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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Cultural Preservation--Hundreds Witness Santa Cruz Homecoming of Historic Hawaiian Surfboards. Kara Guzman. Santa Cruz Sentinel. June 25, 2015.
- The Origins of Surfing in Santa Cruz --Riders of the Sea Spray. Geoffrey Dunn , Kim Stoner. SantaCruzhotelgroup.com website
- A First in Hot Bathing --How a War and a Divorce Figured in the Birth of the Boardwalk in 1868. Ross Eric Gibson. Santacruzpl.org website.
- Resort and Recreation Development: Waterfront, beach, and boardwalk. Susan Lehmann. Santacruzpl.org website.
- San Lorenzo River Trestle #1. Derek Whaley. Santacruztrains.com website.
- California’s Original Beach Party -- Entertaining Visitors for Over A Century. BeachBoardwalk.com website.