Alameda in History: Neptune Beach, easy to reach!

Alameda in History: Neptune Beach, easy to reach!

Michael Lano

 

When my family was still living in Los Angeles Dodgers “enemy” territory near the team’s old Chavez Ravine Stadium in Los Feliz, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my parents would drive us up to San Francisco about once a year to see all the amazing sights – including the city’s Playland at the Beach, which was everyone’s favorite. Playland was radically different from our own amusement parks on the water, Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica and Long Beach’s Queen’s Park (a.k.a. The Pike). Sadly, an even grander global escape, Alameda’s Neptune Beach Park and Resort, was torn down before I was born.

Some of today’s younger Alamedans may be familiar with Neptune Beach through nostalgically named organizations and events like the Neptune Beach Pearls baseball organization and the Neptune Beach Community Celebration, the great annual block party event held along Webster Street, along with some landmark signs at Alameda South Shore Center that pay the old amusement park tribute. But what was Neptune Beach, and was it really known all over the world?

It certainly was, recalled by several people who I interviewed as “the greatest beach resort spot on the West Coast.” And it was right here on the West End.

Neptune Beach – the grand swimming pool and amusement park destination opened in 1917 by Alameda’s Strehlow family – was famously billed the “Coney Island of the West.” It was advertised as being located at “Central Avenue at Webster Street,” but Neptune Beach certainly extended beyond those boundaries.

The attraction boasted the world’s largest outdoor swimming facility, which was over 300 feet long and all tile-lined. It had dressing rooms to fit 8,000. Swimming, steeplechase and horse races. High-diving competitions. World and ballroom dancing championships. It even featured some of the earliest synchronized swimming demonstrations this side of Busby Berkeley.

Besides prize boxing and wrestling fights, the attraction featured pre-San Francisco Seal professional baseball games that drew thousands to the Island, animal exhibits, trained exotic bird shows, a carny-game-and-barker midway that rivaled that of the California State Fair in size and content, beauty contests, arm-wrestling competitions, logging and landscaping contests and much more.

The price of a full day’s admission was just 10 cents during Neptune Beach’s 22 years of existence, which was a real bargain when compared to San Francisco’s Fleishhacker Pool (which opened in 1925) or Sutro Baths (opened in 1896), which straddled the city’s western reaches. Neptune Beach featured free barbecue areas and loads of picnic tables, restaurants, a weekend dancehall clubhouse where at times prized were awarded and sports venues.

In addition to the many daily shows, features, rides, animal exhibits and mini-circus events, Neptune Beach hosted the occasional pro boxing championship cards by local Lou Nova and pro wrestling cards with the likes of globally famous Golden Greek wrestling world champion Jimmy Londos.

(Londos was born in Greece but during most of his career was based out of Escondido. He caused a mild media ruckus when it was discovered that he once posed as a nude model for figure-drawing classes right here in Alameda when he came in to do public workouts before his matches. He drew a reported crowd of over 10,000 at Neptune Beach but back home in Athens, he once drew 98,154 for a world title defense.)

Visitors from out of town could stay at “The Cottage Baths,” which were very reasonable vacation rental units available by the night and discounted further for a full week’s family stay. And there was all sorts of food from around the world for sale and enjoyment. Some of the finer menu items at Neptune Beach that first year included consomme paysanne, fillets of whiting, haricot ox tail, mashed straw potatoes, greengage tarts, potted shrimps and Melton Mowbray pork pie with beetroot.

The gigantic indoor, Olympic-size pool was added not long after Neptune Beach opened, along with a giant roller coaster that had superb bay views both day and night. The attraction also boasted outdoor swimming pools and mineral baths. “The Pools” often held celebrity swimming races and shows by world-renowned stars like former Olympian Johnny Weismuller of Tarzan movie fame.

When I last had the great Jack and Elaine LaLanne on my national radio show, he said he enjoyed bringing his pre-TV live audience-participation show and exhibition to Neptune Beach.

“Neptune just had this great atmosphere and it was always jammed with people who wanted to see the tremendous swimming and diving pools with all the fountains, the pristine white sand beach, the sunbathers, the merry-go-round, the steeplechase races,” LaLanne said. “They also had some great restaurants there offering some of the earliest vegetarian dishes I can recall.”

The end of Neptune Beach came all too quickly, when the City Council and the Strehlows opted, in 1939, to close it down. The attraction had run its course and had fallen into some disrepair. Many reasons were cited for its swift demise, most notably the Great Depression, which contributed to the attraction’s bankruptcy.

It had long been reported that many locals and even some tourists found ways to sneak into the park towards the end (like swimming over to the bay side, around and through the fences and wire to just towel off and walk in) without paying admission, which also hurt Neptune Beach financially. But Alamedans also had more entertainment choices once the Bay Bridge was completed, allowing them easier access to San Francisco.

Alameda quietly lost some of the resort status it had enjoyed in those years, when wealthy San Franciscans and tourists frequented Neptune Beach. Those visitors took the new car culture up a notch, now driving to Carmel, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and dare we say it, Hollywood and Los Angeles.

The local papers reported that many heartbroken Alamedans paid homage during Neptune’s deconstruction in 1940, just 22 years after it had opened to great fanfare. Its beautifully landscaped grounds would inspire Oakland’s Children’s Fairyland years later, which, along with Tivoli Gardens, was cited by Walt Disney as his own inspiration for his first theme park, Disneyland.

A few of Neptune Beach’s original, grand resort houses and cottages still exist in some form in Crab Cove, the public shoreline park that now occupies the property. But most every remnant of the park itself – including rides and props – was torn down and sold cheaply to other California amusement parks at an advertised auction. (Playland, for example, purchased Neptune’s famed carousel.)

In a future column, we’ll try to revisit other famous Alameda attractions, including Terrace Baths Park, Sunny Cove Baths from 1908 and Surf Beach Park, with its world champion swimming and diving star, “Alameda’s Mermaid” Nell Schmidt.

Thanks to our great Alameda Historical Society and Alameda Museum for their help and contributions to this column. And thanks to Alameda’s own Andy Pagano, who inspired my interest in Neptune Beach. At his original flagship hardware store, which remains a local business treasure, he used to show off books and videos of Neptune Beach, which were awe-inspiring to many of us neophytes.

For anyone loving nostalgic Playland fun (and shouldn’t history be fun?), I heartily recommend making regular treks to Playland – NOT to the beach in El Cerrito but to Museum Mechanique down near Pier 39 and the Wharf itself. Even though I’ve been up here in the Bay Area since 1979, I still love playing tourist when people come from out of town, and after taking them around San Francisco, what’s better than hitting the Cannery, the Wharf and Pier 39, with a walk to AT&T Park?

Comments

Submitted by Patrick (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

Great article! I lived in Alameda for over a decade and this is the most I've ever read about the famed Neptune beach.

Submitted by old native (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

Great article. I have some photos of my mom and uncle and their friends hanging around and playing in the pool there in the 1920s which I'll always cherish. Thanks for the memories, Michael.

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Mon, Nov 3, 2014

Great article. I really enjoyed the details on what exactly could be found at Neptune Beach. Thanks!

Submitted by Jan Schlesinger (not verified) on Tue, Nov 4, 2014

And thanks for including those photos! West Alameda has so much history, and there's no reason why we can't reinvent our great West End again!! Spirits Alley!! Eclectic restaurants with cuisine from around the world. What's not to like?

Submitted by John Piziali on Sat, Nov 8, 2014

when I was a little kid we used to sneak into the closed and run down Sunny Cove and Cottage Baths, there was still salt water in them and we would play in it. I learned to swim at Purcell's Plunge the owner was Leo Purcell, it was just about where the parking lot for Paden School now stands. Oh those were the days. I also remember Jack La Lane hanging out on Webster st. alot.