Alameda Back Roads: Alameda celebrates its history as a resort community

Alameda Back Roads: Alameda celebrates its history as a resort community

Karen Bey

Neptune Beach Tower. Photo courtesy of

This weekend, Bay Area residents and merchants will gather on Webster Street to celebrate Alameda’s history as a resort community. The Webster Street festival is an annual event, but what’s different this year is its name. The Alameda Chamber of Commerce renamed the annual Webster Street festival the “Neptune Beach Community Celebration,” in honor of the Neptune Beach era. In renaming the festival, it recognized the contributions that rail and Neptune Beach made to help fuel the rapid growth of Webster Street.

Alameda’s history as a resort community dates as far back as the late 1870s, when beaches and bathing resorts lined Alameda’s coastline. The practice of sea bathing dates back to the 17th century but became popular in the late 18th century. Bathing resorts pumped salt water in from the Bay, filtered it and then heated it. Once thought to have a curative value, it became a fashionable healing agent believed to cure many illnesses.

Bath houses such as Terrace Baths, Cottage Baths, and Sunny Cove Baths were just a few of the popular bath houses that opened in Alameda during this period. Terrace Baths was the first to open, in 1870. It operated until 1925, when it was purchased by the Alameda Park Company and was integrated with Neptune Beach.

In 1878 Sunny Coves Baths opened next to the Fifth Street station, remaining there until it closed in 1947. The Alameda Encinal newspaper described Sunny Coves as having “the most commodious grounds and finest sand beach.” Cottage Baths opened in 1893. It was one of the first bath houses to offer vacation cottages that could be rented for short or long term. Its clientele included celebrities like Ethel Barrymore (the great aunt of Drew Barrymore), Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London.

As railways, seaside towns and resorts promoted the purported health benefits of sea bathing, Alameda grew rapidly. The explosion of rail travel during this period made it possible for large numbers of people to visit Alameda’s beaches and resorts.

Access to Alameda’s beaches and resorts in their early days was provided by the South Pacific Coast steam train that stopped at the Fifth Street station on Central Avenue every half hour between 6:00 a.m. and midnight. Its rival, Car No. 464 – a Key Route streetcar that stopped at Webster Street and Santa Clara – was another option for travelers visiting Alameda resorts. The streetcar was part of the Key System Transit Company, a consolidation of streetcar lines owned by Francis “Borax” Smith.

The explosion of resorts in Alameda also created a housing boom. Vacation rentals and cottages were built and advertised for rent furnished or unfurnished by the day, by the week, or by the month. San Franciscans escaping the fog sometimes rented cottages for an entire season.

In 1885 the Southern Pacific Coast Railroad cashed in on the resort boom in Alameda, and opened the renowned Neptune Gardens on the site of what would later be known as Neptune Beach.

In 1891 John G. Croll, a manager at Neptune Gardens, purchased what became known as the Croll’s Gardens and Hotel, but the hotel didn’t prosper until the opening of the Neptune Beach in 1917. The building, now a California Historical Landmark, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is home to Croll’s Pizza and the 1400 Bar and Grill Restaurant.

Surf Beach Park located at Sixth Street and Central Avenue opened on May 1, 1908. Unlike other Alameda resorts, Surf Beach offered rides and arcade games. An article in the Alameda Argus described the May 1st opening:

The opening of the Surf Beach baths on May 1 is to be an event of much local importance. The promoters of this enterprise have used every effort to construct a place adequate to accommodate thousands of people with concessions and amusements which will make it one of the greatest bathing resorts on the Pacific Coast north of Santa Monica.

The resort was later purchased by the Alameda Park Company and became part of Neptune Beach when Robert C. Strehlow and his partners opened it on March 17, 1917. The resort attracted thousands of tourists to Alameda and became widely known as the “Coney Island of the West.”

Neptune Beach closed in 1939, but fond memories of the attraction live on. A recent effort to revitalize Webster Street led residents and business owners to call for the replacement of the famous Neptune Beach tower that stood at the main entrance of Neptune Beach at the foot of Webster Street, as a monument to Alameda’s resort community past and the future that lies ahead.

The Neptune Beach Community Celebration will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, October 6 and Sunday, October 7 on Webster Street between Central and Buena Vista avenues. The event is free and open to the public.