Thursday, March 25, 2021

People: Fred W. Swanton

Other local personalities may have made Santa Cruz what it is today, but none promoted the city and county more enthusiastically than Fred Wilder Swanton. For the ten years either side of 1900, Swanton was synonymous with Santa Cruz in many ways, and where he went, so the city went. His fame reached such levels that by 1911, several reporters nicknamed the city "Swanta Cruz." Besides founding the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, he promoted and financed the city's first public electric grid as well as its first electric streetcar line, promoted the village of Brookdale, served as mayor of Santa Cruz three times, and even had a small village on the North Coast named in his honor. Many of his ventures also directly or indirectly involved local railroads.

Ninety-three-year-old L. B. Jarrett, Martha Friede, and Mayor Fred Swanton at the New Year Flower Show, ca 1928. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Edward Martin in his History of Santa Cruz County extolled Swanton's virtues and life up to 1911, noting in his opening line's on Swanton's life: "Difficult if not impossible would it be to name any citizen who is more closely connected with the modern development of Santa Cruz than Mr. Swanton." Much of the information below is drawn from this biography, with addition information taken from contemporary sources, of which there are many due to Swanton's very public and open life.

Albion Swanton, 1868 (left), and Fred Swanton with Frank Fiester, posing with a ladder from his Van Alstine & Swanton Telephone Company, ca 1883. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries and UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify] 

Fred Swanton was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 11, 1862, the son of Albion Paris Kingston Swanton and Emily Jane Parshley of Maine. Albion had moved to California when Fred was two years old and found work with his brother in Pescadero. Fred and his mother joined Albion in 1866 and all three of them moved to Santa Cruz in 1867, where Albion became manager of the San Lorenzo Stables, owned by William H. Bias. Nothing of note occurred during his childhood until Fred graduated from Heald's Business College in 1881. Upon graduation, he worked as a bookkeeper for two lumber companies: Maderra Flume & Trading Company of Fresno and the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company in Felton. However, he was not destined for a desk job. He travelled to the East Coast in late 1882 and secured a telephone patent from Alexander Bell for use in California.

The Swanton House soon after it opened, ca 1882.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

The telephone system was a project that would take years to fully expand throughout the state and control of the technology quickly slipped through Swanton's fingers. He did not despair, though, and continued his business endeavors. After travelling California for several months in 1883 to promote his telephone system, he joined in business with his father and the two of them founded the Swanton House on Front Street in downtown Santa Cruz. This was his first major enterprise and it did well for six years. During this time, the Swantons built the city's first athletic park and Fred worked as the manager of the Santa Cruz Opera House. The Swanton House burned down in June 1887 but it did not deter Fred. He and his father quickly sold the property to James G. Fair of the South Pacific Coast Railroad and used the funds to buy the Bonner Stables on Pacific Avenue.

The Swanton House fire with firefighters attempting to salvage furniture, June 1887.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

On Christmas Day, 1884, Fred married Stanley Emma Pope Hall. Stanley had been born in Petersburg, Virginia to James and Margaret Pope, who had traveled to Benicia, California around 1870. Both of Stanley's parents died when she was young and she was raised for some years by her aunt Ellen Adie, who was a teacher. Eventually, Stanley was adopted by Richard H. Hall of Santa Cruz. Hall was a native of Vermont who moved to Santa Cruz since 1853 and owned the property that would become Natural Bridges State Beach. A year after their marriage, Stanley gave birth to the couple's only child, Pearl Hall Swanton, on October 25, 1885. Pearl married William Dorsey Dalton on May 21, 1908 in a large gala at the Swanton home at the corner of Soquel and Ocean View Avenues.

Portrait of young Fred Swanton, ca 1888.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Shortly after establishing the Bonner Stables, Fred Swanton set out on his own and became a pharmacist when he founded the Palace Pharmacy on Pacific Avenue. But after only fifteen months, he grew bored and sold the store. His passion was always technology and the future, so he founded Santa Cruz's first electrical lighting system. Working with Dr. Hulbert Henry Clark, Swanton first turned on the switch for 300 incandescent lights in October 1889, lighting up downtown with electricity. Demand for electrical lighting shot up while the price of gas plummeted almost instantly. By the end of 1891, Swanton and Clark supplied 5,000 light bulbs to city businesses. The partners incorporated the Santa Cruz Electric Light Company to manage the operation of the plant, with Swanton chosen as secretary and general manager. Clark was appointed president, and Swanton's father served as vice president.

A Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Railroad streetcar leaving the Vue de l'Eau on the Cliff Drive, ca 1892. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Even as electricity began to spread from his plant, Swanton shifted his focus to streetcars. In 1891, Swanton joined with Clark and James P. Smith to form the Santa Cruz, Garfield Park & Capitola Electric Railway, the first electric streetcar line in Santa Cruz County. With the purchase of the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad in 1892, the company reincorporated as the Santa Cruz Electric Railway and remained as such for the next twelve years, shuttling people between Garfield Park and the Santa Cruz Main Beach via downtown. The electric streetcar line was powered by Swanton and Clark's electrical plant at the southern end of Pacific Avenue.

The Big Creek Power House on Big Creek north of Davenport, ca 1896.
[The Street Railway Review – colorized using DeOldify]

The increase in electricity demands prompted Swanton to sell his original power company to James McNeil, and incorporate a new firm based on a different power plant. Swanton had purchased a large block of land along Scott and Big Creeks north of Davenport in the mid-1890s. In 1896, he founded the Big Creek Power Company, over which he was once again named secretary and general manager. Eighteen miles of electrical lines were extended from Big Creek atop Ben Lomond Mountain to Santa Cruz. The whole system took only sixty days to install. This new source of power provided enough energy to run the streetcar lines and satisfy the needs of the peoples of Santa Cruz, who were rapidly increasing their power usage. Over the next five years, the Big Creek power plant expanded its reach to Capitola and Watsonville, becoming the first long-distance electric power plant in the state.

Fred Swanton with H. F. Andersen and boxer Tex Rickard, ca 1900. Photo by R. A. Biller.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Considering his substantial success with both the electrical plant and the streetcar line, it is somewhat odd that Swanton decided to divest himself of all of it and head north to the Alaska gold fields. In 1900, he sold his stake in the Big Creek Power Company to John Q. Packard and Frank Willard Billings, who soon afterwards sold the company to R. C. P. Smith and John M. Gardiner. These men were hoping to unite many of the Central Coast's power companies together and also wanted to build a streetcar line of their own in Santa Cruz County. As a result, Swanton had inadvertently given the keys to the future of electric streetcars to rivals of his old Santa Cruz Electric Railway. But Swanton was clearly not troubled by this betrayal. When he returned from Alaska in 1901, he co-founded the Santa Cruz Oil Company, based out of Bakersfield, before joining with Smith and Gardiner to build their new Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railroad streetcar line. He saw the marketing potential of such a route between Santa Cruz and Capitola in particular and eagerly promoted it across the state.

Fred Swanton, general manager of the Santa Cruz Beach & Tent City Corporation, June 14, 1905.
[Santa Cruz Seaside Company – colorized using DeOldify]

After two years of marketing Santa Cruz, however, Swanton realized that what the city really needed was an attraction to draw people in. His vision was realized in June 1904 when the Neptune Casino, Plunge, and Tent City opened to the public. This fully-electrified resort featured tents and cottages for visitors to spend the nights in; a grand two-story Moorish-style casino with restaurants, bandstands, dance halls, and various attractions; a fully remodelled Plunge heated salt water pool; an Electric pier; and various minor amusements and carnival games. For two summers, this resort thrived, and then in June 1906, it burned to the ground, leaving only the pier, the roller rink, and some tents behind.

Inaugural run of the Bay Shore Limited Railroad at the Boardwalk (Fred Swanton seated center), 1907.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Swanton recovered quickly. After clearing the debris, he reopened the pool as an open-air structure and built a dance pavilion out on the beach. Over the winter of 1906-1907, he hired William Henry Weeks to design a new Mission-revival style resort that had fire suppression among its top priorities. The new complex included a two-story casino with restaurants, shops, bars, a grand dance hall, and a rotunda; a new Natatorium, with changing rooms, diving board, slide, restaurant, and other amenities; the new Bay Shore Limited miniature railroad ride; an extended and improved Pleasure Pier; a cottage city completely replacing the tent city; and numerous other improvements.

Committee of 1912 breaking ground for the Water Pageant, June 29, 1912. Photo by J. E. Olive.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using Deoldify]

Over the next eight years, Swanton continued expanding the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with the addition of an L. A. Thompson Scenic Railway ride in 1908, and the Charles I. D. Looff Carousel, the Colonnade, and the Casa del Rey Hotel all in 1911. The Casa del Rey Golf Links, the city's first golf course, was also established at Pogonip in 1911. In August 1912, Swanton ran a Grand Water Pageant at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, attracting thousands of visitors from across the state. 

Members of the Santa Cruz Invitation and Entertainment Committee (Fred Swanton front center) at the Santa Cruz Union Depot, 1906.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Swanton became known for his booster trains to promote the city. Skip Littlefield recalls: "With the credo 'do it big,' he talked the Southern Pacific into giving him a five-coach special train into which he packed two brass bands, advertising men and civic leaders. Arriving in a town, he would disembark and parade with his bands to the city hall, pull out the town officials and exchange oratorical greetings. In Marysville and Sacramento his arrival was sufficient reason to close the schools.... From Italy Swanton brought the famous Michael Angelo Garibaldi to fashion pieces of statuary and copies of the masters, which he placed in the natatorium, on the roof and spires...."

Excerpt from a Bird's Eye View of the City of Santa Cruz showing a proposed streetcar extension to Swanton Beach Park, 1908. [Bancroft Library]

Even while Swanton was developing his seaside resort at the Santa Cruz Main Beach, he was also working on other resorts elsewhere in the county. Three miles away to the north, Swanton had acquired through his wife a beautiful beach iconic for its natural sandstone bridges. In 1908, he opened Swanton Beach Park to the public and announced plans to build a large resort hotel there in the near future. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1940: "He laid out the streets and pavements and designated each street by a huge monumental structure inscribed with the name of some valley town. Then he set off with a colored map of the subdivision and sold the lots to valley buyers like hotcakes. The property was quickly sold."

Swanton Cottage outside Brookdale (Fred at right), ca 1912.
[Derek R. Whaley – Colorized using DeOldify]

Up the San Lorenzo Valley, Swanton and his friends had been operating Camp Thunder north of Ben Lomond for several years, but Swanton wanted a more permanent place for his wealthy Bay Area peers to spend warm summer nights. Once more he hired William Weeks to build a structure for him, this time a quaint log cabin in the hills that opened in 1910 under the name La Siesta. The property included a lake on the river created by a dam that also provided electrical power to the community. The cabin also featured direct Southern Pacific Railroad service via the adjacent Siesta Station with its ornate stained-glass window shelter.

Ocean Shore Railroad train at Swanton north of Davenport, ca 1910.
[Images of America: Davenport - colorized using DeOldify]

Meanwhile, the Ocean Shore Railroad was extended up Scott Creek to the bottom of Big Creek in 1908. The new end-of-track for the railroad was a tiny hamlet whose post office was named Swanton, after the nearby Big Creek power plant, which Swanton founded a decade earlier. The arrival of the railroad led to an increase in the profile of the settlement, although it is unclear if Swanton had any ongoing connection to the place following the sale of his power company.

Natural sandstone arches at Swanton Beach, ca 1920.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

Not long after the Casa del Rey Hotel opened, things began to take a turn for the worst for Swanton. The returns for the hotel and amusement park did not meet costs. He resigned from the board of the Santa Cruz Beach Company in 1913 to take a job promoting the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, a position he held until 1915. Following the event, his personal finances began to suffer. Swanton no longer had the funds for his Swanton Beach resort and none of the buildings were built. Meanwhile, he was forced to sell La Siesta in 1920.

Fred Swanton with ZaSu Pitts, ca 1924.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

As his local projects stuttered and failed, Swanton purchased the Shebe chrome mine near Placerville, which he ran during the war years and continued to own until his death, although it was no longer operating at that time. He later became involved in the Volcanoville and Bear States mines in Auburn. He also tried his hand at producing films through his Fer-Dal Motion Picture Company based out of DeLaveaga Park in Santa Cruz. Despite recruiting some star talent, no film was ever finished. Using his new-found connections, he briefly moved to Hollywood and became a manager for star ZaSu Pitts, but gave up on this venture after only a year. In 1924, he returned to Santa Cruz and opened an airport in the West Side, but he couldn't attract enough interest and it closed down the next year. By this point, Swanton declared bankruptcy and turned his attention to more viable career options.

Mayor Fred Swanton at a beauty contest at the Santa Cruz Main Beach, ca 1928.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

In 1927, Swanton formally entered Santa Cruz politics when he was elected mayor of the city. He became the first mayor to win three sequential terms, and ran again in 1937 against C. D. Hinkle, although he lost this fourth bid. In 1930, he was even considered as a candidate for governor of California, but chose not to run. His terms in office were not spectacular. His council was implicated in a corruption and bribery scandal, with one member sent to San Quentin State Penitentiary. He also sniped at the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, showing his lingering frustration over losing control of his seaside amusement park.

Katherine Carlson, Al Kline, Mayor Fred Swanton, and San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi celebrating Santa Cruz's birthday, ca 1932. Photo by Charles M. Hiller.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

By 1933, his popularity was spent and he decided not to run again for office. However, he was quickly appointed deputy chief director of state parks by the governor. In 1938, after his failed fourth run for mayor, he was appointed by Governor Frank F. Merriam to a special state park commission to seek out future state parks. He used his position to turn Seacliff Beach, New Brighton Beach, and his own Swanton Beach into state parks.

Portrait of Fred Swanton late in life, late 1930s.
[UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Despite rumors to the contrary that have persisted since the mid-1940s, Swanton did not die penniless, although he had certainly lost much more money throughout his life than he had ever gained. He spent the final fifteen years of his life living respectably in his family's small mansion built by his father. His death was mourned across the state. Swanton died September 3, 1940 in Santa Cruz from a lingering heart condition brought on by a heart attack in late June. In the Santa Cruz Evening News' obituary, it noted that Swanton "spent a lifetime in building utilities, promoting subdivisions, developing beach property, attracting nationally known celebrities, and in constantly selling Santa Cruz to hundreds of thousands of visitors. It is estimated that at least 5000 permanent residents were brought to the city through his individual efforts." A side-column opinion piece added: "He never failed in his loyalty to this city and never stopped believing that its future prosperity was without limit." Fred Swanton is buried beneath a stone monument at Santa Cruz Memorial Park alongside several members of his family.

Citations & Credits:

  • Dunn, Geoffrey. "The Boardwalk Empire." Good Times. June 27, 2012.
  • Griggs, Gary. "Our Ocean Backyard—Broken bridges and fallen arches." Santa Cruz Sentinel, 02/13/2010.
  • Harrison, Edward Stanford. History of Santa Cruz County, California. San Francisco, CA: Pacific Press Publishing, 1892.
  • Martin, Edward. History of Santa Cruz County, California, with Biographical Sketches of Leading men and women of the County.... Los Angeles, CA: Historic Record Company, 1911.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, Santa Cruz Evening News, and Santa Cruz Surf. Various articles. 1881-1946.


  1. Outstanding Derek ! Thank you for the history ! Doug Montgomery

  2. Well done. Possibly much of your information on Swanton was from Geoffrey Dunn, who has an unauthorized copy of my 400+ page Masters Thesis on Swanton.

    1. Hi there -- my name is Blake Redding. My wife Melissa and I now own the Casa Siesta property in Brookdale. I'd love to read that thesis sometime if you're willing to share. You are also welcome to come visit the property sometime. Feel free to reach out at Blake. Redding at gmail dot com

    2. Hi there -- my name is Blake Redding. My wife Melissa and I now own the Casa Siesta property in Brookdale. I'd love to read that thesis sometime if you're willing to share. You are also welcome to come visit the property sometime. Feel free to reach out at Blake. Redding at gmail dot com

  3. I found this article very informative, finding it interesting because I lived in Swanton, in a house backed up to Little Creek, from 1958 through 1960. By then it was just a quiet location of plowed fields and herds of cattle. I recall stories of wild pigs getting into mischief rooting up fields during the night.

  4. Is Huckleberries major concert hall is in the news'Auditoriam churchies officisal" Thanks for posting. So there was electricy to use since 1890s or did we have band parades back then?


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