Thursday, December 17, 2020

Stations: Casino

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has a feeling of permanence about it. The towering Mission-revival walls of the Casino mix seamlessly with the rows of columns that flank the beachside colonnade. The immense space within Neptune's Kingdom causes people to stop and ponder, wondering what once was. The eerie circling of the Edwardian-style horses of the Looff Carousel contrasts remarkably with the screaming passengers of the Giant Dipper, although both herald back to an earlier, more innocent time. For many people, the Boardwalk is Santa Cruz, or at least the heart of it. And for the past century, that has often been true for tourists. Yet it was a combination of entrepreneurial vision and investment by the Southern Pacific Railroad that led to its success and lasting fame.

Colorized postcard of the Casino on a busy day during its inaugural year at the Santa Cruz Main Beach, 1907. [Derek R. Whaley]

The story of the Boardwalk does not begin with the beach. The beach had existed since time immemorial and people—Native Americans, Spanish, Mexicans, Americans, and others—already understood its allure. Since the 1860s, bathhouses and bathing sheds had existed along the Santa Cruz Main Beach, and these only expanded as the decades wore on. No, the story of the Boardwalk begins with a man: Fred Wilder Swanton. While not a child of Santa Cruz, Swanton grew up in the town from a young age. He had a vision for a greater Santa Cruz and tried to realize that vision every chance he had. He brought the telephone to California in the mid-1880s. He built and ran the Swanton House, the tallest hotel in the city. He operated the Knight's Opera House alongside his father. When the hotel burned down in 1887, he opened up the Bonner Stables and later, the Palace of Pharmacy.

The Swanton House on Front Street, run by Fred Swanton and his father, 1886. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

However, it was Swanton's interest in electricity that truly brought him local renown. In 1889, he alongside H. H. Clark founded the Santa Cruz Light and Power Company, the city's first widespread electrical system. Two years later, he helped found the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Electric Railway, the city's first electrical streetcar line. He remained invested when it became the Santa Cruz Electric Railway in 1892 and expanded his electrical control with the founding of the Big Creek Power Company shortly afterwards. But Swanton was always looking ahead. He sold the power company in 1900 and abandoned his stake in the streetcar system in 1906. He dabbled in other projects, both local and elsewhere, until he had gathered enough influence for his next big project in Santa Cruz: an amusement park.

A booster train with Fred Swanton (center back left, seated) and other directors of the Santa Cruz Beach Cottage & Tent City Corporation, ca 1904. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

From probably 1901, Swanton made his idea for a seaside amusement park on the Santa Cruz Main Beach clear to the Leibbrandt Brothers, Miller Brothers, and Southern Pacific Railroad, which collectively controlled the beach. However, it took around two years for their ideas to coalesce and an agreement to be reached. On October 29, 1903, the consortium founded the Santa Cruz Beach Cottage and Tent City Corporation with an initial investment of $100,000. This eventually reached $1.5 million following several months of campaigning by Swanton. The company consolidated all three of the bathhouses on the beach, as well as large tracts across the tracks from the Leibbrandts and Southern Pacific. In April 1904, the city council approved in a close vote an exclusive franchise on the beach for the corporation. Swanton and his associates began construction immediately, hoping to open in time for summer.

Colorized postcard, artificially made to appear like night, of the Neptune Casino on its opening day, June 2, 1906. [Derek R. Whaley]

The Neptune Casino and Plunge opened to great fanfare on June 11, 1904. The three-story, Moorish-style structure dominated the waterfront at the bottom of Cliff Street, occupying the site of the former Neptune Baths, from which it borrowed its name. Next door to the east, the Plunge Baths was refurbished and upgraded to match the style of its neighbor, with onion domes affixed to copper roofs. To the east, the Co-Operative Electric Company established a small structure surrounded by windows with onion domes on the corners of the roof. This housed the power plant for the park and ran the salt water pumps and boilers for the plunge. On the beach side of the building, several private hot tubs were installed for visitors. Between the Plunge and power plant, a 450-foot-long Pleasure Pier was extended out into the Monterey Bay, disguising the intake pipes for the baths while allowing visitors to leisurely stroll over the water.

Colorized postcard of the Tent City with the Neptune Casino and Plunge in the background, ca 1905. [Frank Perry]

The old Neptune Baths building was also renovated, substantially downsized, and moved across from the Neptune Casino, where it served as the restaurant for the tent city. The tent city originally did not have any cottages. It occupied the entire two blocks from the Esplanade (Beach Street) to Second Street, but only occupied the section directly north of the casino. The tents had raised wooden floors and half-walls that became colorful canvas about three feet above the floor. The canvas was extended overhead as a roof, as well. The tents had few amenities—little more than beds and a washing basin—with guests expected to dine in one of the resort's restaurants. Four water closets containing toilets and showers were scattered throughout the lot. By the end of 1905, several fully-enclosed wooden cottage were also built and the tent city property had begun expanding to Dolphin Street, a half-block to the east.

The Neptune Casino in its full glory, ca late summer 1904. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

The highlight of the new resort was the Neptune Casino, which, it must be noted, was not a gambling establishment. Rather, it was a more traditional, Italian-style casino where people gathered for more general entertainments. Half of the structure was composed of dressing rooms for bathers, with the ladies' rooms in the west wing of the building and the gentlemen's rooms on the east. The main facility was a massive ballroom where Swanton would host nighttime parties, serviced by a large bar. Upstairs, a smaller ballroom hosted a substantial grill restaurant that operated when the ballroom was not otherwise being used. Outside the casino, a bandstand stood alone surrounded on three sides by viewing windows, balconies, and verandas. A confection shop was also located just to the east. With the dressing rooms relocated, the Neptune Plunge expanded its own galleries around the large plunge pool in its center and both the casino and plunge hosted observation decks on their third stories. An electric carousel, a small aquarium, a tin-type photo studio, and a large roller rink added in 1905 completed this first iteration of the park.

The Neptune Casino and Neptune Plunge on a quiet day, ca 1905 [WorthPoint]

The increased activity at the beach, partially sponsored and promoted by Southern Pacific, spurred the railroad to finally register a railroad stop at the beach. Special excursion trains had undoubtedly stopped at the bathhouses for two decades by this point, but the railroad had never bothered to make the stop official. Horsecars and streetcars, however, had found the beach one of their primary destinations, with the two earliest horsecar lines reaching the beach in 1875 and 1877 respectively. The beach remained popular with streetcars until they were discontinued in 1926. The railroad hesitated until 1902, when a stop named Bandero, a fanciful play on the bandstand at the beach, appeared in company agency books. How frequently this stop was used is unclear, but Swanton utilized the railroad extensively in boosting the resort and likely promoted railroad access as a perk. Still, despite their investment, the railroad did not commit to a more formal, scheduled stop at this time.

The Neptune Casino and bandstand on fire, June 22, 1906. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify, with hand embellishments]

Swanton was rather smart when he built his resort. He invested little of his own money and ensured that his buildings were adequately protected from fire, allowing him to cut back on insurance premiums. But in this, he overplayed his hand. Although the resort survived the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake nearly unscathed, two months later, on June 22, 1906 and at the start of the summer season, a kitchen fire spread out of control and incinerated the entire complex. The Neptune Casino, Neptune Plunge, and Tent City Restaurant (the former Neptune Baths) were completely destroyed over the course of a few hours. The only structures that survived were the Pleasure Pier, the power plant and pump house (owned by the Co-Operative Electric Company), the roller rink, and most of the tents, some of which lost their tops. The facility was woefully underinsured and the corporation was out millions of dollars after only operating for two seasons.

The new casino and plunge buildings under construction, early 1907. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]

Undaunted, Swanton set to work starting over. He incorporated a new firm, the Santa Cruz Beach Company, and recruited new investors while reassuring former investors to trust him. After cleaning out the debris, he reopened the exposed Plunge baths, installing a simple awning for cover. Next door, he erected a large tent as a temporary casino, where he was able to host dances all summer and even a California Republican Party convention. Meanwhile, he finally invested heavily himself, divesting himself of almost all other projects in order to acquire enough capital to rebuild. He hired the famed local architect William Henry Weeks to design and oversee the construction of the replacement facility.

A Southern Pacific booster train in front of the newly-opened Plunge Natatorium, with a band and several local government officials and company investors out front, 1907. [Brian Liddicoat]

As soon as the summer 1906 season ended, construction began and continued through the winter and spring of 1907. In the process, the Pleasure Pier was extended, all of the tents were expanded into full wooden cottages, and a new plunge bath was built. This time, Swanton spared no expense in ensuring the structure was fire proof, installing fireproof panelling and asbestos-laced concrete flooring as well as a widespread sprinkler system. He also made sure that his insurance plan would actually cover a future loss, which fortunately never came.

The Casino station point across from Entrance 1 between the Plunge and Casino, 1930s. [Derek R. Whaley – colorized using DeOldify]

To aid construction, Southern Pacific briefly installed a spur behind the power plant and roller rink in order to bring in supplies. As with before, Swanton disappeared in the spring to campaign for Santa Cruz, popping up at locations across the West Coast. And like before, he was not disappointed in the response. The new Casino, Plunge Natatorium, and Cottage City opened to universal praise on June 15, 1907—almost a year after the Neptune Casino burned down and three years after it had first opened. Southern Pacific celebrated this grand opening by finally establishing a permanent flag-stop at the beach, which it christened Casino.

Colorized postcard of the grill upstairs in the Casino's rotunda, ca 1910s. [Derek R. Whaley]

While similar in scope and size to the Neptune Casino and Plunge, the new structures were quite different. They were built in a Mission-revival style with adobé-like features and a tan and terracotta color scheme, intermixed with Russian onion domes on precipices, two Egyptian-style obelisks above the casino, and Roman-style embellishments. The casino was two-stories tall with a high dome atop a substantial rotunda. The first story was composed of an arcade, theatre, bar, restaurant, and shops, with the rotunda occupied by a bandstand. The upstairs was almost entirely a ballroom with a dining room in the rotunda and a kitchen to the side. In the sand just off from the rotunda sat a seasonally-erected bandstand, with seating provided along either side of the rotunda.

Colorized postcard showing the inside of the Plunge Natatorium with swimmers, ca 1910. [Derek R. Whaley]

Next door to the east, a new heated plunge was constructed with a 500,000 gallon capacity. The pool had an increasing depth with an inset smaller pool at a set depth for children. Around the pool upstairs was a patio with a diving board, a slide, and a ladder to a third-story slide. Dressing rooms were provided on either side of the pool on the first floor, while concessions shops flanked the beachside entrance. Overhead, a high wooden barrel-style ceiling with rows of windows allowed in light and gave the pool a sense of grandeur the older pool was lacking. In later years, trapeze rigs were mounted on the roof allowing carnival performers—mostly swim instructors and life guards—to entertain guests.

Colorized postcard showing the colorful Cottage City that was located across from the second casino, 1907. [Derek R. Whaley]

Most of the rest of the Boardwalk remained the same. The hot tubs in front of the old power plant became the Hanly Baths but retained its former function. The power plant itself was relocated outside, behind some early carnival games, while the newly vacant space became a storage room. The roller rink was replaced with more carnival games and a nickelodeon, which eventually evolved into the Fun House, an attraction that survived into the early 1970s. Along the beach side of the boardwalk, which now extended nearly to the San Lorenzo River, a miniature railroad called the Bay Shore Limited was installed, which Swanton used somewhat comedically to entice railroad investors to visit his park. Offshore, Swanton hired the Balboa to serve as a "pleasure ship," a venue for gambling and other less wholesome activities. Boats shuttled to Balboa from the Pleasure Pier.

Colorized postcard showing the second Casino with the Sea Beach Hotel in the distance, 1907. [Derek R. Whaley]

Over the next five years, Swanton expanded the park with more attractions and improvements. In 1908, he installed the park's first thrill ride: a LaMarcus Adna Thompson Scenic Railway. This early roller coaster excited adults and children alike despite its relatively slow speeds and gentle curves. In 1911, he hired Charles I. D. Looff to build a carousel between the Fun House and the Scenic Railway. That same year, he had the boardwalk between the rotunda and the end of the plunge on the beach side covered in a magnificent colonnade. This allowed a connection between the two buildings upstairs while providing protection to people walking downstairs.

A Union Traction streetcar in front of the Casa del Rey Hotel with a Southern Pacific locomotive in front of the Casino in the background, ca 1912. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The colonnade was likely made necessary by the addition to the park of the Casa del Rey Hotel across Beach Street from the Casino. The two structures were connected on the second floor by an arched enclosed bridge, and this archway and the colonnade made it possible for hotel guests to reach the Plunge without ever exiting a building. The hotel was the last major project related to the park overseen by Swanton. Like the Casino and Plunge, the three-story hotel was built in a Mission-revival style with Roman-style embellishments. Two substantial wings flanked a large lobby at the center of the complex. Within each mirrored wing was an interior garden area, and tennis courts were located north of the hotel. Behind it to the east, half of the cottage city remained intact, intermixed with a few private dwellings, a bakery for the hotel, a steam laundry for the park, and a substation of the Coast Counties Light & Power Company. Swanton also purchased land from the Henry Cowell Company at the northern edge of the city for the construction of the Casa del Rey Golf Links, which he connected to his hotel via another Southern Pacific Railroad stop located below the clubhouse.

Colorized postcard showing passengers waiting to board the train outside the Plunge Natatorium at the Casino flag-stop, 1910. [Santa Cruz MAH]

All of these projects cost a lot of money—personal money of Swanton's as well as the money of the company's other investors. And building everything in 1911 was not a fiscally responsible action since the country was in the midst of a recession. A financial panic in 1910 prompted by a crackdown on corporate monopolies by the federal government had already led to the collapse of the Ocean Shore Railway project. Swanton's amusement park almost met the same fate. By the end of 1912, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy and most of its investors had pulled out. In late 1914, it did finally go bankrupt and Swanton personally went bust. The City of Santa Cruz operated the park through the summer of 1915 and at the end of the year, several former investors and city officials joined forces to found the Santa Cruz Seaside Company. 

Colorized postcard of the beach outside the colonnade, 1920. [Derek R. Whaley]

One of the first tasks of the new company was to divest itself of liabilities. It sold off the Casa del Rey Golf Links, which became the Santa Cruz Golf & Country Club. It leased out the Casa del Rey Hotel, the Plunge, the Carousel, and most of its other attractions and entertainment to concessionaires, who would be responsible for running these at a profit in the future. World War I made this transition of responsibility all the easier, and by 1920, the Seaside Company only directly managed the Casino and served more in a role of property manager than amusement park developer.

People walking along the wood-plank boardwalk at the Pleasure Pier plaza, 1930s. [Santa Cruz Seaside Company – colorized using DeOldify]

Nonetheless, the Boardwalk continued on into the 1920s without much central direction. In 1924, the park's lead attraction and most iconic structure was built: the Giant Dipper. Based on a design by Frederick Church and built by Arthur Looff, the son of Charles Looff, the wooden roller coaster replaced the Scenic Railway and opened to the public on May 17, 1924. It proved popular immediately and has won numerous awards in the years since. It was run as a concession by the Looff family into the 1950s. Also in 1924, the first Miss California Bathing Beauty Contest was held at the Boardwalk, bringing statewide attention to the park that would last until 1965.  In the summer of 1927, Southern Pacific began sending idle passenger trains from San JosĂ© to the Boardwalk on Sundays as a special excursion service. The service was later expanded to San Francisco and Oakland and christened the Sun Tan Special beginning with the 1931 season. The Seaside Company also approved the expansion of the Boardwalk to the end of the beach and under the railroad tracks, where a towering Shoot-the-Chutes ride was erected in 1928 on what was called River Park.

The tracks of the Sun Tan Jr. miniature railroad running between the beach and the boardwalk near the entrance to the Giant Dipper, 1930s. [Santa Cruz Seaside Company – colorized using DeOldify]

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw the closure of the River Park development and only a few new rides and attractions opened during this period. The most popular events, other than the usual big band performances and nightly dances, were the water carnivals held in the Plunge. From feats of spectacular diving prowess to world record underwater swimmers to fiery dives off the roof of the building into the Monterey Bay, there was always something to keep people entertained. Lawrence "Skip" Littlefield ran the Plunge in these years and oversaw Seaside Company promotions more generally through the 1930s and 1940s. His charisma and vision helped keep the park afloat when many other parks across the country shut down. Indeed, even as regular passenger service along the Santa Cruz Branch ended in 1938 and through the mountains in 1940, the popularity of the Boardwalk ensured that weekend specials in the summer months continued.

Colorized postcard showing an aerial view of the Santa Cruz Main Beach, with the Boardwalk, the Casa del Rey Hotel, the Pleasure Pier, and the San Lorenzo River mouth, 1946. [Derek R. Whaley]

World War II put a pause on the Boardwalk's nighttime activities and these years proved especially difficult since most younger men were overseas and rationing made park operations difficult to sustain. The remainder of the cottage city was abandoned during this time and the Casa del Rey became a military hospital and convalescence home. The Sun Tan Special was suspended from 1942 through 1946. Nonetheless, the Seaside Company continued on. A lack of corporate guidance throughout this period continued the haphazard development of the park, which once again resumed a slow progress toward the river mouth.

The first Sun Tan Special to run following the end of World War II, June 1947. [Jim Vail – colorized using DeOldify]

The final change in the park's dynamics occurred in 1952, when one of the Seaside Company's directors, Lawrence Canfield, obtained a controlling interest in the firm. Canfield immediately initiated a major renovation of the Casino and Casa del Rey, modernizing them and updating their styles to match current trends. It was at this time that the aerial bridge connecting the two buildings was removed. Canfield brought big bands back to the renamed Coconut Grove ballroom and began the process of reacquiring rides and attractions that sprawled across the sands. The end of the Sun Tan Special after the 1959 season did nothing to reduce the number of customers visiting each summer, and by the early 1960s, Lawrence's son Charles began the process of consolidating many of the Boardwalk's carnival games under his Canfield's Concessions company.

The Wild Mouse at the end of the Boardwalk with two cars operating, late 1950s. [Santa Cruz Seaside Company – colorized using DeOldify]

The closure of the Plunge due to falling interest and increasing costs in 1963 saw the building become a miniature golf course and the Pleasure Pier demolished. Lawrence renovated the riverside portion of the park, as well, installing a seawall and building the Grand Prix and Cave Train rides, as well as the Wild Mouse roller coaster. In 1971, the Fun House—the oldest attraction at the beach—was demolished and replaced with the Jet Star roller coaster and bumper cars. Above the boardwalk, the Skyglider was installed, an aerial ski lift-style ride. The Wild Mouse was eventually replaced with Logger's Revenge, a gravity log flume ride, in 1977. Meanwhile, the Coconut Grove slowly became primarily a venue for hire with fewer public events held there. A new ballroom—the Sun Room—was added between the Casino and Plunge building in 1980. Across the street, the Casa del Rey was abandoned as a hotel and turned into a managed retirement community, a stopgap measure until a better use for the facility could be found.

Ed Hutton with Seaside Company directors and other VIPs speaking on opening day of Neptune's Kingdom, 1991. [Santa Cruz Seaside Company]

Charles Canfield took charge of the Seaside Company in 1984. The next year, the first run of the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway from Roaring Camp in Felton ran to Santa Cruz, marking a new era for the Boardwalk and local railroading. Despite a rise in violent crime and poverty in the Beach Flats neighborhood across from the park, the Boardwalk continued to revive under Canfield's management. The 1989 earthquake actually helped this along. The Casa del Rey was severely damaged in the quake, leading to its demolition and conversion into a much-needed parking lot. Meanwhile, the Plunge building was converted into Neptune's Kingdom. Canfield's Concessions also was merged into the park and became the Games Department, while several of the restaurants were taken over by the Seaside Company.

The Coasters performing at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk bandstand, 2001. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]

Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, the park continued to consolidate with several concessions merging into the Seaside Company and the bureaucratic structure of the company evolving and shrinking to more centrally manage the park. Free Friday Night Bands in the summer became a regular event during this time, drawing tourists from across the Bay Area. A fairly regular policy of refreshing one significant ride each year also became standard, with major renovations made to the Cave Train area in the 2000s, the Haunted Castle building in the early 2010s, and the Entrance 2 plaza in the late-2010s, the latter of which saw the demolition of the Dolphin Baths building, the oldest building at the beach. Canfield passed on the presidency of the Seaside Company to his grandnephew, Karl Rice, in 2017 while his son, Tom, serves as Vice President of Operations.

The Holiday Lights Train in front of Neptune's Kingdom, 2010s. [Roaring Camp Railroads]

Today, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk remains a major tourist attraction on the Central Coast of California and is the longest-living seaside amusement park on the West Coast. It draws tourists from around the world every year, including via Roaring Camp Railroad's Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway (the Beach Train). Indeed, the Boardwalk continues to be a major target for railroad passenger projects and attempts in 1996, 2012, and more recently have all focused primarily on bringing seasonal tourist traffic to the Boardwalk via rail. The current owner of the Santa Cruz Branch, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, has a vision for passenger service in the county, and the common carrier, Progressive Rail, included restoring the Sun Tan Special as a part of its sales pitch in 2017. While Casino Station may be long gone, the idea of such a station at the Boardwalk lives on in the memory and minds of many.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9643N, 122.0195W

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is still a thriving amusement park sitting beside the original location of the Casino flag-stop. The location of the flag-stop sign itself is at the end of the island across from the loading dock between the Casino and Neptune's Kingdom. A flag pole and garbage marks the location almost perfectly.

Citations & Credits:

  • Beal, Chandra Moira and Richard A. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: The Early Years—Never a Dull Moment. Santa Cruz, CA: Pacific Group, 2003.
  • Dalbey, Michael. "The Co-Operative Electric Company Santa Cruz, California 1904-1908." Santa Cruz, CA: Researchers Anonymous, 2017.
  • Dunn, Geofrey. "The Boardwalk Empire." Good Times, 27 June 2012. Accessed 6 July 2012.
  • Machado, Gay. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: A Century by the Sea. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2007.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Coast. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, forthcoming.


  1. Thank you for another wonderful story of SC history. I love reading and sharing these stories!

  2. With respect to the 1906 fire you state that "The only structures that survived were the Pleasure Pier, the pump house (former Dolphin Baths), the roller rink, and most of the tents,". That ignores the powerhouse of the Cooperative Electric Company, which also survived. Its survival probably was instrumental in helping rebuild so quickly. See my paper on the COEC posted on the RA discussion site for details.


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