by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was in 1870, during the early days of greater Los Angeles’ first boom that an enterprising ship captain, Samuel S. Dunnels, and his partner William A. Abbott, opened up “New Port” in the extensive bay that used to be the emptying point of the Santa Ana River, before that water course shifted a bit to the west. The pair built their simply wharf on the inner part of the bay just after Anaheim citizens and other investors, including William Workman, decided to erect their own port, Anaheim Landing where the San Gabriel River recently was rerouted (the Rio Hondo, the old course, empties into the Los Angeles River) and ended at the ocean where today’s Long Beach and Seal Beach met.
In both cases, the idea was to avoid having to take crops and receive goods through the long-established port at San Pedro and Wilmington and, a few years later, in 1874, yet another competitor cropped up along the coast northward at the new town of Santa Monica, where the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, whose first president and then treasurer was F.P.F. Temple. Temple, Workman and partners also had a proposed townsite at Centinela, near modern Inglewood, and they pitched the idea of a wharf where Ballona Creek empties into the Pacific.
So, that first half of the Seventies included a lot of speculation concerning seaside land and wharves to handle the future needs of communities throughout the region. At Newport, the McFadden brothers, John, Robert, and James, teamed together to acquire the existing wharf and nearby land and further develop it. An early reference from an exuberant correspondent to the Los Angeles Herald of 19 April 1874 under the heading of “Newport,” proclaimed:
Yes Sir! And a fashionable place it will be yet. For only eight miles from this embryo city [Tustin] is the harbor of Newport, at the mouth of the Santa Ana river, where there is a wharf and warehouse all ready to be used as storage. Here then is an opening for some enterprising capitalist to start a lumber yard, when the entire valley can be supplied, as the roads are good and free from sand. Here also the products of the valley may be shipped cheaper than at other points. The agricultural resources of this beautiful valley are really very great . . . and it actually seems to me while I am writing you this hasty screed, that the place is really moving on with great strides.
In late June, with the title of “Newport Landing,” the Herald discussed the great quantities of grain waiting for shipment and it expounded that “Newport is pronounced one of the best natural landings along this part of the coast and, with the improvements that the farmers of that vicinity are preparing to make, it will be a perfectly safe harbor . . .”
The next summer, a correspondent identified only as “S” and who might have been Santa Ana founder William Spurgeon, excitedly forecast a great “City by the Sea” from Santa Ana to Newport Bay with “good sturdy citizens, who in due time will build a railroad from here to the bay, where as fine a landing as is to be found upon this coast can be made.” The writer felt that the area would “have the Long Branch [a reference apparently to the seaside locale of that name in New Jersey south of New York City] of the Pacific Coast at Newport.”
In September, after a new wharf was completed the prior month at what commonly called Newport Landing, the Herald reported, in a piece titled “Affairs in Southern Los Angeles” that the McFaddens’ new steamer, called the Newport, arrived at the facility with 150,000 feet of lumber and one hundred people showed up to see the ship dock and unload its cargo. It was reported that the Newport was slated to make the journey from the port to San Francisco and back every two weeks “and she has now, cargoes of grain in the warehouse at Newport sufficient to occupy her for some time.”
Moreover, it was noted that “the citizens of Santa Ana and vicinity held a meeting last week to discuss the feasibility of building a narrow-gauge railroad to Newport, a distance of eight miles. An engineer present estimated the cost of the work, with an engine and platform cars at $75,000.”
Of course, all booms go bust and that happened later the same year, in a collapse of the state and regional economy that led to, spectacularly, the failure of the bank of Temple and Workman. While there were some lean years for about a decade, a new, much larger boom, the famed Boom of the Eighties, ensued after the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’s transcontinental rail line to Los Angeles at the end of 1885. James and Robert McFadden found the time opportune to remake their Newport Bay facility.
In 1888, the moved operations from inside the bay to the south-facing section of the Balboa Peninsula, a large sand spit extending southeastward from the mainland, and constructed a wharf there that was replaced, in 1940, by the current pier. The new wharf had a rail line, the Santa Ana and Newport, built from it that extended, within a few years, eleven miles to Santa Ana, the seat of the newly created County of Orange, which was established in 1889.
Again, however, there was a bust and the Nineties included a national depression and, locally, six years of drought, which hardly boded well for the further development and success of Newport. Still, in the early 90s, the town of Newport Beach was platted, though it remained sparsely populated and developed for the time being. Another major issue for the wharf was that, in the so-called “Free Harbor Fight” between San Pedro/Wilmington and Santa Monica for federal funding that would determine the supremacy of one over the other in regional shipping, the former came out on top.
The idea of Newport as a large-scale commercial harbor was scotched and the McFaddens sold their wharf in 1899 to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which, within a decade, shuttered the rail system to Santa Ana. Three years later, the brothers sold land, including on the peninsula, to a new arrival from Arizona. This led to the next phase of the area’s development, which occurred during yet another growth boom in the first years of the 20th century.
William S. Collins, who apparently had all manner of speculative enterprises in oil, mining, banking and real estate when he landed in Los Angeles, acquired his holdings for about $70 an acre on the mainland and peninsula in 1902 and was able to strike a partnership within a few years with Henry E. Huntington, the transportation titan whose electric streetcar system, eventually known as the Pacific Electric Railway, was rapidly transforming the region.
With a streetcar line built to the peninsula, Collins was hoping to turn what became known as Balboa Peninsula and an island of that name (really three islands: the main one, a little one on the east divided by a canal, and Collins Island, which has just eight residences, off to the west) into a resort and tourist destination. Water was piped in by a system built in 1907 and the Balboa Pavilion was built by the end of the decade, as examples of how substantial sums were invested in trying to get Collins’ vision implemented.
In spring 1909, Collins announced major development plans for the island, including a concrete retaining wall, 74,000 feet of sidewalks, and 22,000 cubic feet of curbing, as well as dredging and the building of a retaining bulkhead to add forty acres to the island with a machine acquired by the Bolsa Chica Gun Club where the wetlands is in Huntington Beach. A 23 May advertisement in the Los Angeles Times from the Balboa Island Realty Company offered beach lots in “Balboa by the Sea” for just $300. Ferries would take prospective buyers from the peninsula to the island, where there was “plenty of pure water” piped over from the mainland and “every modern convenience,” including street work already paid for by Collins and his firm.
Three years later, in summer 1912, a bridge was built to the island from the mainland to allow access from the “Los Angeles and Santa Ana auto road” and was “stout enough to carry automobile, electric car and pedestrian traffic.” Spanning sixty feet in width and tall enough to allow for boats to pass beneath it, the span had concrete pillars built into in the bed of the bay and creosote-soaked beams on the road surface. It was added, though, that these could be replaced with concrete at any time.
By 1915, however, Collins was unable to hold on to almost of all of his property in the area and the following year the area was annexed to the city of Newport Beach, which incorporated a decade prior, in 1906. Development remained somewhat sparse, though there was some subsequent growth. One of the notable events was the creation of an “Illumination of Lights,” replaced in 1918 by the “Tournament of Lights” and held in early August with decorated boats parading around the Bay. One of the tournament founders was Joseph Beek, creator of a ferry between the mainland and Balboa Island which continues under his family management over a century later.
The August 1924 edition, held two weeks before the date on the photo featured here, drew 50,000 people and there were many prizes for floats, of which there were 100 entrants, including one awarded to Grace Bell Taylor, a resident of little Puente. The festival, by the late 1940s, was refashioned into a Christmas holiday boat pageant and it has become one of the best-known events of its type over the many decades.
While Collins owned the western half of the peninsula, a major change to the eastern portion came in 1923, the peak year of yet another substantial regional boom (and when Walter P. Temple founded and launched the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928.) The Blankenhorn Realty Company of Pasadena acquired the land and began an aggressive marketing and sales campaign for what it called “The Peninsula at Balboa.”
Ads in local papers from early summer 1923 crowed that the peninsula “was considered by devotees of beach life as the finest stretch of residential waterfront in Southern California. The company was at work to improve the property “and transform it into the most notable section of beach homes in the country.” Its officials studied the Deauville resort of northwestern France and “New Miami” as exemplars for what was being contemplated for Balboa.
With surf on the ocean side, opportunities abounded for “open water bathing, surf riding and off-shore fishing.” The placid waters on the bay side were such that it was “entirely safe as a bathing place and water ‘playground’ for children.” The bay, of course, was known for “yachting parties” and an “anchoring ground for a fleet of pleasure craft” with moorings, landings and a clubhouse to be built by the company for residents and their guests.
Notably, as the ad claimed that there were already many inquiries about lots through “pre-opening reservations,” it was added that these early birds would “erect residences in keeping with the restrictions imposed and the general exclusiveness of the community.” Among these, undoubtedly, were “restrictive covenants” specifying that only those of the “Caucasian race” could live there, whether or not the prices were out of reach for minorities.
Another ad referred to the project as “a restricted, highly improved, private Residential Beach Park” for “people of refinement.” This is reminiscent of promotional material for Walter P. Temple’s Temple City, which stated that “white people of a desirable class” lived in that town. The beaches were not only restricted, but patrolled, and improvements included gas, electricity, sewers, concrete streets (the main ones with 8-inch thick surfaces, two inches more than state highway standards), ornamental street lamps and “pure, soft water.” A miniature railroad was built to bring concrete and other construction materials for the roads and infrastructure.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection is a great Spence Air Photo aerial shot of that portion of the peninsula as well as Balboa Island, parts of the mainland, and segments of Newport Bay in the distance. Dated 17 August 1924, the photo shows the undulating waterway of the bay at the top, what looks to be a completely undeveloped shoreline and not even a bridge along what looks to be a portion of the modern Coast Highway spanning the waterway, and a dirt road that would later be Jamboree Road leading to a bridge, probably the one completed in 1912, connecting the mainland to Balboa Island.
Balboa Island has a fair amount of development on it, though there are considerable areas without structures. In the water are sailboats and other watercraft on the bay’s channels especially between the island and peninsula. As for the latter, we can see the surf pounding the south shore of the peninsula, a rock jetty at the southeastern extremity, a strip of houses along the placid bayside shoreline and the several newly laid-out streets for the tract Blankenhorn was developing.
Among those modern concrete-paved thoroughfares are the west-to-east roads, including a portion of Balboa Boulevard along the bay side and Miramar Drive and Ocean Boulevard below it. Going more or less south to north are the lettered streets, G, I, L and M with Channel Road at the eastern end of the peninsula. Between I and L streets and running at slight angles are Plaza del Norte and Plaza del Sur. A half dozen narrower and darker roadways are alleys, including Oceanfront at the southern end facing the Pacific.
While there are few permanent structures, autos are parked at the ends of the streets and along the east side of Channel Road are were likely day visitors or, perhaps, overnight campers. The latter was possible because of an inscription on the reverse below the Spence Air Photos stamp giving the date and image identification number. The inscription reads, “Balboa Peninsula—about 52 miles south of L.A. Daisy and I camped out over the 4th of July here.”
Perhaps the writer of the short note was able to purchase this print as a souvenir of the visit and it turned out that the image was utilized in advertising by Blankenhorn and as a September 1924 example shown here demonstrates. Notably, some of the ads showed prices for interior lots to be as low as just under $900, while fully improved ocean-front lots could be had for as low as not far south of $3000.
While some development took place in the remaining years of the decade, the real estate market was already in decline after its 1923 peak by the time the Great Depression burst forth in late 1929. With the Thirties continuing the economic decline and stagnation and the World War II years limiting further work, it was not until the postwar boom that Balboa really began to experience enormous development and transformation.
That $3000 lot would, just by inflation rates, be just $45,000 in 2020 money, but housing prices in Balboa are, naturally, among the highest in the region, especially per square foot, with a median price of available properties at about $3 million. Looking at this remarkable photo from about a century ago and comparing it with the modern setting is pretty eye-opening!