Long Beach historian recounts boardwalk’s early history
By Joseph Kellard
Obscured by sand and weeds, the weathered concrete slabs on the lot that abuts the boardwalk between Edwards and Riverside boulevards are like Long Beach’s ancient ruins.
They are the remnants of the foundation of the New Long Beach Hotel, a structure drawn up to replicate the grandiose Élysée Palace in Paris. Developer William Reynolds, a former state senator, abandoned the project, and no substantial structure was ever developed on the seaside property now called the foundation block.
But once Reynolds built the boardwalk, his first Long Beach development, it was soon dotted with other hotels and bathhouses. Actually, in 1908, a year before Reynolds broke ground to install the T-shaped concrete stanchions that still support the boardwalk, he built a casino at today’s Shore Road and Long Beach Boulevard.
“Reynolds was creating an Atlantic City for New York,” said Roberta Fiore, a Long Beach historian. “The casino was the little house to come party in. He thought, let’s build a building and get started and let people come to Long Beach.”
Reynolds initially wanted the boardwalk to span five miles, but when completed it fit its current dimensions of 2.2 miles from Neptune Boulevard to New York Avenue, and was lined with incandescent lamp posts.
Initially, tennis courts were built alongside the boardwalk at National Boulevard, on the property now occupied by the Allegria Hotel, and a neighboring musical pavilion that showcased German oompah bands and marching bands, including John Philip Sousa.
By 1912, Reynolds had replaced the tennis courts with Castles By the Sea, a theater for dancers Irene and Vernon Castle, the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire duo of their day.
To promote the boardwalk, Reynolds had elephants march down to Long Beach from his amusement park, Dreamland, in Coney Island, and is considered his greatest publicity stunt.
In 1909 he built the fireproof Nassau Hotel, now the Ocean Club apartments, at West Broadway and National Boulevard. Among the hotel’s patrons were Will Rogers and Sarah Bernhardt. During World War I, the Nassau was turned into a military hospital for enlisted men, and afterward became a hotel again.
“It was a swinging place during Prohibition,” Fiore said. “Federal agents raided because it became a hotbed for gambling and drinking.”
The Nassau’s main competitors were the Brighton Hotel, now the Acqua at Lincoln beach, and the Ocean Crest Hotel, now the Hoffman Manor at Laurelton beach.
Beachgoers who walked or drove to Long Beach had to change into their swimwear at one of the boardwalk’s many bathhouses, not on the street or beach.
“The police department, which were all stodgy old men, would watch to see if you changed anywhere around,” Fiore said, noting that this attitude was relaxed during the Roaring Twenties.
During that decade, before the boardwalk was rebuilt through FDR’s Works Progress Administration in 1938, the first jetties were built to keep the ocean from reaching the boardwalk. Made of wood that quickly came apart, the jetties were paid for with a $600,000 bond arranged by then Mayor William Dalton.
“It caused the mayor not to become re-elected,” Fiore said.
* This story is an updated version of one that originally appeared in the Long Beach Herald.