History of Brickmaking in California

Boyd soft-mud brick machine

By Dan L. Mosier

The first bricks made in California were adobe bricks for homes and buildings by the early Spanish and Mexican settlers. These bricks were made of mud and straw, shaped into large blocks by wooden molds, and sun dried. Many adobe buildings are still standing today, such as those found in many of the California missions and adobe homes.

During the Spanish period and up to 1832, burned “bricks” were used at Mission Dolores in San Francisco, the Presidio in San Francisco, Mission San Luis Rey, and Rancho Guajome Adobe in San Diego County, and probably elsewhere. These were handmade oversized bricks, or blocks, and patio tile, formed by mixing soil and water, and burned over a fire in a bonfire pit or an oven. They were crude, poor quality, and usually underfired. In 1794, fired bricks and tile were made using an oven at the San Francisco Presidio. Also called Spanish bricks, they were thinner than standard bricks and larger, measuring 10 to 18 inches in length and 7 to 10 inches in width. These early bricks were used mainly in fireplaces, ovens, fountains, irrigation systems, and patios.

Sometime after the founding of Fort Ross in Sonoma County in 1812, the Russians discovered clay suitable for making bricks in various places near the fort. The first shipment of clay was made in 1823 from Fort Ross to New Archangel (Sitka, Alaska). In 1824, four barrels of clay were shipped to New Archangel. In 1825, Yefim Abyshev was hired as the master brickmaker, indicating about when brickmaking at Fort Ross began, the first structure being a brick kiln. In 1831, 12,000 bricks were produced and 8,000 of those were shipped to New Archangel. This would indicate that 4,000 bricks were used at Fort Ross. Over 56,800 bricks, and possibly as many as 100,000, were produced at Fort Ross from 1825 to 1839. According to Hulquist (1977), the Russian bricks are sand-molded and averaged 1.5 inches wider and 0.25 inch thicker than standard American brick. The length is unknown but presumed to be longer than standard brick. It is possible that these bricks may have been the first kiln-fired bricks that went into the first brick structures, possibly ovens and building foundations, made in California at Fort Ross, although all evidence of such brick structures has been erased.

Later, kiln-fired common bricks in California were made in 1847 by George Zins at Sutterville, Sacramento County, by Colton and others of the Mormon Battalion at San Diego, by David Wayland in San Francisco, and by Dickenson and Lawrey in Monterey. These were shaped in wooden molds, usually holding up to six bricks at a time. Red-burning clays suitable for brick were found in surficial deposits in valley fill and flood plains of rivers and streams. The bricks were fired in field kilns using wood as fuel. Field kilns, or scoves, were rectangular stacks of brick with an interior chamber for the fire and openings at the top for venting the hot gas. Bricks fired in this type of kiln ranged from uneven overfired to underfired bricks depending on their distance from the fire. The kilns were rebuilt with each firing, so they were not permanent structures, which facilitated their use on construction sites.

Philander Colton and the others of the Mormon Battalion began making bricks in March of 1847 and fired them on May 28, 1847, in Old Town San Diego. These first bricks were used in lining wells throughout the town. At the end of June 1847, the Mormon brickmakers built the first brick building for a courthouse, a replica constructed with modern brick of which stands today on the site at Old Town plaza.

Zins fired over 40,000 brick in June 1847 (specific date is unknown), and 100,000 the following year. The first 30,000 of these red bricks went into what was reported to be the first brick house in California at Sutterville in 1847. The remaining 10,000 was used by John Sutter in the construction of a large oven at Sutters Fort. Some of the bricks were stamped “GZ” for George Zins initials, which is probably the first marked brick made in California. Sutter kept two of the bricks as mementoes in his window. That made him the first brick collector in California!

First brick house at Monterey, California.

Another brick house was built in July 1847 (specific date is unknown) by Gallant Duncan Dickenson and Amos Lawrey in Monterey. According to Mrs. Lawry, the kiln was setup in June and the bricks were fired in July. The bricks were fired in a kiln where the high school stands today. The amazing thing about this brick house is that it still stands on Decatur Street in a State Park, and thus has been honored as being the “first brick house in California.”

San Francisco also claimed to have the first brick house in the state. In the summer of 1847, David Wayland and others built the first brick house at their brickyard on Mission Creek for their own use. This brickyard was by the Embarcadero on Mission Creek as shown on the 1853 map of Clement Humphreys. The present location of this brickyard would be around Harrison and 16th streets in San Francisco. This first brick house disappeared long ago.

In the Fall of 1848, Zins built his two-story brick house on a block of land given to him by Sutter, bounded by M, N, Front, and Second streets, Sacramento. Bricks were hauled from his kiln at Sutterville by ox teams. While George Zins laid the bricks, his wife made the mortar and carried the hod. Completed in early 1849, at a cost of $40,000, this was the first brick house in Sacramento. It was later known as the Bininger House, the Green Tea Hotel, the Empire Hotel, and the Pioneer Hotel.

Up to 1854, bricks were made and fired right on or near the property of the building project, provided there was enough suitable clay. Many building contractors doubled as brickmakers or hired brickmakers to supply bricks on site. This was true for many of the early brick buildings in the Mother Lode towns along Highway 49, though some bricks were shipped by wagons from Stockton and Sacramento. By 1854, Sacramento had 500 brick buildings. Just within the city limits, there were 30 brickyards containing 40 brick machines and capable of producing more than 250,000 bricks per day. These brick machines made soft-mud bricks only. Some of the early brickmakers were P. Harnett, Samuel Carlisle, P.B. Cornwall, F. Burke, Polk and Todd, Pettit and Queen, Fountain Brothers, and Callahan and Ryan.

In 1854, John Ryan produced brick for the Sacramento and San Francisco markets from his brickyard at 13th and Y streets in Sacramento. This was believed to be the first commercial brickyard in California. He employed 20 and produced 2,000,000 bricks per year.

In 1852 Capt. Jesse Hunter of the Mormon Battalion made the first bricks from his kiln located at Broadway and 2nd streets in Los Angeles. These bricks were used in the first brick building in Los Angeles at Main and 3rd streets.

Soon afterwards, individuals opened brickyards wherever there was a local clay deposit and demand for buildings. Clay pits were dug by shovels and scrapers. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s nearly every California town boasted of building their first brick building. Brick also became in greater demand after fires reduced whole towns of wooden buildings to ashes.

In 1870, the Patent Brick Company began manufacturing pressed, Roman, and fancy bricks near San Rafael, Marin County. This company claimed to have the first Hoffman kiln built in the United States. Most of the larger California brick manufacturers used the Hoffman continuous kilns for their rapid and efficient firing of bricks. Some used the round down-draft permanent kilns for finer control of the burn.  Most of the mid- to small-sized brickyards used the rectangular up-draft open or field kilns for firing common brick.

In 1878, even the convicts at San Quentin Prison were employed in making bricks in their own brickyard, producing 6,500,000 that year. In 1880, there were 50 brick manufacturers in the state, employing 850 men, and producing 63,400,000 common brick and 1,140,000 pressed brick and firebrick. In 1881, brick production increased to over 120 million.

Brick shipments at the Howard Street Wharf, San Francisco, California.
Brick shipments at the Howard Street Wharf, San Francisco, California.

Because a large number of firebrick were imported reportedly as ballast from countries such as England, Scotland, and Australia, there was little incentive for the local manufacture of firebrick. The market for common brick was far more lucrative for local brickmakers. However, the first firebrick made in California was probably that of Andrew Steiger in 1863 at his pottery works in San Jose, and he was followed two years later by N. Clark in Sacramento. Good fire clay deposits were found in Alameda, Contra Costa, Placer, Amador, Calaveras, and Riverside counties. The best firebricks were made by the Carnegie Brick and Pottery Company, Gladding, McBean and Company, Steiger Pottery, Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company, St. Louis Fire Brick Company, Ione Fire Brick Company, Harbison-Walker Refractories, Livermore Fire Brick Company, EMSCO Refractories, Vitrifrax Corporation, Kaiser Refractories, and the Stockton Fire Brick Company.

In the 1890s, the Gladding, McBean and Company, known for their ornamental terra cotta, sewer pipe, and tile, began producing bricks from their fire clay pits at Lincoln, Placer County. For over the next 60 years, they purchased and operated a number of major brick plants around the state and became the largest supplier of face brick.

The Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company dominated the face brick market in southern California and, in 1916, established a large refractory products plant at Alberhill in Riverside County. The Stockton Fire Brick Company, which had 90 percent of the firebrick market on the Pacific Coast, established in 1930 the largest refractory products plant in the west at Pittsburg in Contra Costa County.

Up to the 1890s, all brickyards in California were using the soft-mud method for making bricks. Both wooden molds and soft-mud machine presses were used, with the latter type increasing over time. The Potts, Quaker, Boyd, Fernhold, Monarch, Raymond, American Eagle, and Martin soft-mud machines were popular with California brickmakers.The first stiff-mud machine bricks in California were probably made by the Fortin Brick Company at San Rafael between 1885 and 1890. By 1900, many brickyards were using the stiff-mud machines. The American Clay Machinery Company, Freese, Fate-Root-Heath, Chambers, and Bonnot were the more popular stiff-mud machines with California brickmakers.

It was around 1900 that the independent brickmakers with small crew of laborers were forced out by the larger brick companies. Many of these independent brickmakers were also forced out by encroaching neighborhoods that brought complaints of smoke and pollution produced by the kilns. As rising real estate values deemed valuable clay deposits insignificant, the brick companies were forced to close or locate their operations further away from the cities that depended on their product. This economic squeeze in the brick industry took its toll by the loss of a large number brick manufacturers in the first two decades of the 1900s.

Small brick firms attempted to organize trusts to protect their market turf and control falling brick prices. The Standard Brick Company was a trust formed in the 1890s for the San Francisco region and the Los Angeles Brick Company was a trust formed in 1900 for the Los Angeles region. These brick trusts were not successful because not all of the brickyards joined the combines or agreed with their market controlling practices.

California did not have great paving brick manufacturers like other states mainly because of the scarcity of good vitrified clay deposits. High-quality pavers were shipped from producers outside of California, such as the Denny-Renton Company in Washington. The first paving brick in California was probably that made by the Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company in Santa Monica in 1906. These pavers were shipped throughout the state. Paving bricks were also made by Mulford-Burke in Los Angeles, Atlas in San Francisco, California Brick Company in Decoto, Vallejo Brick and Tile Company in Vallejo, and the Stockton Fire and Enamel Brick Company in Stockton. Rejected paving bricks ended up being used as building bricks.

Major suppliers of building bricks for the San Francisco region were the Remillard Brick Company, San Jose Brick Company, L. P. McNear Brick Company, Livermore Fire Brick Company, N. Clark & Sons, Dickey Clay Manufacturing Company, Port Costa Brick Company, Gladding, McBean & Company, and Richmond Pressed Brick Company.

For the Los Angeles region, the major building brick manufacturers were Pacific Clay Products Company, Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company, Gladding, McBean & Company, Los Angeles Brick Company, Simons Brick Company, Castaic Brick Company, Higgins Brick and Tile Company, Atkinson Brick Company, Davidson Brick Company, and Western Brick Company.

Major building brick producers for the San Diego region were the Union Brick and Tile Company, Park Brick Yard Company, Coronado Brick Company, Mission Valley Brick Company, Hieatt, and Hubbard.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the major building brick producers were Stockton Brick and Tile Company, San Joaquin Brick Company, Craycroft Brick Company, Bakersfield Sandstone Brick Company, and California Pottery Company.

In the Sacramento Valley, the major building brick manufacturers were the Sacramento Transportation Company (Sacramento Brick Company), Cannon & Company, Gladding, McBean & Company, H. C. Muddox, Valley Brick Company, and Holt & Gregg.

McNear brickyard, San Rafael, California

From 1920 to 1980, due to stiff competition, many of the smaller brick companies merged with the larger companies. From Los Angeles came the Pacific Clay Products, Inc., which acquired the Pacific Sewer Pipe Company in Los Angeles and N. Clark & Sons in Alameda. The Gladding, McBean & Company from Lincoln, California, acquired Tropico Potteries, Stockton Fire Brick Company, Carnegie Brick & Pottery Company, and one the largest brick companies in the west, the Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company. During this period also we saw the closing of Remillard, San Jose, Dickey, Simons, and many other large brick plants when the use of building bricks declined in the market place. Earthquakes required changes in structural products and building codes that eliminated some companies. Increased use of reinforced concrete also had displaced bricks in the building market.

From 1980 to 2000, the surviving brick manufacturers included Kaiser Refractories, Pacific Clay Products, Western Brick Co. (Harbison-Walker), Port Costa, Craycroft, Muddox, Higgins, Castaic, Atkinson, McNear, and others as refractory, ornamental, veneer, and paving bricks continued to be in demand. By 2020, California had only four brick manufacturers: H. C. Muddox, Sacramento; McNear Brick & Block, San Rafael; Pacific Clay Products, Alberhill; and Mission Concrete Products, Gilroy.


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Citation: Mosier, Dan L. History of Brickmaking In California. California Bricks, https://californiabricks.com, 2021.