Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Lincoln Park


Since April 2022, there has been much discussion about changing the name of Long Beach’s Lincoln Park to something less divisive. After the city established the Equity and Human Relations Commission,  talk of renaming Lincoln Park and removing both the Lincoln statue and the 13-foot penny sculpture has been in the news. Native Americans point to three acts against indigenous people carried out during Lincoln’s tenure as President – 38 Dakota men hung in 1862; forcing 8,000 Navajo to march 450 miles to a new reservation in 1863, resulting in more than 2,200 deaths; the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in which approximately 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children were killed by American soldiers. I won’t delve into the politics of the issue, but will give a brief history of how the park got its name.

Pacific Park 1890

In the 1880s, when Long Beach city founder William Willmore established the town that would become the city we know today, he set aside free land to be used as a park. The park, then known as Pacific Park, offered a number of sports activities such as shuffle ball, croquet and horseshoes. It also housed an alligator pit, an aviary and a whale house which eventually was removed to make room for a library.

The city’s biggest draw was the sea, followed by Pacific Park, the Pike amusement zone, the annual Chautauqua, and several Civil War reunions hosted by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). In 1906, patriotic citizens decided to erect a soldier’s monument in the southeast corner of the park to pay tribute to those who had fought to keep the United States united. But politics then, like now, got in the way with jealousies among members of the Sons of the Veterans’ Auxiliary over who would get credit for the monument.

In 1914, the local women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic decided to rejuvenate the movement to erect a memorial to those who were involved in the Civil War.  A monument to Lincoln was decided upon.

The statue was the third of its kind in the United States.  It was similar to one located in Lincoln Park, Chicago, designed by Augustus St. Gaudens, and erected there in October 1887.  There was a similar monument on the battle field at Gettysburg.  The Long Beach monument was 22 feet 8 inches high, 7 feet of this was for the Lincoln statue itself.  The weight was 146,100 pounds, cut from granite quarried at Fresno.  The base was of solid cement. The cost was $3,000 ($80,000 today).

Lincoln statue dedication

On July 3, 1915, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, thousands cheered when the two American flags draping the figure of Lincoln fell.  The guns of the U.S.S. Chattanooga boomed a national salute.  The Municipal Band burst into the strains of the Star Spangled Banner. Robert Lincoln had been invited to the unveiling of the Lincoln memorial statue, but he could not come.  Instead, Col. James M. Emery, secretary of the Monument Association, gave a presentation address and James Hair recounted the history of the monument movement. 

Since then, the Lincoln statue has stood surveying the park named for the President best known for freeing African American slaves. It has been moved several times – to the grassy area of the roof of the 1977 Main Library, then back to the entrance of the park itself when locals asked for it to be put back where more could see it. Where will it be removed to if recent politics decide its fate? Perhaps to the public service salvage yard where many of Long Beach’s forgotten items of the past have been relocated, then forgotten.

If you are interested in learning about the first soldier monument commissioned for the park, which was cast but never paid for, and the unsightly base which was erected, just follow this link to my website’s yearly blog of events for1915.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Radio Comes to Long Beach

Ad August 1922. Source Wikipedia

Was radio only a fad? With 2000 radio receivers in use in Long Beach in 1922, most costing around $150 ($2500 in 2021), the answer seemed to be no.  Radio was here to stay.  But how could radio broadcasting be made into a commercial venture when anyone with a receiver could pick up the signal?  Advertising was of course the answer, but it wasn’t an answer considered in the early 1920s. Instead, engineers of the Western Electric Company were perfecting a radio design which would allow only those paying a fee access to certain radio broadcasts.  Intrepid radio enthusiasts, however, set up their own broadcasting stations and established programming, all paid for with commercials. Western Electric dropped their plans for paid subscriptions, giving way to commercial radio.  But it was amateur radio operators who had paved the way.

           In 1908, three 16-year-olds made the news. Percy Palmer (who would become Long Beach High School valedictorian in 1909), established a wireless station in a little building at the rear of his parent’s home on West Second Street. Learning more about the new “science” became an obsession which he shared with neighbor George Nelson, who set up his own wireless a half block from Palmer. Douglas Wallace was another enthusiast and along with Percy soon had their stations fitted out with batteries, receivers, induction coils, and lofty slender poles with connecting wires. Percy proudly showed Daily Telegraph reporters (8/5/1908) the over two hundred messages which his station intercepted while Navy ships visited Long Beach, most of which were messages sent by operators on the different vessels to the officers of the fleet.         

Ship to shore radio, 1904.  Wikipedia
In 1911, Wallace picked up a message from San Francisco, setting a distance record for radio receiving.  Wallace spent years studying electricity and electric currents. Unable to purchase many of the more expensive parts, he manufactured them himself so he could pick up calls from ships and from stations up and down the coast.  In 1912, the city council agreed the Port of Long Beach was of sufficient importance to have a regular station. They agreed to pay the expenses of moving Wallace’s station to the harbor where he could communicate with all ships coming to Long Beach which were equipped with wireless.  
          What of Wallace? He later helped the Radio Research Society set up receiving set amplifiers for musical programs heard over station KSS and opened his own radio repair shop.
Don C. Wallace (no relation to Douglas Wallace) was also a pioneer in radio. In 1912, at the age of twelve, he set up shop in a shed back of his home at 1431 Linden. He made a crystal receiving set, a transmitter, and learned the wireless code. He then built a 40-foot wireless pole. In 1913, he put in a radio phone station and sang songs which were heard seven miles away. At the age of 15 he began spending his summer vacations going to sea as a commercial radio operator on ships traveling up and down the coast. When World War I broke out, he joined the navy, becoming chief radio operator on the S.S. George Washington, President Wilson’s ship, which carried Wilson to the Versailles peace conference.
President Wilson leaving the S.S. George Washington.

Radio broadcasting was still very new, but Wallace coaxed President Wilson to make his Fourth of July speech into a microphone, the first presidential speech ever to go on the air. With the war over, Wallace attended the University of Minnesota, returning to Long Beach in 1927 to become sales manager of Day-Fan Electric Company's radio operations and later merchandising manager of General Motors radios in Southern California.  In his  spare time he built amateur radio station W6AM.  

            Others in Long Beach shared a love for radio and in 1912 formed the Radio Research Club, which met every Friday evening until the outbreak of WWI. In 1920 the amateur radio group, now called the Long Beach Radio Research Association, was revived by local businessmen who furnished space for the group at 244 East Third Street. Here radio publications were available for members, as well as wave meters for calibrating members’ sending sets, and buzzer practice outfits for studying code. Learning how to understand and operate what today would be called amateur or “ham” radio” was popular.  Students at Poly formed the Poly High Radio Club, which discussed the use of honeycomb coils, wavelengths, vacuum tubes, Tungas rectifiers and more.


Long Beach Press 12/9/1922

In 1918, following the war, 35-year-old Ralph S. Prest and 22-year-old Dean Bottorff opened a small electrical shop at 18 Elm. Perhaps life as a married man (he wed May White in 1919) led Bottorff to seek a new career. He later became a vocational education teacher. In October 1920, 22-year-old Fred S. Dean replaced Bottorff in Prest’s establishment.  The following year the two organized the Prest and Dean Radio Research Laboratory.  The 25-member group received its government license on April 10, 1922, filing articles of incorporation in July 1922. The call letters assigned to the station were KSS. Their clubroom and workshop were at the rear of neighbor Louis Rueb’s School for Physical Correction at 26 Elm Avenue. The group had raised $2000 ($27,800 in 2021) to purchase a transmitting set with a radius of 1000 miles.  The purpose of their organization, they stated, was to “make scientific investigation of the technical details of radio” supported by dues and initiation fees. Though they indicated the organization was to be non-profit, the two did profit to the point that in December 1922 Prest and Dean moved their retail establishment to larger quarters at 742 E. Fourth Street.
          Permission to set up an antenna and establish a station came from the Department of Commerce, which also set limits as to what KSS could broadcast.  News and stories had to be suitable for all ages and certain information such as movement of troops during war was taboo. One of the first broadcasts was on May 15, 1922, when Long Beach Fire Chief G. C. Craw spoke about fires and fire prevention. In the broadcast, Craw reported from January 1, 1922, to May 1, 1922, there were 9 fires in Long Beach, with a reported loss of $8366.76 ($138,675 in 2021). Heard throughout Southern California, the Chief asked all who listened to the broadcast to please contact him, so he would know he hadn’t just spoken into thin air.
          In July the station had its first musical presentation, sponsored by Buffums’ Department Store, when Laura Barrett Holley, a well-known dramatic soprano, sang. There was also a flute solo by B. H. Ireland, and bassoon and saxophone pieces by F. C. Greissinger, both members of the municipal band.
            At first there was a one-hour daily program at 7 p.m., later a matinee program was added.  Programs included news, music, lectures, occasional sermons, and bedtime stories for children.  The 50-watt transmitter installed at the society’s offices carried programs 600 miles in daylight and up to 1,500 miles during the evening.  All of the equipment was designed and built by local enthusiasts who met every Wednesday at the station to discuss how to make their broadcast service better.  The KSS license was held until June 1924, Prest and Dean finding running a radio store a more lucrative venture than hosting a radio station. They were right, radio was a booming new industry. By August 1929 there were 480,000 radios in Southern California, 1800 radio dealers, and 53 radios in every 100 homes in the region.
Press Telegram 4/2/1941

Prest and Dean survived the Depression until 1932, when Ralph Prest left the business, securing a job with the state highway department. Fred continued, changing the name of the establishment to Fred S. Dean Co. and in 1950 to Dean’s Electronics, when his son Norbert entered the business.

Hal Nichols. Source: Long Beach
 Public Library

On March 5, 1924, a new Long Beach radio station – KFON – began broadcasting from the Markwell building (which later became part of the Jergins Trust Building) on a 234 wavelength, with Mayor Charles A. Buffum inaugurating the station. A musical program followed. Lawrence McDowell, who later worked for the Long Beach Marine Department, came to Long Beach in 1923 to work for the station, installing the station’s operating equipment. The station, owned by Hal Nichols, changed its call letters to KFOX in 1928. For more check out McDowell’s oral history narrative at Long Beach State  and the 
Long Beach Radio History Blog at 6ccm.org


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Rainmaker


In 1889 Ernest Harnett, his wife Julia and seven of their children left England for a life in America.  Long Beach, California, is where they decided to settle.  Polly Harnett Johnson, who passed away in December 2020, had been working with family diaries, letters and a manuscript her Aunt Ivy had been preparing 50 years earlier to publish the family's history. I promised Polly I would help her with her project and am continuing to do so. Today, as the world is experiencing climate change, I thought I would share a little from Ivy's research, and my own, on how weather was so important in the early days of Long Beach and Southern California.

HarPhoto courtesy of the Harnett family. 

When the Harnett family arrived in Southern California in October 1889, they were greeted by heavy rains which flooded the area interrupting railroad service.  Fortunately, their good friends, the Gulvins, who were responsible for them deciding to settle in Long Beach, put them up a little longer than anticipated. The Gulvins, living in Florence, twenty miles from the new town of Long Beach, said if a man had a horse, wagon and cultivating implements, he could, by crop rotation and proper irrigation, produce more on ten acres of Long Beach land than on forty acres east of the Rockies. With this in mind, and the fact Long Beach was anti-liquor, Ernest Harnett bought five acres out of town, on Atlantic near Twenty-fifth Street. 

The winter of 1889-1890 was one of the worst in Southern California history. The flat area between Long Beach and Wilmington was under six feet of water. The water rushing in the rivers was so swift that the 2600-acre Nadeau vineyard, east of Florence, was devastated. Around Christmas the flooding made Long Beach a virtual island. People were stranded in Los Angeles for a week, unable to get home. One man made it back to Long Beach by swimming three stretches of flood water! On January 1, 1890, during a brief interlude when the rail line opened, the Harnetts arrived in Long Beach. Rains recommenced the following week. Long Beach was shut off from all outside communication for three more weeks until the flood waters receded. What a welcome! Ivy wrote that 34 inches of rain fell that season. 

There were times when there was little rain. A period of drought followed the torrents of rain that greeted the Harnett family in 1889-1890. Though they had an artesian well for water and irrigation, Earnest Harnett and other farmers were anxious for rain. In April 1894 they decided to bring in a rainmaker, a Mr. Baker, from Visalia. Baker used dynamite to launch his “special” ingredients into the air. Why explosives? People had noticed that heavy rains usually fell soon after a battle, and surmised the rain was caused by the explosion of cannons and gunfire.

Rainmaking 1890s. Photo: Nebraska Historical Society

Baker launched his chemicals into the air and two or three times the barometer got down low enough for the rainmaker to tell customers rain was coming. However, a week after he made this statement there was still no visible sign of precipitation. Baker claimed if he failed it would be the first time out of 16 trials that he did not produce rain.

The town decided to hire Baker for two more days because it did rain quite hard in Fullerton. Perhaps the prevailing winds from Long Beach had driven the rain clouds inland towards the foothills. Baker, who kept his formula a secret, did make it rain a little. Unfortunately, northerly winds quickly dried up the moisture from the soil.  He collected his money claiming he produced about ¼ of an inch of rain for the town. He left in disgust because he said he couldn’t do more with the winds against him.


Flood damage, 1908-1909
Rain was problematic. There were years of little moisture, others with too much.   In February 1909, the San Gabriel River reached flood proportions, overflowing its banks. The river didn’t flow into Alamitos Bay, like it does today.  It joined the Los Angeles River on Rancho Los Cerritos land, creating a boggy area known as the Willows. A violent cascade of water swept down Pine and Pacific Avenues between State and Willow on February 11, 1909, continuing a headlong course down State Street (now Pacific Coast Hwy.) to Anaheim Street and the inner harbor.  Streets in the northwest part of the city were impassable with water four feet deep.  The San Gabriel River became rampant about noon, when the flood waters in the foothills added to the stream.  Soon the State Street Bridge was under water and unusable.  Old timers could not remember a worst rainfall since 1889-1890, when inhabitants of North Long Beach went around in boats.   The 1908-09 winter continued to be a wet one.  By the end of March, the total rainfall for the season was over 18 inches. The previous year the rainfall  total for the entire season was 10.04 inches. After other devastating flooding in 1914 and 1916 the region decided the issue of flood control needed to be addressed, but more preventative measures were needed as disastrous floods in 1926 and 1938 revealed.

Todays Willow Street Park. Photo: City of Long Beach

The raging waters provided a good underground water level. Just north of Willow Street and west of American Avenue there was a swampy place called the Willows. Farmers along Willow Street raised apples and other fruit. Many also grew grain and Ivy remembered areas of California poppies interspersed among the fields. In times when it flooded farmers had to take row boats to save their farm animals. One enterprising real estate firm, after one or two dry years, when there had been no flood, cleared off land, laid out city lots and built houses. The next year there were floods and water reached the window sills on the houses. Buyer beware! 


Water was valuable commodity in Southern California, and William Penn Watson knew how to use it wisely.  Ivy Harnett wrote of the Watson family and how Mr. Watson attracted the attention of horticulturists all over the country by his successful experiments in dry farming.  He believed that to water soil that could be farmed dry was an unpardonable sin. 1n 1888 Watson and his family moved to Long Beach from Linden, Washington, settling on a ranch at the Willows at the corner of Willow and Perris Road (now Santa Fe Avenue).  Ivy remembered her siblings telling how their father even paid a special visit into town to view the 61 pound, 2-foot-long sugar beet, and the 75-pound squash Mr. Watson had grown and put on display.  


Weather was a challenge in the past, but even more so today. Rainmaking is again being successfully achieved in Dubai and other areas around the globe.  Mr. Watson’s dry farming techniques are being used throughout the world. The weather changes we are now facing are also being addressed by other innovations. However, halting the  extreme problem of today's climate change cannot be achieved without worldwide cooperation. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be lowered and carbon footprints reduced.  We need to realize we are a global family, all sharing Planet Earth.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Auto racing 1904 style

Professional auto racing through the streets of Long Beach has been a yearly tradition since 1975, but did you know the city's first racetrack was established in 1889 at the west end of town south of Anaheim Street? There meets were held and horses trained.  When automobiles entered the picture, Long Beach's famed seven-mile-long beach became a popular spot for car enthusiasts to test the power of this new form of transportation.  As the 2021 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach approaches, let’s take a look at another race in 1904 that had everyone talking.


Barney Oldfield and his Green Dragon -  Source: Wikipedia

In December 1904, Los Angeles/Long Beach auto fans were excited when famed auto racer Barney Oldfield told the Los Angeles Herald he would lower the mile circular track record to fifty seconds or better at Agricultural Park (now Exposition Park), and break a mile in 30 seconds on the sands of Long Beach.

          Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield declared that the beach at Long Beach was better than any place in Florida for attempting to set a new straightaway mark. He knew other automobile enthusiasts raved about driving on the sands of Long Beach. One of them was Carl Hendrickson, an early Long Beach pioneer and the first Ford agent, who owned a specially built racing car, a four-cylinder Oldsmobile with wheels about 34 inches high.  Hendrickson loved to drive his Olds up and down the beach where other automobile owners gathered to race.  Hendrickson’s car was too fast to be allowed to race against other Long Beach autos, but Hendrickson would start the race and then pass the competitors towards "Devil's Gate” (where the Belmont Pier is today) to show the true superiority of his vehicle.  

           Though powerful, Hendrickson knew his auto was no match against Barney Oldfield’s Green Dragon but was anxious to see the racing “pro” in action. The record in 1904 for completing a mile on a straight course was 39 seconds, set by W.K. Vanderbilt Jr. on Ormond Beach, Florida, in December 1903, but Oldfield was sure his Green Dragon could drive a mile in 30 seconds.  But before he could attempt his anticipated record-breaking Long Beach run, he set out to please fans by breaking another racing record...this one on a circular track.


Agricultural Park (now Exposition Park)
 - Source: Wikipedia

         On December 17, 1904, several thousand fans lined up at Agricultural Park in Los Angeles to see Oldfield, who held almost all the records in auto racing since entering the sport in 1902. The start of the day didn’t live up to expectations when local racer Frank Garbutt’s Snowball proved no match for Barney Oldfield’s Green Dragon, which beat Garbutt by ¼ of a mile. Though Oldfield’s mile in 53 seconds was impressive, it did not meet Oldfield’s goal of 50 seconds.  But things were soon to change.

          Up until now the Los Angeles Times reported, it was thought automobile races were called “races” by courtesy, when in fact they were nothing more than one car trying to pass another.  But auto racing, the Times continued, indeed became “racing” that day in Agricultural Park when Charlie Burman and Frank Garbutt showed the crowd that an exciting contest could result when two cars of about the same relative ability came together.

Garbutt had hoped his gasoline powered car would do well, but autos back then were little more reliable than a racehorse, so predictions as to what a given automobile would do on a particular day were hard to make.  Garbutt hadn’t beaten Oldfield’s Green Dragon, but he hoped Snowball’s engine was warmed up enough to beat Oldfield’s other car Blue Streak, driven by Charlie Burman.

          Fans rose to their feet after Burman's Blue Streak immediately took the lead. They started to cheer when local entrepreneur Frank Garbutt’s Snowball nosed ahead.  When Burman dashed for the lead in the backstretch the crowd moaned, and then roared with excitement as Garbutt finally jaunted past Burman at the very end, winning by the narrow margin of three feet with a time of 3 minutes 12 seconds. 

          When asked about Garbutt, Barney Oldfield said Garbutt was “a splendid fellow,” who understood his automobile better than most wealthy men (Garbutt made money in the oil industry, boat and airplane building and movie industry) who followed the sport for the fun of it. Barney also went on to say that if he had Garbutt’s money, you would not see him on the track. Instead, he’d hire someone else to do the racing!

Devil's Gate - Source: Long Beach Public Library

           Though Oldfield had been three seconds short of his anticipated time at Agricultural Park, he was sure he would meet his straight course goal in Long Beach. December 18th, between 1 and 3 in the afternoon, when the tide was retreating, was the time chosen for Oldfield to race from Devil's Gate to the Pine Avenue Pier. But the race was not to be. The Los Angeles Auto Club, sponsoring the event, cancelled the demonstration after the Green Dragon blew a tire earlier in the day, plowing through weeds and brush. Disappointed fans were not to see the famed Oldfield, the first man to travel 60 miles an hour in an automobile. Prior commitments, and injuries, prevented him from rescheduling the event.

          Oldfield never made it back to Long Beach to race along the city’s sandy shore. The seven-mile-long beach that made the town famous, is no more. Auto racing, however, has returned, with portions of the track following the course Oldfield hoped to travel.  Though racing fans in 1904 did not see any records broken, perhaps fans in 2021 will.  

Friday, August 13, 2021

Lions Dragstrip Remembered


As the Long Beach Grand Prix approaches (September 24-26, 2021), let’s take a look at the past and another racing venue that had everyone talking.

         Many remember Lions Dragstrip in Wilmington, at 223rd and Alameda. Though in another city, it was the youth of Long Beach, especially those in the Westside, that benefited most from the drag strip. 

          Hot rods were a national passion among 1950s and 60s teenagers. Like today, there were good teens, and there were troublesome teens. It was hard to distinguish gang members from car club members. Both wore special jackets and painted names on their cars. Most car clubs had a good bunch of youngsters and were sponsored by law enforcement and civic organizations.

          In Long Beach, the Associated Car Clubs of Long Beach, the first of its kind in the nation, was formed by nine local car groups in June 1951. Members realized they needed a responsible central organization which would have the approval of police and civic groups. One of the necessary qualifications for membership was to pass the California Highway Patrol’s test for safe vehicles, which meant the association needed places where members could test their cars, conduct speed and timing tests and just enjoy drag racing. Thanks to Long Beach judge Frederick Miller, whose courtroom was overwhelmed with street racing incidents, they found a place - Lions Dragstrip.

          Judge Miller persuaded all nine Harbor Area Lions Club to take on the project. They volunteered to raise $50,000 ($566,400 today) to cover construction costs. Also, a deal was made with the Harbor Commission to buy a narrow strip of land that still sprouted a bit of alfalfa from farming days. The land, once used for storage by the railroad, was now situated among oil tanks and derricks at 223rd and Alameda.  The Lions went to work.

          According to hot rod enthusiasts, the Lions track “officially” opened in October 1955 (9th?), shortly after actor James Dean’s death. However, the first reference to the strip I found was in a newspaper article in December 1954 in the Long Beach Independent when the Rod and Custom Car Association asked the Lion’s Club if they could use the drag strip on specific days to educate the public on hot rods and safety programs. At that time many youths desperately wanted to be part of the “in group” of car club members, many of whom identified with James Dean and Dean’s 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. In real life Dean was a car racing enthusiast, and many young men wanted to be just like him.  Dean’s death in a car accident in September 1955 raised his image to cult-like status. Drag racing among the clubs “a la James Dean style” became the “in” thing to do, as did clashes between rivals.


James Dean in his race car

       For the first 3 years attendance was low (after all would James Dean give up street racing for a drag strip), but in 1957 strip manager Mickey Thompson hit on what many felt was the salvation for the entire sport: night racing.  Fans who avoided the sport began to pour back in record numbers and within five years the mortgage was paid in full and member Lions Clubs began donating their profits to needy charities. By 1971, over $480,000 ($3.2 million today) had been donated.

          Just to give you an idea of how popular the clubs and the sport of drag racing was, it was estimated there were 1500 car clubs, with an average membership of 15 to 20 in Los Angeles/Orange counties in 1961.  Mickey Thompson, who served as Lions manager until 1962, was an inspiration to local youth, holding more than 485 world land speed records.     Thompson estimated that about 50% of the kids who raced or watched the Wednesday and Saturday grudge races were Hispanic or Black. Admission was only $2 ($18 today), something they could afford. He claimed that within two years of opening street racing incidents had been cut in half, and by 1962 they were almost non-existent.

         Lions Drag Strip continued to attract a new generation of car enthusiasts, hosting the American Hot Rod Association’s World Drag Racing Championships, and Evel Knievel, recovering from a broken back, who jumped a motorcycle over 13 cars in December 1970 before a crowd of 14,780.

         At that time, however, the port of Los Angeles was expanding and needed space for more storage, or so they said. In reality, they wanted to avoid a lawsuit by nearby residents annoyed by the noise.  Coincidently, the lawsuit was dropped when the LA Harbor Department announced it was closing the strip because they needed the area for storage. On December 2, 1972, after witnessing Don Moody break a National Hot Rod elapsed time record before a crowd of 21,000, the strip was forced to close.  The land remained vacant until the late 1970s.

        In 1979 Big Willie Robinson, head of the nonprofit Brotherhood of Street Racers, opened another drag strip on Terminal Island. It closed in 1985. Today sanctioned racing is no more.  However, those who remember Lions and the sport of drag racing may visit the Lions Automobilia Foundation & Museum, 2790 E. Del Amo Blvd., Rancho Dominguez. The museum, founded in December 2019, opened in late August 2021. Advance tickets must be purchased in advance and Covid restrictions followed.

Also, here's a You-tube link  by Long Beach film maker Danny Miguel which talks about West Long Beach and Lions Drag Strip.


Monday, March 23, 2020

Remembering Polio

As we struggle with Coronavirus (COVID-19) some may remember another epidemic disease – infantile paralysis, better known as polio.  It spread through the feces of someone who was infected. In areas of poor sanitation it could get into water or, by touch, into food. It was highly contagious. It could attack a person of any age, but children were most susceptible. In the hot days of summer before air conditioning the young often headed to public swimming pools, lakes, streams, rivers and the ocean to cool down, but these bodies of water could also be a source of the disease. Our parents and grandparents were terrified that infantile paralysis might strike one of their own; for my own family it did when a cousin was diagnosed with polio, unable to breathe after the virus paralyzed muscles in the chest. He was placed in an iron lung, with everyone praying for young Billy B.

           Poliomyelitis has been with mankind since the dawn of history, but it wasn't until the 20th century that major polio epidemics occurred.  The disease first struck Southern California in 1912. In one week, twenty-one cases were reported and one death.  Long Beach, which was free of the disease, suffered $100,000 ($2.6 million today) in lost revenues because of rumors of outbreaks in the city. On the morning of August 13th, city health officials, trying to keep the disease out of Long Beach, passed an ordinance prohibiting youngsters under fifteen years of age from congregating together in one area.  This was disastrous for business, coming in the midst of the tourist season, but it undoubtedly helped curtail the spread of the disease.  Theater owners were particularly hard hit and suffered large economic losses.  Pike merry-go-round entrepreneur Charles Looff was so upset he decided to disobey the new law and was arrested.  Because of the success of the quarantine, Long Beach did not suffer a single case of infantile paralysis, something city health officials were proud of.  Businessmen, however, viewed the quarantine as extreme, considering there was not a single case of the disease reported in Long Beach.  Because of public pressure, the ordinance was repealed on September 5th, and Looff's case dropped. (Daily Telegram 9/5/1912) 

       One of the worst outbreaks occurred as the world was trying to recover from World War II. Fathers recently returned from battle, who had fought for a better world for their families, were now witnessing their children suffer from a disease that had no cure. Would their youngsters, if they survived, still be able to enjoy life without permanent physical disabilities? Such thoughts raced through Long Beach parents' minds as they witnessed an epidemic in the making. Polio cases in the city had jumped from a mere 28 in 1947 to 275 in 1948. (Press Telegram 1/1/1949) 

        The epidemic was not just happening in Long Beach but nationwide as more and more children experienced headaches, nausea, upset stomachs, sore muscles and unexplained fevers, all symptoms of infantile paralysis. In 1949, the number nationwide for polio outbreaks set record numbers, soaring to 41,173 with 2,720 deaths.  In Muncie, Indiana, the infection was so bad the city was forced to ban public gatherings, including funeral services.  The outbreak was not as severe in Long Beach, the number dropping to 111 cases from the city's record of 275 the previous year. Perhaps this was due to city health officials asking residents to avoid crowds and close contact with other people.  Also to be avoided was swimming in polluted water, over exertion and sudden chilling.  Residents were also asked to observe strict personal cleanliness, keep food safe from flies and make sure lids on garbage cans were tightly covered.
An iron lung ward for the young

            The polio virus operated by attacking  nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord, often causing paralysis.  The virus got into the body through the nose and mouth and into the intestines.  The infection then traveled along nerve fibers or through the blood to the central nervous system.  There the virus entered a nerve cell, multiplying so rapidly it killed the cell.  Paralysis resulted when the majority of the nerve cells were destroyed.  Surprisingly, some people who became infected by the virus did not always get the disease.
            Doctors believed fatigue made the disease more severe.  Complete bed rest and simple treatments such as a hot, moist bandage was recommended to relieve pain.  When the fever abated it was important to start gently moving the limbs.  If this didn’t happen deformities and painful tightening of the muscles could occur.  Splints, braces and crutches were needed by some patients, though exercises helped strengthen and retain the muscles.  Often breathing muscles became paralyzed and doctors put the patient on a respirator called an iron lung to help with oxygen intake.  With the help of a respirator two-thirds of patients would eventually recover their natural breathing. Sometimes as little as two weeks in an iron lung was needed for treatment, in other cases it lasted a lifetime.

           Can you imagine placing a young child in an iron lung, trying to keep the frightened child calm? There wasn't much for youngsters to do but keep still.  There was a mirror in front so they could see what was going on behind. There was a frame over the top where they could put a book or a newspaper, but they had to have someone to turn the pages. There was the radio they could listen to, but no television. That was still being developed. Patients could only be let out for about 15 minutes several times a day, gradually increasing as the lungs began to work again on their own. 
            Hospitals such as the Adelaide Tichenor Orthopedic Clinic in Long Beach helped children, who were most susceptible to the disease, regain the use of their limbs.  The Tichenor Clinic was supported by endowments, fees and donations and was available for children up to the age of 18 with orthopedic complaints whose parents could not afford the needed care. In 1948 the clinic treated 511 children, half of whom were victims of polio. (Press Telegram 1/2/1949).

          Many "boomers" may remember the March of Dimes drives to raise money for polio research and treatment. The dimes collected helped aid victims and search for a cure for this much feared disease. It was estimated that just one polio case a year cost $3415 to treat with more money needed for continued therapy. (Press Telegram 1/1/1949).  Often the money collected through the March of Dimes was not enough to cover local expenditures. In 1949, for instance, the March of Dimes spent $102,750 to treat Long Beach polio victims, but just $56,831 had been raised through city donations. (Press Telegram 1/18/1950)
            From 1912 onward a polio epidemic appeared each summer in at least one area of the county. Research continued, resulting in the invention of the iron lung in 1927. In September 1949, Dr. Harvey E. Billig Jr. on the staff of Community Hospital gave a glimmer of hope to sufferers of the disease.  Dr. Billig had experimented by injecting glandular secretions into muscles.  These steroid injections, he claimed, caused the ligaments to relax.  His research showed that when this treatment was used in the first stages of the disease it worked miracles.  The down side of his research, however, showed some glands failed to recover and the use of artificial steroids had to be continued. (Press Telegram 1/15/1949)
Lining up for the Salk vaccine
             Despite years of  research it wouldn’t be until 1955 that a partial cure would be found. That year anxious parents rushed to have their children immunized with the Salk polio vaccine.  Free mass polio immunization got underway in Long Beach on April 18, 1955.  Eleven thousand first and second grade students lined up for the first of three injections.  Following the first shot a second shot was given two to four weeks later, and a third, or booster shot given seven months to a year later.  The series of shots provided three years protection from the paralyzing virus.  But all was not well. Within a few days of the injections reports appeared stating that some of the Salk vaccine manufactured by Cutter Laboratories was unsafe.  One Pocatello Idaho girl died one week after being vaccinated.  The vaccine was recalled and inoculations halted; despite this precaution several Long Beach youngsters suffered polio attacks after being given the Cutter produced vaccine.  All, however, recovered.
Given on a sugar cube it tasted fine
            Salk’s vaccine was only partially effective. It did not prevent the initial intestinal infection. In the 1960s the Sabin oral vaccine was released by Albert Sabin, who refused to patent his vaccine so the low price would guarantee coverage for all. The Sabin vaccine blocked the chain of transmission the Salk vaccine did not, effectively obstructing the polio virus from entering the bloodstream.

            Infantile paralysis didn’t just strike the young, it infected adults as well. Perhaps the most well-known instance is that of Franklin D. Roosevelt who contracted the disease in 1921.  A lesser known case is that of Long Beach's Don Hornsby, a tremendously gifted concert pianist and composer who performed at the Jack Lasley Cafe in Belmont Shore. Here he combined his piano artistry with song parodies, magic tricks, unusual facial expressions and hilarious ad lib comic. His talents were recognized by NBC who signed Hornsby to a five-year television contract to present a late-night show out of New York. Broadway Open House was network television's first late night comedy variety show.  It was televised live on NBC from May 29, 1950 to August 24, 1951, airing weeknights from 11 pm to midnight.  It went on to become the Tonight Show. Unfortunately Hornsby did not even get to perform one show...he died May 22, 1950. His name would most likely have been as well-known as Steve Allen, Jack Parr, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno if death brought on by polio hadn't overtaken the 26-year-old Long Beach comedian. 

            For the younger audience reading this, which never experienced the battle against polio and fear of epidemics, rest assured. We have been through similar times before, as my last article Coronavirus vs. 1918 Influenza pointed out.  The United States has been polio-free since 1979, though it still exists in underdeveloped parts of the world. We have also developed vaccines to help combat other diseases and will do so with the Coronavirus. Oh yes, my cousin Billy B. survived polio after six months in an iron lung, followed by physical therapy, with no ill effects and is still enjoying life today.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Coronavirus vs 1918 Influenza

            “Council Should Act on 700 Citizens’ Request for Mask Ordinance.” “Individual Quarantine Should be Made Permanent in Fighting Influenza.” “New Flu Law Enacted for Quarantine Emergency: Guards to be placed if ordinance is disregarded.” “Deaths by Influenza Top War Casualties.”
            Such were the headlines in the Los Angeles Herald from the fall of 1918 to the spring of 1919.  There were many similarities to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) we are now experiencing. Read for yourself what was happening during the epidemic that struck the world more than a 100 years ago and make your own comparisons with what is transpiring today.  

            In the fall of 1918 a deadly disease began to sweep across the United States--influenza. In October, the epidemic reached Long Beach.  Years later it was determined that it probably started on a pig farm in Iowa.  After the annual Iowa Cedar Rapids Swine Show in September 1917, a mysterious ailment gripped its pigs.  Millions of hogs fell ill and thousands died.  At the same time the pigs got sick, Canadian hunters found moose and elk with flu.  The pig virus also hit bison and sheep and eventually humans.  Doctors didn't recognize the epidemic potential until American troops had already introduced the flu to war-weary Europe.  Coughing Germans called it the "Blitz Kartarrh" while feverish English solders named it "Flanders Grippe." American troops added to the confusion by calling it the "Spanish Flu" or "Spanish Lady."
            In September 1918 the flu overwhelmed Camp Devens outside of Boston.  The overcrowded military camp housed 45,000 men where only 35,000 were intended.  The first case appeared on the first of September and by the eighteenth had multiplied to 6,674 cases.  Many of the soldiers, men in the prime of health, turned blue, bled from the nose and died in forty-eight hours, struggling for air.  In the book the Fourth Horseman by Andrew Nikiforuk, one physician called it the most vicious type of pneumonia he had ever seen, and reported that "mahogany spots" spread over the face "until it was hard to distinguish the colored man from the white." In one day 90 men died.
            Having had no previous experience with the 1918 swine flu strain, the adult immune system overreacted.  All of the inflammation and water in the body allowed wandering bacteria to deliver lung dissolving infections.  Crowded barracks, fetid trenches and sealed troop ships guaranteed that there was no shortage of meningitis of staphylococci to stalk soldiers.  By the end of October, one in five U.S. servicemen had the flu.
            The Southern California epidemic started with the arrival of an infected ship in the San Pedro harbor.  On October 11th, following the lead of Los Angeles County health officials, Long Beach city commissioners ordered all schools, churches, theaters, dance halls, bath houses and fraternal lodge houses closed.  Public meetings were forbidden.
            Other ways were tried to stop the spread of the virus.  One small town in Arizona made it a criminal offense to shake hands.  Every morning the army forced its recruits to gargle with salt and water, the men then drilled twenty yards apart.  In many places, people seized upon the imagined flu-fighting properties of vegetables; some tied cucumbers to their ankles while others put a potato in each pocket.  One Oregon mother even buried her four-year-old daughter neck-high in onions.  The more scientific-minded added sulfur to the soles of their shoes.

            Perhaps the most popular protection against the flu was a white cotton mask.  In San Francisco, public health officials started a cotton craze by passing an ordinance that forbid people from appearing in public places without a mask over their nose and mouth.  The only place people didn't have to wear masks was at home or in a restaurant while eating.  At the beginning of the epidemic, the mask had such appeal that even frightened newlyweds wore gauze when they made love.
            Despite all the precautions the influenza spread.  In the first two weeks of October between 400 and 500 cases of influenza had been reported in Long Beach and five deaths had occurred.
            The disease itself resembled a very contagious kind of cold.  It was accompanied by a fever, pains in the head, eyes, ears, back or other parts of the body. In most cases the symptoms disappeared after three or four days; some patients, however, developed pneumonia or meningitis and died.  Nurses and others were warned to guard against breathing in the germs by wearing a fold of gauze or mask while near a patient.  Some, such as Doctor William J. Cook, physician at Seaside Hospital, caught the disease despite taking all the necessary precautions.  Doctor Cook died of influenza on October 26, 1918.
            Tragic stories were everyday reading in the obituary section of the local newspapers. On October 16, 1918, death invaded the Harry Poor home for the second time in two weeks.  First Poor, a mining engineer, passed away from influenza.  Two weeks later his son Allen, aged 3 was buried at Sunnyside Cemetery.  Twenty-year-old Pearl Phillips pleaded that her husband George not be buried until she recovered from the flu.  Instead she joined her husband in the same grave when she died a few weeks later – both victims of influenza.  Second Lieutenant Edward Stout survived the war, only to become a victim of the flu.  One month after his arrival home, his death notice appeared in the February 2, 1919, Daily Telegram.  His son had just been born five days earlier.
            On November 23, 1918, the ban on public gatherings in Long Beach was lifted.  On December 9th, schools reopened.  However, a second influenza epidemic hit the City in January 1919.  Schools, theaters and other places where the public gathered were again closed for ten days, but not before Detective E. V. Denney of the Long Beach police force had a curse put on him.
            Denney was in the process of arresting a young Gypsy fortune teller who was plying her trade on the Pike without a license when she told him he was under “a spell of death.”  According to the comely fortune teller Denney would soon be attacked by influenza.  Only by wearing a coffee strainer over his face, and thereby appearing ridiculous, could death be avoided.  Denney didn’t believe a word of it!
            2437 Long Beach men and women had gone to war; 50 of them did not return.  In comparison, 9000 cases of influenza were reported in Long Beach between October 1, 1918 and February 1, 1919; 148 Long Beach residents died.
                The flu buried more than 50 million people throughout the world in eighteen months.  The death rate stunned physicians.  It took the battlefields of France four years to kill 15 million men but the flu did the same work in much less time.  In the United States alone more people died of the flu (550,000 adults) in 1918 than the U.S. military lost to combat in both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.  In Alaska, whole Indian villages disappeared while India lost more than 12 million people.  Adults with flu finished a poker game or army drill one minute, only to drop dead the next.  Although the epidemic initiated the biggest plague die-off in world history, it is remembered, when it is remembered at all, as no more than a bad outbreak of "the flu."