis Obispo south. But the April 12, 1861 attack on Fort Sumpter starting the Civil War, ended any thought of splitting the state over slavery. It also stopped shipments to California of black powder, used for blasting and gunpowder, yet with no alternative sources west of the Mississippi. East Coast manufacturers couldn’t risk these shipments being captured by Confederate pirates, nor deplete what supplies the Union needed to fight secession.
California feared the loss of black powder limited the state’s ability to defend itself against invasion, or defend the gold and silver shipments being sent east supporting the Union cause. Without blasting powder for mining, the amount of gold and silver being processed could be reduced. Blasting powder was also crucial for construction of buildings, forts, roads and railways.Confederate members of the secret society Knights of the Golden Circle, conspired to seize Pacific Mail Steamerships transporting gold, and turn the captured ships into a pirate navy. Their ultimate goal was to make California a slave state, and redirect gold shipments to the Confederacy. But their plot was foiled, and the insurrectionists were sent to prison at Fort Alcatraz.
To fill the need, a group of investors got together and incorporated Dec.28, 1861, as the California Powder Works. Sites were studied statewide in a four month selection process, needing access to a shipping port, yet isolated, midst a population loyal to the United States. Los Angeles was ruled out for having two Confederate militias. At last Rincon Gorge a mile north of Santa Cruz was chosen, because the gorge was a narrow canyon that would confine any accidental blast, was little populated, had plenty of timber to make charcoal, had just been wiped clean by a megaflood, and had a wharf for sale for supplies and exports, in a town of mostly pro-Union abolitionists.
Construction commenced in November 1862. A dam was built north of the site in 1863, and water would pass through a 4-foot by 6-foot tunnel 1,200-feet long, to power the water wheels that ran the machinery. The 20-acre site was laid out with 15 industrial buildings arranged around the grounds in a circle. A ways below the plant was the office, boarding house, dormitory and homes.Safety precautions were abundant. Each industrial structure was spaced 100 to 500 feet apart. The powder magazine warehouse and manufacturing structures were constructed with 2-foot thick masonry walls, but only on three sides, then finished with a wooden fourth wall and ceiling. In this way, any accidental explosion could be directed into the hillside, or away from populated areas to minimize destruction. In addition, these buildings had thick groves of resilient eucalyptus trees around their perimeter to catch flying debris.
Black powder was made by importing saltpeter from India and Chile, to refine and combine with Sulphur and charcoal, plus graphite to keep it from clumping.
The Powder Works began production in May, 1864, with a crew of 30 men making 200 25-pound kegs of powder a day. By war’s end in 1865, production had doubled to 400 kegs a day, or a total output that year of 150,000 kegs. The mill employed from 150 to 275 men. These were mostly white, a number were teenagers. But there was also a Chinese population that started with a dozen in 1864, then reaching 35 by the mid-1870s, with their own boarding house and Joss Temple. Paid a third of white workers, they were often cooks, coopers, or construction crews, endangered by the prejudices of the white workers, whose growing outrage became the Anti-Chinese Movement in 1878, when management bowed to pressure and fired them all. But a decade later, the Chinese were back at work.
The Powder Works was a community, with its own Social Hall, Post Office in the Superintendents Building, and School House. Superintendent Col. Bernard Peyton built his 1870s Italianate Villa on top of the hill overlooking the gorge. The assistant superintendent was his son, William, who built his bride an 1890s Eastlake “castle” beside his father’s house.
After the war, the Powder Works supplied blasting powder for railroads across the west, with the 1874 Felton-to-Santa Cruz line running past the plant, completed in 1880 as the South Pacific Coast Railroad over the mountains. Yet the iron horse didn’t enter the grounds, for fear of flinting off sparks. When a railroad of sorts was built in the grounds, it was composed of wooden ties, and pulled slowly by horses with sacks over their iron horse shoes. Yet shipping by rail was a safer method, and the Powder Works Wharf was demolished in 1882.
By the 1880s, the powder works extended a mile up the river, hosting 21 powder mills, 10 shops, six magazines, and numerous support structures. Black powder was the chief local product, along with military grade gunpowder. Soon, Santa Cruz was the first smokeless powder producer in the west, one of two nationally. But Santa Cruz led the industry as the only producer of hydro-cellulose gun cotton, for perfect nitration of the fiber.
William Peyton invented a press to manufacture brown prismatic smokeless powder for high-power breach loading cannons. It created uniform consistency, so gunmen could precisely calculate each shot. The U.S. government was so impressed, it used Santa Cruz powder exclusively for its Pacific and Asiatic fleets, providing a 4-inch and 8-inch Navy deck cannons to test the powder. When the U.S. Army began using Krag-Jorgensen .30 caliber rifles, it determined Santa Cruz “Peyton Powder” was the best.
In spite of great precautions, explosions at the Powder Works were regular events. One blew out all the windows on a passing train. So a steam whistle was sounded to notify the public of a test firing, with a second whistle to give the “all-clear.” When no whistle was heard connected with an explosion, people would come running to find out the fate of loved ones.
The worst explosion happened April 1898, across the covered bridge on Eagle Creek. It left a crater and a cloud of smoke, and buildings a distance away tilted by the force of the blast. Phyllis Patten was a student at Holy Cross School, gazing out the window at 5:15 that April evening, when the explosion shook the whole town, rattling or breaking windows. Then lightning-like streams of sparks shot past the windows. People ran outside, uncertain what it was, and wondered if Spanish saboteurs (during the Spanish-American War) were taking revenge on Admiral Dewey’s only source of smokeless powder.
Shortly, a man on a galloping horse said a fire was about to blow-up the main powder magazine. Townsfolk evacuated to the beach, huddled around campfires until 9:30 that evening, when they learned the magazine had been spared. The blast injured 15, while killing 13 Chinese workers. But thanks to Smokeless Powder, the Powder Works could rebuild using corrugated metal buildings.
William Peyton married into the DuPont family, who were buying up explosives companies. In the 1890s, DuPont had a controlling interest in the California Powder Works, gained full control in 1903, but was declared a monopoly, and closed the Powder Works in 1914. It is today the site of Paradise Park Masonic Campgrounds.