History Pages: 59 - 1895 Venetian Water Carnival

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Concurrent with the transformation of the Santa Cruz beachfront area into a resort tourism destination, the residential streets of Beach Hill became a desirable upscale residential area. Two of the newer wealthy residents were millionaire James P. Smith and his wife Susan. Mr. Smith is described in The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture (4th ed. 2023, p.11) as an "international food distributor". In addition to the couple's extensive remodel of the former Kittredge House hotel into an expansive residence they named Sunshine Villa, the Smiths became one of the main forces behind the creation of a new event - the Venetian Water Carnival. Proposed as an annual event, the first Water Carnival was in 1895.

In that era, before personal motor vehicles and high-speed highways, tourism was more of an extended-stay affair. After a long trip via train or steamship, visitors typically stayed a week or more. To hold the interest of such "extended stay" visitors, resort areas were expected to stage a variety of entertainment events during the tourist season. The Water Carnival was the most ambitious of those events in the 1890s and, as can be seen in the photo, proved to be popular with locals and visitors alike.

The Carnival included a decorated boat parade (shown in the photo), with viewing grandstands along the river bank. There was a beauty-pageant-like coronation of a "queen" and, coincidentally, the first queen was the Smiths' teenage daughter, Anita. The hand-drawn logo shown below-right was created for the 1895 event.

Young journalist/novelist Frank Norris visited the following year to describe the Carnival, as a correspondent for The Wave. There was no annual event after 1896, however. Periodic attempts at revival of the summertime event continued until 1927. More recently, other versions of the lighted boat parade have been staged in Capitola and at the Santa Cruz Harbor.

The photo above shows (or merely indicates) a few other features of this area that have been previously noted. The house seen atop the hill at far right was at the end of Cliff Street (where the stairway is now), and belonged to William Rennie. Below the Rennie house and hidden behind the curving riverside grandstands was an 1890s electric streetcar line that ran from downtown to the beachfront area, via today's Laurel Street Extension and Leibrandt Street. To the left of the 1890 Rennie house is the 1890 "Rio Vista", which remains today. Left from Rio Vista is the "Cut bias" bridge, built in 1888. The riverbank seen at far left was part of the extensive grounds belonging to the Riverside Hotel, another establishment catering to resort tourists.

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