Santa Cruz County History - People

A Walk Through Time: Fred Swanton
by Janet Krassow and
by Randy Krassow

Although local citizens may forget the benefits of the tourism industry when enduring the snarled weekend traffic and congested beaches, it is a major contributor to Santa Cruz County's economic health. It has always been -- and will continue to be -- a major financial artery for the county.

Fittingly, the foundation for the successful tourism industry we know today was largely the work of a New York native: Fred Swanton. Widely recognized as the Father of Santa Cruz's tourism industry, Swanton was a true visionary who possessed the unique ability to transform the environment around him to meet the specifications and desires of the greater population.

After graduating from college, Swanton quickly immersed himself in Santa Cruz's business community. In 1889, Swanton launched the first gas light system in the city, later becoming the Santa Cruz Electric Light and Power Company, and within a few years his power was blanketing the entire county. Later, Swanton helped found the Union Traction Company, running electric streetcars from Santa Cruz to Capitola. Swanton was also instrumental in developing a phone system for the county in the 1880s.

Photograph of the Neptune Casino fire
Swanton's Neptune Casino burns to the ground in 1906

But Swanton's true claim to fame came from establishing Santa Cruz as a landmark destination across the US, and encouraging legions of people to visit its beautiful beaches and majestic mountains. Swanton was a colorful promoter who put Santa Cruz on the map by establishing the Seaside Company, and, ultimately, fulfilling his dream to build the "West Coast Coney Island," with the Neptune Casino and "pleasure pier" in 1904. The new attraction was a major success, but only two years later, in 1906, the casino burned to the ground in a specular fire. Not to be discouraged, Swanton quickly built a new one that was operating by the end of 1907.

Photograph of Fred Swanton's memorial
Fred Swanton's Memorial

Swanton also helped publicize the scenic beauty of Santa Cruz through Hollywood. He was instrumental in attracting directors -- including Cecil B. DeMille and Thomas Ince -- and film companies to the area, and securing Santa Cruz as the backdrop for numerous early films.

In the 1920s and 30s, Swanton was continually elected and reelected mayor of the town he helped build. He was so closely identified with the city that local residents, often called it "Swanta Cruz."

In old age, Swanton could look back on a life marked by a string of unqualified successes. Yet during his final years, he witnessed most of his fortune slip through his fingers so that when he died on September 3, 1940, he stood on the brink of bankruptcy.

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