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Who was Henry Cowell?

In 1849 Henry Cowell and his brother John left their home town of Wrentham, Massachusetts when the lure of gold was drawing the adventurous to California. John returned to Boston because of poor health. Henry, 30 years old, began a successful drayage business that soon grew to include routes to Stockton and the gold country. Henry's knowledge, attained from his wealthy family, paid off and soon his empire grew to include property and business interests from San Luis Obispo to Washington State.

With the population boom of the Gold Rush came the construction of towns and cities. Lime, made from processing limestone in wood-fired kilns, was high in demand and soon attracted the attention of Henry Cowell.

In the early 1850’s Albion Jordan and Isaac Davis seized the opportunity to replace the lime shipped from the East with limestone they would quarry and process in kilns locally. They found that Santa Cruz had almost unlimited deposits of high-quality limestone, plentiful wood to fuel the kilns, and proximity to San Francisco by ocean schooners. By the 1860's, brick replaced lumber as the building material of choice. By 1865 annual production of lime reached 78,580 barrels.

In 1865 Henry Cowell bought half ownership of the Santa Cruz lime business from Albion Jordan for $100,000. The other half still belonged to Isaac Davis. By 1868, Davis and Cowell were exporting more than a  thousand barrels of lime each week. In 1888 Isaac Davis died and Cowell purchased complete control for $400,000. He worked hard to build up the business, and quarried limestone from several locations throughout Santa Cruz. Cowell bought ships, established a cement trade with Belgium and bought large land holdings, ranches, and limestone deposits in 23 California counties.

In the early 1900's Cowell operated lime kilns at four locations in Santa Cruz County.  There was a lime works on Adams Creek (now part of  Wilder Ranch State Park), on Fall Creek (now part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park), and in Santa Cruz (at what is now the entrance to University of California).  In 1907, a new lime-making plant that used oil for fuel was built along Hightway 9 at Rincon (now part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park).  The oil burning kilns replaced the dwindling local wood supplies to fuel the kilns.  It was built near the railroad which delivered oil for fuel and hauled the finished lime to market.  Eventually the other plants closed, leaving only the Rincon Plant with its seven kilns.  it, too, closed in 1946.  

Testimony to Cowell's success in the lime industry lies in the fact that in 1886 he was reported to have the highest income in Santa Cruz County in addition to owning 6,500 acres of land in the area. This property included over 1,600 acres of forest adjacent to Welch's Big Trees Resort.

Cowell supplemented his lime industry business with his business in cattle, logging (for lumber and to fuel the lime kilns), and continually purchasing property. By 1899 he owned 10,000 acres of land.

By 1900 the demand for lime began to decline. The wood supplies near the kilns were almost gone. This forced the lime companies to buy expensive imported oil for fuel. Henry Cowell's death in 1903 put the burden of business on his sons Ernest and Harry. In 1906 the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company opened a plant in Davenport, and cement began to replaced lime with its superior building capabilities. The 1906 earthquake proved that brick was not the best building material and further decreased the demand for lime. By 1925 there were only 35 employees at the Cowell Ranch (for lime and cattle production), and in 1946 Harry Cowell closed the business.

Henry Cowell's everyday life was a mystery. Not much is known because he hated publicity with a passion and went to almost any length to avoid it. His family life was tragic. He had five children (plus a son who lived only one year). Sarah (1863 - 1903), died in a buggy accident on Cowell's Ranch. Henry died the same year. The accident upset Sarah's sisters Helen (1865 - 1932) and Isabella (1857 - 1950) to such an extent that they refused ever to set foot on the Ranch again. They lived as inseparable recluses in Atherton in the later portion of their unusual lives. After Helen's death in 1932, Isabella had the Atherton house torn down and left the ruins behind a locked gate. The gardeners kept the grounds as beautiful as they had been, with the demolished house lying in rubble in the center.

Ernest (1858 - 1913) was the only son to marry -- against his father's wishes -- and was temporarily disowned. Henry felt that would-be spouses were just after the family money.

The youngest son, Harry (1860 - 1955) was the last link in the Cowell family line. In his will he saw to it that 21 faithful employees were provided for, then gave the rest of the money for the public good; the giving was to be governed by the Cowell Foundation. The Santa Cruz Sentinel estimated the dollar amount to be over $14 million. Some Santa Cruz locations that benefited from the Cowell Estate include the University of California at Santa Cruz (the former Cowell Ranch), Cowell Beach, First Congregational Church on High Street and a large addition to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Other recipients of substantial gifts were Mills College, Stanford University, and Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.