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March 20, 2023

Sandy Lydon: The plan to obliterate Santa Cruz County

There were 27 original counties when California became a state on Sept. 9, 1850, but adjusting boundaries and forming new ones was nowhere near finished. From 1850 to 1907 the California Legislature made 35 major changes or created new ones. Imperial County, born in 1907 out of eastern San Diego County was the 58th and final county. 

Thus, in that first half century of statehood, messing around with county boundaries was part of California’s political landscape. 

The one change that Santa Cruz County experienced came in 1868 from the north. The county lost over 100,000 acres of redwood forest, the town of Pescadero and miles of its northern coastline to San Mateo County. If you look at the Santa Cruz County map, in the upper right you can see the stair-step jagged line where San Mateo County ripped the land away.

However, the dark cloud, the Original Sin that came with Santa Cruz County’s 1850 birth was the splitting of the Pajaro Valley. Though many solutions for reassembling that valley were discussed every day between 1850 and 1900—and since—each half-a-valley is still an orphan in its respective county.

The north half-a-valley containing Watsonville felt trapped in Santa Cruz County, and always treated as an economic and political colony. Santa Cruz, the county seat, has always had the larger population and was able to bludgeon Watsonville at the ballot box.

Watsonville’s prevailing dream was to secede from Santa Cruz and join up with the kindred agrarian souls to the east and south.

In 1856 such a proposal was circulated and sent off to Sacramento. The plan was to combine both halves of the Pajaro Valley with southern Santa Clara County (Gilroy), and eastern Monterey County (San Juan Bautista). (Salinas wasn’t yet born 1856, but in later iterations of this agricultural mega-county, Salinas was always a major part.) 

In the 1856 proposal, San Juan, the region’s major transportation hub, would be the county seat. The proposal failed to gain traction in the legislature, as did all similar ideas that followed. Finally, when San Benito County was formed in 1874, taking San Juan and recently-established Hollister out of the equation, the dream of a central California agriculture empire was rendered moot.

Part of the obstacle to Watsonville’s seceding was the sheer tininess of Santa Cruz County. Should Watsonville depart, the remaining county population and resources would not be able to survive. This idea became the genesis for the theme often raised by W.R. Radcliff, the editor of this newspaper: obliteration. Shut it down. Divide the county up, give it away to neighbors, sell off the court house furniture and shut the county down.

In 1895 this ultimate solution surfaced once again. In April 1894 one of Santa Cruz’s most serious fires destroyed several downtown blocks including the county court house on the corner of Cooper and Front.

The location and grandeur of the county courthouse had always been a sore point for Watsonville. If the county insisted on rebuilding, it should be moved closer to Watsonville and be built as cheaply as possible.

Once the county supervisors decided to move the new courthouse farther away—even if only a half-block—and spend a lot of taxpayer money to rebuild it, it was time to begin the drum beat of obliteration.

Pajaronian editor Radcliff once again laid out the ultimate solution: Santa Cruz County should pay off all its debts and beg Santa Clara County to accept it. Santa Cruz County taxpayers could no longer afford to support its own government.

The new courthouse, its design and construction became yet another example of the rivalries that divided the county. Duncan McPherson, the long-time editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, fired back, saying that Radcliff’s idea of obliteration was tired and worn out. (I must note here that the architect and construction supervisor for the courthouse was Thomas Beck, who lived in Watsonville.)

And so it went, the slings and arrows flying across the county. The courthouse was built, of course (you knew it in its later life as the Cooper House), and the county didn’t shut down. But the feud continued with Watsonville always sitting, looking south and east for moral support while Santa Cruz waved its ballot-box majority overhead.

Earlier this year in these pages, I noted that State Senator John Laird was mounting a campaign to reassemble the valley by creating the Pajaro Valley Healthcare District. The campaign to save Watsonville Community Hospital was successful, proving that, as deep and endemic as the division created back in 1850 is, it is not invincible. With transcendent leadership it can be bridged. Way to go John and all who were involved!

And, though in some ways it is more difficult, that “Watsonville-Santa Cruz Thing” is not invincible either. There’s no better example than the 1958 effort to bring higher education to Santa Cruz County. Stay tuned.

Sandy Lydon has been a teacher for 61 years, the last 54 at Cabrillo College. After a three-year Covid-inspired hiatus, he will return to the Cabrillo classroom on Oct. 28 to commemorate Cabrillo’s 60th anniversary of moving from Watsonville to Aptos. To register, visit or call 479.6331.


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