Recreation Haven

Alameda Stars as 'The City of Beaches'

    Imagine that the streets near Alameda’s beaches are lined with hotels and resorts. Some 300,000 children descend upon the Island to mark the opening of swimming season. Imagine bands, fireworks, singers and shooting exhibitions; the heavyweight boxing champion of the world umpiring a baseball game at an Alameda park between two teams tied for a league championship; a pavilion that accommodates 15,000 people.
    Is all of this the pipedream of an overly ambitious real estate promoter—or a nightmare scenario for Alameda’s no-growth contingency? Those throngs of tourists and celebs crowding the Island were business as usual for Alameda during its heyday as a recreation destination.
    Recreation of all types has deep roots in Alameda history. In the late 1800s, people from around the Bay Area and the world discovered that Alameda’s bay-shore location and almost tropical weather made it a perfect playground. Crowds fleeing the San Francisco fog and inland heat came to Alameda to play—sometimes to engage in sports, sometimes to watch sports and often just to engage in the sport of people watching.
    Alameda’s fame has always been closely tied to water. In 1878—before the city was officially incorporated in 1884—there were five private swimming resorts in Alameda, a response to the reported 300,000 to 400,000 men, women and children who were already visiting Alameda’s South Shore in 1877 and using makeshift facilities. During a span of more than 80 years, in the days before the car and bridge, patrons of the more than two-dozen private bathhouses that operated in Alameda arrived by foot, train and (after the estuary was dredged) ferry from Oakland. Not surprisingly, this traffic also spawned a lively business for the saloons and barrelhouses that sprang up along Webster Street, the Oakland route to the bathhouses.
    While many of the private swimming clubs have drifted from memory, the best known lives on. Opened in 1917 and closed by 1939, Neptune Beach occupied a beachfront zone now known as Crab Cove and was originally owned by the Strehlow family. Admission to the park was a dime. The park was a place for picnics and barbecues, with a clubhouse for dancing and cottages for rent. The Olympic-sized swimming pool included races and exhibitions by famed Olympian and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller and fitness guru Jack LaLanne. There was a roller coaster and Ferris wheel for the brave and a carousel for those who wished to stay closer to the ground.
    With the throngs of people came other entertainments. At least 18 prize-fighting champions starred in workouts at Neptune and Croll’s Gardens over a period of 25 years. Three of the Croll family boys found fame playing professional baseball out of Alameda. According to FJ Monteagles’ book The Coney Island of the West, Alameda’s love for America’s national pastime dates back to the 1860s, and California’s professional baseball debut reportedly took place in Alameda.
    By 1886, Alameda was said to include the largest enclosed ball field in the state. According to Woodruff Minor’s book Alameda at Play, Alameda had three commercial ball parks prior to World War I. Boxer John L. Sullivan umpired a game held at the Alameda Athletic and Baseball Park on the West Side. A hundred years before the Giants and A’s dominated Bay Area baseball, the Alameda Alerts captured the Bay Area championship and toured the state from 1896 through 1899.
    Not all of Alameda’s aquatic action took place on the beaches. Yachting fever spread throughout the world around the turn of the 20th century, and Alameda presented the perfect geographic and social conditions for clubs to form. Hosting races and parties, the clubs largely catered to the elite few who could afford to keep the wood boats of the time afloat. The Encinal Yacht Club, the third-oldest yacht club on San Francisco Bay, was founded in 1890 and was located on the bay side of an Alameda pier at the foot of Grand Street until the mid-1950s, when it moved to its current location on the estuary. As membership at the Encinal grew, rival clubs formed, providing competition for local regattas.
    On Sept. 21, 1906, 32 men, with an average age of 25 years, met on the ark Bugaboo, moored along the shore of San Leandro Bay on the east end of the Island of Alameda on San Francisco Bay, and founded the Aeolian Yacht Club. They selected the name to honor Aeolus, the Greek god of wind. Now based on the Alameda side of the estuary, the Oakland Yacht Club’s notable celebrity members have included Jack London and California Gov. George Pardee.
    With six yacht clubs and eight marinas, Alameda continues to be one of the premier bases for both recreational sailing and racing, drawing not only residents of Alameda but boating enthusiasts from north, east, south and west of the city.
    Alameda’s love for sports extended to tennis, golf, basketball and football, but it’s as “The City of Beaches” that it will always be best known. Today Crab Cove is a quiet place to reflect upon nature—except in the summer, when music comes to the area with evening Concerts at the Cove. Attracting a polite crowd of a few hundred people, it’s a civilized shadow of what Alameda residents and visitors saw in the grand heyday of the swimming clubs.
—By Elisa Williams
—Pat M. Hathaway Collection, photograph by Edgar A Cohen

Fashion By Committee

    If you think today’s planning committee meetings are contentious, imagine what it was like trying to agree on the proper measurements for bathing suits. According to FJ Moteagle’s book about Neptune Beach, The Coney Island of the West, Alameda’s council chambers were instrumental in setting the standards for sportswear worn throughout the Bay Area. On Feb. 25, 1916, a San Francisco Examiner article reported that, according to the Alameda City Council, the average bathing suit of the year will “begin at the shoulders and is forbidden to stop before it reaches the knees.” A month later, the paper reported that the Alameda police chief had announced that he intended to “enforce the ordinance prohibiting abbreviated bathing costumes on the Alameda beaches.” Councilman John Wilkins explained that suits must have 9-inch inseams, but that V-necks and tight fits were allowed. In 1924, the Longfellow PTA, prompted by a policewoman, demanded action against scanty swimsuits worn by flappers at Neptune Beach.

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In Poetic Praise of Clean Beaches

    Ecological sentiments go way back in Alameda, particularly when it comes to keeping the beaches clean. An issue of the Alameda newspaper the Encinal contained a 13-stanza poem protesting a city plan that would have located a sewer outfall on the South Shore. Here are some of the lines from “Trustees, Spare the Beach” by an anonymous author:

O, Trustees, spare the beach
Keep pure its matchless shore
Its crested waves now stored with health
Keep thus forevermore.

Taboo the sewer scheme
Drive not away our baths
In which now revel forms divine—
Some plump—and some like laths.

O, Trustees spare our beach!
Don’t, don’t pollute its sands
With sewer dregs and vile perfumes
From house-encumbered lands

O, Trustees spare our beach
Join with us cheek by jowl
To keep the baths and bathers
Or we’ll all get up and howl.
—Author Unknown

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