by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Today’s bizarre and unsettling sight of pounding rain in our region in August has many climate science experts looking at the recent events in the Northwest Territory of Canada, Lahaina, Maui, and now the advent of Hurricane and Tropical Storm Hilary as further indicators of the predictions made by climatologists since 1988, when James Hansen of the Institute of Space Studies at NASA unequivocally warned, “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”
The last topical storm to hit our region was in late September 1939, when a 65-mile long system dumped more than 5.5 inches in Los Angeles, when most Septembers are bone-dry, and, among the dramatic photos shown in the Los Angeles Times of the 26th, was a destroyed house in the Orange County coastal hamlet of Sunset Beach, annexed by Huntington Beach in 2011, as well as one in the nearby community of Alamitos Bay in what is now part of Long Beach. Freak accident though the storm 94 years ago was, there is increasing concern that these kinds of severe weather events will become more common as climate change intensifies.
The highlighted objects from the Museum’s collection for this post are a pair of photos from a very different time and perspective, more typical of what we usually think of when it comes to greater Los Angeles’ many miles of scenic beaches. The 20 August 1923 snapshots show folks enjoying tent camping and a game of sandlot (well, sort of) baseball at Sunset Beach, which was then about two decades old and one of many popular places for these kinds of summer seaside sojourns.
The community was founded in 1903 when the Anaheim Gazette of 6 August reported on the incorporation with Orange County officials of the Sunset Beach Company. The paper observed that the firm acquired land near Pacific City, which soon became Huntington Beach, named after Henry E. Huntington, whose Pacific Electric Railway (PERY) system built a streetcar line to the area. The seven directors included the prominent merchant and real estate investor and developer Jacob Stern, who, nine years later, helped launch Yorba Linda; three Santa Ana residents, two men from Long Beach, and Abram E. Pomeroy, who’d founded another seaside town, with Charles W. Stimson, called Pismo Beach, as well as Puente (or La Puente, as it is now known) near the Homestead.
It is not perhaps surprising that the little settlement had a mixture of seasonal and full-time resident owners of cottages and houses on the shoreline strip, though an early resident became not only a preeminent figure in the community, but more broadly. This was Jesse A. Armitage (1872-1935,) a native of Colorado who moved to Sunset Beach shortly after its establishment and was a real estate broker and a member of a county association of chambers of commerce and the South Coast Improvement Association, among other organizations. For many years, he was also general manager of the real estate company of long-time county supervisor Thomas B. Talbert, whose namesake oil company had Walter P. Temple as a director and Temple’s business manager, Milton Kauffman, as operations manager for drilling in Huntington Beach.
There was an interesting early controversy related to the surrounding area not long after Sunset Beach was founded and was an effort by Phillip A. Stanton (1868-1945), who was a member of the California Assembly from 1903 to 1911 and speaker of that legislative body in 1909 and 1910, so wielded some considerable power in Orange County. Stanton, a native of Cleveland, Ohio who came to Los Angeles during the great Boom of the Eighties, was a key figure in the establishment of Bay City (also established in 1903 and which became Seal Beach) and Pacific City (which began as Shell Beach in 1889, changed to Pacific City in 1901 and then evolved into Huntington Beach two years later.) Stanton pushed for the annexation of large swaths of southwestern Orange County, including what became his namesake city, to Los Angeles County, though this effort was decisive opposed and got nowhere.
The founding of Sunset Beach came just a half-dozen years after the first horseless carriage (that is, automobile) appeared on the streets of Los Angeles and it did not take long for movements to spring up to provide improved roadways for cars. One early example was in spring 1910, when Armitage joined Stanton in others in forming the Beach Boulevard Association, the purpose of which was to “complete a boulevard between [Bay City and Balboa (Newport Beach)] at a date as early as practical.”
This turned out to be a twenty-year odyssey that, for many reasons, not the least of which were dealing with rights-of-way from many property owners, as well as working with the growing oversight of the State of California on development and construction as highways became more sophisticated, not to mention interaction with the county, did not yield a fully-finished route through the county until 1929.
Armitage, however, was relentless, as were others, in the fight for what is now State Route 1, or Pacific Coast Highway, which, under state auspices was to run from San Diego to Oxnard. In the early teens, there was actually some local success in getting a portion of the route built in the Sunset Beach area by spring 1915 as well as a bridge across Alamitos Bay, though there were some struggles in working with Seal Beach officials and the disaster of a 1918 storm that took out the bridge.
In 1914, an interesting sidelight developed as it was reported in the 6 May edition of the Santa Ana Register that natural gas was located in a belt from Long Beach down to Newport Beach, including in the vicinity of Sunset Beach, and it was hoped that this fuel source could be used for a lighting system along the highway. After the bridge disaster and with improving design and building technologies, a renewed effort for a coastal roadway was undertaken, starting with the preliminaries for a survey by the end of the teens.
There were continuing challenges, including recalcitrant landowners who balked at providing rights-of-way, leading the Orange County Board of Supervisors to instruct, in 1923, the district attorney to institute condemnation proceedings against hold-outs, and naysayers like Westminster-area resident and surveyor Fred R. Hazard, who, in 1915, opined that part of the road went through coastal property “on a sand spit between the ocean and a slough” and wondered, given the assessments to property owners, “is the time of the tourist worth that to the tax payer.” Besides, Hazard hazarded a guess that the existing road from Sunset Beach to Huntington Beach, which is today’s Warner Avenue, was good enough.
After surveys were completed in the very early twenties and a new bridge over Alamitos Bay was finished in May 1923, the Register of 4 August, just a little over two weeks from when the featured photos here were taken, announced that
The Ocean Highway construction work is now completed to Sunset Beach. The highway is open from Los Angeles, through Long Beach, to Sunset Beach, and there traffic must divert [to Warner Avenue, what was sometimes called the Wintersburg road and which was comprised of a gravel surface].
The highway as far as it is completed is one of the finest trips in California. It passes through the oil fields and along the ocean front the entire distance, and is sure to be one of the most popular routes for tourists. It will also be a shorter route between many important cities when completed.
Motorists would take the Wintersburg road (Warner) east into Santa Ana and then connect with the state highway, basically today’s Interstate 5, to points south to San Diego. As noted above, it would take a half-dozen more years to complete segments of Pacific Coast Highway south through Huntington Beach and Newport Beach (finished in 1926) and then to Dana Point by 1929. Despite Hazard’s dour pronouncement, the roadway became an iconic element of Orange County’s identity and remains so today.
With respect to the Pacific Electric Railway, it completed its streetcar line from Seal Beach to Huntington Beach in 1904 and reached Newport the following year and Balboa the year after that. It is hard to overstate the importance of the PERY to the formation and development of these coastal communities and, in mid-July 1909, as reported by the Register in its edition of the 17t, the Newport Board of Trade, looking for support from peers in Seal Beach, Naples (Alamitos Bay) and Sunset Beach, sought additional cars for expanded service. Early phone service to Sunset Beach was provided by constructing lines along the PERY route and right-of-way, beginning in 1908.
By the time these photos were taken, however, the massive growth of the automobile industry had irreversible effects on the future viability of streetcar systems and consumers readily chose their cars over the trolleys (the Great Depression and World War II propped up the streetcar system for far longer than otherwise would have been the case.)
Other major changes that came, just within the two years or so before the images were snapped, included the rapid development of the oil industry. While, as observed above, it was well-known that natural gas was abundant along the coast, it was not until early 1921 that Standard Oil Company (California), which leased 60 acres from Walter P. Temple at the Montebello oil field, brought in the first wells at Huntington Beach and unleased a frenzy of activity at that highly-successful field. While there was talk of prospecting there as early as 1908 and there was later a Sunset Beach field, it was not nearly as productive as its neighbor to the south and east.
Another early part of the history of Sunset Beach and surrounding locales concerned the prominent of duck hunting clubs, including Lomita, Los Patos and Bolsa Chica. The coastal wetlands, almost all of which were drained for so-called “reclamation” but were only retrospectively understood for their natural role in filtering interior runoff, were vital as part of the Pacific Flyway, one of four “avian superhighways” in north America, with some remarkably robust birds traveling from as far north as Alaska and as far south as Patagonia at the southern end of South America.
When Sunset Beach residents sought to engage in this activity, they ran into a lawsuit filed by the Lomita club, which claimed ownership and rights to a disputed area. While, after a few years of litigation, the Sunset Beach contingent won out, there was a 15 December 1920 article by the Orange County Plain Dealer that noted that “farming and oil are crowding the gun clubs off the map of Orange Co.” It added that artesian wells that were used to fill lakes to attract migrating birds were increasingly being redirected for agriculture, including sugar beets, which were then widely grown in the South Bay of Los Angeles County and much of Orange County. As forests of oil well derricks sprung up, these two led to the intrusion on duck hunting areas.
Other improvements made in the first two decades of Sunset Beach’s existence included a pier and wharf, thought this was lost in a storm in winter 1918, and an early attempt at a lagoon, where there were grand, though unrealized, plans for a pavilion and boat house (not unlike what was built at Balboa). Plans materialized early in the teens and work went on for several years, though the company doing the work got into financial trouble and the dredging machines created the canal from Alamitos Bay were sold in 1916. Decades later, a much larger project called Huntington Harbour was built. An early plan, from 1910, to construct jetties also failed to get anywhere near fruition.
Being a remote location, Sunset Beach proved to be a place where those with a penchant for criminal activity sought to commit their crimes in what they assumed was a relative safe place. Sometimes, these involved burglaries and robberies of cottages and small businesses, like the local store, or those who tried to evade state regulations on catch limits for sea-life, or those who looked to bag migrating birds without a license or by trespassing on duck club property. Three of the more notable instances involved immigrant smuggling, Prohibition and one of the early death penalty murder cases in Orange County.
The smuggling of Chinese immigrants was reported by local papers on several occasions, including a purported ring of Latino smugglers who brought their charges up from México—one of these was later declared to be an associate of a murder, whose case we’ll mention below—with Gregorio Guzmán. Long suspected on being deeply involved in this activity, Guzmán was sent in fall 1910 to San Quentin from San Diego County on a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, for which he served 10 months of a year sentence. Then, in early 1914, he was found guilty of four counts of smuggling in violation of a 1907 state law, and was sentenced to a year and a day on each county and sent up again to the state prison, getting released after three years.
In 1912, Ed O’Bannon, formerly foreman of a Villa Park ranch, was charged with smuggling Chinese immigrants through the Frank Wertz ranch near Sunset Beach. Quoting the Los Angeles Times, the Register of 23 December noted that there was a fee of $250 per person brought into California illegally, with a $2 to $5 per pound premium of opium on top of that and it added that O’Bannon was “for years a special officer of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.” He, Wertz and a third man, William Kirby, who worked on a ship and O’Bannon claimed they were set up by a smuggling kingpin named Patrick Orr. He added that Orr admitted to landing “fifteen Chinese on Sunset Beach after they had been transported from Ensenada” in Baja California.
Kirby then allegedly took the immigrants from the beach to a wagon owned by Wertz and drove them to Los Angeles, where Orr met them at the corner of Temple and Beaudry streets and then conveyed them to the Chinatown on the east side of the Plaza. The article discussed more about the purported operations and noted that Kirby and O’Bannon, who once worked together at the Los Angeles sporting goods firm W.H. Hoegee Company, were from the same Irish town, while Orr, too, was rom the Emerald Isle. In October 1914, the former pair were convicted on charges of “landing fifteen contraband Chinese on the sand at Sunset Beach, May 22, 1911,” in a second federal trial after the first proceeding ended in a hung jury.
As to Prohibition, once that federal constitutional legislation took effect on the first day of 1920, Sunset Beach was found to be a convenient place to evade the strictures of the law, though there were times when raids were conducted. The 20 October 1921 edition of the Anaheim Gazette reported that Frank Heagley (Hegley) was nabbed at his place and found to possess up to 700 bottles of hooch found in the “extraordinary resources of the Heagley cellar,” while authorities hoped to unearth “a mammoth private brewery” as that quantity of quart bottles “could not possibly be the product of a small plant.” Charged with three counts of manufacturing and selling, Heagley promptly paid the $900 fine, suggestive of a profitable enterprise.
Heagley was again caught in the act as the Plain Dealer of 21 September 1922 recorded, with a blaring headline of “RECORD BOOZE CACHE RAIDED,” that he, his Sunset Beach bartender C.C. Barnhart, Edward Jones and Earl Sullivan, owners of a café, and, most notably, postmaster G.H. Gleason, were nabbed by the county sheriff, his deputies and a federal agent with “one of the largest quantities of whiskey and beer on record in Orange Co. unearthed.” Heagley’s place was identified as being in Seal Beach and the authorities picked up Gleason first at Sunset Beach before heading out to the former spot, where there were 175 gallons of beer, 166 bottles of the stuff with a dozen on ice ready to be served, and 50 gallons of whiskey. The next day W.P. Snyder of Sunset Beach was arrested on two counts of selling liquor, while Barnhart pled guilty right away and paid a $100 fine.
In late November, “brewmaster” Heagley was sent to county jail for three months on one county, given a suspended sentence for another because of his cooling his heels in jail while awaiting trial in the Santa Ana Justice Court and acquitted of a third charge—notably, it was stated that he’d recently served nine months, suggestive of an incident in the year between the first case and this one. After serving his time in the county lockup, though, Heagley was due to appear in federal court on further charges.
Two months later, Snyder faced the same justice of the peace on his two counts of transporting and selling and got a suspended 90-day sentence, again because of being confined to jail while he was to be tried, and was fined $50, which he paid immediately. It does not appear that Gleason faced trial on any charges and nothing was located regarding Jones and Sullivan. In April 1923, three more Sunset Beach men, Carlos, Whitson and Gail Smith (the first two brothers and unrelated to the third), were nabbed for manufacturing and possession, with the brothers sentenced to a $500 fine or500 days in jail, while the latter was released as not having any role in the operation of the distillery.
Finally, there is the case of Rosario Sainz, who long resided in Orange County and was accused of the 22 September 1909 murder of José Machado at a sheepherder’s camp near Sunset Beach. Sainz fled to Ensenada, which was the center of the Chinese smuggling operation mentioned above, and it was asserted that Guzmán was in a tent where Sainz went to retrieve a gun before killing Machado. It took some time before a sheriff’s deputy could return with the suspect, who then escaped from the county jail and then was recaptured.
A trial was held in June 1911 and Sainz was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to be hung at San Quentin, where he was transported to await his fate. His attorneys, however, filed a motion for a hearing before the state supreme court for a retrial and this was granted. Sainz, therefore, was taken from the state prison and brought back to Santa Ana for a second proceeding. This time, he was found guilt but the sentence was for life imprisonment and he was again sent up to San Quentin. His life sentence, however, was under a half-dozen years as he died in prison in 1918—his case was often brought up in county papers as one of the few instances to date in which the death penalty was imposed, even if his was abrogated in favor of the life sentence.
The early history of Sunset Beach, small and seemingly innocuous and insignificant in those years, turns out to be filled with some interesting elements, especially for an enclave whose beachfront and seaside-adjacent houses can run into the several millions of dollars (one large home is listed now for nearly $14 million), this being an obvious far cry from conditions a century or more ago.