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Union Avenue Plunge

Union Avenue Plunge pool & concession area c.1925

Modern-day Bakersfield has spray parks and the multi-acre McMurtry Aquatic Complex for cooling off and beating the summer heat. But according to local historian Gilbert Gia, back in the day, local citizens had a massive 100 by 300 foot pool called the Union Avenue Plunge.

The Plunge was the brainchild of a locomotive engineer turned alfalfa farmer named John E. Roberts. Roberts originally set out to build a water reservoir for his crops in the early 1900s, but after planners decided the “new” highway from Los Angeles to Bakersfield would meet at Union Avenue, he heard opportunity knocking. So he decided to make his reservoir have a dual function; it would serve to catch water pumped out of a 145-foot deep well to water the alfalfa, but that water would be simultaneously replaced by well water, meaning that the water would be fresh enough to swim in.

Roberts quickly turned the staid old reservoir into a happening venue by adding electric lighting (at that time, a novelty), springboards, a diving tower, some slides, and a wide concrete deck for swimmers. Weather archives indicate the average high for Bakersfield in May of 1916 was a balmy 97 degrees, and that may have been just the motivation Roberts needed to throw the doors open on the 14th of that month.

An article about the grand opening in the Bakersfield Californian the next day said that 1,000 residents visited the Plunge between high noon and 11 p.m. when Roberts finally called it a day. More than half of those visitors donned their old-timey swimsuits and tested the nearly two million gallons of fresh water. Some stayed in the shallow four-foot end, while more adventurous swimmers and divers ventured into the 12-foot depths.

The Plunge would survive several biblical-like plagues during its long history, the first of which came in 1922 when a fire burned down the structures and injured Roberts as he tried to run back into his office to retrieve money. The pool, however, was fine and weathered this first great challenge without taking a scar.

It continued to thrive through the polio scare of the ‘30s, the war conservation efforts of the ‘40s, the suburbanization of the ‘50s, and stumbled into the ‘70s a shadow of its former self, when it was finally turned into Bakersfield’s second-ever skate park.

The Pon family then owned the land, and would open another private pool and dancehall down the road at Belle Terrace and 99, but it would never approach the popularity of Bakersfield’s original Plunge on Union Avenue.

Photos courtesy of Kern County Museum

Article appeared in our 30-3 Issue - August 2013