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They were open with their littering at Tin Can Beach

L.A. THEN AND NOW

The nickname for a 3½-mile stretch of sand just north of Huntington Beach, Tin Can Beach reached the heights of trashiness in the 1940s and '50s when it was the sometime domain of hobos, drinkers, free spirits and vacationers.

March 21, 2011|Steve Harvey | Only in L.A
  • Rusting beer containers spell out Tin Can Beach in 1956. The stretch of sand is now Bolsa Chica State Beach.
Rusting beer containers spell out Tin Can Beach in 1956. The stretch of sand… (Los Angeles Times )

California's coastline is full of colorfully named strands like Seal Beach, Pismo Beach and Muscle Beach. However, Tin Can Beach — a wacky monument to littering — is just a memory.

The nickname for a 3½-mile stretch of sand just north of Huntington Beach, Tin Can Beach reached the heights of trashiness in the 1940s and '50s when it was the sometime domain of hobos, drinkers, free spirits and vacationers.

They built cardboard shacks, erected tents and thought nothing of tossing used cans, bottles, paper plates and other debris to the ground.

Their symbol was an assemblage of more than 100 rusting beer containers that spelled out Tin Can Beach in the sand.

"This is the last frontier, the last place a man can camp free in these parts," barefooted Ray Torrey, the self-appointed mayor of Tin Can Beach, proclaimed one August afternoon in 1956.

"I've been coming down here since 1927," he said as he sipped a beer in his cardboard castle. "Got a banjo and we sit around a fire at night and sing."

Some residents from the East seemed to have ended up at Tin Can Beach because they couldn't go any farther west.

"I'm out of a job," one of the mayor's constituents, a Dover, N.H., man, said as he lay in the sun, surrounded by hundreds of beer cans. "This is a cheap place to live."

The dwellers fished in the surf and bathed in the ocean. Gasoline stations on Pacific Coast Highway took care of other needs.

And the authorities largely ignored them because the beach was private property, belonging to more than 200 absentee owners who had acquired parcels during an oil boom in the 1920s. By 1956, many of them had "become wealthy and disappeared," The Times said.

In the meantime, the property was leased by the Signal Oil and Gas Co., which occasionally cleaned up the debris just to keep the mounds of cans from blocking the view of the ocean from PCH.

Some of the inhabitants were more conscientious than the litterbugs, flocking to the beach to find relief from the sun in that era before air conditioning.

"It was not uncommon for people to go and stay for a week or two at a time," Ed Sweeny recalled on a Huntington Beach website. "Our families, 20 to 30 members, would go during the summer when it was so hot in the Inland Valley, and pitch Army tents. The men would go off to work every day and come back to the beach afterward. The adults would sleep in the tents on cots and the kids would sleep out under the stars.... We would have campfires every night.... It was so much fun."

Of course, not all was idyllic at Tin Can Beach.

Some children would suffer cuts on "their feet from all the tin can lids buried in the sand," Sweeny said.

Though people didn't seem to fear violent crime in those days, theft was not unknown. An unemployed carpenter named Smith told The Times in 1954 that some of his tools had been stolen, prompting him to devise a makeshift burglar alarm: a marble in a milk bottle hung on his front door.

And, Smith added, he was sometimes awakened by people tearing timbers from his walls to use as kindling for beach fires. (Nothing more annoying than having your house torn down by the neighbors.)

The weather could also be a nuisance, since building standards were somewhat lax. Chuck Taylor of El Monte complained that no sooner had he constructed his driftwood manor than the wind started blowing and the roof came off.

By 1956, Tin Can Beach was beginning to face a problem that would become familiar in Southern California: congestion.

"I wish you wouldn't publicize this place," the mayor told The Times. "Too many people come down here now. I wish we had beer cans piled a foot high to keep them out."

A lot of Orange Countians weren't wild about people coming to Tin Can Beach, either. They considered it an eyesore and appealed to the state Legislature to buy it.

It took several years, but eventually the numerous owners of the property, or their next of kin, were located. The state acquired the site for $1 million, renamed it Bolsa Chica State Beach and removed the cans, including the ones that spelled out Tin Can Beach.

Nowadays, sleeping overnight on the sand is forbidden. "NO tent camping," a beach website warns, as though in fear of some old-time residents returning. Owners of recreational vehicles can sleep in the parking lots, but it's not free. Fees range from $50 to $65 per night.

No vestige of Tin Can Beach survives. A reporter walking on the pristine sand between two lifeguard stations on Friday couldn't find a single discarded beer can.

And the "Bolsa Chica State Beach" sign at the entrance is made of concrete, not tin.

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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