Long Beach Secrets, Stories & Sagas!
What do bootleggers, astronauts, and Art Deco all have in common? These intriguing topics are all part of the secret history of Long Beach, which goes all the way back to 1784 when the area was first settled as part of a massive Spanish land grant. In the years that followed, Long Beach attracted ranchers, real estate developers, and even bootleggers, who ran contraband up and down the California coast.
Ever wonder about those funny little islands with the lights and waterfalls in the Long Beach harbor? Or why Long Beach has so many gorgeous Art Deco buildings? Let’s do a deep dive and discover our city’s secrets, stories, and sagas!
How Long Beach Got Its Name
The original Spanish land grant, that became Long Beach, encompassed the historic 28,000-acre Ranch Los Alamitos and its sister rancho, 27,000-acre Rancho Los Cerritos. In 1866, Rancho Los Cerritos was sold to Lewellyn Bixby and then managed by his brother Jotham. The Bixby family soon became prominent ranchers and developers of Long Beach.
In 1882, Long Beach, originally planned as Willmore City by developer William Willmore, began forming along the coast. In the following years, the railroads attracted hoards of visitors to Long Beach and created a real estate boom. In 1888, the original residents of Willmore City renamed their town Long Beach, after its long, wide beaches, and the city became incorporated.
Long Beach Was A Bootlegger Hotbed During Prohibition
With the official start of Prohibition in 1920, it was easy to keep the party going in Long Beach! Although Long Beach had been “dry” throughout most of its history, illegal liquor distribution throughout the city was already established, and underground booze operations, secretive speakeasies, and bootlegging were in full swing. During Prohibition, the coastline between San Diego and Santa Barbara was the focal point of rum runner operations in the Pacific, and Long Beach, San Pedro, and Ventura were deemed “Rum Row.”
In 1925, the LA Times reported a huge rum fleet carrying cargoes valued at several million dollars lying off the coast of Southern California. You can read all about it in Prohibition Madness: Life and Death in and Around Long Beach, California, 1920-1933, a book by Claudine Burnett, local historian and former head of the Literature and History Department of the Long Beach Public Library.
On March 10, 1933, Long Beach was struck by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake, with the epicenter offshore, southeast of Long Beach on the Newport–Inglewood Fault. Destruction was widespread, with an estimated $50 million worth of property damage due to unreinforced masonry and unfavorable geological conditions such as landfill. As a result, stricter construction codes were implemented and Long Beach was rebuilt.
Long Beach is Transformed into an Art Deco Architectural Gem
As devastating as it was, the 1933 earthquake had a transformative effect on Long Beach. As noted in the Press-Telegram, the year of the earthquake coincided with the Art Deco movement, that began with the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. After the quake, Long Beach was a clean slate for architects, and they imbued the new buildings in the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne style.
As the city passed new laws to ensure structural safety, Art Deco also provided functionality, as most new buildings were built of reinforced concrete, and the embellishments were integral to the architecture rather than merely decorative. Some examples are the Soft Water Laundry on Anaheim Street, The Ordinarie restaurant on The Promenade in downtown Long Beach, and Farmers and Merchants Bank Office Tower on Pine Avenue.
In 1967, the City of Long Beach purchased Cunard’s former luxury cruise liner, the Queen Mary, to be docked in Long Beach Harbor as a major tourism attraction and hotel. But amid the Art Deco style and grand splendor of this elegant vessel lies a sinister secret – the Queen Mary is one of most haunted hotels in America! Among the ghosts reportedly still hanging around is an engineer who died in the ship’s engine room, a “lady in white,” and various children located throughout the ship including the 1st Class Pool.
Have you ever wondered about the mysterious islands that appear in the Long Beach harbor? These man-made isles are the only decorated oil islands in the U.S. Measuring 10 acres each, they were built in 1965 as part of a city beautification project to camouflage offshore oil derricks and muffle their sound. Construction of the islands was overseen by Disneyland architect Joseph Linesch, who designed waterfalls, screens, extensive landscaping, and the colorful lights you see at night. Since 1967, they have been commonly referred to as the Astronaut Islands, with each individual island named after an American astronaut killed on a mission. The islands are off-limits with the exception of occasional guided tours hosted by private organizations.
Source: Atlas Obscura
The Story of the Wyland Murals
On Earth Day, April 23, 2009, famed marine artist Wyland completed his Earth, The Blue Planet mural on the rooftop of the Long Beach Arena, the largest painting of planet Earth from space. The mural complements Wyland’s Planet Ocean or Whaling Wall, which encircles the Long Beach Arena and was recognized as the world’s largest mural by the Guinness Book of Records when it was finished in 1992. Wyland is one of the most celebrated and recognized artists of our time. An innovative painter, sculpture, writer, photographer, philanthropist, and filmmaker, he captured the imagination of people everywhere by completing over one hundred monumental marine life murals around the world from 1981-2008. The project, known as the Whaling Walls, remains one of the largest public arts projects in history and continues to be seen by an estimated one billion people each year.
Photo #1: Long Beach Heritage
Photo #2: Visit Long Beach
Photo #3: City of Long Beach
Photo #4: Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, University of Southern California Libraries
Photo #5: Prohibition Madness/Claudine Burnett
Photo #6: City of Long Beach
Photo #7: The Ordinarie
Photo #8: Google Earth
Photo #9: The Queen Mary
Photo #10: Island Grissom/THUMS Islands/Public Domain
Photo #11: Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center