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West End Once Served As Magnet for Bathers – Part 2

Neptune Beach from birth to sad demise

Beginning in 1916, Robert C. Strehlow Sr. and his partners August Freese and Pete Peterson joined forces with the Alameda Land Company to transform the dormant Neptune Gardens into Neptune Beach. The trio had been involved in building San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition. When the expo came to an end, they decided to create a park across San Francisco Bay in Alameda.

Alameda Post - A crowded pool at Neptune Beach. Swimmers enjoy the water, and an ocean is in the background
It was a busy day at Neptune Beach when a photographer took this picture of folks enjoying the waters of the swimming pool as relatives and friends looked on. Photo Alameda Museum.

A precursor to Neptune Beach: Neptune Gardens

The exposition that took place on what is now Marina Green had its closing ceremonies on December 4, 1915. Strehlow, Freese, and Peterson wasted little time getting their Alameda project underway. They went right to work dismantling one of the exposition’s roller coasters and barging it across San Francisco Bay to Alameda. They reassembled the ride on the languishing Surf Beach Park and worked with the Alameda Land Company to obtain the property that was home to Neptune Gardens.

Neptune Gardens traces its beginnings to 1878, when the South Pacific Coast Railroad began running on Central Avenue with a stop at Webster Street. The resort was established enough by the spring of 1880 to attract the attention of a successful Oakland restaurateur and his sons.

On May 24 of that year, Italian-born Pietro Pagge ran an advertisement in the Daily Alta California. He announced that he and his sons were opening the Aux Bon Vivants restaurant at Neptune Gardens. Pietro owned Barnum Restaurant, which stood kitty-corner from the Southern Pacific Railroad station at Seventh and Broadway in Oakland.

Pietro met with such success that the 1881 D. M. Bishop & Co. directory listed him and his sons as the proprietors of Neptune Gardens. The directory also mentioned Leonard J. F. Scnutenhaus as the owner of a saloon and bowling alley there. According to the directory, Scnutenhaus lived on the north side of Santa Clara Avenue between Second and Third avenues.

In 1884, Neptune Gardens’ owners—possibly the Pagge family—put the property up for sale. They hired Grant I. Taggart and William J. Dingee as brokers. The firm of Taggart & Dingee ran an advertisement in the May 16, 1884, edition of the Daily Alta California praising the Gardens’ virtues. The announcement included a detailed description of the property, located “on Central Avenue, Alameda, between the Long Branch and Terrace Baths.”

Trace what little remains of the Coney Island of the West with the Alameda Post’s Dennis Evanosky and Adam Gillitt. The resort opened its doors as Newport Swimming Baths in 1877, 40 years before the Strehlow family invited bathers to Neptune Beach. We’ll take a first-hand look at Neptune Beach that entertained thousands from 1917 to 1939. When it closed, McKay Avenue was carved on the footprint of the roller coaster. We’ll also explore the many other baths that lined Central Avenue. A video presentation is available for ticket holders. Join us on Sunday, May 26. We will meet at the entrance to McKay Avenue at Central Avenue at 10 a.m. and tickets are $20 each. Visit our Tours page for additional information.

Taggart & Dingee told the newspaper’s readers that Neptune Gardens included “one acre of high land and nine acres of tide land.” Improvements consisted of a large 12-room house, fitted up for a restaurant. Summer houses stood on the grounds, as did a shooting gallery, a bowling alley, a stable, and a windmill with a water tank.  The gardens’ beautiful sandy beach was suited for surf bathing and the grounds were handsomely planted and laid out, the advertisement extolled. All this made for a “most attractive resort,” according to the ad.

“The narrow-gauge cars stop opposite the property,” the advertisement said. “Secure a catalogue and go and see the property.” James Fair, who had built the railroad that carried those narrow-gauge cars, did just that. He purchased the property.

Alameda Post - an old, drawn picture of Neptune Gardens area
This detail from a larger print shows Neptune Gardens as it appeared in 1889. The South Pacific Coast railroad train in the print reminds its viewer that they can reach the gardens by rail. An all-purposed hall called the Wigwam can be seen on the left with the laundry and water tank. Photo Alameda Museum.
Alameda Post - a structure with a conical roof
This image shows the Wigwam and laundry with its large water tanks. The Wigwam survived until 1914 when it met the wrecking ball under much protest from the community. Photo Alameda Museum.

Neptune Gardens gets a second chance

Fair refurbished and reopened Neptune Gardens, complete with a balloon ascension, on June 28, 1885. Long Branch Swimming Baths disappeared when Fair purchased that property as well and incorporated Long Branch into Neptune Gardens. He hired John G. Croll away from Oakland’s Union Pacific Restaurant, first to manage the restaurant on the grounds and not long thereafter to run the entire operation.

“Croll was just the man to run such a place,” historian Nilda Rego relates. “He was a nonstop promoter, devising all sorts of attractions to bring in customers.”

Croll learned that New York had banned bare-knuckle boxing—a sport that was not legal anywhere in the United States at the time. Alameda sports historian Brian Higgins writes that he “seized the opportunity to tout Alameda, specifically Neptune Gardens, as an ideal training grounds for boxers.”  The resort “was a wonderland for outdoor exercise; and more than a few of the sport’s rising stars were coming out of the West Coast anyway,” Higgins writes. “One of them was a San Francisco-reared heavyweight who would come to fame as ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett.”

Higgins writes that Neptune Gardens “soon became known and referred to as Croll’s Gardens”—the name that Croll’s Gardens Court recalls. He explains that “boxing began to embrace the Queensbury Rules that govern the sport today.”  These rules “limited rounds to three minutes, invoked a 10-second count for fallen fighters and, most importantly, promoted the use of boxing gloves.”

However, all was not well. Rego tells us that Fair spent $60,000 on his pavilion that accommodated dancing, roller skating, theatrical productions, and broadsword contests on horses. “Jonny” Croll ran it all.

Read part one of this article, wherein Dennis Evanosky explores the plethora of beaches and baths that once lined Alameda’s shore along Central Avenue.

Sunday was the busiest day. The churches scarcely appreciated that the west end of town was hosting what the San Francisco Call described as “hideous orgies.” The City of Alameda stepped in, not only banning Sunday sports but imposing a $500-a-year license fee on all entertainment houses that charged admission.

Business came to an end. Croll lived with his wife, Nellie, and their family on the grounds of Neptune Gardens until 1891, when they moved into the old Britt’s Hotel. John renamed the place the Encinal Hotel and Saloon. That same year he applied for a liquor license. The application “was met with vigorous protest,” the newspapers reported. Despite the neighbors’ disapproval, the county granted Croll the license. On February 17, 1892, he began dispensing alcohol at the saloon he christened Croll’s, for his family.

Alameda Post - an old newspaper advertisement that says "Aviation Meet in Alameda Neptune Gardens'"
The Chamber of Commerce hoped to breathe new life into Neptune Gardens by sponsoring an air show in 1910. By then the Croll family had already begun dismantling the place by purchasing and moving two of the buildings across Webster Street. Clipping from the Oakland Tribune.

Neptune Gardens fades away

The Neptune Gardens property languished. In 1908, Johnny Croll moved a pair of buildings from “The Gardens” across Central and attached one of them to his hotel and saloon. In 1910, new owners hosted an air show, hoping to enliven the business. It did little good.

In 1916, Strehlow, Freese, and Peterson invested a considerable sum, as reported in the Oakland Tribune, to “reinforce the native beach with a foot deep coat of Monterey sand, making a perfect ocean beach 900 by 200 feet in size.”

On February 12, 1916, the Tribune reported, “The transformation of old Neptune’s Gardens in Alameda from an old-fashioned bathing and amusement park to a miniature Coney Island has wiped out all traces of the last amusement rendezvous of early California. Work is progressing rapidly.”

The partners also invested in transporting the Scenic Railway, the roller coaster from the now-closed Pan Pacific Exposition to Alameda on a barge. They reconstructed the railway near the site of today’s Neptune’s cafe on Central Avenue.

“New Surf Beach” opened on May 7, 1916, with only the Scenic Railway in operation. The new resort had a problem, however. Alameda already had a resort called Surf Beach. In January 1917, perhaps under pressure from the owners of the original Surf Beach, New Surf Beach underwent a name change. The new name: Neptune Beach.

According to the Tribune, this was done “to avoid confusion with the first Surf Beach, with which it has no connection. The big new beach resort has adopted the name of Neptune Beach.”

Alameda Post -a black and white photo of Neptune Beach guests. They are holding strips of cloth with words on them. One says "Yard of Joy for..."
Friends would help you celebrate your birthday with specially made cloth work called “Yards of Joy.” This family is posing in the studio at Neptune Beach, some holding their “Yards of Joy,“ others looking none too joyful. Photo courtesy Gary Lenhart.

Neptune Beach is born

On March 31, 1917, Neptune Beach opened its doors. A tall Moorish-style tower welcomed visitors. For just 10 cents—a nickel for kids—they could enjoy, among other treats, a swimming pool, a dance hall and a merry-go-round. They could win prizes at the shooting gallery and knock down 10 pins at a three-lane bowling alley that set those pins automatically. They could also ride the roller coaster that had opened 10 months earlier.

In 1922, Strehlow bought out Freese and Peterson and created the “Alameda Park Co.” Contra Costa Times history writer Nilda Rego tells us that this was a family corporation “that included sons, Arthur, Robert Jr. and Roland, and daughter, Margaret.”

The Strehlows “kept improving the park,” Rego writes. By the time they finished, the park boasted two swimming pools and an 8,000-seat stadium with a track for midget auto and motorcycle races. The family also added a colossal roller coaster to the one towed over from San Francisco. Its name described the sensation riders would experience: “Whoopee.”

The enterprise thrived and, over time, visitors enjoyed prize fights, professional baseball games, beauty contests, zoos, a carnival midway, and, of course, rides that included not only the original rollercoaster, but a larger, more exciting “Whoopee.”

Alameda history writer Judith Lynch describes how Neptune Beach catered to kids. “Kiddieland had miniature versions of the rides for adults,” she tells us. “You could ride the Baby Whoopee rollercoaster, board a half-pint electric train, and pedal swan boats in a tiny lake.”

Archie Bowles was in charge of the roller coasters. His daughter Margaret shared her memories in a piece she wrote honoring her father. She recalled visiting the fun house, called the Jester’s Palace. “A place of mazes, slides, and air hoses that would suddenly go off,” she recalled.

She remembered the fireworks with all their “oohs” and “ahs,” the games of chance with their “Kewpie dolls, dishes, vases, and trinket” as prizes, and “the most beautiful Merry-go-round in the world.”

She wrote, “it was a very sad day when the beach closed. If we could only bring back those days and put Neptune Beach as it was.”

The end of an era

That sad day came in 1939. Ahings began to unravel when the Strehlow family’s Alameda Park Company defaulted on a $45,000 debt payment to its bondholders in April. The bondholders foreclosed on April 7. On September 30, the bondholders sold the property to David and Albert Ichelson for $145,000—$3.1 million in 2024 dollars. “Included in the deal were the 125-acre amusement park, bathing beaches, athletic stadium, cottages, and theater,” the Tribune reported.

Alameda Post - Neptune Beach auction on March 25, 1940
These photos show the sign on the tower advertising the auction, as well as the auction taking place, led by auctioneer Fred Newburg. Photos courtesy Alameda Museum.

After keeping the park open for the remainder of the 1939 season, they ultimately failed to revive the park. The new owners put everything up for auction on March 25, 1940. By the end of November 1940, the park had fallen victim to the wrecking ball.

Dennis Evanosky is the award-winning Historian of the Alameda Post. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at

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