The Beach Road Story


A Pocket of Paradise

The Beach Road Story

Capistrano Beach, California

By Joe Dunn

A Little Town Called Serra

Capistrano Beach’s downtown was known as Serra when the California Central Railroad (which was affiliated with the Santa Fe) pushed down from Los Angeles in 1887 and built the area’s first and only train station, on Victoria Boulevard. Soon after, the railroad constructed a spur track on to the beach and created a lot subdivision named San Juan by the Sea. The next year, the line was connected to San Diego by slicing off the base of the palisades of the Boca de la Playa; this enabled prospective buyers to arrive from both the north and the south. Santa Fe’s Pacific Land and Improvement Company developed shops, a dance pavilion, and a bathhouse, which resulted in the construction of the Pioneer Hotel. Lots ranging from $250 to $1,800 went on the market and apparently sold quite well. However, by the mid-1890s, due in part to poor water supply, a lumber shortage, national economic conditions and the Santa Fe’s lack of promotion, the development was a bust. The community’s identity reverted to Serra and remained so until the early 1920s.

The Dohenys

Turn-of-the-century adverse economic conditions, followed by a world war, prohibited further development. But the boom of the Roaring Twenties reached down even to the sleepy farming community of Serra/Capistrano Beach, as well as to Dana Point. The earliest title policy written for lands that included Beach Road was in 1892, in the name of M. A. Forster, and then again in his estate on August 8, 1906. On November 7, 1924, John O. Forster and others deeded our beach property and substantial acreage on the palisades to the First National Bank of Santa Ana, who acted on behalf of famed oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny and his son Edward L. (Ned) Doheny, Jr. On May 9, 1925, a display ad appeared in the Los Angeles Evening Herald that offered three miles of bathing beach and 1,000 acres of home sites for sale. (In those days, developers could advertise and sell prior to recording a tract map.) Prices started at $400 per lot and included such improvements as oiled streets, water and electricity.

The Doheny story is in all the history books and now on the Internet, and it is indeed spectacular. In brief form, it goes something like this: A 36-year-old second-generation Irish prospector with some geology background in 1892 arrives in Los Angeles broke and, with a partner, digs a hole in a vacant lot in the Echo Park neighborhood. They struck oil at 460 feet and never looked back. Thereafter gushers were found in Fullerton and the Kern River valley, followed by control of one million acres fronting the Gulf of Mexico, thereby establishing the Mexican oil industry. By 1925 Edward Doheny’s net worth was estimated to be over $100 million (in 1925 dollars). The Dohenys had money to invest, and the Capistrano Beach development was just the vehicle in which to diversify their investments and give USC graduate and World War I naval officer son Ned something to do.

The Beach Road tract map was recorded in January 1928. There were 194 lots varying in width from 30 feet to 40 feet and in depth from 60-plus feet to more than 200 feet. Two additional lots were created in the 1970s from a small parcel at the south end of the road. At some point, perhaps from the beginning, the first 43 lots as you enter the community were zoned for two-family dwellings (R-2), and the remaining 151 lots for single-family dwellings. The deed restrictions (known as CC&Rs) placed on the development (including race restrictions that were outlawed in the 1950s) were minor compared to today’s subdivision standards, and they all have long expired.

A construction company headed by Luther Eldridge was formed and a lumber mill, yard and hardware store were constructed at the foot of the palisades on what is now Coast Highway. Eldridge and his crew built four houses on the Road, the Capistrano Beach Club, a lovely residence for the family at the top of the stone steps on the face of the palisades, and a few more on palisades lots, primarily to help the marketing campaign get into full swing. A featured attraction of the development was the Capistrano Beach Club—a sprawling Spanish-tiled structure featuring hand-painted beams and ceilings, swimming pool, marine dinning room, ballroom and the Swallows Nest bar. An equally important improvement was the 1,200-foot-long sportfishing Capistrano pier for charter boats as well as shore-based anglers.

The Birth of the Hobie Cat

Wayne Schafer and Phil Edwards both had backgrounds in blue-water sailing—they brought back yachts from the L.A.-to-Acapulco race. And when Phil designed and built two catamarans in Wayne’s yard, they got the attention of local surfboard kings Hobie Alter and Grubby Clark. They figured that with their existing surfing clientele and maybe even the rest of the beach-oriented populace, they had a built-in market for those wanting to be able to sail out and back in through the waves on those days when it was too windy to surf—which is most days, especially in the afternoon. So Grubby came up with the right foam core for the hulls and Hobie and his team built prototypes and tested them in the surf and wind of Poche until they had a lightweight cat that could be handled by one person and could go through the surf without breaking the rudders.

The first Hobie Cat regatta was held with four boats at Poche on the 4th of July 1968 and won by Hobie’s chief test pilot, Dana Point resident Sandy Banks. Wayne’s friend Dick Barrymore of ski-film fame, made a film of the first sleek fourteen-foot Hobie Cat riding the Poche waves. It was shown on a continuous-feed color TV at the Southern California Boat show with such success that it moved on from boat show to boat show across the country. The rest is history. One of the big appeals of the Hobie Cat class of boats was that they could easily be transported and launched anywhere. They were Everyman boats; marinas and yacht clubs were not required.

In the late 1960s, Wayne’s compound became so crowded on weekends, with Hobie’s camper, several of his employees/test sailors and assorted camp followers, that some directors of the CBD lodged complaints citing Wayne’s Tahitian beach structures as nonconforming buildings. A lifelong supporter of the Beach Road way of life, Wayne pointed out other apparent violations on the Road, and the matter was finally settled when Hobie removed his camper and the weekend crowds thinned out. Wayne went on to help promote Hobie Cat regattas nationally and internationally and in fact won several championships along with Hobie’s sons, Hobie, Jr., and Jeff, in both the fourteen- and sixteen-foot classes. These victories were fitting capstones to the creation of the most successful boat of its type in the world, whose birthplace was in Wayne’s yard on the sands of Poche. Today there are 150 Hobie Cat fleets in 30 countries around the world.

Hobie Alter, a longtime Beach Road resident who now resides in the San Juan Islands, Washington, and Palm Desert, California, tells the story of the time he had an après-sail Q&A session with regatta contestants, asking them, “Where are you from and why did you buy a Hobie Cat?” A sailor stood up and said, “I was at home in Chicago in February and couldn’t get my car out of the garage to go to work because there was so much snow. So I sat down, opened the paper and saw a picture of Wayne Schafer sailing his boat out through the surf in the middle of a Southern California winter and immediately decided to change my lifestyle!”

The Poche Surf Club

There are weird things done in the SoCal sun By the men who toil for surf. And the Beach Road trails have their secret tales, That would drive most men to curse. The O.C. lights have seen strange sights, But the strangest they ever did see, Was that night on the sand at Schafer land, The Poche Surf Club came to be.

The above was written by former Beach Road resident, weekly Poche denizen, restaurateur and surfer John Creed, adapted from Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” It was used in a short story John wrote about the Poche Surf Club, the perfect organization for a bunch of beach bums who have turned a sport into a way of life. It wasn’t founded; it just is. There is no charter, no dues, no officers, no agenda and no official membership—it’s a No Club. Nonetheless, it exists, if only in the minds and memories of the countless personalities who have spent time at the Schafer compound or paddled out to the surf break.

The main, outside surf break is over a series of reefs known as “The Garden,” 100 to 200 yards out from shore depending on the size of the swell, with the takeoff spot on a south swell just about straight out from the Disney house at 35827. Generally the left is a better wave, but on a west swell, the right can be very good. The break is very tide-sensitive and can shut down quickly if the swell is not too big. Also, on a big high-tide south swell, the inside break can be very good, especially for the younger shortboard set. Today the stand-up paddle surfers have made Poche one of their favorite haunts.

As surfers are wont to do, they often name beaches after local landmarks, in this case a long-removed sign on the railroad tracks that simply read “POCHE.” Old-timers remember a train-track siding in the general vicinity that it may have identified. There are lots of theories on the genesis and meaning of the sign, but none have been able to be verified. The word poche in French means pocket. It is identified on the Internet as the proper name of a French/ Belgium family of soldiers who immigrated to Louisiana to fight in the War of 1812. One theory is that a descendant of this Poche family was an officer in the Civil War and had been recruited after the war to lead a detachment protecting the Santa Fe railroad and its employees as they pushed the tracks west through hostile Indian territory. Hence the sign was recognition of services past. And when the owner of the long-closed San Gabriel restaurant El Poche Cafe was asked about the origin of his establishment’s name, he said it referred to a Mexican commoner. Whatever!

The Garden is a haven for lobsters, so when the season starts in October, local fishermen set their traps throughout the surf break. An occasional long-lasting major fall swell can deposit lobster-laden traps up on the beach. In years gone by the Garden was loaded with abalone, and the Poche crew made it their pocket of paradise by picking the bounty at will. For a variety of reasons, natural and manmade, the abalone population has all but expired in the area, and if they’re out there now, they’re a protected species.