History of Orange County

Dana Point: From ships to surf to yachts

Dana Point Harbor.

Dana Point Harbor.

By Jim Tortolano

Huntington Beach is well known as “Surf City,” as established both by the Beach Boys and city’s own marketing efforts. But if there’s a community in Orange County that runs a close second, it’s Dana Point.

Just as Brian Wilson helped give Huntington its alias, Charles Dana lent his name to this coastal spot with his 19th century classic work, “Two Years Before the Mast.” Dana left Harvard in 1834 and embarked on a sea-going adventure that took him from Boston around South America’s Cape Horn to California aboard the brig Pilgrim.

The mission of the ship was to trade manufactured goods from New England to the Mexican colony of Alta California. One spot especially useful for such trade were the ocean bluffs north of San Juan Capistrano. That spot, which Dana called “the only romantic spot” on the coast, became immortalized as “Dana Point” when developers starting building a community there in the 1920s.

Bringing hides onto boats for shipping.

Bringing hides onto boats for shipping.

No, Dana did not surf there – as far as we know – but other history was made nonetheless. Some of the early surfing pioneers, who had imported the sport from Hawaii, favored the location and Hobie Alter opened the world’s first retail surf shop in Dana Point in 1954. The classic surfing film “Endless Summer” was produced in the community.

It’s still a popular surfing destination, although the infamous “Killer Dana” surf break was eliminated with the construction of the Dana Point Harbor in 1966; a breakwater has tamed the once-scary waters.

Today Dana Point may be better known as an affluent coastal enclave with a modern, beautiful harbor hosting over 2500 boats. The harbor is close to the 62-acre Doheny State Park. The community also has a booming tourist business with 1,900 hotel rooms, as well as convention and meeting facilities. Whale-watching is a popular attraction and a boat parade of lights takes place every Christmas season.

Incorporated in 1989, this city of 34,000 people pays considerable homage to its literary past. A replica of the Pilgrim sits in the harbor and Richard Dana is further remembered in R.H. Dana Elementary School.

But not all of the community’s history relates to sailing and surfing; there are some spicy tales to tell. A pirate band that looted the Mission San Juan Capistrano landed at what’s now Dana Point to begin its depredations. Industrialist and developer Edward Doheny was implicated in the Teapot Dome scandals of the 1920s, and his brother Ned and Hugh Plunkett, a family friend, were both murdered in 1929 in a crime that remains unsolved. The donation of 41.4 acres of land to the state (which became the Doheny State Park) was intended as a memorial to Ned Doheny.

Sources: Wikipedia, City of Dana Point, Dana Point Harbor Association.



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