Museum Lobby

Old Salt Lake | Virtual Museum

Report by Galen Hunter


West Beach

About the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey first order triangulation station established here in 1854 by George Davidson.
Also the mystery of an old legend is probably solved.


[ Page updated - June 21, 2019 ]


A published legend introduces this "West Beach" report. The legend is about "the haunted house on the old Duncan Ranch". It appears the West Beach station and the Duncan house are on the exact same spot of land. The West Beach station was established in 1854. The house was built there shortly after Blanton Duncan purchased the site in 1894. So, the early work of the coast survey scientists there apparently is, at least in part, the origin of the mystery about the house as described in the 1933 book titled "The Early History of Hermosa Beach" by Fern Rhein, Hermosa Beach, California. Rhein wrote:


"Legendary in the romantic history of Hermosa Beach is that of "the haunted house on the old Duncan Ranch." In the early days of Hermosa's development, Colonel Blanton Duncan, Grandfather of the two Duncan Sisters of vaudeville, and one time private secretary to the-President Jefferson Davis during the Civil War, bought twenty five acres of land from Burbank and Baker. This acreage was mostly sand dunes and located on the northern limits of the town. On the highest hill on his land, he built a large, two-story frame house with gabled roofs, broad porches, and oddly arranged interior, with many queer nooks and passages. The peculiar arrangement of the house interior, while being most desirable in the plans of the eccentric old colonel, caused many weird suspicions that were quite unexplainable to the minds of his inquisitive neighbors - few though they were; and, neither did he offer any explanations to quiet the weird tales of the curious. He entertained often and lavishly but his guests were mostly people from other localities. He employed Chinese servants who padded silently about the house at their duties. The rooms were richly decorated and contained many curious and rare furnishings of silk and satins, and were filled with the aroma of languid incense and perfume of the Orient. While entertaining, Colonel Duncan observed all of the social traditions of Southern hospitality, but, withal, the place DID have an air of mystery about it - secretive and mysterious as the peculiar old colonel appeared to be.

Today, although the picturesque old house and its master have long disappeared, and its high hill stands lonely and untenanted, the old atmosphere and mystery of romance still lingers and unanswered still are the old questions; for what was the huge old house built? and why should a Southern planter leave his home for this lonely spot of desolate isolation on the coast of a faraway sea?

One teller of romantic tales, recites this fantastic legend about the old mysterious house-and its master: "In early days when pirates and smugglers roamed up and down the Pacific coast, these outlays built a trading post at Hermosa Beach. Few people were here then, and only sheep herders and their flocks roamed the solitude unmolested. It was at this time that Colonel Duncan came and built upon the highest hill overlooking the sea, a huge two-storied structure, within which were many secret rooms and passageways. It was supposed, by many, that he was the clever head of a band of smugglers and that through him they exchanged their unlawful cargoes from foreign lands.

A lighthouse was operated from one of the gabled windows in the roof, and by its beams of light, messages were signaled to the ships that came in and anchored at night off the coast in front of the Duncan ranch, giving direction when to land the smuggled goods on the beach. This lookout they called THE LIGHT OF THE SEVEN SEAS because its powerful rays were a beacon to the ships that brought illicit merchandise from many ports of the Seven Seas. An active trade was carried on and many shiploads of smuggled goods were landed at night on the beach and carried through the secret passage from the beach to the house by Chinese servants and there stored away in secret rooms and nooks.

Through Colonel Duncan, these treasures were shipped to New Orleans as legal property and there sold, bringing to him and his smuggling associates many thousands of dollars in profits. For ten years the band used this old house as their headquarters, with the wily Duncan coming and going from New Orleans to Hermosa on many mysterious journeys. In the end, it might have been the fear of the law, or the interfering curiosity of suspicious townspeople that finally determined the Colonel to sell the ranch and move away. It passed through several ownerships afterward and gradually fell into a state of ruin through vandalism. Some years ago it burned down, being destroyed, as it was built and occupied, in mystery and secrecy.

The old ranch is today, lonely and desolate. It is forgotten and unnoticed by the autoists that speed by its environs over the broad, well paved Sepulveda Boulevard that now traverses the rolling sand hills that once surrounded it, but which are now plotted into many paved streets, and green flowering gardens surrounding pleasant homes. Thus does legend clothe, in fantastic and colorful garb, the inquisitive curiosity of suspicious, idle minds. There is, of course, no truth in the above tale as far as Colonel Duncan is concerned."


The Coast and Geodetic Survey record for "West Beach" has text and data on "The Old Duncan Place". Here is that text and data (copy and paste) recently retrieved from the survey record for West Beach - about the 1917 Station Recovery:


STATION RECOVERY (1917)

RECOVERY NOTE BY COAST AND GEODETIC SURVEY 1917 (EBL) AFTER DILIGENT SEARCH BY THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES, WHILE THE PRIMARY TRIANGULATION WAS IN PROGRESS, FOR THE COAST SURVEY STATION, IT WAS CONCLUDED THAT THE OLD STATION HAD BEEN DESTROYED. THIS STATION WAS ESTABLISHED AND MARKED BY THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES. STATION IS IN THE TOWN OF HERMOSA BEACH, 91 METERS N OF THE N LINE OF CAMINO REAL, AND W OF LONGFELLOW AVENUE IN THE TOWN OF HERMOSA BEACH, ON THE OLD DUNCAN PLACE. STATION MARKED WITH A 6-INCH TERRA-COTTA PIPE SET IN AND FILLED WITH CEMENT, AND A COPPER BOLT SET IN THE TOP OF THE CEMENT, WHICH IS APPROXIMATELY 1 FOOT BELOW THE SURFACE.

REFERENCE MARKS ARE STANDARD BRONZE DISKS SET IN CONCRETE AS DESCRIBED IN NOTE 11C.

SEE REPORT OF THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES ON PROMISED ADDITIONAL SEARCH FOR THIS STATION.

TO THE SW CORNER OF OLD CEMENT CELLAR - 6.6 METERS.

TO THE NW CORNER OF OLD CEMENT CELLAR - 18.1 METERS.


West Beach - U.S. Coast Survey T-Sheets


Figure 1 - portion of the 1871 U.S. Coast Survey T-Sheet T01231 - showing location of the West Beach station (left, lower middle) and the Salt Pond and Works (right).


[Figure 1]


Figure 2 - portion of the 1876 U.S. Coast Survey T-Sheet T01432B - showing location of the West Beach station (middle).


[Figure 2]


Figure 3 - portion of the 1893 U.S. Coast Survey T-Sheet T02127 - showing locations West Beach (lower left), the Salt Pond and the Freshwater Pumping Station, the Stone Boundary Marker Monument (upper middle, "Flag on Corner Post (Stone)") and the Townsite of Redondo Beach. Note the integration of Land and Coast Survey datum.


[Figure 3]


Figure 4 - portion of the 1893 U.S. Coast Survey T-Sheet T02127 - showing the Title, Note text, Davidson signature, Malaga Cove drawing.


[Figure 4]


Figure 5 - portion of the 1893 U.S. Coast Survey T-Sheet T02127 - showing Note, Davidson signature.


[Figure 5]


George Davidson


Figure 6 - 1883 photograph of George Davidson. Credit: NOAA, B. A. Colonna Album. NOAA Photo Library.


[Figure 6]


Excerpts of a "Memorandum by Prof. George Davidson, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. San Francisco, September 7, 1892." - in an 1892 Congressional Report titled "Deep-Water Harbor at San Pedro Bay."

Note: "I was along the "West Beach" as early as 1852 and 1853."


"My experience begins with June, 1852, when the disabled steamer California anchored in San Pedro Bay. The Navy-Yard Commission was on board of her and to prevent great delay, the members were carried to Sau Francisco by the U. S. Coast Survey steamer Active.

I mention this merely because the Active was then transporting me for the chronometer determinations of the longitude of all southern points with San Francisco. Before this incident, and afterwards, my duties compelled me to land through the surf at all the exposed stations on the main shore and the Santa Barbara Islands. And this bears upon the following statement.

In December, 1852, after selecting a base line, I was waiting for a steamer at the old adobe of San Pedro. The brig Fremont was at anchor off San Pedro, and rode out a strong southeast gale of two or three days' duration (See Coast Pilot 1889, p. 38 and 40). The judgment there expressed is that formed from my own experience through subsequent years, the experience of Coast Survey officers, naval and civilian, and of captains whom I have known to be familiar with the place.

At the time of the Fremont's riding out the gale I had no doubt that I could have landed on the beach in a well-manned boat from the Fremont.

I have learned no facts to weaken my judgment expressed in the Coast Pilot. Vessels that have dragged into danger—and they have been remarkably few in the last forty-two years—have anchored in shoal water too close inshore, at anchor not well fonnd in ground tackle or both.

And I express my judgment with confidence because I had command of the surveying brig R. H. Fauntleroy for four years in the waters from San Francisco to the Gulf of Georgia, and have anchored hundreds of times over every character of bottom and varying depths of water, under stress of weather, in exposed situations, with strong currents, and in very heavy weather. The northern weather is much heavier than the southern.

[...]

SANTA MONICA BAY.

I am not unfamiliar with Santa Monica Bay, but do not know it so well as I know San Pedro. I think the same would be said by all sailing and steamship captains on the southern seaboard.

I was along the "West Beach" as early as 1852 and 1853. In 1872 I had the following experience on the shores of Santa Monica Bay." [...]


Figure 7 - 1854 photograph titled "US Coast Survey Brig R. H. Fauntleroy on the Pacific Coast", UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library, George Davidson papers. This is almost certainly a photograph of the same Brig Davidson used to establish West Beach in 1854.


[Figure 7]


An excerpt from a newspaper article wriiten by George Davidson titled "Directory of the Pacific Coast of the United States.". In Daily Alta California, 28 September 1857. Note: "Salt works have been established ..."


"The town of Los Angeles is 22 miles by the road from San Pedro, and is the centre of an extensive grazing, agricultural and grape-growing country. The quantity of grapes and fruit generally shipped to San Francisco during the proper season is already enormous, supporting two large coast steamers and at all seasons one steamer finds a profitable trade. The coasting trade to this place is now greater than the aggregate trade of all the other ports south of San Francisco. Regular communication is maintained with San Francisco and other ports, by steamers and lines of sailing vessels.

Over 100,000 gallons of wine and 3,000 gallons of brandy were produced in 1854, and the culture of the grape bids fair to outstrip all others. Cotton, sugar-cane, tobacco, flax and the cereals, yield productive crops; the olive grows in abundance.

Salt works have been established within a few miles of Los Angeles, but the pond from which the salt water is obtained is comparatively small, and the produce about five tons daily."


Figure 8 - portion of page 638 of the 1904 Coast and Geodetic Survey Annual Report. Note: "West Beach" write up.


[Figure 8]


Figure 9 - portion of Figure 37 in the 1927 US Coast and Geodetic Survey, Special Publication No. 202 "First And Second Order Triangulation In California". Figure 37 is an illustration titled "Los Angeles County and City Cooperative Survey Control triangulation in Los Angeles County". Note: "West Beach No. 3" (lower middle).


[Figure 9]