top of page

Feature of the Month:
Can You Hear Me Now?
(Sounds of Santa Cruz late 1800's)

In the modern world, we are highly connected with each other thanks to the Internet, social media, and mobile phones.  We have one ringtone for general callers and another for our special friends.  There’s a certain chime for texts and one for each of our favorite social media platforms.  How did people ever keep track of their day in the late 1800s without personal assistants?

As it turns out, even without technology, residents of Santa Cruz in the 1870s and 1880s had no problem keeping track of their daily schedule.  For many years, the old Town Clock rang out every hour on the hour. Well, that is until guests staying at the nearby Hotel George complained.

No hourly ringing, no problem.  The Centennial Flour Mill blew their starting whistle at 7 am.  The bell tower at Mission Hill School tolled Monday to Friday mornings at 8:30, 9:30, and 9:45 am.

Lunchtime was impossible to miss with many businesses simultaneously announcing the event.  The three tanneries (Kirby, Boston, and Kron), the three planing mills (Gragg’s, Grover’s, and one other), and the Centennial Flour Mill all blew noon whistles.  Meal times were announced at the town’s hotels using bells and gongs.  The Mission Hill School bell chimed in at 12:45 pm.

Horse and mule teams wore bells that tinkled when they hauled lumber and lime around town.  Shouts of “gee” echoed when drivers turned their oxen team to the right and “haw” when they turned left. Butchers rang brass bells to alert meat buyers as they drove their horse-drawn wagons from house to house.

Fire alarms got everyone worked up when the bells at City Hall rang out. The Alert’s Hose Cart was rolled out, and the Hook and Ladder Company rushed to help.  Residents peered out their windows looking for smoke and sparks.  Fire was an extreme threat to the community, exactly the same as today.

The townspeople welcomed Sundays with the ringing of church bells from a variety of denominations. The Episcopal, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Baptist churches all called their members to services.

The whole town knew when the trains came and went.  Whether it was for freight or for beach lovers, the chugga chugga sound of the engines and the loud whistles of the Santa Cruz Railroad and the South Pacific Railroad alerted everyone.

So it seems that mechanical noises and the sounds of the town were all that was needed to keep the bustling community on track and on time.  Perhaps our sophisticated and expensive electronic devices of today are a bit overrated.

From: The History of Santa Cruz County, Margaret Koch, 1991, p. 212.

ring ring.jpg

Burrell School, illustration by Garth von Ahnen

bottom of page