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A Day at the Beach with Santa Cruz Trains

Following a very busy year that saw two inaugural publications in two new series, 2024 is off to a very good start. The success of SIDETRACKED: Laurel & Glenwood made it clear that small-format, photo-heavy books are a great means of providing readers with more depth than is possible in the larger Santa Cruz Trains books while also showcasing a wider range of imagery. Thus, this year I have released SIDETRACKED: The Santa Cruz Beach to 1903 (Amazon Associates link). As I mentioned in an author diary last year, Laurel and Glenwood were not my intended first subjects for the series. Likewise, the Santa Cruz Beach was not my expected second subject. Wrights, the Summit Tunnel, and the Summit in general were always my intent, yet here I am, still not doing that book. The reason is simple: I didn’t want to do two books focused on the same geographic area. However, since I still have not published Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Coast, I also didn’t want to use too many photographs that I may want to use in that book. The easy solution was the Santa Cruz Beach, an area that has a near infinite number of photographs available but whose early history is inconsistently recorded.

Buggies and swimmers at the beach, ca 1885 [UCSC]

Buggies and bathers at the beach, circa 1885. (Courtesy UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage)

For those who don’t know, I worked at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for many years in first the Arcades Department and later the combined Games & Arcades Department. I became very well acquainted with the old Casino and Plunge Natatorium buildings during those years, and read through Neptune Kingdom’s Historium captions countless times. From 2012 to 2014, I also served as the Boardwalk’s historical interpreter, giving history tours to school groups before the park opened. Also in 2012, I met with Charles Canfield to discuss an idea for a book focused on the history of the Boardwalk’s rides and attractions. While I was provided with access to some history files, I never was able to pursue the idea and I shifted instead to local railroad history. All this is to say that I know the history of the beach better than many, and I have increasingly felt a desire to explore that history more deeply, especially the early years when the railroad brought thousands of people each summer to the area.

Pacific Avenue Horsecar on the beach viewed from the Sea Beach Hotel, ca 1890 [WorthPoint]

A Pacific Avenue Street Railroad horsecar on the beach, viewed from the Sea Beach Hotel, circa 1890. (Courtesy WorthPoint – colorized using MyHeritage)

When I first set out on this project, I planned to cover the history through the fire that destroyed the Neptune Casino and Plunge in June 1906. However, I ended up adding two new areas of interest to the book—the Hotel St. James and the Surf Bath House—which were not in my original plan. There was also the problem of Fred Swanton, whose dominance of the beach from 1903 would have to be explained a second time if I ever were to write a sequel to The Santa Cruz Beach to 1903 (which is likely). Thus, I decided part-way through writing to draw the line at the end of 1903, when the Santa Cruz Beach, Tent and Cottage City Corporation—i.e., Fred Swanton—bought most of the attractions at the beach. In hindsight, I don’t regret this decision at all. Construction of the physical boardwalk began during the time of the Neptune Casino, so it really feels like a clean dividing line, despite a few things at the beach transcending that line.

People around a swimming line at the Santa Cruz Beach, ca 1900, George Webb [WorthPoint]

People around a swimming line at the Santa Cruz Beach, circa 1900. Photo by George Webb. (Courtesy WorthPoint – colorized using MyHeritage)

As with the first SIDETRACKED book, this book is divided into two related but separate parts: train-related material and train-adjacent material. The train-related parts include the Powder Works and Railroad Wharves, Santa Cruz Beach station, and the San Lorenzo River railroad bridge. The train-adjacent parts include Cowell’s Wharf, the four hotel sites between Pacific Avenue and Main Street (Hotel St. James, Seaside Home, Liddell House, and Sea Beach Hotel), and the bathhouses on the beach (Leibbrandts/Dolphin Baths, Wheaton’s Plunge, Neptune Baths, Plunge Baths, and Surf Baths). There were many topics that I had to leave out of the book due to size, especially the hotels on Second and Third Streets, activities on the river such as the Venetian Carnivals, and the horsecars and streetcars, but some of these have been covered in other works. This book sticks to the immediate vicinity of the railroad tracks.

Final stages of the Sea Beach Hotel fire, June 12, 1912 [UCSC]

Final stages of the Sea Beach Hotel fire, June 12, 1912. (Courtesy UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage)

The SIDETRACKED sub-series of Santa Cruz Trains may skip next year. If not, it will definitely be Wrights and the Summit. I am simply sitting on too many photos related to this area not to share them next. However, right now, I am deep into researching Santa Cruz Trains: The Road to San Francisco, a book that I hope will provide a new baseline for local railroad history. I am forensically going through issues of the Sentinel and Pajaronian for any mention of railroads. This has so far resulted in over 300 pages of transcribed quotes, so there’s a good chance that a companion book may release at the same time for those wishing to delve deeper into the politics and discussions that led to the establishment of the first railroads in Santa Cruz County in the 1870s.

The Railroad Wharf with lanteen sailboats, ca 1910 [UCSC]

The Railroad Wharf with lanteen sailboats, circa 1910. (UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage)

Later this year, Our Old Santa Cruz . . . Volume 2 by Ernest Otto will release. The book is completely done pending editing, and work has begun on Volume 3, which will release in 2025. How many volumes total will be in this series is unknown at the time, but I have five covers already prepared from beautiful color postcards of Pacific Avenue from Frank Perry’s collection. The first volume has seen steady sales and received some good buzz, although it could use more reviews on Amazon and any at all on Goodreads (hint hint). If you haven’t picked up a copy, it is available at Amazon (Associates link) and Bookshop Santa Cruz. And I hope you enjoy SIDETRACKED: The Santa Cruz Beach to 1903, available now for $17.99 at (Associates link) and Bookshop Santa Cruz.