Thursday, December 10, 2020

Curiosities: The Beach before the Boardwalk

There was a time once when the Santa Cruz Main Beach was simply a beach. No wharves or piers marred its scenic views. No buildings stood upon its sand dunes and drifts. No roads or rails crossed its ill-defined shores. And the San Lorenzo River meandered lazily over the flats on its slow march to the Monterey Bay. It was a simpler time. The Spanish colonists and Mexican settlers did little to change this landscape, sticking instead to the interior where they were safe from the exposed coastline where pirates and Russian fur traders prowled. Only the Americans were bold enough to erect permanent buildings on the hill above the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, and even they did so slowly and cautiously.

The Neptune Baths with a Pacific Avenue Street Railroad horsecar parked outside, ca 1890. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Despite a three-quarters-mile-long beach dominating the Santa Cruz waterfront, bathing was simply not something people did in the mid-nineteenth century. European modesty beginning around the time of the Protestant Reformation led to a clamping down on any public bathing, indoors or otherwise, and it became the realm of children alone for over three centuries. Near the middle of the 1800s, however, doctors and scientists began to investigate the medical benefits of cleanliness and bathing. Salt water especially was thought to have medicinal properties and heated fresh- and salt-water baths began to pop up, first in the United Kingdom and then in the United States. Sulfur-rich hot springs that did not require artificial heating led to some of the first resorts. Nonetheless, there was much resistance to public bathhouses of any nature, especially on the East Coast. On the West Coast, where there was a distinct lack of any such society in the 1860s, the idea of public bathing was less repugnant. Indeed, Santa Cruz may have hosted the first purpose-built public bathhouses in California.

The Liddell family's Long Branch Bath Houses between Pacific Avenue and Main Street at the Santa Cruz Main Beach, 1876. [California State University, Chico – colorized using DeOldify]

The precise chronology of events is unclear but tradition has it that Elizabeth Liddell, alongside her daughter Mary, opened the first bathhouse on the Santa Cruz Main Beach in time for the 1864 summer season. The timeline for this makes sense since Elizabeth's husband, George Liddell, had just died in April of that year leaving her with her eight children to manage the estate. Presumably, their home served as the core of the new bathhouse and was expanded over subsequent years to add an ever-growing number of "bathing houses"—changing rooms with showers—to the facility.

The Liddell bathhouse below the Ocean View House and between the two wharves with the other beach bathing facilities in the distance, ca 1878. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The home was located between Pacific Avenue and Main Street just above the beach, with the bathing houses erected atop the beach. Once son, Robert, appears to have been largely uninvolved with the property and served as the chief of police for the city in the 1870s. However, his brother, William, operated the bathhouse throughout the 1870s. In 1876, following a thorough refurbishment and upgrade to make it resemble a popular New Jersey bathhouse, William reopened the family's estate as the Long Branch Bath Houses. The facility featured over a hundred bathing houses and sold bathing suits imported from New York.

The Railroad Wharf with the Long Branch Bath Houses beside it and the Douglas House overhead beside the homes of the Liddell family, ca 1885. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Around the same time that the Liddells were setting up camp along the waterfront, John Leibbrandt brought to the beach the city's first portable bath sheds. These tall, stubby wagons gave people the ability to change into bathing suits and enter the water without undermining their modesty. When a bather was finished, they climbed back into the wagon and were hauled up above the high tide line on skids while they changed back into their day clothes in the privacy of the closed interior. Although clunkier in many ways, these portable changing rooms provided the highest degree of modesty for bathers since they would never be seen out of the water in their bathing suits.

Lillie King in a buggy on the Santa Cruz Main Beach, 1882. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The popularity of the bathing sheds eventually led Leibbrandt to open his own bathhouse in 1872. The Leibbrandt Bath House was a modest establishment that included thirty bathing houses with heated showers. Bathing suits could be rented and those not comfortable swimming could use a rope that was connected to an anchored raft offshore. Leibbrandt also erected additional bathing facilities near the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in 1876. John was joined in the operation of the bathhouses by his brother David  around 1879. Another brother, Jacob, periodically joined them until 1891, when he relocated to the family tract across from the bathhouse and took the lead in managing the facilities.

The Santa Cruz Beach with buggies on the beach and the Leibbrandt bathhouses in the background, 1882. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

A third bathhouse arrived at the beach in time for the 1879 summer season. Albert F. Wheaton was a recent East Coast arrival in March 1879 when he applied for a permit to erect and operate a bathhouse at the beach. The structure he proposed was to be 40' x 150', two stories in hight, with the first floor comprised largely of 100 bathing houses. In addition, the first floor would contain two warmed pools, one for men and one for women, and a large dance hall. The second floor was to be devoted to a second hall and a saloon. The bathhouse would be surrounded with a veranda with broad steps down to the beach. Wheaton's Bath House opened the first week of June with a great celebration sponsored by several of the city's elite. Unfortunately, on August 10, a fire struck the building and partially destroyed it, prompting a legal battle over fire insurance claims that lasted for four years. The structure was never rebuilt.

The boardwalk between Pacific Avenue and the bathhouses with people strolling, ca 1885. [Derek R. Whaley – colorized using DeOldify]

Access to these bathhouses evolved over time. The Liddells, who owned a house just around the corner from Pacific Avenue, didn't require any formal pathway to get to their establishment. But as more bathhouses sprang up further down the beach, access became more difficult. The popularity of the Leibbrandt bathhouse convinced the city to finance the erection of a wood plank walkway from the bottom of Pacific Avenue to the bathhouse around 1874. It was later extended all the way to the San Lorenzo River. The trio of bathhouses that were erected at the beach during this period proved immensely popular with hundreds of bathers visiting every weekend in the summer months despite poor access by rail, ship, or wagon. The beach boardwalk became a core part of the beach scene, with people strolling on it daily to access the attractions.

Members of the Leibbrandt family and other staff outside the Dolphin Bath House, 1888. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The railroad's relationship with the Santa Cruz Beach began relatively early. The tracks of the Santa Cruz Railroad first crossed the beach around 1875, when a fill and long trestle began just east of the bathhouses and grew increasingly high as it approached the San Lorenzo River. Construction of the line, in fact, required a slight shifting of Leibbrandt's bathhouse. These tracks were acquired by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1881 and standard-gauged in 1883, but there was no formal railroad service to the bathhouses at this time, although there were likely picnic trains on occasion. When Southern Pacific leased the South Pacific Coast Railway in 1887, the company began using the latter's Santa Cruz Beach Station at the bottom of Pacific Avenue and the foot of the Railroad Wharf for transfers with the other railroad and the horsecar line. This was the only official railroad passenger service at the beach for over twenty years.

Two Pacific Avenue Street Railroad horsecars on the beachfront, ca 1885. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The first horsecar line to run to the bathhouses was operated by the Santa Cruz Railroad beginning in 1875 where it operated from the Lower Plaza to the San Lorenzo River. The company incorporated as the City Railroad in 1877 but continued to use the Santa Cruz Railroad's tracks. In early 1877, the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad horsecar line installed its own tracks to the bathhouses and river, directly competing with the other line. The two continued in competition until 1882, when the City Railroad shut down following the Santa Cruz Railroad's acquisition by Southern Pacific.

The Santa Cruz Beach with two Santa Cruz Electric Railway streetcars, ca 1900. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

In 1891, the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Electric Railway installed tracks down Beach Street and up Riverside Avenue, paralleling the existing Southern Pacific Railroad and Pacific Avenue horsecar tracks. A year later, the company merged with the Pacific Avenue line to become the Santa Cruz Electric Railway and their tracks were shortly afterwards consolidated into a single line. In mid-1903, a new competitor, the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway, added its own tracks down Beach Street, resurrecting the old feud over access to the bathhouses, but this was short-lived as all of the streetcar lines consolidated the next year into the Union Traction Company and the redundant tracks were once more removed.

Construction of the Railroad Wharf, with the Liddells' bathhouse below the Douglas House between the two wharves, 1875. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The erection of the Railroad Wharf at the end of Pacific Avenue by the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad in 1876 likely led to the demise of the Long Branch Bath Houses. The beach in front of the bathhouse became completely surrounded by industrial piers, with the Powder Works Wharf and Railroad Wharf flanking it and a serpentine connecting wharf linking the two together offshore from 1877. In 1879, William Liddell reported a reduction in revenue to the renamed Liddell Bath House, although the facility was still listed as operating as late as 1885, after which date he and his bathhouse disappear entirely from newspapers. Photographs show that the facility was entirely gone by the late 1880s.

The Neptune Baths soon after opening, 1884. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

In late 1883, Captain C. F. Miller purchased the old Wheaton Bath House site beside the Leibbrandt baths and hired Charles Kaye to construct a new modern facility. In January 1884, Kaye outlined his plans. The new structure would contain fifty bathing houses, each 8' x 10' in size, some of which would contain heated showers. The bathhouse would also feature a large dancing hall with an adjacent reception room and a dining room. The whole structure was estimated to cost $10,000. An additional $2,000 was provided for amusements across the railroad tracks, including the Steam Flying Horses, a steam-powered carousel. Miller's Neptune Baths opened on May 20, 1884 and quickly became the dominant presence at the Santa Cruz waterfront. Leibbrandt, in response to the new rival next door, even renamed his facility the Dolphin Bath House to match the nautical theme of his neighbor.

Steam Flying Horses at the Santa Cruz Beach across the tracks from the Dolphin Baths, ca 1885. Photo by Romanzo E. Wood. [CSU Chico – colorized using DeOldify]

Another development in 1884 was the opening in April of the Free Museum, operated by J. F. Parker. This structure—likely a relocated home—sat on the beach between the two bathhouses for nearly twenty years selling refreshments, confectionaries, coffee and tea, cold lunches, and snacks, alongside a curio shop selling mostly of sealife, shells, and interesting-shaped rocks, in addition to fireworks! At the end of its first season, the building was moved onto pilings to better secure it from high tides and the whole structure was reinforced and renovated. To attract customers, Parker installed a large lighted sign on the roof that read MUSEUM, and he painted the words "Free Museum" on the rooftop on either side. The next year, Parker expanded the small cafe into a full restaurant. Fights over limited space caused the museum to be moved three times between 1887 and 1893 until Parker finally decided to relocate entirely to Garfield (Woodrow) Avenue near the Vue de l'Eau on the West Side.

The Dolphin Bath House with driftwood seats at the Santa Cruz Beach, ca 1885. 
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

A more friendly rivalry also developed in the 1880s between the two bathhouse, which ranged from swimming races between swim instructors to an escalation in the scale and scope of the establishments. Both bathhouses expanded into running circus-like water carnival performances, many of which used a floating dock that sat offshore from the Neptune Baths. They began running rival dances and balls. They both hired the popular Hastings band for performances and attempted to attract high profile visitors. The water tanks and heaters for the showers and indoor pools were relocated to provide more space for bathing houses and water features such as private hot pools. The Leibbrandts even erected a swing set for children on the beach.

The Santa Cruz Beach with the Neptune Baths, Plunge Baths, and Dolphin Baths along the shore and swimmers in the water, ca 1900. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The rivalry softened when Captain Miller's sons, Ralph and Albert E., took over daily operations of the Neptune Baths in the late 1880s. Indeed, in 1891, the Leibbrandt brothers partnered with the Miller brothers, as well as a local financier, A. P. Hotaling, to create a massive indoor saltwater plunge pool between the Neptune and Dolphin bathhouses. Designed by L. B. R. Olive, the structure was intended to rival other great bathhouses of the West Coast including the Sutro, Piedmont, and Olympic houses. The budget was set at $25,000 and Olive was only given two months to build the behemoth structure.

The Plunge Baths towering over the beach with tents and bathers, ca 1895. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Olive did not disappoint. The final facility was an Eastlake-style two-story building measuring 60' x 150'. It included a 40' x 90' heated salt water plunge pool kept at 83˚F as its centerpiece. The pool was 9' deep in the center with a 4' depth on one side and a 2.5' depth on the other. The entire pool was tiled using the latest technology and design. The water arrived in the pool via an intricate piping system that ended with a waterfall on one side of the pool.

The Plunge Baths beside a covered patio with bathers in the tide zone, ca 1895. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

On the first floor, Olive surrounded the pool with 100 dressing rooms and a promenade. A cafe, billiards room, and refreshment area was also on the first floor. A handsome fireplace completed the arrangement. The second floor also hosted 100 changing rooms as well as an observation gallery, another cafe and billiards room, and a bandstand. At the top of the building was added a small observatory surrounded in glass. The entire interior was decorated with palms, flowers, vines, and exotic plants in an attempt to give it a tropical feel. Springboards were also kept around the pool and a flying trapeze hung from overhead for water carnival performers to use. The Leibbrandt & Miller Plunge Baths opened around July 15, 1893.

The Santa Cruz Beach from the Railroad Wharf, ca 1900. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

In addition to these activities, for two years from 1895 to 1896, the San Lorenzo River was dammed in order to create a lake for a Venetian Water Carnival. The carnival was the brandchild of James Philip Smith, owner of the Santa Cruz Electric Railway, who wanted to help revive the community after the disastrous Pacific Avenue fire of 1894. The carnival ran for a week and featured masked balls, fireworks, an aquatic parade, and a crowing ceremony for the queen of the carnival. Various sporting activities were also held throughout the week. Smith paid to have extravagant electrical lighting strung up throughout the area to allow for nighttime events and to advertise his streetcar line. The event proved popular enough that it was revived twice, with the last carnival held in 1912.

The Santa Cruz Main Beach during a normal summer day, ca 1893. [Bancroft Library – colorized using DeOldify]

Despite the runaway popularity of the Santa Cruz Main Beach, Southern Pacific delayed establishing a formal stop for the bathhouses. It was only in late 1902, around the time that Fred W. Swanton was gathering funds and support for his Santa Cruz Beach & Tent City Corporation, that a flagstop appeared exclusively in agency books under the name Bandero, a reference to the bandstand at the beach. The stop remained unpublished on company timetables until September 1, 1907, when the railroad formally established Casino Station—named after Swanton's newly-opened grand casino—as the stop for the beach. But that is another story...

Citations & Credits:

  • Beal, Richard and Chandra Moira. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: The Early Years - Never a Dull Moment. Santa Cruz, CA: The Pacific Group, 2003.
  • McCaleb, Charles S. Surf, Sand & Streetcars: A Mobile History of Santa Cruz, California. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & History, 2005.
  • Machado, Gay. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: A Century by the Sea. Santa Cruz, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2007.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel. Miscellaneous articles, 1865-1903.
  • Santa Cruz Surf. Miscellaneous articles, 1883-1903.
  • Southern Pacific Railroad. Various records.

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