By Randall Brown
When I settled in Boulder Creek 20 years ago, I was impressed by the respect for its history indicated by the dates painted on its historic structures. As I became more familiar with the place, I realized that two of the proudly displayed numbers were inaccurate. Neither the Old Fireman’s Hall nor the one mislabeled “Basham House” were constructed in 1891, the year of the town’s most famous fire. Both buildings, however, had a common origin as steps in a campaign of civic betterment.
Adult entertainment flourished in Boulder Creek’s first decade when, according to the Santa Cruz Surf, it “became known as the Dodge City of California.” There were at least eight saloons on the town’s main street and no shortage of gambling games. Prostitution also proved profitable. The most notorious bordello was known as “the Swamp House,” on the site of the IOOF Hall. Similar services were reputedly available in the lodging house owned by Mrs. Mary Basham and her daughter, Rachel Baldwin (its lower floor still stands next to Wild Roots). In the early 1890s the land between the two buildings was undeveloped, as was the corner across Forest Avenue from the Swamp House.
Boulder Creek’s most prominent booster was Henry L. Middleton. A junior partner in the Cunningham lumber company when the town opened up in 1885, the young entrepreneur believed in its future. “You just wait a while,” he advised a Sentinel reporter two years later, “and you will hear things hum around this neighborhood.” Recently married to a San Francisco woman, he convinced her family to invest in local real estate. Among the acquisitions of mother-in-law Mary Hain were the vacant lots surrounding the Swamp House.
When James Cunningham moved to Santa Cruz in 1890, Middleton took his place as the town’s timber baron and owner of the Boulder Creek Water Company. After the big blaze, he went to work to provide better fire protection. “Thanks to the enterprise and push of the Boulder Creek Water Co. in recently putting in a new system of water works,” the Sentinel noted in February 1894, “we now have in the midst of our town a main containing a six inch in diameter stream of water.” This physical improvement was soon followed by a social one, the organization of Boulder Creek Hose Company No. 1, which prepared “to give the next would-be conflagration a water reception.”
After a year of fundraising, the fire fighters found a suitable home. As it happened, a building slated to become a store was under construction on Mrs. Hain’s corner lot. In April, 1895, the Sentinel reported that “Boulder Creek Hose Co. No. 1, having recently bought a house on Main St. at a cost of $450, will remodel the same and use it for storage of their hose cart and as a place where the members of the company may meet.” After replacing the store’s glass front with a pair of doors, the organization moved in, celebrating the event with a grand 4th of July ball.
The next step in the development of Mrs. Hain’s property took shape in early 1897. “We are to have a new post-office building,” announced the Mountain Echo, Boulder Creek’s new newspaper. “The front is to be used as a candy and fruit store, as well as a post office, the rear rooms as a dwelling.” On March 26, a correspondent advised the Sentinel that “the post office building is rapidly nearing completion as the painters have begun to touch up the building in gay colors. The structure adds greatly to the appearance of Boulder’s main street.”
The lots around the new “Hain-Middleton” building were soon filled. Mrs. Basham built a cottage on the property between her business and the post office, where Boulder Creek Liquors is now. When construction progressed on stores on the other side, the San Francisco owner of the Swamp House decided to sell out, accepting an offer from the trustees of the IOOF lodge. When demolition of the “old rookery” commenced in April 1900, the Mountain Echo commented that “the Odd Fellows deserve a vote of thanks for having this eyesore removed from the heart of town.”
The neighborhood improvements also inspired the fire company to upgrade their property. Their plan, noted the Mountain Echo, involved “the taking to pieces of the present building and the re-building of an entire new structure, using the lumber from the old building in the new.” The 1902 Fireman’s Hall included a large upstairs room suitable for dancing and other gatherings. Before long, movies would be shown there as well.
Randall Brown is a San Lorenzo Valley resident and historian. He is the author of a history of The San Lorenzo Valley Water District,
Cover photo: Main Street Boulder Creek c. 1900 with IOOF hall. Building with the flagpole is the Middleton-Hain building. Photos contributed by Randall Brown