The boom town that became ‘BOOM’

Labor Day honors the unsung workers who built this nation, manufactured its goods, and sometimes risked their lives for low wages.

The Gold Rush of 1848 put California on the fast track to statehood. But some wanted a free state in Northern California and a slave state in Southern California. Abolitionists hated slavery for its injustice, while some labor groups felt that slave labor unfairly devalued wage labor throughout the South. The rulers decided to bypass being a territory and simply declare California an undivided free state in 1850.

Yet the gold rush brought slave owners to the state, who used slave labor in gold mining. As a free state, the enslaved population either freed themselves (like Jim Brodis of Watsonville), negotiated freedoms with their slavers, 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 banned black testimony in court. In 1852, slave owners in South Carolina and Florida requested a colony of slave owners in California. The question was asked, but California’s Fugitive Slave Act of 1852 suspended its anti-slavery clause, and while some refused to enforce it, others used it to re-enslave free blacks. Yet the Fugitive Slave Act of the State was dropped in 1855.

Then the Andres Pico Act of 1859 was introduced to make California a slave state south of San Luis Obispo. But the April 12, 1861, attack on Fort Sumpter, sparking the Civil War, ended any idea of ​​dividing the state over slavery. He also stopped shipments to California of black powder, used for blasting and gunpowder, but without other sources west of the Mississippi. East Coast manufacturers could not risk these shipments being captured by Confederate pirates, nor exhaust the supplies the Union needed to fight secession.

California feared that the loss of gunpowder would limit the state’s ability to defend against invasion or defend shipments of gold and silver sent east to support the Union cause. Without explosive powder for mining, the amount of gold and silver being processed could be reduced. Black powder was also crucial for the construction of buildings, forts, roads and railways.
Confederate members of the secret society Knights of the Golden Circle conspired to seize gold-carrying Pacific Mail Steamerships 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 insurgents were sent to prison at Fort Alcatraz.


To fill the need, a group of investors came together and incorporated on December 28, 1861 as the California Powder Works. Sites were surveyed statewide during a four-month screening process, requiring access to a shipping, but isolated, port amidst a population loyal to the United States. Los Angeles was excluded for having two Confederate militias. Finally, Rincon Gorge, a mile north of Santa Cruz, was chosen because the gorge was a narrow canyon that would confine any accidental explosion, was sparsely populated, had plenty of wood for making charcoal, had just to be cleaned up by a mega-flood and had a wharf for sale for supplies and exports, in a town of mostly pro-Union abolitionists.

Construction began in November 1862. A dam was built north of the site in 1863, and water would pass through a 4-by-6-foot tunnel 1,200 feet long, to power the water wheels that operated machines. The 20-acre site has been landscaped with 15 industrial buildings arranged around the land in a circle. A path below the factory was the office, boarding house, dormitory and houses.
Safety precautions were plentiful. Each industrial structure was spaced 100 to 500 feet apart. The powder magazine warehouse and manufacturing structures were built with 2-foot-thick masonry walls, but only on three sides, then finished with a fourth wall and a timber ceiling. This way, any accidental explosions could be directed down the hillside or away from populated areas to minimize destruction. Additionally, these buildings had thick resilient eucalyptus groves around their perimeters to catch flying debris.

Black powder was made by importing saltpeter from India and Chile, refining it and combining it with sulfur and charcoal, and graphite to keep it from caking.

The Powder Works began production in May 1864, with a 30-man crew making 200 barrels of 25-pound powder a day. By the end of the war in 1865 production had doubled to 400 casks a day, making a total production that year of 150,000 casks. The mill employed 150 to 275 men. They were mostly white, a number were teenagers. But there was also a Chinese population that started with a dozen in 1864, then reached 35 by the mid-1870s, with their own boarding house and Joss Temple. Paid one-third of white workers, they were often cooks, coopers or construction crews, threatened by the prejudices of 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 to work.

The Powder Works was a community, with its own social hall, post office in the superintendents building, and school house. The superintendent, Colonel 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 wife a “castle” of Eastlake in the 1890s next to his father’s house.

After the war, the Powder Works supplied explosive powder for the western railroads, the 1874 Felton-Santa Cruz line passing the factory, completed in 1880 as the South Pacific Coast Railroad in- above the mountains. However, the iron horse did not enter the park, for fear of throwing sparks. When a sort of railway was built in the park, it was made up of wooden sleepers and pulled slowly by horses with packs on their horseshoes. Still, rail transport was a safer method, and the Powder Works Wharf was demolished in 1882.


By the 1880s, the powder magazine stretched a mile up the river, housing 21 powder mills, 10 stores, six magazines, and numerous support structures. Black powder was the main local product, along with military-grade gunpowder. Soon, Santa Cruz was the leading producer of smokeless powder in the west, one of two nationally. But Santa Cruz dominated the industry as the only producer of hydro-cellulose cotton, for perfect fiber nitration.

William Peyton invented a press to make prismatic brown smokeless powder for high powered breaching loading cannons. This created uniform consistency, so the gunmen could accurately time each shot. The U.S. government was so impressed that it used Santa Cruz gunpowder exclusively for its Pacific and Asiatic fleets, providing 4-inch and 8-inch Navy deck guns to test the gunpowder. When the U.S. Army began using .30 caliber Krag-Jorgensen rifles, they determined that Santa Cruz’s “Peyton Powder” was the best.

Despite great precautions, explosions at the Powder Works were a regular occurrence. One of them blew out all the windows of a passing train. A steam whistle therefore sounded to inform the public of a test shot, with a second whistle to give the “go-ahead”. When no whistle was heard linked to an explosion, people were running to find out the fate of their loved ones.

The worst explosion occurred in April 1898, across the Eagle Creek Covered Bridge. It left a crater and a cloud of smoke, and distant buildings tilted by the force of the explosion. Phyllis Patten was a student at Holy Cross School, staring out the window at 5.15pm that April evening when the blast shook the whole town, shaking or shattering windows. Then jets of sparks resembling lightning flashed past the windows. People ran outside, unsure what it was, and wondered if the Spanish saboteurs (during the Spanish-American War) were taking revenge on Admiral Dewey’s only source of smokeless powder.

Shortly after, a man on a galloping horse said a fire was about to blow up the main powder magazine. Townspeople were evacuated to the beach, huddled around campfires until 9.30pm that evening when they heard the magazine had been spared. The blast injured 15 people and killed 13 Chinese workers. But thanks to Smokeless Powder, the Powder Works was able to rebuild using corrugated iron buildings.

William Peyton married into the DuPont family, which bought out explosives companies. In the 1890s, DuPont held a controlling interest in the California Powder Works, took full control in 1903, but was declared a monopoly and closed the Powder Works in 1914. Today it is the site of the grounds of Masonic campsite in Paradise Park.

About Dwayne Wakefield

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