Santa Cruz Museum Shines Light on the History of Surfing

4 min
The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, established in 1986, sits atop a cliff overlooking Steamer Lane beach. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum doesn't look like your typical museum, because it's a working lighthouse. But this tiny space, situated on a cliff overlooking the famous Steamer Lane beach, holds the distinction of being one of the first surf museums on the West Coast.

Kim Stoner, one of the museum's founders, is a surf historian and Santa Cruz native. He learned how to surf when he was 11 years old.

"It was a life-changing event," he says, his tanned face crinkling with a smile. "Once you get it in your blood, it's hard to get out."

(R-L) Dan Young, Bob Pearson, Howard "Boots" McGhee and Kim Stoner are all local surfers involved in the founding of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

Stoner and his friends came up with the idea for the museum in 1985, but the history of surfing in the state goes back 100 years earlier, to a hot day in July 1885.

The three princes while students at Saint Matthews Military Academy in San Mateo. (Courtesy of Hawaii State Archives)

Three Hawaiian princes — brothers David Kawānanakoa, Edward Keliʻiahonui and Jonah Kalanianaʻole — were sent to California by the King of Hawaii to attend Saint Matthews Military Academy in San Mateo. While on summer vacation, David caught a glimpse of the swell at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, close to where the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk stands today.

"[David] probably saw the perfect 'A-frame' waves at the river mouth, similar to the waves of Waikiki ... and said to his brothers, 'Man, we got to make some surfboards!' " Stoner says.

So, they did. They went to the local timber mill, picked up some redwood planks and shaped them into boards using knives. Their boards were close to 18 feet long and weighed more 200 pounds. When they dropped them into the river and surfed those waves, local reporters were there to capture the scene.

This moment, according to Stoner, cements in stone that surfing on the mainland United States originated in Santa Cruz.

Outside the museum, a plaque commemorates that day with an engraving of the three princes. But it's inside where you really get a surf education.

A plaque engraved with the portrait of the three Hawaiian princes sits at the entrance of the Surfing Museum. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

Surfboards hang from the rafters, flippers and old T-shirts are tacked onto display boards, and everywhere you look there are photos of people surfing in Santa Cruz, dating back to the early 1900s.

"It's kind of congested in here," Stoner tells me. It's quite the understatement.

You are guided through the exhibit by footprints painted on the floor. The first place they bring you to is a replica of the board the Hawaiian princes shaped and rode. Stoner raps it with his knuckles, and it sounds like he's knocking on a door.

"This is first-growth redwood. See how tightly grained it is? This is really heavy," he says.

Kim Stoner stands next to a replica of the board the Hawaiian princes surfed on at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

Next to it, a beat-up yellow ironing board rests against the wall. It seems very out of place, until Stoner tells me that someone used it as a surfboard. You can still see the salt on it.

You follow the footsteps into the 1930s, when the Santa Cruz Surf Club was founded, to the '50s when Jack O'Neill invented the modern wetsuit.

An old sweatshirt from the Santa Cruz Surfing Club sits in the Surfing Museum. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)
Before the invention of wetsuits, surfers would cut the sleeves off wool sweaters and wear them to keep warm in the water. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

In the 1990s, Jane "The Lane" McKenzie makes an appearance in the museum. McKenzie earned her nickname because she was one of the few women surfing Steamer Lane in the early '60s.

"For a young woman to be able to be in the ocean with these kind of gnarly guys ... it was something else," she remembers. Given what she went through back then, she has a remarkably positive — and forgiving — attitude.

"I've been kicked, spit on, slugged, you know, everything. But I always think, 'Oh, I must be having a better day than them,' " she says.

Jane "The Lane" McKenzie poses next to a photo of her displayed in the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

Still, she stresses there were only a few "stinkers," and that most of the men she surfed with treated her like a sister.

McKenzie's photo is one of the last stops on the timeline because once you finish the '90s ... you're done.


Kim Stoner hopes the museum can expand into the 2000s someday, and include the local big wave surf competition, Mavericks. Still, even at its size, the museum is an incredible archive of surfing history, not just in Santa Cruz, but throughout the world. Many of today’s surfing standards — from techniques to technologies — were invented and perfected in Santa Cruz.

One of my favorite things about the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is that it's such a labor of love. Stoner tells me that nearly everything we're looking at was donated by the local community — fellow surfers digging in their garages for old boards and photos, talking to family members and sharing their own stories. On top of that, the museum is managed by volunteers, funded by donations and is always free to visit.

"It's a gem," Stoner says, standing in the museum he helped create. "We're very lucky to have it."

People watch surfers below ride waves at Steamer Lane beach. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

But you don’t have to be a surfer to appreciate the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. It might be enough to stand outside the lighthouse, smell the salty air, hear the waves crashing on Steamer Lane below you, and imagine when 140 years ago three Hawaiian princes lugged a 200-pound piece of wood into the freezing water, paddled out, and stood up off the California coastline for the first time.