Long Beach’s rich surfing past earns state “point of historical interest” designation – Orange County Register

There’s places along the California coastline well known for their rich surf history and heritage.

There’s of course iconic Malibu, the rolling waves serving as inspiration for the character Gidget and her friends who helped popularize the sport in the ’60s.

San Onofre is an iconic wave often called the Waikiki of Southern California, and nearby is Lower Trestles, considered one of the best surf breaks on the mainland. The South Bay had its impact with surfboard makers who started mass-producing surfboards, spawning the industry.

But it is Long Beach – where the ocean looks more like a flat lake most days – that is in the surfing spotlight, earning a state historical designation for its role in the early era surf scene.

Long Beach in 1938 hosted the National Surfing and Paddleboard Championships that drew 60,000 spectators, a two-day event that helped earn the beach town a California Point of Historical Interest designation recently from the state’s Historical Resources Commission.

“Taking a moment to recognize a surf break that no longer exists is an important way to reflect on how surfing has grown, and what was gained and lost along the way through this period,” said Michael Blum, director of Sea of Clouds, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps coastal resources receive state and federal recognition. “Our organization is interested in telling interesting stories along the California coast.”

The group collaborated with the Surfrider Foundation’s Long Beach chapter and the city to seek nomination, a years-long process that started pre-pandemic.

Corona Del Mar, which also has storied past with a surf spot that was destroyed by development, held what’s believed to be the mainland’s first surfing competition, the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships. But the National Surfing and Paddleboard Championships in Long Beach was Los Angeles County’s first surfing and paddleboarding competition billed as a national event, Blum said.

During that time, in the early 20th century, the coastline wasn’t seen as a popular place. Developers and city planners sought ways to entice visitors and potential real estate buyers and thought up creative ways to bring people to the beach.

For Long Beach, it’s waves and surfing became the perfect way to showcase its coastline – at the time city promoters billed the town as “Queen of the Beaches,” Blum said.

Before the Long Beach breakwater was erected in the 1940s, the city was a surfing destination. Above is a 1938 gathering of what has been called the mainland's first national surf contest. (Courtesy of Ian Lind)
Before the Long Beach breakwater was erected in the 1940s, the city was a surfing destination. Above is a 1938 gathering of what has been called the mainland’s first national surf contest. (Courtesy of Ian Lind)

The contest was held between The Pike, an amusement park, and the Rainbow Pier, a way to promote those popular attractions.

“Surfing was part of that entertainment idea, but it was also a straight-up competition, the first competition in the Southern California region billed as a national event,” Blum said. “For that moment in surfing history, in pre-war history, that was a big deal.”

Though it’s not known who all of the 100 or so competitors were, the winners are documented.

There was Mary Ann Hawkins, one of the best surfers of that era, who hailed from the Del Mar Surfing Club out of Santa Monica. She won the women’s paddleboarding contest.

Fellow club member Preston “Pete” Peterson, also a Santa Monica lifeguard, won the men’s division.

Arthur Horner from the Venice Surfing Club won the surf division and Manhattan Surfing Club won the team surfing competition.

“I do think it was an important and successful entertainment event,” Blum said. “Surfing competition as entertainment has shown to be a successful model of expressing beach culture and a continued form of entertainment.”

That foundation set the stage for what we know today as big surfing events, such as the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, and the countless other amateur-level events up and down the coast, he said.

“This idea of bringing people to the beach to watch surfing has proven to be a successful business opportunity, entertainment opportunity and a successful cultural opportunity,” he said.

There’s only about 300 surf breaks in Southern California, many that are “fragile and susceptible to any number of pressures, developments like in Long Beach, or other kinds of threats,” Blum said.

Long Beach’s surf break was destroyed as the population boomed and development took over, with sand filling in the surf zone through the years and a 2.2-mile breakwater built in 1949 that blocked swells and waves.  Only on occasion, when a swell hits at just the right angle, does Long Beach get surfable waves.A surfer rides a wave at Belmont Shore in Long Beach, CA on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023. Waves are rare along this stretch of coast, but sometimes swell is able to sneak past the breakwater. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

A surfer rides a wave at Belmont Shore in Long Beach, CA on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023. Waves are rare along this stretch of coast, but sometimes swell is able to sneak past the breakwater. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

While Long Beach’s waves were lost, it doesn’t mean its surf influence was gone. Area surfers went to Seal Beach to help spawn the surfing culture there, while others went to Huntington Beach, some forming the “Boys of 55” group that helped define that era.

“Surfing may have stopped in Long Beach, but that doesn’t mean surfers in Long Beach stopped surfing,” Blum said.

Long Beach’s waves aren’t the first to earn official recognition. The shack at Windansea Beach was designated historic by the San Diego Historical Resources Board in 1998. Malibu’s three surf breaks by the pier earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for contributions to the growth of surfing in 2018.

“All three of those destinations are all different programs within the field of preservation,” Blum said, noting Long Beach didn’t qualify for federal designation because it no longer exists.

Malibu and Santa Cruz are also designated as World Surfing Reserves by the Save the Waves Coalition, a way to celebrate those surf spots and “galvanize communities to assume stewardship,” Blum said.

State historic preservation officer Julianne Polanco said selections include a “broad spectrum of properties and the people who care about them.”

“The California State Office of Historic Preservation is pleased to work with community groups such as Sea of Clouds, which promotes formal and informal designations in California,” she said. “It seems fitting that the next nomination under consideration could be for a Santa Cruz County location where three Hawaiian princes first brought surfing to California.”

Sea of Clouds also isn’t finished finding special surf spots – existing or extinct – to recognize through historic designation. Areas such as Killer Dana in Dana Point and Corona del Mar’s surf spot in Newport Beach, both lost to development, could be next.

Blum notes that not all is lost with change. In Newport Beach, on the other side of Corona del Mar’s destroyed wave, a rock jetty formed the famous Wedge, known to be the Mecca of bodyboarding and a surf spot like no other in the world.

“The loss of surf breaks is significant and important to those local surfing communities, but there’s this interesting history of surf breaks popping up based on changes of the coastline as well,” he said.

Christopher Koontz, director of community development for the city of Long Beach, said the details for a celebration and plaque dedication are in the works, likely near the end of summer.

“It’s great to get recognition from the state, but that’s just something that lives on a website and that’s not enough,” Koontz said. “We’re trying to work with the sponsor to figure out a way to do a plaque and marker and have a ceremony to bring people together to celebrate the recognition.”

“It’s a story people don’t know,” Koontz said. “We have the breakwater and port, but people have no idea there was surfing here and it was a beach destination. In the ’20s, it was the fastest growing place in the nation … for us to be able to tell a story that is not very well known is a very positive thing.”

Alejandro Plascencia, the city’s lead historic preservation planner, said the city’s recognitions often revolve around architecture and buildings, but not the beach.

“We are a beach and coastal city, so it’s important to recognize those moments of our history that do not get talked about as much,” Plascencia said. “There’s an important history, and Long Beach contributed to the early growth of surfing.”

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