By Kevin Newhouse
As you leave the Rio Del Mar flats and travel up Rio Del Mar Boulevard, you will see the three tiers of condominiums overlooking the Bay known as the Shore Del Mar condos. These condos are situated on a piece of land where a beautiful hotel with high hopes and bad timing once stood.
The hotel was originally named “Hotel Don Rafael Castro.” Although I love the intention of honoring Rafael Castro, the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue now does it?
For those who don’t know who Rafael Castro is, it is almost impossible to talk about Aptos history without at least mentioning his name. Castro was granted the land known as Rancho Aptos by the Mexican government in 1833. He later sold a large portion of his ranch to Claus Spreckels, the famous millionaire and “Sugar King”.
Spreckels died in 1908 and his wife, Anna, died in 1910. In accordance to their wills, the San Christina Investment Co. was formed to own and manage their personal properties. The Aptos ranch continued its operations until 1922 when it the ranch was no longer a beneficial interest to Spreckels’ heirs and was sold to Fred Somers.
Somers was the first person on record to state his intentions to build a golf course and country club as an attraction in the area. Somers formed the “Aptos Company” to own and manage his Aptos properties. Shortly thereafter, the Aptos Company partnered with a group of developers from San Francisco who did business under the name “Monroe, Lyon, and Miller.”
Over the next several years, Aptos would see development like it had never seen before.
In August 1925, the Aptos Company ventured forth with the first subdivision of land, which included space for a golf course, 584 residential parcels, and the creation of many streets that make up today’s Rio Del Mar. Bear in mind, at this time, the name “Rio Del Mar” had not yet been coined.
The Aptos Company refinished Spreckels’ old racetrack into a first-class polo field (today’s Polo Grounds Park) and the design for an 18-hole golf course (today’s Seascape Golf Course) was completed, with 9-holes open for play.
In 1926, they would build the concrete retaining walls to channel Aptos Creek and the surrounding swamp/lagoon would be converted into the “flats.”
Monroe, Lyon, and Miller purchased the assets of the Aptos Company, and in 1927, the Peninsula Properties Company was formed to hold their assets. It was this company that concocted the place name, “Rio Del Mar”.
In 1928, a dam was built across Aptos Creek, where today’s pedestrian bridge is, to form “the world’s largest fresh water swimming pool”. In connection with that, a huge bathing pavilion was also built complete with lockers, showers, and dressing rooms.
This brings us to 1929 and back to the original topic of this story… the hotel. On May 1, just 7 months after construction began, the Hotel Don Rafael Castro was completed. Benjamin D. McDougal, of San Francisco, was the architect for the 22-room frame stucco hotel of Spanish architecture. The hotel expanded in size and would be renamed four different times during its existence; Rio Del Mar Country Club Inn (1931), Rio Del Mar Hotel (1946), Aptos Beach Inn (1955), and Aptos Beach Inn and Racquet Club (1962).
The Peninsula Properties Company had hoped the hotel would attract tourists to the area. They would see how nice it is here and would want to become full-time residents. The Company could then assist by selling them one, or more, of the subdivided lots.
Unfortunately, the stock market crashed in November 1929, and the U.S. was about to enter the Great Depression. Aptos was not exempt from the side effects. Business certainly slowed down but it did not stop. Lots continued to sell but capital improvements and additions were few and far between during this time. Then came World War Two.
When Japan launched their surprise attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the war had all of a sudden arrived on the west coast. The war effort intensified in Aptos. There were civilian defense organizations formed, “blackouts”, and even air raids. The military had organized a coastal patrol in our area and requested the Rio Del Mar Beach Club (located on the hotel’s property on the beach) as a barracks for these men. During this time automobiles, tires, and gasoline, and other items such as food, clothes, appliances, and cigarettes for non-essential civilian use was reduced due to rationing systems. This had a severely negative effect on tourism.
The club unsuccessfully tried organizing ride groups and/or chartered bus excursions from urban areas around San Francisco and other selected valley towns. The club also offered free limousine service from the Greyhound bus terminal in Santa Cruz. In a bulletin mailed to members in May, 1942, they tried convincing people it was their patriotic duty to travel to their club and properties in Rio Del Mar in order to boost health and morale. This also did not work. In autumn of 1942, the club ceased to function.
The club would reopen and close many more times until October 1962, when Pete Denevi negotiated a 5-year lease agreement for the inn. He would refurbish the hotel, and planned to install shops, an “arcade”, build a swimming pool and tennis courts on site. It would operate as a private club to be named The Aptos Beach Inn Racquet Club. The reopening occurred in late November 1962, despite never building the arcade, swimming pool, and tennis courts.
On the evening of March 17, 1963, during a dinner party for Coast Counties Gas employees, a fire broke out and the building burned to the ground. In October 1963, the site was cleared. The Aptos Beach Development Company sold the old hotel property in increments to the Shore Del Mar Developers, Inc. of Half Moon Bay, who built the condominiums there today.
One of the more tragic events that happened at the hotel involved none other than one of its original developers, Lawrence “Larry” Miller. On July 10, 1953, Larry was found slumped over the steering wheel of his 1952 Cadillac after hitting a guardrail across the street from the hotel. He was taken to the hospital and it was found that he had taken a near lethal dose of sleeping pills. It was later that evening when Larry’s wife, Helen, was discovered inside the hotel. She had been shot through the left side of the head with two .22 caliber bullets. Larry was placed under arrest and charged with her murder. He claimed it was a suicide pact that he had not gone through with.
What really happened? Was it murder? Was it suicide?
If you want to know the rest of the story, please come to the Rio Sands Hotel (just down the street from the “scene of the crime”) on Saturday, February 11 from 3:00 – 4:30 where local historian and attorney Bob Wall alongside attorney and co-author of “A Legal History of Santa Cruz County” Bob Bosso will be presenting the facts. $15 dollar donation benefits the Aptos History Museum. Reservations are required. Please call 831-688-1467 to reserve your seat.
For more information about the Aptos History Museum, upcoming events, or becoming a member of the museum, please visit www.aptoshistory.org and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @aptos_history_museum.