As the wharf celebrates its centennial, a personal reflection on its essential place in Santa Cruz’s history
Several years ago, I interviewed my uncle, the late Roberto Armando “Big Boy” Stagnaro, about his earliest memories on the Santa Cruz Wharf. Born in July of 1928, the last of my grandmother’s 11 children, he had earned his nickname as a result of weighing only a pound-and-a-half at birth and being cared for in a cigar box by his mother and other family members. In spite of his perilous and premature beginnings, his was a life destined for the local waterfront.
Big Boy recalled a hole cut into the floor, near the back corner of his family’s fish market, through which he would gaze at the ocean below. Beyond its rough concrete edges, he could see a sparkling blue and green swath of Monterey Bay and a handful of dark, creosoted piles covered with barnacles, mussels and starfish.
Big Boy recalled fishing through the hole with a hand-line, occasionally pulling up a perch or small rock cod. “My life,” he told me, “began at the edge of that hole.”
Three decades later, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, I often gazed through the very same hole at the very same age. I still remember it all vividly, the rich smells and sounds and varied cadences of the fish market—an ammonia ice machine and a massive walk-in cooler that extended further into the dark bowels of a freezer—and that magical ragged tunnel providing a glimpse into another world. Like Alice falling through the rabbit hole, my childhood imagination took me to different worlds and on an assortment of fantastical journeys.
I suppose that, in certain ways, my life began there, too.
As the Santa Cruz Wharf celebrates its centennial this Saturday, with a full day of special events and activities coordinated by the City of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department, I have found myself contemplating a lifetime full of memories of this very special and always-changing edifice in our community.
The wharf, of course, is a physical presence—all half-mile and 4,528 piles of it—but it also provides quarter for spiritual and metaphysical encounters—a sanctuary quite literally leading out to a sanctuary. Its 360-degree vistas are unparalleled, its air clean and crisp; the marine life surrounding it is in perpetual performance. It is a place to go when being on land isn’t enough.
Two of my immediate family members—my grandmother, Batistina Stagnaro, and my aunt, Gilda Stagnaro—both died on the wharf after dedicating their working lives to it. To me, it is far more than a dead-end street lined with restaurants and curio shops. It is a holy place and a temple—a nautical shrine to the glories and mysteries of the universe.
It was in October of 1913 that a commission of local citizens, charged with exploring options for a new wharf on the Santa Cruz waterfront, issued a 27-page report in support of a 2,756-foot pier at the foot of present-day Front Street capable of accommodating large steamships with draws of 30 feet at low tide. The report, addressed to the city council, recommended that a bond measure be placed before the citizens of Santa Cruz to raise the estimated $165,000 needed for construction.
Within two months, the council had placed the issue on a special ballot. On Dec. 4 of that year, residents of Santa Cruz registered nearly unanimous support for the new wharf, by an overwhelming 96-percent margin—3,434 in favor, with only 74 opposed.
The vote was viewed by the wharf’s advocates as a Great Leap Forward for the local economy. “Yesterday was the awakening,” declared the Santa Cruz News. “Yesterday Santa Cruz gave her first glance of recognition to her harbor in the light of a commercial asset and forgot temporarily that she had used it for 30 years as a bathing pool while her industrial growth became stunted and died.”
The construction was a messy affair. By May of 1914, creosote piles and planks were strewn across the Main Beach. Teams of oxen were brought in to haul them. People complained about the clutter and the remnants of creosote in the sand “that had soiled the clothes” of visiting tourists. There were also concerns about the quality of the Douglas fir piles that had been delivered for construction—one report called them “an inferior growth of timber.” An arbitrator was called in to settle the matter.
Nonetheless, almost as remarkable as the overwhelming majority was the rapidity in which the wharf was constructed. One year and a day following the vote, the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf—as it was then properly known—was built and open for business.
The grand opening of the wharf on Saturday, Dec. 5, 1914, was a boisterous and gala affair. The day was observed as a formal holiday in Santa Cruz. A “Fish Bake Barbecue and Basket Picnic” was hosted on the beach between noon and 2 p.m. Attendees were encouraged to bring their own “knife, fork and cup.”
Most significantly, the S.S. Roanoke—a prominent vessel in the fleet of the North Pacific Steamship Company, which sailed the Pacific coast from Seattle down to Los Angeles—was scheduled to reach its new port at noon that day for the people of Santa Cruz to absorb its grandeur.
The local photographer Ole Ravnos, likely joined by his wife, Amalia, took several large photographs of the festivities. All of the images reveal Santa Cruz residents dressed in their finest as they assessed the new half-mile wharf, the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks that ran along the new edifice, and the large shipping warehouse that graced the end of the pier.
A few months earlier, the Ravnos team had taken another series of photographs as the wharf neared its completion. In one of the photographs, taken between the new wharf and the old Railroad Wharf that it was supplanting, the photographers had assembled eight members of the Santa Cruz Italian fishing colony on the beach, with their lampara fishing nets and cork floats spread out before them.
The group included my great-grandfather, Cottardo Stagnaro, and my great uncle, nine-year-old Cottardo “Monk” Loero; Achille Castagnola; Giacomo Stagnaro; and other patriarchs of the fishing colony.
It is one of the great myths of local waterfront history that the purpose of the new wharf was to house the local Italian fishing fleet; it was not. As the photograph reveals, the old Railroad Wharf was a thriving and bustling enterprise, on which the fishing community was happily ensconced. The new wharf was built first and foremost to accommodate large steamships, and to foster the development of a large-scale harbor in Santa Cruz. The fishing colony’s move to the Santa Cruz Wharf would come a year or two later.
If you look closely at the photos of the 1914 wharf celebration, it is interesting to see who is left out. There are no members of Santa Cruz’s Chinese community, which first developed the regional commercial fishery four decades earlier; nor are there members of various other southern Mediterranean communities who would come to dominate and define the central California waterfront. And there are no members of the Italian fishing community there to celebrate the opening of what was to become their future home, and whose presence on the wharf would form and define its character for generations.
The Italian—or more precisely, Genoese—immigrants who originally hailed from the Ligurian village of Riva Trigoso were still a marginalized lot in Santa Cruz on the eve of the First World War. They were called dagos and “wharf rats” and worse. The vast majority of the community spoke an archaic Italian dialect (called Zenese or Rivani) of the late 19th century. In 1914, they hadn’t yet assimilated. Some, mostly the elderly women, never would. My grandmother, Batistina, lived in Santa Cruz from her arrival here as a young teenager in the early 1900s until her death at the age of 84 in 1971, without ever learning to speak English. There was no melting pot for her.
The present-day wharf is actually the sixth wharf, or pier, located on the Santa Cruz waterfront (contrary to another local myth, the term “wharf” is not a misnomer; it also refers to structures “built at an angle” from shore).
The first pier, known as the Potato Chute Wharf, was initially constructed by Elihu Anthony in 1849 at the end of Bay Street (you can still see the promontory behind what is now the Sea and Sand Inn), for the purpose of shipping locally grown potatoes to the lucrative markets in San Francisco and the Sierra Nevada foothills resulting from the Gold Rush boom.
Five years later, in 1854, the original ramp, or chute, was expanded by the Davis & Jordan lime operation (at what is now UCSC) for shipping its coveted product in barrels to out-of-town markets. It was later purchased by Henry Cowell in 1865, and became known as simply the Cowell Wharf until its demise in 1907.
The history of the second Santa Cruz wharf got seriously distorted by local historians around the time of World War II. They asserted that this edifice was built by David Gharky (and not “Gharkey,” as local street signs still proclaim) in 1857, at a site just to the west of the present-day wharf. As a quartet of my local historical colleagues—Frank Perry, Barry Brown, Rick Hyman and Stan Stevens—recently established beyond any dispute, the original Gharky Wharf was actually constructed further east, at the foot of present-day Main Street (along the eastern edge of what is today the Casablanca Inn and Bistro).
At the end of the Civil War, in 1865, the Gharky Wharf was taken over by the California Powder Works, the vast explosive powder manufacturing company located along the San Lorenzo River (at what is now Paradise Park). The wharf was used for the shipment of various explosives and the receipt of saltpeter and sulfur, both critical components of Powder Works production.
Notice a pattern here: The Santa Cruz waterfront was in constant flux, and the various wharves were a direct response to economic factors and contingencies—local, regional and global.
It was a decade later, in 1875, with the development of the first rail systems in the region, that the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad completed what was to be known as the Railroad Wharf, near the present-day juncture of Front and Beach Streets. It was not an extension of the Gharky Wharf, as later historians would repeatedly claim, but a completely new edifice that linked the Santa Cruz waterfront to markets near and far. It was on this wharf—and as a result of this wharf—that the commercial fishing industry first expanded.
For a period of roughly half a decade (1877-1883), an S-shaped Connecting Wharf linking the Powder Works and the Railroad wharves was constructed, providing a direct link for the California Powder Works to a railroad outlet for its various explosive powders (and eliminating the rather dangerous practice of hauling them by horse-drawn wagon through downtown Santa Cruz). Upon its demise, a portion of the Connecting Wharf was later cut to water level and served as a swimming platform for visitors to the Main Beach.
The growth of railroad transportation at the tail end of the 19th century led to visions of Santa Cruz as a tourist mecca. In 1904, the Beach, Cottage and Tent City Corporation (an enterprise later consolidated into the Santa Cruz Seaside Company), constructed a 400-foot Pleasure Pier to host a series of recreational ocean activities for visitors to the waterfront—including diving boards, slides and a trapeze—and also accommodated a loading dock for popular launch and speed boat rides in Monterey Bay. Later, the pier also provided a structure for piping salt water into the Boardwalk’s fabled Natatorium, or indoor plunge, which opened in June of 1907, and in which several generations of Santa Cruzans (including yours truly) learned to swim.
I remember with considerable sadness the closing of the plunge and the demolition of the Pleasure Pier, which took place following the summer season of 1962. Bulldozers with cables pulled out each pile, one by one, until only a solitary pile was left. It stood there for weeks as a final vestige of the once merry venue—until it, too, was yanked. My aunt, Estrella C. Stagnaro, who composed a twice-weekly “Waterfront” column for the Santa Cruz Sentinel at the time, likened the Pleasure Pier’s demise to “losing a great love…It has a place in our hearts that can never be replaced.”
Only a few years later, however, there would be an even greater sense of loss on the Santa Cruz waterfront, this time with the removal of the Santa Cruz commercial fishing fleet from the eastern rim of the wharf. The construction of the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor in 1964 forever changed the nature of the waterfront. The celebrated row of davits—the small hand cranes that lifted the fishing colony’s double-ended fishing boats to safety—were demolished to make room for parking.
As a result, the Santa Cruz Wharf—which had begun its days as a landing for large steamships and then transformed into a working wharf constantly busy with fishermen and fish markets—had morphed into a venue that now focused almost exclusively on the tourist trade.
Quite candidly, for those of us who had been raised on the wharf in the old era, the new incarnation of the wharf ushered in a profound sense of loss and despair. What had once been a rich and thriving center of cultural and economic enterprise, had been replaced by parking spaces.
Like the song says, Don’t it always seem to go…
Except, after more than a few years and probably one too many shots of tequila, I realized another of the universe’s verities: Life goes on.
My own life arc straddled the last two eras of the wharf. During a portion of my teens and most of my 20s, I worked as fish cutter for the sport fishing boats that used to depart from the wharf each morning and return mid-afternoon with bags full of fish to fillet, bag and ice. It was a great job—piecework paid in cash, a brilliant view of the waterfront, the sun on my back and fresh fish to take home each evening. I worked my way through graduate school there, and didn’t quit until I turned 30. It was the best gig of my life.
My memories from that era are rich and golden. The three Canepa brothers—Danny, Robbie and Aldo—were still working in wharf restaurants and provided me with amazing Italian sauces to take home each night with my fish. Many of my aunts and uncles and cousins were all still alive, so love was abundant along with occasional flashes of Italian temper. There were great chefs everywhere—Georgie and Wan and Walter and the late Jimmy Metrion—and hard-working waiters and waitresses, from Carmen to Blanche to Laura, Tony, Danny, Gabe and SuSu on down. Don’s Burger Bar was still in operation and he made the greatest milkshakes of all-time.
I used to haul baskets of fish heads in an old red wagon to Frank and Joe Cardinelli, who traded me fresh calamari and cold beer in exchange. I always loved joining my cousin Victor Ghio when he delivered fish to Stagnaro Brothers, and enjoyed end-of-the day banter with Giovanni and Ernie, Skip and Bob. Occasionally I would stop in for a beer with Johnnie Righetti at Clouds (now Olitas) and listen to Lou Caviglia talk baseball. Today there are a new host of great bartenders, including my buddies Pat and Mike, and a whole new generation of young kids, who, I am sure, love working on the wharf as I once did. There’s just something about the ambience. It’s also still a great place to fish.
Spanish has replaced Italian as the language of the kitchens, and, late at night, you can hear the line cooks and dishwashers singing Mexican corridos. Circles of life have been completed on the wharf. Donna Lee Dunderdale worked as a waitress in Gilda’s during my fish-cutting days, and now runs Made in Santa Cruz, featuring products from more than 100 local companies. Jim Gilbert bought a restaurant from some of my aunts and uncles in the ’70s, and his son Mark owns a trio of fine restaurants on the wharf today. My longtime friend Scott Patterson has now worked on the wharf for nearly a quarter-century, always with a smile on his face. Rosanne Mazzone runs the family business at Bonnie’s Gifts with the same fortitude that her parents did.
The great city wharfinger Danny Buecher has been replaced by someone who loves the wharf as much as he does, the poetic Jon Bombacci. The city’s wharf crew works hard daily to make sure the wharf stays standing, year after year. I’ve made new friends in recent months there: Vince and Maggie Tuzzi of Paradise Dogs and Larry Jackson of Vino Prima, who bring the same perseverance and dedication to the wharf that my ancestors did a century ago. Theirs is the gift to the community that keeps on giving.
I was going to conclude by telling a long, drawn-out story about my Aunt Stella and the former welterweight boxing champion Ralph Giordano, better known as “Young Corbett III,” who, in their own ways, I suppose, had both suffered one too many blows. Let it suffice to note simply that I saw them holding hands one sunny summer afternoon in the twilight of their lives, as they watched me cutting fish. And that their smiles that day were divine.
In the end, the details of that story don’t matter, but the feelings do. And the feelings run deep in the blood of the place. That’s why the Santa Cruz Wharf remains one of my favorite haunts on earth. As the wharf celebrates its centennial this weekend, I will find some quiet time to recall the two of them walking along its planks, hand in hand, past the fish markets, restaurants and curio shops, like Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at the end of Modern Times, moving slowly but gracefully, into some eternal wharf dream of their own.n