It's sometimes surprising what people care about, when it comes to historical buildings. But, part of Huntington Beach's history was as an oil town and we cared about the Bowen Buildings.
Three old tin and wood buildings, built in the 1920s, one with a classic Western false front, painted a dusty dove grey. The Bowen Buildings represented the beginning of the oil boom in Huntington Beach, with wildcatters, get-rich-quick schemes, and a radical change in the countryside.
An oil field near Alabama and Clay streets in Huntington Beach, circa early 1920s. We have since cleaned up well(s). (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)
Huntington Beach went from agricultural fields, tules and beach, to bustling town in true California pioneer "Gold Rush" spirit, only this was black gold. Oil worker encampments sprung up, as did the businesses that supported the boom.
The Bowen Buildings are remembered not only as an oil boom business, but as the business of one of Huntington Beach's early mayors, Samuel R. Bowen.
Huntington Beach's Main Street in 1927, a year before Samuel R. Bowen was elected to the city council. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)
Memories of a Bowen descendant
In 1984, Beverly Bowen Moeller, the granddaughter of Samuel R. Bowen, wrote down her memories of life in the 1930s in Huntington Beach. A typed collection of pages filed away in the Orange County Archives, she titled it Fifty Years Ago in Huntington Beach. It now represents a memory of life in Huntington Beach eight decades ago.
She offered her memories "for the entertainment and edification" of those living in Huntington Beach today, humorously describing how she learned the word "edification" from her grandfather, Samuel R. Bowen.
"He had, upon one of his European journeys, witnessed an example of belly-dancing in some Mediterranean port. 'It was not particularly edifying,' he stated solemnly to me,' " explained Bowen Moeller. "I learned no more about belly dancing from him, but he helped to increase my vocabulary."
Samuel R. Bowen was bi-lingual--with Spanish his first language--and well educated. His granddaughter recalls him meeting "with a small group of friends on Wednesday nights to read Don Quixote in the original 17th Century Spanish and laugh at the adventures of the hapless knight."
Left: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, first published in 1605. (Photo, Wiki Commons)
"My grandfather...was proud of saying he was the first civic official to have hired a landscape architect," recalled Bowen Moeller, living in Dallas, Texas at the time she wrote down her memories. "His purpose was to enhance the appearance of the town half covered with oil derricks."
"We could see and smell the activities associated with oil extraction and we could hear the wheezy regular puffs of the condensers from our classrooms at the elementary school," remembered Bowen Moeller. "During the twenties, Huntington Beach was awash in oil revenues."
Inspecting the Pacific Coast Highway north of Huntington Beach after the March, 1933, earthquake. (Photo, USGS)
The earthquake of 1933
Bowen Moeller lived "in the country" on Ellis Avenue, about a quarter mile east of Five Points (near Main/Ellis Avenue and Beach Boulevard today). She recalls the night the field beside her home "became a focal point for scores of frightened people, those from Huntington Beach proper who feared that a tidal wave was imminent, and neighbors who were afraid to stay indoors as the aftershocks continued." It was the earthquake of '33.
"A tent was put up beside our house and a bonfire was lit," describes Bowen Moeller. "Throughout the night, the fire was fed, the time between the aftershocks were noted, and the neighbors took turns telling folk tales from the countries of their origin. There was music and song. Someone had brought an accordion and perhaps there was a guitar and a fiddle."
Eader's Bakery in Huntington Beach, circa 1900. Some of the cooking was done outdoors in the alley off Main Street. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)
Caught in amber
Bowen Moeller's memories give us a glimpse into life in the town around the time Samuel R. Bowen was mayor. The five pages of typed memories are not long enough.
"...I could tell about flying in an open-cockpit biplane, grocery shopping at Chamness before supermarkets, fireworks from the pier on Fourth of July, Uncle Somebody who read the funny papers on the radio on Sunday morning," continues Bowen Moeller.
"I remember the nine-hole golf course, the pool hall (where no lady entered but I could go in to fetch my father), Harry Bakre's Golden Bear Cafe, Eader's Bakery, Tovatt's Hardware. Bill Gallienne's Texaco station, McCallen's refinery."
"These memories are akin to the proverbial fly caught in amber, caught and preserved unchanged..."
Fishing for oil
In another memoir of her grandfather as part of the publication, Early Business in Orange County, Bowen Moeller explains the rapid success of his business. He had been operating for a couple years by mid 1922, when there were "seventy-nine oil companies in the field, 118 producing, 142 drilling and forty derricks under construction."
The business of "fishing" came about because "lost pieces of equipment can become wedged in the (drilling) hole and must be 'fished out' before drilling can continue." describes Bowen Moeller. "Fishing is expensive. An authentic field report of a fishing job reads like a saga of frustration." She describes a fishing job that others had tried to finish over a seventeen-day period that was resolved in six hours when Bowen showed up with his fishing tools.
The arches that once stood at the west end of Main Street at Pacific Coast Highway were installed at the direction of Huntington Beach Mayor Samuel R. Bowen. (Photo, Frasher Foto Collection, Pomona Public Library)
Taking a stand
When Bowen decided to run for office, there were several issues troubling local residents. One was municipal restrictions about where oil drilling could occur and the encroachment of oil drilling in residential areas. There had been an effort in 1922 to remove drilling restrictions in 42 blocks of the downtown area, which Bowen worked to defeat. The residents wanted a cleaner, more attractive community.
Another issue was the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Orange County. Bowen ran for election in 1928 on a slate of three candidates--including former newspaper man Elson Conrad and pharmacist Bayard Butcher--all of whom took pro oil drilling restrictions and anti Klan positions.
Bowen's mother, Emilia Miranda--married to his father, newspaper man Nathan Streeter Bowen--was Mexican American, Bowen had been tutored by a Belgian priest, and his neighbors were from all over the world. His granddaughter Bowen Moeller recalled in her 1984 typed memories that the Huntington Beach community was a collection of immigrants.
The oil field along present-day Pacific Coast Highway, circa 1935. Today, there are miles of beautiful, open beach front. (Photo, Frasher Foto Collection, Pomona Public Library)
"...I would walk along the high-crowned oil road past the chili pepper drying houses, past an old wooden derrick with the fields of the small farms belonging to German, Japanese and Italian neighbors," wrote Bowen Moeller. "Across the street from our house was my favorite place in my small world, the nearly self-sufficient farm of the Armenian neighbors..."
Bowen is quoted as mayor, "Our ultimate destiny is to be a city and not an oilfield." He hired landscape architect Richard Beeson, had the gateway arches placed at Main Street and the pier, negotiated with Standard Oil for a municipal golf course, instituted a program for street paving and lighting, worked on lengthening the pier, and perhaps most importantly, led the City effort to acquire beachfront property.
Battle for the beachfront
Famously, Bowen took on the Huntington Beach Company while on the city council. At a September 4, 1928, meeting an incident was described in which City police officers and officials confronted Huntington Beach Company employees who were removing campers from the beach. The discussion is noted in the minutes as a "confabulation."
"About three years ago, we executed a lease covering ocean front property between Third Street and Main Street, to be used by the City of Huntington Beach and its guests as a playground only, for a consideration of One dollar per year," J.S. Lawshe, Huntington Beach Company is reported as stating. "At the time of the execution of these agreements, there was also a verbal agreement to the effect that the city council would pass an ordinance restricting the use of closed tents, cooking and housekeeping on our property for the reason that it is unsanitary and conducive to immorality. We do not want people to camp on our property."
An excerpt from the September 4, 1928, Huntington Beach city council minutes (click on image to enlarge). (City of Huntington Beach archives)
Bowen responded, "Word came to me about noon Saturday that the Huntington Beach Company employees were ordering people from the area between mean high tide line and low water mark, whereupon I advised the Chief of Police to consult with the City Attorney and act according to the Attorney's instructions."
An excerpt from the September 4, 1928, Huntington Beach city council minutes, describing the confrontation between the City and the Huntington Beach Company (click on image to enlarge). (City of Huntington Beach archives)
Bowen is reported at a later meeting to have publicly asked the city attorney about the City's powers in acquiring the beachfront land, to which the attorney replied the City's powers were "absolute." The negotiations to acquire the land proceeded.
Clearly, Bowen had a vision of what Huntington Beach might become, once the oil boom subsided.
The Bowen Buildings in the process of demolition after being gutted by fire, circa 1989. To this day, locals question the nature of the fire, as preservationists had mobilized an effort to create an oil museum utilizing the historic structures. (Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives)
Where the Bowen Buildings once stood
Today, where the Bowen Buildings once stood, is a small bronze plaque along the sidewalk at Yorktown Avenue and Lake Street.
Inscription on the monument:
Three industrial buildings were located at 1980 Lake Street and were operated by Samuel R. Bowen and his partner, Sisti Siracusa, as the S.R. Bowen Company and the Bowen Fishing Tool Company.
The S.R. Bowen Company was founded in 1920 and was credited with numerous developments of tools used in oil production in Southern California and worldwide. Some noteworthy tools produced included the Bowen L&L Spear (used to retrieve pipe from oil wells).
The S.R. Bowen Company remained in Huntington Beach until the mid 1950's when they moved to Santa Fe Springs, CA.
Above: Monument for the S.R. Bowen Buildings at the southeast corner of Yorktown Avenue and Lake Street. (Photo, August 16, 2013)
The S.R. Bowen industrial buildings were locally significant because of the elaborate, interior exposed wood truss roof supports and corrugated metal ("Tin"), exterior siding and roofing. The buildings contained machine, welding and blacksmith shops, warehouse space and offices. The buildings were constructed in 1920-1928 and dismantled in July 1989.
Left: Samuel R. Bowen. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)
Samuel Redman Bowen was born in Martinez, CA and spent his early life in the San Francisco area. he came to Huntington Beach from Coalinga, CA in 1920. In 1928 he was elected Mayor of the City and served one term.
He was a veteran of World War I and a member of the Huntington Beach American Legion Post. He was also a past president of both the Huntington Beach Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce. Samuel Bowen died August 6, 1944.
Presented to the City of Huntington Beach by the Huntington Beach Company - 1989
The S.R. Bowen Buildings monument flagged by a realtor's sign, at the corner of Yorktown Avenue (formerly Mansion Avenue) and Lake Street, where the Bowen Buildings once stood. Historical sites nearby include the former Northam Ranch property on the hill across the street (behind senior assisted living facility) and Huntington Beach High School on Main Street. (Photo, August 16, 2013)
Special thanks to the Orange County Archives for the wealth of historical records they save for research and future generations.
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