The effort to preserve a UCSC landmark and remember a time long forgotten

Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.
Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.
The Friends of the Cowell Lime Works hope the Hay Barn, one of 16 buildings in UCSC’s historic district, will undergo a disassembly process later this year. Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.
The Friends of the Cowell Lime Works hope the Hay Barn, one of 16 buildings in UCSC’s historic district, will undergo a disassembly process later this year. Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.
After allowing the recently converted lime to cool for a couple of days, the lime produced would be exported to cities up and down the West Coast. Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.
After allowing the recently converted lime to cool for a couple of days, the lime produced would be exported to cities up and down the West Coast. Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.

On a brisk Wednesday morning, local historian Frank Perry peers through the gaps in the walls of an abandoned wooden frame structure. The building goes unnoticed by most, but Perry sees something more. One hundred years ago, the building was a part of Henry Cowell’s ranch and at the heart of a major bustling industry in a time when Santa Cruz County was one of the largest exporters of lime and limestone in the country.

Today, UC Santa Cruz’s “Hay Barn,” just a five-minute walk uphill from its better-known cousin the Barn Theater, has taken a beating from a series of recent storms. Its wooden timber planks flap in the wind like fliers on a bus stop bulletin board.

Perry is joined by Sally Morgan, UCSC’s senior environmental planner, as well as Steve Franks and Bill Hurley from Del Osos Timber Works, Inc. Franks and Hurley have driven up from San Luis Obispo to offer their advice on how best to repair the aging structure.

“What we were just talking about looks doable,” Franks said. “We have to come up with some kind of a demolition plan to —”

“‘Disassembly’ is the word,” Perry quickly interjects, a hint of nervousness in his voice. But the dilapidated building has him grinning ear to ear.

Perry is the president of Friends of the Cowell Lime Works, a local foundation associated with UCSC, which raises money and awareness for historic preservation on campus. He hopes the group can find enough funding from donors for their plan to carefully take the barn apart, document it, replace unsalvagable, rotting parts and ultimately reassemble the structure piece by piece.

The building is one of 16 in UCSC’s Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Other structures include the Cardiff House (now known as the Women’s Center), the Cook House (now the admissions office), and the Barn Theater. Many buildings that once housed mined limestone in queue to be converted into lime still stand proudly and are also included in the district. Although other California colleges have individual sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, UCSC is the only campus with a nationally recognized Historic District.

Unfortunately, the Hay Barn is being heavily weathered by Santa Cruz’s coastal climate. Two years ago, massive wind and rainstorms ravaged the barn, tearing a large piece of the structure’s roof and siding. Last month, storms blew off an even larger section of the barn’s roof. The missing walls and roof allow heavy rains to penetrate the barn and moisten its joints. The rain is prying them apart, and the moisture allows termites and beetles to build large infestations within the frame.

“Whenever you get moisture on a wood-wood connection, it will develop bacteria and it will start to rot,” said Hurley, CEO of Del Osos Timber Works. “Once the covering is pierced, rain starts coming in and it starts working.”

A 2002 survey by the Architectural Research Group and the University of California Forest Projects found that 40 percent of the beams were rotting and needed replacement. Several braces and beams within the structure went missing. They may have been removed through the years.

Perry and Morgan, who also serves as the staff liaison for Friends of the Cowell Lime Works, worry that if one building in the district is lost, it would greatly undermine the legitimacy of the entire district. The story would be nothing new to Santa Cruz.

“Downtown Santa Cruz used to be a historic district. So many buildings have been destroyed over the years that it’s not a district anymore,” Perry said as he gazed up at one of the old wooden buildings. “So we don’t want that to happen here,” he added, shaking his hand from side to side.

The buildings serve as a reminder of a different era in Santa Cruz. At turn-of-the-century Cowell Ranch, Henry Cowell’s workers tirelessly mined limestone and fired it up to convert it into lime, which was used in construction projects across California.

“Santa Cruz was really an extractive economy. It was based on lumbering, quarrying lime, fishing,” said reference librarian Irene Reti, the director of the Regional History Project. “The whole 19th century, all the way up until the 20th century, that was pretty much the economy here.”

Santa Cruz County grew out of mining and collecting natural resources like lime, lumber and leather. But the history of Cowell Ranch is really the story of lime.

The Journey

Henry Cowell and his workers, most of them Itallian Portugese immigrants, began pulling limestone out of the ground for big profits in 1865. By 1880, Cowell and his competitors had grown to be the biggest exporter of lime and limestone on the West Coast, as well as one of the largest in the country.

Miners would begin the exhaustive process of mining lime in the quarries, where they used sledgehammers to pound a large chisel seven feet into solid limestone. The task alone could take all day. Next, they loaded dynamite into the hole and blasted large chunks of rock out of the quarry walls. Again using sledgehammers, miners would pound the rocks into smaller chunks until they were about the size of basketballs. Artifacts like denim rivets and heavy clothing found in worker’s cabins near the base of campus indicate that mining limestone was difficult manual labor.

Teams of horses and oxen would pull the limestone out of the quarry to the lime kilns, often downhill and nearby to make transporting the heavy rock easier. Workers would fill large kilns with limestone and 70 to 140 cords of redwood. A cord was a redwood cube measuring four feet wide, four feet tall and four feet long. The fire burned for four days and reached temperatures of 1700 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I think it was probably pretty miserable work for the workmen,” Morgan said. “One of the accounts talks about the men — bloody noses because it was just so caustic to breathe all that lime dust and to work around so much heat. It must have been really hard labor.”

The lime had to cool for two days before it was ready for the next step. Now weighing 44 percent less, it would be loaded into ore cars and wheeled downhill to where the base of campus is now, not far from where the Hay Barn sits today. The workers’ cabins nearby also survived and have provided numerous artifacts for local historians and archeologists, not to mention a glimpse into the workmen’s everyday lives. Across from what is now Coolidge Drive, a hardworking Chinese chef toiled daily in the kitchen to feed the hungry mouths of the ranch’s workmen. Meanwhile, the lime was headed for the cooperage to be put into barrels.

From the cooperage, laborers would load large barrels of lime into ox-driven carts. It was heavy lifting — a barrel of lime could weigh up to 250 pounds. The oxen would proceed to pull the carts down Bay Street, then known as Lime Kiln Road. Friends of Cowell Lime Works president Perry, who is also the author of “Lime Kiln Legacies,” a book about lime production in Santa Cruz County, says the steep ride down often proved difficult.

“They had to have a good brake on the wagon,” Perry said.

The oxen would pull the carts to the Cowell wharf, which extended right off the cliff. The original wharf was situated where Bay Street and West Cliff Drive now intersect. The wharf collapsed in 1907 in a coastal storm, a fate Perry would like the Hay Barn to escape. A luxury hotel now stands in the wharf’s place.

“The wharf was different than it is today and went down at a slight angle,” Frank said. “Once again, they were taking advantage of gravity. They had a car that ran on a track, and they would load the barrels of lime onto that, and then someone could just ride it down with a brake and someone could just ride it down to the end of the wharf.”

When these ore cars reached the end of the wharf, the enormous barrels were unloaded from the ore cars and hauled onto large steam ships. The ships would come and go through a passage known as “Steamer’s Lane,” now a world-class surf spot, and the site of the annual O’neill Coldwater Classic surfing competition.

The steamships of lime were taken up to San Francisco or down to Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, or San Diego. Santa Cruz was once the biggest producers of lime on the West Coast, and one of the largest exporters in the country. The lime could be used in construction, often to make mortar and plaster or paint. In the late 1800s much of California was built on Santa Cruz lime.

“Cowell Lime and Cement was a big corporation,” said research librarian Reti looking out of her office window at the Majestic UCSC landscape. “They weren’t some funky operation. We were really at the heart of a pretty major economy.”

Somehow the history has been ignored over the years.

“I don’t think the history has been well publicized among people on the campus,” Morgan said. “There are people who are interested, but I don’t think the history is widely known, certainly [not] among the students. That’s the thing the friends of the Limeworks is trying to do … to give more insight into the history and publicize it more and get more people involved.”

On the wharf once the lime barrels had been loaded onto the ship, horses pulled the ore cars back to the other end of the wharf for them to refilled. The ore cars resembled the ones that were used up on campus to bring the lime from quarry to kiln. What has happened to these ore cars and artifacts in this long process? Sally Morgan half-jokingly calls her office “the unofficial archeological lab of UCSC.” It’s filled with plastic bags of history. And some of the tracks on which the ore cars once rode rest to this day — perhaps a little out of place — in UCSC’s Hay Barn.

Questions Unanswered

Even today, the barn is packed full of mysteries.

“So, this is referred to as the hay barn, but where would they put the hay?” Perry asked looking around the crumbling relic. “These look more like stalls for animals.”

Morgan agrees. She said she doesn’t know where many of the barns first received their names. Perry explained that many of the structures may have been named or renamed in the 1950s, regardless of historical accuracy. He finds the lingering and unanswered questions unfortunate. He looked around the barn as if searching for the answers.

“It may just be a campus tradition we may want to undo someday,” said Perry, a crooked grin spreading across his face.

Morgan and Perry hope that by disassembling the building, they may be able to learn more about it, but they are looking for more volunteers — and more funds.

“This is just a pipe dream at the moment. We have no money. Frank and I are taking a grant writing class at the moment. This is one of the projects I would like to write a proposal for and find funding for.”

As rich as its history is, the liming history still seems to go unnoticed, forgotten. Today Lime Kiln Road serves as main access point for the university’s 15,000 students, most of whom drive past without stopping to think about the history on either side of them. Or under their feet.

I’m sorry. Did I say Lime Kiln Road? I meant Bay Street.


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