Capsule History of Manhattan Beach 1912 – 1975

The following history was written for the city hall dedication on Nov. 1 1975. It was included in the bicentennial time capsule that was sealed in the corner stone of the City Hall.

A Manhattan Beach Historical Series Publication (No. 3, 1975)
by Judson Grenier, Professor Emeritus
resident of Manhattan Beach since 1956

Dedication of the Manhattan Beach City Hall coincided with the Bicentennial celebration of the founding of the nation. But if we turned back the clock 200 years in this area, much would be recognizable. A broad sand dune ran the length of tile city, melding into hills in the east. There were no roads, no houses, no trees, no telegraph lines; motion came from the waves on Bay and the fluttering of birds in low-lying areas, which were swampy part of the year. On the southern edge of the city was an Indian burial ground used by aborigines living in a Redondo village called "Chowig-na," and Indian trails traversed the area. No people of European descent had seen Manhattan Beach, though the Portola expedition from Mexico had explored inland areas, and the Spanish missions were under construction.

Even a hundred-year span brought few changes to the region. During the nation's Centennial in 1875-76, Manhattan Beach remained uninhabited sand hills and slopes covered only by purple wild verbena and scrub brush.  Hunters, fishermen, and clam diggers had begun to make the trip from Los Angeles so a few beach cottages had been built. The first settler of Manhattan most likely was a legendary Col. Thomas Duncan, a former Virginia plantation owner, who built a large home and pier at about First street, and probably made his fortune by smuggling. (His long-vacant home burned in 1927.) In 1875 the city was part of the ten-mile ocean frontage of Rancho Sausal Redondo, owned by the Avila family. That year the United States government upheld the Avilas' half-century-old Mexican land grant.

Rancho Sausal Redondo had many owners; the last was Daniel Freeman, a former Canadian. The eastern section of Manhattan was part of a vast agricultural area, used first as a cattle ranch, then for dry [land] farming. The main dirt toad between Los Angeles and the Redondo salt-works roughly paralleled Aviation Boulevard.

Development of Manhattan Beach resulted from the construction of two public transportation systems. First, the Santa Fe Railroad completed a single track line to Redondo Beach [along the present-day green belt between Valley and Ardmore] in 1888.  [Later], a small sub-station built at what is now Manhattan Beach Boulevard. Real estate promotion began at the turn of the century in three areas of the present city. John A. Merrill laid out the southern section, working south from Manhattan Beach Boulevard, then known as Center Street. (Merrill's small frame office on Center was later used for the first offices of the city government.) Planks were placed on the sand to create Manhattan Avenue, and boardwalks were built along the Strand and on side streets. Merrill's section was named "Manhattan", after the Eastern metropolis.

Frank Daugherty and five associates developed the central area, incorporating as the Highland Beach Company and working south from offices on Marine. Daugherty's tract ran east to the railroad, and he promoted sales by chartering a train to transport 500 people from Los Angeles to the grand opening.

The northern tract was developed by George Peck, a wealthy Los Angeles realtor. Peck's tract ran from the Strand to the crest of the dune (where one had a "grand view") and included land north of Rosecrans Ave. He borrowed a name from the Santa Fe sub-station and promoted "Shore Acres" in newspaper advertisements.

[The second transportation system] further stimulated land sales by construction of an electric transit line from Marina del Rey to Redondo in 1903. At first the Los Angeles Pacific (LAP) Railway, it later became part of the Pacific Electric system, and at times included four local stops. At these locations, four wooden piers were built, but only two survived. Recreational pavilions were constructed near two of the stops. [During peak traffic hours the PE "red cars" or trolleys stopped every hour.]

Building and sand dunes looking North from 15th St. & Valley Dr. – circa 1917

Real estate shack and city hall on Center St. (now Manhattan Beach Blvd.)

The PE trolley tracks, boardwalk, beach cottages, and old iron pier – circa 1913

Original homes in Manhattan were little more than wooden summer cottages. Water was piped from wells on Highland Avenue at 10th Street and 16th Street, but service was poor, and enterprising youngsters earned pocket-money making hand deliveries by bucket. Sewage was disposed through clay pipes that ran to cesspools at the end of each street. The first lighting consisted of four acetylene lamps mounted on 10-foot poles on Center Street at Manhattan Avenue and the Strand. Later, the Pacific Electric supplied electricity, and ornamental electric lights were constructed along the Strand, Center St., Highland Ave., and Marine Ave. Some of these lights functioned for 50 years, and the ornate standards were symbols of the architecture of Early Manhattan Beach.

Two organizations formed in 1909 to promote civic betterment. The Manhattan Beach Improvement Organization, a forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, and the Neptunian Club, a women's group (many of whom were wives of MBIO members), determined to lead Manhattan toward city-hood. In the municipal election of November of 1912, with a population between 500 and 600, voters approved the Articles of Incorporation. On December 2 1912, the County Board of Supervisors forwarded its certification to the California Secretary of State.

The city's first government was a five-man Board of Trustees headed by E. W. Campbell. The first city hall, Merrill's Center Street structure, was run by C. E. Jenkins, city clerk, and A. C. Conner, treasurer. City Marshall Fred Petway directed law enforcement and fire fighting, assisted by volunteers. A reception for the new city officers, "all in full dress," was held by the Neptunian Club after the installation.

In 1914, city government moved to its second home, the upper floor of the Sadler building at Marine and Strand, and invited the active participation of all citizens in such projects as planting foliage to hold down blowing sand, paving the principal streets, and constructing a city pier. The pier took three bond issues and $140,000 to complete in 1920. Although at various times in its history, the pier has had a wooden extension, had two building at the base, and been restored and renovated, it remains the city's most noteworthy historic site.

The third home of the city government also was a historic site until its demolition a few years ago. Land for the city hall at 15th and Highland was sold the city by George Peck for a small sum; F. S. Daugherty was named contractor, the site was terraced, and construction completed in less than a year. In May, 1916, the cornerstone was laid, and city officials moved in for a stand of more than a half-century. The Hall also housed the police and fire departments and meeting rooms for private organizations. Its exterior architecture was "years ahead of its time" and masked the wooden Victorian flourishes and narrow hallways of the interior.

In the following years, city government charted new paths for civic growth. A municipal water system was installed and utilized until 1942; subsequently, the city joined the Metropolitan Water District and tapped water from the Colorado and Feather River projects. After Los Angeles built its Hyperion disposal plant in 1924, Manhattan constructed a truck line to the new plant; however, continuing problems involving the plant (resulting in a beach quarantine) continued until the 1940s. Rosecrans Ave., Sepulveda Blvd., and cross streets were paved, and the "Big Red Cars" of the Pacific Electric carried residents to and from the metropolitan area until the lines were abandoned (for lack of ridership) shortly in May 1940

The year 1915 saw many tourists pass through Los Angeles County on their way between the San Diego and San Francisco Pan-Pacific Expositions. The county spent large sums erecting trellises along highways and planting palms in tubs beside the road. Many cars traveled along El Camino Real (now Sepulveda Blvd.), and concern was expressed about the lack of vegetation along the road. Closer to the beach, blowing sand was a problem.

In the early days, sand was more than a symbol to the residents. The wind spread sand in drifts, dunes shifted, boardwalks and streets were inundated, and homes undermined. Between City Hall and Live Oak Park, sand could pile halfway to the top of the ornamental lampposts. Finally a Manhattan Development Company headed by C. H. Avey was hired to level the dunes from Center Street south to First Street. For two years, tractors worked long hours to remove the sand and pave the streets in that section. But the project went bankrupt. N. R. Kuhn, a local con­tractor, successfully completed the project by selling sand for construction projects, including the floor of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. The northern dunes, more stable, remained half intact, and were utilized for the filming of desert scenes by Hollywood movie studios in the 1920s and 1930s.

Other civic services came into being. A library, started by the Neptunian Womans Club (founded in 1909), became a branch of the County Library system. The first school was erected in 1913 at the corner of Center and Pacific Avenue; Center School opened with 43 pupils. The city's first fire chief was hired and the first fire truck purchased in the mid-1920s. The religious life of the city was enhanced by the establishment of churches: the Community Church (1905), Community Baptist (1911), American Martyrs (1931), and others. Service organizations and clubs chartered before World War II included the Lions (1926), the Sandpipers (1931), the PTA (1932), the Dolphins (1939), the Property Owners' Association (1939), the East Manhattan Women's Club (1940), and branches of the Scouting movement. Liaison between these organizations and the city was provided by establishment in the mid-1930s of a "Coordinating Council," a sounding board for exchange of ideas and activities which functioned effectively 40 years later.

During World War II, residents joined all branches of the armed forces, while at home, non-combatants were organized into civil defense units, and served as air raid wardens, aircraft spotters, Red Cross workers, canteen hostesses, volunteer firemen, civil guardsmen, and youth leaders. Residents opened their homes to servicemen manning artillery and infantry stations nearby [located at a coastal artillery battery in the vicinity of the present-day Racket Ball Club].

The original boundaries of Manhattan Beach included 3.31 square miles, and the annexation of an eastern tract in 1916 increased the total territory to 3.81. Population growth reflected the limited area available for expansion, and the city remained largely a family town.  In 1920, it had 859 residents, in 1930 it had 1891, in 1940 it had 6398. The 1930s saw the growth of the "tree section” and the “hill section.” But the post ­WWII-war period was the time of the greatest population boom as new sections were developed. The hill west of Sepulveda was quickly followed by building east of the highway: Manhattan Village [the original], Liberty Village, Bermuda Village, Victory Village. By the mid-1950s residents in these areas, led by the Property Owners Association, had worked to establish new schools and storm drains, a new fire station, a new post office, Manhattan Heights Playground and Park, and a branch of the County Library.

City government expanded, too. The first City Manager, Clifford Petrie, took office in 1948, and new departments and commissions were established. The public works department undertook a mammoth storm  drain project, designed to ease flooding of city streets. In the 1950s, water service was the most expensive item in the city's annual budget. The increasing number of water users was so great that a 7.5 million gallon reservoir was constructed in 1957, and by 1960 consumers used over 220 million gallons each year.

A prominent organization of the 1950s was the Chamber of Commerce. Incorporated in March, 1941, the Chamber worked in the 40s to encourage trade and business expansion, and campaigned against beach pollution. Along with the Coordinating Council, it sponsored festivals and fairs that added flavor to the social life of the city. Typical was the five-day "Fun Fair," held annually in the summer from 1952 onward at the National Guard Armory, and complete with parades, dances, queens, amusement booths and rides. Proceeds of the fairs went into a municipal fund for building a swimming pool. The summer fairs were abandoned 20 years later, but their spirit lives on in the "Old Towne Fair" held in early autumn near Live Oak Park.

In 1955 the Chamber began its annual "International Paddle-board Race" from Catalina Island to Manhattan Beach. The event soon became a three-day "aquatic spectacle," featuring life guard races, volleyball tournaments, dory races, surf mat races, a parade, band concert, dance. Coast Guard demonstration, and – on the final day – the channel race itself, longest in the world (.32 miles), with 50,000 people on the beach to greet the winner. The Paddle-board Race was abandoned in 1961, but the other events are continued in the annual Surf Festival now co-sponsored by the other beach cities. The Chamber of Commerce also initiated the annual Manhattan Art Festival, the Santa Claus float project in December, and annual recognition awards for outstanding citizens.

Expanding population in the 1960s created new needs for public service facilities. The public works department opened its new quarters in the dunes near Bell Avenue and Rosecrans Avenue on April 13, 1967 (in time to be dusted by ashes from an intense oil tank fire later in the year). By 1975 the main building and nine storage buildings. housed 80 employees, three minibuses, trash trucks, and street maintenance, water, refuse and animal control vehicles, all needed as part of the new services provided by the city.

The oldest house [in 1975] was the Horner house, built in 1902

Since 1939, citizens groups had urged construction of a combination recreation-meeting hall centrally located. The Joslyn Community Center is such a building, which opened on Oct. 2, 1965. The Center was built with a financial contribution of $75,000 from the Joslyn philanthropic foundation, plus an appropriation of $155,000 from the city's general fund, and dedicated to the Senior Citizens' Club, which had utilized the facility for the past 10 years. Another community building was erected by the city in Manhattan Heights in 1969-70. The following year, December of 1971, ribbon was cut on a multi-level parking facility in the center of the downtown business area.

By 1975, it was apparent that Manhattan's population was no longer growing, though the wealth of the city continues to rise. Estimated population of 1960 was 33,934, and of 1970, 35,352; but estimates for 1975 are somewhat lower. The median age of residents was 29 years in both 1960 and 1970. But the median income of residents was $8,289 in 1960, $14,234 in. 1970, and probably $15,000 in 1975. Land values, much to the annoyance of long-time [retired] residents, have doubled and doubled again in that period.

The third city hall was built in 1916 at 1400 Highland Avenue

For 55 years, the old City Hall presided in stately fashion from the hill overlooking the downtown area. But government outgrew the facilities. A moderate earthquake on Feb. 9, 1971, damaged the building; it was condemned shortly thereafter and vacated on August 2. City employees moved into a temporary structure as demolition began. The 1916 cornerstone failed to reveal any historical mementoes, but city officials implanted it in the wall of the new City Hall to keep historical tradition alive. The cornerstone of the new building will contain a time capsule, as well. But the most important mementoes of the history of Manhattan Beach are the memories of its citizens of "the good life" they have led.