The Long Beach Hotel, 1884-1888. Photo courtesy Long Beach Public Library.

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Long Beach wasn’t big enough to even warrant a dot on a map in 1884. Although its original 4,000 acres were laid out to stretch from the Pacific Ocean to 10th Street between Magnolia and Alamitos avenues, it was sparsely populated and had yet to be incorporated as a city.

Long Beach, as it was called after it became the property of the Long Beach Land and Water Co. in 1884 and switched its name from Willmore City to its current one, had a population of a bit over 100 people—it was possible to know literally everyone in town.

In fact, it was possible to fit them all into the city’s earliest and most glamorous hostelry, the Long Beach Hotel.

At the time, it seemed like the 70-room hotel, which opened in September 1884, four years before the city’s incorporation, was much larger than what the town needed or could support, but Long Beach’s population could swell enormously during the summer months when people from outlying cities and even states would flock to town, which had already earned a fine reputation as a seaside resort. Within a couple of years, additions to the hotel increased the number of rooms to 130.

The Long Beach Land and Water Co. built the $50,000 hotel on the bluff at the foot of Cedar Avenue. It terraced down from Ocean Boulevard to the beach, rising three stories at the street level and five stories above the beach.

The Long Beach Hotel. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

On the beach side, the two lower floors were given over to a bathhouse and changing stations as well as sit rentals and umbrellas.

A travel guide to the region during the Long Beach Hotel’s reign as the finest in the city, described it as featuring all the modern features that you might expect from a $50,000 hotel: speaking tubes on each floor, electric service bells in each room, a telephone connection with Los Angeles and, starting in 1887, steam heat.

Also on the beach side was an 80-by-20-foot veranda and a large dining hall where guests could comfortably watch the sea and sunset through floor-to-ceiling windows. In the evening after dinner the dining hall was cleared to make space for a ballroom with dancing till midnight.

And the soup! You had to try the clam soup, as it was called. The Los Angeles Times sent a correspondent to the Long Beach Hotel in the summer of 1888 and the writer, well, the writer liked the clam soup:

“The clam soup—gentle reader, have you ever tasted this delicate seaside dish?” wrote the visiting journalist. “If not, consider that thus far you have lived in vain. Confess your shortcoming at once and give your hitherto uneducated digestive organs a treat.”

Beach facilities included a popcorn stand, swings, croquet and tennis courts and a picnic shelter. A short stroll two blocks to the west brought you to the town’s first pier at Magnolia Avenue.

The hotel was booked heavily in the summer months and workers took advantage of the slower seasons to build additions, though the hotel touted the wonders of frolicking in the surf in the wintertime, a novelty it assured those who lived in freezing temperatures in other states was a novelty not to be missed.

Portion of an advertisement for the Long Beach Hotel in the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 13, 1888.
Portion of an advertisement for the Long Beach Hotel in the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 13, 1888.

Perhaps persuaded by that novelty, a tour group from the East Coast booked the entire hotel for late November 1987. The hotel’s owners had plans to host the group and then expand the hotel once again to triple the number of rooms.

That expansion never happened, nor did the East Coasters have the opportunity to try the clam soup and splash in the surf.

There were about a dozen guests at the hotel on Nov. 8, 1888 when, at about 12:30 in the morning, shortly after dancing ended, a fire, caused by a defective range, or one that was inadvertently left on, broke out in the kitchen. The fire quickly spread and, while the guests fled unscathed, the wooden structure was soon engulfed in flames and crowds had run out to watch the jewel of Southern California coastal hotels burn to the ground in about 90 minutes.

The Journal, Long Beach’s weekly newspaper, reported, “Almost immediately, 15 or 20 men were at the scene, but they hadn’t so much as a bucket of water to toss at the flames. The gathering crowd watched as the blaze spread out of control and razed the building to the sand. By 2:30 a.m. the fine hotel was reduced to a bed of cinders and coals, and the people went home heavy-hearted because of the great loss to Long Beach.”

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email [email protected], @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.