THERE WAS SOMETHING about lime quarries that fascinated Henry Cowell. Perhaps he could smell money in those white rocks. Whenever he heard of a piece of land that had lime rock on it, he would hurry off and try to buy it. He gained control of so much of it that he was known as the millionaire lime merchant of California by the time he died, in 1903.
Lime is an important rock to civilized societies. It is used in the making of paper, sugar, varnish, and paint. Glue manufacturers need it; so do the makers of glass. However, in the last half of the 19th century its principle use was as the main ingredient in plaster and mortar, the stuff that made bricks stick together.
If a builder wanted to make a building that would last a long time, he would make it out of durable materials such as stones, bricks, and mortar. Unfortunately, in the 1850s all the lime used in California had to be brought around Cape Horn. Lime was so expensive that San Franciscans built their city out of wood. Cities of wood have a tendency to burn down. And San Francisco did, over and over again during the gold rush years.
Henry Cowell was born in Massachusetts. He and his brother, John, came to California during the Gold Rush. If they went to the gold country they didn’t stay long, because by 1850 they had started a hauling and storing business in San Francisco.
At first, John was in charge. Then in 1854 Henry went back east to marry his Massachusetts sweetheart. When he and his bride, Harriet, returned, Henry became the manager of the Cowells’ drayage firm.
While Henry was developing his hauling and storage business, two other men, who were to have a major impact on Henry’s life, were developing a business of their own.
Albion P Jordan and Isaac E. Davis came to California about the same time as the Cowells. Jordan and Davis met while working on a steamboat plying the Sacramento River to and from the gold country.
Jordan knew about lime manufacturing. His father was in the business on the east coast. While on the steamboat, Davis and Jordan came across some lime rock from the Mount Diablo area. Jordan, remembering his father’s kilns, tossed the rock into the ship’s furnace and discovered that it wasn’t just any old lime rock – this was great lime rock.
Realizing the potential of the limestone business in California, the two quit their jobs and went searching for the best limestone they could find. It happened to be in Santa Cruz. Why the two didn’t pursue the Mount Diablo limestone, we don’t know. Perhaps it was because kilns were already operating near Pacheco, using lime rock out of the mountain.
In any case, Jordan and Davis found a splendid deposit of lime rock in Santa Cruz, and within a few years became the biggest lime manufacturing company in the state.
In 1860 John Cowell fell ill and left the drayage business to go home and recuperate in Massachusetts. But did he stay there? II Three years later a J. C. Cowell was working as a clerk for Jordan and Davis, the lime manufacturers in Santa Cruz. Perhaps J. C. Cowell was John and it was he who introduced Henry to Jordan and Davis. Because in 1865 Henry bought out Jordan for $100,000, and the company became Davis and Cowell. John Cowell’s name never seems to show up again in the Cowell company records.
Cowell not only got Jordan’s share of the lime rock business, he also got a big prosperous ranch in the deal. By this time Henry and Harriet had been married close to 12 years and had five children. Once he got into the lime business, Henry packed up his family and moved them to the Santa Cruz ranch.
With the profits from his lime business, Henry bought more and more land. By the time he died he had property all over the state of California as well as parcels in Washington and Massachusetts. At one point he owned more than 80,000 acres. Land had to have at least one of two attributes to attract Henry. It either had to be good grazing land or contain good lime rock.
In 1888 Isaac Davis died and Henry Cowell was able to buy out the heirs. Again the company’s name was changed. This time it was called Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company. It had become a big company employing 175 men with an annual payroll of $100,000. A peculiarity of the company was its payday. It only came once a year, when the men were paid with gold coins.
Henry’s avid acquisition of property landed him in court more than once. And one time it almost killed him.
On March 2, 1903 a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read: “Henry Cowell, wealthy lime merchant shot by a Merced neighbor.”
Cowell had bought a 2,000-acre ranch on the Merced River. Henry and his neighbor, Daniel Ingalsbe, argued over the boundary line. Several months after Ingalsbe’s death, his son Leigh continued the argument with a revolver.
Cowell was shot in the shoulder. The wound was called “minor” by the authorities. But Henry claimed that he never felt good after that shooting.
Ingalsbe was found to be violently insane at the time of the shooting and was acquitted.
In May another tragedy visited the lime merchant. His daughter Sarah was out on a buggy ride on the ranch. The horse bolted. Sarah was thrown out of the buggy. She died of her injuries within an hour.
Henry died on August 4,1903. He was 84 years old and worth, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, $3 million. His five children inherited his estate.
Ernest Cowell, Henry’s son, became the manager of the company. He had a pet project in mind. He wanted to build a town, a company town, which would serve employees. He would call it “Cowell.” And it was to be in Contra Costa County at the foot of Mount Diablo.
Cowell Historical Society