A history lesson on Doheny State Beach before the Dana Point Harbor

The 2016 Pacific Paddle Games are set to get underway on September 30 at Doheny State Beach. However, the iconic first state beach of California hasn’t always been what we know it as today.

Back before the Dana Point Harbor was built, an amazing wave called “Killer Dana” broke at the headland and was one of Southern California’s best places to surf.

This photo was taken in the 1920s and looks up El Camino Real (now the Pacific Coast Highway). Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association
This photo was taken in the 1920s and looks up El Camino Real (now the Pacific Coast Highway). Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association
Donated in 1931 by oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny in memory of his son Ned, Doheny State Beach was formed. Donated to public use, it was actually not named Doheny State Beach until 1963.

The Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association, which works with the Pacific Paddle Games, notes that “Doheny and San Clemente State Beaches were built by the Civilian Conservation Corp. (CCC), a ‘New Deal’ program under the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

CCC workers in the 1940s. Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association
CCC workers in the 1940s. Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association
“By 1940, CCC workers had constructed picnic areas, campgrounds, parking lots and a custodian’s lodge at Doheny State Beach. Only one feature of the CCC work remains at the park today: a plastered and tiled adobe entryway and wall along Pacific Coast Highway (near the entrance to the campground).”

Surfing Doheny State Beach before the Harbor. Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association
Surfing Doheny State Beach before the Harbor. Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association

Being based at the mouth of the San Juan Creek, it was a spot that Southern California surfers gravitated to. At the top of the headland just north of Doheny State Beach a righthand wave called “Killer Dana” was the gem of all of Southern California.

The scene at Doheny State Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association
The scene at Doheny State Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association
Coming from deep water and breaking on the rocks that lined the headland, it was the perfect conduit for the blossoming Dana Point surf industry in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. As Dana Point surfer Allan Seymour told the O.C. Register:

“The thing about Killer Dana is that it was the only place that would hold a 12 or 15-foot swell. And these were huge, freight train-thick swells. And the prevailing wind was westerly coming over Dana Point, which made for offshore winds from Doheny to Killer Dana.”

Pre Harbor surfing at Doheny State Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association
Pre Harbor surfing at Doheny State Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association

But this magical break was not destined to last. Plans for the Dana Point Harbor were hatched in the 1960s and the local surfers’ concerns were not heard.

Construction began in 1966 and was completed in 1968, which gave the adolescent surf world its first martyred break.

The bygone Killer Dana surf spot. Photo: Courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Surfing
The bygone Killer Dana surf spot. Photo: Courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Surfing

Seymour recognized how this altered the path of Orange County as well, “It just changed the lifestyle behind Hobie’s surf shop in Dana Point. It all became condos for the Inland Empire. And they sat there in their Sperry topsider shoes, smoked cigarettes and drank gin on the back of their boats. It dramatically changed the culture of South Orange County.”

Looking south in the 1940s towards Doheny State Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association
Looking south in the 1940s towards Doheny State Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association

Today, Doheny State Beach thrives in recognizing its past while also hosting modern events like the Pacific Paddle Games.

One of California’s most popular state beaches, it’s nice knowing that Doheny State Beach started the trend of the incredible California State Beach program.

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