SANTA CRUZ -- One of Santa Cruz's most scenic and popular destinations marked a centennial milestone on Saturday with a gathering of several hundred people singing its praises.

The Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf -- built in 1914 with 70-foot-tall pilings -- was packed with well-wishers to kick off a yearlong celebration in honor of the half-mile wooden structure's 100th anniversary.

Festivities included free food, music, speeches by key city officials and a pop-up museum from the Museum of Art & History that showed pictures of the wharf in its early days as a docking spot for ships bringing goods such as gunpowder, potatoes and fish in and out of the area.

Hundreds of music lovers squeeze onto the wharf for the City’s Jazz on the Wharf series of Sunday concerts.  (Dan Coyro/Sentinel file)
Hundreds of music lovers squeeze onto the wharf for the City's Jazz on the Wharf series of Sunday concerts. (Dan Coyro/Sentinel file) ( Dan Coyro )

"From the wharf, we have a great view of the universe," local historian Geoffrey Dunn told the crowd. "There aren't really many places on earth like this."

The wharf evolved from a shipping hub to the home of commercial fishing and fish markets created primarily by Italian immigrants.

Around the 1960s, the wharf became a magnet for the tourism industry with the beginning of restaurants, souvenir shops and recreational activities such as kayaking.

An estimated 2 million people visit the wharf every year.

The wharf, which was constructed with a $172,000 bond, is owned and managed by the city of Santa Cruz.

The city manages the 24 business leases and takes care of all maintenance.

Skip Tara, 78, is part of the family that started Stagnaro Bros. restaurant and fish market.

Tara married Theresa Stagnaro, and began working in the family business in 1960.

Tara said he has passed the business on to his son John Tara, and is proud to see the wharf thriving today.

"We have a mall on stilts out here," he said. "I love seeing it continue. I love the 180-degree view."

Changes are in store for the wharf in the coming years as the city is crafting a longterm master plan, at a cost of $1.2 million, with the goal of attracting more visitors.

The vision is to widen the east side of the structure to make it easier for pedestrians and fishermen to share the space.

There are also plans to put in a 100-ton landing to accommodate tall ships such as the Hawaiian Chieftain, research vessels and the Chardonnay and Sea Odyssey.

Engineers are conducting an evaluation of the wharf's pilings to assess what improvements are needed to improve and strengthen the wooden structure.

The evaluation should wrap up by the end of the year, city officials said.

"This place lives, it breathes," wharf supervisor Jon Bombaci said Saturday. "We want it to continue to live into the next century. We want to bring it to another generation."

Follow Sentinel reporter Shanna McCord at Twitter.com/scnewsmom ------ (c)2013 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) Visit the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) at www.santacruzsentinel.com