My how things change over 150 years

September 7, 2016

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the City of Santa Cruz it’s fun to look back on the evolution of industry in our community.


Since the mid 1800s Santa Cruz has served as a destination for tourists seeking refuge in the sunshine and natural beauty of our coast and redwood forests. Today, Santa Cruz continues to draw about 4 million visitors each year for our natural environment and amusement from the Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz Wharf, but also for our unique farm-to-table cuisine, growing brewery scene, and boutique retail opportunities. Tourism in Santa Cruz has certainly shifted over the years and we see this evolution occur in many of our industries.


Jack O’Neill opened his surf shop selling the first full body wetsuit in 1952 and since then we have seen significant growth and innovation in the surf, skate, and mountain bike world. Giro, now owned by Easton-Bell,  invented the modern bike helmet, the Giro Prolite, here in Santa Cruz in 1985. The first Crossfit gym and training program was created in Santa Cruz by Gymnast Greg Glassman in 1995 and the CrossFit brand was incorporated in 2012 and the sport has grown worldwide. We’re also welcoming new niche companies revolutionizing the traditional equipment used for these sports, from electric bicycles and one wheeled skateboards, to handcrafted bicycle frames and more.



At times tech crosses over with sports and we have seen the creation of companies throughout Santa Cruz’s history that build products based out of their experiences and the cultural impact of our community. Notable tech companies like Netflix, Texas Instruments, SCO (Santa Cruz Operation), Seagate, and Borland are among the tech companies that started in the Santa Cruz region. 

Founded in 1963, Plantronics made the first headset used in outer space, and made history when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and uttered the legendary words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" through a Plantronics headset that went on to be worn by astronauts during the NASA shuttle missions. Today, Plantronics continues to be a leader in the audio communications and wearable industries. This anchor company continues to pave the way for Santa Cruz startups. Cruzio Internet, one of the largest independent Internet Service Providers in California opened in 1989 and continues to evolve to provide fast, high-quality internet for our community. The heart of Downtown is home to several established tech companies like Looker, ProductOps, Amazon AWS, and FullPower Technologies with the potential for many more to form and grow right here in Santa Cruz.


The artisanal food scene in Santa Cruz has always delivered local foods whether it be organic produce or freshly caught seafood, the commitment to provide wholesome and sustainable food is vital to our city. Downtown favorite Zoccoli’s Deli opened originally as a grocery store in March of 1948 and added the sandwiches we know and love in the 1970s. The Swift Street Courtyard is full of delicious baked goods, handcrafted beer and wine, and farm-to-table delights. The growth of the industry is unmistakable with a wide variety of eateries, breweries, and other artisanal establishments springing up within the last ten years.

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The 1870s saw unprecedented growth in Santa Cruz businesses, services, and shops in the Downtown, Soquel Avenue, and Seabright areas. With the rise of tourism and agriculture in the early 1900s, businesses supporting these industries took off: restaurants, hotels, casinos, and retail. The mix of inventive new and long-standing businesses in the main shopping districts demonstrates the strength of our retail legacy and future potential. Downtown landmark Bookshop Santa Cruz has been around since 1966, and was supported by the community after the store collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 - when it operated out of temporary tents. Shopper’s Corner, has been on the same corner since 1938. Newer businesses, like Berdels surf lifestyle shop and Sawyer Land and Sea, are pushing the expectations of the shopping experience, creating retail environments that draw people in on a number of levels.


As the gateway to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Santa Cruz is the premier location for interdisciplinary research and teaching on marine life, coastal conservation, water science, climate-change impacts and other marine and coastal science issues. However, the Monterey Bay in the late 1800s was focused more on commercial fishing. Our first viable commercial fishing company was created when a narrow-gauge railroad line was built between Santa Cruz and the Southern Pacific station near Watsonville in 1875. A group of Italians, along with some resident Californians began a fresh-fish business at the terminus of the railroad in Santa Cruz. In 1879, 139,000 pounds of fish were shipped from that port. Eventually the role of the Bay shifted to research and environmental protection. The Long Marine Lab at UCSC opened in 1974 and the Seymour Marine Discovery Center opened March 11, 2000 to educate people about the role scientific research plays in the understanding and conservation of the world’s oceans.

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Since the early days of Santa Cruz’s founding, the community came together to learn and promote the arts. The first organization, the Society of Decorative Arts, was founded in 1885 to promote art in Santa Cruz through classes and the creation of a depot to display and sell art. This led to the creation of the Woman’s Exchange in 1891, and the Santa Cruz Art League in 1919. The Arts Council Santa Cruz County, headquartered in The Tannery Arts Center, has been a leader in arts promotion and the business of art for over 35 years. A 2011 Atlantic Magazine survey rated the Santa Cruz/Watsonville area as the 5th most artistic area in the USA. And further bolstering this concentration of artists was  the opening of the Tannery Arts Center in June 2009 in the former Salz Tannery which dates back to 1917.


Our near-perfect climate makes it an obvious choice for agriculture. The first berry was planted in 1876, and by the early 1900s, about 2.5 million boxes of apples were being produced and shipped from Santa Cruz. The wine industry in Santa Cruz had an even earlier start. The first vineyard was planted way back in 1804 at the Mission Church, which is now the Harvey West Park area. By 1807, the wine industry had taken off in California, with 16 vintners in Santa Cruz County alone. Fast forward about 200 years; our agriculture industry has exploded to include an incredible variety of fruits and vegetables grown by over 682 farms in Santa Cruz County, covering 47,489 acres of land. The first free farmer’s market was established on Front Street in 1914 and occurred every saturday morning. Today, the Farmer’s market features over 40 artisan vendors from Santa Cruz and the larger region who fill out the weekly Downtown market that began in 1990 as an effort to rebuild after the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake.


A UCSC research team won the race to sequence the human genome on June 22, 2000 and launched the genome server that allows scientists and researchers around the world to access and download the sequence two weeks later. That research has grown and spun off several local genomics and life science companies that have based themselves in Santa Cruz. UCSC has now set their sights on the next big challenge: Cancer. Knowledge of the human genetic makeup is being used to better understand and fight the gene mutations that cause cancer. With this information doctors are able to develop more effective treatment plans for their patients.

Cover photo courtesy of the Museum of Art & History.

In Depth: Tom Morgan

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