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.
Henry Cowell and His Family (1819–1955)
a brief history, by Laurie MacDougall
The Tragic Year (1903)
The year 1903 was fateful for the Cowells. Henry Cowell was shot in the shoulder in a boundary dispute with a man named D. Leigh Ingalsbe. The rather lurid newspaper accounts of the incident indicate this dispute was of long-standing, and refer to the severe loss of blood suffered by Henry.  It is worth noting, although the news accounts did not, that Henry was 84 at the time.
The shooting occurred in March, and Henry appeared to be on the mend. However in May, Sarah, his daughter, was out for a buggy ride at the Cowell Ranch in Santa Cruz with the wife of the ranch manager. Evidence suggests the horse bolted, as the ladies’ hats were found a half mile from the place where Sarah was finally thrown out of the runaway buggy. She died within an hour.  She was 40 years of age.
By August, her father was dead. News coverage of the event makes no mention of the fact of his daughter’s death and its possible effect on his own recovery, yet it is suggested in the text: “The latter (Ingalsbe) shot Cowell with a revolver, the bullet taking effect in the shoulder. The injured man apparently recovered from the effects of the wound, but lately it had bothered him and is said to have completely wrecked his nervous system. He was taken ill several days ago and became worse until he passed away yesterday morning.” 
Henry left an unusual will. It was characterized by the San Francisco Chronicle, in its coverage, as “peculiar.” It was a holographic (or handwritten) will, dated January 21, 1902, and began with the clause: “In the name of God, amen, I, Henry Cowell, being of sound mind and good health, knowing the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death, make this, my last will, revoking all former wills made by me.” The remainder of the sheet on which this was written was left blank, and another blank sheet was attached. At the top of the third sheet Cowell wrote that he appointed his daughter, Helen, to be his executrix, and gave as his beneficiary the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company. The blank spaces were evidently to have been filled in with bequests. The Chronicle goes on to estimate Cowell’s net worth as $3,000,000.  Because his children jointly held ownership in the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company, they shared equally as actual beneficiaries of the will.
After the double tragedy, Ernest took over management of the business on behalf of the surviving Cowell family members, and was soon faced with a new disaster, the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.
This catastrophe had several notable consequences for the Cowell family. Sources indicate that company losses were heavy. Shortly after the event, the Santa Cruz Surf maintained the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company suffered a loss of a million and a half dollars.  Despite the massive losses, however, the Cowells set what the newspaper’s headline called “A Noble Example,” by giving $5,000 to the San Francisco Relief Fund. The article goes on to say:
“Facing the situation, Mr. Cowell is strong of heart, but sees some heavy obstacles to be encountered besides collecting insurance and going ahead to build…The Cowell Company’s building in San Francisco produced a rental of $100,000, which was entirely swept away as well as a new ten-story building and lime and cement warehouses. The Cowell warehouse was one of the last buildings to burn, going down on Saturday forenoon in a heat that passes power of description…As to the future, Mr. Cowell stands in with the optimists, although not to the time limit of the most sanguine. He says San Francisco will be rebuilt just as fast – not as men and money can build – but as fast as material can be furnished.”
And, as Ernest foresaw, the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company prospered during the building spurt that followed the San Francisco earthquake and fire. In fact, during that same year, Ernest brought to fruition a plan he had been preparing for moving with the times, to engage in the manufacture of portland cement. The Santa Cruz Surf notes: “A pet project which E.V. Cowell has been nursing for a year or more has come to light…[he] has visited every important cement making plant in the world and it is understood that it will be his ambition to surpass in the perfection of machinery and facility for handling the product anything of this character on earth.” 
Ernest’s “pet project” was nothing less than building Cowell Portland Cement Company, and the adjoining town of Cowell, California in Contra Costa County, which would be a company town serving the employees. This was a timely business move, as portland cement was in the process of replacing natural cement as the preferred building material.  Ultimately, this business grew to include a railroad, the Bay Point and Clayton Railroad Company. Meanwhile, lime would continue to be produced at the Cowell Ranch and several other limerock quarries owned by the parent company, Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company.
However, Ernest would not have much time to manage the family business and the family fortune. He died in 1911 at the age of 53, leaving an estate estimated to be worth over one million dollars, which included one quarter interest in Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company, stock in the Bay Point and Clayton Railroad Company, stock in Cowell Portland Cement Company, and real estate and livestock assets.  His will (which, like his father’s, was holographic) and the ensuing probate proceeding were the basis of a number of lawsuits over the next few years, challenged separately by his widow, Alice M. Cowell, and by his surviving kin, S. H., Isabella and Helen.
Ernest V. Cowell’s will is an interesting document. It specified a lifetime annuity for his widow of $1,000 per month. She occupied three rooms at the Fairmont Hotel at that time, and contested the will on the grounds that $1,000 was insufficient for her needs, requesting $1,850 instead.  Ultimately the court upheld her $1,000 annuity, but also awarded her a family allowance of $1,500 per month during the probate period. The Cowell siblings contested this on the grounds that she should get one or the other, but not both. She subsequently sued the estate to gain outright control of the annuity principal of $250,000. The court disallowed this request as well.
The will also specified that Ernest’s alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, receive the bulk of the estate, $750,000, or $250,000 each to build a stadium, a gym and a hospital on campus.  His brother and sisters brought suit to declare the bequest illegal on the grounds that it violated a new California law limiting the percentage of an estate that could be given to a charitable institution. Apparently they did not object to the bequests themselves, but did not want company stock sold to pay them. This explains their seemingly contradictory behavior when, after numerous suits and countersuits, the issue was finally settled in 1915. The judge declared the bequest to the University of California at Berkeley void, whereupon S. H., Isabella and Helen promptly announced that they would personally make good the bequest as stipulated in their brother’s will.  Ultimately, the Ernest V. Cowell Student Health Center was constructed to serve the health needs of generations of Cal students, and a substantial financial contribution was made to construct the men’s gymnasium as well.
Another interesting stipulation in the will called for a bequest of $1,000 to every employee of Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company who had been with the company 20 years or more, and $500 to every employee of 10 years standing, $1,000 to every employee of the San Francisco office of 3 years or more standing, and $500 to each staff member who had been with the San Francisco office for 2 years.
The will also established a $10,000 trust to provide a scholarship fund for students from Santa Cruz, enabling them to attend the University of California. Thus, in his last will and testament, Ernest carried out several family interests and concerns that had been established by his father’s philanthropy many years before and would be reflected in the personal philanthropy of S. H., Isabella and Helen, specifically in the areas of education, health and employee welfare.