When it was a bustling port city of the mid-18th century, Santa Cruz exported many goods: agricultural products, lumber, leather, and lime. Initially, goods and people were floated or ferried through the surf to waiting ships. But this too often resulted in wet and damaged goods, plus the ladies objected to the surf spray.
Wharves Are for Boosting the Economy
Between 1849 and 1875, three different wharves were built in Santa Cruz. Elihu Anthony built the first. It was an inclined wharf at the end of Bay Street. It went through several owners, the last of whom was Henry Cowell of the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company. After he bought it, it quickly became known as Cowell Wharf. His company used it to ship lime from his lime works, which were at the base of what is now the campus of UC Santa Cruz. That wharf collapsed in 1907 during a storm.
The Gharky Wharf was built by David Gharky at the base of Main Street in 1857. Gharky’s wharf was bought by California Powder Works in 1865, so it was also known as The Powder Mill Wharf. Apparently, California Powder Works had initially used Cowell Wharf for shipping, but a rift developed with Henry Cowell, who played hardball when it came to protecting his financial interests. So the Powder Works bought the Gharky Wharf rather than deal with Henry Cowell. This wharf was dismantled in 1882.
The Railroad Wharf was built just west of Gharky’s Wharf in 1875 by the Santa Cruz and Felton Railroad, which ran a narrow-gauge rail line. It was built primarily to ship lumber, lime, and other products from the San Lorenzo Valley. Between 1877 and 1882, an S-shaped wharf connected the Railroad and Gharky (Powder Mill) wharves. In writings after 1940, it is often stated that the Gharky Wharf became the Railroad Wharf. However, recent work by Frank Perry and colleagues, shows this not to be the case. Railroad Wharf was an entirely separate one.
Wharves Are for Shipping
Although they shipped many things, much of the economic incentive to build the wharves came from the lime industry. Santa Cruz was an ideal place for lime production because of the presence of large marble formations, vast redwood forests with wood to stoke the kilns that turned the rock into lime, and a large and ready market in nearby San Francisco. In the mid-1880s, Santa Cruz supplied a third of the lime for the state and three-quarters of San Francisco’s lime needs.
By the turn of the century, goods could be sent out of Santa Cruz overland by rail. Thus, the need for wharves and shipping decreased significantly. Of the three original wharves, only the Railroad Wharf remained by 1910. It was economically viable and was surviving mostly because of commercial fishing.
Pleasure Pier was built in 1904 to carry sea water to a plunge pool at the boardwalk. Its construction was the harbinger of a shift to a new norm in the 20th century: Tourism was to become king, and the traditional industries of the 19th century were on their way out.
Wharves Are for Fishing and Fun
The story of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, which opened in 1914, embodies the not entirely desired transition to a tourist economy. At the turn of the 20th century, many city fathers really still wanted to be a major port city with lots of shipping of goods out of Santa Cruz. As a last-ditch effort to achieve this, they authorized the construction of a very long wharf in the slim hope that accommodating deep water shipping would somehow turn back the tide of railroads. It didn’t.
The Santa Cruz Wharf, as it’s called today, was the last wharf built. The dream of reviving Santa Cruz as a seaport did not come true. Instead, fisherman, many Italian-born, moved over from the Railroad Wharf and turned this wharf into the base for their fishing businesses. For 50 years, it was a hard-working, vibrant fishing hub with 75–100 boats unloading salmon, sea bass, rock cod, and sole every day. That changed in 1964, when a harbor was built and opened at Woods Lagoon. Many of the fishing businesses moved their bases of operations to the new harbor, and the Santa Cruz Wharf became a place mainly for recreational fishing from poles, shopping, and dining.
The Wharf Is a Gateway to the Ocean
In the 21st century, economic and business development has been tempered with an environmental imperative. Ecotourism is an important economic engine for Santa Cruz. Today, city mothers and fathers envision a new future for the wharf as a landmark destination that showcases the Monterey Bay’s natural riches. The Wharf Master Plan seeks to change the way people think about the 100-year-old structure. The planners see more than a place to get fish and chips or perhaps a gelato and to say hello to the sea lions. They see a gateway into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a special nexus of land and water resources, a platform for world-class marine research and education, along with a beautiful place to stroll, eat, and shop.
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- Local Historian Frank Perry's website.
- Santa Cruz Wharf Master Plan and Engineering Report
- Lime Kiln Legacies: The History of the Lime Industry in Santa Cruz County, California, by Frank A. Perry, Robert W. Piwarzyk, Michael D. Luther, et al. The Museum of Art & History, Santa Cruz, CA. 2007.
- Notes on the History of Wharves at Santa Cruz, California, by Frank Perry, Barry Brown, Rick Hyman, and Stanley D. Stevens. Lime Kiln Legacies website, 2012.
- "Our Ocean Backyard: Santa Cruz wharves have long history," by Gary Griggs. Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 30, 2011.
- The Santa Cruz Wharf, by Ross Eric Gibson. Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living, Santa Cruz Public Libraries website.
- Santa Cruz Wharf Master Plan and Engineering Report, City of Santa Cruz, accessed July 2016.