Thursday, June 12, 2014

1914 to 2014: Huntington Beach, surfing, and the longest pier on the coast

ABOVE: A group of children, moms and a safety line at Huntington Beach, circa 1915, a year after the pier was re-dedicated.  From the first arrivals in the post-rancho era, the beach and pier have been a focus of community activity. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   The landscape in Huntington Beach was dramatically different in 1914.  The City had incorporated five years earlier and still had a population of under a thousand.  The area was rural farm and grazing land, with vast stretches of empty beach.  

   There was a "booster" effort to bring people to town to help development and commerce, with the Pacific Electric Railway offering Huntington Beach excursion tours.  A real estate advertisement that year assured, "High tides and mighty breakers bring no misgivings to inhabitants nor property owners of Huntington Beach."  The advertisement exclaimed the town had "all modern improvements," like "soft water under 50 pounds pressure, electric lights, gas, telephone, oiled streets and a new sewer bond" with more improvements on the way.

ABOVE: A Pacific Electric Railway "Huntington Beach Excursion" car at the station near the pier, circa 1915.  At the time of the pier re-dedication in 1914, the Pacific Electric "Red Car" had been shuttling people from Los Angeles to Huntington Beach for a decade.  Read more about the Red Car at Take a ride on the Red Car: When the Pacific Electric Railway came to town, (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   The Huntington Beach township was clustered around Main Street and the pier, all within two miles from the beach.  Incorporated in 1909, the climate, beach, and the investment by Henry Huntington brought the railroad line to town and created a desirable environment for the spirited pioneers who settled what became Surf City.

ABOVE: The old wooden pier at Huntington Beach, circa 1910. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   Land lots up to five acres or more were going for----get ready for heartbreak----$300 to $450 per acre.  With ten percent down ($30 to $45) and payments of five percent quarterly, people were arriving by train car after train car to take a look around and buy a piece of land by the ocean.

LEFT: Huntington Beach resident Alva Reynolds flying his "Man-Angel" aircraft over Los Angles in 1906.  Reynolds proposed to race the Man-Angel against an automobile from Los Angeles to Pomona in July 1906 for a $1,000 bet.  He also proposed selling his aircraft for individual use, as a type of air cycle.  (Los Angeles Herald, July 1, 1906)

   By 1914, Huntington Beach resident Alva Reynolds had already flown his "Man-Angel" over Los Angeles and attempted to create wave motors with his brother, George Reynolds (an early Huntington Beach lifeguard), at the industrial pier near present-day 22nd Street. (More at Masters of the Ocean Waves,

ABOVE: "Sunshine and Shadow," toddlers at Huntington Beach old wooden pier in 1906, before Pacific storms washed it away. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   In the year 1914, the year the final pole was set for the first telephone line that crossed north America, east to west.  The innovation of the automobile assembly line in 1914 made road travel more affordable, and, locally, people were beach camping in greater numbers.   The Orange County supervisors voted in 1914 to support construction of a road along the coast, the future Pacific Coast Highway.  The local newspaper reported in June 1914 that 21 building permits had been issued, which they considered a "splendid showing."   The future was bright and nothing seemed impossible.

ABOVE: Students at the Huntington Beach Grammar School, located at 5th Street and Orange Avenue, circa 1910.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   The Holly Sugar Company was already a booming industry, getting a sweet return from local sugar beets.  The Carnegie Library was open and would remain the City's sole library through World War II.  The Pacific Oilcloth Linoleum Company was under construction near Holly Sugar, touted as the only oilcloth manufacturer west of St. Louis.

   Internationally, conflicts grew in Europe during 1914, leading to World War I.  In Africa, Mahatma Gandhi was arrested campaigning for Indian rights.  In Latin America, the Panama Canal opened, providing easier steamship travel between the Pacific and Atlantic.  Pancho Villa was leading rebel forces in Mexico.
Right: An excerpt from the minutes of the May 13, 1912, board of trustees meeting-- the predecessor to the city council--approving Ordinance No. 91 regarding the issuance of a $70,000 bond for the "construction and completion of a municipal wharf for the water front." (Image, City of Huntington Beach archives)
   But, of all the news in 1914, the newly rebuilt Huntington Beach pier was the happiest.  It had been missed after being blown away by Pacific storms.  After a $70,000 bond and fundraising campaign, the community geared up for a celebration.

ABOVE: A group photograph for the annual relay race in Orange County in 1913. A banner for the $70,000 pier bond can be seen in the background. (Photo, Anaheim Public Library)

A gathering on the steps of the Huntington Inn, May 31, 1912.  Following the May 13 board of trustees meeting supporting the pier bond, this gathering is thought to be about fundraising support for the pier.  The crowd includes Huntington Beach's first mayor, Ed Manning (second row, far right in light-color suit),   another Huntington Beach mayor, Orange County supervisor, and pioneer realtor, Thomas Talbert (second row on step, fourth from left with hat in hand). Joining Huntington Beach officials are residents from the Japanese community in nearby Wintersburg Village, including Wintersburg Mission clergy, Reverend Hisakichi Terasawa (front row, fourth from right) and Charles Mitsuji Furuta (front row below step, second from left), and at center next to Rev. Terasawa, a gentleman identified as clergy from the Westminster Presbyterian community, thought to be Reverend R.A. Weed. (Photo courtesy of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church) © All rights reserved.

The pier dedication in 1914
   The Huntington Beach News reported the dedication ceremonies for the "Pride of the Pacific" would last two days in 1914, June 20 and 21.  The pier was the longest concrete pier on the Pacific Coast at 1316 feet, "being only four feet short of a quarter of a mile" explained the News.

ABOVE: The Huntington Beach pier and bandstand, 1914, with a crowd that would be considered overdressed a century later.  The City supported a concert band for many years, with concerts at the beach bandstand a regular event. (Photo, Library of Congress)

   During the two-day celebration, a reported 20,000 people came out to see the pier.  The Huntington Beach News noted 1,500 automobiles packed the streets.  It was the probably largest number of people ever assembled in the new town, all taking part in sporting events, musical concerts and the grand finale illumination of the pier.

LEFT: George Freeth, the first documented surfer in California, was featured at the 1914 re-dedication ceremony for the pier.  According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, Freeth helped revive the sport of surfing in Hawaii after the missionary era, riding his board standing (instead of prone) and angling it across the waves.  Author Jack London watched Freeth surf in Hawaii in 1907, learning to surf from him.  This led London to write Riding the South Sea Surf for Ladies Home Companion in 1907 and The Cruise of the Snark in 1911. Freeth sailed for California in 1907, where he became the first professional lifeguard, was honored for his life-saving actions, and gave surfing and swimming demonstrations up and down the coast.  Born in 1883 in Honolulu to an Irish sea captain father and a half-Polynesian mother, Freeth passed away in San Diego in April 7, 1919, at age 35 during the Spanish Flu pandemic. (Photo, WikiCommons)
   One of the highlights of the 1914 pier ceremonies was a surfing demonstration by Irish-Hawaiian George Freeth (more about Freeth and Huntington Beach surfing history at Boards on the beach,  It was the first time many had witnessed surfing, the sport that would become so entwined with Huntington Beach and inspire so many to head for the water.

ABOVE: The Surfing Walk of Fame on Main Street in the historic downtown recognizes the "first surfer at the HB pier" in 1914, George Freeth.  (Photo, 2014)

After 1914
  After Freeth, came Duke Kahanamoku and his redwood surfboards.  By the early 1900s, redwood from California was being shipped to Hawaii for construction.  The availability of imported redwood in Hawaii led to more boards according to the Surf History Preservation Collection in Hilo "since boards were able to be made in large numbers and various sizes."

ABOVE: Tucked inside a canoe building at the Bailey House Museum in Wailuku, Maui ( is a redwood surfboard belonging to Duke Kahanamolu.  Redwood now grows on Maui. (Photo, M. Urashima, May 2014) © All rights reserved.

ABOVE: The 1910 redwood surfboard displayed under glass at the Bailey House Museum measures  ten feet in length, almost two feet in width, and is almost two inches thick.  A museum spokesperson says the board "was given to Bailey House Museum by Sam Pryor who received it from Dr. George Fish who was in the Olympics with Duke."  Fish was a rugby player and Californian. (Photo, M. Urashima, May 2014) © All rights reserved.

   According to Legendary Surfers, "Duke had the biggest board of anyone. It was a 16-footer, made of koa wood, weighing 114 expression heard the most, when he caught a wave, was his yell of 'Coming down!'"  His redwood boards in California were equally large.  Getting in the way of the old redwood boards was like getting hit with a telephone pole.

ABOVE: Duke Kahanamoko returned to Huntington Beach for a surfing contest in 1963.  Near the pier is a statue dedicated to Duke. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   Huntington Beach lifeguards Bud Higgins and Gene Belshe met Duke and "the Hawaiians" in the 1920s when they were in Southern California working in a film.  Duke was already known for his swimming and surfing, and happily played small roles in film to support his passion.  A natural ambassador for the sport of surfing, he shared what he knew.  Higgins and Belshe were in the right place at the right time.  They learned how to construct redwood boards, big boards, like Duke's, buying what they needed at the lumber yard.  And then they began surfing near the pier.

   The local story is that the boards were too big and too heavy to cart to the beach and back home every day, so surfers would often bury them in the sand.  Since few were surfing at the time, the boards safely waited to be unearthed by their owners for the next day's waves.  Others with access to the laundry room at the Saltwater Plunge next to the pier stacked their boards inside near the dryers, to dry out their boards for the next day.*

ABOVE: A postcard of the Saltwater Plunge next to the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1910. The Pacific Electric Railway's "Red Car" and train station can be seen in the background.  The Plunge was advertised as a way to go beach bathing without having to brave the waves.  A few years later, braving the waves was exactly what surfing was about. (Image, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: A beauty contest near the Saltwater Plunge, circa 1925, with fashions considered daring for the day. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   Surfing might have seemed only a simple coastal pastime.  But, it changed one day in Orange County.  Relaxing at Corona del Mar beach with friends in 1925, Duke witnessed the capsizing of the fishing boat, Thelma, caught in rough waves.  He set out to rescue passengers, using his surfboard.  The rescue at Corona del Mar beach was lauded in the media.  

   "Of the 29 people on the Thelma, 17 died and 12 made it through," reports biographer Malcolm Gault-Williams. "Of the 12, eight were rescued by the Duke using his surfboard."  California lifeguards would get boards after that.

ABOVE: The Huntington Beach pier grew a few more feet in the early 1930s after another Pacific storm swept through town, requiring repairs.

What it means to be Surf City
   Over the past hundred years, surfing has simply become part of daily life in Huntington Beach.  No longer struggling with heavy redwood boards, it's commonplace to see barefoot surfers of every age cradling a board under one arm while cycling or walking barefoot to the beach. 

   Eateries near the beach offer "grinds" to satisfy surfers more-than-hungry after a few hours riding the waves (which means it's food all of us love).  Lifeguards have boards.  We have dog surfing contests (the coolest canines in the country).  Our high schools have surfing teams.  There are boards on top of cars, in back of trucks, and peaking out of sunroofs.  Wetsuits dry out on balconies, front porches and laundry lines all over town.  There is an annual "blessing of the waves."  And--in moving final tributes to those important to the community who have passed--surfers organize "paddle outs" near the pier to scatter flowers in the water.

ABOVE: Bicycle racks shaped like, what else, surfboards, at Huntington Beach City Hall. (Photo, M. Urashima, 2014) © All rights reserved.

   We might be a big city now with paved roads, indoor plumbing, shopping malls and urban conveniences unknown in our pioneer days.  But, we'll always be a surf town happiest with sand between our toes and a "pride of the Pacific" pier.  

ABOVE: Cleaning barnacles off a pier piling, circa 1920s-1930s. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: A concession stand and beach-goers near the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1930s. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: A jitney ferrying passengers from the Main Street end of the pier to the ocean end of the pier, circa 1940s. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: The rustic boardwalk along the beach at the pier, circa 1940s. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: Corky Carroll of "Endless Summer" fame, emerging from the surf near the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1959. Corky offers a surfing school at Huntington Beach today. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: A surfing contest near the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1963. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: Surfboard shapers Sam Hawks, Clive Chapman and David Brewer, circa 1970. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: Near the pier at a 1972 surfing contest. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: Surfers near the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1985. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: Huntington Beach's International Surfing Museum in the annual July 4 parade, circa 1992.  Visit the museum at 411 Olive Avenue in the historic downtown (an art deco building dating back to 1935, once a doctor's office).  You'll find local surf history and one of the old redwood boards. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

ABOVE: The crowd of thousands at the U.S. Open of Surfing, July 2013. (Photo, M. Urashima, July 2013) © All rights reserved.

ABOVE: A surfer heads out to the waves next to the Huntington Beach pier, 100 years after George Freeth. (Photo, M. Urashima, 2014) © All rights reserved.

   News about the 100-year event at the pier on June 21, 2014, and beyond.

Visit Huntington Beach,

Surfing Walk of Fame,

*"An Early History of Surfing in Huntington Beach," by Dilbert "Bud" Higgins, circa early 1960s, courtesy of Gae Treece, Bud's Granddaughter and as posted on

All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Huntington Beach blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.