A History of El Rio,
Santa Cruz and the San Lorenzo River
by John Carter
On December 22, 1955, a gentle rain fell in Santa Cruz, as it had fallen around the clock for a full week. Despite a flood warning printed in the late afternoon Sentinel that day, there was no sense of imminent disaster. That evening, shoppers crowded downtown Santa Cruz. Scrolled tinsel arches with lighted red bells spanned Pacific Avenue from Mission Street to Beach Hill. Shop windows were decorated with Christmas scenes and merchandise, as part of a Chamber of Commerce contest. One hardly needed an umbrella, ducking from one canvas awning to the next. Children stood in line at Woolworth's to see Santa. But out at sea a high tide was building as an early night fell. That tide plugged the mouth of the San Lorenzo River for several hours, and rewrote the history of Santa Cruz.
Gibson continues, "At El Rio Trailer Park, one couple heard a commotion at the river at 9:30 p.m. and investigated, but saw no danger. By 10:45, however, they looked out a window and saw three people holding hands and wading through chest-high water. A neighbor struggled to carry his wife and cat, but finally had to set his cat on a large shingle, and it floated into the night." (The text above is based on a 1995 article in the San Jose Mercury.)
A day-after article by on-the-scene Sentinel reporter Skip Littlefield picks up the story: "Caught like rats in a trap were the trailer residents of the ill-fated El Rio auto park."
"Approximately 150 people were caught unawares as water began surging through the densely jam-packed park at 11 o'clock last night. A large percentage of the residents were middle-aged and elderly, many unable to move without assistance."
"Ambulances rescued several bedridden residents at 11:10 o'clock when water had reached a depth of two feet. Within the next half hour the main sector of the park was under five feet of water."
"At midnight all communication with the park was lost. Heroic rescue operations were carried on by a handful laboring in utter darkness." (At about this hour, all electricity in the immediate area went out-jc) "Cries and shouts for help resounded from partially submerged trailers."
"Elderly residents supporting one another, some clad only in sleeping apparel, bravely fought their way through surging currents from five to six feet deep in attempts to reach higher ground."
"At 12 o'clock the writer was unable to proceed further afoot in the park. It is estimated that not more than three trailers got out of the area. Seemingly the residents were lulled into a sense of security by earth embankments flanking the west side of the river."
(The then-owner of El Rio had built an earthen dike between the trailers and the river the previous year, at a cost of $15,000-jc)
"A watchman at the park as late as 10 o'clock was still assuring residents that nothing could possibly happen "I've lived here five years and I know."
An oral history at the library has a blurry photo of an El Rio couple at their trailer the next day. The photographer, Howell Rommel, told an interviewer: "These people told me that they'd spent the whole night of the flood on top of the trailer, because the water was way up above the floor; they thought it would float away at any minute, but the only safe thing they could do was stay on top of the trailer and maybe float away with it. Some did go out to sea, you know."
Were El Rio residents really swept out to sea and drowned? The official flood death count of eight refers only to people whose bodies were recovered, and none of them were from El Rio. But the best article on the flood, written in 1995 by Ross Eric Gibson for the San Jose Mercury, says, "Eventually the current was so strong it swept three men in a rowboat out to sea. Some couldn't escape the swirling waters, and four people in an El Rio trailer and a woman in a house were swept away."
Later in the story, Gibson tells us that "Happily, the cat set adrift on a shingle was waiting at the trailer when the couple returned."
But what happened to the dozens of shivering "elderly El Rio residents - some clad only in sleeping apparel," who "bravely fought their way through surging currents from five to six feet deep in attempts to reach higher ground . . ."? The records I found give no clue, but El Rio's Natalie Goff remembers the story that Earl Getts, the now-deceased husband of our Mrs. Getts, told her years ago: "When the waters came up, a bunch of us from the park made it over to the Victorian that's just outside the park entrance on the right as you leave. The people in the house let the El Rio refugees in, and there were so many of us that we just stood around most of the night, until the waters receded, some time before dawn." If you stand near the park entrance today, you can see that the little white Victorian house sits higher than anything nearby.
When Mr. Getts returned to their trailer that morning, he found it on its side. With a struggle, he got the door, now on the top side of the trailer, open. Inside, he saw that the icebox had fallen over, the door of the icebox was open, and the Christmas turkey was floating in the middle of the living room.
The residents of the Victorian later told Mr. Getts they were convinced that it was the combined weight of the El Rio refugees during that long night that kept their house from torn away by the rampaging waters.
The photographs tell the story of the aftermath best: devastation. My trailer, at #28, has a 1956 pedigree, and I think many other new trailers were brought into the park shortly after the flood.
The Army Corps of Engineers had drawn up a plan for "river control" in 1953, and the flood kickstarted that plan into action. At the levee's 1959 completion, it was criticized for turning the river into a drainage ditch. Before the flood, the San Lorenzo was the number-one fishing river in California!
One final, heartbreaking Christmas Flood story. A few days later, reporter Littlefield wrote about Red Cross cash aid to a few suffering citizens: "Another widow, 63, was awarded $1595 to repair her trailer, damaged at the El Rio trailer park, $25 for canned goods and staples, and $28 for linens and kitchen utensils . . . besides $91.25 for immediate emergency assistance. . . . Her husband died last February after a long illness, which exhausted the couples' savings. She had been doing seasonal work on the night shift at a frozen food company, but the company is now only operating days, though she expects to return to work January 15. At the time of the flood she had $400 in the bank and owed $150 on the trailer."
Dennis and Cindy McCarthy Remember El Rio During the 1955 Christmas Flood
by John Carter
In December of 1955, Dennis and Cindy McCarthy were a young couple living in El Rio. Cindy thinks they might have been the youngest people in the Park. Dennis and Cindy now live part of the year on Cayuga Street, and part in Oregon.
They saw the story about our twentieth anniversary party in the Sentinel, and got in touch. I talked with them in their lovely Santa Cruz home. They have warm memories of El Rio, which they say had a lot more trees in 1955.
Their trailer was near the river, and they remember folks picnicking in the shade and catching lots of steelhead and salmon. "It was very friendly," says Cindy. "We didn"t lock our door all day, and if you had a party you just invited everyone and didn't worry about it. I think the rent was about $20 a month."
She remembers the daily morning coffee klatch in the rec room, but says she didn't attend because "it was really for the old folks."
The McCarthys lived in a little trailer, but Dennis remembers that most folks lived in mobile homes that were termed "park models," because they had no holding tank and had to be connected to a sewage system. Thus they could not be moved quickly in an emergency.
Their memories of December 1955 are vivid. Cindy says "it rained for thirty days in a row. Never a big storm, just rain, all the time." (20.97 inches fell here that month, almost all of it in the first twenty-three days of the month.) On the evening of December 22, the McCarthys took off for a poker game at Dennis's mom's house on Moore Avenue, without a worry in the world. They got home around midnight, about the time the waters peaked.
They found they couldn't even get near El Rio, and parked several blocks away. Cindy waited in the car while Dennis got out and tried to walk to the park. Dennis walked through low but swirling water until he got to River and Pacific. He couldn't cross River Street. The current was very strong, and he grabbed a steel pole to keep his balance. He saw a chicken coop floating by, with the chickens perched on top.
Then Dennis saw an old man struggling nearby. The surging water made it difficult for the man to keep his footing. Dennis went and pulled him up, and helped him reach higher ground. "I think I might have saved his life," he said.
Soon he realized he was not going to get anywhere near his trailer, so he turned and went back to Cindy in the car. The water was high up on the wheels, but they made it out of downtown and drove back to Dennis's mom's house, where they spent the night.
A day or two later, they returned to a devastated El Rio, where they heard and saw some amazing things. Cindy told me, "You know those little ceiling skylight-vents old mobile homes have? We talked to two couples who could not leave their trailers because of the high waters, and they had climbed out through those little holes in the top of their trailers."
This dovetails with the story of local historian Howell Rommel, on file at the Santa Cruz Library. When he visited El Rio, one couple "told me they'd spent the whole night of the flood on the top of their trailer, because the water was way above the floor. They thought it would float away at any minute, but the only safe thing they could do was stay on top of the trailer and maybe float away with it. Some did go out to sea, you know."
Many of the trees had been torn out of the ground. Trailers were on their side, misplaced, and several had indeed floated away. (Contrary to other reports, Cindy does not think that anyone from El Rio died in the flood.)
The McCarthys' trailer was up against a pole, with one end higher than the other. The low end was still filled with water. "I had a big teddy bear," said Cindy, and when I went to pick it up it felt like it weighed fifty pounds. "And I had a little 'featherweight' Singer sewing machine," Cindy recalled. "It was filled with mud. Well, there was a Singer shop downtown, and they cleaned it up and put it back in working order, for free! They did it for anyone whose Singer was damaged in the flood. That was the spirit back then, everyone helping out. And you know, my daughter still sews and makes beautiful long party dresses on that machine today."
Dennis recalls a big military vehicle, high-wheeled, possibly amphibious, lumbering through the park. "I worked placing advertising displays in liquor stores at that time, and I had a huge whiskey bottle at home that had been part of a display. I saw it on the ground, just as that military vehicle rolled right over it and crushed it."
The McCarthys eventually pulled their trailer from the park, and with the help of the Red Cross got it back into a livable condition. They never lived in the park after December 22, but they hold fond memories of their youthful days in El Rio. They look forward to attending our twentieth anniversary party.
Origins of El Rio
found by Natalie Goff in History of Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, California,
Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925
William H. Booth
William H. Booth, an enterprising citizen of Santa Cruz, is proprietor of Booth's Auto Camp, at 112 Water Street. He was born in Kanawha County, West Virginia, on a hillside farm, and there he was reared. He followed farming, sawmilling and lumbering in his native State, until he came to California, in 1890, locating at Boulder Creek, Santa Cruz County.
The first summer he worked for the Cunningham Brothers in their lumberyard and sawmill. He then undertook business for himself, cutting and selling redwood timber. Later he removed to Santa Cruz and engaged in the grocery business on Water Street and twenty-five years ago he established a campground for summer-folks in Boulder Creek.
He was known then as "the Park Maker," and the property is now the Bonnie Brier Resort at Boulder Creek.
Mr. Booth established his present auto camp on the banks of the San Lorenzo Creek in Santa Cruz some twelve years ago, taking four and a half acres in a forest of maple trees. The oldest auto camp in the state, it is well known all over the Pacific coast and in the east. Part of this land was swamp, but he filled it in with two thousand loads of dirt and made the surface level.
Automobiles from almost every state in the Union have been here, and on last Fourth of July over two hundred automobiles were encamped here and hundreds were turned away. Ovens and gas are supplied, and there are swings for the children, and such games as horse-shoe pitching for the "old boys."
When Mr. Booth first opened his place, some seven or eight persons came the first year, remaining three or four days; since then the business has so greatly increased that many come to pitch their tents for two or more months, and now Mr. Booth proposes to erect cabins for winter guests.
He also owns ten acres of virgin redwood forest on the Los Gatos highway, near Santa Cruz, and this he will develop into an ideal picnic ground. When he arrived in Santa Cruz, he had no money; but thanks in part to the steadfast cooperation of his good wife, all that they control today they also own. It is no wonder, then, that this lover of and defender of the trees should have met with success in making so popular a resort.
W. E. Coats
W. E. Coats, the affable proprietor of the El Rio Auto Camp, at 21 McKinley Street, Santa Cruz, was born in Mendocino County, California, April 20, 1884.
He was the son of W. H. and Alice H. (Morrison) Coats, his father also having been a native son, while his earlier forebears are the Coatses, celebrated manufacturers of thread. W. H. Coats, who was a farmer, came with his family to Santa Cruz in January, 1901.
Their object in abandoning the farm being to afford better educational facilities for the children. Here Mr. Coats took up laundering, and in this important field of industry he continued for twelve years, but is now engaged in the raising of poultry.
The rather thorough grammar and secondary schools in Mendocino County gave our subject his start in education, and his ambition led him to go to both night school and a business college.
His first employment after finishing his studies was in clerical work, although he also filled a post in a laundry, and later while working in a real estate office, he mastered shorthand and typewriting.
He next held a position in the plant department of the telephone company, for a year and a half, and after that, in 1911, he embarked in the real estate and insurance business for himself, opening an office in Santa Cruz, where he was so well known, and he immediately met with marked success.
In the meantime Mr. Coats conceived the idea of constructing a model auto camp, and to carry out his cherished plan he bought property so well located and so ideal in its nature, that it is almost in the heart of the business district, and unsurpassed by any other, the entrance to the camp looking out upon the business street of Santa Cruz.
He bought the property in several parcels and now he has fifteen acres. This is a strictly modern camp, with one hundred gas kitchens, and four comfort stations, and when completed will house at least seven hundred cars. The river runs through the camp-hence the name "El Rio"-and this feature, affording swimming and boating, is popular with most visitors.
On April 19, 1911, at San Jose, Mr. Coats was married to Miss Lilian Frances Old, of Gilroy, a charming and gifted lady, who died in 1914, leaving two children: William E., Jr. and Leland F. Mr. Coats is devoted to his home; and when he turns aside, say for politics, it is to vote for the best men and the best measures, rather than for those persons and things merely endorsed by a party.
Santa Cruz Recreation
San Lorenzo Once was Full of Fish: The River was Santa Cruz's No. 2 Tourist Draw
by Ross Eric Gibson
Before flood-control measures were taken by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1959, the San Lorenzo River was Santa Cruz's No. 2 tourist attraction and one of Northern California's most popular fishing spots.
No wagon bridge spanned the river until 1868, and the downtown was laid out between two fords. The lower ford was called the Kingsford, because Soquel Avenue was once El Camino Real, or the King's Road.
The upper ford, which was deeper, was called the Waterford. Even after construction of the 1868 Water Street bridge and 1874 Soquel Avenue covered bridge, fords for watering horses continued to parallel them.
The riverbanks were mostly forest groves of willows, water maples, alders, laurels, elms, live oaks, cedars, and redwoods.
Downtown was the hortaliza, or vegetable garden, for the mission, and north of Mission Hill was the orchard.
Front Street was originally Main Street, and the backs of businesses extended over the river on stilts. As the downtown outgrew this two-block street, the town hoped to extend the street south of Soquel Avenue and link it with Liebrandt Avenue.
For flood control, the street would have run atop a dike, but orchardists saw their irrigation water threatened and blocked this plan.
The business district shifted to Pacific Avenue instead. After an 1862 flood, Bulkhead Street was constructed atop a low dike. The state declared the San Lorenzo River 150 feet wide in 1872 to prevent encroachment.
Local laws curbed mill dumping of sawdust, which suffocated fish, in the river. Bausch beer gardens lost business on the days a nearby winery dumped pungent tailings in the creek. And the river ran red when Kron's tannery emptied a tanbark vat.
As businesses abandoned Front Street, it became Chinatown. But the Chinese inherited an area where raw sewage went right into the river. A stench filled the downtown at low tide, and the Chinese were blamed during an 1870s anti- Chinese movement. The controversy ended when a laundry fire burned Chinatown in 1894, taking half of downtown with it. Chinatown was relocated to the nearby Blackburn Farm, and to Midford Island, which stood between the two fords and is today the CVS/Trader Joes's parking lot.
A large maple forest on the north was called Island Grove. It was a popular site for picnics and bull's-head barbecues. The latter were held by the island residents, wagon ornamenters Charles Alarcon and Lino Ortiz, who came from Mexico and built two adobes here.
When the railroad reached Santa Cruz in 1876, it was the river as much as the beach that drew tourists. Santa Cruz promoted itself as a "sportsmen's paradise," with most hotels only two blocks from the river. Hotels and downtown campgrounds saw a business boom each year at the start of fishing season. With the river mouth dammed part of the year, more than a dozen docks lined it, many renting rowboats.
When boardwalk founder Fred Swanton helped build a fish hatchery at Brookdale in 1905, the San Lorenzo became the No. 1 fishing river in Northern California, and remained so for half a century. The river also offered a dozen swimming holes. Historian Ernest Otto, who grew up in the 1870s, recalled that children from certain neighborhoods frequented certain holes.
Store-bought bathing suits were the exception back then. Girls wore an old calico summer dress, and boys either wore a union suit or a cut-off flour sack, with cutout leg holes, and drawstring belt.
The river mouth was the favorite spot, with its bathhouse and diving raft. Local boys favored Rennie Slough, which stretched from Cathcart Street to Beach Hill, almost reaching Pacific Avenue. The slough was warm and deep, and so sheltered by groves of trees that nude swimming was the norm, as it was at swim holes above the Water Street Bridge.
Rennie's Slough was finally filled in and became the town fairgrounds. When the annual Venetian Water Carnivals, which featured decorated boat parades, began in 1895, the former slough was called Waterfair Square and the lower river "Laguna Carnivale." The carnival staged Gilbert & Sullivan operas on an island at the river bend called the Opera Island.
During the 1920s and '30s, Fred Swanton encouraged river beautification and helped establish Community Park, where the Court House is today. But after the 1955 flood, all riverside forests were stripped, and the river was straightened by the Army Corps of Engineers. Town fathers felt tourism was the wrong image for Santa Cruz, and the aesthetics of the river were never restored. A look at that work in 1974 said the river had been reduced to a "drainage ditch."
This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, June 28, 1994, p. 1B. Copyright 1994 Ross Eric Gibson. Reprinted by permission of Ross Eric Gibson.