All Grown Up: The Santa Cruz Wharf & Harbor

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Celebrating Big Milestones this year

The Pacific Ocean is at the heart of Santa Cruz. Its ancient sea floor lifted over the eons to form our picturesque cliffs and hillsides. The redwoods depend on the fog that condenses over its chilly waters, and we all draw from the ocean’s cornucopia of resources: open water, crashing waves, fish below and fowl above, and sheltered beaches for families to enjoy into the warm fall.

The Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor have been helping people get into or onto the ocean for decades—10 decades, in fact, for the wharf, and five for the harbor. In light of the local landmarks’ 100th and 50th birthdays, respectively, we take a look back at how they came to be.

THE GLORY DAYS

In the late 1800s, Santa Cruz was a thriving port city exporting lumber, lime, leather, and agricultural goods. Between 1849 and 1875, three privately funded wharfs were built to handle the shipping traffic, and ambitious plans were made for a large harbor to protect the wharfs and ships from fierce winter storms.

However, by the turn of the century, the railroads were surpassing shipping for the transportation of goods. The large harbor was never built, and, by 1910, the only wharf that remained was the Railroad Wharf.

The Municipal Wharf, built in 1914, was much longer than any of the three previous wharfs. In fact, it is the longest wooden-pile wharf on the West Coast. The idea was to serve deep-water vessels that might still compete with rail, but it didn’t work. By the time it opened, it was too late—railroads had officially become king and Santa Cruz’s run as an important port city was already over. Fishing businesses became the mainstay for the new wharf.

SOMETHING FISHY

Chinese immigrants were the area’s earliest commercial fishers. Due to widespread prejudice and anti-Chinese legislation, they were relegated to squid fishing by the 1880s and, by the 1890s, were driven out of the fishing business completely.

Italian families came to dominate local fishing by the early 1900s. Cottardo Stagnaro, who hailed from the village of Riva Trigoso near Genoa, is purported to have been the first Italian fisherman to move to Santa Cruz. It is said that he recruited 60 fishing families from his village to emigrate to the area. Thus began the legacy of families with names like Stagnaro, Ghio, Faraola, and Carniglia.

In its heyday, 75 to 100 boats unloaded catches of salmon, sea bass, rock cod, and sole every day, and the Municipal Wharf was known for its fun and lively atmosphere. Proud fisherman would display large or unusual catches for all to see.

Then, in 1964, the Small Craft Harbor opened, and most of the fishing businesses relocated to the harbor. Old-timers say they took the wharf’s lifeblood with them and left only a parking lot for their family-owned restaurants.

But the wharf’s best years are not necessarily behind it. Current city leaders envision a new future for the wharf as a landmark destination that showcases the Monterey Bay’s natural riches. The draft Wharf Master Plan seeks to change the way people think about the waterfront locale. It has a lot going for it, after all: it is a gateway into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a special nexus of land and water resources, and a platform for world-class marine research and education. It’s also a beautiful place to stroll, eat, shop, rent a boat, or take a whale-watching tour.

Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor groundbreaking ceremony with Governor Edmund G. Brown Sr. May 6, 1962. Photo: Les Long. Harbor Collection. Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Port District.

Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor groundbreaking ceremony with Governor Edmund G. Brown Sr. May 6, 1962.
Photo: Les Long. Harbor Collection. Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Port District.

BIG HARBOR DREAMS, SMALL HARBOR REALITY

The harbor that opened in 1964 was a much smaller safe anchorage than the big harbor envisioned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After World War II, recreational boating began gaining popularity and Santa Cruz shifted its focus to building a small craft harbor.

Congress approved a harbor study for Santa Cruz in 1946. It took years of wrangling over location and funding, but a Santa Cruz Port District formed by 1958. In 1962, financed in roughly equal amounts by federal, state and local funds, construction of the harbor began. Its opening in 1964 was a boost for the commercial fishing, recreation, and tourist industries. In recent years it has also become home to many nonprofits, such as O’Neill Sea Odyssey, the Coastal Watershed Commission, Save Our Shores, and Sea Scouts, all of which foster environmental awareness and stewardship.

SAY NO TO SURFING IT

In Santa Cruz, as along most of the California coast, waves from the northwest drive sediment and sand southward—a process known as littoral drift. It’s like a river of sand flowing south, just offshore.

If an obstacle is placed across this river of sand, its flow is blocked. That’s why the two harbor jetties (east and west) cause sand to settle out or “shoal” at the harbor entrance. It takes a huge dredging operation to keep the entrance clear. Since it opened, the harbor has dredged this sand and pumped it back offshore just down coast of the east jetty. Each year, the dredging operation moves 200,000 to 250,000 cubic yards of sand at a cost of about $1 million.

Shoaling sand can produce surfable waves at the harbor mouth, but it is illegal and quite dangerous to surf them. They are in a narrow and busy navigation channel and are very close to the jetty, where surfers can get smashed on the huge cement “tetrapods.” However, this being “Surf City,” some surfers have been known to take the risk—and eat the fine.

Making of the big cement tetrapods, circa 1963. Photo by Les Long. Harbor Collection. Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Port District.

Making of the big cement tetrapods, circa 1963.
Photo by Les Long. Harbor Collection. Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Port District.

HARBOR LIGHT: A TRANSFORMATION

To prevent boats from crashing into the jetties, there has been a harbor light and fog horn at the west jetty since the harbor opened. Prior to the current lighthouse, however, the structures housing them have been unattractive and low budget, to put it mildly. For the first 32 years there was a boxy structure known as the “Lunar Lander.” It was replaced by a cylinder nicknamed “The Water Heater” in 1996. Then, in 1999, The Water Heater was replaced by a simple pole and basket edifice.

The 1996 structure was apparently so unpleasant to the eye that locals Bill Simpkins and Jim Thoits couldn’t bear it any longer. Beginning in 1998, they spearheaded a campaign to replace the unsightly harbor light with a classic lighthouse. Funds were raised from the community and Charles Walton, of Los Gatos, made a large donation in honor of his late brother, Derek, who served in the merchant marines and was lost at sea during World War II. On June 9, 2002, the Walton Lighthouse was officially opened and dedicated, and has been illuminating the surrounding waters ever since.


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Julia Gaudinski


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