Historical Downtown Walking Tour
Enjoy this self-guided walking tour through our historic downtown Huntington Beach and 15 of its fascinating historic sites. The tour will take about 90 minutes at a leisurely pace, or a bit longer if you stop for a coffee, snack, or libation at one of our delicious eateries along the way. Be sure to snap photos along the way and use #BeHere and tag @SurfCityUSA for a chance to be featured on our social media channels!
Bridging the Past to the Future
Welcome to Huntington Beach, California. This self-guided walking tour of Historic Downtown Huntington Beach will lead you through more than a century of beach town nostalgia.
If you need help or have questions, please stop by the Visitor Information Kiosk located in Pier Plaza, at the base of the Huntington Beach Pier (325 Pacific Coast Highway) or contact our business office at (714) 969-3492.
You are also encouraged to answer each of the eight questions within the tour stops as you explore downtown Huntington Beach during the walking tour. Check in after the tour at our kiosk in Pier Plaza to confirm the answers and win a prize from Visit Huntington Beach!
Downtown Huntington Beach Historic Walking Tour Guide
Bring along family and friends or go solo for this engaging stroll through our historic downtown and 15 of its fascinating historic sites. The tour will take about 90 minutes at a leisurely pace, or a bit longer if you stop for a coffee, ice cream, meal, or libation at one of our delicious eateries along the way. End your tour at the Visitor Information Kiosk in Pier Plaza with your answers to the eight questions included below and receive a free prize, courtesy of Visit Huntington Beach!
Downtown Huntington Beach History
IN THE BEGINNING
Thousands of years ago, nomadic Native Americans arrived in Southern California. Discoidals – rare archaeological artifacts commonly called “cogstones” – discovered in the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve offer evidence of ancient civilization. Their descendants, the Tongvas, made this place their home. The King of Spain claimed the region three centuries ago. It became part of Mexico in 1820, and in 1846, it became part of the United States. Small landowners, mostly farmers, trickled into the area by the late 1800s. Our fledgling community was referred to as “Shell Beach” for the little neck clams found in the sand.
THE PAST 120 YEARS
In 1901, most of the town was purchased by Philip Stanton and the West Coast Water and Land Co. They promoted real estate and tourism, calling the place “Pacific City” and envisioning it as a western version of Atlantic City. A year later, wealthy investor Henry Huntington and his Huntington Beach Company bought interests in the WCWL Co. The first pier opened in 1904 and Huntington brought his Pacific Electric Rail – the Red Car Line - into town. In 1909, the City of Huntington Beach was incorporated.
More families moved in and new businesses started. The all-electric Holly Sugar Factory became one of the largest employers. Small parcels of land near the beach, considered worthless for farming, were given away with a $125 purchase of a set of encyclopedias. In 1914, the second pier opened. Near its top, visitors enjoyed a “Saltwater Plunge.”
In 1920, oil was discovered, prompting a massive boom. Hundreds of oil wells sprang up almost overnight! The population jumped from 1,500 to 5,000 within a month. Tent cities housed newcomers at the former Methodist campground. Pool halls and bars sprang up along Main Street. Boy Scout Troop #1, still active today, was formed. Ocean Avenue, now part of Pacific Coast Highway, opened in 1926.
In 1933, a tremendous earthquake destroyed buildings and toppled derricks. Federally funded programs like the Works Progress Administration helped build a new school, Post Office, Memorial Hall and Fire Station. The public marveled as lifeguard Bud Higgins, wrapped in alcohol-soaked flannel and set on fire, often jumped from the pier. He later became Fire Chief.
When the U.S. entered the Second World War, Huntington Beach, with its rich oil reserves, immediately mobilized. Many public sites were given over to military use. The population grew as people moved to the area to work in neighboring defense plants. Others came to the beach to simply get away from it all. Huntington’s Red Car Line was never more popular.
In the 1950s, hundreds of old derricks were removed from the coastline while a new final oil strike was made elsewhere in the city. City borders expanded greatly as neighboring communities were annexed.
Explosive population growth – nearly tenfold – fueled suburban development. Golden West College was founded, and the County’s first enclosed mall was opened near the intersection of the new 405 Freeway and Beach Blvd. The Douglas Space Center, opened in 1963, produced the upper stages of the Saturn rockets that took Apollo astronauts to the moon!
The new Civic Center was dedicated in 1974. The Central Library and Cultural Center, designed by Richard and Dion Neutra, opened in 1975.
In 1983, storms badly damaged the Huntington Beach Pier. Repairs were completed in 1985. Then another storm destroyed the pier and it was ordered closed in 1988.
The new pier opened in 1992. Other surrounding buildings were demolished to make way for a new Pier Plaza. In 1990, the city’s International Surfing Museum opened. The Central Library was greatly expanded in 1994 and the Oakview Branch was
opened in 1995 to effectively meet the needs of the Spanish-speaking community. That same year, the old Edison building on Main St. was transformed into the Huntington Beach Art Center.
On February 17, 2009, we celebrated our City Centennial – one hundred years of growth from our beginnings as a sleepy beach town to the vibrant community known today as “Surf City USA.”
Explore More City History Just a Short Drive Away
If you’d like to explore additional historic sites by car, here are eight nearby locations that each hold some special Huntington Beach history. For even more historic information, click here.
- Northam Ranch House Marker & Historic Silo
- Near Main St. & Yorktown Ave. - The original Northam Ranch grain silo still stands behind buildings.
- Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. Marker
- 5981 Warner Ave. - The shopping center & gas station was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. A curious monument to the community's response at the time stands behind it.
- Civic Center
- 2000 Main St. - This is home to our Veterans Memorial, September 11th Memorial, & Miss Huntington Beach Rose Garden.
- Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
- 18000 Pacific Coast Hwy. - The remarkable Bolsa Chica Wetlands was home to a Gun Club in 1900 which catered to wealthy duck-hunters. During WWII, underground bunkers & gun mounts were installed here.
- Newland House
- 19820 Beach Blvd. - This is said to be the oldest residence still standing in the city.
- Central Library in Central Park
- 7111 Talbert Ave. - Designed by Richard and Dion Neutra, the library received international acclaim for its design. At more than 340 acres, the surrounding park contains miles of walking trails, disc golf, an urban forest & a dog park.
- The Evangeline Hotel
- 421 8th St. - Built in 1905, the elegant 18-room Evangeline Hotel opened the following year & hosted many Civil War veterans & their reunions. Today, it is a private residence.
- Ultimate Challenge Sculpture
- This iconic bronze sculpture by Edmund Schumpert stands at the entrance to Huntington City Beach.