History of Orange County

It went from tin cans to toney

HUNTINGTON BEACH in its days as an oil drilling center.

By Jim Tortolano

Just before my family moved from the Wilmington district of Los Angeles in 1960 to Orange County, we explored some popular locations of our new domain. One of the most striking – and potentially painful – places we landed is what was colorfully called “Tin Can Beach.”

This was a strand in the community of Huntington Beach with a very apt title. Back in the days before widespread recycling and regular beach cleanups, much of the sandy areas in locations both north and south of the iconic pier were dotted – perhaps even carpeted – with abandoned beer cans (sodas hadn’t made it out of glass bottles yet) and other trash. Some were smashed flat; some retained their original shape but were soon covered with rust, sand and dirt.

“TIN CAN BEACH” (OC Archives).

While most accounts of  “Tin Can Beach” place it north of the then-small town of Huntington Beach (and pier) at what is now Bolsa Chica State Beach, a few sources say it was south of the pier at what is now Huntington State Beach.

According to an article by Steve Harvey in the Los Angeles Times, the area was a hangout for “hobos, drinkers, free spirits and vacationers.” Shacks and tents dotted the area and the “residents” handled their refuse collection needs by simply tossing their used cans, bottles, etc. to the sand.

Chris Epting, a prolific writer on Orange County history and host of the local cable TV show  “Hidden Huntington,” told the Daily Pilot newspaper the Tin Can Beach population included migrant farm workers and their families.

“There were several students at Huntington Beach [High School] who would attend for a couple of months, then disappear only to show up the next picking year,” he said. “Right out of Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath.’”

The area was peppered with not-so-tidy squatters and campers because the land was owned by hundreds of small investors who bought the land to speculate in oil leases from the 1920s to 1940s. Signal Oil and Gas leased the property and the partion north of the pier – not including the city beach – was acquired by the State of California in 1960 to become Bolsa Chica State Beach. The land south of the city beach was donated to the state in 1942 and became Huntington State Beach in 1963.

Our impression at the time of the area, with its untidy shoreline towered over by greasy oil derricks, was not very favorable. Little did we know that what was once one of the trashiest parts of Orange County would evolve into the one of the trendiest and most beautiful.

“It’s Our History” is posted weekly on Sundays.



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