Until 1920, the Upper and Lower Plazas of Mission Hill in Santa Cruz, California were both the town center and a popular neighborhood. Schools, businesses, and hotels were all mixed in, and people routinely went back and forth between the two plazas by using Mission Street or the School Street stairs.
Before Elihu Anthony developed the Lower Plaza, the center of town was located around the old Mission Plaza. After the Lower Plaza was built, Mission Plaza also became known as Upper Plaza. The Mission Hill area around it was a dense residential neighborhood. For several decades, a wooden staircase at the end of School Street connected the homes of Mission Hill with the busy town near the Lower Plaza.
More than 100 years has passed since the original School Street stairs were built, yet the same stair route still exists. If you have a chance to visit, imagine turning back the hands of time and visualize the hustle and bustle of people in this part of Santa Cruz a century ago.
A Recollection from the Foot of the Stairs
The 1899 story that follows, from a local paper, gives a vivid picture of a rather entertaining afternoon as seen from the foot of these stairs.
The Horses and Wagon Belonging to G. M. Wolf Fall Over a High BankIt was a miracle that the horses belonging to G.M. Wolf of Ben Lomond were not killed this noon. Mr. Wolf had stopped in front of the home of M. Delaney on School street, on Mission Hill, and had left his horses and wagon standing in the street. While in front of Delaney’s place, the horses started to run and continued down School Street. When they reached the end of the street, the horses continued on the paved sidewalk. The walk at this place is quite steep and the horses were going at a lively rate, and when the end was reached they plunged against the plank railing breaking it as if it were kindling wood, the horses and wagon dropping several feet to the landing of the bluff.The landing is about five feet wide and is covered with brush which was the means of saving the wagon and two horses. At last one of the horses got too near the edge and the spectators were breathless as the horse took its awful plunge over the bank fifty feet to the ground below, striking a projection of the bank once during the fall. The horse lighted on its side within a few feet of the Office of the Santa Cruz Electric Light and Gas Company.By this time a large crowd of spectators were watching the awful sight of the two horses at the very edge of the bluff with perpendicular walls fifty feet in height. All expected instant death, but to the surprise of all the horse got to its feet and started to slowly walk away.The neighbors were soon on the spot and block and tackle and ropes were secured from Wilbur Huntington. The horse was loosened and then with the aid of a block and tackle the heavy wagon was hoisted to the sidewalk. The accident might have been a disastrous one, but the horse was not hurt and wagon escaped without damage. The only damage was the smashing of the railing and the tearing away of a portion of the bituminous walk.This is the second accident at the same spot and in the same manner. In the other accident the horses had a hair breadth escape but the carriage was smashed. Several posts should be placed at the end of the street to prevent a like accident of occurring again.
Today’s Mission Street and School Street Stairs
In the last hundred years, the width of Mission Street has doubled, and the row of shops and hotels up the hill has disappeared. Gone also is the grand school building, replaced by an office building that was built for the school district. However, the retaining wall and the steps that led to the school remain.
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of the Mission Hill Staircase Tour made possible local history researcher Linda Rosewood. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- "Over the Bluff." Santa Cruz Surf, December 9, 1899.
- "Anthony Block to Be Removed Next Week." Santa Cruz Sentinel, March 19, 1909.
- "The City the Gainer." Santa Cruz Sentinel, October 13, 1906.
- "Elihu Anthony, Pioneer of 1847, Was God Fearing Man and Santa Cruz’s First Progressive Business Leader," by Leon Rowland. Santa Cruz News, January 22, 1937.
- The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture, by John Leighton Chase, edited by Judith Steen. The Museum of Art and History, 2005.
- Santa Cruz County History - Government: Board of Trustees and Presidents 1866-1875, Santa Cruz Public Libraries website.
- Century of Service: Santa Cruz Post Office Turns 100, by J.M. Brown. Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 8, 2012.