West End Once Served As Mecca for Bathers

Courtesy Gary Lenhart

Passengers line up to catch a South Pacific Coast Railroad train at the Fifth Street Station in the West End. The train is heading for the SPCRR mole where travelers could catch a ferry boat to San Francisco. Sunny Cove Baths stood next door to the station from 1878 to 1950 on the site of today’s Marina View apartment complex.


Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room

John Wonderlich and Alonzo Bryan advertised their Alameda Salt Water Baths in the 1878 Husted’s Directory. They soon renamed their enterprise “The Newport Baths.”


Alameda Museum

Beaches, called “baths” in Victorian times, dotted the Alameda’s southern shore when the Alameda Argus commmissioned its map of Alameda in 1888. This detail shows baths on the shoreline between West End Avenue (B) and Second Avenue (C) and at the foot of Third Avenue (D). Neptune Gardens (4) and and the Britt Hotel (5) stood at the foot of Webster Street (E).


Oakland Public Library Library, Oakland History Room

Spectators crane their necks at Terrace Baths to watch a diver in midair. The baths had not one, but two 12-foot-deep diving basins with springboards, slides and swings. Besides the diving boards, the premises contained a large driving yard, a terrace and several raised balconies for viewing.

Neptune Beach founder Robert Strehlow built on a bathing tradition that stretched back to at least 1877

Alameda's 19th-century denizens found plenty of places to recreate. Parks abounded, among them Hermann Bremer's Schutzen Park along the bayshore between Prospect and McPherson streets (today's Eighth and Ninth streets); Conrad Stolze's Alameda Garden down Prospect Street along the Central Pacific Railroad tracks, and Fassking's along the railroad between Grand and Union streets. Fred P. Muller's Pine Grove and J.W. Pearson's Long Branch Baths hugged the bayshore — Pine Grove at the foot of Bay Street and Long Branch at the foot of Webster.

Bathers found the waters along Alameda's south shore a source of relaxation. In 1877 word reached Alameda that the South Pacific Coast Railroad (SPCRR) would be coming to town. It didn't take long for entrepreneurs to cash in on the fact that this new railroad practically hugged the bayshore as it traveled west of Webster Street. This news helped nurture a new industry: the baths.

In 1877, even before the advent of the SPCRR, a certain "Mr. Salara" started the Alameda Salt Water Baths. The entrance to the baths stood on the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Second Avenue (today's Fifth Street.) Perhaps Salara knew that the SPCRR planned to built a station at that very spot.

The following February he sold his enterprise to John P. Wonderlich. Joseph Baker in Past and Present of Alameda County wrote that Wonderlich "at once commenced elaborate improvements, no less than $28,000 being spent on them."

Wonderlich soon took on a partner, Alonzo W. Bryan; the pair renamed their venture the Newport Baths. According to the 1878 Husted's Directory Wonderlich and Bryan soon had company. G. W. Trover opened the Sunny Cove Baths right next door.

Wonderlich, Bryan and Trover soon had even more rivals for the bathers' money. Robert Cook opened Sandy Beach Baths, and John T. Gilman invited bathers to enjoy the waters at his Green Arbor Baths. Wonderlich and Bryan, Trover, Cook and Gilman clustered their baths near the new SPCRR station at Second Avenue.

In the meantime bathing fever had spread east down Central Avenue. Robert Haley wanted to cash in. He opened the Terrace Baths on the southeast corner of Third Avenue (today's Sixth Street). And a group of investors pooled their money — $21,000, a tidy sum in 1878 — and purchased Patrick Britt's seven-acre farm at the foot of Webster Street.

The buyers transformed the Britt farm into the aforementioned Long Branch Baths.

"The Long Branch Swimming Baths were the largest of the famous Alameda swimming baths, with comfortable rooms and elegantly appointed grounds," Joseph Baker wrote in Past and Present of Alameda County." J. W. Pearson was among the Oakland investors who spent $70,000 — this after handing Britt $21,000 — building the Long Branch Baths.

"They soon lost their shirts," historian Woody Minor wrote in Alameda Magazine. The South Pacific Coast Railroad bought the defunct resort, enlarged the grounds and reopened in 1885 with the name Neptune Gardens, Minor wrote. The railroad enticed John G. "Johnny" Croll from Oakland to Alameda to run its new enterprise.

In the meantime, Haley's Terrace Baths flourished right next door, until an accident changed everything. On Nov. 3, 1887, a boiler explosion at the baths killed Haley. The following year Haley's partner and now sole owner of the baths, Clinton Augustus "C.A." Edson, celebrated his bath's 10th anniversary with a two-page advertivsement in Husted's Directory.

The ad included a sketch of the baths and a lengthy paean that called Terrace Baths "the largest swimming bath in this country." The advertisement also explained the mechanics of the bath. A "substantial wall 12 feet thick" enclosed them. "The water is taken in through flood gates and is changed at high tides," the ad said. If the tides were not high enough, then water was pumped into the premises at the next high tide.

The baths boasted a pair of 12-footdeep diving basins with springboards, slides and swings. In addition to the diving boards, Terrace Baths had "300 neat dressing rooms with railed platforms." For the more discreet bather, the baths also offered private club rooms for rent.

"The premises contain, besides the bath, a large driving yard, a terrace and several raised balconies for viewing," the advertisement stated.

And as for cleanliness: "The swimming bath, the hot salt water bathrooms and the dressing rooms are kept scrupulously clean. Private suites are well taken care of. All suits — "none of which are more beautiful or better made" — and towels are carefuly washed, the ad promised. And there was no misbehaving at the Terrace Baths. "No intoxicating drinks are ever sold on the grounds, nor any catch-penny slide shows allowed."

In 1888, the same year that Edson took out his advertisement in Husted's, Patrick Britt and his family were no longer listed in the directory as living in their hotel. In 1892 E. O. Simmons opened the Terrace Restaurant just across Central Avenue from Terrace Baths.

In 1893 Johnny Croll stepped in and purchased the Britt Hotel. He renamed the establishment the Encinal Hotel. He also opened a bar in the establishment, which he called Croll's Bar.

A year after Croll took over the Britt Hotel news that a disgruntled employee at Terrace Baths shot and killed C. A. Edson shattered the neighborhood peace. Edson's death came seven years after his business partner John Haley perished in a boiler explosion.

Edson's murder spelled the end for both the founding partners of the popular Terrace Baths.

Ernest Brounger took over the management of Neptune Gardens from Johnny Croll, but the establishment didn't survive. After 1895 the gardens no longer have a place in Husted's, but new life came to the West End shoreline that same year when William S. Schmidt opened Cottage Baths. His daughter Nellie brought fame to Alameda as a swimming senstation.

As the 19th century came to a close, Green Arbor and Neptune Beach had vanished, but Sunny Cove, Cottage Baths and Terrace Bath survived.

The 1897 and 1898 Husted directories listed L. W. Shroeder as the manager for Terrace Baths.

When Robert Strehlow opened Neptune Beach in 1917, he was touching on a tradition that stretched back some 40 years.