Thursday, May 23, 2024

People: The Colton Family

 The Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad left a significant legacy across California. In Santa Cruz County, the initial construction of what would become the Santa Cruz Branch was delayed twice due to Leland Stanford overpromising and underdelivering. Later, in 1883, Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Charles Crocker were instrumental in approving the construction of the Loma Prieta Railroad, which allowed them to harvest their timber tracts on Aptos Creek. Mark Hopkins’ widow, Mary, also invested heavily in the Aptos Forest, and her adopted son, Timothy, became a leading figure in the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, which harvested the forest into the 1920s. However, the Big Four also had a junior partner, David Douty Colton, the Central Pacific Railroad’s chief lawyer, vice president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and namesake of Colton, California, near San Bernardino. While Colton himself had little to do with Santa Cruz County, his family provided some of its most prominent citizens.

The bottom of the Railroad Wharf, with the Hotel St. James at the left, the Sea Beach Hotel in the distance, and the wooded Colton and Martin estates between them, circa 1905. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

General Colton died from prolonged internal bleeding caused by a fall from a horse on October 9, 1878. His most relevant achievements in relation to Santa Cruz County’s history were marrying Ellen Mason White and fathering Caroline. Colton began life as a farmer in Maine in 1832. Five years later, his family moved to Illinois, where he later met Ellen, a Chicago-born daughter of a physician. The two became engaged in 1850, but her father would not let them marry, so Colton headed out to California to make his fortune in the Gold Rush. Falling ill, Colton briefly moved to San Francisco until he earned enough money doing odd jobs to relocate to Oregon to continue his search for wealth. Soon he drifted back south in to the Shasta region, where he was based when Siskiyou County was created. He was chosen as under-sheriff in Yreka, and subsequently elected sheriff. He decided this made him eligible for Ellen’s hand, and he retrieved her from her Illinois home.

Lithograph of General David D. Colton from Chapters on the History of the Southern Pacific by Stuart Daggett (1922).

Through acts of heroism while serving as sheriff, Colton was given the rank of Brigadier-General in the state militia, a title he kept in courtesy once his term ended. He ran for state senator, but lost in a close race to the Know-Nothing Party’s candidate. In 1859, he became partners with Ralph C. Harrison of Merchant Street and became a lawyer, albeit a very energetic one who rarely would be found in his office. Following a two-year trip to Europe with his family, Colton began investing in coal mining and it was this that brought him into contact with the Central Pacific Railroad, which bought his coal to fuel its trains. His influx of wealth allowed him to build the first mansion on Nob Hill. At the time of his death at only 46 years old, he was planning to travel to Arizona to oversee the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad through the state.

Half of a stereograph showing General Colton's mansion on Nob Hill, circa 1890. Photo by Carleton E. Watkins. [California State Library – colorized using MyHeritage]

General Colton’s premature death left his wife, Ellen, with most of the family fortune. His family was still relatively small at this time. In addition to his wife, David had two daughters, Caroline and Helen, the latter of whom had a daughter of her own also named Helen. A year after his death, Caroline gave birth to her eldest daughter, Theodosia, while eight years later, she had her second child, Katharine. The younger branch of the family would have little involvement in Santa Cruz history, except for an inheritance dispute. Meanwhile, Caroline’s family quickly became major property owners at the Santa Cruz Beach.

The Colton Family Tree
David Douty Colton (1832 – 1878)
+ Ellen Mason White (died Feb 1905)
—Caroline Colton (12 Jun 1856 – 12 Feb 1918)
—+1 Daniel Cook (9 Aug 1837 – 9 Oct 1882)
——Theodosia Cook (21 Aug 1879 – 1 Jun 1945)
——+ Francis Joseph Morgan Grace (4 Oct 1873 – 9 Sep 1933)
———Francis Joseph Morgan Grace, Jr. (13 Mar 1904 – 30 Jul 1948)
—+2 Henry MacLean Martin (15 May 1849 – 8 Apr 1891)
——Katharine Agnew Martin (25 Mar 1886 – 6 Jun 1936)
——+ Marcel Ernest Cerf (2 Apr 1877 – 20 Jun 1935)
———Charlotte Crosby Cerf (15 Oct 1910 – 15 Aug 1997)
———+ Charles Cook Cushing (8 Dec 1905 – 14 Apr 1982)
———Elizabeth Agnew Cerf (11 Aug 1912 – 26 Oct 1988)
—+3 John Bernard Dahlgren (2 Dec 1874 – 23 Nov 1921)
—Helen “Nellie” Colton (2 Dec 1854 – 17 Oct 1899)
—+ Crittenden Thornton (2 Feb 1849 – 29 Sep 1921)
——Helen Colton Thornton (12 Sep 1877 – 8 Feb 1904)
——+ Siegfried Sacher (ca 1865 – 10 Jun 1927)
———Hélène Marguerite Béatrice Sacher (26 Mar 1900 – ?)

From the 1860s through the 1880s, four properties dominated the part of Beach Hill that fronted the beach between Pacific Avenue and Main Street. The properties passed through several owners and the boarding houses on them went by many names, but by the mid-1880s, they were known as the Sea Foam Hotel, Seaside Home, Liddell House, and Douglas House. The first of these never had a relationship with the Colton family, but the remainder fell into the family’s hands one-by-one. It remains unclear when the Coltons first visited Santa Cruz, but Ellen and Caroline spent a summer in the city in 1885 and again in 1886. General Colton may have visited the place in the early 1870s alongside Leland Stanford, or else it may have become a place of interest once the South Pacific Coast Railroad began building its railroad through the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1877.

A girl posing on the Railroad Wharf with the Seaside Home, Liddell House, and Douglas House in the distance, circa 1885. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Liddell House was the first to fall into the family’s hands. The third hotel from Pacific Avenue, it was also the oldest having served as a public boarding house for sailors in the early 1860s before the family erected the first permanent bathhouse on the Santa Cruz Beach. By the mid-1880s, the Liddell family had fallen on hard times and were ready to sell. On April 2, 1887, D. K. Abeel of the adjacent Douglas House offered to buy the property for $8,000. He hoped to merge the two properties in order to build an expansive new hotel, but his offer was declined. Two months later, C. Hoffman offered $10,000 for the estate and the Liddells accepted. Hoffman was a property agent for Ellen Colton and Caroline Martin, and he soon transferred the Liddells’ property to them. Colton and Martin allowed the current proprietor, Mrs. M. A. Bergler, to run the boaring house until the end of the season, after which all of the furniture was sold and the main building of the property demolished. They rechristened the estate Miramar and ran it as a private resort for their friends and family.

Block No. 25 on Beach Hill, showing Ellen Colton and Caroline Martin's properties, circa 1892. Drawn by Charles L. Pioda. [Santa Cruz County GIS]

Next door, the youngest of the four boarding houses, Seaside Home, was soon listed for sale. Seaside Home was built in 1871 by Annie M. Richards and given its name five years later by the hotel’s proprietor at the time, George W. Goss. Management passed in 1883 to Martha Jane Lewis—Patty Reed of the Donner Party—who ran it profitably for the next four seasons. By 1889, the Richards family decided to sell the property to Alfred H. Fitch. Within a year, though, Fitch changed his mind and sold half of his interest in the property to W. S. McCormick of San Francisco in January 1890. In June, McCormick sold this interest to John E. Armstrong, the owner of the lot above Seaside Home that fronted Second Street, for $7,800. Armstrong did not keep it; rather, he sold it immediately to Ellen Colton for the same amount. Colton began demolishing the main structure of the Seaside Home in February 1891, with plans to replace it with a new building, though none was ever erected. Meanwhile, Fitch sold his remaining interest in the property to Armstrong in September 1891 for $300. Armstrong, in turn, sold this to Colton and Caroline Martin in November for the same amount. Colton, wishing to distance the property from its former life, renamed it The Cabins in 1892.

Lanteen boats next to the Railroad Wharf with the forested Colton and Martin properties on Beach Hill in the distance, circa 1910. Photo by Charles L. Aydelotte. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

By the end of 1891, Colton and her daughter owned the two largest single lots between Pacific Avenue and Main Street, now both running as private resorts under the names The Cabins and Miramar. Granted, the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Santa Cruz Electric Railway, and the Esplanade ran directly through their properties, rendering the lower third completely unusable, but the women seem to have been content with their terraced cottages surrounded by gardens and trees. Throughout the late 1880s and early 1890s, Colton and Martin heavily renovated their properties, moving around structures, expanding some and demolishing others. Colton sold her share in Miramar to her daughter in July 1890. Later, in October 1897, Colton acquired the entirety of Armstrong’s adjacent property, which stretched to Second Street, for $2,000. Both women used their properties primarily to entertain friends and family, and Martin repeatedly offered Miramar to her in-laws for the summer months.

Sentinel photograph of The Cabins, September 13, 1933.

Ellen Colton died in 1905 and Caroline took sole control over The Cabins since her sister, Helen, had died six years earlier, followed in 1904 by Helen’s only daughter. A great-granddaughter, born and raised in Paris to a German father, would become a thorn in her side for several years in the late 1900s since she was left out of Ellen’s will, but this had little impact on the beach properties. In Ellen’s will, her Beach Hill property officially went to Caroline’s eldest daughter, Theodosia Grace. In reality, Caroline controlled both properties, confusingly adopting the name The Cabins for both, until her death in February 1918.

Ruins of the Sea Beach Hotel, June 1912. Photo by Paul Baker. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

The final piece in the Colton family’s take-over of the beachfront boarding houses came in the years after the Sea Beach Hotel fire of June 12, 1912, and shortly after Caroline’s death. Katharine Agnew Cerf, Caroline’s second daughter, had spent most summers of her childhood at Miramar and The Cabins. After she was married on May 8, 1909, she continued this tradition with her new husband, Judge Marcel E. Cerf of San Francisco, and their two daughters, Charlotte and Elizabeth. Beach Hill was a barren place without the dominating presence of the Sea Beach Hotel, so they decided to do something about it.

Judge Marcel Cerf's residence on the site of the Sea Beach Hotel, photographed from the Pleasure Pier, July 4, 1922. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

In early 1918, they purchased the front lot of the Sea Beach property and hired George McCrea to build a luxurious mansion on the site. The home was completed before May 1, 1918 and supplemented with an expansive garage, tennis court, and gardens. Its most iconic feature was a massive flagstaff that towered above Beach Hill flying a large American flag. The Evening News reported in 1919 that the property “is the pride of the entire [water]front.”

The Martin-Dahlgren and Grace properties shortly after Ellen Colton's death, July 1906. This, with the lower (right) portion dominated by the railroads, streetcars, and Esplanade, would become the final arrangement of the two properties. Drawn by A. W. Pioda. [Santa Cruz GIS]

Caroline’s death allowed the former Miramar estate to pass out of the Colton family into the family of Caroline’s third husband, John Dahlgren of Washington, D.C. He only lived another three years, despite being almost two decades younger than his former wife, but her property was retained by his children by his first wife. In November 1923, the Dahlgrens sold it for about $15,000 to Frances T. Coleman of San Francisco, permanently separating it from the family’s control.

View of the Municipal Wharf from the Goebel–Waterman property, formerly Caroline Martin's Miramar, 1925. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Coleman only owned it for two years before selling it to George Goebel and Val C. Waterman, who sold it two months later to Harry L. Hussmann, president of the Hussmann Refrigerator Company of St. Louis, on July 9, 1925. Hussmann planned to build a resort hotel on the property and bought up several surrounding lots to realize his plan, including the back lot of the former Sea Beach Hotel property and the lot on Second Street immediately behind the former Dahlgren property, across Drift Way.

Promotional postcard for Terrace Court, 1941. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Hussmann never built his resort but he held onto the property into the 1930s. In July 1933, he defaulted on his payments to the Santa Cruz Land Title Company, a result of the stock market crash of 1929, and his properties in the county were sold at auction. The purchaser was Randall Currell of El Paso, who did nothing with the estate during his seven years of ownership. George Lawrence Holland Jr. bought it in late 1940 and finally began construction of the long-delayed hotel on the property. Over the next year, he constructed 15 terraced units of an ultramodern design. Each room had a combined living room and bedroom with a view of the bay, a car garage, kitchen, and ensuite toilet. In March 1941, Holland christened the resort Terrace Court. Holland had little time to enjoy his new resort complex since World War II ruined the summer season for the next four years. In 1944, he decided to cut his losses and sold the property to Frank L. Genshlea, former production manager at Magnavox.

The Casa Blanca Apartments, 1948. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

To the east, the Cerf family had its own crisis when Marcel died in June 1935. His widow, Katharine, decided it was a good time to sell their Beach Hill mansion. In 1936, it was bought by attorney Stanford Smith, who maintained it as a private residence for the next seven years. During World War II, though, he sold it to Holland, which greatly enlarged the potential Terrace Courts property. Nonetheless, the property was included in the sale to Genshlea the following year. Genshlea began to make improvements, such as building a reinforced bulkhead along the beach, but suddenly decided in March 1946 to sell both properties to John Azevedo, a Sacramento-based wine producer. Azevedo took over the Terrace Court and renovated it extensively, expanding into the back lot to Second Street. The hotel now operates as the Beach Street Inn and Suites. He also developed the former Cerf mansion into the Casa Blanca Apartments before passing ownership of the property to his son, Robert Azevedo, and a partner, Thomas Allen, in 1951. The hotel today is known as the Casablanca Inn.

Terrace Court and the Casa Blanca Apartments, with the vacant lot of The Cabins at left, circa 1950. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

The Grace property, formerly the Seaside Home and The Cabins, was the last of the properties to leave the Colton family’s ownership. Francis Grace, Sr., Theodosia’s husband, was murdered outside The Cabins while walking in his garden by an ex-nurse Wilhelmina Weltz on September 9, 1933. When the Graces sold the property is unknown, but Theodosia died in 1945 followed by her son in 1948. Prior to this, the family had sold the property and it eventually fell into the hands of Charles K. Bell. He sold it on June 17, 1944, to Joe and Mary L. Gardella, who held onto it for about a decade before developing the back lot facing Second Street into a short-term rental complex known as the Edgewater Beach Apartments, while the narrow beach portion was seemingly left in a state of nature. Today, the Edgewater Beach Motel remains on Second Street, while the Beach Street part of the property is an overflow parking lot for the hotel, often rented out to beachgoers on busy summer days.

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