Ricky Blake, a California-based surfing artist and historian, has spent the past few years crawling down the rabbit hole to find nearly 100-year-old surf photographs from all sorts of sources. His journey to archive waves of bygone eras has unearthed some fascinating visuals of what California was like. Los Angeles had a Superbank, Long Beach was once tubed, and the coastline was forever altered. –Ed
I became interested in California history and surfing since I can remember, and I love linking the two together. Sometimes history can provide insight into how things are today. The pioneers, craftsmen and legends that brought us to this day should be honored, and the coastline and surf spots that have changed over time should also be remembered. God willing, photos will last forever. And so, the stories too. — Ricky Blake
Long Beach, early 1930s
Long Beach has gone through so many heavy changes that have fascinated me. The surf was still good and there were all these historical stories about the destruction caused by the waves. I randomly found this photo with no year or information, and figured out the time period based on the distinct architecture and the absence of Rainbow Pier, which was a major tourist attraction in the early 1900s. This photo shows the second version of the pier – look at the wooden cladding, it is already falling apart. The elephants on the beach are most likely there as the Cyclone Roller Coaster and Pike Amusement area is right next to it. The pier was torn down by the surf in 1934. As for that shelling, surfers probably didn’t want to try it on the boards they were riding at the time.
San Juan Cliffs, 1960s
For years, these bluffs have been a point of detailed research for me and one of the reasons I have descended into the endless rabbit hole of historical photo searches on the Internet. My dad was talking about surfing perfect, glassy waves at Dana Point Cove. Severson had a great shot of the place, and my grandfather had another shot the other way around, so I always wondered, “What happened?” Come and find out that few people have taken pictures of these now extinct cliffs. Then one day I was working on my Facebook page – “Historic Dana Point Surf Break” – when Ron Church’s daughter, Tani, messaged me saying she wanted to share some never-used photos her dad had taken of Doheny to Dana if I would like to use them for my page. I immediately replied, “Yes, please!” and she sent me some test prints.
What is truly amazing is the distance between Dana Cove and where the Doheny surfbreak is today. You can see three dots in the distance. The first two are now demolished and the modern pier begins where this first point juts out. The second point was called San Juan Point, or Princess Point, and waves were breaking all around that area, including a left on the other side called Meepees. The third point is Dana Point Headlands. What most people don’t realize is that before the development of Dana Point Harbor and breakwaters began in 1966, westerly swells swept through Doheny. The pier and breakwater now block these swells.
Long Beach Flood Control, early 1930s
In the early days of surfing, this legendary surf spot was considered the best in all of California for its size and conditions. The configuration was a breakwater built to direct the flow of water from the LA River directly out to sea while protecting the shipyard directly across the pier. This created a sandbar which produced a wedge effect astern and then another straight point of the sandbar a long distance from the shore. There was an underwater canyon just offshore, and being in San Pedro harbor it created a swell magnet at that exact spot, which faced south, so the San Pedro hills and the peninsula of Palos Verdes blocked the prevailing winds. A few aerial photos have come out recently, and after hours of searching, sometimes gems appear like those of the Pacific Naval Fleet, they were sent to Pearl Harbor and met their ultimate fate. This photo is hard to believe, because the scale is just huge. The waves are really big and the distance to the shore is incredible. The ancients told tales of 20ft waves – that if Huntington was 3ft flood control would be double or more – and with this photo we can now see they weren’t exaggerating.
Malibu, circa 1906
The raw beauty of the Rancho in summer, one of the natural wonders of the world. Only a small dirt trail ran through Arch Rock, crossing other landmarks that climbed the edge of the landscape to this final, desolate point. No one is overdoing it. Imagine being Tom Blake or Sam Reid 20 years later, arriving at this view of rolling waves in Malibu-technicolor. This is one of those mythical surfing tales for the ages: a natural surfing paradise created in a perfect location, perfectly oriented for wind and swell. A few other spots like this were also created along the coast, seemingly just to produce a perfect, isolated, glassy spot wave. Most of them are now gone due to the development explosion (Castillo Point-Santa Barbara, Dana Point, Corona Del Mar, Flood Control). But this point was far from the big city and hard to get to, so it was destined for fame, idolatry and a place in the Californian dream/nightmare lexicon, embodying how humans respond to and continue to wrestle with heaven.
Capistrano Cliffs, 1920s
Another photo came with this submission which showed flapper girls circa 1920s lounging on the beach. In this one, however, it looks to me like a group of developers were going out and claiming the build on this site. In the distance is the splendor of the surf around the untouched cliffs of Dana Point – check out the beautiful straight that breaks away in Capistrano. Historical research proves that waves flowed up these cliffs in the days before the railroad.
Duke Kahanamoku, Long Beach, 1925
I found this photo along with three others with no location provided. A lot of people thought it was the East Coast. It was a fun investigation. I matched the pier and buildings to the Pine Avenue pier area, so it must have been an advertisement for Long Beach at the time. The other photos show Duke hitting golf balls while riding a wave (or at least swinging the club) and standing on his board in the sand. The pier was in even worse shape at that time, which tells me it’s closer to 1934, when it crumbled into the roaring waves of Long Beach.
Crown of Mar, 1931
There are historic aerial photos on websites that can take you straight back in time. It was when Duke Kahanamoku considered Corona Del Mar his favorite California surf spot, and you can see the setup here. The Santa Ana River only exited from this location, which created a much larger sandbar, especially back when the river was free flowing and undammed. Many legendary surfers have hung out here: Tom Blake, Pete Peterson, Whitey Harrison, Blackie August, Doc Paskowitz… Learn about Wedge Pier and how they built a mini extension. They must have done this to try and stop those big Wedge spikes. Many old aerial photos show the destroyed pier where the wave bursts against the rocks.
Dead Man’s Island, 1873
Dead Man’s Island is a real and gripping nautical tale of death, mutiny and piracy set in Southern California – a legendary place where they buried dead sailors and a mutinous captain. After reading excerpts from the novel Two years before the mast of Richard Henry Dana, where he describes waves that would wrap around this island and crash as high as the trees, I found so many pictures. Dead Man’s Island was at the tip of San Pedro Bay and was an important landmark allowing sailors to safely enter the bay before it was removed in 1928 to make way for a harbor entrance enlarged. I found an old newspaper article describing the removal from the island as well as photos showing salted sailor skeletons from long ago. One still had a rope around his neck.
Long Beach, 1934
This stunning photo showing the wreckage of the destroyed Pine Avenue pier is accompanied by the following description: “Raging seas destroy the pier and undermine the houses, seven perils in the leveling of the building and children abandoned by the waves; crashed boat, flooded roads’ Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1934. Huge ground waves swept the debris ashore after demolishing the structure and endangering the lives of its occupants, who escaped by running along the disintegrating structure to the shore . The photographer had to stand on a section of the dilapidated pier to take this photo. Dangerous. Right after the Cyclone Racer Roller Coaster would have been Flood Control. The waves must have bombarded the outside and just staggered along this historic sandbar.
What do those spots look like right now?
Doheny | malibu | Corona Del Mar