By Frank Perry, Curator, Capitola Historical Museum
Capitola owes its very existence to some quirks of nature. The town was founded in 1874 as a summer resort because of the beach which, in turn, formed due to a combination of geologic factors, including Soquel Creek, its valley, the supply of sand, and the movement of that sand by waves. Without the creek and beach, Capitola would likely have never formed as a campground or later as a town.
People have long found solace in the region’s natural beauty. Georgina Lecky described Capitola in an 1897 poem, part of which is quoted here:
I’ve roamed thru’ every grove and dell
where Flora love to dwell,
And strayed along its sandy beach
To gather moss and shell.
I’ve clambered up the giddy heights
to view the scenes around,
And plucked the choicest roses
that everywhere abound.
One of the displays is about the different kinds marine mammals, such as whales, sea lions, and sea otters that are sometimes visible from the wharf, beach, and cliffs. In 2014 Humpback Whales came unusually close to shore, lunging up through the water to gulp down mouthfuls of anchovies. It was a spectacular show, but Capitola’s relationship with whales was not always so friendly. In the late 1800s and early part of the 1900s, whales were usually greeted with harpoons and knives rather than binoculars.
An exception was in October of 1909 when a pod of whales, probably humpbacks, came in close to shore as they did in 2014. Walter Hamilton of Capitola witnessed the monsters from his small boat. “You just ought to see them feeding. Why they just open up their old snouts about six feet and take in a few hundred sardines at one mouthful. They are mighty tame, too, when they’re feeding, and they don’t care for nothing.”
While some features, such as the marine life, waves, beach, and cliffs remain much the same; Capitola’s land life—the fauna and flora—has changed significantly. One display compares photos of Capitola in the 1870s with the same scenes today. Striking is the lack of trees when the resort was founded. Capitola was then mostly open fields, except for some woodland along Soquel Creek and Noble Gulch.
Land birds are particularly influenced by changes to the flora, for they depend on plants for food, shelter, and nesting sites. In the early 1900s, flocks of Bluebirds fluttered across the fields, Meadowlarks chirped from the fence posts next to cow pastures, and families of Quail scurried through the grass. With urbanization and the planting of trees, these birds disappeared from Capitola, but others arrived to replace them. Mockingbirds, Robins, and Crows are among the newcomers.
This “then and now” theme flows throughout in the exhibition. It is hoped that visitors to the Museum will leave with not only a greater awareness of the town’s history, but also its natural beauty.
The Museum’s resumes its regular hours March 4: Thursday through Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. The opening reception for “The Nature of Capitola” will be Saturday, March 25, noon to 2 p.m. The exhibition will remain up through December.