Last modified: October 5, 2018

Central California Fishing Piers

Seacliff State Beach Pier — Aptos

Less than a decade later the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) took place and California became a U.S. territory. Shortly thereafter, in part as a result of the 49er gold rush, California became the 31st state (1850). Luckily for Castro, the new government recognized his claim as the legal owner of the local lands.

In the mid-1850s, exact year unknown, Rafael Castro hired a man named “Leonard” to construct a 500-foot-long wharf at Aptos. Its location was at the mouth of Aptos Creek and, like the other local wharves (Aptos, Soquel and Santa Cruz), it was located on the west or upstream side of the creek (due to the west to east drift of current and sand). “Castro’s Wharf” was relatively short but extended out past the surf line and allowed local ranchers to use the wharf to load their goods—grain, fruit, cattle, hides, lumber, etc.—onto shallow-bottom ships. Castro hired Gilbert Andersen to operate the wharf and apparently it was successful

As was common with all of the early wharves (and to some extent is true today) the wharf suffered regular damage from winter storms and by the mid-1860s was in need of repair. In response, Castro leased his wharf to Titus Hale in 1867. Hale repaired the wharf and extended it out to 1,000 feet (some sources say 900 feet), which allowed larger ships to use the wharf (including James Brennan’s ship, the Salinas. Hale’s main business was cutting and shipping oak firewood to San Francisco but redwood lumber and agricultural products from the local farms and ranches were also shipped.

Act 2 — Within a few years a new name would become very important to the area and to the history of local wharves. By 1872, Claus Spreckels, the millionaire “Sugar King” from San Francisco, was able to purchase most of the land owned by Rafael Castro and his wife Soledad—at a seemingly bargain basement price. How? The Castro’s were involved in divorce actions and the complex settlement of their assets created tremendous legal challenges. It was simply easier to sell some of the assets! Spreckels bought most of Rafael Castro’s estate in 1872, almost everything except for a 15-acre home site and land not already given to Rafael’s children or sold to others. Included in the property sale was land that we know today as Seacliff. The price was $71,900 in cash for 2,390 acres. The deal simplified the divorce and within two days the divorce was settled. During the next year Spreckels would buy several hundred additional acres from two of Castro’s children.

During the next thirty years Spreckels would be one of the most influential men in the county, especially the area from Aptos down to Watsonville, and see investment in many local enterprises. By 1874 Spreckels’ land, located east of Aptos Creek, and dubbed “Deer Park,” would house a luxurious summer home and have a 12-foot-high fence to contain the stocked deer that were used for hunting on the grounds. Eventually his land would also contain a private racetrack built for his thoroughbred horses as well as a polo field.

In 1875 Spreckels opened his Aptos Hotel near the beach. Built on the site of the original Indian Village, the opening day dedication picnic would see 1,000 people brought in by train and 500 more brought in by wagon; they would enter through the private entrance on Spreckels Drive. In 1876 his investment in the Santa Cruz Railroad paid dividends. On May 7 of that year the narrow gauge railroad opened with the “Betsy Jane” and “Pacific” leaving from opposite end of the county and meeting in Aptos.

By 1880 Spreckels had decided he needed a way to ship local redwood to his various projects in Hawaii (both his sugar mills and another summer house, a replicate of his Aptos home). His solution was to repair the wharf at Aptos and extend it out to 1,300 feet to handle his larger ships (Spreckles by this time controlled almost the entire West Coast sugar imports from the Hawaiian and Philippine islands and had a fleet of ships bringing the sugar to his large California Sugar Refinery at Potrero Point in San Francisco). The “Spreckels Wharf,” the third edition of the wharf in Aptos, was now an “International” wharf capable of carrying cargo across the mighty Pacific.

That same year saw the Southern Pacific buy out the Santa Cruz Railroad and begin laying standard gauge track which, when finished in 1883, would allow even additional shipments of redwood from the wharf. Interestingly, although railroad tracks were located on the wharf, no train ever ran on it. Small horse-drawn railcars were used to simply the movement of cargo on the wharf.

In 1886 disputes in Hawaii led to an end of the Spreckels’ influence, operations, (and monopoly) in Hawaii. Undeterred, Spreckels shifted his focus to the Pajarro Valley, where sugar beets would soon become the main crop, and Watsonville where he would build the west’s largest sugar plant. Most of the sugar from these more southern operations would ship from the wharf at Moss Landing.

Near where Aptos Creek debouches into the Bay of Monterey, about eight miles southeast of Santa Cruz, is situated the little town of Aptos. It is simply .a small village, containing a few stores, hotel, etc., but is a shipping-point of considerable importance, being connected by rail with the large lumber mills of the Loma Prieta Company and the F. A. Hihn Company.

Here is also located one of the finest hotels in the State, owned by Claus Spreckels, the sugar king. Mr. Spreckels also owns an extensive stock ranch in the vicinity, stocked with blooded animals, and it is here and at the hotel where he spends such time as he is able to spare from his extensive business, for recreation and the accumulation of nerve force necessary to conduct his gigantic enterprises.

—Edward Sanford Harrison, History of Santa Cruz County, California, 1892

The 1890s would see Spreckels tear down the Aptos Hotel and use the materials to build “Spreckels,” a new company town near Salinas. He closed his Watsonville plant (generating a bitter local response) and built a new sugar refinery—the largest in the world—at Spreckels. He also built the 42-mile narrow gauge Pajaro Valley Railroad in 1890 to ship his sugar beets from Spreckels to Watsonville and Moss Landing.

The Spreckels sugar monopoly would be broken in 1905 when opposition planters in Hawaii established a cooperative refinery in Crockett—the California and Hawaiian Sugar Company (C&H). Nevertheless his Western Sugar Refinery continued operation in San Francisco until 1951 and his plant at Spreckels would operate until 1982.

With the ending of his Hawaiian operations in 1886, Spreckels attention had turned south and his need for a wharf at Aptos had largely ended. The actions of the sea and lack of repairs led to a quick deterioration of the wharf. A large storm in 1889 knocked out all but the inner 600-foot section and during the next decade its main use was by local fisherman. By the turn of the century most of the wharf had collapsed into the sea and the “Aptos Wharf” was at an end. Only the Aptos Wharf Road would give evidence of what had once been an important port for the region. It would be nearly a third of a century before there would be a new pier on the local beach.

Act 3 — Before the emergence of a recreational beach and pier at Seacliff would come the residential part of the story. In 1924, the 2,390-acre property owned by Spreckels was taken over by developers from San Francisco— Monroe, Lyon & Miller. They renamed the area Aptos-by-the-Sea and planned to develop the Aptos Beach Country Club, a club containing a championship golf course, lodge, luxury hotel, casino and polo field. By the late ‘20s Seacliff Park was developing while Aptos-by-the-Sea had become today’s residential Rio del Mar (River to the Sea), a name invented by realtors to sell property. The Great Depression brought an end to the development of the country club but eventually nearly 2,000 residential lots were sold on the bluff above the beach at Seacliff. 

But recreation was available—on the beach. The “Cement Ship” S.S. Palo Alto (S.S. for Steam Ship) had been towed to the Seacliff Beach from Oakland on January 21-22, 1930. Once at the beach the ship was positioned in place and workers opened its seacocks, which allowed the ship to settle and rest on the bottom. Workers soon began the transformation of the ship into an entertainment center while a pier was built out to the ship. Soon Seacliff would have a pleasure pier and ship

Of course the ship isn’t cement but was constructed of concrete and iron. However, concrete contains cement and the cement used in the ship’s construction came from the nearby Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company in Davenport. About a dozen concrete ships were built during the World War I due to a shortage of iron and steel with two, the Palo Alto and the Peralta, being constructed at the Naval Shipyard in Oakland. Designed to be oil tankers, and started in 1917, neither would see duty during the war.           The ship was christened at Alameda on May 1918, while the war ended on November 11, 1918. The ship would be commissioned in 1920, take its only voyage under its own power (across Sam Francisco Bay) in 1921, be towed to the mothball fleet in Benicia that same year, be sold in 1924 for oil storage and later be resold to machinery dealer R.C. Porter. In 1929 the ship was bought by the Seacliff Amusement Corporation with plans for using it as both an entertainment ship and fishing ship.

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