Recreation on the San Lorenzo River: Yesterday, Today and a Potential Tomorrow

Recreation on the San Lorenzo River: Yesterday, Today and a Potential Tomorrow

Settlement in Santa Cruz has always been centered around the San Lorenzo River. In 1876, when the railroad began bringing tourists for fun in the sun, they came to Santa Cruz for the river just as much as the beach. During this time, hotels and houses turned to face the river, and each fishing season brought a boom of tourism to the city. When the river mouth naturally closed itself off every year due to low flow, docks were placed in the lagoon and rowboats were rented for recreation and fishing.

The river offered deep holes that were perfect for fishing and swimming. In the 1870s, girls would swim in old summer dresses, and boys in union suits or cut-off flour sacks. But in Rennie Slough and many other swimming holes, the surrounding vegetation was thick enough that swimming nude was the norm. Think about how times have changed since then!

The Venetian Water Carnival

The Venetian Water Carnival was an annual event along the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz from 1895 to 1927. It was based on water carnivals in Venice, Italy. The City fathers hoped it would bolster the idea that Santa Cruz was the “Florence of the West.”

At a time when hardly anyone had electricity in their home, this event was at the forefront of modern technology and was a huge party! It featured strings of lights powered by an electric generator, fireworks, and late night concerts. A giant projector flashed “Santa Cruz Venetian Water Carnival” as guests sat on the side of the river to watch the events.

The carnival opened with a great show. Miss Anita Gonzales, the carnival queen, stood at the beach as ships from the all-steel Pacific Fleet “bombarded” the city and sent launches ashore in mock battles. There, Queen Anita would cry “Peace shall prevail this carnival week!” and a floral parade would ensue down Pacific Avenue. The last day of the carnival was “Hi-Jinks Day,” complete with a masquerade, burlesque, and a fat man in a dress who was crowned “hobo queen.”

After the boardwalk opened in 1904 and grew in popularity the impetus for the water carnival slowly started to fade. The last water carnival took place in 1927 but it provided the inspiration for other local festivals, like Capitola’s begonia festival, beginning in 1954.

River Recreation Today

You are not likely to see anyone fishing, swimming, or boating on the San Lorenzo River anymore. Today, there are mixed feelings towards recreational uses on the river. Water quality is poor so people don’t swim in the river, with the exception of unknowing tourists at the river mouth. Fishing is still allowed seasonally on the river, but only from the banks. Boating in the river, including kayaking, is not legal. There are also public safety concerns with homeless populations that tend to locate near the river, and with illegal activities that occur on the river path.

A Different Future?

The San Lorenzo River Alliance is working to change how people think about and can use the San Lorenzo River. Smiles were in abundance for the first event of the River Paddle Series in October 2013. The Coastal Watershed Council partnered with the City of Santa Cruz to host the series in order to connect the public with the river, and to work towards opening up the lower river for recreational use, which is currently prohibited by Santa Cruz City Municipal Code.

The river paddles, which continued into 2014, have energized people to spend time by the river and continue to draw positive attention to the lower stretch of the San Lorenzo River. The hope is that eventually we can enjoy the river as fully as if we still had famous swimming holes, top fishing spots, and boisterous water carnivals.

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.


Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store
  1. Sources Used

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.

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