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Redondo Beach, Southern California, 1907 - Railroads & Surfing

Surfing had initially been introduced to mainland United States in 1885 by three Hawaiians attending school in Santa Cruz, in Northern California. However, the small, relatively unknown surfing enclave that resulted there had little to no effect on the communities surrounding it. What really became Hawai`i's major export to the Mainland was George Freeth's work for the Pacific Electric Railroad, in Redondo Beach, in 1907.

"The Pacific Electric Railroad played an important role in bringing surfing to California," wrote Peter Dixon in The Complete Book of Surfing. "Shortly before World War I the Pacific Electric began shoving their tracks throughout Southern California. This was in the days of the great land boom (still going strong), and the local railroads put in tracks before the population moved in. Ticket sales were somewhat slow on the P&E's beach route and the company decided a sales promotion campaign was needed."

John Grissum, in Pure Stoke puts it this way: "In 1907 the board of directors of the Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles were faced with a dilemma. Many of the city's residents, it seems, had developed a fondness for weekend daytrips to the San Fernando Valley, which was little more than a desert, for the express purpose of shooting jack rabbits from streetcars. Rifles and shotguns were the preferred weapons. Sandwiches and beer were optional amenities. While railway officials agreed that gunning down bunnies from streetcars was wholesome family fare, they worried about the lack of passengers on the southern line that ran to Redondo Beach. What was needed was a promotional gimmick to spark interest. They found their answer in George Freeth, an Irish-Hawaiian Redondo local who owned a 14-foot redwood longboard weighing 120 pounds, and who regularly surfed the beachbreak, even going so far as to cut across a wave ahead of the curl, a move that wasn't generally practiced until the 1930s."

It is possible that real estate developer Henry E. Huntington had seen Freeth, while in Hawai`i. It is possible, also, that he was the one to persuade Freeth to help promote the Redondo Beach area by using surfing as the draw. Huntington, in fact, advertised George Freeth as "the man who could walk on water" and thousands of people arrived on the red cars to watch this astounding feat. George would mount his 8 foot solid redwood board as far out as conditions provided and ride all the way into the beach.

George Freeth had also been picked for this role because of Jack London's glowing references to Freeth in his widely circulated writings. As such, George Freeth became the Twentieth Century's first "name" surfer and the "Father of California Surfing." "The railway put Freeth on the payroll," continued Grissum, "hyped his derring-do in the press, and for the next few months he put on a show several times a day on weekends, come slop or high water."

Renowned early Redondo Beach surfer Charles "Chuck A Luck" Ehlers recalled that his older brother Bill said that "George Freeth surfed waves straight into shore on an 8' redwood surfboard. He was surfing at Moonstone Beach in Redondo Beach where boardwalks and gift shops displayed local polished moonstones. This was north of the three wharfs where the railroad went out to the end of the piers to unload their cargo and where square rigged ships, some steam driven, reloaded their holds. It was the busiest cargo hauling port on the Southern California coast." Freeth's "standing on the water" promotion worked, as attested by the increased passenger-counts on rail lines to the beaches of Santa Monica Bay during this time.