Saturday, November 15, 2014

Everything's On the Internet These Days: Tracking Down the Lick Mill Mystery Industry

[Just found this half-written article hidden in my Blogger account. It's a year late, but worth sharing.]

Last year, I posted a link to the Dome of Foam’s wx4 Whatzit? Contest where E.O. Gibson posted some photos of some strange tanks behind the Lick Mansion in Santa Clara. (Go take a close look at the photos before proceeding; the research hints will make more sense.)

E.O apparently has multiple winners, for at least two good answers got sent by Bill Foley (who posts all the videos on Youtube for the Society of California Pioneers) and me. Now, the interesting about the search is that we both did our research in different ways. How we did the searches might be useful for anyone considering a future in the lucrative business of historic-web-blogging. Most importantly, the research really shows how much information's out there on the Internet... if you just know the right way to look for it.

Robert’s Approach When I started on E.O.'s challenge, I started from recent days and went backwards. All the piping in E.O.'s photo - especially the insulated pipes and strange machinery - suggested oil refinery or chemical process to me, so I started by checking recent (1960's) phone directories on for chemical companies in Santa Clara in the right area. No luck. I used Historic Aerials to try to track down a street address, and figured out the address of the plant was off Montague Expressway… but still no matches appeared.

Finally, I decided that if there’s one thing true of every chemical plant in the Santa Clara Valley, it’s that the place probably leaked chemicals in the groundwater, and they probably got caught. That means there’s bound to be a record of the cleanup, whether as a federal government superfund cleanup site, or as a local one. So, I started searching on “superfund santa clara”, “groundwater link mill”, and got my first clue: a reference in the EPA Superfund database mentioned groundwater contamination from “International Minerals and Chemicals, solvent distributor”, but provided no other details other than that the case was handled completely by the state of California. It did describe the site as “Mansion Grove” which turned out to be a key search term to use.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Now, I’d assumed from E.O.’s initial posting that the chemical plant was near, but not part of the Lick Mansion site. The Mansion Grove name turned out to be linked to the Lick Mansion, and encouraged me to learn more about the mansion itself. I finally checked Wikipedia and find that the Lick Mansion had been used for more than just paper making: “An 1882 fire destroyed the mill and in 1902 the Lick Mill complex was converted to the manufacture of alcohol. A series of owners, including Union Distilling, Western Grain and Sugar Products, Western Carbonic Gas, American Salt and Chemical, and Commercial Solvents and Chemical, manufactured a wide variety of products at this location.” (The quoted text sounded a little stilted, and a search on the exact words confirmed it had been cribbed from the Library of Congress’s Historic Architectural and Engineering Survey. HAES had done a survey, photos, and drawings of the plant in the 1970's, and so plans for the Lick Mill site are actually available online.

The reference to Commercial Solvents and Chemicals gave me another term to search for, and I found that company had invented processes for acetone and butanol, and was bought by IMC in 1975.

Finally, I found the details of the contamination at the site (now covered with apartments). The five year report declares that the site was used for solvent and alcohol production and recovery. So all that piping and distilling equipment makes sense - they were creating, distilling, and recovering alcohol and other solvents.

So, to recap: the piping suggested chemicals, but no chemical companies were listed in contemporary phone directories. After reaching a dead end, I started searching again looking for material that would get into permanent records: groundwater contamination reports and legal proceedings, and found both the name of the last owner as well as a report on the site. Wikipedia and the Library of Congress Historic Architectural and Engineering Survey then turned up nice summaries to help me track the property back.

Bill’s Approach Bill started from the other end - he had access to a good online source of old newspapers and local history books, so he started by searching for Lick Mill and turned up a distillery (the Lick Distillery) and a co-located chemical company.

“Lick Mill Chemical Company was hiring workers and a few laborers (blacksmiths and pipe-fitters) in May of 1918, (and a few laborers).  the factory seems to have taken the place of the paper and flour mills, and  used some of the buildings that didn't burn when the flour mill did in 1880.  Lick's buildings were supposed to be over-engineered, and Arbuckle's History of San Jose (p1390 claims that it cost $380,000 to build, and that "a former piano maker and artificer in woods, Lick adorned and finished his main structures with imported hardwoods.  His skill with these materials won for his mill the sobriquet "James Lick's Mahogany-Wainscoted Mill."

“The property also may have been shared by the Lick Distillery (initially known as the Union Distillery Company), which was in operation from 1902 through at least 1918, though an article at the latter date states that it could not handle pulp and had no tanks at the time.

The distillery made alcohol from sugar beet molasses.  Not too much of a stretch to say that prohibition may have curtailed those activities and made the chemical side of business more lucrative.  the distillery itself, however, was supposed to be making $100,000 right off the bat (article included).”

It also turns out that there are folks interested in distilleries, so someone’s recorded legal warehouse records for the Lick distillery. An old newspaper also noted that the distillery operated on waste material from sugar production (probably sugar beets). The San Jose Mercury News also included additional tidbits about the plant, noting “two cars of molasses arrived at the Lick Distillery yesterday”, helping us model railroaders understand both the loads arriving at the plant and the number of cars it received.

Interestingly, they weren't the only ones working with the waste product from the sugar refineries; the Stauffer Chemical on South First Street used sugar beets to produce Accent flavor enhancer (MSG). I made a joke to a former GE San Jose plant worker about headaches from MSG fumes, and she surprisingly confirmed that the Accent plant did put out not-quite-pleasant fumes that were detectable by the GE Nuclear workers.

Bill also checked some local museums, and found that the property flooded many times, including in 1902, 1903, 1907, 1938, and 1940. He even found photos of flood damage. One of the photos showed the tall smokestack used at the plant. Local history books also helped; Phylis Butler's "The Valley of Santa Clara" (1975) says that "for more than 50 years, it (the former distillery) has been the headquarters for a variety of chemical companies". Bill also went to Historic Aerials and noted that the plant had been leveled around 1986. He also found articles in the Mercury News in the mid-1980’s about plans to turn the site into a park. That didn’t happen; like much of that part of the Valley, it’s all a sea of apartments now.

"The property was leveled in about 1986, as you can see in Historic Aerials. San Jose Mercury News articles from 1987 indicate that a failed attempt was made to preserve the whole site as a park, but it was instead developed as apartments.  During construction, remains of an Ohlone barbecue site with charred elk bones was found.”

So to recap Bill’s approach: he started by searching on the initial connection - the Lick Mill, then moved forward in time looking for alternate company names. He then dived through the other sources he had - local history books, newspapers, and some friends who’d worked in the area to fill out remaining details.

Your Turn And so that’s how we tracked down the solution to the wx4 Whatzit? Contest. If you’ve done your own historic research (whether for model railroading or for general history), much of this might seem very familiar. Some of the tricks here would probably work for you:

  • search with keywords related to the parts of the history that would end up in legal or newspaper records
  • search both from the modern day back and early days forward
  • when all else fails, try out wild-ass guesses like the chemical plant searches.

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