From Seal Beach to the 'Surf City' Pier

Seal Beach Pier, 1920
Seal Beach Pier, 1920 | Photo: Courtenty Orange County Archive/Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Bellflower Boulevard curves into Pacific Coast Highway on the slope of Bixby Hill just below the Long Beach Veterans Hospital. Traffic on Bellflower bunches, shifts lanes, and splits up through intersections at Seventh Street and then PCH.

Turning left onto PCH takes you down the last ledge of the hill, past the blue dome of the Greek Orthodox Church, past a patch of wetlands, and past the nodding oil rigs squatting in a remnant of another wetland sacrificed to a long-ago oil boom.

PCH curves again after the crowded intersection at Second Street and recurves over the bridge at the mouth of the San Gabriel River into Orange County. When I was a boy -- and when I was at Cal State Long Beach in the mid-1960s -- I would often be driven south down PCH -- a watery way, smelling of sea wrack and petroleum and fried food.

My old friend Randy and I on recent Saturdays have taken that route again through its string of beach towns still as tawdry and wonderful as ever.

Seal Walking at Seal Beach, 1922
Seal Walking at Seal Beach, 1922 | Photo: Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Seal Beach's Main Street is pinned to the town pier; the Bay Theater at the PCH end, ice cream shops, bars, and liquor stores just before the pier begins. The town ends at the edge of the Navel Weapons Station where rows of steel floats for anti-submarine nets were once stacked along the highway, and everyone was sure that they were mines or maybe bombs. (They weren't, but there were -- are? -- nukes further inland, in barrows that look like tombs.)

Anti-Submarine Net Floats
Anti-Submarine Net Floats | Photo: Courtesy Orange County Archive/Flickr/ Creative Commons License
Anaheim Landing, 1891
Anaheim Landing, 1891 | Photo: Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Story continues below

In Anaheim Bay, where tourists at the turn of the century rented shacks for the summer, the Navy rearms warships behind an unreassuring berm of earth and concrete.

PCH immediately curves again after Anaheim Bay, where the beach at Surfside forms a little peninsula. North of the peninsula is a tangle of ocean creeks that makes up a substantial wetland. On the peninsula itself are three rows of very small, very expensive house lots hugging the shore. Haphazard commercial buildings and storefronts edge along PCH.

For my mother's birthday, we used to drive to Sam's Seafood -- now Don the Beachcomber -- between Surfside and Sunset Beach. The blue sailfish sign over the restaurant is still there. So is the water tower in Sunset Beach, long since made into an awkward house.

Sunset Beach remains more a beach town than not, despite gentrification and the false nostalgia of themed surfboard and jet ski dealers, bars, tattoo parlors, and restaurants. Life is pushed right up against PCH and set up in ramshackle disorder. Stuff spills into the street, into parking lots, against the adjacent beach. Everybody is selling something to everybody else -- real estate or the advice of a psychic.

Open beach begins just beyond. Long stretches of Bolsa Chica, slotted between wetlands and the ocean, used to be called Tin Can Beach for the rusting butts of cans that stuck out of the gravelly sand in such numbers that there seemed hardly a place to walk without the threat of tetanus. The beach was a cheap campground for the summer. For some, in more-or-less permanent encampments, it was both a home and a landfill. Today, cleaned up, Bolsa Chica's parking lots are stocked with rows of big RVsOil Rigs on PCH 1930s 

Oil Rigs on PCH  1930s
Oil Rigs on PCH 1930s | Photo: Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

PCH used to be heavily industrial at this point. Petroleum extraction took over the beach scene in the 1940s, fueling the war. Steel derricks from that time lined the road for decades. Wells still pump in some places, although most of the oil on and off shore has been taken out.

Further south, the oil boom modestly enriched the lucky owners of the "encyclopedia lots" that segment the landward side of Huntington Beach. It seems an encyclopedia company offered a sliver of a lot with the purchase of a complete set. $125-worth of encyclopedias turned out to be a deal.

Today, Huntington Beach is busy repurposing its past, and I suppose that's benefitted business interests there. But the fun on a summer Saturday seemed desperate and shrill, more like Coney Island and less like the beach I knew.

Huntington Beach, 1960s
Huntington Beach, 1960s | Photo: Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Huntington Beach has been making these trade-offs since the days of Henry Huntington and his Pacific Electric railway. As an inducement to bring Huntington's PE line south, the town changed its name from Pacific City in 1909, elected a business associate of Huntington as its first mayor, and incorporated under an arrangement that ceded the city's future to the Huntington Beach Company, which was controlled, of course, by its namesake.

Business interests in HB hold a gaggle of trademarks for the name "Surf City" so they can sell as much of the vibe of their beach as they can, as if the city were only a thin strip of sand and not, in fact, a much more complex place with an inland history. Better a misremembered and mostly invented past than marketing the romance of sugar beets.

It seems to me that these beach towns concentrate the essence of Southern California: boosters, bombs, bikinis, surfboards, real estate, and crowding salesmen. You can wonder at them all by going south on PCH.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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