Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

Resort and Recreation Development: Waterfront, beach, and boardwalk
by Susan Lehmann

Waterfront, beach and boardwalk: The late 1800s brought a major change in the economic base of Santa Cruz County. Intense lumbering had all but denuded the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. This, in addition to an economic depression in the 1890s, brought about the decline of not only the lumber industry but also the lime and powder industries which were dependent upon the availability of enormous amounts of timber. A recognition that the remaining trees should be saved, and a realization of their value as a visitor attraction, gave rise to a conservation movement which is still active to this day. Promotion of the "Big Trees" was to soon contribute to an already existing industry — tourism.

The arrival of the railroad not only ended Santa Cruz's dependence on shipping but gave increased accessibility of the area to tourists. A spur from Watsonville and Gilroy was completed in 1876 as well as another line that ran up to Felton. As the port declined in importance into the 1880s, the beach front became more necessary to the economic well being of the City than ever before.

Beginning in the 1860s, visitors began coming to Santa Cruz to enjoy the beach. In 1868, John Leibrandt built a bathhouse, swimming tank and entertainment house. Captain C. F. Miller opened the Neptune Baths in 1884. They consolidated their facilities in 1893 and built [a] bathhouse with [an] indoor seawater pool. Although long touted in locally produced publications, an article in an 1894 Harper's Weekly produced the first important national recognition of Santa Cruz as a tourist destination. As a result there were an increasing number of trains in summer months. Hotels and cottages were built to accommodate [tourists] who came for weeks at [a] time.

At the turn of the century, the area was ripe for major development and had produced the individual to bring it about. Fred Swanton, was, more than any other individual, responsible for the change of the city's principal economic base to tourism. A business college graduate, he was possessed of boundless energy and displayed a remarkable knack for boosterism and promotion. At one time "Fabulous Fred" joined with a marching band and a committee from the City to travel throughout California and Nevada promoting the "New Santa Cruz."

Swanton, who was born in New York but lived in Santa Cruz from the age of four, started his career with the help of his father. Together they built the first three story hotel in Santa Cruz in 1883 which, unfortunately, burnt to the ground five years later. Undiscouraged he soon became involved in a variety of other enterprises including the establishment of the area's first telephone system in the 1880s and, with other partners, began the Santa Cruz Electric Light and Power Company in 1890. The utility was expanded in 1896 and became the Big Creek Power Company which was sold in 1906 to San Francisco financier John Martin. It was Martin, along with other investors including the Southern Pacific Railroad, who would provide much of the capital for Swanton's dream to create a magnificent pleasure palace in Santa Cruz which he planned to be equal to New York's Coney Island.

Photo of the Dolphin Bath House
The Dolphin Bath House, on Santa Cruz beach,
late 19th century (?) Courtesy of the Santa Cruz City
Museum of Natural History

Their first move was to buy the Miller and Leibrandt bathhouse and form the Santa Cruz Beach, Cottage and Tent City Corporation. In 1904 they opened Neptune Casino which included 500 dressing rooms, a plunge, a cafe and a grill, a ballroom and two roof gardens. They also built a "pleasure pier" with electric wiring running through tubing on the railings and lights that were mounted on poles which ran at intervals for the entire 400 foot length of the pier.

With the Casino only open for two years, disaster struck and the entire thing burned to the ground on June 22, 1906 at [a] loss of half a million dollars. Martin, Swanton's partner, was talked into investing a million dollars for a second casino. Work on a replacement began the day of the fire and was completed a year later opening on June 15, 1907. The result is described by architectural historian, John Chase, as a "spectacularly ugly" building with a central semicircular domed pavilion flanked by twin obelisks. At either end of the casino were hipped roof pavilions with bulbous domes.

Swanton continued his development plans for the City and in 1908 he organized the Swanton Investment Company to develop a subdivision on West Cliff Drive. In 1910, he undertook construction of Casa del Rey Hotel across from the Casino which was designed to replace approximately 200 cottages that had developed from a popular "tent city" across from the Casino. The hotel, which in its later years served as a retirement home, survived until the 1989 earthquake, after which it was demolished.

Unfortunately for Swanton, his ambitious promotion schemes did not result in financial success. Perhaps his greatest miscalculation was the Swanton Beach Park development, which has been credited with his subsequent financial ruin. He eventually deeded much of the unsuccessful subdivision to the state which created Natural Bridges State Park. In 1912, Swanton declared bankruptcy and a group of local investors organized the Santa Cruz Seaside Company to acquire the boardwalk and its related enterprises.

The company, which still owns and operates the facilities, created a number of new attractions which have survived to the present. A carousel, constructed by Danish woodcarver Charles I. D. Looff in 1910-1912, was moved from Riverside, Rhode Island to its present site. Looff was a factory worker who became a skilled wood carver in his free time. His first carousel was completed in 1875 for the Coney Island Amusement Park in New York.

The first roller coaster at the Boardwalk was constructed in 1884 with a five hundred foot circumference and a top height of twenty four feet. L. A. Thompson's Scenic Railway was opened in June 1908. At 1050 feet, it was the longest in the United States at the time. The present roller coaster, called the Giant Dipper was constructed by Looff's son, Arthur in 1924. Constructed in just 47 days at a cost of $50,000, it has a top height of 70 feet and a one minute and fifty second ride.

While the carousel and roller coaster have remained constant, other attractions at the boardwalk have changed over time. All such entertainments suffered during the Depression, and new ways were developed entice patrons. Acts like Ruth Kahl the human submarine, death defying fire dives, swimming team races and exhibitions were part of the Water Carnivals that took place on summer week-ends at the Plunge. The Olympic swimmer and famous surfer, Duke Kahanamoku caused great excitement when he appeared at a Water Carnival performance in 1938.

Built in 1907, the Plunge was touted in its early days as one of the largest of its type of the West Coast. Filled with heated sea water, it provided a less rigorous swimming experience than was available in the chilly waters of Monterey Bay. Although the water carnivals ended in 1945, the facility was operated, at an increasing loss, until 1963. By then the novelty of swimming indoors no longer had much appeal and the facility was converted into a miniature golf course.

World War II brought travel restrictions and gasoline rationing and, as a result, tourism fell off drastically. During the summer months at least, the boardwalk stayed open with limited activities. Because of its position on the coast, security was an issue and black-out curtains were securely placed over the Casino windows during any nighttime activities. After the war, the entire site was ready for a facelift. The facilities underwent major renovations in the 1950s and again in ... 1981. It continues to operate today as a mixture of historic and modern amusement park attractions.

[From: Fully Developed Context Statement for the City of Santa Cruz. Prepared for City of Santa Cruz Planning and Development Department. Prepared by Susan Lehmann, October 20, 2000. Chapter 3, Context I: Economic Development of the City of Santa Cruz 1850-1950, pp. 14-16]

View similarly tagged articles:

Boardwalk, Fred Swanton, hotels, landmarks, swimming, tourism


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