Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Arch Beach Won’t Stay Put

Arch Beach postcard, circa late 1920s.
When it comes to researching the history of real estate, no place in Orange County holds a candle to the Laguna Beach area for sheer convolution, complexity, and opportunities for confusion. Even seemingly simple questions about Laguna often end up requiring days or weeks of research to sort out. For example, since the late 1800s the name “Arch Beach” has described a significant area of the south coast, now annexed into Laguna Beach. But where IS Arch Beach exactly? Historically, the moniker has drifted like a jellyfish from one spot to another to another.  

“First, the name was applied to the large homestead-period township,” writes Jane Janz, the only Laguna Beach historian ever to make much sense of the Arch Beach story. “Secondly, it was used for the small town of Arch Beach whose name appears on lists of towns that failed due to the real estate collapse [at the end] of the 1880s. This area centered around the Diamond Street area. Thirdly, and for the largest period of time, the name of Arch Beach was applied to [an area from] approximately Sleepy Hollow, on south to Nyes Place.”

That seems plenty complicated enough. But there’s even more to the story. In fact, “Arch Beach” has migrated up and down the shoreline over one and a half miles and has variously been confined to the coast or stretched well inland into Laguna Canyon. Let’s take a look at the various spots called Arch Beach and how (or whether) they intersect:

Township of Homesteaders

In June 1876, William Henry Brooks arrived in the area now known as Woods Cove, about halfway between the mouth of Aliso Canyon and what is now the heart of Downtown Laguna Beach. He was joined that December by his brother, Lorenzo Nathan “Nate” Brooks who started a homestead there. It was empty land for many miles around, and the local Indians greeted them by trying to steal their ponies. But Nate Brooks, in particular, saw this as “the choicest spot on earth.” William’s wife, Annie H. Brooks, named the place Arch Beach after a natural rock arch (near the end of Pearl Steet) through which one could walk at low tide. In 1883, Nate Brooks platted the land and brought a little water down from the hills by digging a 500-foot tunnel. He also opened a dirt wagon path to the village of Laguna Beach, which was platted that same year by Henry E. Goff – one of the four pioneer Goff Brothers.

Early iteration of Arch Beach (in blue). Map from Jane Janz's book, Naming Laguna Beach.

The name Arch Beach was soon applied to the entire Township immediately south of Laguna Beach, which extended all the way up across the hills to Laguna Canyon. The only beachfront included within the township boundaries extended from Victoria Beach south to about Wesley Drive.

A Boom Town

Later, during the railroad boom of the 1880s, there was talk that the A.T.& S.F. Railroad would lay tracks along the coast south of Laguna Beach as part of their San Diego line. As such, some speculated that Arch Beach would be an ideal spot for a little resort town, if only someone would build a hotel, wharf and depot there. 

Hubbard Goff's Arch Beach Hotel, late 1880s.

Around 1886 one of Henry Goff’s brothers, Hubbard S. “Hub” Goff built his Arch Beach Hotel and a store on the blufftop at the end of today's Diamond Street. With no source of local lumber for the hotel’s construction, a schooner (possibly the "Emma") anchored offshore and floated in the needed redwood. At about the same time, Hub’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Lulu V. Goff, filed for a homestead on another key portion of Arch Beach. Whether she was acting at her father’s behest or whether she was independently following in her family’s pioneer tradition is unclear. (She completed the homestead to achieve ownership of the land in 1891.)

In 1887, Hub Goff, Nate Brooks, and Pomona City Engineer Harry F. Stafford laid out the new subdivision or town of Arch Beach around the hotel. It extended from Bluebird Canyon Drive to Upland Road. Curiously, the town was not located within the boundaries of the old Arch Beach Township. The March 26, 1887 Santa Ana Blade reported, "During the past few weeks about seventy-five lots have been sold in the new town. The hotel is nearly or quite completed, and a restaurant, news-stand, livery stable, meat market and about twenty other buildings will there be constructed within the next six weeks." 

Arch Beach tract map, 1887 (Click to enlarge)

Around the same time, Santa Ana Valley Land & Improvement Co. bought some of the Goff Brothers’ land adjacent to the new village and began to advertise a forthcoming new hundred-acre city they dubbed Catalina-on-the-Main (or sometimes Santa Catalina-on-the-Main). According to their October 1887 promotional pamphlet, History of Santa Ana City & Valley, the new seaside community was to extend "from Aliso Beach to Arch Beach on the North and to Three Arches on the South." By the time of the pamphlet’s publication, the company had already purchased 300 acres toward the new development. 

(Note: Conflicting contemporary newspaper reports indicate that Catalina-on-the-Main was a joint effort by the Fairview Development Co. and the Santa Ana Immigration Association, or, alternately, was a project by Boston-based travel agency Raymond & Whitcomb Co. On a related note, almost a half century after the fact, a Santa Ana Register article claimed that in 1880 "the Raymond S. Whitcomb interests had purchased a point, which became known as Goff's Island," because it showed promise "as an ideal resort spot.")

Catalina-on-the-Main, 1887. From a photo by Conaway and Hummel.

The pamphlet continued: "The lands at the sea shore are the most delightful imaginable, abounding in the wild and picturesque scenery, quaint grottos and caves, splendid beach, and exposed and quiet bathing 'grounds.' For years this particular beach has been the resort each summer of hundreds of persons . . . At this city the company will plot, lay off and improve the suburban property, affording opportunity for purchase to those who may wish. . . Nor is this all. This development company will build a railroad to connect Santa Ana and Catalina-on-the-Main. A line will be built within the next two years to connect this city with Long Beach . . . which already has rail communications with Los Angeles. Every indication points unerringly to the centering here of immense railroad interests and wealth, the completion of which will alone suffice to sustain a large and flourishing city.”

In 1888 a hopeful Hub Goff and Nate Brooks built a pier at Arch Beach. The town also had an improved supply of water (piped in from Bluebird Canyon) which gave it an advantage over nearby Laguna Beach. Essentially all the pieces were in place for Arch Beach to be a big success, except for the most crucial element: the railroad. 

The precarious-looking Arch Beach Pier

At that point, Laguna Beach and Arch Beach were still separate towns with some significant topography between them, including Bluebird Canyon and Sleepy Hollow. One way into Arch Beach was to take the stagecoach from El Toro (a.k.a. Aliso City) down through Aliso Canyon to the shore. According to local historian Jane Janz, the little dirt road between Laguna Beach and Arch Beach – eventually improved and known as “The Old Coast Road” – could be difficult going in inclement weather but was frequently used. “My mother said that her Dad would hook up the old buggy to the horse and take her mother to Capistrano for a treat dinner.”  But roads on this part of the coast were less than ideal. (Access up and down the coast improved dramatically in the 1920s with the advent of the State Highway.)

Nate Brooks

The Bubble Bursts

When the railroad boom went bust, dreams for Catalina-on-the-Main dissolved before the surveyors were even done driving their stakes, and the land reverted to the Goff Brothers. (It seems only marine biologists would continue referring to Catalina-on-the-Main as a place name into the mid-1890s.) Brooks’ original Arch Beach subdivision did a little better. Writes Meadows, “Some houses were built and a small village developed. On June 21, 1889 the community was granted a post office [two years before Laguna Beach], but lack of patronage caused it to be closed on May 24, 1894.”

Another view of the Arch Beach Hotel, circa 1889.

The boom town of Arch Beach gradually fizzled out. In March 1892, Goff sold the hotel to Charles D. Ambrose of Pomona and returned to farming.  The Santa Ana Blade put a positive spin on the story, claiming “This deal is the beginning of a new era of prosperity for Arch Beach.” At this point the hotel’s rates were $1.50 a day or $10 a week. Arch Beach was still a vacation spot, especially for folks from Riverside looking for a place to escape the summer heat. There was still hope.

But the Panic of 1893 set in, the Santa Fe built their line inland (more or less following the old El Camino Real), and any lingering dreams of a successful Arch Beach faded rapidly away. Businesses closed, people moved away, and a good deal of the land was sold for taxes. After the largely touristless summer season of 1894, Ambrose abandoned the hotel and went back to farming himself. The hotel and the land around it were sold for $500. 

In 1895 Augusta E. Towner wrote an article for Charles Fletcher LummisLand of Sunshine magazine, still extolling the virtues of Arch Beach: 

"Arch Beach is a most romantic spot; set like an amphitheater amidst hills, its oceanward frontage precipitous, with fanciful arches at base of the cliff, against which the breakers fling high their spray. A curious natural rock-arch gives name to the beach. …Good water is piped to the cottages. Arch Beach is exceedingly attractive, too, out of season, when wildflowers cover the hills, or winter storms roll in a thunderous surf."

The Arch, 1895. Photo from Land of Sunshine, Vol. 3, No. 2

But Towner’s efforts were too little too late. The boom town was no more.

In late 1897 and/or early 1898, the long-deserted hotel’s new owner, Joseph Yoch, paid Santa Ana house mover Fremont Thorpe to cut the building into three pieces and move it across the hills and arroyos to Laguna Beach. There, it was added to Yoch’s Laguna Beach Hotel to become the New Hotel Laguna. This newly Frankensteined-together building was located at the corner of today's Coast Highway and Laguna Avenue and had thirty rooms and two bathrooms. It proved popular and in 1930 was replaced with a new and modern Hotel Laguna, which still stands.

Woods Point

In 1906 and 1907, Clementine “Clemma” E. Woods – Pasadena resident and treasurer of a Colorado mining company – bought up much of the Arch Beach boom town area. Soon, the townsite atop the cliffs was being called Woods Point, and the coast below Woods Cove. Her husband, Harry Edwin Woods, had been a newspaper publisher in Ohio but had moved west and gone into the mining business. The two proved an important asset to the greater Laguna Beach area, contributing generously out of their own pockets to improve the community. 

Woods Point and Arch Rock, circa late 1910s. Photo by Clara Mason Fox.

Meanwhile, in 1912, the somewhat flimsy Arch Beach Pier finally succumbed to the elements, bringing an end to one of the last symbols of the former boom town.

A hotel would not grace Arch Beach again until 1915, when the Arch Beach Tavern was built a few blocks inland at 2180 Catalina Street. By that point, automobiles and better roads were both more commonplace. And in the 1920s, the completion of Coast Highway made this area even less isolated, increasing property values. Large vacation homes were built in the area, primarily by rich out-of-towners, including many from Los Angeles and Pasadena. 

Postcard from the Arch Beach Tavern.

In the late 1920s, Clemma Woods subdivided her property and sold lots through the Skidmore Brothers’ real estate firm. One of the many homes built during that era – a large Tudor which sat at approximately the site of the old Arch Beach Hotel – would later serve as the home of actress Bette Davis. (A large “D” can still be seen on the chimney of the house, which is just north of the public stairs leading down to the beach.)

People remembered for some time that this area was called Arch Beach, and it was still referred to that way into the 1910s. In 1911, for instance, a new development just to the northeast (inland) was dubbed Arch Beach Heights.

Lost in Downtown Laguna

In 1887, the same year he helped file the Arch Beach town plat map, Nate Brooks also filed a plat map labeled “Part of Arch Beach, Plat II,” which extended from Cleo Street south to Calliope Street near the heart of Laguna Beach. Aside to references to the official subdivision name, it would be many decades before people commonly referred to this area as Arch Beach.

Arch Beach, Plat II, surveyed by S. H. Finley, July 1887.

Arch Beach Migrates South Again

The 1920s saw the name Arch Beach on the move again. Depending on who you asked and when, it could have been located anywhere from Bluebird Canyon Road down to today’s Aliso Circle.  

In his 1922 promotional pamphlet, A Rambling Sketch in and About Laguna and Arch Beaches, Orange County, California, David Andrew Hufford hedged on the exact location but rambled on with a plethora of puffery about Arch Beach:

“A few years ago, a noted globe trotter once said, ‘there is but one Arch beach as there is but one Yosemite,’ and I am not inclined to dispute his opinion. And another world traveler who visited all the European watering places, said nowhere could he find such a beautiful coastline, and to ‘see it once was to live.’ Everything considered – climactic conditions, pure oxygen, in the frostless belt, where Nature has done so much, it is now up to the home builders—is par excellence for your seaside home.”

Hufford also offered the following acrostic: 


Announced to the world by Jesuit Fathers, 

Revealing its picturesque caves and pools;

Carved out here and there, its rugged beauty

Hidden so long from the open road.

But now a castle ov’rlooks the sea, and 

Each rock and promontory beckons

Artists, who marvel at the changing colors.

Coast line so picturesque, mountains so grand,

Here Nature repays you for an automobile ride.

The Arch Beach Realty Co., located at Pearl Street and Coast Highway, opened in the mid-1920s. They remained into the early 1930s, selling coastal property to the rich and famous and property on the inland side of the highway to the slightly less rich and famous.

An 1894 sketch of "The Arch" by Clara Mason Fox. (Courtesy O.C. Archives)

By the late 1920s, people were referring to Villa Rockledge – the elaborate summer home of the Mission Inn’s Frank Miller– as being in Arch Beach. It was not in or adjacent to the boom town site, but rather farther down the coast. It was, however, right atop the old Aliso Beach Township northern boundary line. In fact, people started gradually applying the name Arch Beach primarily to the area from Villa Rockledge down to about today’s Wesley Drive – an area once included in the old Aliso Beach Township. This stretch constitutes one of Orange County’s most picturesque stretches of coastline, including Pirate Tower, Treasure Island Beach, Victoria Beach, and Goff’s Island. Whether by dumb luck or by dint of historical precedence, the name Arch Beach had finally come home to roost on part of the land where it started. 

Postcard of Arch Beach, circa 1920s.

Every Arch Beach is the Real Arch Beach

Eventually, the area called Arch Beach expanded northward to again consume EVERY section of coastline that had ever been given that name, from Sleepy Hollow down to Nyes Place. However, the far inland reaches of the old township weren’t included in this. 

The old Arch Beach boom town site became part of the newly incorporated City of Laguna Beach in 1927. Still, some of the picturesque homes of the early Woods Cove years remain. And of course, the beautiful, rugged shore still beckons to those with a little romance in their heart.  

View of beach below original Arch Beach Hotel site, 2021.

But the true location of Arch Beach remains fuzzy in the minds of many. “People have confused the name many times,” says Janz. “There is one local lad who insists Arch Beach was only around the Bluebird Beach area.”

So if anyone asks, “Where is Arch Beach,” just tell them it’s south of the original boundaries of Laguna Beach. It will probably satisfy their curiosity and won’t require a half hour of explanation.

[Thanks to historian Jane Janz of the Laguna Beach Historical Society for sharing her family stories and historical resources, clarifying several important points, and generally helping the author sound smarter than he is. No Laguna Beach history article is complete until it’s run through “Janecheck.” Thanks also to historian Eric Plunkett for pointing out spots where I needed to be clearer.] 

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