Opinion: The Great Chubasco Hurricane of 1939

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By Gene Felder

Has a hurricane occurred before in Laguna Beach? According to Laguna Beach Historical Society board member Eric Jessen, “The great Chubasco (Spanish for hurricane) of Sept. 29-30, 1939 took the pier out forever. The temperature that afternoon in Laguna is reported to have reached 119 degrees F.” 

It’s been tough to be a pier in Laguna Beach. According to Merle and Mabel Ramsey in their book, “The First 100 Years in Laguna Beach 1876 – 1976:” 

“THE FIRST PIER: In 1896, records show that Laguna Beach had 16 registered voters. They proceeded to build the first pier. James Irvine donated $100 towards its construction. The pier was rebuilt in 1911 by the Derkum brothers and was destroyed in 1939 by a storm. The temperature was 103° for three days. A rain came horizontal from the ocean. The pressure was so great it rained through the windows. The old pier was completely destroyed and never rebuilt.” 

According to NOAA, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration: “On September 15th, a tropical depression formed off the coast of Panama. It quickly strengthened into a hurricane. It tracked northward, instead of the usual westward movement of a typical Eastern Pacific hurricane. The hurricane likely was strong, as it needed to maintain its winds to a northerly latitude. The hurricane’s minimum measured pressure of 28.67 inHg occurred on September 22nd. An upper level trough turned it to the northeast, where it weakened due to the cool ocean waters. Shortly before making landfall on September 25th, it weakened to a tropical storm. The storm still managed to hit Long Beach, California as a 50 mph tropical storm, making it the only tropical cyclone in recorded history to hit the state of California.” 

“The storm dropped heavy rain on California, with 5.66 inches falling in Los Angeles and nearly a foot of rain occurring at Mount Wilson. … Shipping was caught off guard from this unusual system, and 45 died from the winds of the storm.” 

From “Laguna Beach An Illustrated and Narrative History” by Roger W Jones: The Laguna Piers – 1887 to 1970: 

Dating back to 1887, four piers were built in Laguna Beach within a span of 83 years. The first was constructed in 1887 at Arch Beach near the end of Diamond Street by two homesteading farmers, Nate Brooks and Hubbard Goff. It was used primarily to load barley hay onto a schooner for shipment to San Diego “for stagecoach runs into three states, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona.” The pier was so short that it was often necessary to lighter the cargo to the schooner, which would be anchored out in deeper water. Guests of the Arch Beach Hotel also used the pier to fish or take an evening stroll. 

A second pier was constructed in 1896 off Heisler Point, just below the Las Brisas Restaurant (formerly the Victor Hugo). It extended to the rocks approximately 500 feet offshore. 

In 1925, Tony Derkum applied to the United States Engineering Department, later named the Army Corps of Engineers, to build the third and largest pier in Laguna’s history – it would measure 1,150 feet. The permit was granted to Derkum and his brother-in-law, Forrest Carter of La Puente. A year later, in 1926, the pier was finished.  

In 1939, a severe winter storm badly damaged the pier and it had to be closed and later demolished. 

The diamond-shaped Aliso Beach Pier was constructed in 1970 and became the fourth pier in Laguna’s history. A popular fishing spot with South Laguna residents, it soon became a recreational landmark. However, punishing storms and the relentless pounding surf extracted a heavy toll and in 1989, $1.2 million was needed to refurbish it. In March 1998 the pier was closed because it was found to be unstable from damage caused by the El Nino storms. The estimated cost of $5 million to rebuild it was deemed too high, especially in the wake of Orange County’s 1994 bankruptcy. The pier’s demolition began in the fall of 1998 and was complete by February 1999. 

Despite seven miles of coastline, Laguna Beach today has no pier. 

Gene served on the Laguna Beach Historical Society Board of Directors for 13 years, five years as president and is co-author, with Foster J. Eubanks, of the 2013 book “Laguna Beach, Then & Now.” 

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