Ocean Beach Historical Society (OBHS) drew breath from a small ad placed in a local newspaper 25 years ago.
In February 1994, a resident Carol Bowers — writer, teacher and publisher — ran a notice inviting anyone interested in the town’s history to show up for a meeting at the library. A handful of residents attended and the Ocean Beach Historical Society was formed. Bowers became its first president. Today, OBHS boasts 300 members.
Pat James said he was at that first meeting. He became a board member and has continued to serve to this day. He was president of OBHS for 14 years, and is now vice president. His says his devotion to the history of Ocean Beach comes from a deep sense of community pride.
“I believe it’s important to educate people about OB to help preserve its sense of place,” he told Point Loma -OB Monthly. “I think we learn from history why a place is like it is. One stand-out thing we learn about OB, is its citizen activism. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to retain our small-town feel and character.”
According to a brief history on the OB MainStreet Association website, that small-town character started in 1887 when locals Billy Carlson and Frank Higgins named the area “Ocean Beach,” and then laid out streets and sold house lots at a big mussel roast on the beach.
But their timing couldn’t have been worse. While many people bought lots, the real estate bust of the 1890s caused them to lose their lots and development slowed to a crawl. (Carlson went on to become Mayor of San Diego and later ended up in federal prison on land-fraud charges.)
But a few local developers held on to their vision of Ocean Beach as the perfect resort town. David Collier was one of them and in the early 1900s, he brought in electricity, paved some of the roads, and started a streetcar line. Then in 1913, a grand amusement park called Wonderland opened at the foot of Abbott and Voltaire streets, right on the sand.
But the location proved to be a bad choice. The park washed away a few years later.
After that, according to the town’s historians, Newport Avenue became the center of tourist activity for Ocean Beach, much like it is today. Developers built dance halls, a skating rink, a merry-go-round, and a saltwater plunge for tourists and residents alike. OB’s first elementary school opened in 1910, and the library was built in 1928.
The area around Sunset Cliffs began to develop, but The Great Depression (1929 to 1939) brought everything to a near halt.
During World War II (1939 to 1945), strategic bunkers were built overlooking the ocean so soldiers could monitor suspicious activity. Street lights were painted black on the side facing the sea. The Ocean Beach Women’s Club provided snacks to soldiers, and many of those servicemen came back to make OB their home when the war ended.
When Interstate 5 was built in the 1950s, it cut off Ocean Beach from other beach towns to the north. This marked a critical change for OB, setting it apart from Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla, and adding to its unique and quirky character.
It also led to the influx of the “hippies” to town in the 1960s, when drug use, protests and activist marches were common. However, those ‘60s hippies became the entrepreneurs of the ‘70s, and they started the new businesses that helped Ocean Beach grow into more of a residential community. Civic organizations were formed at that time, including the OB Town Council, the Merchants’ Association, and the Planning Board.
Some of town’s traditional events, launched in the 1970s, still take place. These include the OB Street Fair (June), Fourth of July fireworks, and the Holiday Parade.
However, within a decade, the business community began to change because many of the stores couldn’t compete with the burgeoning retail centers nearby, and they were replaced by the antique and resale shops that today line Newport Avenue. (However, as next month’s issue of Point Loma-OB Monthly will reveal, OB’s business district is once again undergoing a metamorphosis!)
OBHS preserves the town’s vibrant past through its historical archives, which are stored at the Water’s Edge Faith Community Church at 1984 Sunset Cliffs Blvd. The archives are available for anyone to access by appointment. They consist mostly of photos, maps, old directories and some artifacts. OBHS is still seeking more photos, documents and any items of historical value to add to its collection.
The group also publishes a bimonthly newsletter, Sea Scrolls, which highlights historic facts and promotes upcoming events. OBHS meetings are free and open to the public, 7 p.m. third Thursdays of every month at the Water’s Edge Faith Community Church.
Special lectures and events are also a part of the OBHS scene: The next one — 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 at Water’s Edge church — will celebrate the group’s Silver Anniversary with a free presentation by board members Kitty McDaniel, Dedi Ridenour and Jonnie Wilson showing off “some incredible artifacts related to the history of the beach community.” For more information, visit obhistory.org
Joining the OB Historical Society
Annual membership dues are $15 for individuals, $20 business or family. Join online at obhistory.org or mail a check to: Ocean Beach Historical Society, P.O. Box 7895, San Diego, CA 92167