As early as the 1870s, “surf swimming,” as it was called, had become one of the most popular attractions in the bourgeoning tourist Mecca of Santa Cruz. Folks weren’t on boards; they were ‘bathing’ in the ocean.
In June of 1885 “the beach and the surf were both at their best … the breakers with their white crests, beautiful enough to delight the genuine sea lover … Late in the afternoon, a large party of swimmers went into the water, a number of our best lady swimmers being among them.” (Dunn & Stoner)
“Sunday afternoon at the beach was one of the liveliest of the season. It was warm, very warm, but tempered by a breeze, which made the heat endurable and kept people good-natured.”
“The breakers at the mouth of the river were very fine and here occurred the very primest of fun, at least, so said those who were ‘in the swim.’”
As many as 30 or 40 swimmers were out in the water with them, “dashing and tossing, and plunging through the breakers, going out only to be tossed back apparently at the will of the waves and making some nervous onlookers feel sure that they were about to be dashed against the rocks.”
“The young Hawaiian princes were in the water, enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surf-board swimming as practiced in their native islands.” (Santa Cruz Daily Surf, July 20, 1885; Divine)
This was the first recorded account of surfing on the continent … let’s look back.
The present Church of St Matthew in San Mateo, located at the corner of Baldwin and El Camino, dates back to 1865. At that time, San Mateo boasted a modest population of 150, with a corner grocery, blacksmith, railroad depot, one Roman Catholic Church, an old schoolhouse and about 25 houses spreading from San Mateo down to Belmont.
Almost simultaneous with the construction of the Church was the founding of St Matthew’s Hall, a full-fledged military boarding school for boys. The original site was a two-story building on Baldwin in San Mateo, adjacent to today’s St. Matthew’s Church (where the Mills Medical Arts Building now stands.) (St Matthew’s)
In 1882 the school was moved to an 80-acre site at the upper end of Barroilhet Avenue. Enrollment averaged 120 boys a year and in its 49 years, approximately 3,000 students passed through the school. Most of the students were boarders who came from around the West and the Pacific.
Three Hawaiian princes (and brothers,) David Kawānanakoa (Koa,) Edward Keliʻiahonui and Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole, nephews of Queen Kapiʻolani, were schooled at St Matthew’s Hall in 1885, and went on to study at prestigious academic institutions like Stanford, the University of California and a dozen Eastern colleges accepted graduates without further examination. (St Matthew’s)
When not at St Mathew’s, the three princes were placed under the careful eye of Antoinette Swan (daughter of Don Francisco de Paula Marin and hānai daughter to Dr Thomas Charles Byde Rooke (and hānai sister to future Queen Emma) who had moved to Santa Cruz a few years before.)
When the Swan home became too crowded, the princes boarded at the nearby Wilkins House, located half a block away, on Pacific and Cathcart streets. (Dunn & Stoner)
Meanwhile, during the mid-1880s, the first-growth redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains were being lumbered by several fledgling timber businesses. Indeed, the lumber industry was by far the largest in Santa Cruz County during the 1870s and 1880s, with enormous amounts of redwood being transported out of the region by both rail and shipping lines.
The brothers had surfboards made from “solid redwood planks and milled locally by the Grover Lumber Co. They were over 100 pounds in weight and 15 feet in length.”
“Grover Lumber Co. had a planing mill on lower Pacific Ave. and Santa Cruz housewives could set their clocks by the noon whistle.” This finish mill was just a few blocks from the Swan home in which the three princes stayed. (By the end of the 1880s, the redwood trees had all been cut, and they renamed the lumber camp settlement, Clear Creek in 1890.) (Stoner)
While the likes of George Douglas Freeth Jr and Duke Kanahamoku are honored for their indroduction of surfing to others, “On weekends the princes could be found enjoying water sports at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River”; and, as noted above, were the first reported to surf in California.
They also enjoyed some of the local sports as well, “Olympic Rink was honored by the presence of the Hawaiian princes, who received their first lesson in roller skating. They fell down about as many times as ordinary individuals. A pair of skates has no respect for rank. They level all persons who can’t skate.” (Dunn & Stoner)
Shortly after (1887,) Prince Edward was sent home ill from St Mathews and died a short time later in Honolulu from scarlet fever. Koa would eventually become the immediate first heir to the throne. His youngest brother Jonah, who had been Queen Liliʻuokalani’s personal favorite, was second. Neither of them, however, would ever become king.
Kūhiō, an advocate for Hawaiian independence, was involved in the rebellion against the overthrow and was sentenced to a year in prison. Immediately upon his release from prison he traveled the world. In 1902, he returned from exile to participate in Hawaiian politics.
While Koa headed up the state’s Democratic Party (and was a delegate to the 1900 Democratic National Convention,) Kūhiō joined the Republican Party and was elected to the US Congress in 1903 as a delegate from the Territory of Hawaiʻi, where he served until his death in 1922. (Dunn & Stoner)
Today, the two surfboards of Kūhiō and Koa are on loan from Bishop Museum and included in the display at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History ‘Princes of Surf’ exhibition (July 3 – October 25, 2015.)
A plaque with the three princes was added at Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse.