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When Santa Cruz Became the 'West Coast Coney Island'

boardwalk view

Before I walked on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, I walked around it. From the large parking lot across the street, it looked shabby and almost foreboding. Then I viewed the Boardwalk from the beach and found it rather awe-inspiring -- like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie, or better yet, "The Jetsons."  Thrill rides towered above me. Periodic screams issued from the mammoth Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. The Ferris wheel started and stopped rhythmically, reminding me of the insides of an old pocket watch, while couples canoodled on the Sky Glider Ski Lift. The beach generated its own sounds. The waves, the birds, the beeping of a lone man’s metal detector perhaps striking gold under the sand.

Upon entering the Boardwalk, all these careful, studious observations deserted me, and I immediately felt like an excited and happy ten-year old girl.  I couldn’t help myself -- I bought twenty-dollars’ worth of tickets. I rode the Ski Lift, took pictures of the colorful crowds, and inhaled the enticing mixture of sea air and fried food smells. I rode the Sea Swings, and felt like I was flying out over the grey, chilly ocean. I ate mint-chocolate Dip N’ Dots. I played pinball in the dark Casino Arcade and was fascinated by the strange animatronic toys. My jaded, cosmopolitan soul had been sucked into the pleasure of unpretentious, carefree fun, just like the millions of Californians who have visited the Boardwalk for over a century.

pool pavilion
Postcard, "Interior of Bathing Pavilion, Santa Cruz, Cal."

The era of beach amusements in Santa Cruz began in 1865, when Santa Cruz pioneer John Leibbrandt opened a bathhouse on the beach, close to the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. The Civil War had just ended, and everywhere people were breathing a sigh of relief, and itching to enjoy themselves. Soon more bathhouses (like Elizabeth Liddell’s Long Branch Bathhouse), which offered “respectable” people a modest way to enjoy the benefits of sea bathing, appeared on the shore. Concessions and other entertainment sprung up, and by 1866, the Daily Alta California was reporting that Santa Cruz “will soon be considered and adjudged by all the pleasure-seekers of this land as the ne plus ultra resort area of the Western Coast. The climate is mild and perfectly delicious.”

Over the next two decades, the Santa Cruz bathhouse business grew, culminating in the grand opening of the luxurious Miller-Leibbrandt Plunge in 1893. According to the Boardwalk’s official history, "The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: A Century by the Sea:"

The Miller-Leibbrandt Plunge was a well-appointed two-story structure that included two hundred dressing rooms, a glass-enclosed observatory, a café with ornate fixtures and fireplaces, and a billiard parlor and card room. The setting was decorated lavishly with palms and other plants, and the pool was heated to a comfortable eighty-three degrees. Best of all the Plunge featured springboards all around the perimeter, and from the ceiling hung a flying trapeze.

No one believed more in Santa Cruz as a tourist destination than a magnetic, brash young showman named Fred Swanton. Swanton, the son of a successful Santa Cruz hotelier and livery owner, believed in what he called the “new Santa Cruz,” a major tourist destination that would be the “West Coast Coney Island.” During the 1880s and 90s, Swanton threw himself into a variety of business ventures. He built a large Italianate hotel, invested in new-fangled energy schemes, became manager of the local Opera House, sponsored a baseball team, opened a pharmacy, and founded an electric company.  In 1902, he turned his attention to the local tourism industry, and convinced the Southern Pacific Railroad to promote Santa Cruz to their passengers. He bought up the bathhouses (including the Miller-Leibbrandt) along the coast, and formed the Santa Cruz Beach, Cottage and Tent City Corporation to develop the area.

On June 12, 1904, Swanton opened the magnificent Neptune Casino to a “blare of music, a blaze of rockets and the boom of bursting bombs.” The Moorish-style entertainment palace included a ballroom, a theater, a formal restaurant and the Miller-Leibbrandt plunge. Swanton also constructed a large tent city next to the Casino, offering tourists a place to stay right on the beach. To promote the venture, Swanton traveled tirelessly, in a train provided to him by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Along with town dignitaries and celebrities, he journeyed throughout the Western United States, handing out promotional pamphlets and giving rousing pitches for Santa Cruz at each stop:

“Stay around where I am and you’ll enjoy yourself…When you get there, look me up. I’m great company. There’ll be something doing every minute of the day and evening…Nothing is tied down in the city…and visitors can help themselves.”

Swanton promised that there was “never a dull moment” in Santa Cruz, and on that count he was eerily prophetic.

On June 22, 1906, a fire that had started at a local laundry spread to the Neptune Casino, which was soon reduced to ashes. Within hours, as the ruins still smoldered, Swanton began making plans to rebuild. Less than one year later, on June 15, 1907, the new Casino -- more refined and streamlined -- opened, along with a brand new natatorium and boardwalk. Right before the opening, a reporter tracked down Swanton, who was working at his usual manic pace, “as if fired from a Gatling gun.” “Everything is in operation,” Swanton told the reporter hurriedly, “booths, miniature railway, Topsy Turvy, Happy Hooligan, down the Boardwalk cottages all finished, band playing, everything conducive to a good time.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

Promptly at 8:30 P.M. manager Fred W. Swanton pressed the button, and as if by magic the electric currents were released and in an instant thousands of lights blazed forth on the Casino, Natatorium, Pleasure Pier, Boardwalk and other beach buildings, a sight that was grand in every sense of the word.
vintage postcard santa cruz
Postcard, "Casino and Beach, Santa Cruz, California"

The Santa Cruz Sentinel described the feeling among the 8,000 or so spectators, many of whom were Santa Cruz citizens:

Thousands of people were on hand to marvel at the mighty structures illuminated by countless lights and fireworks. With the cream of society of the Golden West…the citizens of the city…were never in a more hopeful or jubilant mood than when on this memorable occasion they beheld the dreams of Director-General Fred Swanton…Tears were seen creeping unconsciously in the eyes of many people, so overjoyed were they at realizing what a great step Santa Cruz had just taken…from yesterday into today.”

During the next decade, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk would be one of the main tourist destinations on the West Coast. A series of colorful cottages would replace the tent city in 1907. A year later, the Boardwalk’s first thrill ride, the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway, opened. In 1911, legendary carousel maker Charles I.D. Looff installed the priceless carousel that enchants visitors to this day. Visitors could swim in the heated plunges and eat fancy turtle soup at the Casino Grill.

They could also enjoy penny amusements that were the technological hits of the early 1900s, like the mechanical doctor whose comical tagline was the following:

Vibration is the law of life. This human wonder will make you feel free as a daisy. Drop coin in the slot, and put the rubber to any part of the body, or to the face. This doctor charges one cent only. Other doctors charge two to five dollars for vibration. Do not fail to take this treatment daily.

Despite its great success, the Boardwalk fell onto hard times, and Swanton was forced to relinquish his control of the company. In 1914, the Santa Cruz Seaside Company took control of the Casino and Boardwalk, and Swanton was completely pushed out. However, his influence in Santa Cruz continued, and he would serve as mayor from 1927-1933.  

The 1920s, 30s and 40s were golden times at the Boardwalk. In 1921, Highway 17 was paved, and more and more people began traveling to Santa Cruz to spend a day at the Boardwalk. In 1924, the iconic Giant Dipper roller-coaster was built by Charles Looff’s son, Arthur, who wanted the experience to be a “combination earthquake, balloon ascension and aero plane ride.” In 1924, the Miss California pageant began to be held on the beach, to the dismay of the town’s religious organizations and women’s rights activists. In 1934, the massive Casino Ballroom, which could hold over 2,500 people, was rebranded as the Cocoanut Grove. It would become an important venue for big bands of the era, including Kay Kyser and Benny Goodman’s bands.

swing santa cruz
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk | Photo: Hadley Meares

In the giant natatorium, bathers and spectators could watch amazing acrobatic and aquatic feats, like Don “Bosco” Patterson’s legendary “stratosphere dive.” Years later, Bosco would remember the origins of this famous stunt:

Skip Littlefield was the master of ceremonies, and he used to keep building me up-telling the crowd that next week I would be diving from a higher platform. So during the next week I’d have to make good for the crowds by climbing higher for a practice dive. He finally promised the crowd that I would dive from the steel girders in the ceiling. That was a sixty-five-foot-plus drop.

An annoyed Bosco griped to Littlefield, “I suppose you’ll be cutting a hole in the roof next to get me a little higher.” Two days later, Littlefield took Bosco to the natatorium and pointed to the 80-foot high roof. There was a hole cut into the ceiling. Bosco remembered:

I climbed up on the roof and looked down through the hole. You can’t print what I thought. Then I walked slowly down the length of the roof and thought it over. The conclusion that I arrived at was that if I was ever going to make it, I’d have to walk straight for that hole in the roof and jump. That’s what I did. It felt like anything but water when I hit it.

In 1952, Laurence Canfield bought a controlling interest in the Seaside Company, which operates the Boardwalk. His family has run the Boardwalk ever since.

In the past 50 years, thrilling shows like those performed by Bosco have been almost totally replaced by the installation of thrill rides and attractions.  In 1963, the plunge was officially closed, and the natatorium was turned into the indoor mini-golf center. The Cocoanut Grove, now used as an events venue, underwent a massive renovation in the 1980s, as did the Boardwalk itself.  

Today, the Boardwalk boasts 35 attractions and rides. It continues to expand and renovate, adding high-tech amusements and the latest fair-food trendy snacks. But Matt Twisselman, part of a family who has owned eateries on the Boardwalk since the 30s, thinks the real reason the Boardwalk continues to thrive is a pretty simple one." The Boardwalk spends millions on new rides, which is great," Twisselman says. "But every day I talk to people who come here to relive happy memories, family trips, vacation days at the beach. They're here to share the experience with their kids and grandkids."

boardwalk rides
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk | Photo: Hadley Meares
arcade exterior
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk | Photo: Hadley Meares
coaster detail
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk | Photo: Hadley Meares
beach view
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk | Photo: Hadley Meares

Further reading; "The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: A Century by the Sea," by the Santa Cruz Seaside Company

Top Image: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk | Photo: Hadley Meares

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