Claus Spreckels in Aptos

The Industrial Revolution changed the world. People could travel by steam trains and steam ships instead of horse drawn wagons and sailing ships. Steam was also used to power the machinery in factories. The fuel for these new factories was either coal or wood. Since wood cost one-third the price of coal, the Santa Cruz Mountains were a gold mine waiting to be exploited.

Claus Spreckels, whose home and sugar factory were in San Francisco, needed fuel for his expanding empire. In the 1860s, it was not unusual to find 4,000 cords of oak firewood on the Aptos Wharf waiting for shipment to San Francisco. Although virgin redwood is a magnificent building material, huge quantities were also burned as fuel. Spreckels was also looking for suitable farm land to raise and process sugar beets. At 69, the aging Rafael Castro sold over one-third of his Aptos Rancho to Spreckels in 1872. Ultimately, Spreckels purchased almost all of the rancho.

There was nothing small about Claus Spreckels. Everything that he did was on the grandest scale. He saw opportunities everywhere. Santa Cruz was trying to get Southern Pacific to build a railroad connection into the county. By June 1873, Claus Spreckels and Frederick Augustus Hihn helped convince Santa Cruz County businessmen to build the railroad themselves. Spreckels and Hihn purchased stock in the new railroad.

Spreckels also saw the tourism potential of the estuary land where Aptos Creek enters the Monterey Bay, so he made plans to build the grandest hotel on the California coast. By 1874, Spreckels had a deer park built with a 12-foot high fence to hold deer and elk for his future guests to hunt. This 170-acre area was between today’s Monterey Drive and Bonita Drive and is where Deer Park shopping center got its name. Spreckels also built a race track at today’s Polo Grounds Park location and a two-story private residence for himself, above the hotel site on today’s Bayview Court.

Claus Spreckels was not a man to be trifled with. On the day before the hotel’s Grand Opening, one of the employees was caught sneaking into a servant girl’s room. Spreckels fired the employee but found him still hanging around on Opening Day. The ex-employee said, “I will go away when I get ready and not before,” whereupon Spreckels took him by the collar to show him the door. The ex-employee pulled a knife and Spreckels took him to the ground and disarmed him.

The formal opening of the Santa Cruz Rail Road from Santa Cruz to Aptos and the Grand Opening Reception for the Aptos Hotel were held concurrently on May 22, 1875. Spreckels Drive was the private entrance road to the hotel. The event included an Inauguration Ball for Governor Pacheco. Two weeks later, three trains from Santa Cruz brought more than 1,000 people, plus another 500 by private conveyance, to the Dedication Picnic for Spreckels' Aptos Hotel. The hotel was described as the largest and finest summer resort in the state. The hotel was enlarged for the 1876 season.

The following year the rail line was completed through Watsonville to Pajaro. On May 7, 1876, the Opening Day, trains left Santa Cruz and Watsonville and met in Aptos for a grand party at the Aptos Hotel.

The Aptos Hotel operated during the summer months and most guests stayed for the entire season. In 1877, as the ranch and race track operations expanded, Spreckels built a larger summer mansion on the Coast Road, (9565 Soquel Drive) nearer to his ranch and farther away from the hotel. His view included the Valencia Lagoon and the Deer Park. The Valencia Lagoon is now part of the salamander protection area and is no longer visible due to the trees planted around it. It is bordered by Highway 1, Freedom Boulevard, Bonita Drive and Rio Del Mar Boulevard. It has a small security fence visible from the freeway. Spreckels turned over his previous summer home to the Aptos Hotel manager.

Spreckels made his fortune by controlling the west coast sugar market using raw cane sugar from Hawaii and the Philippines, but he was aware that sugar was also made in Europe from sugar beets. In 1870, the first successful beet sugar factory in America was in Alvarado, Calif. but after three years it was a financial failure. Spreckels put together a syndicate and moved the mill to Capitola on land owned by F. A. Hihn. In 1874, Hihn invested $22,000 in the mill, and leased them the land where Nob Hill grocery is located on Bay Avenue. The mill provided sugar beet traffic for the railroad and the railroad would reciprocate with low-cost bulk hauling of refined sugar for the mill. Sugar beets were grown on 700 acres of the coastal plain north of Capitola and south to Aptos. The plant operated from 1874 to 1879. Consider that all of these achievements were completed within the first five years of Spreckels’ purchase of his Aptos property.

In 1876, Spreckels developed sugar cane plantations in Hawaii. He became so powerful that he purchased the entire sugar output of the Islands for his San Francisco factory. While in the Islands, Spreckels became friends with, and financed, the Hawaiian King, David Kalakaua. King Kalakaua visited Spreckels at his Aptos home on Oct. 19, 1881.

By 1886, politics and sugar cane grower’s resentments forced Spreckels out of Hawaii but his investment in sugar beet technology ultimately kept him well supplied with raw sugar. In 1888, he opened the Western Beet Sugar Refinery in Watsonville, the largest beet sugar factory in the America. Pajaro Valley farmers agreed to plant at least 2,000 acres of sugar beets each year. Spreckels built a railroad to Moss Landing so that the product could be transferred to his family’s ships. The Watsonville factory operated for 10 years. As production increased and beets were planted farther into the Salinas Valley, Spreckels moved production near Salinas and built the largest beet sugar refinery in the world.

The industrialization of Aptos as a lumber town and competition from new hotels in Santa Cruz, Capitola and Monterey, caused Spreckels to close his Aptos Hotel. In 1896, Spreckels tore down the Aptos Hotel and used the materials to build the factory and town of Spreckels near Salinas. He moved several whole buildings from Aptos to Spreckels.

Claus Spreckels donated to the construction of the first Catholic church in Aptos which was completed in 1875. In 1899, Claus also paid for the construction of the second Aptos School. It was built in today’s Aptos Village Square where Kristy's School of Dance is located.

In 1908, at the age of 80, Claus Spreckels contracted pneumonia and died the day after Christmas, in his San Francisco mansion.