After the stock market panic of 1890 led to the depression of the 1890s, Americans needed to see hope in the future.
The Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was used to showcase American manufacturing and innovation, as well as the nation’s growing leadership among world powers. Despite the Depression, the fair was enormously successful, with some of the exhibits being shipped to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for the “California Midwinter International Exposition” of 1894. The fair was partly intended to boost state tourism. Then, in April 1894, a devastating fire scorched the heart of downtown Santa Cruz, destroying most of the city block bounded by Pacific Avenue, Front, and Cooper streets, and gutted the courthouse south of Cooper Street.
It wasn’t the best time to start a reconstruction program, but Santa Cruz replaced the old courthouse with a grand Romanesque building, and within a year beautiful new structures filled most of the vacant lots. Yet outside Santa Cruz, tourists had a lingering impression of a fire-ravaged city crippled by the Depression’s economy, taking a decade to rebuild. Some sort of publicity stunt was needed to demonstrate that the city had recovered and was more attractive than ever.
They dubbed the rebuilt downtown “The Florence of the West” to convey its artistic design and cultural aspirations. Some wanted to revive the flower festivals of the 1880s, which had come to a halt when the Rose Pavilion was removed. But in 1895 there were flower festivals in Pasadena, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Stockton and Santa Rosa. What would be unique enough to draw attention to Santa Cruz?
Lucy Underwood McCann, one of the state’s first female lawyers, proposed building a dam on the lower San Lorenzo River for a decorated boat festival. Resident globetrotter J. Philip Smith, known as Sunshine Jim, had helped plan several water carnivals in Venice, Italy, and offered to help. Yet people were skeptical that in a time of depression a cultural festival of this magnitude could be held in little Santa Cruz. At the request of his wife, Smith said he would help fund the festival, but only with the full cooperation of the community.
The showground was at the bend in the river north of Beach Hill, formerly known as Rennie Slough, until it was filled. Smith hired Santa Cruz architect Edward Van Cleeck to build a river scene on the grounds of the Riverside Hotel, facing the bleacher river at the bend in the river below Beach Hill. And in six days, he built the Queen’s Pavilion for indoor events.
Several Water Carnival tourist offices have been created in other cities to generate interest and participation. The most prestigious was at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, filled daily with flowers from Santa Cruz. The yellow and white carnival flag flew above the Palace Hotel and 30 other locations in San Francisco. The Alfred Roncovieri brass band is hired for the carnival and gives concerts at the Palace Hotel. The Carnival Queen was to be elected through a fundraising lottery costing 25 cents per vote (no limit per person), and San Francisco was declared a “suburb of Santa Cruz” for the privilege of filling the ballot boxes. Ten finalists would be named the Queen’s Court of Honour. A design consultant occupied each of the various desks, to offer ideas, designs or advice on decorated boats, carriages, parade floats or costumes. Consultants were so popular that they had to be given separate rooms so that other Carnival business could be conducted.
When the votes were tallied, the winning queen was Anita Gonzales (Smith’s daughter). Smith had several dresses made for her by Jeanne Paquin, a leader in Parisian haute couture, popular with patrons of the Paris Opera. Anita’s coronation robe was heavy white satin embroidered with silver, with the hem lined with yellow roses and a crown resembling that worn by Empress Josephine. Her train was purple edged with ermine, while her ballgown was white silk brocade with a jeweled gauze front. Still, it delighted those around her that Anita was not aloof, but friendly and unassuming, just a commoner queen going through the motions of royalty, then winking at the pleasure of it all.
CARNIVAL OF 1895
Carnival week was June 11–15, 1895. All trains to Santa Cruz had water carnival banners and half fares. With hotels and lodgings full, tents were erected and Pullman sleepers parked at stations for extra beds. California Governor James Budd had nine rooms at the Sea Beach Hotel for himself and his entourage. The large amount of greenbacks changing hands indicates the number of people from the back east, as greenbacks were rare in California.
The opening event was a boat race from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. A banquet of boatmen was held at the Sea Beach Hotel, with sailors from two of the new all-steel battleships just offshore. In the morning, people gathered on the beach for the opening ceremonies, during which battleships fired their cannons and sent rowboats ashore to conquer, to be greeted by the Carnival Queen and her bridesmaids. honor, who bombarded the sailors with bouquets until they surrendered.
His marshal ordered that they “Abandon the cares this carnival week, and peace and merriment prevail!” The Queen and Sailors then rode floats and joined the local Hastings gang, to drive decorated cars, floats and a mile of schoolchildren down Pacific Avenue. They ended at the Queen’s Pavilion, where Queen Gonzales ascended a throne, and homing pigeons were released carrying water carnival messages throughout the state.
The Aquatics Olympics (only a year before the revival of the modern Olympics in Greece) included competitions for various age groups in swimming, rowing, diving, underwater recovery, and water baseball played with rafts as bases and a ball inflatable. Meanwhile, local firefighters from the Pilot Wheelmen’s Club organized a statewide bike meet, held at the Westside Velodrome at Smith and Swanton’s streetcar park called Vue de l’Eau. More than 100 clubs participated.
Budd served as Queen Anita’s escort, sharing her canopy on the grandstand with future Lieutenant Governor Wm. T. Jeter of Santa Cruz. The boats paraded down the river throughout the day, enjoying the entertainment on the river stage. But at night, power company founder Fred Swanton had pictured some buildings in light bulbs, with garlands of lights stretched over the river to illuminate evening boat parades. Roncovieri’s band performed “illustrated concerts,” with slides projected onto the big screen, even performing their own composition “The Santa Cruz Carnival March.” Flares lit up the night sky.
The Water Carnival was so popular, attracting people from such a vast region, that it became an annual event. In 1896, the scenographer William Lemos built scenic creations that gave the illusion of a Venetian Santa Cruz. The Queen’s Pavilion had become the Palm Theater during the off season and was decorated with Venetian-type furniture by Lemos. The parades passed under an arch on Pacific Avenue resembling the Rialto Bridge in Venice, and the river stage resembled the Paris Opera, flanked by water-horse fountains, baroque pylons and monumental vases. At night, people were in awe of the electric fountain with jet illuminated by colored lights. Friday was “Hi Jinks Day” where a man in drag took over as the parody queen of the festival, while people dressed up as clowns, harlequins and jesters.
With increasing success, plans were made to build permanent classical structures. But the Palm Theater burned down in 1897, and disputes over ownership of the land led to its sale for a lumber yard. When Fred Swanton built the boardwalk in 1904, he envisioned a place to bring water carnivals to life, building a casino with Venetian accents. In 1905, a Methodist Syndicate made plans for a Venetian village on the current site of Yacht Harbour.
But the earthquake of 1906 put an end to all these projects. Worse still, Santa Cruz learned that their first carnival queen had been missing for nearly a week in San Francisco, while her father in New York and her mother in Paris searched desperately. All they learned was that Anita’s building survived the earthquake, but was destroyed in the fire. Finally after about ten days, Wm. T. Jeter reported that Anita had written to him that she was safe, but that communications from San Francisco were unreliable.
When Swanton’s new Casa Del Rey hotel opened in 1911, he decided a great way to fill it was with a new Venetian water carnival, complete with an island in the river estuary as a scene. The 1912 festival included water Olympics, boat parades, balls, fireworks shows that included a hill of Lemos-designed castles bombarded with fireworks while a large choir sang. But the star was the production of the comic operetta “HMS Pinafore” by Gilbert & Sullivan. In the cast were schoolgirls ZaSu Pitts (later a movie star), Lois Neilson (later Mrs. Stan Laurel), and Carman Eddington (later a Hollywood screenwriter). Since then, the ancients called it “the island of the opera”. Scenes from this Water Carnival appeared in a movie newsreel.
In 1914, Opera Island hosted the Santa Cruz Water Contest. It opened with “Pageant of Peace”, featuring choreography by renowned artist Dr. Charles Hadden Parker. Then came three plays by screenwriter Miss Perry Newberry: “The Padres”, “The Pathfinder” and “Aladdin”, the last performed by students, with ZaSu Pitts playing the role of the villain’s nagging wife.
In 1915, attention shifted to Santa Cruz’s display at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Then World War I and the flu epidemic suspended normal life. It was not until 1928 that a last water carnival was held on the San Lorenzo River, with Vera McKenna Clayton as musical director. She composed the Water Carnival’s finest theme song, “Floating Down the San Lorenzo River.”