Of the several dozen lime company owners in Santa Cruz County history, Henry Cowell is the only name that is well-known today. This is mostly because of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. In the mid-1950s, when Samuel Henry Cowell donated much of the land for the park, he stipulated that it be named for his father.
Savvy, Strategic Businessman
Henry Cowell was born in Wrentham, Massachusetts in 1819. Like so many other successful California industrialists of the 19th century, he arrived here during the Gold Rush. With his brother John, he developed a successful warehousing business and hauled goods between San Francisco and the gold fields.
Sometime in the late 1850s or early 1860s, Cowell loaned money to the lime-producing company of Davis and Jordan. This put him in an ideal position to buy half of the business in 1865 when Jordan decided to sell.
Cowell had a reputation as a tough, savvy businessman who tried to corner as much of the lime market in central and northern California as possible. He did not hesitate to buy out competitors nor to try to drive them out of business.
Just in case the bottom fell out of the lime market, Cowell invested heavily in ranch land for grazing cattle. He also sold related building supplies, street paving material, and even owned part of a company that harvested seal pelts in Alaska.
By the time he died in 1903, he owned land in 23 counties in California. In today’s dollars, he would be worth hundreds of millions.
Lineage and Legacy
Cowell and his wife, Harriet, had five children who lived to adulthood (sons Ernest and Samuel Henry and daughters Isabella, Sarah, and Helen). Curiously, he did not want his children to marry. His last surviving child, Samuel Henry Cowell, created the S. H. Cowell Foundation to take over the family’s vast holdings. The foundation continues today as a nonprofit philanthropic organization that assists various educational and social service programs.
The names of Cowell Beach, next to the Dream Inn, and Main Beach also derive from Henry Cowell. In 1865, he bought one-half ownership of the wharf that extended from the end of Bay Street. Although it was built by Elihu Anthony in 1849, people then called it Cowell Wharf until it collapsed in 1907 during a storm. Cowell also owned the beachfront. It was donated to the people of Santa Cruz by the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company in 1954.
The content for this blog post and the AppTour was prepared by The Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District, University of California, Santa Cruz, which owns the copyright. Much of the information is from the book titled Lime Kiln Legacies: The History of the Lime Industry in Santa Cruz County, which can be purchased at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in person or online. It’s also available through Amazon.com.
If you take the AppTour, you will see that some of the historic buildings have been put to modern uses by the university. Others remain unused but are gradually being restored with private gifts of funding and materials. For information about how to help, contact the Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District. This UCSC friends group is dedicated to researching, preserving, and teaching the history of this site.
- Lime Kiln Legacies: The History of the Lime Industry in Santa Cruz County, by Frank A. Perry, Robert W. Piwarzyk, Michael D. Luther, Alverda Orlando, Allan Molho, and Sierra L. Perry. Published by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, 2007.
- Friends of the Cowell Lime Works. University of California, Santa Cruz, website.
- Notes on the History of Wharves in Santa Cruz California (2012), by Frank Perry, Barry Brown, Rick Hyman, and Stanley D. Stevens. City of Santa Cruz website.
- Personal Communication with Frank Perry, Historian, Santa Cruz County, February 2012.
Lime Kiln Legacies: The History of the Lime Industry in Santa Cruz County, by Frank A. Perry, Robert W. Piwarzyk, Michael D. Luther, Alverda Orlando, Allan Molho, and Sierra L. Perry. Published by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History; 2007.
- Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District Website.