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Laguna Beach

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Short History of Laguna Beach

Officially founded in 1887, the city of Laguna Beach was incorporated in the year 1927. The city is unique in Southern California due to its dramatic topography. The art inspiring landscape includes steep coastal mountains, rolling hills of chaparral and coastal sage scrub, unique geological formations that plunge into the sea and over thirty individual coves and beaches along an eight and-a-half mile stretch of coastline. Beginning early in the cities development preservation of the cities natural resources has been a priority to the residents, visitors and even Hollywood film producers. Starting in 1964, several measures have ensured slow growth and preservation of the cities terrestrial and marine environments.

An isolated skull was found in Laguna Beach in 1933 and has been carbon dated at over 17,000 years old. Early inhabitants of Laguna were drawn to the area for its abundance of natural resources and the warm relief of the coast. Native Americans frequented the coves of Laguna, where they fashioned hooks of bone to catch fish, ate abalone and limpets, and fashioned shells for jewelry, knives, wampum’s and dishes. The Indians built their diet around the fruit of the live oak tree, and learned to plan their nomadic life around the harvest cycle. Social camps developed with time and remnants have been found in the areas of Capistrano Bay and along the fresh water banks of Aliso and San Juan creeks.

The first American immigrants to Laguna Beach were encouraged to move west by the Timber-Culture Act of 1871. Families could stake out 160 acres of land, with the promise that 10 acres would be set aside for timber producing tree groves. The euctylptus groves planted in the 1880s helped form the character of Laguna and added much-needed shade, although as lumber they were virtually useless.

In 1871 the first American settler of South Laguna, claimed part of Aliso Canyon, this 152 acres and the one room shack property would eventually belong to the Thurston family. Their son, Joseph Thurston, chronicled the family's life and times in Laguna Beach of Early Days (1947). George Thurston raised vegetables and melons and sold them in Los Angeles, which was then a five day trip by wagon. The family name is remembered in Thurston Intermediate School, Thurston St., and Sarah Thurston Park in Laguna Canyon.

William and Nathaniel Brooks arrived and settled in Laguna in 1876. Both are commonly referred to as the "father of Laguna" depending on which source is referenced. They are officially considered the first homesteaders, the first pioneers to stay longer than one summer. William H. Brooks came from Downey on a hunting trip, following the old Indian trail though Laguna Canyon. Later William filed on 169.24 acres at Arch Beach (now the Diamond St.) and laid out a subdivision. Williams brother, Nathaniel Brooks, brought water from Bluebird Canyon through a series of pipes and tunnels to Arch Beach. The Arch Beach lot would be later sold to Hubbard Goff (remembered in Goff St. and Goff Island); where in 1886 he opened the first hostelry in Laguna, the Arch Beach Hotel.

Always a tourist town, Laguna Beach opened its second hotel in 1889. It was built by Henry Goff and purchased by Joseph Yoch. Yoch also bought the defunct Arch Beach Hotel, he had it cut into three sections and had it moved into town. The two hotels were joined together, creating a massive establishment of thirty bedrooms and two bathrooms. The Yoch hotel was condemned in 1928, and the present Hotel Laguna opened the following year on the same site.

South Laguna has had several close calls with commercialism. In 1889, the Santa Fe Railroad purchased Goff Island (now Treasure Island) and planned a depot and resort. When the tracks were laid inland instead, those plans failed. The depression of the 1890's saved South Laguna from an urbanized future.

North Laguna, called Laguna Cliffs, was developed by Howard Hiesler, L.C. McKnight, and the Thumb Brothers. In 1905, they subdivided and laid out the only streets in Laguna that run in strait angles to one another. Water was piped in from Laguna Canyon, and this was the first neighborhood offering water with every lot. It had been said "Laguna was long on scenery and short on improvements, especially drinking water."

The first important artist to arrive in Laguna was Norman St. Clair. Norman took the train from Los Angeles and the stagecoach from El Toro. He made lots of sketches of the area. He exhibited throughout California, attracted other artists, and a tradition was born. By the 1920’s over two dozen professional artists resided in Laguna Beach, including Frank Curran, William Wendt and Karl Yens.

Characterized as a “bohemia on the edge of the frontier”, Laguna was an out the way secluded village with a few hundred residents.  It resembled similar art colonies that existed during the era on the East Coast, where artist could be surrounded by picturesque landscapes, offer each other mutual support and encouragement, and be close to the markets and galleries in Southern California. 

In the summer of 1918 Edgar Payne built a studio in Laguna Beach. He and Anna Hill went on to found the Laguna Beach Art Association, a group that shared and spread the philosophy of the California Art Club. The works of Payne and Hill displayed the ongoing connection between California Impressionism with earlier aesthetic sensibilities, with the Laguna Beach colony expounding all the common themes of beautiful vistas and sun soaked beaches. 

During the Depression the impressionist artists envisioned the Festival of Arts as an income producing event, establishing a creative tradition that is also home to the internationally known Pageant of the Masters.

Laguna's "Village" character is attempting to remain in spite of growth, commercialism, and international attention. This charm is due to the shaggy eucalyptus, arts and craft architecture, the relative isolation in which Laguna exists, surrounded by mountains, ocean, and greenbelts. Concerned citizens work hard to acquire land, pass laws and volunteer their time and money to assure visitors and residents alike are informed about the historical, artistic and natural treasures of Laguna Beach.

Karen Turnbull, 1988. A Hundred Years of Yesterdays: A Centennial History of the People of Orange County and their communities.

William Gerdts and Will South, 1998. California Impressionism. Abbeville Press, New York (pg 217-219).

Walker, Doris. 1981. Home Port for Romance. To the Point Press. Dana Point, CA.