IN THE BEGINNING, THE LIFEGUARD
When I was a kid growing up along the Santa Monica Bay Beaches there were no lifeguard stations or lifeguard towers on the sand anywhere, while today they are lined up in abundance. Why? Because there were no lifeguards. You were on your own when you swam in the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t because there were very few swimmers back in the early 1920’s. On the contrary the beaches and ocean were crowded with bathers as can be attested to by the photo below.
Venice – Ocean Park Beach in the 1920’s
The beaches were just as busy or even busier back then as they are today. The beach was a close-by recreation destination in the days before more distant travel was not as easy as it is now. Crowds would flock to the beach on the big, red electric streetcars or in the family Model T Ford. Drownings were fairly commonplace. With no lifeguards eighteen swimmers drowned over one weekend in Newport Beach. In 1918 thirteen people drowned in one day off the beach in San Diego. There were lifeguards in those days but they weren’t on the beach, they worked inside the many salt water plunges that dotted the coastline. Sometimes a worried beachgoer who spotted trouble would run and summon these lifeguards to leave their posts and come outside to effect an ocean rescue. By the time this information was communicated it was often too late; ocean rescues have to be made fast. A few beaches had a gong or a bell out on the sand that could be clanged upon, the noise notifying the indoor plunge guards, if they heard it, that there was trouble afoot. Of course there was always a small boy or two who might just clang the bell to set off a bit of action. Then there were some attempts to form unpaid, volunteer lifeguard forces but they weren’t found on many beaches.
Plunge Lifeguards, 1920’s. Several of these guys later became L.A City Beach Lifeguards, two of them are Bink Hedberg and Leo Cronin to the far right.
In 1925 two of the beach cities of Santa Monica Bay finally decided the time had come to protect the swimmers that flocked to the sands by the thousands, and also the tourist dollars that followed. That year Hermosa Beach hired as its first ever paid beach lifeguard, Jim Reinhard, and Venice Beach employed George Wolf as its first lifeguard, a couple of strong, former school team swimmers. The other beach towns would soon follow. All alone that first year, Jim and George had miles of beach to cover, and with primitive equipment, and not even a tower to sit in. George at first worked out of the Venice Plunge while Jim simply walked the Hermosa sands.
George Wolf in 1925
Jim Reinhard in 1925
By the late 1920’s and early 1930’s all the beach towns in the bay realized the need for lifeguard protection and formed their own small crews, but eventually three entities emerged to cover the fifty miles of coastline from San Pedro in the south to the Ventura County line to the north: the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Service, the Los Angeles City Lifeguards and the Santa Monica Lifeguards. Each soon had its own headquarters building but the locations changed through the years and the buildings became more substantial and modern as time went on.
The first Santa Monica Hdqtrs, 1932, at the corner of the now Casa Del Mar Hotel
The first L.A. City Lifeguard Hdqtrs on the Beach at Brooks Ave., Venice, 1927
The first L.A. County Hdqtrs was on the Hermosa Beach Pier, photo early 1940's
The first lifeguard towers, late 1920’s
In the 1970’s the three lifeguard forces finally merged into one: The Los Angeles County Lifeguards, the largest, best equipped and best trained in the world. They protect over seventy miles of beaches twenty-four hours a day, including Catalina Island. Thousands of rescues are made each year; a drowning is a very rare occurrence.
I knew the two 1925, first beach lifeguards, Jim Reinhard and George Wolf quite well. Jim lived near me and passed away a few years ago at the age of ninety-five. I loved hearing the stories they would tell of those early days on the beach. I am wondering now why I never thought to ask them what their wages were as beach lifeguards in 1925. And I wonder if they could top the thirty-five cents an hour I earned as a Venice Plunge Lifeguard at the end of the Great Depression in the late 1930’s, or the huge seventy-five cents per hour I made as a Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguard soon after.
*** IN THE BEGINNING, THE LIFEGUARD, by Cal Porter. Copyright Cal Porter 2011. All Rights Reserved. Used here with permission. All photos courtesy of Cal Porter.
Many Thanks to Cal for another great story.
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