Thursday, May 20, 2021

Car Stops: Laveaga

When the United States annexed California in 1848, what became Santa Cruz County was a mix of Mexican land grants, Catholic mission property, and untamed wilderness. Yet the area later known as DeLaveaga Park, Laveaga Heights, or the De Laveaga Park & Golf Course was none of these things. It was a scrubby meadow on a hill between Branciforte Creek and Arana Gulch that had been mission land until it was secularized by the Mexican government in the 1830s. After this, it remained only partially developed under a succession of American landowners including George and Sarah Smith, Edmund and Harriet Dove, William and Aurilla Jameson, Robert and S. E. McIntyre, Charles and Frank George, Hannah Avery, Paul and Margaret Sweet, John and Annie Turner, John H. B. Pilkington, Alfred and Sara Lee Hinds, and Henry and Lizzie Call. Beginning on September 19, 1887, all of this began to change.

Picnickers climbing up the hill from the Union Traction Company's Pacheco Avenue stop in Laveaga Park, with car no. 17 heading back to Santa Cruz, ca 1915. [Randolph Brandt – colorized using DeOldify]

José Vincent de Laveaga is a surprisingly unknown man despite the fact that he had an entire 565-acre park named after him. He was born in Rosaria, Sinaloa, México on August 10, 1844, the son of José Vicente de Laveaga Gurruchátegui and Dolores Aguirre. When he was about 20 years old, he and his brothers travelled to Germany to study to become merchants. They returned to México around 1868 and the family then moved to San Francisco, where de Laveaga lived for the rest of his life. De Laveaga never married, was almost entirely deaf, and led a somewhat eccentric, though charitable, life until his death at the age of 50 on August 14, 1894. His land in Santa Cruz County was valued at $81,500 at the time.

José Vicente de Laveaga II, ca 1880. [E. I. de Laveaga – colorized using Deoldify]

De Laveaga likely bought property in Santa Cruz County for the same reason that most San Franciscans did: to have a nearby scenic retreat away from home and work. He may have chosen the year 1887 to begin because of a drop in property prices that year caused by a brief recession. Further recessions over the next five years undoubtedly helped him expand his holdings on the grassy hill that overlooked the Monterey Bay. At the time, there was little commercial interest in East Santa Cruz other than farming and ranching. The area was struggling to grow in population and needed something to spark it into life.

Map of J. V. de Laveaga Heights, 1888. [Santa Cruz GIS and Historic Maps]

When De Laveaga moved in, he immediately set to work carving out roads and bridle paths throughout his ever-growing property. In the first year, he planted orchards and a vineyard using both local workers and Mexican laborers. A former employee of de Laveaga's, C. D. Stocking, later said: "There was a vineyard of several acres on the south slope of LaCorona [today's Top of the World frisbee golf goal] and just east of the naval training center buildings was an orange and lemon grove of several acres. All that remains of it now is the row of cypress which was the windbreak. The eucalyptus which now have reseeded on the south side of the park and all the pine trees were planted by him or have reseeded from the originals." De Laveaga also planted olive and citrus trees, prickley pear, and various other fruit trees on the south slope of his property above modern Prospect Heights. Several of these trees still survive dotted among the eucalyptus and native bushes.

Painting of a tree in Delaveaga Park by Lorenzo Palmer Latimer, 1913. [Artnet]

The park was more than just trails and trees, though. He had a large farmhouse and stables for his horses. He planted an exotic garden filled with plants from around the world. He invited the public to his property frequently, where they could picnic, hike, and enjoy the views of the bay and city. Indeed, even though he was deaf and it was difficult for him to make friends, he loved hosting people and attempted to remember every person that he met. De Laveaga named most roads, trails, and geographic features after Spanish words, including El Pico, Castaña, Linda Vista, El Castillo, Buen Retiro, and Miramar.

View of East Side Santa Cruz from Laveaga Heights, 1910s. [Santa Cruz Sentinel – colorized using DeOldify]

When De Laveaga died in 1894, having only enjoyed his property in Santa Cruz for a few years, he made several valuable bequests to organizations throughout the state. His major intended contribution to Santa Cruz County was a 50-acre home for the deaf, blind, and disabled on Laveaga Heights, but state laws limited the amount he could donate upon dealth and the project was canned. Fortunately, the donation of the rest of the property was allowed and City and County of Santa Cruz became the beneficiary of a massive tract of partially-developed parkland on the East Side. After six years of litigation with members of the de Laveaga family, the transfer to the county was finalized in 1900, after which a joint management arrangement was made with the city.

A pergola at Laveaga Park, ca 1920. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

Almost immediately after acquiring possession of the property, the city transferred 120 acres to the United States government for use as a National Guard armory. Over the next few years, the park was developed very slowly, with neither the city nor the county certain what to do with it. Several prominent locals suggested turning it into a park akin to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This would include hotels and restaurants, playgrounds, gardens, tennis courts, a golf course, statues and fountains, an aviary and zoo, and other related amenities. It was a bold plan but the county could not justify or finance it, even with the influx of tourists coming annually to the Santa Cruz Main Beach following the opening of the Boardwalk in 1904.

Advertisement for property in the Laveaga Park tract, 1908. [Daniel Modal]

In 1905, the City of Santa Cruz annexed the former pueblo of Branciforte—essentially the part of Santa Cruz east of the San Lorenzo River to Arana Gulch. The next year, Patrick Morrissey subdivided his land on the East Side and a large portion of it came under the control of John Martin, newly-elected president of the Union Traction Company. He hoped that the tract between the County Road (Soquel Avenue) and Laveaga Park would become prime real estate and formed the Laveaga Realty Company in December 1907 to begin selling parcels. The company named the new subdivision the Laveaga Park Tract, inextricably linking it to the adjacent city park. To get to the new properties, the company decided to extend the Union Traction streetcar network to the northeast of the city—but this task would prove more difficult than planned.

Union Traction car #30 heading into Laveaga Park, February 1913. [Santa Cruz Public Library – colorized using DeOldify]

In August 1907, the Santa Cruz Common Council approved the construction of a streetcar franchise from the Lower Plaza to Laveaga Heights via Water Street, Morrissey Avenue, and Fairmount Avenue. This project required a new dedicated bridge over the San Lorenzo River beside the Water Street bridge. Grading and bridge construction began in early October but quickly stalled due to the financial crisis that struck late that year. Ten months later, Union Traction resumed construction on the line. Because the work was slow, the company resorted to using horses to move cars between Soquel and Prospect Heights from October 1908 while construction continued on the remaining section of track into the park. With the electrification of the Laveaga Branch completed on July 2, 1910, East Santa Cruz entered a new era of growth.

Union Traction car no. 17 speeding down Morrisey Boulevard toward Laveaga Park, ca 1915. [Vernon J. Sappers – colorized using DeOldify]

Like most of the East Santa Cruz streetcar line, there was only a single track into Laveaga Park. As a result, there were actually two stops for Laveaga: one at the bottom of the hill at Martin Boulevard (today, the Morrissey-Highway 1 interchange), and one further north at the end of Pacheco Avenue. Martin Boulevard was the last passing zone before entering the park, so if a streetcar was already in the park, the car at Martin would unload there and people would walk into the park. If the line was clear, then the car could continue into the park, triggering a semaphore along the way that would signal other cars that the line was occupied.

An American bison at the Santa Cruz Municipal Zoo at Laveaga Park, 1920s. [Skip Littlefield]

With the streetcar now bringing tourists and locals into Laveaga Park, the next step was adding amenities to keep people coming. Other than de Laveaga's former gardens and trails, the park did not have many features. A pergola near the current golf clubhouse was the main destination but little else was there yet. Thus, in September 1915, a pair of elk and bison were brought in as the first animals in a bold, new Santa Cruz Municipal Zoo. Over subsequent years, many more animals were added including wildcats (bobcats or cougars), deer, foxes, racoon, a monkey, two brown bears, two grey wolves, and even a kangaroo. Most animals arrived at the zoo as adolescents and grew up in captivity. The zoo also saw its fair share of escapes, with one of the bears and both of the wolves disappearing into the wilderness to the north. Meanwhile, the kangaroo was killed by a wild cougar and the bull bison died from a fall when it was being moved out of the park in 1933.

The Santa Cruz Zoo's remaining brown bear attempting to eat the bars of its enclosure, 1920s. [Skip Littlefield]

Despite the addition of the zoo, the park did not grow substantially during the war years. An athletic field and running track were added in late 1911 but plans for a golf course were likely shelved when the Casa del Rey Golf & Country Club opened that same year. The Pasatiempo Golf Club, which opened in 1929, further delayed any plans for a golf course in Laveaga Park. Nonetheless, people did come to the park, especially in the summer. Streetcar traffic was strong with cars departing every 20 minutes from the Pacific Avenue and Water Street exchange. During the winter, only one car ran to Laveaga in a continuous 30 minute circuit.

Conductor McNamera with a girl at a stop on the Laveaga Branch, 1920s. [Nancy Lucking Sedon – colorized using DeOldify]

The end of the war prompted the growth of the Laveaga Park Tract and the surrounding neighborhoods, but the park did not change with the times and the rapid increase of automobiles on the roads led to declining use of the streetcars to the park. In March 1924, Union Traction petitioned and received approval from the State Railroad Commission to abandon the Laveaga Branch. In September, the Santa Cruz Common Council also gave its approval for abandonment. Giving up the branch to De Laveaga was not done due to low traffic along the branch, although that surely was a factor, but rather to avoid a requirement to pave all of the roads that the streetcar company used as a right-of-way. The last streetcar ran to the park on December 8, 1924 and buses began servicing the former streetcar station at Pacheco the next day.

Oil well at DeLaveaga Park, 1926. [Frances Lausen Totten Collection, Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using DeOldify]

The removal of the streetcar line did little to change the park's development plan. Attempts to drill for oil in the mid-1920s turned up only water. Meanwhile, the zoo closed in 1933 due to costs and its animals were given away to locals. The thirteen acres that had once been the zoo were leased to the United States Naval Reserve for a post. The Naval reserve was abandoned in 1972 but the National Guard armory remained in use until the early 2000s. Other changes to the park included the relocation of the 1894 Branciforte Creek Covered Bridge to the park, the brief establishment of three movie sets in the 1920s and 1930s, the addition of an amphitheatre, and the brief installation of a motocross course. The lower portion of the park on either side of Pacheco Avenue was subdivided into housing with a section turned into DeLaveaga Elementary School on September 30, 1966.

Large picnic gathering at DeLaveaga Park, 1920s. [Frances Lausen Totten Collection, Santa Cruz Public Libraries – colorized using Deoldify]

By 1970, the current form of DeLaveaga Park was taking shape. In that year, the long-planned 18-hole golf course was finally opened alongside an enlarged water treatment plant, designated public parking areas, and a public shooting range. At the same time, several poorly-maintained roads and trails were abandoned or repaired. More recently, an expansive frisbee golf course and an archery range have been added. Today, there are still several walking and hiking trails throughout the park, as well a soccer and softball field, picnic areas, and other hidden treasures. While de Laveaga's vision for the property was never fully realized, it has nonetheless entertained and excited the public for well over as century.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Approx. 36.9973N, 122.0017W

Subsequent developments at DeLaveaga Park have almost entirely replaced the layout of the original property, including its approaches and the streetcar right-of-way. The original entryway and streetcar route once continued from the turn on Prospect Heights Road where the Old Vineyard Trailhead is now located. An old stone entry plinth and an overgrown access road now mark the location.

Citations & Credits:

  • Clark, Donald. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & History, 2007.
  • McCaleb, Charles. Surf, Sand & Streetcars: A Mobile History of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & History, 2005.
  • Modal, Daniel. "Origins of the East Morrisey Neighborhood," History of the East Morrisey Neighborhood, 2014.
  • Pumphrey, Ron. "How about a bit of history about the Delaveaga Park?" Santa Cruz Waves, 06/10/2014.
  • Smith, Mildred. "DeLaveaga Park Donor Still Enigma," Santa Cruz Sentinel, 10/23/1966, p21, 22:1-5.

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