Images of The Week
Los Angeles Gas and Electric Corp. Steam Plant – 1925 to 1967
Miss me? It’s been almost three weeks since the last post, and real life is still interfering with my weekly chores here. With luck, I hope to post the rest of my earthquake photos on Monday, but I have a couple more story consulting gigs between now and then, so don’t be surprised if I post them later next week.
To compensate for my blog-gone wayward wastrelness, I’m offering a monster post filled to the brim with Seal Beach trivia, more earthquake damage, earthquake damage repairs, personal reminisces, and eighteen, count ’em, eighteen fantastic photos of one of my favorite Seal Beach landmarks, now gone longer than it stood. Today’s post is all about the massive power plant that once stood on Alamitos Bay at First Street and Ocean Avenue.
We’ll start with yet another Long Beach Earthquake photo. Here’s the Los Angeles Gas and Electric Corporation steam plant shortly after the March 10, 1933 earthquake. Most of the damage, fatalities, and injuries from this quake (none in Seal Beach) came from the collapse of unreinforced brick buildings. The steam plant was built sturdier than most brick buildings from this era, but even it sustained damage.
Thanks to this oral history interview done by Libby Appelgate for the Seal Beach Historical & Cultural Society, we have this account from long time resident Marge Ordway about her family’s experience during the earthquake, including some information about the power plant.
L.A.: How did the 1933 earthquake affect you?
M.O.: A lot! I remember that there was an American Legion meeting so my father had left to . . . he was down on First Street right across from the power plant to pick somebody up to go to the meeting. We had had chop suey for dinner because I remember my dad brought the bean sprouts home for the chop suey. When it came, we were living next to the parking lot that’s there now on 8th and just above Central going toward the Ocean. That building was torn down a couple of years ago and they built two huge buildings there, now, and homes. There were no, or very few, cupboards in the kitchen. Things were on shelves and the same way in the bathroom. Things were on shelves. Well, my mother and I were in the kitchen and she tried to get me out the back door. Three times she tried to shove me out that back door and the earthquake was so strong I couldn’t get out. Third time, she got me out. In the meantime the cans were flying off the shelf hitting her in the head. She was not seriously injured but she had a lot of damage to her face. So I finally got out in time to see, looking to my right, I saw the two-story brick building fall down.
The power plant had a blue light and a steam and a whistling sound and we thought that the power plant had exploded. We didn’t know what this was. My dad was across the street from that. They said the power plant tower swayed twelve feet each way.
L.A.: I know the tower fell over.
M.O.: It didn’t fall over. They took the top two-thirds down. It was cracked.
L.A.: Oh, it was cracked.
M.O.: It was cracked. It didn’t fall down. But they had to take two-thirds of it down and that upset all of the sailors because when they were coming back from overseas they could see that landmark before anything else. When they took two-thirds of it down, they could no longer see the tower and they didn’t like that. It had to be torn down because it was cracked, it was dangerous.
The tower they’re referring to is the power plant’s smokestack. Here is a photograph taken from the Ocean Avenue bridge of the repair work being done on the power plant late in 1933 or early 1934. The damaged smokestack has almost been completely removed, soon to be replaced by a shorter smokestack.
And here’s the original smokestack in all its glory. This 1928 photo taken between Second and Third Street close to Central Way shows how imposing the steam plant was before the earthquake. It’s easy to understand why the sailors Marge Ordway mentioned in her interview missed the taller smokestack after it was gone. You could see it for miles.
Not only did the power plant dominate the landscape visually, but the plant’s whistle was part of Seal Beach’s daily life. It blew at 8 A.M. at the start of the morning shift, at noon for lunch, at 5 P.M. for the end of the workday, and finally at 9 PM to signal the nightly curfew for any kid under 16 years of age.
One reason I love the power plant is that it was such a large and prominent landmark in Seal Beach that any glimpse of it in a photograph immediately makes it so much easier to pinpoint where a photo was taken in town. The power plant also is an invaluable guide for discerning which time periods a photograph was taken. If you can see the tall smokestack, the photo was taken between 1925, when it was built, and 1933, when the original smokestack was replaced.
The Los Angeles Gas and Electric Corporation spent nearly 14 million dollars to build a proud state of the art steam generating power plant on Alamitos Bay in 1925. The three shots above were taken of the steam plant interior while it was still being constructed.
Here’s a snazzy shot of the steam plant and the Ocean Avenue bridge, circa 1928.
This photo taken from Third Street just above Central Way is undated, but we know it’s from some time between 1925 and 1933. Those palm trees on Second Street are much taller today. (Although it seems to me that the ones planted on the east side of the street are no longer there.)
And here we see a pre-earthquake view of Naples and Alamitos Bay featuring the tall smokestack steam plant. Along the right side of the photo, Long Beach’s Ocean Avenue extends up through the Long Beach peninsula and across the Ocean Avenue bridge to continue through Seal Beach. From 1913 to 1940, a second Pacific Electric red car line ran along Ocean Avenue through Long Beach to Main Street in Seal Beach and then up Main Street to Electric Avenue to join the regular Long Beach to Newport Beach line.
Here’s another aerial shot of the power plant dated 9/14/1933 showing that the dismantling of the taller smokestack had not yet begun six months after the earthquake.
There are four bridges shown in this photo. The Ocean Avenue bridge is in the foreground. The next bridge up is the Marina Drive bridge which still cross the San Gabriel River. You can look at the previous photo and trace how Marina Drive once continue across land that would be dredged to create the Long Beach Marina. Today you can look across from the Coast Guard station at the end of Marina Drive in the Long Beach Marina to see where Marina Drive entered Naples along the East Naples Plaza. Above the Marina Drive bridge is the Pacific Electric Newport line’s bridge into Long Beach where it ran along Appian Way through Naples and Belmont Shores. Finally, at the very top of photo you can see the Pacific Coast Highway bridge crossing the San Gabriel River.
And here’s one last undated aerial shot from this same period. You can see the Stanton and Lothian houses along Ocean Avenue between First Street and Second Street. It’s amazing how sparsely developed Seal Beach was at this time.
Once the shorter smokestack is built, the power plant became a stable unchanging landmark for the next thirty-five years. In 1937, the Department of Water and Power bought the Los Angeles Gas and Electric Corporation and assumed ownership of the Seal Beach steam plant. This is why most people referred to it as the DWP power plant, even though it wasn’t originally a DWP property.
Here’s an undated photo of the power plant with the short smokestack. Judging by the cars in the photo this was probably in the late 1930s. The Stanton House stands across from the plant on the right.
And here we see another view of Naples and Alamitos Bay featuring the power plant, now with a shorter smokestack. Since Anaheim Landing has not been converted into the Naval Weapons Depot and the roller coaster is gone, this aerial photo was taken some time between 1936 and 1944.
And here’s another view of the power plant and the four bridges, taken on 12/17/1935.
This 1936 shot gives us a clearer view of the Seal Beach landscape past the power plant. By this point, the Great Depression and the bankruptcy of the Bayside Land Company had completely swept away the resort town dreams of 1915. The roller coaster, the Fun Zone, the dance pavilion and the Jewel Cafe are completely gone.
We leap three decades ahead for this 1967 view of the DWP plant the year before it was torn down.
I love this photo dearly for personal reasons. It comes from the Dobkins family collection. It was taken from in front of my grandparents’ home at 210 Second Street, probably by my father. Besides providing a great color shot of the power plant, it’s also memento of my childhood landscape because the next year my family moved into the house next door.
That long stretch of vacant lot along Central Way to First Street was my personal playground for years, and that tree in the center of the photo holds an Everest-like position in my private mythology. I spent hours climbing that tree with the other boys my age from the neighborhood (their names now completely lost to me). It wasn’t just the physical exercise that attracted us to the tree; it was also a place for lively discussion and philosophical debates. We’d perch ourselves on separate branches and talk of our glorious careers as future astronauts, the relative merits of Captain Crunch, Trix, and Honey Comb cereals, and how lame girls were. And we weren’t above exploring more practical subjects in our chats. I remember one intense conversation in which we meticulously worked out the details of the clubhouse we were going to build in the tree, the most important detail being the large magnifying glass we’d use to cook TV dinners so we wouldn’t have to go home for lunch.
The tallest branch of that tree was an insurmountable challenge because it was too thick to shimmy up and there was at least 20 feet of the branch were it was smooth without smaller branch to use as hand holds. A triumphant day in my young life (I must have been seven or eight) was when I managed to get the nerve to hug the branch tightly and slowly pull myself inch by inch up the branch to the top. The view was fantastic and made all the sweeter by the presence of the other boys below who had never managed to make the same climb (and were now pretending not to be impressed.)
What I had not counted on was that, no matter how difficult the climb up had been, the climb down was even more of a fearful ordeal. It took me twice as long to shimmy down that branch. A couple of times I froze, afraid that any movement would loosen my grip and I would plunge to the hard ground covered with rocks and broken glass. Two things kept me going on my climb downward. The first was the knowledge that if someone went for help, I probably would no longer be allowed to climb trees in the vacant lot, and perhaps even get banned from the vacant lot completely. The second was my growing awareness of how much my neighborhood chums were enjoying my predicament while shouting such encouragements as “don’t look down!” and “don’t be a such chicken!” There was no way I was going to give them the satisfaction of falling or calling for help. The little thugs.
When I finally made it down, one of my “pals” pointed out in a patronizing tone, “See? It wasn’t so hard!” I wanted to swat the brat, but instead I just casually suggested he try it and swaggered home to drink juice and watch cartoons. I’m lucky I didn’t land on my head and crack my head open.
Incidentally, the weeds and tall grass to the right were not part of another vacant lot. This was part of the lawn of a rundown house where an elderly recluse lived. I only saw him three or four times in all the years I lived on Second Street, usually as he peaked out from behind his window blinds or once as he sneaked out in his pajamas to grab five days worth of newspaper. The sad story I heard was that he was a widower who had just withdrawn from life after his wife had passed away.
Anyway, that was years ago. That poor man has passed on, a new family lives in that house now, and the house is well-maintained and the lawn is mowed regularly. There are duplexes on the Second Street side of the vacant lot, and a big apartment building was built in the lot where my tree used to stand. And I never did try to climb that branch again.
This blurry shot was taken from First Street and Central Way, also from 1967. Look at all the electrical wires overhead.
In 1967, I’d stay with my grandparents in the afternoons after school and before my father and mother came home from work. While the demolition of the power plant was going on, I was a regular spectator of the destruction. I was allowed to go no closer than that corner with the stop sign. That corner is where I stood the thrilling afternoon the wrecking ball knocked down the short smokestack. As it collapsed, an immense scary cloud filled with thirty year’s worth of dust, dirt, and smoke particles spread across the street. I ran back to my grandparents’ house where it was safe, and my grandmother poured me a glass of milk to have with some freshly baked cookies at her kitchen table.
A couple of months before my father went back to the hospital for the last time in late 2008, I spent a long sweet afternoon alone with him going through family photographs. We found these two photos, and he gave them to me for my Seal Beach collection.
Finally, here’s a 1976 aerial photo of the empty DWP property. The Ocean Avenue bridge is gone. The Pacific Electric bridge is gone, although you can still trace its path through the Long Beach Marina. All that’s left of the steam plant is the indentation of its basement in the DWP property. Until the basement structure was finally filled in with dirt, it was a favorite late night hangout for trespassers (rumor has it these they were fans of alcohol, cannabis, and other frowned upon substances). A familiar occurrence for people living in this part of town was to wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a police helicopter hovering over the DWP property with a spotlight shining down on the basement area, and a booming loudspeaker putting the trespassers under arrest.
But even that is past now. Here we are in 2010. Someday, perhaps soon, the DWP property will be probably be developed. It might be a park. It might be more homes or a hotel or retail space. Or some combination of all three. Whatever form this development will take, that too will become part of the history of Seal Beach.
Something else to keep in mind, as we visit the past through these photos and celebrate the founding of Seal Beach, is the nature of history. Most people think that history is dates and proclamations and great men and women making great decisions while large masses of human beings flow across continents and fight in some wars while inventions are invented and skyscrapers are built and so on and on and on.
Yes, history is all those grand things. But it is also little things. It’s a power plant worker catching the Red Car after a long day of work to ride home to his house in Long Beach, thinking about dinner. It’s a fourteen year old running home after the 9 o’ clock curfew whistle has blown. It’s a song playing on the radio. It’s a young girl’s father watching a smokestack sway back and forth. It’s the clothes someone decides to wear when they want to impress a date. It’s a family walking down Main Street. It’s a widower grieving for his wife. Sometimes it’s even a little boy running home to his grandmother for milk and cookies, or that same little boy, now grown up, looking through photos with his father. It’s what ordinary people think and feel and do everyday.
It’s what we’re going to experience today and remember tomorrow.
We’ll share more historical pictures and photos of Seal Beach as the year progresses. Be sure to check back each week for a new Seal Beach image.