The Grand Hotel of Aptos

The Grand Hotel of Aptos

By John Hibble

Clause Spreckels of San Francisco was one of the richest men in America because of his imagination and his energy. He was a whirlwind. When he purchased most of the Aptos Rancho from Rafael Castro in 1872, he had big plans for Aptos. He wanted to develop the sugar beet industry here. He wanted to build a railroad. He wanted to raise racehorses and build a racetrack. He wanted a summer house here. He built a 170 acre hunting preserve for his friends called the “Deer Park”. He extended the wharf for his shipping empire. But the thing that really put Aptos on the map was his grand hotel.

Spreckels saw the tourism potential of the estuary and beach where Aptos Creek enters the Monterey Bay, so he made plans to build the finest summer resort in California. The Grand Opening Reception for the Aptos Hotel was held on May 22, 1875, concurrently with the formal opening of the Santa Cruz Narrow Gauge Rail Road from Santa Cruz to Aptos. The event included an Inauguration Banquet and Ball for Governor Pacheco. Rafael Castro was an honored guest. Music was furnished by a Santa Cruz quintet of violins and horns. Supper was served at midnight with three separate seatings. The revelers danced until 4:30 in the morning.

Two weeks later, three trains from Santa Cruz brought over 1,000 people, plus another 500 by private conveyance, to the Dedication Picnic for the hotel. A capacious dance floor was erected, and music was supplied by a full quadrille band. Also, swings and various games were provided. The great novelty of the occasion was the ride on the new railroad at 50 cents for the round trip from Santa Cruz. 

The hotel was situated above the creek and surrounded by hills, covered with shady trees, on three sides which sheltered it from winds. The hotel was an imposing two-story structure of 50×150 feet, with a basement. The hotel provided 50 rooms with views of the bay, or the forest and creek. The furniture in the reception area was elegantly carved black walnut. The furniture and woodwork in the rooms and halls was laurel and oak. All areas were carpeted.

The first floor contained the offices, reception rooms, and a parlor with two large, French, plate glass mirrors in carved and gilt black walnut frames, (one of these mirrors still exists at Sand Rock Farm bed and breakfast). It also contained a grand piano, the main dining room, a children’s room, a large French range in the cook room, and a dish room.

The bakery, the wine room, meat and other storerooms, employee sleeping rooms and the employee dining room, were located in the basement. Joe Hickmein, formerly chief cook at Paso Robles Hot Springs, presided over the mammoth French range in the kitchen and Mr. Jerome Backus, formerly of the Lick House in San Francisco, was the steward in charge of the domestic affairs. The proprietor/lessee was Mr. H. F. Gasque.

Modern amenities included gas lighting from a Union gas machine which furnished gas for 1,000 lights. Additionally, bathrooms and water closets were on each story at each end of the building. Outside the hotel building there were five double cottages of four rooms each. Chinese reclining chairs were placed in cozy groups about the hill in front of the hotel. A lawn and flower gardens sloped away from the main building. Lamp posts were placed around the grounds for illumination at night.

About 200 feet from the hotel, to the west, but in pleasant view, was the pavilion or clubhouse. Its dimensions were 75×115 feet and it housed two bowling alleys, a reading room, a billiard room, and two card rooms. During dances, the bowling alley was converted into a bar with all of the finest liquors.

Additional buildings included a laundry, a three-story barn with 24 stalls and another two-story barn with 18 stalls. The barns provided excellent horses, buggies, rockaways, and four-in-hands, with experienced drivers. A bathing house with 12 changing rooms was located at the beach with a surf boat for emergencies. In addition to hiking trails, there was a Deer Park for those who wished to hunt. A two-story private residence for Spreckels was located above the hotel site on today’s Bayview Court. When Spreckels built a larger house closer to the Coast Road, this residence became the caretakers house.

An island was created between the hotel and the clubhouse by damming the chasm to create a small lagoon for breeding fancy stocks of fish. A footbridge spanned the lagoon and crossed to the island filled with a beautiful grove of trees. The island was christened Lovers Retreat, which is today’s Treasure Island Drive. The newspapers described the hotel and grounds as a perfect paradise.

Aptos’ first 4th of July celebration was held at the hotel. The day was ushered in with explosions and firecrackers until 9 a.m. At 10 o’clock, as trains arrived, a procession around the grounds to the dance platform where the entertainment was to begin, was led by a small string band. Music was followed by a speech from Claus Spreckels, then speeches, maneuvers by the local militia, poetry, humorous readings, and dancing. A fireworks display took place in the evening.

The hotel was enlarged for the 1876 season with a three-story addition making it twice as large, and five additional cottages were constructed. The hotel was under the management of Mr. F. Baehr, formerly State Treasurer. The Santa Cruz Narrow Gauge Rail Road was completed to Pajaro and on May 7th, 1876, the Opening Day, trains left Santa Cruz and Pajaro and met in Aptos for a grand party and picnic at the Aptos Hotel, to celebrate the railroads opening and the nation’s centennial. Hats flew, guns went off, the air was filled with the ear-shattering sounds of bells and steam whistles and screaming voices.

The Aptos Hotel operated during the summer months and most guests stayed for the entire season. In 1877, as the ranch and racetrack operations expanded, Spreckels built a summer mansion near Valencia Lagoon and the Coast Road.

In 1880, Mr. W. H. Stedman became the proprietor/lessee of the hotel. Rates were $2.50 per day or $12-$14 per week. That same year, Charles Crocker of Southern Pacific Railroad opened Hotel Del Monte in Monterey. It was an instant success. With just over 100 rooms, the manager had to turn down 3,000 reservation requests in the first six weeks. It had a big impact on the future of the Aptos Hotel.

In 1881, there is no indication that the Aptos Hotel opened for the season. Southern Pacific Railroad had acquired the bankrupt Santa Cruz narrow-gauge rail line and began the process of changing the rails to broad gauge. That process was completed in September 1883. During that period, the hotel would not have been accessible by train. The Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel complained that the hotel had done a large business until it began to lose its prestige because of the annual change of landlords and that Spreckels had no interest in the hotel other than the rent he received from it. In August 1883, rumors speculated that the hotel had been leased or sold to Stanford of the Southern Pacific however, Spreckels promised that the hotel would open the following season.

In 1884, the newspaper said that the hotel was leased to the Roemer brothers of the Vienna Bakery of San Francisco and the hotel was to open by the 20th of May. Work commenced on repairing the waterlines, the hotel was repainted outside and cleaned inside. The hotel opened late. In July, the employees of the hotel formed a social club to hold monthly dances. Plans were made to add a third story.

The following year the newspaper noted that the Roemer brothers had either sold most of the hotels furniture or shipped it to San Francisco. They were to have taken over the hotel, but Claus Spreckels would not make such repairs as were needed so they gave up the idea of opening the hotel.

In February of 1886, Mr. L Eppinger, one of the best known hotel men in Oregon, was considering leasing the Aptos Hotel for the season but there is no indication that he did.

An advertisement on April 14, 1887 indicated that Mr. A. G. Sielaff had leased the property and was taking reservations for the ten furnished cottages and that meals could be had in the hotel. Bar and bathhouse privileges were available to rent. There was no mention of rooms being available at the hotel. Five days later, the newspaper indicated that Spreckels had withdrawn the lease from Mr. Sielaff. The newspaper also bemoaned the fact the hotel had been closed for some time and was falling into disrepair.

In April of 1889, Mrs. F. Lewis, former lessee of the Sea Side Home and later of Camp Capitola, was making arrangements to lease the Aptos Hotel. There was no additional advertising to indicate that the hotel reopened. In January 1893, inside information said that the hotel would reopen, but it did not.

By 1896, it was reported that the hotel and cottages would be demolished to make room for Claus Spreckels to build a grand new residence and that the creek would be dammed to create a lake. In August the hotel was reportedly torn down. The new residence was never built.

In an interview with Ralph Mattison, a life-long Aptos resident, he reaffirmed the rumor that part of the deal when the Southern Pacific Railroad purchased the bankrupt Santa Cruz Narrow Gauge Rail Road was, that they bought out the lease to the Aptos Hotel so that all visitors would go to the Southern Pacific’s Hotel Del Monte in Monterey. It is conceivable that Southern Pacific provided some compensation to Spreckels for the loss of rail service to the hotel for the three years that it took to broad gauge the tracks. But it is more likely that no one wanted to lease that enterprise without train service and the Hotel Del Monte had no competition. That would explain why the hotel sat empty for so long.

Ralph said that the hotel was torn down a little bit at a time so that the lumber could be used to build the new sugar factory near Salinas. There was a big ‘V’ cut of solid timber across the dining room that was taken. They left some of the cottages up on the hill and some may have been taken to Salinas. The hotel was taken down, but part of the dining room and the kitchen were left standing. When the hotel was closed, everything was left, the furniture, bedding, chairs, and dishes.  So, everyone in the neighborhood helped themselves. 

In 1920, Ralph Mattison built his house above Aptos Village with remnants of the hotel. Ralph said the demolition people just destroyed almost everything down there. Ralph used two pieces of marble that had been part of the fireplaces. The demolition people had broken the fireplaces with a hammer. He made a counter in his kitchen that was from the billiard table.  It had been torn all to pieces, so Ralph took the slate. 

Spreckels’ original house was on the knoll above the hotel, which is today’s Bayview Court. Ralph Mattison bought it and tore it down to get the timbers out of it. The timbers were three inches square by 24 feet long with no sap and no knots. Ralph wanted them to support the tanks for his vinegar works in Aptos Village. He saved the rest of the lumber and used it to build his house.

Spreckels’ Aptos Hotel was open during the summer season for six continuous years and for one last season four years later. It certainly put Aptos on the map in a grand scale, and then it disappeared.

We only knew of one photograph of the hotel taken at some distance and we did not have a copy for the museum. But recently, we were able to obtain a spectacular copy taken up close. The photo was a stereoscopic photograph. A stereoscope photo has two pictures taken at slightly different angles. When inserted into a stereoscope viewer, the image becomes three dimensional. We have to thank Heidi Garwood of Heath Designs who combined the two photographs so that all of the final image is complete, and we can see how grand this hotel really was.

If you enjoy these stories please consider renewing your membership when you are able or joining the museum if you are not currently a member. After the coronavirus public health emergency is over, reopening the museum will require lots of public support. Stay well!

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