Today's village and resort owes its growth and survival to early landowner Frederick Augustus Hihn (pronounced Heen), a German immigrant and pioneer recognized as a leader of much of Santa Cruz County's early industry and commercial enterprise.
Hihn acquired the area known as Soquel Landing from the heirs of the Castro family and paid for the first wharf built in 1857. The shipping point rapidly became an important one as timber was cut from surrounding hillsides and settlers began to farm the inland valley.
Although his industries relied on the Soquel wharf for shipping, Hihn was too preoccupied for many years to think of the best use for the surrounding property. His chief goal for a long time was construction of a narrow gauge railroad between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, with spur tracks leading to his lumber mills in the mountains.
As a capitalist, Hihn initially considered the beachfront a good site for
farming, but little else.
Then in 1869, he approved a ten-year lease agreement with Samuel Alonzo Hall, a pioneer who helped to build the nearby town of Soquel.
Hall was a farmer, a ship's carpenter, a skilled craftsman, and a former resort owner. From the beginning, he gave into the pleas of travelers who begged to camp a night or two along the coast. Drawn by the fog and the wide strand of beach, vacationers were eager to get away from the heat over the Summit. A new wagon route from Los Gatos to Soquel had opened a path that wound over the hills and through Hall's barley field to the Bay of Monterey, and now, every year, more and more campers were appearing at his farmhouse door.
Hall's daughter, Lulu Hall Green, convinced him to open the campground. She is also most likely the one who named it Capitola. As a schoolteacher, Green knew about the independent girl named Capitola Le Noir (Cap Black), a tremendously popular fictional character from the novels of E.D.E.N. (Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte) Southworth. The name must have seemed a good fit for a plucky little resort that was hard to reach, yet thought to be well worth the effort.
Once persuaded, Hall walked 100 hogs over the hill for shipment to market. Home again, he invested in some canvas tents, a livery stable, and two small excursion boats. At one end of the beach, near his own cottage, he slapped together an open dance floor. San Jose newspaper ads announced the opening in June 1874.
When Camp Capitola proved a success that first year, Hall built six sturdy
cabins and other improvements. In the shadow of the newly completed Santa Cruz-Watsonville
Railroad trestle, he put up small camping berths,
that could be used as shelters or attached to tents. The price was a dollar
a day for adults and 50 cents for children and horses.
Hihn, meanwhile, watched Capitola's development carefully. When it was time for a lease renewal in 1879, he boosted the rent because he saw that Capitola could be made profitable. The increase was too much for Hall, and he left. The resort was then leased to a series of other proprietors before Hihn subdivided lots in 1882 and began to manage the camp as an enterprise of the F.A. Hihn Company.
By this time, the railroad was owned by Southern Pacific and broad gauged. The crowd of annual summer visitors to Camp Capitola swelled to more than three thousand people. Most vacationers were women and children sent to the coast to benefit from the mild climate. Fathers and young bachelors frequently stayed home, arriving by train only on weekends to enjoy time with their families. For this reason, many of the earliest lot buyers were women. During the summer of 1884 - Capitola's tenth season - Hihn sold 25 lots ranging from $100 to $300 in price. Most of the parcels were 50 X 100 feet.
The F.A. Hihn Company allowed residential construction only. All commercial business stayed under strict control within the village boundaries.
Fond of the vacation recreation in his homeland, Hihn blessed Capitola with similar pastimes. He had the grounds landscaped with trees and ornamental gardens, attractive paths, and small parks. During the summer months that Capitola existed, a busy line-up of activities greeted the annual guest. Mule rides, dancing, concerts, walking, tennis, bicycling, shooting, bowling, boating, fishing, hunting, surf bathing, swings, billiards and steam baths were all available. Saloons were also popular, as was church on Sunday.
Plain little shops, a modest hotel, small rental cabins, and a spacious free tent campground filled the trim commercial district. Surrounding knolls were dotted with cottages and a few sturdy Victorian houses. Mixed in with resort accommodations were the rugged shacks of workers who keep resort life running smoothly. Outside the Village, the landscape was still a part of Soquel, a region of farms, vineyards, orchards, a sugar beet factory, and the unadorned homes of mill workers, farm laborers, and loggers.
Camp Capitola grew into Capitola By-the-Sea, around 1900, when Hihn improved and enlarged the village architecture. Regional architect Edward L. Van Cleeck designed a 160-room hotel near the bluff, companionably sited at the end of a line of concessions along the Esplanade. A row of apartments sat next to the hotel, and a set of two-story vacation rentals known as the Six Sisters faced the ocean with unobstructed views. A trolley line from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk directly to the Capitola Hotel's front door introduced a new trend - the day visitor.
It became a tradition for Hihn to celebrate his own birthday in August with a community feast at Capitola. He had just attended such a picnic when he became ill and died a week later, on August 24, 1913. He was 84 years old and Santa Cruz County's first millionaire. His eldest child, daughter Katherine Cope Henderson, inherited most of Capitola.
Katherine had recently married her second husband, Henry O. Henderson, who had been a hotel manager in Ventura and was interested in managing his new wife's resort. Katherine took over management as president of the Capitola-Hihn Company, a title she held until she sold the entire Capitola portion of her estate shortly after World War I.
The sale occurred during the resort's 45th season in 1919, marking a profound shift in how Capitola well the Village would be equipped to face the challenges ahead. While Hihn had controlled the smallest detail of his enterprise, the following owner quickly shed himself of responsibilities, leaving the business community and a growing population of homeowners to fend for themselves.
By Carolyn J. Swift
Capitola Historical Museum
410 Capitola Avenue
Capitola, CA 95010