On January 27, 1950, seven days after word of approval was received from Washington that Long Beach could end rent controls, 3000 acres of residential property adjacent to Long Beach and Lakewood was sold by the Montana Land Company to a corporate group calling themselves Lakewood Park. The price was $10 million ($125 million in 2022). This was just the beginning of a massive era of housing development. But what land to subdivide became a contentious issue.
In December 1951, the idea to establish a park along the west bank of the San Gabriel River was conceived. Twelve hundred residents of the Lakewood Plaza area had signed a petition opposing further subdivisions and supporting the park development proposal. They wanted to prevent a subdivision proposed on 246 acres west of land adjacent to the San Gabriel River between Spring Street and the easterly prolongation of Stearns Street. They turned to the city for guidance.
Los Alamitos Park, as envisioned by city planning would embrace approximately 1350 acres from Marine Stadium north to Heartwell Park and vary from ½ to 1 mile in width. It would be comparable in size to Golden State and Balboa Parks. How to pay for buying the competitively priced land? Tidelands oil money. Money the city did not yet have full control of.
In January 1952, the city purchased those 246 acres of farmland south of Spring for park development, to forestall a subdivision planned there. $725,700 ($8.1 million 3/2023) was to be paid to the Griset brothers, Francis and Ray, from the city’s land acquisition fund over a three-year period. In addition, an easement along the river was purchased from the Los Angeles Gas and Electric Company for $4800 ($54,000 3/2023). Hope was expressed that Tidelands oil money could be used in the future.
In a letter addressed to the city in April 1952, Fred Bixby of the Rancho Los Alamitos, the major land owner of the area, said he would do everything in his power to stop the park plan. Ignoring Bixby’s objections, Proposition K was put on the June 1952 ballot to fund park development. In May, the same month Bixby died, the Chamber of Commerce came out against Proposition K, saying it was a “jump of the gun” on the whole program for tidelands fund use. The city countered saying it had more than $100,000,000 ($113 billion 3/2023) of tidelands oil money in the city’s reserves, and half of that would be available for use outside the harbor and beach areas. Despite vowing to use no tax-raised money for the purchase, Proposition K failed by 12,000 votes.
On May 22, 1953, President Eisenhower fulfilled one of his campaign promises by recognizing states’ rights over their tideland’s areas. Since the state had granted Long Beach tidelands control when they petitioned to build a harbor here in 1911 it seemed Long Beach now had control of the tidelands oil money it had been accumulating since 1938.
In February 1954, the City Council made a bid on 560 acres of land east of the San Gabriel River for park purposes after city park consultants warned that loss of the land “will border on disaster.” The previous year Long Beach voters had authorized oil funds to acquire the park site. Park consultants viewed the area as a site for a “large forest park” with facilities for day and overnight camping, for nature trails and nature study, for large group and family picnic centers and for bridle trails and a center to meet the needs of the equestrian. The whole area would ultimately become a wild life sanctuary and a woodland park, a type of area completely lacking in the present park system. In July 1954, a portion of the acreage sought for the park – 381.6 acres – was purchased at a net price of $1,308,897 ($14 million3/2023).
Douglas Bagby*, a 10-year-old 5th grader at Birney School, and Irving E. Cox III, 10 and a sixth-grade student at Bixby School, were the winners when a competition to name the park was held among school children. The name they both came up with in February 1956? El Dorado. The park, which now had an official name, included El Dorado Park West, a 285-acre site between Stearns and String Streets, west of the San Gabriel River Flood Control Channel. The main portion of the park, an additional 600 acres was east of the channel.
Throughout 1955 and into the first quarter of 1956, Long Beach was confident she had free use of tideland monies to improve the city and surrounding areas. Voters approved widespread park and recreation improvements, a hospital expansion program, a public safety building, expansion of the Alamitos Bay Marina, and construction of four branch libraries. However, legal troubles that had plagued the use of tideland funds for decades continued. There was Felix Mallon who challenged Assembly Bill 3400, which was intended to permit Long Beach to spend half the tidelands oil money away from the tidelands. Then there was Assemblyman Bruce Allen of San Jose who introduced a bill to provide for state seizure of all Long Beach’s tidelands oil funds. With tideland funds tied up because of litigation, and not certain they could be used for anything except tidelands improvements, it was questioned how Long Beach would pay for all this expansion.
So, in 1956 a $4,900,000 ($54 million 3/2023) bond was issued for parks and recreation, with $920,000 ($10 million 3/2023) reserved for El Dorado Park. It was designed to not buy more land, but develop the portions now underdeveloped, and buy recreation equipment for parks currently in use. It provided for a city nursery, grading, paving, playfields, community buildings, sprinkling systems and expansion of roadside tree-planting.
Development continued. By April 1957, an army of houses was closing in on the last lonely outpost of farmlands along the San Gabriel River. The El Dorado Park clubhouse and playgrounds had made a 10-acre nitch on the edge of the farmlands, with the City of Long Beach leasing the land back to the prior owners until development could continue. In May 1957, preliminary plans were approved for a $232,000 ($2.5 million 3/2023) tree and shrub nursery encompassing 30 acres, south of Spring Street and west of the proposed freeway. Included in the design prepared by the firm of Morgan and Adams, Long Beach architects and engineers, were eight buildings estimated to cost $128,000 ($1.3 million 3/2023). The structures included a home for the nursery superintendent, workshop, equipment shed, potting shed, loading shed, greenhouse, plant propagating house and lath house. Plans called for grading of the farmlands for park nursery purposes in November and December, with water lines installed by September 1958. After that the tree planting program would commence.
All in all, numerous improvements were planned, such as an 18-hole golf course to the 885-acre park to be accomplished over a 10-year period at an estimated cost of five million dollars ($52 million 3/2023). Some residents felt they were being “sold a bill of goods” when they found the golf course would take up half of the 285 acres, but were reassured the other half would include a children’s playground, tennis, baseball, softball and archery area, as well as a duck pond.
By 1961 the tree farm planted in El Dorado Park East began to pay dividends. For two years 30,000 trees had been sprouting and 1,200 of them were ready to be planted at the site of the proposed El Dorado Park Golf course, along with twice as many obtained from private nurseries. The tree farm also provided trees to the Park Department to plant on city streets and other city parks. That year the Chamber of Commerce called for the creation of an industrial center in the east section of El Dorado. Following a lively debate in May 1961 the resolution was defeated by a vote of 11 to 9.
On August 4, 1962, the 6,499-yard, 18-hole golf course opened. Designed by architect Billy Bell, it had an artificial lake, four water holes and large, rolling greens. Ideas that didn’t fly included:
building a Navy Hospital on a 70-acre site in 1959.
leasing a portion of El Dorado Park to the Los Angeles Angels for a baseball stadium.
opening a dump on the site of El Dorado Park East before it was developed.
opening an Irish castle and museum.
However, some plans proposed did go through. In July 1968, the City Council approved an architectural plan with Palmer W. Power and Thomas J. Morrison to design a branch library in El Dorado Park West. It opened September 23, 1970.
NEXT: Development of El Dorado Park East
- * Doug Bagley contacted me after this article was published. He wrote: Enjoyed seeing your article which brought back memories of that Name The Park contest won by Irving E. Cox, III and myself. When Irving and I and our mothers had lunch with the Mayor of Long Beach he fortunately asked Irving why he chose “El Dorado” before he asked me. Irving, who must have had some coaching on this topic, explained how when the Spanish came to California and discovered the wonderful natural beautify of the land, they said “El Dorado” which he explained meant “A place of many riches.” When the mayor asked me why I chose that name, I was too embarrassed to answer truthfully, so I said ‘the same reason as Irving.” In fact, I loved the Cadillac El Dorado and that is why I chose that name. I am amazed more kids did not choose that name because of the car. Saved me and my mother’s some embarrassment by not being completely honest.