The Santa Cruz Boardwalk: A Walk Back in Time

The San Lorenzo River flows from the Santa Cruz mountains and enters the Monterey Bay beside the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Photo courtesy and © of Chuck Perez, Slow Adventures.
The San Lorenzo River flows from the Santa Cruz mountains and enters the Monterey Bay beside the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Photo courtesy and © of Chuck Perez, Slow Adventures.

The San Lorenzo River mouth marks the end of a 29 mile long river as it enters the Monterey Bay. If you are there you can see birds diving underwater, people moving along the Riverwalk path, and what you can’t miss is the the large, colorful amusement park rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, located just next to the river. Today the Boardwalk is recognized as one of the best beachside amusement parks in the world.Throughout its history it has brought hordes of visitors to Santa Cruz and the San Lorenzo River mouth.

Before the Boardwalk: The Saltwater Plunge

The boardwalk, built in 1904 by Fred Swanton, a local businessman, sits on the remains of bathhouses constructed in the 1860s. In 1864, a recent divorcee, Mary Lidell, and her son opened the first saltwater baths west of the Mississippi at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Their baths’ popularity encouraged many other families to construct saltwater bathhouses of their own in the area. Bathing tourism was very popular during this time, and many felt that the saltwater of the Pacific had healing and health-promoting qualities.

Neptune’s Casino and the Saltwater Plunge sits along the San Lorenzo river mouth where it meets the Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy of  LocalWiki.org.
Neptune’s Casino sits along the San Lorenzo river mouth where it meets the Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy of LocalWiki.org.

By 1893, the multitude of bathhouses were consolidated into a single enterprise, called The Neptune Baths (nicknamed Salt Water Plunge), located in the area that Neptune’s Kingdom still stands in today. Although the bathhouses have long since been transformed into roller coasters and arcades, their popularity led to a tourism boom and contributed to new development and settlement along the river.

Boardwalk History

In 1904 Fred Swanton expanded the saltwater baths into Neptune’s Casino. The casino included 500 dressing rooms, a heated indoor saltwater swimming pool “The Plunge”, a café and grill, ballroom, and two rooftop gardens. Unfortunately, Swanton was faced with a multitude of setbacks, from fires to earthquake damage to misguided investments and consequently sold Neptune’s Casino and the surrounding boardwalk to the Santa Cruz Seaside Company in 1912. They run the Boardwalk to this day.

The Wild Mouse ride pictured here was one of three new thrill rides added to the Boardwalk in the 1950s and 60s. In the distance you can see beach-goers enjoying the San Lorenzo river mouth. Photo courtesy and copyright of the Seaside Company.
The Wild Mouse ride pictured here was one of three new thrill rides added to the Boardwalk in the 1950s and 60s. In the distance you can see beach-goers enjoying the San Lorenzo river mouth. Photo courtesy and © of the Seaside Company.

If you visit the boardwalk, be sure to ride the carousel, which was built between 1910 and 1912. The Giant Dipper is one of the last classic wooden roller coasters of the 20th century, built in just 47 days in 1924. Although the boardwalk was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, many of the original structures still remain. The area is continuously alive with the crowds that have been gathering since the first bathhouses were constructed.

The Giant Dipper as seen above became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Photo courtesy of LocalWiki.org.
The Giant Dipper as seen above became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Photo courtesy of LocalWiki.org.

Lost Boys Bridge

If you are a fan of vampire flicks from the 1980s, you may recognize the railroad trestle bridge from scenes in The Lost Boys. In the film, teenage vampires hang from the side of the bridge.

The railroad trestle has not been in use since 2010, but it once connected Santa Cruz to Monterey in the south, and up north to the Davenport cement plant. Currently, the bridge is used by pedestrians crossing from East Cliff Drive to the Boardwalk and to link the two river paths running along the San Lorenzo River.

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is situated along the San Lorenzo River where it meets the Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy of the Coastal Watershed Council.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is situated along the San Lorenzo River where it meets the Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy of the Coastal Watershed Council.

Unfortunately, there have been a number of accidents throughout the years. In 2009 a man fell off of the trestle bridge and in 2012 a woman fell. Both individuals survived. In 2014 a dog fell off the bridge and was rescued by boardwalk security officers after being pulled underwater by a sea lion. The officers performed CPR on the animal and were able to bring him back to life! So please stay on the walking path of the bridge and enjoy the views and sounds of the boardwalk, beach and vampires who may be hanging beneath you.

Surf City USA

Did you know that it was here at the San Lorenzo River mouth in 1885 that three Hawaiian princes brought surfing to mainland USA? They rode 15 foot, 100 pound longboards carved from redwood from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Prior to levee construction there used to be surfable waves at the river mouth. Today, the river rarely creates sand bars large enough to produce decent surfing waves at this location.

The monument to the three princes at Lighthouse Point.
The monument to the three princes at Lighthouse Point.

Over a century later in 2009, a bronze plaque, was sent to Santa Cruz honoring the princes for introducing surfing to the mainland. The plaque can be found by the lighthouse on West Cliff Drive. Reception of the plaque has reopened a long-standing debate about who can claim to be the “real” Surf City between Santa Cruz and Huntington Beach. Either way, the three princes ushered in the beginnings of surfing in Santa Cruz.

Until recently, two of the three salt-stained boards were stowed away in a museum in Honolulu, Hawaii. Thanks to the staff at the museum who recognized the longboards significance, they eventually made their way back to Santa Cruz. The local surfing community welcomed the longboards arrival in 2015, and they are proving to be a wondrous reminder of Santa Cruz history and surfing in general.

Today, you can find the original boards at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. These heavy but durable boards will bring feelings of nostalgia to anyone who views them, as they remind us of a simpler time when our Californian culture was in the midst of its shaping. If you choose to stop by the museum on the first friday of the month, admission is free!

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the San Lorenzo River Tour by the Coastal Watershed Council. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

takeTheTourbluetopoFontITC

Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store



About The Author

Coastal Watershed Council

The Coastal Watershed Council is a nonprofit organization formed in 1995 in response to the declining health of watersheds in the Monterey Bay region. Our mission is to preserve and protect coastal watersheds through community stewardship, education and monitoring.

Related posts

10 Comments

  1. Pingback: Santa Cruz Connected: September, 2015

  2. Pingback: Santa Cruz 2015 Year in Review

  3. Jeremy

    What year was the levee construction ?

    “Prior to levee construction there used to be surfable waves at the river mouth. “

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.