In the early 1900s, Natural Bridges was briefly at risk of becoming the site of a grand hotel in line with the vision of Fred W. Swanton. He was fortunate enough to acquire the land that now makes up the state beach through his wife, Emma Stanley Pope Hall.
“Fabulous Fred” Invests in the Wrong Neighborhood
Because he was instrumental in the development of the Casa Del Rey Hotel, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, two competing electric railroads, and a telephone company, Fred Swanton was a well-known Santa Cruz entrepreneur. He had big ideas and the ability to bring them to fruition. He was also the main person responsible for making tourism the foundation of the city’s economy. “Fabulous Fred” actively promoted Santa Cruz to neighboring areas, even traveling throughout California and Nevada with a marching band to spread the word. However, his plan for a development at Natural Bridges never came to be.
Swanton renamed Hall’s Beach (today’s Natural Bridges State Beach) as Swanton Beach Park and developed streets with the names of bigger cities, including Sacramento, Auburn, and Merced, hoping to attract buyers from the hot Central Valley. He also had plans for a large hotel with modern conveniences to cater to wealthy guests. But the cold winds and damp fog that linger in these neighborhoods, so the story goes, deterred Swanton’s prospective buyers and led him to financial ruin and bankruptcy in 1912.
Perhaps he was just a bit ahead of his time and there were simply not enough people interested in living year-round in Santa Cruz yet. Swanton Beach Park was, in fact, one of many unsuccessful developments in the early 1900s along the Santa Cruz coast.
Swanton recovered financially and went on to do many other projects, including establishing a landing field at Swanton Beach Park in 1924. Known as Swanton Airport, it was used periodically until about 1931 when the Santa Cruz Airport opened in Capitola.
Unfortunately for Swanton, his financial recovery was only temporary. He filed for bankruptcy again in 1930 and deeded the 27-acre Swanton Beach Park to the state in 1933. He died almost penniless 10 years later. It seems Swanton’s entrepreneurial instincts and management skills waxed and waned over the years, and perhaps this is the real reason that the Swanton Beach Park development failed.
Construction of beach facilities did not begin until 1954, and the area around the park was not developed for housing until the 1970s. Swanton might roll in his grave if he could see the multimillion-dollar homes that now line Swanton Avenue and his city-named streets.
If you’re looking for a resort today, head to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. But thousands of visitors prefer the tide pools, dune habitat, cool geology, and monarch butterfly refuge that are protected by what is now Natural Bridges State Beach.
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This piece is part of the Santa Cruz Marine Protected Areas Beaches Tour made possible by the Santa Cruz Collaborative with support from the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation and the Resources Legacy Fund. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- Natural Bridges State Beach General Plan. State of California, Department of Parks and Recreation, October 7, 1988.
- Resort and Recreation Development: Waterfront, beach, and boardwalk, by Susan Lehmann. Santa Cruz Public Libraries website.
- Our Ocean Backyard: Our coastline will change, and that’s for certain, by Gary Griggs. The Mercury News website, October 22, 2011.
- Natural Bridges State Beach. California Department of Parks and Recreation website.
- Personal communication with Frank Perry, Historian, Santa Cruz County, May 2016.
- Surf, Sand and Streetcars. A Mobile History of Santa Cruz, California, by Charles S. McCaleb. Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, 2005.