For several decades in the 1900s eight Santa Claus statues welcomed motorists driving along the Old Santa Cruz Highway to a mysterious place called Holy City. The “city” — a tiny town that took five minutes to walk from one end to another — was established in 1918 by Father William E. Riker, also known as “The Emancipator,” “The Comforter,” “The King, ”and “The Professor.” This eccentric individual, like many cult leaders, has a muddied past of manipulation, showmanship, and morally questionable choices.
Before establishing Holy City in 1918, Riker earned his nickname “The Professor” from reading palms. He also travelled the country performing a mind reading act before he was arrested for bigamy in San Francisco. Leaving his two wives behind, Riker fled to Canada, where he developed the “Perfect Christian Divine Way.” To follow this new way required total celibacy, abstinence from alcohol, hard-core white supremacy, and communal living. Obviously, not the life for everyone, and yet at its peak in the 1930s, Father Riker had 300 devoted disciples.
The Cult’s Beginnings
In 1918, Riker purchased 30 acres just south of Los Gatos for only $10 that became “Holy City” according to Betty’s Lewis’s account in Holy City: Riker’s Roadside Attraction in the Santa Cruz Mountains. His following began with 30, mostly elderly, disciples who gave him all their money so they could focus on their new “religion.” Some called the group a religious cult but the only place of “worship” in the City was a redwood grove where Father Riker gave sermons that were more like philosophical lectures.
Riker himself actually referred to his group as a cult in the Rules and Regulations for Members:
Early in his new career as a spiritual leader of sorts, Riker first incensed one of his disciples by straying from his own strict rules and taking a wife. His disciple tried unsuccessfully to sue Riker. Instead of losing face (and the money he’d taken from his elderly follower), he soon began making $100,000 annually from his religious enterprise which included a restaurant, a service station, an observatory (10 cents to view the moon and stars through a telescope), and a mineral water business he ran on the side. By 1929, Holy City had a weekly newspaper and a radio station (KFQU). The radio station lasted two years until its license was revoked because Riker kept using other station’s frequencies.
Santa Claus Statues and Strange Signs Draw Tourists
By the 1930s Holy City had become a popular tourist spot for curious motorists traveling along the Old Santa Cruz Highway. Eight shoulder-height Santa Claus statues beckoned you onto the property. Several signs at the entrance boasted bold statements:
Riker’s idea of perfection, it seems, was an entirely white population (another one of his controversial, and in this case downright offensive, signs read “Asians and Negroes keep out of Holy City until you’ve learned your place”) and one where everyone except for Father Riker had to follow a strict set of rules and live without money or worldly possessions.
Riker was a man full of contradictions. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler and yet he was overly friendly to Jews and welcomed them with open arms into his flock. He preached celibacy and yet he was a bigamist before founding Holy City and took a wife after establishing his strict ideology. He also preached sobriety and yet encouraged the man leasing the restaurant on his property to add a bar to the establishment. (He then later made him shut it down because too many of his disciples were frequenting it.)
“To My People I am God”
Despite his blatant hypocrisy, Riker’s cult-like group persisted through the Depression. He was quoted saying, “My people will do anything I tell them to do. To them I am God.” The Holy City fared well for a while, profiting from both dedicated followers and curious tourists. A variety of businesses attracted drivers to pull off the Old Santa Cruz Highway: There was a gas station, post office, grocery and meat market, restaurant, barber shop (the disciples had to borrow money from Riker to get a haircut), print shop, lecture hall, zoo, motion pictures, and ballroom with a sign reading:
“The Emancipator” (as Riker liked to call himself) also had grand plans for an amphitheater that would seat 17,000 people and host shows where he would miraculously “cure” people posing as blind, deaf or crippled.
The Fall of Riker’s Kingdom
The popularity of the cult finally fizzled as Riker’s followers began to see their leader as the manipulative and deceitful man he really was. Riker wouldn’t allow spouses to live together in Holy City yet rumors spread that the leader slept with all his female disciples. By 1938, only 75 men and 4 women lived at the site.
The opening of Highway 17 (which bypassed Holy City) in 1940 and gas rationing with the start of World War II, led to a sharp decline in tourists. In 1942 the FBI charged Riker with sedition for letters he wrote to Hitler showing his open support and his anti-semitic, British, Filipino, and Chinese propaganda. He avoided jail but had to give up his pamphlets and paid a large sum of $15,000 in legal fees by the end of the trial.
Father Riker still held on after the trial and after losing most of his land in a bad real estate transaction in 1959. That same year a series of mysterious fires burned most of the City’s buildings to the ground. Still, a handful of followers remained with Riker even after the 94-year-old cult leader converted to Catholicism in 1966. He died three years later with three loyal disciples still residing in Holy City.
Today, all that remains of Holy City is one modern building and the narrow road that bears its name. The old buildings have disappeared except for a derelict shack that may or may not have been a part of Father Riker’s small empire. A shop with a dayglo sign reading “Holy City Art Glass Holy City, California” reminds those few who drive by that a tract of 30 acres here in the Santa Cruz Mountains was once bustling with loyal disciples and curious tourists.
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of the Highway 17 Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- Holy City: Riker’s Roadside Attraction in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A Nostalgic History. Betty Lewis. Otter B Books. Santa Cruz, California; 1992.
- Holy City, California: My Father’s Final Quest. Leona Claire Fuller. Glue Pot Press; 2011
- Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains, by John V. Young. Western Tanager Press; 1979, 1984.
- Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz. Richard A. Beal. The Pacific Group; 1991.
- The Saga of Holy City, California. Andrea Perkins. CoastNews.com Website. http://www.coastnews.com/history/holy_city.htm