Alamitos Bay Peninsula

Alamitos Peninsula beach, 1920.

Alamitos Peninsula beach, 1920.

The idea of a harbor at Alamitos Bay appealed to many investors in the land boom days of the 1880s.  Southern California was in the middle of tremendous real estate development, this, along with plans to bring in a railroad, stirred hope that a major harbor could be developed at Alamitos Bay.

The Alamitos Land Company planned to give the Los Angeles and Ocean Railroad, competitors to the South Pacific, a right of way through land around Signal Hill.  Alamitos Bay would be the terminus of the new railroad and the bay developed into a major harbor.  By the end of January 1888 the Los Angeles and Ocean Railroad acquired the last link of land from Los Angeles.  The proposed rail line was to enter the Alamitos Company’s land just north of present day Pacific Coast Highway and just east of Termino and proceed in a southeasterly direction to Alamitos Bay, crossing Anaheim Street at Ximeno.  It would continue toward the ocean at a point east of Nieto.  Several grades were actually established along the route and can still be traced today in the vicinity of Recreation Park. Rumors of great things to come continued. One indicated that six railroads, three of them transcontinental, planned to make Alamitos Bay their terminus.

Bathhouse at Alamitos Bay, c1903.
Bathhouse at Alamitos Bay, c1903.

On February 5, 1888, on the heels of all these rumors, the Alamitos Land Company began selling 200 lots at Alamitos Bay.  A business lot sold for $300, and prospective buyers were told the same lot was expected to be worth $1000 to $3000 in one year.  In March 1888, the first ship put into Alamitos Bay to test the depth of water; in April plans were drawn up for warehouses.  By the end of July, however, what the Long Beach Journal called “a temporary depression” had slowed things down.  Later in 1888 the Southern California real estate boom collapsed and with it went plans for a port at Alamitos Bay.

For a while William Sweeney and Charles Healey tried an oyster business in the bay, bringing in a carload of seed oysters and planting them in Alamitos Bay.  But the bay was full of cockles and they ate most of the oysters.

Pacific Electric car on the Peninsula - 1939
Pacific Electric car on the Peninsula – 1939

In 1903 the Pacific Electric railway began laying track on the Alamitos Bay Peninsula for its electric rail line to Newport Beach.  This is when the first serious development at Alamitos Bay began.   Strong & Dickinson and Robert Marsh & Company purchased and subdivided much of the Alamitos Bay Peninsula into what they called the Alamitos Bay tract. Advertised in June 1904 as the “Catalina of the coast line,” here you could find “deep sea and still water fishing and bathing and excellent sheltered boating, and the like.” (LA Herald 6/12/1904)   The bay was much different than today.  Belmont Shore didn’t exist except as a marshy area.  It would be drained and developed in the 1920s. The only land above water at high tide was the peninsula and a small island in the bay that would become Naples.

In 1904 the average depth of the bay proper, which was two miles long by a quarter of a mile wide, was seventeen feet. In it there were twelve miles of still water, including the six and one-half miles of the navigable waters of the new San Gabriel River.  Strong, Dickinson & Marsh told the Herald (6/12/1904) they were planning a sewage system which “will be as fine an any on the entire coast.” Other good points of the tract they pointed out were clean water, artesian water for household use, piped to every lot, gas and electricity. The tract was composed of 540 lots.

By August 1904 George W. Dickinson and his partner, Frank Strong were building houses on the bay end of the peninsula, Dickinson at the end of Thirteenth Avenue, Strong on Fourteenth Avenue.  The cost of both houses was around $2000 (about $55,000 by 2014 dollars). Back then the streets on the peninsula were called avenues and were designated numerically. Avenue 1 beginning about where 55th Place is now.  At 62nd Place the real estate promoters built a large pavilion on the ocean side of the peninsula and an illuminated pier completed in September 1904.

The Los Angeles Herald of August 5, 1904 described the peninsula:

“As one rides along the coast from Long Beach he comes upon Alamitos Bay rather unexpectedly. Turning the point opposite Devil’s Gate, the bay lies at his feet—a long, winding basin of water. A peninsula extends the length of the bay, narrowing gradually into a thin neck of land where ocean and bay are joined. At this point a beautiful sight may always be seen as the waves of the ocean roll into the calm waters of the bay. Along both shores of the inlet seals gather every morning and evening, sometimes a hundred or more being seen at one time. 

Alamitos is as yet in its infancy and there are few attractions other than those offered by nature. It is the intention, however, to build a bathhouse and casino near the inlet. Every successful summer resort has its pleasure pier, and Alamitos will have two. One is now being built into the ocean that is costing $10,000 and which will be several hundred, feet long. Across the peninsula another and necessarily smaller wharf is to be erected in the bay. While no boathouse has been established at the new resort, there are today many launches, sailboats and rowboats on the bay and boating is very popular. The San Gabriel River flows into Alamitos Bay and is navigable to sailboats and launches for some eight or ten miles.

Houseboating was popular in Alamitos Bay as this Trolley houseboat shows

Houseboating was popular in Alamitos Bay as this Trolley houseboat shows

 House boating is becoming a fad on the south coast. This has been enjoyed for many years in the north and east. The number of houseboats on the bay is increasing and there are today nearly a dozen. Families live in these, hold their social functions and enjoy life. They are unmolested by peddlers and unwelcome visitors. While the front door may be locked and the house apparently deserted, you may find the family on their back porch diving into the water. Here a bathhouse is not needed, for the swimmer dons his bathing suit, jumps off the roof if he so pleases, and when he has had his dip clambers onto the back porch and gets into his street clothes.”

Another real estate developer, George Hart, was also building a home at the bay, not far from Dickinson and Strong. This is how he described the bay in the Evening Tribune (May 23, 1904):

“I have looked over every beach resort along this California coast, and I have never seen one equal to this. Without desiring to disparage other similar places I candidly believe it to be the best natural location for what we shall make of it than can be pointed out anywhere in the golden State.  That San Gabriel River pouring into the bay was a revelation to me.  It seems to have been so to many others.  I inquired of a resident close by as to how far up the bay it was navigable, and was assured that there is always good boating six miles up, with no obstructions intervening.”

LA Herald 7/3/1904

LA Herald 7/3/1904

Strong & Dickinson and Robert Marsh & Company opened Alamitos Bay tract #2.  On May 30, 1905, special electric cars were put on the line that would run directly from Sixth and Main streets in Los Angeles to the bay. Time to get to Alamitos Peninsula was less than forty minutes. The main attraction that opening day was the playing of fifteen pianos at the same time, as well as automobile and boat races, swimming matches and a great fire dive.

Ad for opening of phase 2 of the Alamitos Bay tract. LA Herald 5/21/1905

Seeing the growth around Alamitos Bay, land promoters decided to extend the resort back over the lowlands along the San Gabriel River.  The San Gabriel Improvement Company formed in October 1905 to purchase land extending on the north from around 7th street to the San Gabriel River and on the south to approximately Studebaker and Appian Way.

J. J. Jenkins was one of the pioneers of Alamitos Bay and proceeded along novel lines. He built a village of houses made of discarded street cars and placed several more in the bay on rafts, for houseboats, leasing them by the day or week to visitors. Jenkins’ procedure was somewhat crude, but it pointed the way to the real future of Alamitos Bay as a residential and club resort.  To promote the club idea, the Channel Club was formed by 100 business men of Los Angeles. It opened on July 29, 1905.

A. M. Chapman, another Alamitos Bay pioneer, organized this club, making a stock company with a capital of $10,000 divided into 100 shares of $100 each. A $6,000 two story club house was built.  The first floor included a parlor, lounging room and dining room with movable partitions which could be swung in to give space for a ball room. On the second floor were bed rooms for the club members. The club also leased one hundred acres on the San Gabriel River, about four miles above the bay, for a game preserve. Duck shooting and fishing were the principal sports.

In 1905, the river was navigable for seven miles and the water in Alamitos Bay was divided into two channels enclosing low land.  The syndicate was planning to increase the waterway by dredging out two more channels, making a fan-shaped island, around which there would be waterways one hundred feet wide and five feet deep at low tide. The island, called Venetia, would have pavilions surrounded by a concrete bulkhead with concrete steps leading down to boat landings at low water level. The syndicate had $100,000 on hand, the May 21, 1905 Herald reported, with which to start the work, but expected to spend $250,000. They planned on opening new tracts in the lowlands when the work on Venetia started, and the money from sales used on the Venetia improvements.

In October 1905, the Venetia project was renamed the Naples Extension Company.  Venetia, it seemed would present a name conflict with the Venice project being planned for Santa Monica Bay.  The new company was formed for the immediate development of Greater Naples with a capital stock of $1,500,000.  This project was the idea of A. M. and A. C. Parsons, who had convinced H. E. Huntington, Harry Chandler and others to invest in their Italian city.  They planned in putting in bulkheads and various grand canals.

 

Naples

Dredging was in vogue in Long Beach in 1905.  The city was surrounded by two bays. To the east was Alamitos Bay and San Pedro Bay to the west.  The same year that Dana Burks was developing a commercial harbor in San Pedro Bay, A. M. Parsons and associates were dredging a new residential community called “Naples” (selected in a pick-a-name contest sponsored by Parsons).

Map of Naples

Map of Naples

The promoters of the new resorts known as Alamitos Bay, Naples, Greater Naples and West Naples, all had great plans for the development of this area. A. M. and A. C. Parsons, with H. E. Huntington and others, were carrying out elaborate plans for the development of Naples and Greater Naples, putting in bulkheads and planning for the various grand canals.

In August 1905, contracts for the construction of the great concrete bulkheads, stairways, and the dredging of the bay, waterways and canals of Naples was awarded to the Atlantic, Gulf & Pacific Company, who had also built the new Pine Avenue Pier. Also planned was a casino and bathhouse and an amusement zone.  On August 22, 1905, construction began as several hundred people gathered to witness the commencement of the quarter million dollar contract that would form the community.

Parsons said the idea to build a community in which canals would wind in and out like they did in Italy came to him as he sat in the salt marshes of Alamitos Bay duck hunting.  People thought him crazy.  Tides passed over the area, covering what little land was visible at low tide, but Parsons had a dream and decided to make it come true.

To begin, the land was raised six feet above high tide.  This was done by dredging Alamitos Bay and dumping the earth behind reinforced concrete bulkheads.  The construction contract called for 13,000 lineal feet of concrete bulkhead, with ornamental staircases every 300 feet, also the dredging and moving of about 300,000 cubic yards of earth filling. Once done this would elevate the whole Naples peninsula to a uniform height well above the highest tides.

Rivo Alto Canal 1925

Rivo Alto Canal 1925

Most of the material for filling in the swamp land was hauled from Los Angeles.  It was not easy going.  The work no sooner began when a fire started on the dredger, severely damaging the machine.  There was also the fact that there was no road into Naples and all cement and gravel for the sidewalks and canals had to be brought across Alamitos Bay on boats and barges.  The lamp posts for the new community were hauled up Anaheim Road to the San Gabriel River Bridge.  At the bridge they were placed on boats and brought down the river at high tide.  Avoiding the sand bars was difficult work.

Parsons’ water community was put on hold because of the 1906 the San Francisco earthquake and fire.  This catastrophe put a stop to all major building activity on the Pacific Coast – not only the construction of Naples.  The Naples project was financed entirely with San Francisco money, and the day after the earthquake every mortgagor in Los Angeles was notified that when loans became due they would be called.  This situation caused a period of financial depression, and not until new money became available from large out-of-state insurance companies did the situation improve, and the building of Naples could finally be completed.

The first house built in Naples, according to Walter Case in his newspaper column Did You Know That?, was on the bay front on the east side of Virgil Walk.  It was built in 1906 by A. C. Parsons, son of Naples developer A. M. Parsons.  A. C. Parsons himself had started to build a house in 1905, at what would later be 4 Savona Walk, pouring $80,000 into its lacy fretwork and Moorish arches, but he never finished it.  The house was completed 31 years later after $125,000 had been put into it.

Les Messard built one of the first homes, similar in design to the one erected by A. C. Parsons facing the bay, just to the east of Parsons’.  Mr. and Mrs. Wilson occupied a house built by the Huntington Land Company, which took over the Naples project in 1907, on Sicilian Walk.  Another house was constructed by a Mr. Clement at 5725 Bay Front, according to Walter Case.

Naples Hotel 1908

Naples Hotel 1908

Miss Myra Hershey built the Naples Hotel in 1909.  At that time an electric car line, connecting to the Newport line, extended directly to the hotel making it easily assessable to tourists.  Clyde Allen operated the small Pacific Electric car line which was paid for by A. M. and A. C. Parsons.  The Parsons paid the Pacific Electric Company $300 a month to provide the shuttle service for the convenience of guests and dining room patrons of the Naples Hotel.  The hotel was licensed to serve liquor with meals, which attracted numerous visitors to the resort.  The trip between the Newport Beach line and the hotel was only thirty-eight hundredths of a mile, taking just a minute and a half.  During the summer the car made two round trips each hour.  In winter the schedule called for only one trip every hour and a half.

In those days a canal, one of those included in the original Naples development, occupied the area that is now the street known as The Colonnade, and boats from Alamitos Bay could dock at the landing about fifty feet from the main entrance to the hotel. Fish dinners at the hotel were something to remember.  People came from all around just to eat at the hotel’s Pompeian Cafe.

In June 1907 optimism was still high that the economic decline suffered after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake would soon pass.  The June 30, 1907 Los Angeles Herald reported the following:

      Miss Mira Hershey, who is widely known in business circles as a woman of great wealth and of excellent business judgment and executive ability, has decided to build another ornamental hotel that will cost over $50,000. Miss Hershey has secured a fine lot on Ravena Way at Naples, the city of the red tiled roofs on the coast, east of Long Beach, and on this lot will be erected at once an imposing building of the Neapolitan type of architecture that will front the park and command a fine view of all the canals, Alamitos Bay, the ocean and the San Gabriel River. The building will be four stories and will contain fifty rooms, each with bath and other modern conveniences. The entire first floor will be given up to public rooms, parlor, lobby, grill and rest rooms. The roof garden will be a striking feature of the structure. Miss Hershey built the Hotel Arms on Wilshire Boulevard, the Fremont Hotel on West Fourth Street and the Hotel Hollywood. In a general way the new hotel at Naples will be patterned after the Hotel Hollywood, Dennis & Farwell, the architects, having been instructed to follow the general plan of the Hollywood in designing the new structure. Active work on the Naples hotel will begin within a few days. The spur of the Pacific Electric railway company will pass directly in front of the Naples hotel and will afford guests the best of railway facilities.

The Hotel Napoli, in the heart of Naples, landmark of a promoter’s dream that crashed in 1907, was traded in December 1928 to C. F. Higgins for other property valued at $87,000.

Unoccupied for twenty-one years, this three-story building was said to be so sturdily built that it was in as good a shape in 1928 as it was in 1907.  The 104-room hotel was furnished with over $30,000 worth of furniture.  With the financial crash of 1907 the hotel (which had never actually opened) and its famous eatery, the Pompean Cafe, closed.   The furniture was eventually sold at auction bringing in only $1400.  Miss Hershey, who also owned some hundred lots in the area, determinedly clung to her unprofitable Naples holdings, but in 1928 she exchanged her hotel for a two-story business block owned by Mr. Higgins on Anaheim Street just east of Walnut.

Almira Parker Hershey was born in Lancaster Pennsylvania on November 14, 1843, later moving to Muscatine, Iowa, with her father, Benjamin and sister Sara. In Iowa, Benjamin established the Hershey Lumber Company with Myra acting as secretary of the company.  An 1884-85 Iowa business directory states the lumber company was worth $200,000 ($5 million in 2014 dollars).  Benjamin died in August 1893 at the age of 80, leaving his entire estate to his 50-year-old daughter.  Almira (known as Myra) was now a rich woman, on her own, with a lot of busy savvy learned from the successful lumber business.  After traveling to Europe to study music Myra paid California a visit in 1894.  Had she come here at the suggestion of her friend Madam Modjeska, one of the most prominent actresses of the time?  The two had much in common: they were about the same age (Helena Modjeska was born in 1844), both were “independent” women used to making it in a man’s world, and they loved Shakespeare (Myra later served on the board of directors at the Shakespeare Foundation at UCLA).   In any case Myra was so pleased with the climate and social atmosphere she decided to stay.  She quickly became active in philanthropic affairs and was first mentioned in the Los Angeles Times in July 1899 as serving on the LA Free Kindergarten Association board along with Helena Modjeska.  She invested heavily in real estate and opened several hotels besides the Hotel Napoli including the Hershey Arms in Los Angeles and the Hotel Hollywood.  In 1919 she sold 59 acres of land at a little over $47,000 to a group who also loved Shakespeare and the arts.  This land would later become the Hollywood Bowl.

Myra Hershey died March 6, 1930, leaving a considerable fortune.  According to her obituary in the Press Telegram, her only surviving relatives were a niece, Mrs. Elizabeth Geiger of Los Angeles and Geiger’s three sons, all professors.  One, Clifford, taught at UCLA, the other two at USC.  Perhaps it was this connection to Clifford that prompted her $300,000 gift to build a woman’s dorm, Hershey Hall, at UCLA.  In addition she bequeathed $100,000 towards a student loan fund at the same university.  Other endowments included $50,000 to McKinley Boys’ Home in Van Nuys for a print shop and a donation of an undisclosed amount of money to the Museum of History Science and Art which allowed the Museum to remain open during the Depression years of the 1930s.

One interesting mystery is her connection to the Hershey chocolate family in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  One obituary reported the family connection, but is there one?  Myra was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which was home to many carrying the Hershey surname.  Milton Hershey of chocolate fame was also born in Lancaster Pennsylvania in 1857.  He was the only surviving child of Henry Hershey and his wife.  It seems a good bet that there was some connection, but to what extent remains undetermined.  I personally find it interesting that Milton found the money to begin his chocolate empire in 1903.  Could the money have come from his distant, extremely wealthy, childless cousin who admired his courage to venture out into his own business as did Myra’s father Benjamin?  Another coincidence is Milton deciding to build his Hershey Hotel in 1930, the year Myra died.  Was it in homage to his “cousin” who enhanced her fortune by investing heavily in hotels?  The hotel opened in 1934, in the midst of one of the worst economic depressions of all times, and managed to survive.  Was it built and did it survive with money from Myra?

(For more on Naples read the excellent book: Naples: the First Century (2005) by Naples historian Stan Poe.)

Alamitos Heights     

Long Beach Press 3/26/1904
Long Beach Press 3/26/1904

 At the same time the peninsula and Naples was being developed, real estate action was also taking place above the bay in Alamitos Heights.  The Alamitos Heights electric car line ran from Livingston Drive and East Second Street northeast on a private right-of-way to the Newport line at Naples Junction.  This connection enabled the Long Beach-Huntington Beach line to operate.  Built in 1903 it was discontinued in 1917.

The true “father” of Alamitos Heights, according to Roy Hilton writing for the Long Beach Press in November 1923, was Frank Shaw.  In 1903, following the opening of the electric car line through the area, real estate promoter Shaw bought 160 acres of Alamitos Heights from the owners of the Rancho Alamitos for $150 an acre.  Having invested around $25,000, he subdivided the tract into twenty-five and fifty-foot lots.  Fifty-foot lots started out at $750 and went as high as $1750 by 1906.  The smaller lots started at $125 and went to $300.  Shaw was quite a promoter, he sent up toy balloons with deeds attached.  When people came to claim the land from the deeds, Shaw would charge them an administrative fee worth the price of the lot.

When clearing what would become Alamitos Heights, Frank E. Shaw discovered that part of it was peat land. In February 1904 (LA Herald 2/28/1904), workmen piled a lot of dead weeds at the foot of a mound and set fire to it. The fire went down into the peat and the entire bog became a smoldering flame and efforts to extinguish proved futile.  One good thing was that the fire also opened a spring in the hillside, which would come to provide water for his development, and help put out the peat fire.  It was also a precursor to the oil that would be discovered in the area in 1926.

At that time the best way to approach Alamitos Heights was by water. Though it was only five miles from Long Beach, it was quite a drive to get there by horse and buggy.  The Sprite, manned by Shaw’s partner Lee Judson, brought up to 75 passengers at a time through the channel from the ocean.  The ten miles of channels off the bay gave prospective buyers the chance to see the Heights to their best advantage.

By June 1904 (LA Herald 6/19/04), Shaw and Judson reported the sale of forty-seven lots in Alamitos Heights.  To further entice prospective buyers they planned to secure fourteen pleasure boats for the use of owners of lots in the new tract.  These would be placed in Alamitos Bay, at the foot of the Heights, where the company would build a pier.

Present day Alamitos Heights area
Present day Alamitos Heights area

Railroad magnate Henry Huntington was also involved in development around Alamitos Bay.  He was planning “Villa Carita,” a resort with cottages, houseboats and tents.  He had big plans for the Alamitos Bay district which included dredging channels in the several thousand acres of tidelands between the bay proper and Alamitos Heights.  With the dug up dirt he would build islands, each of which would be large enough for the construction of what newspapers of the day referred to as a “magnificent residence.” Huntington also planned to create a business town on the Heights back of the bay.

Property in Alamitos Heights could be had for $125 dollars, with terms of $5 cash, $1 per week.  It was advertised that the area had water to spare, plenty for irrigation and for homes.  It was also a center of transportation — the Los Angeles-San Diego trunk line of the Pacific Electric crossed Alamitos Bay at this point.

But Villa Carita was not to be, and most of the plans for the development of Naples would have to wait.   In 1906 San Francisco suffered a devastating earthquake.  All real estate development in Southern California came to a halt, as money was redirected northward to rebuild San Francisco.  (See my blog: Farms into Housing Tracts for more about this). It wasn’t until after World War I that real estate sales picked up again in Southern California and oil would be discovered.  Sadly, Frank Shaw wouldn’t be there to pick up the pieces in his many real estate concerns, the 46-year-old committed suicide in June 1915 because of financial difficulties brought on by the recession following the earthquake.

Interestingly, many who had invested in Long Beach real estate, but lived elsewhere in the United States, had no idea Long Beach was over 400 miles from San Francisco and the devastation they were reading about in the news. The Los Angeles Herald (6/6/1906) reported that an Iowa man, who owned lots in the Alamitos area, believed Long Beach, too, was in ruins.  He telegraphed a friend in Long Beach ordering the sale of his property at a sacrifice. This friend inadvisably spoke of this and one local resident hearing of the “good deal” hopped on the next train to visit the Iowa farmer to settle the deal which was too good to pass up.

In the early 1920s land sales began anew in Alamitos Heights, with Shaw’s partner Lee Judson taking the helm.  An article in the November 4, 1923 Long Beach Press described the highest elevation of the Heights being 92 feet with irregular slopes and elevations adding much to the charm.  The hill, the Press reported, stood out, not so much because of its height, but because its foot sloped rapidly down to tidewater level on the west and south.  In 1924 this level was developed into a city park with a 1200 foot lake on the immediate west and a channel eighty feet wide and a half mile long. The land had been purchased in 1923 from the San Gabriel River Improvement company, after a bond passed by Long Beach voters.  It would eventually become known as Colorado Lagoon Park. To add to the desirability of the Heights northwest was Recreation Park and the municipal golf course.  Soon Seventh Street would cut directly through the park and across the tract and Fourth street would be extended around the lake and through the tract where lots were now (1923) selling for $5000 and up.Terrace2

The lots advertised as Lakeview Terrace began sales in January 1924 with prices starting at $5000.  But things were to change when oil was discovered on Signal Hill in 1921.  In 1926 it appeared as if Alamitos Heights was a good prospect for oil. Lots that had sold for $5000 two years earlier were snapped up for $80,000 or more. Though some locals tried to keep out the oil interests, they were not successful. In 1927 all of Alamitos Heights was open for oil drilling and most people didn’t want to build there because the area was continually sprayed by oil.  However, by 1931 homes began to be built in the area once again. Then came the depression and World War II when no housing was built, and finally the 1950s and later when many of the homes we have in the Heights today were constructed.  Since then, oil and homes have lived side by side, but gradually the oil is being replaced by more housing.