It Began With a Camp…
Camp Capitola — that’s what Frederick A. Hihn called his resort when he laid it out in 1869, following the pattern of European watering places.
Capitola’s sheltered beach was popular long before Hihn’s time, when tired, dusty Spanish vaqueros used to stop off for a dip as they herded their cattle along lower Soquel Creek.
And before that it was apparently an ancient Indian village and burial place. In August of 1949 three Indian skeletons were unearthed on the Bay Street flat, near the Capitola Depot. An automatic ditch digger of a utility company uncovered the bones.
Camp Capitola had its grand opening July 4, 1874. Mr. Hihn had built a large hotel, cottages, bath houses and a livery stable.
Hotel Capitola, which ranked with the Pacific Coast’s largest, wasn’t built until 1895. It burned in 1929. It contained 160 rooms and replaced the original 30-room, two-story hotel, built as part of the early development.
Around the bluff from Hotel Capitola, going south, was China Beach where Orientals has a small fishing village.
In 1834 Capitola was part of the Mexican Land Grant of Martina Castro Lodge. Ten years later, she was granted more than 32,000 acres extending north to the mountains.
And in the days when California was under Mexican rule, Capitola was known as La Playa de Soquel (the Beach of Soquel). In American days, it was Soquel Landing and the first building of any importance was a warehouse for potato storage, built in 1852. First record of any wharf at the Landing (Capitola) was in 1856 when the Santa Cruz Sentinel stated that an older structure was under repairs and was being lengthened.
The name “Capitola” was given to Frederick A. Hihn’s new resort probably to commemorate the fact that the town of Soquel had, in 1869, just invited the government of State of California to settle there and make its capital in upstairs rooms of Ned Porter’s store. Capitola is “capital” in the Spanish language.
The wharf at Capitola was a major shipping point for lumber and potatoes before it became a focal point in Hihn’s resort. S.A. Hall, a ship’s carpenter who built Soquel’s Congregational Church, also did most of Hihn’s building and was the first lessee of the resort at Capitola.
Overalls and Mother Hubbards were the swim suits of the 1870’s and a bell rang at stated times as a safety measure for swimmers. At 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the bell sounded, there was a general exodus from the hotel and cottages to the beach for a dip in the briny.
First tourists arrived by horse-drawn vehicles and later they came by train, after Hihn’s Santa Cruz – Watsonville line began operations in 1876.
From 1882 to 1886, Benjamin Cahoon leased most of the Capitola resort. Cahoon’s father, Captain Benjamin Cahoon, was one of the early settlers in the Laurel Glen – Mountain View area.
Hihn built a new wharf which stands today at Capitola, although it had undergone extensive repairs over the years.
St. John’s Episcopal Church in Capitola was organized in 1898 — not in 1889 as the stained glass window says. Livingstone Porter of Capitola pointed out the mistake made by the maker of the window.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was dedicated in 1905 and was demolished in March, 1973. A new larger sanctuary is under construction on a hill site overlooking Capitola.
By 1898, Capitola had enough permanent residents to start a school with Miss Kate Leonard as the teacher. She was its first and only teacher until Capitola became part of the Soquel School District in 1914, then she transferred to Soquel with her pupils.
In 1919, the former school property was purchased by Henry L. Washburn, first Santa Cruz County Farm Advisor under the Agricultural Extension Service of University of California. He remodeled the schoolhouse and used it as a residence for six years. Later, on the site of the schoolhouse and grounds, Santa Cruz County’s first airport was established.
On the west end of the airport property, Soquel Union District built Capitola School in 1952.
Through the years, Capitola has been closely allied with Soquel in industrial enterprises. Soquel’s big industry of the 1870’s was the California Sugar Beet Company with a refinery operated by Claus Spreckels of Aptos on a 10-acre site donated by Hihn. Sugar beets were grown where subdivisions now flourish on the benchlands north and south of Capitola. Operation of the plant ended in 1879, and during World War I the machinery was sold for junk metal.
In 1926, the airport site became the home of Santa Cruz Glider Club, under the direction of Russell Rice. A well-known Santa Cruz County flier, Rice operated the Santa Cruz-Capitola Airport from October, 1941, until the airport was moved to Scotts Valley to become Sky Park in 1946.
When F.A. Hihn died in 1913, his Capitola property interests passed to his daughter, Mrs. Katherine Cope Henderson, who sold to H. Allen Rispin, an oil millionaire. The deal included the Monterey Bay Country Club site of about 300 acres.
Rispin built a 20-room home on the west ridge overlooking Capitola, and in 1941 the home was purchased by the Poor Clare’s for their St. Joseph’s Monastery.
Rispin sold the Capitola Hotel to E.V. Woodhouse and it burned in December of 1929. The big skating rink and dance hall which were part of Hihn’s Capitola development also were destroyed by fire.
In 1929 there was a movement to incorporate Soquel and Capitola into one small city. The move failed and in 1948 was taken up again by the Capitola Improvement Club, with J. Raymond Abicht as president. Petitions were circulated, an election on January 4, 1949, passed, and the City of Capitola was born. Harlan Kessler was first mayor, and other officers included Bradley M. Macdonald, Jack C. Rosensteel, Harry M. Bowles, Martin E. Adamson, and Guy R. Bigbee, clerk, and Henry Sinnett, treasurer. The city’s first budget was for $19,000. Capitola City Hall was acquired in November of 1950.
Harry Hooper, whose parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Hooper, came to Capitola in 1906, served as postmaster for more than 20 years. Harry Hooper’s main fame, however, was not as postmaster but as a big league baseball player. He played with Sacramento, then went east to Boston and Chicago teams as an outfielder.
In 1929, Rispin sold most of his Capitola holdings to Benjamin Hays Smith, Burlingame millionaire, who subdivided and sold to home builders.
Capitola today has more than 100 business establishments, some of them concentrated along the Esplanade and “downtown” areas, others up on the bluff near the new post office. It has developed into an important art center in the past 10 years, with studios and galleries on many streets.
In May of 1973, Hihn’s old superintendant’s headquarters building for Camp Capitola was designated a State Historical Landmark. It is owned by Mr. and Mrs. James Reding who have modernized it enough to meet current building codes. A plaque was placed in July.
From Santa Cruz County Parade Of The Past by Margaret Koch
Find more Santa Cruz History: here