The first Redondo Beach residents were Native Americans of the Gabrielono tribe – the Chowignas. The Chowignas had followed the trails of buffalo, deer, and sheep herds searching for mineral-rich salt licks, which led them miles from their arid, desert villages to the glorious ocean shores. Here, they discovered a large salt lake 200 yards wide and 600 yards long being fed by underground springs which were further fed by an underwater canyon. These early Native Americans used salt mainly for food preservation, wound-healing, making clay pottery and even warding off evil spirits. Archeological relics indicate that these early settlers traded with other Native Americans living on Catalina Island.
Beginning in the late 1800’s, people journeyed to the coast for industry and recreation, so communities began to spring up along the California coast. Redondo Beach was one such community. Originally part of a 75,000 acre land grant from the Mexican government to Juan Jose Dominguez for his distinguished military service in 1784, Dominguez did not spend much time developing his property before his death in 1809. The land was passed down to his nephew, Jose Cristobal Dominguez, who was otherwise occupied in San Diego, and consequently never visited the property. After Jose Cristobal’s death in 1825, his son, Manuel, moved much of the remaining family to the land-holding and constructed a home in what is now Compton. In 1854, Manuel sold the salt lake to Henry Johnson to organize the Pacific Salt Works which became Redondo’s first industry. Manuel also began to purchase the ownership shares in the land from his siblings until he owned everything, which he bequeathed to his six daughters when he passed in 1882. Several of Redondo’s north-south running streets still bear the names of the Dominguez women.
A Town Takes Shape
In 1887, the beachfront parcel caught the interest of real estate developers, Vail & Freeman. The gentlemen purchased a tract of land from the Dominguez sisters and began selling lots. Without much success, Vail & Freeman sold the 433-acre coastal tract to Thompson & Ainsworth in 1888 for $12,000. Captain J. C. Ainsworth and R. R. Thompson’s interest in Redondo was due primarily to the deep water canyon located close to shore, and they set out to develop Redondo as a port.
In addition to the ships, tracks were laid, and trains began to service the community. The Redondo Railway had originally planned to build a standard gauge railroad, but in 1890, the plans were changed to build a narrow gauge line.
The route of the line was based on the great Hotel Redondo, which had been constructed in 1889 and was one of the Pacific Coast’s largest and finest resort hotels. The immense wooden Victorian structure, built in the characteristic flamboyant style of the Gay Nineties, sprawled over a bluff which looked down on the crescent shaped shore, the wharves, and the railroad lines serving them.
Like other grand hotels built along the coast during this period, the Hotel Redondo was built with the purpose of turning the sleepy seaside community into a “destination”. The Hotel Redondo featured lavish amenities such as an 18-hole golf course, a grand staircase down to the beach, a bathroom on every floor, steam heat, an elegant ballroom, and 225 luxurious rooms. The hotel seduced more visitors than ever to venture to the coast. For those who couldn’t afford to stay in the hotel, tents were available in Tent City on property adjacent to the hotel. Tent City rates were $3.00 per week, or $10.00 per month, for a tent that included wooden floors and electric lights. The site included beautifully landscaped grounds, complete with beachside tennis courts and plenty of shady nooks.
Perched immediately in front of the structure was the unique circular brick building which served as the Redondo Railway’s passenger station and general offices. Immediately across the street were the railway’s operating headquarters, with roundhouse, coach yard, shops, tanks, and accompanying structures. Passengers on the Redondo Railway could step directly from their cars onto the grounds of the hotel.
The first wharf was built in 1890, railway service had been established, a small business section sprang up adjacent to the wharf, and cottages began to spring up along sloping hillside above the waterfront.
From the City’s beginning around 1887 until Wharf 3 was removed in 1926, lumber played a large part in Redondo’s economy. An article in the Redondo Compass in 1892 claimed that “for the past two-and-a-half years, Redondo’s wharf had done 60% of the shipping business of Los Angeles and vicinity.” A 1906 article in the Pacific Electric Topics indicated that “Redondo is noted as a lumber port and hundreds of vessels with their broad sails and many spars sail into the bay and tie up at the landings while their cargoes of timber are unloaded onto the waiting cars of the railroads and electric companies, ready for transportation to various points in California, Nevada, Arizona and the Southwest. This lumber means thousands of dollars annually to the port of Redondo and furnishes employment to many workmen.”
Originally established as a source of lumber for Ainsworth & Thompson’s Oregon lumber industry, by 1906, the Redondo lumber mills were all locally owned. The prominent mills were: Ganahl Lumber Co., Redondo Planing & Feed Mill, and Montgomery & Mullin Lumber Co, and all were located around North Catalina between Francisca and Gertruda. By 1914, these mills handled approximately 45 million feet of lumber annually, with an annual payroll of around $200,000.
By 1923, the homeowners along Esplanade complained about the Pacific Electric’s lumber operations at Wharf 3 (just south of Sapphire). They felt that the trains and stacks of lumber between their homes and the ocean were very unsightly. The City Council heeded their complaints and refused to renew the Pacific Electric franchise on the wharf. The lumber industry at once mobilized against the Council’s action. They reminded the Council of the 200 new homes that were needed for new residents, along with other growing lumber demands. In addition, they published in the newspapers the names and numbers of all persons employed by the local lumber industry. The Council reconsidered the matter and granted a 3-year extension. At the end of the 3 years, Wharf 3 was dismantled.
The lumber companies did not leave right away, but slowly the mills were replaced by retail and office space. The Cannery Row art studio is housed in the only remaining lumber mill. Located next to the studio is a large eucalyptus tree that is over 120 years old!
In addition to the freight loads of oil and lumber, railroads and steamships brought people by the thousands, as Redondo quickly emerged as a tourist destination. Several natural and man-made novelties lured visitors to Redondo, including Moonstone Beach, located between Diamond Street and the Hermosa Beach city line, which contained mounds five to six feet deep and 40 to 50 feet wide of gem stones. The gem stones were such a local attraction, that many of Redondo’s east-west streets were named after gem stones, beginning alphabetically with Agate and ending with Topaz. Another local attraction were the Carnation Gardens, in the general vicinity of Ruby and Sapphire Streets east of Catalina Avenue, which featured 12 acres of flowers that were almost always in bloom (carnations part of the year and asters the rest).
The piers, too, were an enticement, featuring sports fishing and amusements such as the Lightning Racer rollercoaster and the Looff Hippodrome Carousel. In those days, the Looff Carousel was such a fascination that people would travel for miles by either horse-and-buggy or trolley just to ride the merry-go-round.
For intellectual pursuits, the residents had the Chautauqua Assembly. The Chautauqua movement began as the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, and was founded in 1874 as an educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning. It was successful and broadened almost immediately beyond courses for Sunday school teachers to include academic subjects, music, art and physical education. The program spread throughout the country and, in time, around the world. The Chautauqua established itself as a national forum for open discussion of public issues, international relations, literature and science. The building in Redondo was dedicated in February 1890 and was an architectural marvel, having eleven sides built of sand and pebbles from the beach mixed with concrete from England. It had a capacity of 4,000 and the roof featured a deck with a promenade around a large glittering dome rising 50 feet from the roof. The building stood on a hill and could be seen from the shore. Some of Redondo’s streets are named for founders and leaders of the Chautauqua movement, and the layout of those streets form a “lamp of learning”. The eleven-sided building was purchased by the school district in 1905 to be the site of its new high school, and unfortunately was torn down in 1916. The Chautauqua Assembly is still alive and well across the United States and abroad.
Ainsworth and Thompson promoted, developed, and sold land that eventually became the nucleus of the city of Redondo Beach, which was incorporated on April 18, 1892, by a vote of 177-10.
The harbor continued to grow. A second wharf was built in 1894 and a third in 1903. Also in 1903, the Pacific Railway Company helped stimulate Redondo development by completing a trolley line from Los Angeles to Santa Monica and down the coast to Redondo Beach. This made casual day-tripping to the beach much easier. Prior to this time, people had traveled to Redondo from Los Angeles by horse and buggy.
In 1905, Henry Huntington purchased the Redondo Improvement Company, from Ainsworth and Thompson. Huntington had already gained control of the Redondo Railway, which operated two lines from Los Angeles. This purchase triggered a two-week real estate frenzy. As a result of the boom, Huntington sold about three million dollars of Redondo Beach property. Although some investors lost money when property values fell after the boom, Huntington invested heavily in Redondo Beach and encouraged long-term development. In 1907, he constructed a 3-story pavilion with a ballroom, restaurant, and theater. In 1909, he opened the Plunge, advertised as the “largest indoor salt water plunge in the world”. It had three heated pools, steam and Turkish baths, and more than 1,000 dressing rooms. The complex could hold 2,000 bathers at a time. For 30 years, the Plunge was a major West Coast attraction.
Huntington also hired George Freeth who charmed the crowds with his surfing exhibitions until his death from influenza a dozen years later. Freeth demonstrated diving techniques in the plunge; and not only introduced surfing to southern California, but became the first professional lifeguard.
Without a Breakwater
With no breakwater, the port was open to the sea and when the weather turned bad, boats, piers, shops, and homes all suffered. Redondo is a west-facing beach, so when the winds pick up out of the northwest, Redondo’s shoreline is pummeled. The massive ships are tossed around like ragdolls and many end up stranded on the beach. Some escape with minor damage and are reacquainted with the sea when the tides roll in, but others perish on the sandy shores.
In 1915 and 1916, Redondo suffered exceptionally violent storms which destroyed the pier as well as all the waterfront homes. Although many were rebuilt in their original locations, some homeowners recognized that without a breakwater to protect the town, storms would continue to produce havoc, so they moved their homes a couple blocks up from the waterfront.
Just before the turn-of-the-century, a five-man board of engineers recommended that San Pedro become the main port for the region due to its natural breakwater. After this decision, industrial waterfront activity began to decline in Redondo, and tourism and recreation became the town’s main focus.
Redondo Beach grew rapidly around Huntington’s attractions. However, the Huntington era ended January 1, 1911, when he transferred his interests in the waterfront, wharves and railway to the Southern Pacific, retaining only his real estate properties. Also, by 1912, the Pacific Steamship Company stopped calling at Redondo. A heavy storm in 1915, weakened wharf No. 1, and it was removed. A second storm caused the removal of wharf No. 2 in 1916. Lumber schooners still used Pier No. 3 at Topaz Street until the railroad pulled out in 1926. Because of prohibition, the Hotel Redondo closed its doors and in 1925 was sold for scrap lumber–the price was $300.