Long Beach’s First Major Disaster (May 6, 2008)

Posted: August 22, 2010 in history

It was 95 years ago this month when Long Beach grew up.  A manmade disaster almost bankrupted the city, spurred a popular movement for a tax increase, and called attention to issues like building codes, bonded indebtedness and what kinds of tidelands development the city should be involved in, and ultimately bringing the city kicking and screaming into the 20th Century.

Over the years, Long Beach had several piers in the downtown area.  The most recent was the Rainbow Pier, but it was hardly our town’s first.  That would be the Pine Ave. Pier.  Opened in 1904, the pier proved to be the place to hold celebrations like the Queen of the Sea Pageant and the ever-popular Pier Day.  On May 24, 1913, disaster struck during Empire Day festivities.

An important holiday to expatriate Brits and Canadians, Empire Day celebrated both Queen Victoria’s birthday and soldiers who had died in service of the British Empire.  Not all participants were from Long Beach. “Everything ready for Empire Day exercises; thousands will visit this city,” read one headline. Another pointed out that a British man-of-war or gunboat will be on-hand for Empire Day and “patriotic Britishers urged to show their colors on that occasion.”   Plans were afoot “to make occasion as popular in United States as St. Patrick’s Day.”

Partly because of all this press, a few thousand of celebrants gathered on the pier to await the opening of the city’s auditorium doors, when the municipal band struck up “God Save the Queen.”  Tapping their feet in time to the music and pushing towards the auditorium, the crowd surge caused the pier to give way.

A same-day headline in, the Long Beach Press, though florid, pretty much summed up what the scene must have looked like:  “Heart-breaking catastrophe engulfs whole city in woe; pathos and tragedy mark awful scenes following unparalled catastrophe; corpses strew beach west of building resembled nothing so much as war-ravaged battlefield.”

Most of the deaths occurred in the lower deck of the pier.  There was never an exact body count, since some victims died days later.  The number of dead ranged from 36 to 39, though the total could have reflected those whose deaths came indirectly from the disaster.  Of the dead, about half were from Long Beach, at least 19, while seven victims resided in Los Angeles, and a handful came from Pasadena and Orange and from as far away as Canada.

Help came from all over the area, and, though it was time consuming to drive in from Los Angeles, police and rescue workers from that city arrived to lend a hand.

After the survivors were rescued and the victims were buried came the hand wringing.  Meetings were held almost immediately to raise funds for the victims.  “’City’s moral obligation to pay fully to last cent’ was keynote of last night’s meeting to map campaign for full vote on tax levy” read one headline.

Another issue was “whether council had any right to build on tidelands,” said another newspaper, initiating a currently familiar mantra.  A “board of experts” was called in to inspect the wreckage, while relief work progressed, a special tax election was considered.  There seemed to be serous support for such an idea.  An ordinance for an “election to vote special 20 cent tax” was supported by the city council.  Eventually, a bond issue was floated to pay off claims.

The experts determined that a “rotten 4×14 girder” caused the crash and it recommended the entire structure building be condemned. The matter was taken up by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury the following month.  The jury worked at time-warp speed, and the district attorney came up with the conclusion,  “city grew too fast and continued village ways.”  There is no record of anyone being prosecuted, though there were reports that a city inspector disregarded warnings that the pier was sagging.

About 175 claims were filed against the city totaling almost $3.5 million.  The matter moved through various courts and in 1918, $481,529.50 was paid out in 34 cases.  The city’s indebtedness from these claims lasted until the early 1930s.  Though the pier reopened by popular demand in 1915, it was torn down in 1931 and replaced by the Rainbow Pier, an idea that had been kicked around as early as 1907, when it was described as the Horseshoe Pier.  With little public objection, the Rainbow Pier was removed in the late 1960s so that downtown redevelopment could proceed.

The disaster was fresh enough that through the mid-1950s, local papers regularly ran anniversary stories of what was known as the Empire Day Disaster.

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