Thursday, July 31, 2014

Boardwalk Tales: The Santa Cruz Beach in the 1890s


When the Santa Cruz Railroad first passed through the Main Beach in the mid-1870s, this was roughly the scene at the eastern end of the beach beside the San Lorenzo River. The trestle was narrow-gauged, long, and exposed. The Southern Pacific broad-guaged it soon after its acquisition of the company in 1881 but the trestle remained exposed. It was finally destroyed in a major flood some years later and replaced with the steel prefabricated double-trestle now there.

The photograph above was probably taken in the late 1890s since the Miller-Leibbrandt Bath House is already present on the beach, visible in the distance. Beyond the Bath House can be seen the magnificent Victorian-style Sea Beach Hotel standing on the hill beside Main Street. The Railroad Wharf can be barely seen just beyond that, but the earlier Gharky-Powder Works-Steamship Wharf is no longer there.

On the rough site of today's Entrance 5 sits a small group of shanties on the beach beside the tracks. A homestead is just opposite the tracks from these. These homes will be removed over the next decades as the Boardwalk develops into a major amusement park. Other homesteads can be seen littered around Beach Flats in an age before the subdivision has been organized.


This photo was taken around the same time but from the opposite angle, probably from outside the Sea Beach Hotel. The Miller-Leibbrandt Plunge sits just right of center while an earlier bath house, also owned by the Leibbrandt family, is in the foreground with an attached restaurant. This building is the Neptune Baths and will soon be moved across the street and serve as the Santa Cruz Beach Tent & Cottage City Corporation's restaurant. The Moorish Neptune Casino will be erected in its place in 1904. All three of these buildings perished in the  Great Casino Fire of 1906.

Further inspection of the beach here shows no Electric Pier, as of yet, though what may be a pipe seems to head into the ocean mid-way down the beach. The Pier was probably built in 1903 to accompany the remodeling and expansion of the Plunge. Strange posts and other items line the beach, and the water line itself is much closer to the buildings than in later years due to the lack of dredging operations in the Santa Cruz Small-Craft Harbor and elsewhere around the Monterey Bay. On the cliffs in the distance, houses stand much as they do today. In fact, a few of them are the same homes.

Two sets of railroad tracks, a broad-gauged and narrow-gauged set, snake behind the bath houses alongside power and telephone cables. The tracks closer to the buildings are the Southern Pacific's main line. The narrower tracks are that of the local trolly line whose route terminates at the Main Beach.  Also beside the tracks is the original boardwalk, which stretched between Pacific Avenue and the Railroad Wharf to the bath houses. Unmaintained, the sand beside the walkway is covered in thin-rooted grasses and stones. A railing runs the length of the walkway.


A view of the beach from the bay in 1893 shows a daring female swimmer out from the shore. Although swimming attire for women was usually large baggy wool dresses, this female is likely wearing something smaller and lighter to allow her to be out so far. Other male swimmers and boaters are out in the water behind her with a large party on the beach at left. On the shore, the towering Miller-Leibbrandt Plunge sits beside the older Leibbrandt Neptune Baths, at left. Smaller buildings connected the two bath houses and included boilers that can be seen directly to the left of the larger building. These were eventually moved to the right of the Plunge in 1903 when Fred Swanton upgraded the facility and moved the Neptune Baths across the street where it became the Tent City Restaurant. All of these buildings burned down, however, in 1906 in the Great Casino Fire.

This photograph at left shows a family on the beach beside the Miller-Leibbrandt Plunge enjoying a day in the sun and sand. Their dress was typical for the 1890s and if they wanted to go swimming, very modest swimwear could be obtained at the bath houses or from small booths that the Leibbrandt Brothers set out beside the water each summer.

The Plunge was two stories, with a dance hall upstairs. It included a heated salt water pool and a long patio on the beach side for people to sit or stroll under, visible at left. It also included a restaurant, a store, and other amenities such as massage parlors and extensive changing rooms. It was begun as a partnership between the Miller and Leibbrandt families, but the Leibbrandts bought the entire operation by 1900. Fred Wilder Swanton then bought all the Leibbrandt facilities from the family in 1903 for his new company.

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