A 2020 Proclamation issued by Governor Ray Cooper of North Carolina states, “Whereas, North Carolina was a pioneer of East Coast surfing;”
“the April 2, 1910 edition of Colliers Weekly includes a letter from Wrightsville Beach resident Burke Haywood Bridgers describing surfing activity in our state as early as 1909;”
“an announcement in the Wilmington Morning Star on June 30, 1910 includes mention of one of the earliest surfboard riding competitions in the mainland United States and direct communications with Alexander Hume Ford”.
However, that claim appears to be suspect, given other publications that predate the 1900s claim. In the summer of 1888, several newspapers report a girl surfing at Ashbury Park, New Jersey – they refer to her as the “Gay Queen of the Waves.”
“A group of summer loungers on the beach at Ashbury park were watching the extraordinary antics of a dark-eyed bronzed-faced girl in the sea this morning. The object of all this interest and solicitude was beyond the line of breakers and standing on a plank that rose and fell with the swelling waves.”
“Her bathing dress was of some dark material, fitting close to the figure, the skirts reaching scarce to the knee. Her stockings wore of amber hue, adorned with what from the shore seemed to be vines and roses in colored embroidery. She wore no hat or cap.”
“Her hair, bound across the forehead and above the ears by a silver fillet, tumbled down upon her shoulders or streamed out upon the wind in black and shining profusion. Her tunic was quite sleeveless , and one could scarcely fail to observe the perfect development and grace of her arms.”
“As a wave larger than those which had gone before slowly lifted the plank upon its swelling surface, she poised herself daintily upon the support, her round arms stretched out and her body swaying to and fro in harmony with the motion of the waters.”
“As the wave readied its fullest volume she suddenly, quick as a thought, and with a laugh that rang full into shore, drew herself together, sprang into the air, and, her hands clasped together and clearing her way, plunged into the rolling sea.”
“There was a little cry from timid feminine watchers on the sand, but the smiling face was above water again while they cried, and the daring Triton was upon the plank again in another moment and waiting for a second high roller.”
“So she has been amusing herself and interesting the mob for three mornings. She is as completely at ease in the sea as you or I on land, and the broad plank obeys her slightest touch.”
“When she has had enough of it she will bring the plank into shore, she riding upon the further end and guiding it like a goddess over the erects and through the foam of the biggest breakers.”
“She comes from the Sandwich Islands and is making a tour of the country. Her father is an enormously rich planter. She arrived in the park a week ago with the family of a wealthy New York importer. She is at a fashionable hotel and is one of the most charming dancers at the hotel hops, as well as the most daring swimmer on the Jersey coast.”
“She is well educated and accomplished, and, of course, speaks English perfectly, and with a swell British accent that is the despair of all the dudes.”
“She learned to be mistress of the waves in her childhood at her native home by the sea, where, she modestly says, all the girls learn swimming as a matter of course, quite as much as girls in this country learn tennis and croquet.” (Morning News from Philadelphia Press, August 17, 1888)
Although she is not identified, historian Vincent Dicks has apparently suggested that the young first-ever East Coast surfer was Emma Claudine Spreckels, the only daughter of Hawai‘i sugar baron Claus Spreckels.
Claus Spreckels (1828-1908), a German-born immigrant, made his fortune by starting a brewery and later founding the California Sugar Refinery. When he went to Hawaii in 1876 he managed to secure sole supply of sugar cane and with it much of the West Coast refined sugar market. In 1899 he founded the Spreckels Sugar Company, Inc.
The businessman gave over $25 million to his five grown children but his favorite child was the only daughter, Emma Claudine Spreckels.
He gifted an entire city block in Honolulu to her and an endowment worth almost $2 million. However, in 1893, when Emma eloped with Thomas Watson, many years her senior, she failed to tell her father. (House and Heritage)
Then, Emma “returned to her father all property, bonds, etc., which he had placed in her name. These gifts amounted to nearly $2,000,000, and were, it is said, relinquished by a single stroke of the pen by Mrs. Watson after her marriage.”
“It is reported that Mr. Spreckels was opposed to his daughter’s union with Watson, and that upon his chiding her for her seeming ingratitude in marrying against his wishes, she decided to give up her fortune, and did so, it is understood, upon the advice of her husband.” (Mount Holly News, Jan 12, 1897)
Emma ultimately married three times: after Watson died in 1904 she later married John Ferris (with her father’s blessing) and then Arthur Hutton in 1922. Emma died on May 2, 1924 at Nuffield England.