Would you travel an hour to the beach only to swim in an indoor pool? From the 1880s through the 1920s, countless Southern Californians -- often covered in bathing suits that stretched from head to toe -- did, plunging into large, covered pools just steps away from the Pacific Ocean.
The story of coastal plunges is intimately linked with the development of the bathhouses that once lined the shores of Southern California's seaside resort towns. Catering to day-trippers from across the region as well as overnight hotel guests visiting from afar, bathhouses provided bathing suits, changing rooms, warm showers, and other amenities to make a day in the surf and sand more comfortable.
In 1876, Michael Duffy built what might have been Southern California's first beachside bathhouse, located on Santa Monica's North Beach. It lacked a plunge but featured 16 rooms, each with a freshwater bath and shower. The following year, John P. Jones' Los Angeles and Independence Railroad opened the Santa Monica Bath House next to Duffy's. It offered not only showers but also steam baths and a saltwater pool. One early visitor, Jennie Collier, described it as "an extensive bath house where you can soak yourself in the oceanic fluid, hot, cold, fresh, salt."
Initially, the coast of Santa Monica hosted the greatest concentration of coastal plunges. When it opened in 1887, Santa Monica's ritzy Arcadia Hotel offered its guests a large saltwater bathhouse. In 1894, the North Beach Bathhouse -- complete with a bowling pavilion, rooftop garden, and ballroom -- replaced the original Santa Monica Bath House. And in 1905, an 8,450-square-foot plunge opened in Ocean Park inside an imposing structure topped with Moorish domes and minarets.
Soon, plunges appeared all along the Southern California coast, and in other regions, too. (San Francisco's Sutro Baths are perhaps the most famous example from outside the Los Angeles area.)
Like the Santa Monica Bath House -- financed by a steam railroad -- many opened with the backing of transportation interests. With ocean water remaining the stuff of shivers for much of the year, heated seawater plunges guaranteed year-round visitation to the region's beaches. Often they anchored large amusement park resorts, complete with roller coasters, pleasure piers, and other attractions.
Electric rail magnate Henry Huntington was among those who financed beachside bathhouses. In Long Beach, a Huntington-backed plunge opened on July 4, 1902, the same day Huntington's Pacific Electric Railway first reached the city. Soon, the bathhouse was the centerpiece of a popular amusement zone known as the Pike, which drew a constant stream of tourists from Los Angeles.
Seven years later, another Huntington-financed bathhouse opened in Redondo Beach. Advertisements claimed that the heated saltwater plunge, at more than 16,300 square feet, was the world's largest. Every day, pumps drew in more than one million gallons of seawater from the ocean and piped the water through heaters for the comfort of swimmers. Amenities at the Pacific Electric-owned bathhouse included 1,330 individual dressing rooms and 62 private bathtubs.
Plunges furthered railways' business interests, but they also satisfied the desires of tourists and local day-trippers -- even during the warmer summer months. Staffed with lifeguards and devoid of turbulent surf, plunges offered beachgoers a safe, controlled swimming experience. They also reinforced racial and class divisions; though de facto segregation was observed at public beaches, the private plunges strictly adhered to their exclusionary policies.
Some came to plunges not to swim but to watch. Many included bleachers or viewing balconies from which spectators could watch the swimmers frolic below. Abbot Kinney's Venice of America added a novel twist, replacing one wall of its bathhouse with a plate-glass window that, according to a contemporary travel guide, transformed the plunge into "a human aquarium."
Though once as common as the pleasure piers that still grace the Southern California shoreline, coastal plunges disappeared as tastes changed and outdoor beaches became the place to play and be seen. The massive Ocean Park plunge was demolished to make way for a bridge parlor, while the Pacific Electric closed its Redondo Beach plunge -- once patronized by 7,400 swimmers on a single day in 1919 -- on September 28, 1941, citing declining visitation.