Davenport History: Whaling, Cement, and Immigrants

The town of Davenport with the very important train in the foreground in 2008. Photo by Drew Jackson courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The town of Davenport with the very important train in the foreground in 2008. Photo: Drew Jackson

Settlement in the area of today’s Davenport got its start in 1868 when Captain John Davenport, a sea-based whaler by trade, built a 450 foot wharf off what became to be known as Davenport’s Landing (near El Jarro Point). The wharf was used to export local timber by boat to San Francisco.

Captain Davenport also used a practice developed in the Azores Islands of Portugal called shore-based whaling. Scouts on the bluffs would alert men to go out from shore in a boat, kill the whale, and tow it back to shore for processing. It allowed the crew to stay with their families and was easier than processing the blubber at sea. By 1880 the high cost of operation forced Davenport to abandon the landing and move to Santa Cruz.

A Cement Town

The history of the modern town of Davenport is wholly wrapped up with the Davenport Cement Plant. The town was built in 1905 by the Coast Dairies and Land Company to house workers for the cement plant. On the shores of San Vicente Creek, it is located about a mile south of Davenport Landing. The town was originally called San Vicente, but when the post office was moved from Davenport Landing to the new town in 1907, it retained the name of Davenport. In those days the power of the post was great. San Vicente slowly faded away as a name, to be officially replaced by Davenport.

By 1915 Davenport had a population of about 1800 people, with 60 homes, two hotels, a school, a hospital, a church, and a hotel. The cement from the plant was used to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 quake, build one of the Panama Canal locks, and even construct the dry docks in Pearl Harbor. Though it was bought and sold by several different companies over the decades, the plant continued to supply cement for major construction projects up and down the West Coast. It was the main employer in Davenport for over 100 years.

Davenport circa 1908. The modern day Roadhouse is located in the upper left where you see a white building to the left of the cement plant. The hotel and many homes in the center right are along San Vicente Creek and are mostly all gone now. Image courtesy of Alverda Orlando.
Davenport circa 1908. The modern day Roadhouse is located in the upper left where you see a white building to the left of the cement plant. The hotel and many homes in the center right are along San Vicente Creek and are mostly all gone now. Image: Courtesy of Alverda Orlando

 

A Community of Immigrants

In the first third of the 20th century getting into and out of Davenport was a big deal. There were over 700 turns on the road from Davenport to Santa Cruz. As such the town was isolated and developed a close-knit community. It was made up of a very culturally diverse group of people. Most of the managers were Swiss, because the Coast Dairies and Land Company was owned by four Swiss families, but the workers were from all over the world. Italian and Greek families were very prominent but workers apparently came from all over Europe and the Middle East. Prior to World War I, over 20 different languages were spoken in the town.

By the 1930s the roads and cars had improved such that many people moved to Santa Cruz and commuted to Davenport to work at the cement plant. The cement plant apparently chartered with Greyhound to bus workers back and forth daily. By the 1940s it was a much smaller town with a population less than five hundred.

During World War II the US government brought in Mexican workers, under the Bracero Program, to do agricultural work. Many worked in the Davenport area. After the war several Mexican workers came back and the town’s cultural makeup began to include more people of Mexican decent and lose the influence of previous Italian and Greek cultures.

Alverda Orlando, a Davenport resident from 1945 to 1975, tells a story about one Mexican man, known as Pancho, who walked up the stairs of the cement plant one day looking for work. At the same moment the best shift worker, an Italian American was walking down having just quit. The superintendent hired Pancho on the spot. Pancho went on to work at the cement plant for years, brought his whole family up from Mexico, and bought seven homes, eventually giving one to each child.

Dust covering cars in Davenport circa 1950. Image courtesy of Alverda Orlando.
Dust covering cars in Davenport circa 1950. Image: Courtesy of Alverda Orlando

The End of a Long Run

In 2005, CEMEX, a Mexican company, acquired the plant and kept it operational until 2010, when a bad economy and high operation costs (the highest of its 14 cement plants in the US) forced it to close. At the time it employed about 120 people. Its closure was a big blow to the town in loss of jobs and other services. For example, CEMEX was paying about $185,000 annually for operation and maintenance of the local water and sewage treatment facilities. After the closure, the community had to absorb those costs, on top of the many job losses in a weak economy.

The Church

The Saint Vincent De Paul Church was built in 1914-1915 with donated materials and the labor of Davenport residents, workers from the Coast Dairies and Land Company, and the cement plant. It is at the end of Davenport Avenue, on the Santa Cruz side of the Davenport Roadhouse.

The Jail Museum

Originally constructed in 1914 as a two-cell county jail, the Davenport jail was used only once before it was decommissioned in 1936. It was converted into a museum of north coast history in 1987. It features a permanent exhibition on the natural environment, native peoples, major local industries and early families and community life. From June to September, the museum is open on the first Sunday of the month between 11 am and 4 pm. Contact phone is (831) 429-1964.

The jail is located just behind the Davenport Roadhouse. The correct address is 1 Center Street. For years the jail’s address was incorrectly listed as 2 Davenport Avenue by just about everyone, including the fire department and planning commission. Luckily Alverda Orlando cleared this up in 2012 and the fire department now has the correct address.

The St Vincent De Paul Church in 2012.
St. Vincent De Paul Church in 2012. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger
Davenport Jail Museum in 2012.
The Davenport Jail Museum in 2012. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger
The backside of the defunct Crocker Hospital in 2012.
Backside of the defunct Crocker Hospital in 2012. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

The Hospital

The Crocker Hospital was built in 1910 by the Davenport Cement Company to care for its workers and the community. It is located just across from the entrance to the cement plant. William H. Crocker was one of the original investors along with William Dingee the “Cement King.”

 

 

 

Updated August 9, 2016

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  1. Sources Used

    • Davenport Cement Centennial: Honoring our past, building the future. Alverda Orlando, Robert W. Piwarzyk. CEMEX, USA; 2006.
    • Davenport and its Cement Plant: the Early Years, 1903-1910. Alverda Orlando. Santa Cruz County History Journal S.C.C. Historical Trust Inc. 1994;(1):49–60.
    • Davenport CEMEX plant to shut down for good - Santa Cruz Sentinel. Kurtis Alexander. Santa Cruz Sentinel. January 23, 2010.
    • Davenport Jail Museum. Santa Cruz Visual Arts. Santa Cruz Visual Arts Website.
    • Davenport. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. website. Accessed December 15, 2013.
    • Early History of Davenport, CA. Alverda Orlando. Santa Cruz Public Libraries Website.
    • Personal Communication with Alverda Orlando, historian and Davenport resident from 1945-1975, Santa Cruz County, December, 2012.
    • Monterey Bay Area: Natural History and Cultural Imprints, Second Edition Burton Le Roy Gordon. Boxwood Press; 1977.
    • Whales Along the Coast of Davenport. Alverda Orlando. Santa Cruz Public Libraries Website.

 



About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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