Santa Cruz: The Great Seaport that Wasn’t

Santa Cruz: The Great Seaport that Wasn’t

Santa Cruz’s cultural identity and economic well being are tied up with tourism and surfing in the beautiful Monterey Bay. Monterey Bay is an important marine ecosystem and protected as a National Marine Sanctuary. That reality might be very different today if past development plans had been enacted.

The Development Imperative (1850-1965)

From the 1850s to the mid-1960s, Santa Cruz citizens generally wanted their town to be a center of industry and economic activity. Promotion of business and development was paramount. In Santa Cruz the vision was to be a hub for transportation of lumber, lime, and agricultural products produced within Santa Cruz, and also for goods that came from the Central Valley. There was hope that Santa Cruz would be the railroad terminus for a transcontinental railroad line and that oil produced in the San Joaquin Valley would be shipped out here.

"On the wharves, San Francisco, 1900".  This was the vision for Santa Cruz circa the late 1800s. A seaport to rival San Francisco. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
“On the wharves, San Francisco, 1900”. This was the vision for Santa Cruz from the 1850s to the mid-1900s; a seaport to rival San Francisco. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Seaport Dreams

To be a great seaport hub, Santa Cruz needed a great harbor. The problem was, although Santa Cruz’s natural harbor was a fine anchorage in the summer, in the winter gales from the south made it treacherous and often damaged the wharves.

Several plans were drafted between 1850 and 1900 to create a giant breakwater and turn Santa Cruz’s natural harbor (and many of its now famous surf spots) into perpetually calm water. Several of these plans involved breakwaters starting at or near Lighthouse Point and extending eastward into the harbor for a quarter mile or longer. Lack of money was the only reason this was not done.

Locations and dates of proposed breakwaters in Santa Cruz Harbor. Dashed lines indicate location is approximate. Figure adapted with permission from "The Great Seaport Dream" by Frank Perry.
Locations and dates of proposed breakwaters in Santa Cruz Harbor. Dashed lines indicate location is approximate. Figure adapted with permission from “The Great Seaport Dream” by Frank Perry.

By the early 1900s, the railroads had severely decreased the shipping of goods from Santa Cruz and it looked like the great seaport would never materialize.

Hope in a Cement Plant

In 1903 William Dingee, The Cement King, almost built a cement plant on the Westside of Santa Cruz between High Street and Mission Street. Proponents were thrilled because a cement plant that would transport its lime by ship, might finally provide incentive and money to build a giant safe harbor. Once built, the harbor would then generate more business — if you build it they will come!

A cement plant in Santa Cruz was eventually thwarted by locals who feared the dust, noise, and ruination of their beautiful town. The Cement King instead built his plant 10 miles north in Davenport in 1905.

Dust covering cars in Davenport circa 1950. Image courtesy of Alverda Orlando.
Dust covering cars in Davenport circa 1950. Image courtesy of Alverda Orlando.

A Small Craft Harbor Will Do

Due to its proximity to San Francisco and the huge expense of creating a large harbor, Santa Cruz never became a great port city. Although dreams lived on through the 1930s, largely by trying to bring the US Navy here.

After World War II, rail and truck transportation were dominant. Shipping out of Santa Cruz was nonexistent, there was no money for large breakwaters, and State legislators were favoring small craft harbors that included recreation. Thus Santa Cruz shifted its focus to building a small craft harbor.

While it was not the “Great Seaport” envisioned by the forefathers it was to be a boon to commercial fisheries and the recreation and tourist industries. On May 7, 1962, Governor Edmund G. Brown attended the ground breaking for the publicly funded construction of a small craft harbor at Woods Lagoon.

The Santa Cruz Harbor. Photo by Niki Rothwell. Harbor Collection. Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Port District.
The Santa Cruz Harbor. Photo by Niki Rothwell. Harbor Collection. Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Port District.

Other Imperatives Take Hold (Post 1965)

The small craft harbor project was completed just prior to a big change in attitudes about development and the environment. The era when development and business interests were paramount was coming to an end; in Santa Cruz and across the country people were beginning to give environmental and social issues newfound importance.

The creation of The Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level (1970), and the formation of The California Coastal Commission (1972) via voter initiative proposition 20, are examples of this broader movement. An example of the local movement was the successful and epic battle to save Lighthouse Field from becoming a very large conference center (1972-1974).

The coming of the University of California to Santa Cruz, coincidentally dedicated the day before the small craft harbor in April 1964, also played a part in the shifting of local politics. It brought a large new population of voters whose primary interests were not tied to the local economy.

Beginning in July, 1971 all the college students could also vote in local elections, thanks to the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the US constitution, which set 18 as the legal minimum voting age for elections in the US. Most states, including California, had previously had 21 as the minimum age.

Looking Forward

The trajectory of development in any community is set in large part by local planning boards and planning commissions. Check out your local planning authorities and be aware of what they are doing and the priorities they set. Maybe you can get involved and help steer them. If you live in Santa Cruz, listen to or read Gary Patton’s weekday Land Use Report on KUSP 88.9 FM.

Further Information

  • Local Historian Frank Perry’s Website.
  • Cover photo by Broken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons.

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    1. Sources Used

      • Davenport and Its Cement Plant: the Early Years, 1903-1910. Alverda Orlando. Santa Cruz County History Journal S.C.C. Historical Trust, Inc. 1994;(1):49–60.

      • The “Great Seaport Dream.” Frank Perry. Santa Cruz County History Journal, S.C.C. Historical Trust, Inc. 1995;(2):53–63.
      • The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz. R Gendron, W.G. Domhoff. Westview Press; 2009.
      • Lighthouse Point: Illuminating Santa Cruz. Frank A. Perry. Santa Cruz, California: Otter B Books; 2002.



    About The Author

    I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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