The midget motorboats have been gone since 1953. I have a very vague, 5-year-old’s memory of attempting to steer one of those self-powered wooden wonders with my dad at my side. The attraction existed at the far end of the Boardwalk near the San Lorenzo River. The boats were the real thing – plywood crafts, powered by gasoline engines that could be steered in a circular tank, wide enough for three to travel side-by-side. I’m not talking about the kiddie Speed Boats we still have today. (I rode those, too, as a young child.)
Our archives hold several photos and videos of the midget motorboats. Reflecting on these images, I can only imagine that my best steering yielded zigzagging and side bumping. I have always wondered about the architecture that surrounded the tank, its ample central tower, and the over-sized, patio-like structure marking its entrance. Having observed the Boardwalk as long as I have, the construction around the tank seemed “over the top” and much more ornate than the motorboat experience warranted.
I satisfied my curiosity when I discovered the same architecture in a photo from the late 1920s. Those decorative pieces harken back to the first use of that space nearly 25 years earlier. It’s an example of how the Boardwalk’s limited space has been reimagined over the decades.
To set the context, it’s important to note that this area was part of more extensive development at the Boardwalk. By the late 1920s, the Seaside Company had built the Casa Del Rey Apartments (known most recently as La Bahia). Lush and extravagant Spanish Gardens adjoined the company’s Casa Del Rey Hotel. Beach Street had been paved from the hotel east to Third Street and visitors from the San Francisco peninsula could now visit Santa Cruz Beach aboard the Sun Tan Special train. In 1928, the Santa Cruz Evening News proudly proclaimed that Santa Cruz had become a year-round vacation spot with more attractions than any other coastal city.
Boardwalk management began a significant eastward extension of the Boardwalk’s walking surface, adding popular novelties and attractions for guest enjoyment. In 1928, River Park opened and occupied ample space, by Boardwalk standards, alongside the San Lorenzo River. It lay north of the railroad trestle that traverses the river, our park’s eastern boundary.
As part of that expansion, two structures were added beach-side of the railroad trestle – a River Bath House, and a new dance arena. To emphasize the dancing platform, considerable effort was devoted to embellishing its location. The architecture surrounding that space included elaborately constructed arches. A large, stylized patio covered its entrance, and a towering central edifice could not escape the eye of distant beholders. Remarkably, it’s the same architecture that later surrounded the midget motorboats!
An article in the Santa Cruz Evening News on July 15, 1928, described Mission Dance, or Mission Tower Dance as it was advertised. The newspaper highlighted the graceful Spanish architecture surrounding the arena and the ornate structure sitting at its center. The floor could accommodate about a thousand dancing couples, according to the paper. The report described how soft, yellow lights hung from the curved arches. At the same time, additional mood lighting accentuated the romance of the scene. The towering center edifice housed an “orthophonic” sound system that amplified the latest musical dance releases that had become popular around the country at that time.
Can you imagine the summer evening mood among dancing couples? Perhaps, the sound of distant rhythmic waves lapping onto the beach, an occasional seagull screeching overhead, and maybe even a hungry sea lion barking to its companion might have accentuated the atmosphere.
For all its majestic fanfare, though, Mission Dance lasted but two years. In 1930, that space was recycled to become part of the La Playa Miniature Golf Course. The architectural structures that highlighted the dance arena remained. The 18-hole course rested half on the structure with the balance of holes on the sand below. Golfers of that era could use “mashie, midiron, and niblick” golf clubs to put-put their balls around upper holes and attack the lower ones with long shots over sand bunkers. I’ve seen one distant photo of this mini-golf arena. The corner arches, central tower, and entry canopy are prominently in view.
However, the Boardwalk’s first miniature golf course did not excite guests for long, either. A novelty attraction took over. In the spring of 1935, concessionaire Don Sinkinson began building his “Drive-A-Boat” operation in that same space. His water tank rested on that 60-foot by 80-foot platform and retained the same ornate circular arches and entry canopy. The water tank surrounded the same center tower that formerly streamed the latest recorded tunes just a few years earlier.
Sinkinson added a neon sign straddling the Boardwalk to beckon distant guests to his “Drive-A-Boat” attraction. 10-cents earned a chance to freely steer one of his seven marine-powered skimmers around the tank. Each boat could handle two adult occupants, too.
For reasons unknown, Seaside Company Board minutes state that the company acquired the operation from Sinkinson in 1941. Several successive names have been associated with the boats as well, Elmer Anderson, in 1943, and Harry Lohr in 1947. I don’t know if they were managers or concessionaires.
Through these succeeding years, the architecture stayed the same. Why waste a good thing, I guess!
I surmise it was around 1952 when my dad led me to the helm of one of those boats.
One year later, in 1953, the midget boats were dismantled, no longer popular enough to warrant the refurbishment the attraction required. Gone, too, were those graceful arches, canopy, and central tower than enshrined the quarter-century history of use of that space.
As far as I can tell, no additional ride or attraction rested on that space until 1960. That’s the year the Boardwalk’s river basement and deck project got underway, which covered all that area for the rides and attractions we have today.
I suspect someone has better memories of the midget motorboats. Let us know if you do!
-till next time –