Friday, September 2, 2016

Curiosities: Skee-Roll at the Boardwalk

Deconstruction of the various substructures that compose the current
Skee-Roll Arcade building, August 2016. [Google Maps]
September 5, 2016 marks the close of a chapter in Santa Cruz history. For over 123 years, a small, unassuming structure at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been in continuous use, the only remaining part of the Neptune Casino complex that Fred Walker Swanton built in 1904 and that burned down in an epic fire on June 22, 1906. Repaired, extended, repainted, and remodelled more times than one can calculate, the Skee-Roll Arcade building that has for so long greeted visitors on the east side of Walkway 2 is finally being demolished by the Santa Cruz Seaside Company in order to erect a new, state-of-the-art facility. For many reasons, this is a very good thing, but by its demolition, the Boardwalk loses the last connection it has to a tragic but defining moment in the history of the Santa Cruz Main Beach.

The Neptune Plunge in the late 1890s. At far right, the hot baths and powerhouse structure can be seen above the sands.
[Images of America: Santa Cruz, California]
The Neptune Plunge and powerhouse seen from the Electric Pier, 1904.
In Fall 1903, Swanton began construction on a large, Moorish-style entertainment center at the bottom of Cliff Street that he named Neptune Casino. In reality, what he built was an amalgamation of new and old seaside structures. His company, the Santa Cruz Beach Cottage & Tent City Corporation, purchased the large Miller-Leibbrandt Plunge, a large pool that treated vacationers to heated salt water pumped straight from the Monterey Bay. The building itself had replaced the Dolphin Baths, one of the oldest bath houses on the Monterey Bay, in 1893 when John Leibbrandt, who owned the adjacent Neptune Baths, joined forces with Ralph and A.E. Miller. It was probably in 1893 that the structure that would one day be the Operations Office and Skee-Roll Arcade was first built. Swanton's Casino did not appear in its final form until 1904, just west of the Miller-Leibbrant Plunge, which was renamed the Neptune Plunge and received a Moorish facelift, while the final structure in the complex, the Skate Rink, was built in Spring 1905.

Sanborn Map showing the "Tub Baths" building at right, beside the Neptune Baths (center) and Neptune Casino, 1905.
[UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections]
Construction on the second Casino complex, early 1907. The
old powerhouse and baths are visible at far right at the base of the pier.
Confirmation of the Skee-Roll Arcade building's early existence is provided by the Sanborn map above and a number of extant photographs of the first Casino complex, where the structure is visible at the extreme right (see right and below). The map shows the small structure at the bottom of the "Pleasure Wharf" (actually called at that time, the "Electric Pier"), across from an early steam-powedered merry-go-round, a tiny aquarium, and a tin-type portrait studio. By this year, 1905, the structure had already been expanded once. The older section, on the trackside, was the two-story powerhouse and boiler room for the Neptune Plunge. The water tanks were stored just to the east, and the water was pumped through the building in order to heat it before passing underground to a steam laundry room and then into the main pool. Two tall water heaters were kept in the room beside a large petroleum-based boiler. The water pumping through the pipes also fed two dynamo turbine engines that supplied power to some of the structures in the complex. Meanwhile, the ocean side of the structure served as a single-story venue called Hanly's Salt Water Baths, which featured hot tubs that were warmer than the pool.

Postcard of the Neptune Casino complex with the powerhouse structure at far left (with a smokestack), 1904.
In June 1906, Swanton's venture 1904 investment burned to the ground, destroying Neptune Casino, the 1893 Plunge, and the Neptune Baths which had been relocated across the street and repurposed as a restaurant. Two structures did survive, however: the powerhouse/Hanly Baths and the Skate Rink, which was redesigned as the long-running Fun House attraction. Swanton reincorporated his organisation as the Santa Cruz Beach Company and began work on a new entertainment complex in Fall 1906. He hired famed architect William Henry Weeks to design the facility, which was completed in time for the 1907 Summer season. Weeks may have also been responsible for a short annex that was added to the ocean side of Hanly's Baths, which was in place no later than 1917.

Sanborn map showing the second complex, with (from left) the Casino, Plunge, Hanly Baths, and Fun House, 1917.
[UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections]
Hanly Baths beside Walkway 2, early c. 1920s.
[Images of America: Santa Cruz, California]
The oceanside hot tub facility became known as Hanly's Salt Water Baths in 1902, which probably marks the date the extension was added to the powerhouse. Mary Jane Hanly was an English nurse who offered, in addition to the baths, paediatric, medical, and message services at the facility. She continued to operate her tub baths at the Boardwalk until 1924, when she moved to a new building at the intersection of Bay Street and West Cliff Drive. Her new location eventually became the city's first hospital, originally as Hanly Hospital, and then later as Sisters Hospital once the Adrian Dominican Sisters took over the facility. As seen in the photograph at right, circa the early 1920s, the structure received a facelift to better match Weeks' architectural style, although this did not happen immediately since photographs from the late 1900s still show onion domes on the structure. The shadow of the annex structure can also be detected, although the specific design of this structure cannot be confirmed during this period due to a lack of available photographs.

The east side of the second Casino complex with the Hanly's Baths at left (with smokestack) and the Fun House at right.
Skee-Roll Arcade in the early 1930s. [Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk]
It is this annex that would eventually become Skee-Roll Arcade and it is likely that it served such a purpose from nearly the beginning. In the earliest years, the building was probably used for a few simple carnival-style dexterity games, but as the boardwalk was extended to the east, it likely became exclusively a skee-ball arcade. Skee-Roll, or more commonly skee-ball, was invented in 1909 by J. Dickinson Este in Philadelphia. Skee-ball alleys became popular across the country after the first one opened in 1914. The Boardwalk's alley opened in the Hanly's Baths annex around 1918 under the management of concessionaire Ed "Doc" Reicher.

Postcard of Skee-Roll Arcade in c. 1958. Note the smokestack still visible on the back building. [Major Pepperidge]
Skee-Roll Arcade remained virtually unchanged for most of its existence. Doc Reicher introduced skee-roll into the county and continued to run the arcade for the next sixteen years. In 1934, he sold his entire operation to Charles J. FitzSimmons, whose family ran it for thirty years until Charles retired. It was FitzSimmons who replaced the original skee-ball machines with the industry standard Philadelphia Toboggan Company machines, a few of which survive at the Boardwalk today. A young Charles Laurence Canfield, son of Santa Cruz Seaside Company president Laurence Canfield, purchased FitzSimmons's concession and founded C.L. Canfield Concessions in 1965, continuing to operate Skee-Roll Arcade as a part of his operations until 1994. In that year, the company was merged into the Seaside Company and renamed the Games Department.

The Vault and Skee-Roll (externally-named Prize Center), c2013.
The false front façade for Desperados, 2009.
Since the 1960s, other game machines began appearing in the arcade, but the development of ticket-dispensing games around 1978 signalled a change in the make-up of the arcade, eventually pushing the skee-ball games to just a corner of the room. In 2008, the arcade was closed for the first time and was replaced by Desperados Western Shootout, an interactive theatre-based shoot-out game. The entire exterior was changed, as well, with an Old West façade placed over the 90-year-old Weeks-style architecture. During this time, the name Skee-Roll moved to the Great Auto Race location two doors to the east. The Desperados attraction failed to attract sufficient revenue and shut down in September 2010. It reopened as Skee-Roll once again in Spring 2011 with only four skee-ball games still inside, two of which were originals.

The rear of the second Casino complex prior to the 1911 construction of the Casa del Rey Hotel.
The powerhouse is visible at far left beside the Plunge.
Meanwhile, the oldest part of the structure, the old powerhouse beside the railroad tracks, began its slow evolution into the Boardwalk Operations Office. By 1917, the space was being used for storage, its function as a boiler room ending with the destruction of the Neptune Plunge it once serviced. The boilers for the new Plunge were installed more covertly under the building, although the holding tanks remained on the east side of the old powerhouse and the structure may have continued to be used for some Plunge-related services. When the Santa Cruz Seaside Company was founded in December 1915 to replace Swanton's bankrupt corporation, it was a disorganised and relatively uninvolved company and remained so until Laurence Canfield took over in 1952. Thus, this structure was probably not used by the company until the 1950s at the earliest. Doc Reicher was probably the first to use this building as offices, although it was undoubtedly FitzSimmons who first built the somewhat rickety second-floor concessions offices on the east side of the building. Canfield Concessions and, later, the Games Department continued to use these offices until early 2012 when they relocated to the new Haunted Castle building.  The remainder of the second floor, built with more consideration, was probably completed in the late 1950s when the Operations Office finally moved to the building. Multiple rooms upstairs and downstairs were subdivided creating a functional and modern work environment. A portion of the old Hanly's Baths building was also carved away and converted into a Nurse Station for injured guests. Indeed, this portion of the building was probably converted quite early and may be the last functional remnant of the original baths. Operations, the Nurse Station, Occupational Health & Safety, and Ticket Sales & Parking all relocated to the Haunted Castle in early 2012. The Receiving Office, the last operations unit in the structure, moved in 2014.

Aerial view of the powerhouse building (on left) and the Fun House (right) in its most complete state, 1965.
[UC Santa Cruz Digital Collection]
Between 1931 and 1943, the former entrance to Hanly's Baths was boxed in, creating a longer passageway between the street and the boardwalk proper. This was little annex probably added by FitzSimmons since it was under him that the Boardwalk added Pokerino and Bing-o-Rino ball-rolling games. Usually considered gambling machines, these games became staples of first FitzSimmons's and then Canfield's games operations at the Boardwalk. The winners of these games were given tickets that could be redeemed for prizes and many of the tickets survive today, unused. This gallery was entirely sealed off from its neighbor except for one door at back – the old Hanly's Baths main entrance door – and a employee door into the larger arcade. This arcade remained separate and in place until 2008 when it became the lobby for Desperados. When Desperados closed in 2010, it was converted into The Vault Lazer Maze Challenge and remained that until the building closed in September 2016.

The trackside view of the former powerhouse building, with the former Foods and Rides Offices and Whiting's Games buildings at left, June 2016. [Google Street View]
Secondly, two entirely new annexes were added to the east of the building and attached by various means to the main structure and to the Fun House. By 1943, this merger was complete and there was a fluidity between the seaside façades of the structures that ran from Walkway 2 to the end of the Fun House. Both structures were already in place by 1928, as can be seen on an aerial flight of that year. The portion closest to the former Fun House may have originally served as an expansion not to the powerhouse building but rather to the Fun House itself, although that connection was certainly severed by 1973, when the Fun House was demolished, if not earlier. Its street side was made of plain panelled wood with a low second floor for offices, while the ocean side featured an Art Deco façade. The interior of the building was eventually split down the middle. The westernmost half was further subdivided perpendicularly, with the trackside part reserved in later years for the Area 2 Rides Offices, an employee lounge, and restrooms, and the seaside part primarily the home of the Great Auto Race game (also called Roll-A-Ball), which was operated by Canfield Concessions from 1965 onwards. When Desperados was built in 2008, a tiny version of the Skee-Roll Arcade replaced Roll-A-Ball and the latter game relocated to beside the Milk Bottles carnival game, where it still remains. In 2011, a new carnival game was installed at the location, Stinky Feet, which remained in place until the demolition of the building in 2016. All the offices, meanwhile, moved to the new Haunted Castle building in early 2012 and the area was converted into the Boardwalk Party Room

The Clown Toss game in action, 2014.
The other part of the building, that closest to the former Fun House, was the original site of James O'Connor's shooting gallery, which began operations in the mid-1920s. O'Connor used live .22 caliber bullets to shoot moving targets downrange. In 1946, he sold the operation to Joseph Ross Whiting, who founded Whiting's Games. When his son, Edward, took over the company in 1972, he replaced the shooting gallery with the significantly safer midway game, Clown Toss, which continued in an unchanged state until the demolition of the building. Ed sold his assets to the Seaside Company in January 2014, which then took over daily operations. The former Whitings corporate offices, which sat behind and above Clown Toss, were subsequently abandoned.

The short-lived 3D Fun House which operated on the Boardwalk from 2000 to 2002. Roll-A-Ball can be seen beside it.
[Santa Cruz Seaside Company]
Fright Walk, which replaced the Fun House in 2003.
The second annex, squeezed between the two others, showcased an Art Deco style on both sides of the building, although the reason for why the streetside differed stylistically so drastically from its eastern neighbor is not unknown. It is the narrowest annex, too, and its addition necessitated the truncation of the adjacent powerhouse and baths buildings. The structure was divided into a large rectangular room on the oceanside with two small offices on the backside, suggesting that this was originally designed as a store for a concessionaire, although which is unknown at this time. From 1982 until 1999 it was utilised as the Pirates' Den Arcade, the Boardwalk's first formal box console gaming arcade that was designed to complement the theme of the new Jack Flint's Pirate Ship ride across from it. The Boardwalk's Food Services Department was likely formed around this time as well and it moved into the former concession offices in back. In 2000, Pirates' Den was replaced with the 3D Fun House, a loony attraction that was as much scary as it was fun. This prompted a redesign in 2003 as the Fright Walk, an attraction that remained in place until the end of Summer 2016.

Concept art for the new design of the entrance area, replacing the older structures in July 2017.
[Santa Cruz Seaside Company]
Skee-Roll building being demolished, September 18, 2016.
[Wai-ling Quist]
Since 2006, there have been growing whispers that the old buildings would finally be demolished and replaced with something spectacular. Over the decades, the piecemeal structures had become leaky and creaky, and they were very haphazardly maintained with questionable safety standards. Except for the seaside attractions and games and some overflow ticket booths installed on the track side, the Boardwalk essentially abandoned the building when all of its operations offices were centralised in the Haunted Castle in February-March 2012. The old building had always exuded a low-quality air about it, lowering the standard of the entire Boardwalk, and the trackside façades were ugly, inconsistent, and generally something the park wanted to remove. Still, the buildings persisted until designs were finalised for a truly magnificent, $12 million new entryway which, for the first time ever, will give the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk a real entrance (the relatively new entrance beside the Carousel notwithstanding). The Vault Lazer Maze and a new Fright Walk will both return beside other midway games and a new food venue, but gone will be any trace of the oldest buildings on the Boardwalk. Celebrating their 124th summer seasons, the former Neptune Plunge powerhouse and the Hanly's Baths buildings truly need to be demolished and removed, but their importance to the history of Santa Cruz County should not be so readily forgotten.

Citations & Credits:
  • Beal, Chandra Moira and Richard. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: The Early Years – Never a Dull Moment. Pacific Group, 2003.
  • Gomez, Phil. "Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk getting a makeover", August 31, 2016.
  • Machado, Gay. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: A Century by the Sea. Ten Speed Press, 2007.
  • "New! Boardwalk Main Entrance & Plaza Project". Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, 2016.
  • O'Hare, Sheila, and Irene Berry. Images of America: Santa Cruz, California. Arcadia, 2002.
  • Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Arcades & Games Department staff, especially Barbara Phillips, Sue Hottel, Sylvia Castellanos, and Anilu Reyes.
  • Santa Cruz Seaside Company. Corporate archives.
  • University of California, Santa Cruz. Library Map Collections and Aerial Photograph Collections.
  • Whiting, Ted, Jr. Personal correspondence.


  1. I believe the building you refer to as the "pump building", and elsewhere as the "pump house" originally was the powerhouse of the Co-Operative Electric Co. I don't known what a "dynamo turbine engine" that you refer to. The powerhouse had 2 Babcock and Wilcox boilers that supplied steam for a 300 HP Hamilton-Corliss steam engine which, in turn, ran a 180 KW Westinghouse 3-phase alternator. Electric power was sold to customers in the city, as well as to the Casino. I have no information that there was ever a turbine (either a water turbine or a steam turbine) in the powerhouse. If there is a reference to such, I would be ecstatic to see it.

    1. Very interesting. I was informed by Ted Whiting that the building was used as essentially the pump and warming house for the Miller-Leibbrandt Plunge, which was built in 1893. However, a few of his other statements did not line up 100% with the historical record. I rather suspect that the building may not date from 1893, when the Plunge was built, but possibly to 1903, when the Electric Pier was extended into the bay. The pier was built as a conduit for the water, and said conduit would have required a stronger pump than had existed before. Following what Ted said, the water would have been pumped into the two holding tanks to the east of the building, and then channeled through a boiler before heading to the Baths, the steam laundry, and the Plunge. There are still concrete slabs in the building today where two large tanks once sat. The only documentation I have for this, unfortunately, is the two Sanborn maps above, the second of which showing the room as simply storage as of 1917. If you click on the first map, however, a larger version appears that you may be able to read (it is the highest resolution available to me). It shows a dynamo near the western side, flanked by two engines, with two tanks near the middle beside a large device that I assume is a boiler owing to the fuel oil stored beside it. Something else is on the eastern wall but I cannot make out the text.

      Just rereading what you wrote, I believe Swanton's actual powerhouse was not on the Boardwalk site but rather north of the city limits near where Natural Bridges is today (that was one all Swanton's land). It has been a long time since I last read about it, however, so I could be mistaken.

  2. It seems unlikely that seawater would have been fed into the boilers. Boilers experienced enough problems accumulating scale deposits from our hard water domestic supply. The seawater for the plunge must have been heated some other way using steam from the boiler, or waste steam from the Corliss Engine. Haven't spent a lot of time on those details.

    I have never seen any mention of a powerhouse at Natural Bridges.

  3. Additionally, the Pirate's Den Arcade was not the first formal box gaming console arcade. The Main Arcade at the end of the colonnade in the Coconut Bowl building (the old Plunge building) was the first.

    Also, the Shooting Gallery was open longer than you have listed. Ed Whiting closed that sometime after 1982. My father still has one of the original bunny targets given to him by Ed Whiting. My father worked at the Boardwalk for quite a long time.


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