William T. Larkins

Henry Cowell came to California in 1849 and became interested in the sale of limestone by the Jordan and Davis Company in Santa Cruz. He later bought into the company and finally took over in 1888. He expanded into cattle ranching and shipping, sending Santa Cruz lime to Belgium and bringing back English fire brick. By now operating out of San Francisco it was only natural to add an inactive lime deposit in the Mt Diablo foothills to his empire.

Thus in late 1906 work started on the building of a huge cement plant and a company town to be named Cowell. The Cowell Portland Cement Company opened in February 1908 on a 2,000 acre site. After Henry Cowell’s death his eldest son Ernest took over the company. Upon his death in 1911 S. H. Howell, known as Harry, took over the company but delegated authority for the Santa Cruz and Cowell operations to William H. George who operated as General Manager from his office at #2 Market Street in San Francisco. Earl Barnett was Superintendent of the Cowell plant from 1921 to 1953.

The term Portland Cement refers to a specific formula and technique and was named for its resemblance to a limestone found on the Isle of Portland in England. A description of some of the activities in the cement plant will give you an idea of the types of jobs that workers performed in the Cowell plant.

Production started in the limestone rock quarry, which is the large cut that you see on the west side of Mt Diablo facing Walnut Creek. Here dynamite blasting and steam shovels worked to load rock onto a narrow gauge railway, pulled by Dinkey engines, which moved it to the Crusher. The noise from the blasting did cause complaints from valley residents at the time. The crushed rock was moved to the Raw Mill bunkers y company railway cars where it was mixed with sand, clay and gypsum. The Sand Pit is on the north face of the foothills and can be seen today just SE of the intersection of Cowell Road and Ygnacio Valley Road.

This mixture was then burned in eight kilns at 2,700 degrees, using oil that was brought in by an underground pipeline and stored in two large tanks at the NE corner of the plant. The klinkers formed by the heat were then ground in the Finishing Mill and the cement stored in bins to be packed in cloth bags (later paper bags), and eventually bulk railroad car shipments. In the early years the cement was shipped by the company Bay Point & Clayton Railroad to Bay Point (Port Chicago) where it was switched to Southern Pacific and other railroads. In the later years it was shipped by truck. An important part of the plan t was its laboratory for control and testing for the production of high quality, light color cement. The peak production was 5,000 barrels a day in December 1917 when the plant had  217 employees.

Plant safety was constantly stressed and in January 1930 Cowell had the longest safe record in the industry – three years and seven months without an accident. There was a large monument in front of the Office Building that had the words “Safety Follows Wisdom, Portland Cement Association Safety Trophy, Awarded Cowell Portland Cement Company for a Perfect Safety Record” and under that the dates 1927-1928-1929 and 1931. Next to it was the Trophy in a glass case.

Cement dust blowing downwind from the plant caused a lawsuit by 14 fruit and vegetable growers of Clayton Valley. This was known as “A. D. Carr et al” and was filed in September 1932. It was in and out of Superior Court until December 1939. Dust arrestors were ordered installed by Judge Donald Geary in April 1935 and this resulted in the eight stacks being replaced by one 235-foot stack. It is 16 feet in diameter at the base and 11 feet at the top. It was designed to withstand an earthquake intensity of 10 and a 90 mph wind and was built of steel reinforced concrete. It was first used on May 1, 1936.

In 1937 an attempt to unionize the plant by the CIO led to a lockout on July 16th. The company reacted by asking the rival AFL union to come in and they were installed a month later. This bitter jurisdictional dispute led to lengthy hearings before the National Labor Relations Board. Many workers left the plant at this time and the eventual decision by the NLRB that the CIO did have a right to organize the plant eventually resulted in some workers being paid retroactively for the month or two that they had been denied work.

You have read about workers in the plant working 12 hour days, seven days a week. This was not true of all employees, only those working in the Mill and the Kilns as the plant operated 24 hours a day. Since they were paid by the hour there was some advantage to this, particularly since the plant shut down every year from about the middle of November to May 1st. Rain made work in the Quarry too difficult and thus many workers were laid off in November of each year. There were some year-round employees in the packing house, office and maintenance crews. The company, for example, had a permanent staff of carpenters and painters who worked on the houses in Cowell as well as other property owned by the Cowell company.

The town of Cowell was probably built in 1907 but this is undocumented. There were 54 family houses, including three two-story houses, in addition to two Boarding Houses, a Town Hall, Hospital, Fire House and Company Office. The streets were firt, and remained that way, but cement sidewalks were added as part of the safety program. A section was added for each year without an accident and eventually the entire town had been completed. Man y trees were planted and the houses had front lawns and gardens. Strict company policy insisted on the houses being kept in good condition and even extended to the behavior of the workers children. Problems with either one could result in the worker being fired and the loss of a home.

The plant survived World War II but its closure was announced in March 1946. The plant shut down in June and the official reason was given as the lack of limestone in the quarry. While this was true there were additional factors involved. The Navy had purchased the Bay Point and Clayton Railroad in World War II for use at the Port Chicago Ammunition Depot (now called the Concord Naval Weapons Station), and so direct rail shipment was no longer available. Shipment by truck was more expensive, along with higher wages, and the new competition was severe from the Kaiser built Permanente Cement Plant at Sunnyvale.

Although the plant was closed the people living in Cowell were allowed to stay on as renters. Little outside interest was shown in Cowell except for Wayne Carlson and his Hand Printed Wallpaper factory and the Agricultural Extension office, both of which were in the old Town Hall. After the October 1955 earthquake, which cracked the walls of the building, the Agricultural Extension moved out feeling that it was too dangerous to have meetings in the upstairs hall. The Silver Sand Company had taken over the sand pit by this time. 1955 also saw the death of Harry Cowell, the last of the family of two brothers and three sisters. The Estate became the S. H. Cowell Foundation which still exists today.

A three-day auction of machinery from the plant took place in October 1952 and the land was sold to the Newhall Land and Farming Company in 1959. Finally, in 1969, Newhall sold the town and plant to the Larwin Company who planned the development of 867 homes. At this time 63 firms were renting storage space inside and outside of the plant. In 1965 the Fire House was an art gallery and a fund raising Champaign breakfast for the San Francisco Symphony was given there in November. After the town had been demolished George Chingas, an orthodontist, used it for his dental office for three years. Finally in 1973 he was forced to move because the area was now zoned for residential use only.

On May 15, 1969 the Arons Wrecking Company started destruction of the cement plant and commented that “it was built like a Fort”. The town of Cowell was scheduled next and all renters were told to be out by July 1st. The sad end of Cowell came in June. The Consolidated Fire District burned about 20 of the houses as training exercises and the few renters still remaining were subjected to looting and vandalism. One large hand painted sign in front of one house read “I will kill the next crook I catch on my property” as people were coming in trucks and station wagons and carrying away anything they could find.

Grading began for Larwin in February 1972 and by January 1973 the Clubhouse and some houses had been built. The Stack and the Fire House are all that are left of Cowell today.

Copyright by W. T. Larkins. Given at the “Cowell Night” dinner of the Concord Historical Society at the Concord Inn on 2-22-84.


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