Under the Boardwalk
Marlene Wiley

With cameras and notepads in hand, Neil and I took an unusual tour of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk sponsored by the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz.

Our guide, Bonnie Minford, has worked for the Seaside Company since 1981, a company privately owned by one family and a small group of investors. As we began the tour, a woman in the group said she had come to the Boardwalk for the first time as a six-year-old in 1916. She walked the entire tour, sharing her special remembrances.

In the late 1800s, getting to Santa Cruz was a difficult ride by horseback or buggy. In 1881, railroad companies began daily runs to Santa Cruz. People from San Francisco and Oakland could hop on a train and get to the beach more easily. The Boardwalk evolved into a principal attraction.

The tour began at the historic Looff Carousel. (In 1987, the Looff Carousel and Giant Dipper were listed as National Historical Landmarks.) The carousel, the seventh most popular ride in the park with 500,000 riders per year, remains much the same as when it was installed in 1911.

The carousel features 73 horses, 4 abreast. The outside view of each horse is decorated, not the inside. All the Boardwalk carousel horses are original Looff horses, but ten were purchased from other parks. Each horse is unique and colorfully decorated with flowers, jewels, and bright paint. The tails of the carousel horses are made of real horse hair. Minford said the Seaside Company plans to restore the horses in the near future. They are lovingly maintained, but nicks and scratches have appeared over the years. The carousel cost $18,000 in 1911; today it is valued at over $350,000. (1)

The “brass” ring is now steel, but is still cherished by riders. Riders try to grab a ring as they ride by, and toss it into a canvas clown target. A successful toss earns one free ride on the carousel. Originally, the rings were hand-fed in the arm, but the process was mechanized in the 1950s. Steel replaced brass in the 1970s. The Boardwalk uses and replaces 70,000 rings annually because many patrons take souvenirs of their ride.
A 342-pipe Ruth-and-Sohn band organ built in 1894 accompanied the riders. It is one of the last of its kind. Renovated in 1979, many parts had to be handmade. The original 1911 carousel building was demolished and rebuilt in 1960.

We were led to the area below the carousel where we saw the steel-ring retrieval system. A vertical belt picks up the rings and moves them continuously around from the clown area to the dispenser. It was strange viewing the ride from below.

Minford told us that all the rides on the Boardwalk are started, inspected carefully, and maintained daily before the rides are opened. The grounds are maintained by three full-time gardeners. An auto repair shop with a sign shop upstairs takes care of Boardwalk vehicles and signs.

The maintenance shops under the Boardwalk house welders, mechanics, upholsterers, plumbers, bakers, and painters. Baked goods are made below sea level in the bakery. Minford pointed out lumber cut to size and painted red and white. These are replacement pieces for the Giant Dipper roller coaster. A fiberglass shop produces and repairs the gargoyles and other Neptune characters.

Like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Boardwalk is painted continuously from one end to the other.
After our down-under tour, we walked along the front of the Boardwalk. As we looked up at the Giant Dipper, one person asked, “Who replaces all these light bulbs?” Laughing, Minford answered that it is done by three men who work full-time on maintenance and repair of the Giant Dipper. In addition to routine maintenance, the workers walk the track every two hours while the Dipper is in operation. The Giant Dipper, one of the last wooden roller coasters, still relies on a human operator, unlike modern coasters that rely on computer technology.

One Boardwalk attraction, Laffing Sal, was originally at Playland in San Francisco. She has been on display and laughing continuously since the Boardwalk acquired her.

The Miss California Pageant came to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in 1924. The first Miss California was Faye Lamphier who became Miss America in 1925. With a hiatus from 1928 to 1933, the Miss California competitions ran until 1985 when feminist protesters forced a move to San Diego.

Next, we toured the offices of the Seaside Company upstairs near the Coconut Grove next to hallway walls lined with historic Boardwalk photos and displays depicting swimming and diving competitions. We went through the sunroom to the kitchen. The kitchen crew can prepare meals for small and large groups. They were preparing for a Sunday crowd of 4000 people. A 50-quart Hobart mixer was making butter cream sauce for cakes. The mixer can also mash 70 pounds of potatoes.

We walked into the Bayview Room (originally called the Grill Room). Today, banquets are held here with a wonderful view of the ocean and beach. The ballroom is next to the Bayview Room and can accommodate 2500 people. Although the ballroom and the Bayview Room have been remodeled over the years, the dressing rooms behind the stage have remained much the same. The tiny rooms accommodate changing clothes and not much more. Since the groups that performed there were mostly bands, the need for dressing rooms was minimal.

The premier beach hotel across the street was the Casa Del Rey Hotel built in 1911. Sadly, it was so damaged in the 1989 earthquake that it was taken down. Before the end it had been turned into senior housing.

One of the newest facilities on the Boardwalk was our last stop on the tour—Neptune’s Kingdom, with a miniature golf course and arcade, was built after the earthquake. Neptune’s Kingdom is built on the site of the Plunge or Natatorium. A Natatorium is an indoor swimming pool that was very popular before families built their own pools.

Touring under the Boardwalk was a treat. It gave us more appreciation of a unique but nearby treasure we take for granted. (2)

1 “The carousel horses, hand-carved by Charles I.D. Looff, were delivered to the Boardwalk on August 3, 1911. After emigrating from Denmark, Looff worked as a furniture carver in New York. Looff sold his first carousel horse to Coney Island. In his lifetime, Looff built about forty carousels, most in New York and some on the West Coast. The Boardwalk carousel is one of only nine operating Looff carousels today, with others in Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco, and Spokane, Washington.”
2 For more Boardwalk detail, I recommend Chandra Moira Beal and Richard Beal’s book Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The Early Years – Never a Dull Moment. Beal wrote a note to historians that “This book is incomplete.” He had to rely on sources other than the Seaside Company that owns and manages the Boardwalk because they do not allow historians general access to their archives of documents and photographs.


(c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 mountain network news All rights reserved.