Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fire pits and beach camping


Sea Breeze Auto Camp, circa 1935. (Photo, Pomona Public Library)

   Visitors to Huntington Beach always comment on the pit fires dotting the beach at night.  It's routine for locals to celebrate birthdays, reunions or ordinary get togethers with a circle of friends at a beach fire.  It's also a long tradition, dating back a hundred years to when beach living was a necessity.

One of the tent cities of early Huntington Beach. Tent cities were constructed for early residents and oil workers, until housing construction caught up. Other tent cities were constructed for the annual Grand Army of the Republic reunions, the Methodist tent city, and revival groups.

The Methodist Auditorium and campground at Huntington Beach, circa 1910.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)


The Grand Army of the Republic annual reunion in 1913, with a tent city stretching from Acacia to Orange streets in Huntington Beach.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   "In the early years, before and after 1920, there was a lot of camping on the beach," writes former City Historian Alicia Wentworth in a collection of "miscellaneous historical data" updated in 2005.  "During the oil boom days, there were hundreds of oil workers who couldn't get a place to stay and they had to rent rooms by the shift.  As many as three people would sleep in the same bed because of the shortage of rooms in Huntington Beach." 

By 1940, there was a forest of oil derricks on the coastline of Huntington Beach.  Homes, resorts, restaurants and shops now occupy the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway, while miles of open beach remain.  (Photo, Los Angeles Times)

   Wentworth describes the beach as "covered with cardboard shacks" and World War I army tents.  Around this same time, Bungalet Court--a collection of batten board cottages--constructed in the present-day Main Street Branch Library - Triangle Park site, provided additional housing for early residents.  The temporary nature of the housing prompted locals to call it "Cardboard Alley."

An early 1900s advertisement cheered the new "coast boulevard" which gave travelers an easy route between Los Angeles county and Huntington Beach.

   The demand for beach camping continued into the 1930s, transitioning from needed work-force housing to Americans' new-found love of road travel.  

   Charles Henry Davis, President of the National Highways Association, wrote about our new love affair with the open road in the May 1915 edition of Travel Magazine, "People, like water, must move or stagnate. They must run and play like the brook itself or become sluggish and dull—to themselves as well as to others. Of the seven modes of intercommunication—water, roads, postal, railroad, telegraph, telephone and wireless—only one, roads, is free to all the people of the earth." 

A custom motorhome, early 1900s.  Before the mass manufacturing of motorhomes and camping vehicles, Americans jerry-rigged their own road travel contraptions.  (Photo, Motor Magazine)

   The City of Huntington Beach leased property from the Huntington Beach Company for a campground, adding facilities and picnic tables.  The Sea Breeze Auto Camp was located south of Lake Street, along Ocean Avenue (present-day Pacific Coast Highway) and the railroad tracks to present-day Beach Boulevard. 

   Later, the Huntington Beach Company property was deeded to William S. Ebert after he bought out the City's interest.  Ebert added an oil and gas station at the intersection of Ocean Avenue and First Street in 1928, to accommodate travelers.  At the same time the City was adding "ornamental lights" and traffic control signals at the intersection of Main Street and Ocean Avenue.  Life in Huntington Beach was getting busier.

Pacific Electric Railway "red car" bringing beach-goers to Huntington Beach, circa 1907.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   By 1938, Ebert reported to the city council a total of 57,000 registrations representing a total of 140,000 people stayed at Sea Breeze, at an average stay of 16 days per person.  The total number of beach goers that year was 630,000, a ninety percent increase over 1937.  Only three percent of the people reported at the beach were from Huntington Beach.

Girls walking on the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1939, #2 on the Historic Downtown walking guide. (Photo, Pomona Public Library)

    Ebert constructed beach cottages at Sea Breeze and later gained city council approval to install a neon sign at the entrance, still a novelty at the time.

Sea Breeze Auto Camp with beach cabins and palm leaf awnings, circa 1935.  (Photo, Pomona Public Library)

   In an effort to manage camping at the beach, the City constructed a municipal trailer park at the beach in 1933, with a first night fee of 75 cents.  By 1949, the City was charging a whopping $35.00 a month or $10.00 weekly for a trailer beach side spot, $25.00 a month for tents.  Camp sites were equipped with electricity, with a 50-cent charge for a blown fuse.

Beach goers near the saltwater "plunge" next to the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1935. Note the oil derricks in the background. (Photo, Pomona Public Library)

   In addition to the beach, campers enjoyed amusements at the Pavalon next to the Huntington Beach pier which featured live music and dancing, and--as of 1919, an amusement "new to the coast," a dartboard.*  Life at the beach was good.

"Down at the beach," circa 1895, just the beginning of our fascination with Huntington Beach. (Photo, Santa Ana Public Library)

*In April 1919, the Huntington Beach Board of Trustees (predecessor to the city council) listened to a proposal by a Mr. Jacobs regarding installation of a small pavilion with amusements next to the pier, including a dart board--a brand new amusement--for which he would provide the City with "50% of receipts." 

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