Friday, June 6, 2014

Mr. Toad’s Day at the Beach, or How the Automobile Changed Malibu

Early motorists enjoy a postcard-perfect trip to the beach c. 1926.

Glorious, stirring sight! The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! Here today—in next week tomorrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped—always somebody else's horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!

—Kenneth Grahame,
The Wind in the Willows, 1908

Oh, Toad. Canary-colored cart, patient horse, friends, river and home forgotten, all care and caution tossed to the wind at the seductive sight of his first motorcar. It must have been that way for many, not just Scottish author Kenneth Grahame’s infuriating but endearing character who first appeared in print in 1908.

The automobile craze came early to Los Angeles. The Automobile Club of Southern California was founded in 1900.  According to Richard Mathison’s fascinating 1968 history of the Auto Club and SoCal car culture, Three Cars in Every Garage, the population of the LA area had burgeoned to 350,000 people that year. The City of Los Angeles went from 11,183 in 1800 to 102,478 in 1900. Mathison writes that a total of 4192 cars were manufactured in the US in the first year of the 20th century. Advocates for alternative fuel vehicles in the 21st century might be amazed to find that less than 1000 of those vehicles were powered by gasoline. The rest were steam and electric. 

The Automobile Club of California hosted car races in 1904 and 1905 at Agricultural Park, now Exposition Park, in the heart of Los Angeles. The club, founded in 1900, was soon looking to the open road. It became a major proponent for the creation of the California highway system and began producing maps and books of car routes for recreation. This photo is from the Automobile Club Archive and is reproduced in Richard Mathison's 1968 book Three Cars in Every Garage.
In 1909, the State Highways Act was passed, allocating $18 million in bonds to create a  “continuous and connected highway system.” The first stretch of highway was built in 1912. Things would never be the same. 

According to Mathison, the Auto Club grew from "a few hundred enthusiasts" in 1906, to "3200 serious motorists" in 1911. The organization began publishing maps and tour books in 1909, encouraging motorists to take to the roads in search of adventure and a grand day out.  

The Auto Club also became a powerful voice lobbying for new roads. motorists began to clamor for a highway through the exclusive, entirely off-limits Malibu Rancho. It would be 1929 before that road was built, but that didn't stop early motorists from pushing the boundary. As early as 1915 there were maps promoting road trips to the Las Flores Inn—it's Duke's Restaurant now and was the Sea Lion when I was growing up. 

Las Flores was the end of the road for motorists, the ranch gate that's at the top of the Malibu Post's home page was located there, and uninvited visitors to the ranch were not welcome. Instead, motorists might opt for a round trip adventure along the coast to Topanga Canyon, up the narrow, winding mountain road and through the vast unexplored San Fernando Valley to exotic destinations like Van Nuys, before heading home through the Cahuanga Pass. The Auto Club printed a map for just such an adventure in 1915.

The trip from Santa Monica through Topanga Canyon to the Valley was a journey through wilderness into the wild west in 1915. It's still an adventure, even in 2014.

We have the map, but before we begin our motoring adventure, here are a few points of etiquette for motorists, c. 1901:

Motoring is a stimulating and rather dangerous amusement. When not overdone, it is healthful and pleasant. Ladies should wear warm wool garments free from encumbering draperies, with heavy shoes and sensible gloves. Her escort should provide a protective duster and goggles. No young lady should go alone with a gentleman on an extended afternoon motoring trip. An automobile often stops without apparent cause and is sometimes in disrepair for hours or even all night. A party of young people should have a chaperon.

—Etiquette of Social and Official Life, 1901, excerpted in Three Cars in Every Garage.

Got your goggles and your chaperon? Let's go.

We'll start our adventure at the California Incline in Santa Monica. The artist who painted this romantic 1915 postcard scene either didn't know or care about the geography or captured an eerie pre-dawn full moon setting in the west, it certainly isn't rising over there. Not in the real world.
Here's a 1915 view of the coast route looking north from Santa Monica Canyon. Remarkably, the apartment building on the corner of PCH and Chautauqua is still there and looks much the same. 

We'll be driving right past the first Port of Los Angeles, and "the Longest Wharf in the World," as this postcard boasts. There's nothing left but a sign today, and in 1915, the 4600-foot-long wharf was already a relic, replaced by the port at San Pedro. The Long Wharf was torn down in 1920, but when it was built in the 1890s, steamers full of freight and passengers arrived around the clock. 
Once past the wharf, the road dwindled to a narrow track. Motorists in 1915 had to contend with road obstacles that included high tides, horses, cattle, sea lions and elephant seals on the road and, just like 21st century travelers, falling rocks. 

The USC Digital Library preserves this wonderful 1915 photo of the Los Flores Inn. The resolution on the downloadable version isn't great, but in the original image you can read "Crescent Ice Cream" on the awning, and "Ice Cream, Sodas, Cones, Sandwiches, Tobacco, Kodak Films, Groceries, Candies,"  around the front of the building. The giant beer can to the right advertises: "When your [sic] dry drink Maier Select, on draught." At the right of the building, past the picnickers, a horse is tied up. A reminder that anyone headed up the coast to Yerba Buena or Oxnard had to travel by horse or on foot along the beach at low tide, a journey that could take two days, depending on conditions. We'll just stop by to fortify ourselves with ice cream, before making our way back to Topanga Canyon

This photo postcard from the early 1920s shows Topanga Canyon looking not that different from the way it is today.

However, once you were on the Valley side you were in a different world. Hundreds of acres of rolling grassland, dotted with valley oaks and cattle and crossed with a network of ravines and creek beds spread from the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains to the foothills of the Santa Susana Mountains with just a few ranches and small farm communities. 

That's the intersection of Topanga Canyon and Ventura Blvd in 1922. Today it's Woodland Hills, back then it was Girard. Motorists could be forgiven if they thought they were hallucinating a desert mirage. That really is a minaret. Or, more accurately, it really is a fake minaret. Girard was one of the first local roadside attractions, bus tours and motorists made a day of it, lured by the promise of something wonderful and exotic.
What they got was painted plywood and a real estate pitch. But then, illusions are part of the Southern California experience, too. And the 13 miles through Topanga were definitely scenic. Thanks to concerted preservation efforts, they still are. That concludes our 1915 road trip, but the road building effort is just getting under way.

Here's a 1920s steam shovel powering through miles of precarious coastline to build the Ventura stretch of Roosevelt Highway. Tons of explosives were used to blast the coastal route through the Malibu Rancho.
On opening day, June 26, 1929, thousands of cars crowded Roosevelt Highway, their occupants eager to have a first look at the fabled Malibu Ranch. The grand opening ceremony, featuring Miss Canada and Miss Mexico, took place at Big Sycamore Canyon. The original of this photo is in the Adamson House Museum collection.
Without pressure from the developing car culture May Knight Rindge, who carried on her husband's fight to keep the county from railroading the right of way for a railroad through the ranch they both loved fiercely, might have prevailed. But the era of the automobile had arrived with a vengeance and nothing was going to stand in the way, not even the area's unpredictable and disaster-prone geology. May Rindge's determination, however, delayed other road-building plans indefinitely. Here's a look at what might have been:

This is a detail of a map showing proposed freeways in 1956. There's the freeway through Malibu Canyon that helped fuel the fight for cityhood, but also a Topanga Expressway, a Decker Freeway, a Sycamore Canyon Freeway, and a Reseda Freeway, cutting through Temescal Canyon. There's even a Latigo Expressway. It's unclear how many of these proposed mega-projects were more than just lines on paper and wishful thing, but the engineers only let go of the idea of a multilane Mulholland Expressway cutting all the way across the Santa Monica Mountains in recent years. That it's still called a "highway," even where it's an impossibly narrow mountain road filled with hairpin turns much loved by motorcyclists but unlikely to ever accommodate anything bigger than a trash truck is a lasting reminder of the abandoned plan. Could they have built it? Probably.
They approved this in 1955, and built it in 1961. Today, this section of the 405, which splits the Santa Monica Mountains in two, is one of the busiest freeways in the world. The builders of Los Angeles' freeway system bulldozed thousands of homes, divided neighborhoods, and overcame opposition in much the same way an invading army overcomes resistance, with a complete disregard for the environment and civil rights. At least it was a bloodless battle. Or, at any rate, without visible bloodshed, because California's freeways came at a price. 
In the end, the road building got out of hand. We've already had a look at the plan to build a six-lane freeway through Malibu Canyon and the even more outrĂ© Santa Monica Causeway, but by the time Caltrans released plans to use atomic bombs to blast new freeways through the mountains in the Mojave Desert in the early 1970s, even the most energetic road building lobbyists in the Auto Club were ready to say enough is enough.  (Although it may be hard to believe, the atomic civil engineering plan is not a figment of the author's over-active imagination, it was called the Plowshare Program, and they're still trying to mop up the mess made while testing how to use nuclear weapons for things like road construction). 

Southern California's mountains are a graveyard for over-ambitious and abandoned freeway projects, but Roosevelt Highway—Pacific Coast Highway—remains a popular weekend drive, in addition to being Malibu's lifeline. Malibu had an estimated 363,000 visitors over Memorial Day weekend this year and summer hasn't even officially started yet. However, if sea level rise predictions are accurate, the ocean will eventually take back the road.

A 21st century earth-mover shores up Pacific Coast Highway near Thornhill Broome State Beach after powerful spring tides damaged the rock revetment. 
The fabulous Mr Toad, with his bombast and his passion for motorcars, steals the show in the Wind in the Willows, but it's wise old Badger whose words stay with one down through the years:

People come, they stay for a while, they flourish, they build, and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I've been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.
—Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

See you on the road. 

Suzanne Guldimann
6 June 2014

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