The History of Long Beach


Juan Rodreguez Cabrillo 1499 - 1543
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo 1499 - 1543
Sailing in the ships San Salvador, Victoria, and San Miguel, Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and his crew landed upon the shores of what would eventually become Long Beach, California 50 years after Columbus discovered America. He named the area "Bahia de los Fumos" - which translates to "Bay of Smokes". Cabrillo witnessed plumes of smoke rising from the top of what we know today as Signal Hill. The Native American Indians (Tongva) who occupied the region used smoke signals as a form of communication to those living on Santa Catalina Island (legend has it that Cabrillo was buried there after dying from a fall on January 3, 1543).

Although Cabrillo's expedition to Alta California took place in 1542, Spain was not serious in gaining control of the discovered coastal regions for another 200 years. Baja was their northwest limit and where efforts to settle the land and convert the native tribes to Christianity and the European way of life were unsuccessful.

Traveling north from Baja was treacherous and proved difficult. Ocean currents and coastal winds were unfavorable and the Spanish captains could not find safe harbors for their crafts. Spain did not make a concerted effort to tackle this journey and colonize Alta California until after the Seven Years War (1756-1763) when European alliances along with their colonial empires were realigned.


Tongva Dwelling
In 1769, Spain set forth land and sea expeditions to Alta California and established presidios (forts), missions, and pueblos (towns). Land grants were given to start ranchos with the purpose of attracting settlers and encouraging growth. In 1784, the largest Spanish land grant of 300,000 acres was awarded to Manual Nieto. A land dispute however, whittled the amount of land to almost half. Nieto's acreage extended from the hills north of Whittier to the Pacific Ocean, and from San Gabriel River (Los Angeles River) to the Santa Ana River. "Rancho Los Nietos" was the first modern identity for Long Beach. As time passed, the descendants divided the land and eventually ended up with two ranchos - Los Cerritos and Los Alamitos.

After the collapse of the Spanish empire in 1821, Mexico (which was one of their occupied territories) declared its independence and claimed California. However, Californios had been self-sufficient for so long that they simply never acknowledged nor had respect for the governors sent from Mexico. Those with power were descendants of the Spanish soldiers who were now owners of large and permanent rancho land grants.

Manuel Nieto's daughter, Manuela Cota inherited Rancho Los Cerritos - "Ranch of the Little Hills". After she passed away, the Rancho was sold by her heirs in 1843 to John Temple from Massachusetts. In 1844, Temple built a two-story Monterey-style adobe which served as his headquarters for his large-scale cattle operation. In 1866, Rancho Los Cerritos was sold to Lewellyn Bixby of Flint, Bixby & Co.

This Adobe is an important exhibit of Spanish, Mexican and American California history which portrays the transition of Southern California's ranching beginnings to a modern and urban society. Today it is a National, State and Long Beach Historic Landmark as well as a public museum.


Rancho Los Alamitos Circa 1800 - 1834
Rancho Los Alamitos - "The Little Cottonwoods" or "Poplars" was purchased in 1844 by Massachusetts native and Yankee merchant "Don" Abel Stearns for use as a summer home. Stearns resided in Los Angeles with his wife Arcadia who was from the wealthy Bandini family. His father-in-law, Juan Bandini was an early leader and one of the most prominent businessmen in Southern California during his time. Bandini's fortune was made through farming, stock raising and merchandising. He was also one of the leading rancho owners in Mexican California.

Stearns was one of the largest landowners in Southern California, a successful merchant with a lucrative business, cattle rancher, politician, surveyor and one of the richest, well-respected and important citizens in the town. Unfortunately, the worst drought in Southern California which followed the series of severe flooding during the winter of 1861 and 1862 brought misfortune to Stearns. Cattle starved and died, there was an epidemic of smallpox and property values plummeted in 'cow counties'.

The drought was financially devastating for Stearns. He lost control of Los Alamitos, his favorite ranch. Stearns took a loan against the ranch from Michael Reese and the property ended up in foreclosure. Reese then leased the land in 1878 to Lewellyn Bixby's cousin John Bixby.


Bixby Sheep Ranch
J. Bixby & Company, together with John Bixby and I.W. Hellman, purchased Rancho Los Alamitos in 1881 and for the next 90 years, the Bixby family which was one of the largest landowners of the 20th Century in Los Angeles area, occupied Los Alamitos. It would later be referred to as the 'Bixby Ranch'.

In 1968, the city of Long Beach was granted the furnished ranch house, six barns and gardens by the surviving trustees of the Bixby Home Property Trust so that they could maintain and develop it as a regional historic and educational facility.

In 1881, real estate developer William Erwin Willmore entered into a lease provided by Jotham Bixby. The lease had an option to buy 4000 acres which was to be developed into a city and agricultural community along the coast. The township of Willmore City was established in 1882 and was promoted throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the response was dismal and two years later, there were only about a dozen homes.

In 1884, the Long Beach Land & Water company bought out Willmore's lease option and the city was renamed Long Beach. Willmore's unique design and layout of the city, however, was not discarded and the extra wide streets and Lincoln Park are still in existence today. The city of Long Beach was incorporated in July of 1887.


Long Beach Pier and Auditorium 1915
The few settlers in Long Beach choose to remain in the small town. However, by 1887 and 1888, Long Beach experienced a great boom. Railroad service was provided by Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe Railway which brought in hordes of visitors to Long Beach, now considered an established seaside resort. The real estate market exploded and new developments throughout the city were well underway.

Over the years as the transit system continued to become more efficient, growth remained steady and Long Beach prospered. Not only was the city considered a resort, but by the early 1900s, it was also known as a commercial center.

During the years between 1902 and 1910, Long Beach was the fastest growing city in the United States. In 1897, the population was 1500 and within an area of three square miles. In 1914, the population increased to 48,000, in 1954 it was 285,000 and today a population of almost half a million are living within a 50 square mile area.


Pine Avenue 1920s
In 1911, the Port of Long Beach was officially in business. It has grown from 800 acres of mudflats at the mouth of the Los Angeles River to over 3,200 acres today. The Port of Long Beach is the second busiest in the United States, the twelfth busiest container cargo port in the world and it is a premier gateway for trade between the United States and Asia.

Oil was discovered in Signal Hill in 1921 after several unsuccessful drilling attempts and serious doubt it even existed in this location. As a result, many became rich and Long Beach thrived. Signal Hill field, which later became known as Long Beach field became the biggest producer in Southern California and is recognized as producing more oil per acre than anywhere else in the world.

On March 10, 1933, Long Beach experienced an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 6.25 on the Richter scale. Loss of life totaled 120 and damage was widespread throughout Southern California. Among the many buildings severely damaged or destroyed were schools in or near Long Beach. Specifically because of these structural failures of unreinforced masonry schools, that the Field Act, which mandates all school buildings must be earthquake-resistant, was passed. Downtown Long Beach also suffered widespread damage and was rebuilt in Art Deco style.

In 1941, The U.S. Naval base was constructed in the Long Beach Harbor.

Spruce Goose, Long Beach Harbor 1947
Spruce Goose, Long Beach Harbor 1947
Howard Hughes' famous H-4 Hercules, nicknamed Spruce Goose took off over the Long Beach Harbor in 1947 and made its first and only flight. It flew for only one minute and traveled one mile at an altitude of 70 feet. Hughes contributed $7 million of his own money and an additional $18 million in government funds to build this enormous cargo plane designed to transport up to 750 armed troops or two 30-ton tanks during WWII. Due to complications, the aircraft was not ready until after the war was over.

The Spruce Goose was the world's largest airplane at the time. It continues to hold the record as the largest flying boat, largest wingspan, tallest airplane and the largest aircraft ever made from wood.

In 1983, Hughes' massive creation was exhibited in the world's largest geodesic dome adjacent to the Queen Mary. However, in 1993, the Spruce Goose was moved to Evergreen Aviation in McMinnville, Oregon where it is on display.

In 1949, California State University Long Beach was founded. Originally named Los Angeles-Orange County State College, it offered 25 courses which were taught in two apartment buildings. One year later, Long Beach citizens voted unanimously to purchase 320 acres for a permanent campus at a cost of one million dollars.

It is believed a portion of the campus is located on the site of the ancient Tongva village and burial site recognized as Puvunga which is an area listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There were disputes over the land when the university attempted to build a strip mall. A lawsuit was filed by the Tongva people and a protest ensued. To date, this last undeveloped portion of the campus remains untouched by builders.

California State University Long Beach is also known as Cal State Long Beach, Long Beach State, LBSU, CSULB or simply The Beach. It is the second largest campus in the California State University system and has impressive reviews in these following publications: U.S. News and World Report's America's Best Colleges Guide, The Princeton Review and America's Best Value Colleges.

RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor
One of Long Beach's most famous residents, the Queen Mary, is permanently docked in the Long Beach Harbor. The Queen Mary's journey began in 1936 when it made its maiden voyage from Southhampton, England to Cherbourg, France. The next day the Queen Mary continued its voyage across the North Atlantic Ocean to Pier 90 in New York.

On December 11, 1967, the Queen Mary was removed from British registry after completing 1,001 crossings of the Atlantic and officially turned over to the City of Long Beach.

This magnificent luxury cruise liner which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is docked in the Long Beach Harbor. It is a major tourist attraction, convention center and a first-class hotel.

In the mid-seventies, the control of downtown Long Beach redevelopment was turned over to the city by the State Coastal Commission and a multi-billion dollar redevelopment plan continued through 2000. Many exciting changes were taking place. The first Long Beach Grand Prix was held in 1977 through the streets of downtown. The winner, Mario Andretti, became the first American to win a U.S. Grand Prix. The race was as huge success and made news in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times as well as coverage in the local and national media. This exciting event, now called the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach continues today and is held every spring.

Long Beach Today
The Long Beach Convention Center opened in 1978, four Olympic events were held during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and Southern California's largest aquarium and the nation's fifth largest, The Aquarium of the Pacific opened in 1998. Long Beach is home to the Congressional Cup, Transpac and Olympic trial races. New retail development included Shoreline Village, The Pike and CityPlace.

Long Beach is recognized as a thriving waterfront destination for tourists. This vibrant, world-class city features numerous attractions, fabulous shopping districts, a beautiful Art Deco downtown, historic buildings, recreational activities, festivals, Broadway shows, great restaurants and terrific waterfront dining.