Thursday, November 5, 2020

Car Stops: Vue de l'Eau

The Pacific Avenue Street Railway had been uninspired and coerced by Santa Cruz politicians into extending its horsecar line up Mission Hill to access Santa Cruz High School and several churches located along Mission Street in 1880. An attempt was made to abandon this unprofitable track in 1883 and later attempts to extend it to West Cliff Drive between 1887 and 1889 stalled due to lack of capital and interest. The potential of the Garfield Park development, popularly known as The Circles due to the concentric circular roads that emanate out from the central Christian Church of California tabernacle, shifted interest in extending the line in 1890, but the horsecar line was slow to respond and a new company, the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Electric Railway Company, was incorporated in May 1891 to do what the old horsecar line had not. By the end of 1891, electric cars were running to Garfield Park and beyond.

Colorized postcard showing the Vue de l'Eau on Cliff Drive at night, ca 1900.

At the forked end-of-track on its West Side route, the streetcar company erected the Vue de l'Eau—"view of the water" in French—chalet at the end of Garfield (now Woodrow) Avenue. This small two-story structure built by a E. L. Van Cleeck was a Victorian marvel. Perched precariously on the cliff overlooking eroding sandstone arches, crashing waves, and encroaching ice plants, the Vue de l'Eau was intended to be a tourist magnet in an era before bathing was the most important beachside activity. The original structure include a spacious waiting room and ticket office on the ground floor with an octagonal overlook on the second, providing panoramic views of the Monterey Bay to the southeast, the marine terraces to the north, and the whole of the Pacific Ocean to the west.

The Vue de l'Eau observatory and stop with a Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Electric Railway streetcar heading down Garfield Avenue, ca 1898.
[University of California Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Colorized postcard of a storm battering the marine terrace beside Vue de l'Eau, ca 1920.

The Daily Surf described the structure as such:

It is a unique and beautiful building, its lines suggesting the pagoda but modernized sufficiently to adapt it to place and circumstances. It is an oblong structure of one story, surmounted by a large octagonal observatory, this in turn finished by a peaked, tower-like roof. The end view is the more picturesque, but the broad side with its wide windows and the ample veranda entirely surrounding it has a comfortable and roomy look that is inviting.

The building is 47 feet long by 22 feet wide and contains a waiting room 23 x 16 feet in dimensions and a lunch room 12 x 13 1/2. 

The octagon observatory will be a charming room, being 16 feet across in each direction and entirely enclosed with glass which is set in eight large double windows reaching to the floor. The whole will be brilliantly lighted by incandescent electricity and the views will be something superb. 

It will be one of the proper things of the near future to go to Vue de l'Eau for a supper, a luncheon, a dance and a good time generally

The Vue de l'Eau formally opened on the same day that the new streetcar line ran, November 1, 1891.

Possibly the earliest photograph of the Vue de l'Eau streetcar station and observatory, ca 1894.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
A horse and buggy beside the Vue de l'Eau, ca 1895.
[Worthpoint – colorized using DeOldify]

The streetcar company became the Santa Cruz Electric Railway in August 1892 after merging with the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad. This soon led to the expansion of the company down Pacific Avenue to the beach on newly upgraded tracks. Streetcar service to Vue de l'Eau, which was already regular, became more frequent during the summer months, shuttling crowded cars between the Santa Cruz Union Depot (from 1893) and the casino, often in alternation with cars travelling to the Santa Cruz Main Beach's bath houses. The increasing popularity of the Vue de l'Eau area, with its clifftop walks and beautiful views, prompted further development.

The Vue de l'Eau Casino with a streetcar passing down Garfield Avenue at left, ca 1900.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

In May 1892, the streetcar company opened a mid-sized casino at the northeast corner of Pelton and Garfield Avenues to correct for the unexpected demand experienced by the Vue de l'Eau. Much like the two casinos that were later erected at the Santa Cruz Main Beach, the Vue de l'Eau casino was a family-friendly attraction that included a ballroom on the second floor and a restaurant and lounge on the first. The Surf described it as "a large and picturesque building with peaked gables and curving roof outlines, broad verandas entirely surrounding both the first and second stories, double mullioned windows looking out both seaward and landward, and many other attractive features." A long porch wrapped around the building, providing views on the ocean side. Management of the attractions was in the hands of George Denison, who had run the Ben Lomond Hotel for several seasons. His office was located on the top story of the building. The railway also set out a baseball diamond on the lot beside the casino where the company baseball team, the Electrics, played.

Colorized postcard of the Cliff Museum across from the Vue de l'Eau
at the end of Garfield Avenue, ca 1904. [Frank Perry]

The appeal of Vue de l'Eau also attracted J. F. Parker to relocate his curio museum from the Santa Cruz Main Beach to beside the Vue de l'Eau on March 1, 1893. Occupying a Victorian-style, purpose-built, two-story structure, the Cliff Museum was more of a restaurant and tourist shop than an actual museum. In fact, the Parkers lived in the top upper floors, with the first floor reserved for business. It focused on selling minerals, sea mosses, shells, and other marine curiosities, as well as food, drinks, postcards, and souvenirs. Parker imported expensive jewelery and handcrafted driftwood and shells but few of the items sold at the store were locally made.

The Cliff Museum, Vue de l'Eau, and Crown Arch, ca 1905.
[Ronnie Trubek – colorized using DeOldify]
The Crown Arch beside Vue de l'Eau, ca 1911.
[Julia Gaudinski – colorized using DeOldify]

In 1901, Albert Magor became the proprietor of the Cliff Museum and drew people in with special sales, live bands, and a promise to give back a percent of his profits to the community. He also ran contests, such as counting the number of shells in a bottle. He expanded the museum to Pacific Avenue, as well, with a small satellite museum located approximately where today's Metro Center is found. John A. Moore took over in 1902 and followed his predecessor's example by advertising heavily in the local newspapers. The museum benefited from the addition of a small conservatory in 1903 and Moore hoped to enhance the museum's appeal in 1904 with the addition of a large sign on the roof reading "Free Cliff Museum."

Colorized postcard of waves breaking beneath Vue de l'Eau, c 1920.
Members of the O'Brien family on a sandstone arch just west of Vue de l'Eau, ca 1910.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

For a decade, the appeal of the Vue de l'Eau reigned supreme in Santa Cruz, drawing visitors from across the Central Coast. But then two things occurred in the same summer that led to the slow collapse of the operation. In June 1904, Fred W. Swanton opened his Neptune Casino, Plunge, and Tent City at the Santa Cruz Main Beach. The size and scale of the new Moorish-style casino placed it in an entirely different ballpark than the now aged Vue de l'Eau out on the fringe of the city. It essentially incorporated all of the merits of the old facility, including its adjacent casino, restaurant, and even the museum, placing them all within a short walk of each other alongside a bandstand, a sprawling beach, and rides. Then in September 1904, the streetcar line was consolidated with the Santa Cruz, Capitola, and Watsonville Electric Railway to become the Union Traction Company.

Santa Cruz Electric Railway streetcar at the end-of-track beside the Vue de l'Eau Casino
with The Circles church, known as The Ark, in the distance, ca 1905.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

Initially, the new streetcar company wanted to rebuild and expand the old Vue de l'Eau facilities. But the man behind this idea resigned and the company sold the Vue de l'Eau in January 1905 to the Greater Norris & Rowe Circus, which planned to use the six-acre property and the casino for its winter quarters and to establish a year-round zoo. Operated by A. C. Norris, his son Clarence, and H. S. Rowe, the circus traveled across the West Coast during the year in the company of 500 performers and support staff, two rings, and a full menagerie of animals. No zoo ever materialized and, despite signing a ten-year deal, the circus only remained in town for four winters. The Norris family, which owned homes in Garfield Park, were bought out by Rowe in early 1909 and permanently took the circus to the midwest soon afterwards, where the circus stumbled and then failed completely early in the 1910 season.

Vue de l'Eau on the cliffs, ca 1913.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

The writing was on the wall for the Vue de l'Eau in 1925 when Union Traction attempted to shut down the line to West Cliff Drive. The city gave the company an ultimatum to either abandon all traffic in downtown or keep all of the cars running. Union Traction chose the former and on August 27, it was agreed that the route to Ocean Cliffs, as it was then called, would be abandoned no later than January 1, 1926. In reality, it took a little longer and the entirety of the Union Traction network was abandoned on January 14.

Alice Williams sitting on a cliff near Vue de l'Eau, ca 1923.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]
Vue de l'Eau perched above the cliffs in its final years, ca 1920s. [Colorized using DeOldify]

It hardly mattered to the Vue de l'Eau. The once-loved Victorian-style station and observatory had lost its lustre by May 1925 and the Garfield Park Improvement Association had it removed at the beginning of June, with several of its timbers repurposed into benches and placed along Cliff Drive. Around the same time, the Vue de l'Eau's most famous sandstone bridge, the Crown Arch, collapsed into the sea, the last significant arch along that stretch of coast. The closure of Vue de l'Eau and the end of the streetcar line quickly led to the financial insolvency of the Cliff Museum, which closed to the public after the 1926 season.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9529N, 122.0373W

Vue de l'Eau was located at the bottom of Woodrow Avenue on West Cliff Drive. The site of the stop has almost entirely eroded into the sea but a remnant of it survives as an ice plant section just across from the end of Woodrow. Meanwhile, a park on the southwest corner of the road marks the location of the Cliff Museum.

Citations & Credits:

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