History of Fall Creek

Photo: Tim Sukovaty

Fall Creek, the northern unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State park, is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains west of the town of Felton. The park has 2,390 acres–nearly the entire watershed of Fall Creek–and about 20 miles of hiking trails. Most of these trails follow old wagon and logging roads that once led to busy industrial sites.

There is no evidence that the Ohlone used Fall Creek, nor was it ever a land grant or part of a ranchero. In the early 1870′s, the IXL Lime Company purchased the land, constructed the lime kilns, and began producing lime. In 1900, a competitor, Henry Cowell, bought IXL and incorporated it into the Cowell Lime and Cement Company.

His son, Samuel H. (“Harry”) Cowell, inherited his father’s multi-million dollar holdings. Being the last of the Cowell family, Harry established the S.H. Cowell Foundation and on April 5, 1972, the foundation gift-deeded 2,335 acres of forestland to the State of California and the Fall Creek unit was born. An additional 30 acre bequest from Mrs. Goldie Agner Barr was donated on August 8, 1988. Other acquired lands extended the park boundary north and increased the area to its present 2,390 acres.

The Limestone Industry
The limestone deposit on South Fall Creek was first developed by the IXL Lime Company in the early 1870s. The company built the three granite-block kilns and some of the structures and worked the quarry until 1896. In 1900, after four years of idleness, the limestone operation was purchased by Henry Cowell and incorporated into the existing Cowell Lime and Cement Company under the IXL name. Henry Cowell died in 1903. His son, Samuel, took control of the company in 1911 and had the water-powered barrel mill built on Fall Creek in 1912 to supply barrels in which to ship the lime. The quarry was shut down in 1919 after more efficient oil-fired kilns became common. The barrel mill was closed in 1925 after which the property deteriorated.

The limestone deposit is located on Blue Cliff, 300 yards west and 250 feet above the kilns. Limestone was blasted from the 150 foot high quarry face, sorted, and transported  to the kilns by a gravity tramway. The limestone was loaded into the kilns so as to allow a fire to be built underneath. The fire was kept burning all day for 3-4 days, through the openings in the front walls of the kilns. Five to six thousand cords of wood were used annually for the kilns. The heat generated by the fire converted the limestone to lime by driving off the carbon dioxide in the rock. After cooling, the lime was removed from the kilns, loaded into barrels, and transported to Felton by wagon. From there it went to Santa Cruz by railroad, and then to San Francisco by ship.

A total of 15 to 17 men were involved in the operation. The quarry and kilns employed 5 of 6 men. An additional 4 to 5 worked at logging and hauling wood to fire the kilns. The barrel mill was operated by 2 men, and another 2 men hauled the staves and heads to the cooperage where 2 coopers assembled the barrels. Two teamsters drove the wagons hauling the loaded barrels to Felton. Most of the workers lived in cabins around the kilns and barrel mill, but a few lived in Felton.

The lime produced from the IXL quarry was high-grade and bore the brand name IXL Diamond Lime. During its peak years, the quarry produced 50,000 barrels of lime a year, over 1/3 of the total production of lime in Santa Cruz County. IXL Diamond Lime was used extensively throughout California. Large quantities were used in rebuilding San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

Photo: Tim Sukovaty

Today, all that remains of this once prosperous enterprise is the ghost-town like ruins of buildings and the surprisingly well-preserved kilns. Much of the firebrick and metal hardware of the kilns is gone, and an 18-inch diameter Douglas fir is now growing up through the floors and out the top. The granite block outer walls are still standing in their original location. Other structures, such as the cookhouse, cooper’s shop, bunkhouses and the barrel mill on the north fork have long since succumbed to constant attack by wind, rain and inquisitive visitors. Nevertheless, the sites are still plainly marked.