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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
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.