|Under the Boardwalk
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
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
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
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.
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