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City of Hermosa Beach - History from 1957

Hermosa Beach History

Hermosa Beach History from The Daily Breeze - September 27, 1957

Hermosa Beach Election History

History of the Biltmore Hotel and The Bijou Theater

City of Hermosa Beach --- History from 1957



Oldtime residents of Hermosa Beach still think back with longing for the days when they could have bought as much of the city as they wanted for $35 an acre.

That was the price paid for a 1500-acre tract of the Rancho Sausal Redondo back in 1900. The development was promptly dubbed "Hermosa" (beautiful in Spanish) by far sighted real estate developers, and its advantages were sung far and wide.

But aside from a beautiful two-mile stretch of white sandy beach, which is still the city's prime asset, about all the real estate men had to sell was wilderness and hardship.

Early Hermosa was a collection of sparse-looking sand dunes seemingly 40 miles from nowhere. A steady wind whipping across the barren dunes made life miserable for the first hardy pioneers.

One of them, Mrs. Dorcas Ingram, set down her views for posterity. "But my inmost being shrank from the greeting chill and dank of a wind forever blowing o'er the sand dunes of Hermosa."

Many of the early settlers collected their own narrow planks and built precarious walkways between often-frequented spots. The hardier ones didn't bother -- they plodded through the sand.

No Manhattan -- Yet

When Hermosa came into being, through the courtesy of the Hermosa Beach Land and Water Co. There was no Manhattan Beach. Redondo Beach was a busy seaport.

Almost as far as the eye could see the view encompassed barren dunes, rolling hills and grazing sheep. Back a distance from the ocean there were fields of wheat, barley and other grains.

The Santa Fe Railway, which had its tracks down in the valley back of the first big sand dune, was Hermosa's only link with civilization. The railroad ran south into Redondo and then east into Los Angeles.

Despite the fact that land was cheap and plentiful, and that "there was no more beautiful picture on an early morn than the boundless Pacific driving its white maned sea horses dashing against the shiny shores," early Hermosa didn't do a land office business.

But the early developers, notably Messrs. Burbank and Baker and Sherman and Clark (there is no available record of their ever having first names ) were not men who were easily discouraged.

The first official survey was made in the year 1901 for a board walk on the Strand, and the intersection of Santa Fe (Pier) and Hermosa Avenue.

A short time afterward a record 500,000 feet of Oregon pine was installed along a mile and one-half of the Strand. This was duly recorded as a notable achievement by loyal Hermosans, but drew sneers from nearby Redondo residents who called it, "a walk to the middle of no where."

One Redondo councilman showed his contempt for the project by driving his team of horses up and down the length of it. He was duly arrested, fined and reprimanded for endangering possible pedestrians.

(High tides kept washing away portions of the old wooden boardwalk and the majority of it was replaced by cement in 1914. The remaining part was completed in cement in 1926.)

Hermosa Ave. was the first street to be paved. Pier Ave. from the beach to the railroad tracks, followed soon afterwards. Both were paved with asphalt from a plant built to supply local needs, located at Eighth St. and Hermosa Ave. The plant burned down in 1908 and was not replaced.

In 1904 Hermosa built its first pier, an all wooden job that extended 500 feet out over the ocean. Most of it was washed out to the sea by high tides in 1913.

First Electric Line

Also in 1904, Sherman and Clark built the first electric transportation line into the city. The line, called the Los Angeles Pacific Railway, brought a number of prospective buyers into the slowly developing area. Along about this time Hermosa acquired its first sewer system.

It consisted of a septic talk (on the site of the present city hall) which pumped its residue through pipes to a sewer dumping ground near the railroad tracks in the southern section of the city.

This system managed to achieve a certain fame throughout the area. Early residents still remember, with a certain amount of nostalgia, getting up and closing the windows when the air blew in from the southeast.

Christmas Eve Election

On Christmas Eve, 1906, Hermosa Beach held its first incorporation election and chose its first city officers.

In the interest of accuracy its only fair to report that the idea of incorporating the city didn't get a resounding vote of confidence from an eager mob of voters.

The final tally was 24 votes for, and 23 against.

But resounding or not, Hermosa Beach was duly incorporated and received its charter from the state as a sixth class city on January 14, 1907.

Hermosa's first city council consisted of John Q. Tufts, who was appointed the city's first mayor, Arthur Jones, John Bunz, Ben Hiss and Otto Meyer.

In this race for city clerk, Herman Vetters "swamped " Ralph Matteson by a 24-20 vote.

At this time the city also acquired ownership of its two mile stretch of ocean frontage, except for 210 feet on each side of the pier.

Restrictive Deeds

The deed, handed over by the Hermosa Land and Water Co., stated that the ocean frontage "was to be held in perpetuity as a beach playground and for the benefit of not only the residents of Hermosa, but also for the sea-lovers of Southern California."

Another strong "prohibiting" clause connected with Hermosa real estate at this time was a piece of wording in the title to every lot in the city specifically forbidding the use of the property for the sale of "spirituous liquors."

As a result there wasn't a bar in the length and breadth of Hermosa. (Several oldtimers have vowed this did more to inhibit the city's growth than anything else. The fact that near by Redondo, which boasted a number of bars, was booming during this period lends some weight to the arguments.)

It wasn't until 1933 and the repeal of prohibition throughout the country that Hermosa joined the ranks of the "wets." Before that the "drys" had consistently outvoted the "sinners" by margins as high as four to one.

But that didn't mean that Hermosans didn't indulge when they got a chance.

Case of the Marshal

Oldtimers fondly recall the saga of Herman Smith, the city's first marshal and tax collector. Here is how Fern Rhein, a former Hermosa librarian, tells it:

As an officer of the law and custodian of the city's revenue Herman was not exactly a shining light.

"Whenever the citizens could find him to pay their tax money, he would proceed to Redondo taking the money with him. There, entering into a state of ebullition produced by the sweet spirits of aqua vitae, his responsibility to the city faded from his memory.

"He kept this up until he owed the city $500 and the citizens threatened dire proceedings against him."

Eventually, Mrs. Rhein said, Herman was able to reimburse the city for the shortage through the sale of a family lot for $400 and a gift from his father of $100.

By 1913, Hermosa had 900 residents, a modest downtown business section, a church (St. Cross Episcopal) and two schools with an enrollment of more than 100 students.

During the next year, 1914, Hermosa lost a septic tank but acquired a city hall. The two-story brick building, which still houses city offices today, replaced a series of makeshift quarters on Pier Ave. and 13th St. (A revised septic tank sewer system, operated by the fire chief, continued in Hermosa until 1926 when the city hooked into the trunk line of the South Bay Sanitation District.)

A Second Pier

It was also in 1914 that Hermosa completed its second pier, a 1,000-foot concrete structure complete with small tiled pavilions along the sides to afford shade for fisherman and picnic parties. It replaced the 500-foot wooden effort that was washed out to sea a year earlier.

Late in 1914 an auditorium building was erected at the land end of the new pier. This building housed various unidentified enterprises up until the 1920's when a branch of the county library took over one of the lower offices, the Chamber of Commerce acquired the other and the county lifeguard moved in upstairs.

The Chamber, which could trace its lineage back to 1907, actually was one of the most powerful influences in the growth of early Hermosa. Its members really took to heart the slogan: "What the real estate agent's can't do, the Chamber of Commerce can." And, to a limited degree, they did.

The young civic organization did much to help spark the drive for a new city hall, a new pier and such things as better streets, lighting and sanitation. And its promotional work was largely responsible for bringing in a number of new residents to the area.

Another strong entity in the city, but with a different viewpoint in mind was the Women's Civic League. This rather formidable group armed with righteousness and moral indignation, not only kept Hermosa "dry" for many a year but also beat down reckless male residents who wanted to do away with the top coverings of their bathing suits.

The First Bank

In 1913 Hermosa acquired its first bank, suitably called The First Bank of Hermosa Beach, and located on the present Bank of America site at Pier and Hermosa Avenues. Its board of directors included James E. Walker, president; Grange S. Thatcher, vice-president and cashier; Irving H. Hellman, Joseph Luxford, Ralph E. Matteson, F. L. Ryder, Dr. C. Edgar Smith and M. M. Pilkenton. A second bank, called the First National Bank, was organized later by the same group of directors, and was located on the site presently occupied by The Men's Shop, at Pier and Hermosa Aves.

In 1914 Hermosa had its first bigtime burglary.

The victim was the Hermosa Post Office, to the tune of some $2,000 in cash, stamps and money orders. Police discovered the burglars had simply pried open the front door, blown the safe with a charge of nitroglycerin and then helped themselves.

"Postmaster Pilkenton," reported The Breeze, "does not know whether he will have to make up the deficiency. Up to this date it has been custom for postmasters to make up such deficiencies."

During that year, Mr. Pilkenton undoubtedly was a saddened man. The thieves weren't apprehended -- at least not in 1914.

Basically, a Resort Town

Up through 1920 and afterwards, Hermosa was mainly occupied with attracting more residents into the area. Progress was slow and painful for the most part.

It did build up a reputation as a good resort town, but few of the summer visitors were interested in becoming year-round residents. Most of those who did were elderly, retired persons.

One of the most ambitious projects attempted in the city came in the mid-1920's with the opening of the building now occupied by the Hermosa Biltmore Hotel. In those days it was the headquarters for the Surf and Sand Club, and was run on a private club basis.

A number of wealthy persons backed the project and for several years the building, a notable achievement in those days, was the showplace and social center of Hermosa.

The private club idea proved to be a losing proposition, however, and a few years later the founders and owners sold out to the Los Angeles Athletic Club. This group, with better financing, attempted to run the property on more or less the same basis but finally sold out to hotel interests about 1930.

Since then, and up to the present, a number of hotel groups have owned the property. During World War II, for a short time the building was taken over by the federal government and used as a youth training center.

Other notable events in Hermosa during the mid-20's were the building of Pacific Coast Highway, and the opening of the Bank of America, at Pier Ave. and Hermosa Aves., and the Hermosa Theatre, which still occupies the same site on Hermosa Ave. across from the city hall.

El Camino Real

Pacific Coast Highway in the early twenties was still known as El Camino Real. From Pier Ave. north it consisted of a dirt trail through Rosecrans Ave. in the wilderness known as Manhattan Beach. South of Pier Ave. it was a two-lane paved street into Redondo.

About 1927 it was paved along its entire length in Hermosa and widened. It became an immediate hit with drivers of the day and traffic volume was reported as "considerable." In 1935 it became a state highway and was widened again to its present dimensions shortly afterwards.

Another mark of progress for the city was the founding of the Hermosa Kiwanis Club in 1925, and the Hermosa Rotary Club six years later.

By 1930 Hermosa had a population of about 3,000 persons, but the wheels of progress ground to a halt at this point. The stock market crash in 1929 and the subsequent bank failures in the early thirties hit the town hard.

Money was very tight in the days that followed and hundreds of foreclosures were made. An estimated 1,000 lots, approximately one-sixth of the present city, were taken back by taxes.

Hermosa; which was still principally a summer resort area and thereby dependent on good economic times, was strictly in the doldrums during the early thirties, oldtimers report.

It was common sight to see people coming down to fish off of the pier through desperation rather than for fun.

"They were fishing for their supper, and there wasn't any fooling about it," one resident reported.

Bathing Suit Controversy

About the only note of relief in those days was the red-hot controversy that raged over whether men had to wear tops with their bathing suits. On the one side was a large group of perspiring young men who thought the whole idea ridiculous. On the other side, taking a firm stand against "shamelessness and immorality" were various groups and the city fathers.

The battle raged back and forth for about 3 years and reached such a hot stage at one point that a trial of an offender had to be held in Gardena to prevent prejudice and possible bloodshed.

Things finally calmed down about 1932, oldtimers report, and the tops of men's bathing suits were consigned to the trash can. Hermosa property prices, which had been rising slowly through the years, took a nosedive in the early thirties along with the prices of nearly everything else. Good five-cents cigars cost five cents.

Dick Thomson a former president of Hermosa Real Estate Board (now a part of the South Bay Board of Realtors), fondly recalled a banquet held at Castele's Restaurant on Pier Ave. back in 1933.

The dinner for 40 persons featured a filet mignon, sea food cocktail, consommé royale, lettuce and tomato salad, french fried potatoes, mushroom sauce, vegetables, hot rolls and jelly, apple pie ala mode, coffee, celery, olives and radishes. The cost was 75 cents per person.

"And even at that," Thompson said, "we had some trouble selling tickets because a lot of people thought the price was too high."

Earthquake of 1933

In 1933 the Long Beach earthquake shook Hermosans to their foundations. No one was injured, but several buildings toppled and "chimneys and street lights came crashing down all over town."

Hardest hit was Pier Avenue School, which had to be rebuilt almost to its foundations. All three Hermosa Schools at that time, North South and Pier Ave. were reconstructed according to new earthquake codes the following year.

In the mid-1930's Hermosa gradually began to pick up again, summer vacationers began returning and with them came all-too-brief periods of relative prosperity. But the city still had trouble attracting permanent residents.

"After Labor Day the town went back to ghost town," was the way one resident put it.

Gradually, however with the reawakening of industry in the surrounding area and throughout the country, Hermosa finally began to change from an summer resort and retired persons town to a year-round city in the late 1930's.

Vacant lots in the downtown business area began to disappear. The Safeway Market on Pier Ave. was built during this period, and many small stores began opening up.

Young married couples began moving into the area and long neglected areas of the city began to take shape. The "no-man's-land" along Valley Dr. and up on the hills above the highway started building up, changing Hermosa from a coastal settlement to a full-fledged city.

Then World War Two

By 1940, largely due to the sudden surge just a few years earlier, Hermosa numbered 7,197 residents, more than double the 1930 totals. And then came World War Two and the tremendous expansion of the nearby aircraft industry.

Administrators, laborers and aircraft service personnel surged into the area. Building boomed and real estate prices started rising.

Population climbed from 7,197 in 1940 to 11,763 in 1950. A special census in 1953 showed a count of 14,004 persons in the city, and another, last year, showed population over the 15,000 mark.

A total of 3,384 dwelling units were reported in the city in 1940. By 1955 this had swelled to more than 5,000. Estimates today put the number at 6,000.

Assessed valuations in the same period have more than trebled. From $5,050,665 in 1940, totals have jumped to $20,097,420 for the 1957-58 fiscal year.

Dire predictions that Hermosa would go back to being a "ghost town" after World War Two and the closing of much of the air-craft industry failed to materialize.

By this time thousand of new residents had found out what oldtime Hermosans had known all along, it was a good city to live in and raise children.

Recreational living became the keynote of the revitalized city, and it was well-equipped to handle it.

During the 1930's the city had gained a certain amount of fame by sponsoring the first local water events, an aqua-plane race from Catalina to Hermosa. In recent years, with Chamber of Commerce backing and help from the city's recreation department, water sports of all kinds have been an annual event in Hermosa. During the last few years the events have attracted hundreds of entrants and thousands of spectators.

New Homes, New Schools

New homes, modern apartments and handsome beach cottages, with an emphasis on modern, outdoor living, have replaced many of Hermosa's older structures.

New schools have kept pace with an steadily increasing school population. In 1940 there were 813 students in Hermosa's three schools, Pier Ave., North and South. In 1951 Prospect Height School was built, in 1952 the modernistic new Valley Vista School added 14 classrooms to the district, and in 1953, plus an addition last year, Hermosa View School added nine more classrooms.

Total school population in Hermosa today (discounting the high school district) is 1,976.

Out of the city's 6,000 vacant lots back in 1901 fewer than 500 are left, and these are fast disappearing.

City fathers are proud of the fact that despite the fact that there isn't any industry tax, the city's tax rate is one of the lowest in the country. (A near record tax cut of 27 cents was voted in Hermosa for the coming year, bringing property taxes down to 89 cents per $100 valuations.)

Yet no one can truthfully claim that tax cuts have been made at the expense of the city services. Hermosa provides its own efficient police and fire services, a rapidly expanding public works program and a municipal recreation program for youngsters that had an attendance of more than 150,000 in various events this past year.

City fathers are especially proud of new storm drain facilities and a street paving and maintenance program that ranks with the best in the area.

Looking to Future

And in the planning or working stages are a modernized street lighting program, more rigid building and inspection codes and more efficient health and sanitation services.

But the consensus among Hermosans is that "you haven't seen anything yet."

Within the next few weeks the city of Hermosa plans to enter into a contract with Shell-Continental Oil Cos. that could bring an estimated $70,000,000 in revenue to the city within the next 35 years.

If voters approve the contract, which would allow drilling from two or three camouflaged "islands" approximately a mile offshore, Hermosa will launch into one of the most comprehensive civic improvement programs that any city could hope for.

Plans for a new, multi-million-dollar municipal pier, a yacht harbor, new off-street parking areas for the downtown and highway business sections, a modern new civic center and increased park and recreational facilities are among top priority items in the program.

With these and other projects under way, Hermosa figures well to be one of the foremost scenic vacation lands and one of the top recreational livings areas in Southern California.

It's been a long haul from the sand dunes of 1900, but most Hermosans agree that it looks like gravy from here on out.


The Hermosa Beach Neighborhood Association

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