Brighton Beach Memoir: A Look at a Lost Los Angeles Community

Nicholas Beyelia, Librarian, History and Genealogy Department,
Looking northeast towards Brighton Beach
Looking northeast towards Brighton Beach likely taken from the Terminal Beach pier. San Pedro Bay Historical Society

At some point in 1889 the president and (later) chairman of the board of the Farmers and Merchants National Bank of Los Angeles, Jackson A. Graves, decided that his Alhambra residence simply wasn’t as relaxing for his family as he would like. Like most of his social contemporaries, Graves sought to purchase a weekend home along the fashionable beachfront destination of Brighton Beach. You’re probably thinking, Brighton Beach...the one in New York? No, not that Brighton Beach. Brighton Beach, California—the one here in Los Angeles. But there is no Brighton Beach in Los Angeles, so what the heck am I talking about? Trust me, it was there...

US Coast and Geodetic Survey Map showing Brighton Beach

US Coast and Geodetic Survey Map showing Brighton Beach, [July 1912]. Los Angeles Harbor Department

​Looking east towards Brighton Beach from the boardwalk.

Looking east towards Brighton Beach from the boardwalk. The Brighton Pleasure Pier can be seen on the right at the horizon. San Pedro Bay Historical Society

Brighton Beach was one of those trendy L.A. hotspots that attracted the attention of all Angelenos and then was lost to the misfortunes of time and the march of economic development. It was located at the western of end of Terminal Island in San Pedro Bay and saw its heyday between 1880 and 1912 when it served as a trendy beachfront neighborhood for wealthy Angelenos like Jackson Graves. Today, Brighton Beach has been largely forgotten as commercial development has enveloped Terminal Island and now dominates the entirety of San Pedro Bay. Sadly, few narratives from Brighton Beach’s heyday exist to give us a first-hand glimpse of what it was like to be there but Graves’ autobiography, My Seventy Years in California 1857-1927, is one of the few. Graves devotes a chapter of his memoir to his time in and around San Pedro Bay and, although it’s never as detailed or as focused as one would like it to be (he spends an inordinate amount of the chapter on a trip to St. Nicholas Island), it does give us a peek at life in Brighton Beach.

Looking east towards Long Beach from various points along the boardwalk

Looking east towards Long Beach from various points along the boardwalkLooking east towards Long Beach from various points along the boardwalk

Looking east towards Long Beach from various points along the boardwalk. Los Angeles Harbor College Library Special Collections

Originally from Iowa, Jackson Graves was born in 1852 and came to California with his parents in 1857. His biography file in the History Department indicates that he started out his professional career as a lawyer, not a banker and in 1873, following law school, Graves settled in San Francisco to work at the law firm of Eastman and Neumann. In 1875, Graves migrated south to Los Angeles to work at another firm before starting his own practice in 1878. That same year he helped to establish the Los Angeles County Bar Association where he served as its first treasurer. As his legal work with financial institutions increased, he made the decision to switch professions to banking. In 1879 he married Alice Griffith of Sacramento. As a wedding present, the couple was given a plot of land at Broadway and Third Street by Griffith’s father. The couple had five children: Alice, Selwyn, Katherine, Jackson Jr., and Francis. Graves was heavily involved with L.A. city civic development and was a well-respected Angeleno. Around 1926, he set about writing a memoir and My Seventy Years in California was born. Chapter 44 reminisces about his time at Brighton Beach and around San Pedro Bay when it was still a resort colony.

Jackson A. Graves

Jackson A. Graves. Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Jackson Graves biography file in our collection

During Charles Lummis’ tenure as City Librarian, he collected biographical information on prominent Angelenos including Graves. Information was recorded and filed for posterity. It remains on file for research use more than 100 years later. Jackson Graves, Western History - Material. California Biography File Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Graves explains that the area had started to establish itself as a resort community in the early 1880s and was developing a reputation as having one of the most inviting beaches in Southern California. Graves purchased the property on Brighton nearly 10 years before the construction of the federal breakwater in San Pedro Bay and before the outcome of the Free Harbor Fight had been decided. The outcome of the Free Harbor fight would irreversibly change the fate of Brighton Beach and Terminal Island but, there was little to dull the era that Graves reflects upon in his book.

Graves plot of land on the beach measured 75 feet by 200 feet and, while small, Graves was able to build “a very comfortable and quite a large size cottage” on the parcel. Large indeed! The home was three stories and had both a sun porch and a balcony. The first floor interior was designed to resemble a ship’s cabin and the living room measured 18ft x 24ft while the adjacent dining room was approximately 18ft x 12ft, however, the space could be opened up fully to host parties.

Photo of the Graves home on Brighton Beach ca. 1925

Photo of the Graves home on Brighton Beach after it was sold, [ca. 1925]. Los Angeles Harbor College Library Special Collections

Photo of the Graves home on Brighton Beach ca. 1935

Photo of the Graves home on Brighton Beach, [ca. 1935]. Los Angeles Harbor College Library Special Collections

Most of the homes on Brighton Beach weren’t especially opulent (a subjective term, to be sure) given the wealth of most of the residents and, true to Los Angeles, there wasn’t a single style that dominated the landscape: Craftsman, Bungalow and Mission Revival styles (as well as designs that weren't quite a single discernable style) were strewn together without any regard for a collective neighborhood aesthetic. The most important style element seemed to be an adherence to the weekend getaway attitude of the island. According to Terminal Island historian Geraldine Knatz, most of the homes on Brighton were given names rather than numbers to indicate location. While his neighbors gave their homes names like Bonnie Blue, Sandhurst, The Ark, Las Olas, etc., Graves does not indicate that he had a name for the property. In these instances the house was usually referred to by the owner’s name, i.e. “Graves House”. Interestingly, the 1900 Census indicates a dwelling number of “193” which is then crossed off and “218” is written over it; there is no street name. Years later, when the post office came to Terminal Island, the house was bestowed with an address, 443 N. Seaside Avenue.

The lack of a breakwater to protect the island from the ravages of the Pacific Ocean shaped life and concerns on Brighton Beach. While weather was generally mild and pleasant, storms and swells would cause havoc on the island, particularly the summer storms. Graves noted that the summer thunderstorms in the far reaches of the bay were a magnificent sight to behold from the comfort of his front porch yet they regularly changed the landscape of the beachfront:

“A terrific storm came along, destroyed quite a number of houses along the beach, washed the sand out under our house, so that one could walk around underneath it, but never injured the house in any particular. Another storm filled it up again....The ocean will occasionally, on short notice, become very ugly. For days great big breakers will roll into the shore.”

shacks built by squatters and damaged by a storm

At the west end of Terminal Island were shacks built by squatters along the east jetty. These makeshift homes were built after the breakwater was started but, nonetheless, were hit hard by the violent storms that ravaged the bay. Based on these photos and Graves’ description, although their foundations were more secure, one can imagine what the pre-breakwater storms may have done to the homes on Brighton Beach. Los Angeles Harbor College Library Special Collections.

A 1902 Sanborn map of Terminal Island indicates that a small home was situated next door on the property to the west but, just 6 years later, a revised Sanborn map indicates that the structure was no longer there, possibly a victim of the summer storms.

On a more positive note, the absence of the federal breakwater allowed residents like Graves, his family, and their friends, to sail to Long Beach, Catalina, Newport or Balboa unobstructed and get an amazing view of the mainland. One evening, on a return trip from St. Nicholas Island, just off Catalina, Graves caught an unobstructed glimpse of San Pedro Bay that was so clear he believed it could only be a mirage:

“I could see the houses in Avalon, the rocks on the shore, the trees and brush over the mountains, as well as the houses in San Pedro, the vessels at anchor around Deadman’s Island, just as plainly as if they were but one hundred yards from us.”

Catalina Island looking towards San Pedro, ca. 1900

Catalina Island looking towards San Pedro. The large rocky formation, “Sugarloaf”(center left) was razed up to make way for the Catalina Island Casino [ca. 1900]. California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960/USC Digital Library

The Brighton community embraced aquatic leisure: swimming, fishing (which grew even more pronounced after the Brighton Beach pier was built), and boating were among the popular pastimes. As the area grew in popularity, a bathhouse, pier and commercial structures sprang up along Terminal Beach, just east of Brighton. For his part, Graves commissioned Joe Fellows (a neighbor on Brighton Beach) of Fellows & Stewart shipbuilding company (the premiere shipbuilders in the Wilmington region) to build a boat that would allow him to explore San Pedro Bay with his friends and family. He christened the boat “Pasqualito” and took the small boat far beyond the bay when he probably shouldn’t have:

“It was a seaworthy boat and we crossed the channel to Catalina in it many times but we never should have done so. No small boat without sails should ever be caught in the middle of that channel, as frequently as storms come up quite unexpectedly.”

Later, he notes one instance when his family was returning from Catalina one night on board Pasqualito when an unexpected storm hit: “She would climb straight up a solid mountain of water, then just before reaching the top, stick her nose into the crest of the wave and dive down into an abyss, which in the darkness seemed to be utterly bottomless.” Graves noted that the family made it out of the storm and while he was thankful to be safe, his children didn’t seem to be aware of any danger, looking at the experience as sheer fun.

Children were ubiquitous on the island. Brighton families, whether residing seasonal or year round, often had multiple children and they could be seen running unobstructed down the boardwalk to the bathhouse and concession stands on Terminal Beach. Graves and his five children (only three would survive to adulthood) relished their summers on the island and he describes the general atmosphere of Brighton as family friendly and a good environment for kids:

“It was a wonderful beach for bathing and especially for children. The beach receded gradually, and the water was quite shallow until one got out a considerable distance... My family, and especially all the children, enjoyed our summers there very much.”

The Merwin Family at the beach

Showing the Merwin Family. The Merwins lived approximately two blocks west of the Graves family, at the home (shown on the left) named “Summer Sea”. Los Angeles Harbor College Library Special Collections

The 1900 Census indicates that the Graves family had two servants living with them at the beach house, Isabel Campbell and Louisa Matson, one of the two was likely the nanny of the children but this is never mentioned in Graves’ account.

The banking business that afforded Graves the ability to have a summer home on Brighton was nearly 25 miles away in Los Angeles meaning that, inevitably, he would have to make the trek back to the city. In returning to L.A., Graves described the heartache of having to leave the warm, idyllic beaches of Terminal Island and return to the dark reality of 19th century Los Angeles. The weather would seem to disappointingly shift as soon as he left the Harbor:

“[Brighton Beach] was remarkably free from fogs and cold winds. While living there I would often take the train for Los Angeles, with the sun shining brightly, and before we reached the city we would be enveloped in fog.”

The halcyon days of Brighton Beach did not last, of course. The outcome of the Free Harbor Fight ensured that San Pedro Bay became ground zero for commercial development. For years, the Brighton Beach homes stood untouched as the shoreline slowly moved south. Commercial dredging to expand the port facilities slowly filled in what was once water and the shoreline moved approximately one mile south of where it was originally located. The wealthy Brighton Beach homeowners sold their once beachfront property to working-class families and many of the larger houses became boarding homes for laborers who held jobs as fishermen, longshoremen and cannery workers.

“Later on, the City of Los Angeles, in excavating the Inner Harbor, pumped miles and miles of white sand out into the ocean in front of the Terminal Island Beach and absolutely ruined it as a pleasure resort. In front of our house, where the water used to come within 25 feet of it, it is now at least a mile to the water.”

Circa 1935 image showing the extent of the fill that had moved the shoreline back nearly one mile

Circa 1935 image showing the extent of the fill that had moved the shoreline back nearly one mile. Ocean Avenue (the former location of the boardwalk) cuts vertically across the center of the image. Buildings north of this constitute what was left of Brighton Beach while all land south of that line was filled in by the Port to develop for commercial activity. In 1935, the area was home to a short-lived airfield. Graves’ home can be seen on the left at the end of the first block. Los Angeles Harbor Department

Graves railed that moving the beach away depreciated the value of the property, explaining that he was forced to sell the home “at a quarter of its cost”. Graves sold the house to Mr. Frank Kiff and his wife, Mae. Kiff was the postmaster on Terminal Island while his wife served as the assistant postmaster. The couple allowed the Red Cross to set up in the sun room of the house to conduct operations on Terminal Island during World War I. The couple lived on the property until 1942 when Terminal Island was taken over by the Navy and everyone living on the island was forced to leave. The house was demolished shortly thereafter.

The Kiff family during Christmas

The Kiff family, the second owners of the property during Christmas showing the interior of the Graves house, [1937]. Los Angeles Harbor College Library Special Collections

Despite Graves’ disdain for the depreciation of the value of the house, he admitted that his time on Brighton Beach was worth it:

No matter what I was out on this deal, I feel that I was amply repaid by the pleasure which it gave us, and especially the enjoyment which my children and their friends had there.”

Jackson Graves penned two additional books before passing away in 1933.

January 1933 image looking east down Seaside (Ocean) Avenue

January 1933 image looking east down Seaside (Ocean) Avenue. The street (more or less) traces where the boardwalk used to be and everything to the right of the street would have been ocean. The Graves home can be seen at the immediate left, partly obscured by a tree. California Historical Society

Further Reading