“Hurled Into The Furious Waves”: A Trio of Photos of Damaged Cabins at Topanga Beach, Malibu, 22 February 1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we experience a strong storm system over the next few days with some heavy rain, snow at lower-than-usual elevations, intense winds and cold temperatures, this seems an opportune time to share a group of three snapshots taken on 22 February 1926 at Topanga Beach in Malibu, where quite a number of cabins were destroyed and damaged by a storm that included big waves pounding the shoreline.

Now, at the time, such basic structures were mainly built of clapboard with simple supports to raise them off the sand in case of water surges, but these buildings were a far cry from the mostly very sophisticated and well-built descendants owned by the very well-to-do. Of course, future concerns are about more intense storms and predictions of some significant sea level rise due to accelerating climate change and polar ice melting, though there are the expected varying points of view about what to do with a so-called “managed retreat.”

Venice Vanguard, 1 February 1926.

Nearly a century ago, the idea of building residences on the sand within very close proximity to the ocean was fairly new, codes were minimal if not non-existent, and such structures were not the exclusive province of the wealthy. So, looking at the rudimentary edifices in these photos and comparing them to what lines the coast today is obviously pretty striking with respect to contrasts.

There were a series of powerful winter storms migrating from the north that hit greater Los Angeles in early 1926 and many, including the region’s farmers, were celebrating the high levels of precipitation generated. Naturally, along the coast there was less of this positive feeling for those who found waves encroaching upon their domains. At the beginning of February, news accounts vividly described the impacts felt by communities like Venice and Santa Monica, as well as the far more isolated area that became Malibu.

The Venice Vanguard of the 1st, for example, reported that

Ten beach dwellings washed away between Topanga and Las Flores canyons, north of Santa Monica, piling was washed out at the end of the Santa Monica municipal pier and the new Ocean Park pier and other property was endangered this forenoon, during the high tide which came coincident with a heavy sea, following the rainstorm that visited the Bay District and elsewhere during the week-end. The beach houses, all said to be unoccupied at this time of the year, were valued at about $1200 each.

The next day’s edition of the Los Angeles Record added that two sailors, one a 52-year old fireman on a Standard Oil tanker and the other a 30-year old engine wiper for a steamship, died as the former fell overboard and suffered a heart attack from the shock, while the latter tumbled inside his shop and suffered a fractured skull. Meanwhile, it reported that “seven houses, including one five-story [this was in error—see below] structure, located at Las Tunas beach, between Topanga canyon and Las Flores canyon, were demolished and swept away by the sea. Mrs. James Ames, who was in one of the buildings, narrowly escaped death, while the rest of the edifices were unoccupied.

Los Angeles Times, 2 February 1926.

In observing that the storm was accompanied by a hefty three inches of rainfall, the Los Angeles Times of the 2nd published a pair of dramatic photographs under the caption of “Where Surf Took Toll at Las Tunas.” With respect to the article, the paper noted that “the greatest surf damage was done at Las Tunas Beach between Topanga Canyon and Las Flores Canyon where seven houses, including one fine two-story structure, were washed away by waves and a high tide.” Mrs. Ames was in a bathing suit when she fled and “the house collapsed a moment after she left it,” with this apparently being the well-built edifice mentioned in the quote.

Several owners of the lost dwellings were identified and it was added that the Las Tunas Inn “was protected by the wreckage of the other buildings, which massed around its foundation piers and saved them from being washed out.” Inexplicably, one cabin escaped destruction even as those on either side were destroyed. The Times account continued that,

The surf for several hundred yards along the beach was filled with timbers, beds, furniture, radio sets, phonographs, ice boxes, trunks, pots, pans, fragments of roof and other miscellany. All of the cabins were built on piers, and the high water washed the sand away rom beneath, letting the houses tumble into the surf which soon beat them to fragments.

In addition to detailing damage done at the newly finished Ocean Park Pier, the South Beach at Venice and the speedway in that locale, a Los Angeles City lifeguard warned that more destructive high tidal action was expected and estimated that up to 125 dwellings could be affected. As for the two-day storm, it was adjudged to be the worst experienced in the region since the flood year of 1916.

The following day, the Times reported that two other cabins were lost to surging water, while “several cottages which were tossed back and forward by the surf were wrecked by crews” who at least salvaged lumber for other uses. It added that “houses which were well constructed on piling of sufficient strength were unscathed by the wild sea” and that there were many men with trucks to haul away furniture as well as to retrieve building materials. Moreover, “crowds of motorists thronged Las Tunas Beach to view the havoc done by the gale.”

Another storm lashed the coast on the 12th and the Vanguard observed that

Two men perished in the ocean just north of Santa Monica, two more barely escaped similar fate, beach cabins were torn from their foundations and hurled into the furious waters, and structures along the entire shore line of Santa Monica Bay were imperiled this morning by the most furious storm to visit this region since 1913. The waves and tide were more furious today than at any time during the present series of sea storms . . .

Santa Monica resident Tom Compton and Harry Hoover, who lived in Topanga Canyon, were killed while working on a pier built by the Los Angeles Mountain Park Company at Inceville, location of a famous film studio owned by Thomas Ince where Sunset Boulevard now meets the ocean at Pacific Palisades. The two men and a pair of others were in a boat, which was destroyed by the storm, at the job site when it capsized at 9 a.m.

Los Angeles Express, 12 February 1926.

Only the presence of two lifeguards preserved the lives of the other men, Ralph Gillman and J.H. Emell, as they happened to come onto the scene and see “the workmen, who were wildly struggling with the gigantic waves, surprised and terrified in being cast unexpectedly into the sea.” A lifeline was thrown out for the two survivors.

The Los Angeles Express of the same day reported that the craft handled the 7-foot tide surge well until a massive wave lifted the vessel and tore it from its anchorage. As the captain tried to maneuver the boat back to the pier another large breaker overturned it, but the paper reported that lifeguard James O’Rourke tore off his heavier clothing and plunged into the roiling water to save Emell and Gillman, while junior guard Harry Law assisted.

Vanguard, 13 February 1926.

The following day’s Vanguard observed that the Pacific Palisades bath house was lost, a $20,000 house on the shore at Santa Monica, owned by the Fraser family, was in bad shape, while others were damaged to varying degrees, including the house owned by well-known actor Edward Everett Horton. Moreover, the paper noted that “nearly every cabin along the highway between Santa Monica and Topanga canyon had been lost” and that “every single one between the canyon and Castle Rock” was gone, as well.

It was feared that, within 36 hours, everything on the ocean side of the road to the end of the pavement would be washed away. Among those whose summer residences sustained damage were tennis star Tom Bundy and film studio executives Jesse Lasky and Joseph Schenck and several boats were lost, while efforts to save property locally ranged as far south as Playa del Rey, though the Times reported that problems were encountered in many coastal locations from San Luis Obispo to San Diego.

By the 15th, as the worst of the storm had passed, the paper recorded that some fifty structures between Inceville and Las Flores were lost, with the Ames place being the only two-story one. That day’s edition of the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News had an interesting feature by journalist Eleanor Barnes about fisherman John Spere, a native of Greece, who was one of those who lost his beachfront residence at the mouth of Topanga Canyon, but he also lost much of the tools of his trade, including small boats, nets and lobster cages.

The article noted that Spere, his brother and their partner, Mike Leonadas [Leonidas?], worked the area off the beach for seven years, including the opening of a small fish market as the highway, now known as State Route 1 and Pacific Coast Highway, made its way into the area. Spere’s losses were estimated at $2,500, but it was said that he was eager to rebuild his home and reestablish his business. The paper, however, thought it necessary to quote Spere in what looked more like stereotypical Italian:

There goes a ma litta house. I ainta gotta home no more thana jackadarabbit now. Eet ees no good fora me. I gotta ma Ford only, and eet ees een machina shop.

On the 17th, the Vanguard reported that G. Allison Phelps, the “radio philosopher” of KNX, owned by the Express, put out a call to his listeners to contribute to a fund to assist the family of Harry Hoover. It was stated that, within just a few hours, some $2,000 was raised for the destitute widow and three children, with another expected to be born at any time.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 15 February 1926.

Overnight, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., “the artists sang, talked and entertained from the broadcasting station in an effort to arouse the interest of the public in the plight of the family. Beyond the cash, St. Catherine’s Hospital in Santa Monica offered to provide for Mrs. Hoover’s care at no cost and undertakers stated they would handle the funeral arrangements gratis, as well. Food, clothing and other items were also donated by listeners, while the manager at KNX stated that a trust fund for the family was to be set up provided enough money came in.

Taken in the aftermath of the punishing storms, these images are notable documents of the destruction wrought by the pounding waves. Beyond the critical matter of sea level rise, we also have the ongoing threat of atmospheric rivers and ARkStorms that will continue to pose serious threats to our local coasts and who knows what future documentation, including visual, will record of this for future historians.

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