Charles Rivers Drake, a forgotten father of Long Beach

Bixby is the big name in Long Beach, and not undeservedly. The brothers Llewellyn and  Jotham and their cousin John Bixby sailed from the East Coast to the West and ended up controlling well over 100,000 acres that included the ranchos Los Cerritos and Los Alamitos and developed huge sections of Long Beach in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, the Bixby name is attached to several neighborhoods, a major park and various businesses and shopping centers.

Charles Rivers Drake on the other hand? A park and its nearby historic neighborhood. And the park belonged to him in the first place, when he called it Knoll Park, which he ceded to the city in 1904.

He was deserving of a lot more credit.

We can speed over much of his pre-Long Beach life which began with his birth in 1843 in Walnut Prairie, Illinois, a bit west of an oxbow in the Wabash River; served in the Navy  from 1863-1865; lived in Arizona for 30 years and held a variety of positions from assistant postmaster in Tucson to two terms in the Territorial Senate and engaged in several business operations including building a sizeable real estate portfolio.

Then, at 57, Drake retired. And we haven’t even got to the Long Beach part.

Illustration of Charles Rivers Drake. Courtesy of Long Beach Public Library.

In 1900, Drake and his wife Kate moved to Southern California and Drake rested for an afternoon or two before he got restless and bored with alphabetizing Kate’s spice rack.

So he began dipping into his retirement savings, and there was plenty to dip into.

Long Beach was just a sleepy seaside town with little industry and not much apparent promise, but apparently Drake saw plenty and he began snapping up real estate: 40 acres on Signal Hill, 13 blocks and more than 630 lots on the beachfront, basically everything between Alamitos Avenue (the easternmost boundary of the city) and the Los Angeles River.

He built a huge bathhouse and laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the Pike.

On July 4, 1902, Drake, who had persuaded the Pacific Electric streetcar service to come into Long Beach, presided over the streetcar’s inaugural run into town with a celebration that brought, it was reported, a crowd of 60,000 visitors to the town of 3,000. They packed the Bathhouse and most of those out-of-towners who wanted to spend the night, finding lodgings limited, slept that warm night on the beach.

Four years later, Drake was one of the principals in the building of the Bixby Hotel, which was envisioned as the city’s biggest and most opulent hostelry. His partners included the biggest and wealthiest names in town, including Jotham Bixby and Fred and George Bixby, and their cousin George Flint, along with businessmen C.L. Heartwell and J. Heartwell and C.J. Walker.

Construction was well underway when, on Nov. 9, 1906, 10 workmen were killed and 25 injured when portions of the hotel’s fifth and sixth floors collapsed.

For reasons either of superstition or the Bixbys’ wish for disassociation, the name of the hotel was changed to the Hotel Virginia and it was as gilded and palatial as its founders early dream. The $1.25-million hotel on the south side of Ocean Boulevard at Magnolia Avenue was lavishly appointed with furniture imported from Europe, marble columns, carved mahogany, rosewood and walnut. Thousands of loads of soil were trucked in to build the surrounding lawns and gardens.

Every room in the hotel had views of the roaring Pacific Ocean and they weren’t cheap. A night’s stay in the Virginia ran $8.50 a night in an era when the average wage was about $300 a year.

Now the president of the Long Beach Bath House & Amusement Co., and a high-dollar hotelier, the failed retiree turned to establishing Long Beach’s A-list organization, the Virginia Country Club, the name meant to attach itself to the hotel, and Drake supplied the new organization with its first home, on Anaheim Street by what would later be called Recreation Park. He bought the club’s first 15 memberships (at a breathtaking $25 a copy, plus $2.50 monthly fees) for use by hotel guests.

The club had a rocky start. Golf hadn’t yet become all the rage, and in its first year, half of its 119 charter members dropped out, plunging the country club into debt. But Drake picked up the slack, keeping the club afloat and in 1921, the Virginia Country Club moved to its present location and Drake secured the property for its golf course.

Drake moved Virginia Country Club from its original site, shown here—now Recreation Park—to its current site in Los Cerritos in 1921.

He served on Virginia’s board of trustees for 20 years, declining repeated entreaties to be ascend to the presidency of the club president because he had never played golf in his life and believed that the club’s president “should always be a man who enters into the spirit of the game.”

Drake died, with his wife and five of their eight children by his side, in his penthouse suite at the Hotel Virginia on June 16, 1928. A year later, the Great Depression struck America and among its casualties was the Hotel Virginia, with its gaudy opulence rendering it beyond the reach of an increasingly large portion of the population. In a few short years it grew broken down and gutted and was finally polished off by the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake, which leveled the hotel and its rubble was carted away, no differently than scores of other buildings that were lost in the quake.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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