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Main Street Branch Library: Part 8 -- Huntington Beach Surfing Legacy

Part 8 -- Huntington Beach Surfing Legacy

Photo #27 -- Duke Kahanamoku, 1922

This photo of Duke Kahanamoku, the “Father of Modern Surfing”, was probably snapped in Hawaii, just a couple of years before his first visit to Huntington Beach in 1925. He poses here in front of his 135 pound Koa wood board.


Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohala Kahanamoku

born August 24, 1890 in Haleakawa, Hawaii

died January 22, 1968 in Honolulu, Hawaii

  • Holder of nearly every swimming honor in the world
  • Hollywood Actor in over 28 movies
  • Hawaiian Folk Hero / Huntington Beach Surf Hero
  • The most famous name in Surfing
  • Credited with bringing surfing to the mainland
  •  Endorser of many products, including “Pineapple Tweed” fabric shoes and Hawaiian-style shirts!

Duke poses in a swimming pool in Los Angeles, Aug. 11, 1933

Duke’s legacy in Huntington Beach begins….

  • 1922— Sponsored by the Outrigger Club of Honolulu, Duke arrived on the mainland United States and began promoting surfing along the California coast by giving public exhibitions of his swimming prowess.
  • 1924 – after winning the 100m race two times in a row at the Olympics, he was “uncrowned” in Paris by a 20 year old surfer named Johnny Weissmuller, who was also known as the original Tarzan in movies.
  • 1925 – While on location during a movie shoot, he and a couple of friends spotted the surf at Corona del Mar.  Also there on that same day was local Bud Higgins, who invited the three Hawaiians to come surf in Huntington Beach.  They arrived with 11 feet long and 18 inch wide boards.
  • 1925 – Duke gave some daring and spectacular wave riding” exhibitions at the HB Pier, which would have lasting implications for the new boom town.
  • Early 1930’s – Duke returned to Hawaii, where he served 13 terms as the sheriff of Honolulu County, eventually being named the islands’ official greeter. 
  • 1967 -- Returned to HB to watch the United States Surfboard Championships, which were dedicated in his honor.  He attended the event each year, from its inception in 1959 until his death in January 1968.

Bronze Bust and Plaque of Duke in International Surfing Museum

And he will forever be in our hearts….

  • 1994 -- Inducted into the first “Surfing Walk of Fame” in Huntington Beach
  • 1997 -- A bronze bust and plaque of Duke is moved to the International Surfing Museum located in Huntington Beach on the corner of Main St. & Olive Avenue.
  • 1999 – Surfer Magazine named him “Surfer of the Century”
  • 2002 – U.S. Postal Service released a stamp in his honor.

Photo #28 -- Surf Contest, 1960's

Surfer competing in the high-tide portion of the West Coast Surfboard Championship, early 1960’s.  This competition was started in 1959, and was the first official surfing contest held in Huntington Beach.

Scared by a big wave!

It’s incredible how much the public’s perception of those beautiful waves in the ocean at Huntington Beach has changed over the years.  Above is a picture from ca. 1905 that shows a family being “scared by a big wave”.

After Duke Kahanamoku brought surfing to Huntington Beach in 1925, the surfing craze evolved over the years, eventually developing into a competitive sport that brought about a series of local surfing competitions held at the Pier.  In fact, Huntington Beach wasn’t even recognized as a “real” surfing spot until the 1950’s.  Here is a short history of that development, along with some cultural highlights of surfing.

Gordon Duane poses in front of his surf shop in a photo dated July 30, 1988.

  • 1956-- Gordie Duane opened HB’s first surf shop, Gordie’s Surf Boards, under the pier.  Duane was a member of the HB Pier Club (a group of 30 surfers).  He had a loyal following of the best surfers in the HB area and shaped boards until 1988 when he lost the lease on his shop. Gordie Duane passed away on July 27, 2011.
  • 1957 – Jack Hokason opened the first Jack’s Surfboards on the corner of PCH and Main Street.  After much success, a second location was established in his home town of Anaheim.  Jack sold the shop in 1974, but the shop is still open, and there are 6 other Jack’s locations throughout Orange County.
  • 1959 – At the insistence of local residents Norman Worthy, then the director of recreation and parks in Huntington Beach, and Peter Beltran, a student at Cal State Long Beach, the first U.S. surfing contest was held.  It became known as the “West Coast Surfboard Championships”, and featured 73 entrants.
  • 1960’s – The Beach Boys epitomized the surf craze with their 1962 smash Surfin’ Safari.  It was also during this decade that the style of “surf music” came to exist.  Surf music was first introduced by the legendary Dick Dale in 1963, and was so popular that he later became known as the “King of the Surf Guitar.”  His experimentation with reverberating guitar riffs instantly brings to mind the image of a surfer riding the entire length of the perfect wave.
  • During the summer of that same year, Jan and Dean reached number one on the charts with their hit Surf City.
  • In 1966, the full-length surfing documentary Endless Summer, featuring HB resident Robert August was released, giving birth to the “surf and travel” culture.
  • 1964 – West Coast Surfboard Championships was renamed the “U.S. Surfboard Championships”.
  • 1972 in part due to the conflict in Vietnam, the last of the U.S. Surfboard Championships took place.
  • 1977-1980 – the Katin Pro/Am Team Challenge was started by Nancy and Walter Katin, creators of canvas boat covers and durable surf trunks.
  • 1982 – The Ocean Pacific Championship “OP Pro” took surfing from just California to a more global competition.

A scene from the ill-fated 1986 OP Pro competition.   Shown here is an overturned car, (possibly a police car) and a surfboard engulfed in flames, creating an eerie juxtaposition between the serene sport of surfing and the violence of the riot between beachgoers and the police force.

  • 1986 – due to some very rowdy and noisy crowds, public drunkenness and rioting resulting in bloodshed and general mayhem, the popular OP Pro was discontinued.
  • 1994 – Dedication of the first and only Surfing Walk of Fame, on May 28.  Criteria for inclusion in the walk of fame is either having resided in HB for 10 years or graduated from the Huntington Beach High School district plus status as a finalist in local or world surf championships.

    1994 – Finally, the first U.S. Open of Surfing took place.  This surf contest plays a pivotal role as one of the qualifying rounds for the World Surf League’s Championship Tour.

    …and the rest is history.

Photo #29 -- Unidentified surfer shooting the pier, ca. 1971.

The term “Shooting the Pier” means to ride a wave from one side of the pier to the other by threading the pilings.  Imagine taking a piece of thread to the outside of a pile (which is a vertical column made of either steel or timber and stuck into the ocean bottom) and following it to the pile on the other side of the pier, doing this down the entire length of the pier.   This term goes back to 1962, when the Beach Boys sang the lyrics “At Huntington...they’re shooting the pier” in their hit Surfin’ Safari. Bud Higgins is credited as the first surfer to shoot the Huntington Beach pier in the 1920’s and in 1959, Jack Haley (who later opened Captain Jack's Restaurant in Sunset Beach) won a contest by shooting the pier TWICE on the SAME wave.


Surfing Art Icons featured in the City of Huntington Beach

1976 – The City of Huntington Beach’s Public Art Program was established with the commission and acquisition of this 1973 sculpture, sculpted by Edmond Shumpert in Italy.  The “Ultimate Challenge” Surfer, AKA “Nude Dude”, is located at PCH and Huntington Street.  This 12-foot high cast bronze and rock sculpture of a nude male surfer riding a wave was initially placed in 1973 at a City Hall location before being moved to its present, high profile location at the access point to the city’s downtown area, in 1976.

1997Bronze Bust and Plaque of Duke Kahanamoku, also cast by Edmond Shumpert.  The bust, atop a plaque placed against a lava-rock base, was dedicated a few months after Duke’s death in 1969.  It was originally located at the base of the Pier, until it was moved to the International Museum of Surfing at Main Street and Olive Avenue.  The plaque lists Duke’s many contributions and accomplishments, including “Olympic champion, the father of modern surfing and Hawaii’s good-will ambassador.”

2001 – A life-size Bronze Statue of Duke Kahanamoku, located at the end of Main Street and PCH at the Surfers’ Hall of Fame, is a very popular photo op location.  The stone tributes from the Hall of Fame, which was established in 1992, surround the centerpiece statue of Duke, the father of US surfing.  Commissioned and created by Edmond Shumpert in 2001.

Substitute for Photo #30 – Courtney Conlogue, Local U.S. Open Champion, 2018

Courtney Conlogue competes during the U.S. Open of Surfing contest on August 5, 2018.

Courtney was born in Santa Ana, CA on August 25, 1992.  She learned to surf at the age of 4, and at age 11 she was the youngest athlete to be on the USA Junior Surf Team.  After winning a gold medal for surfing in the X Games, at age 17 she won the U.S. Open of Surfing in the 2009 competition in Huntington Beach.  Another win came for the same competition in 2018, and the next year, she was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame as their Woman of the Year.  She still lives in Huntington Beach.

Featured Early Surfers in Huntington Beach

George Freeth – also known as the “Irish Hawaiian”, was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on November 22, 1883.   He arrived in Southern California in 1907, and worked as a lifeguard up and down the Pacific Coast.   In fact, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for Bravery in December 1908 after he saved two Japanese fishermen from crashing into the rocky coast off Venice Beach.   He is recognized as the first surfer in the United States, as well as being the first person to surf at the HB Pier. That impressive demonstration of his surfing prowess was a highlight of the re-dedication ceremony of the HB Pier in 1914.  Back in Hawaii, he taught writer Jack London how to surf.  George’s trademark was standing upright on his board riding a wave all the way to the beach (see picture).  Unfortunately, he contracted the flu during the 1918-1920 Pandemic, and died in San Diego, CA on May 7, 1919.  He was only 35.

Delbert “Bud” Higgins – Bud was born on August 27, 1907 in Los Angeles, CA.  As a local surfer in the 1920’s, some of Bud’s famous feats of daring were having surfed the HB pier “while standing on his head” as well as setting himself on fire and diving off the pier. He “discovered” surfing in HB, and also created the first boards that many local youth also used.    By 1927, Bud and his buddy Gene were two of only four men in Southern California to have a surf board.  By 1929, there were a “dozen or so more” boards in Orange County.  He became the first lifeguard in HB in 1931 – in fact, he created the Life Guard Department itself for the city.  He rode a self-named “bellyboard.” After retiring as a lifeguard, during which time he saved many lives, including during a historic plane crash on the beach in 1943, Bud worked as the fire chief from 1952 to 1967.  He was also the first city historian.  He died in­­­­­­­­ Orange, CA on January 23, 1983, and was posthumously added to the Surfing Walk of Fame’s Honor Roll along with pal Gene Belsche in 1997.

Gene Belshe -- Gene was born on April 24, 1908 in California. In 1925, he joined the Navy, where he became a distance ocean swimming champion.  After moving to Huntington Beach around 1926, he and his pal Bud Higgins made their first surfboards in1927, and then he became a head lifeguard from 1928-1931 for the city. Gene and his pal Bud were fortunate to be among the local surfers to have surfed with Duke Kahanmoku.  In 1931, he started working for the Fire Department as an engineer, and two years later began his career in the Police Department.  He had worked his way up to Police Captain, but unfortunately, he died at the age of 45, on September 20, 1953. 

Duke Kahanamoku poses with his redwood longboard, 1920

The First Surfboards in Huntington Beach

According to Bud Higgins, the first use of boards in Huntington Beach was about 1912, when “they used a piece of 1 by 12 board about 4 feet long and pushed off from 5 foot water.”  Unfortunately, this “nose-dive to the bottom” technique caused many accidents to the stomach area. There were no surfboards on the west coast except one belonging to George Freeth of Redondo Beach and “it was a very makeshift one made of several boards with cross pieces nailed to hold it together.”

In 1927, Bud’s first attempt himself at making a surfboard was with redwood he got from the Weyerhaeuser/San Pedro Lumber Company.  He and Gene Belshe bought a plank of dried redwood 20 feet long, between 24-26 inches wide and between 3-4 inches thick for $40, which they cut in two with a “block plane and a draw knife” so they could each have a 10 foot long board.  The boards weighed 135 pounds each, and got even heavier when wet.  Bud said that early boards were previously also made from old telephone poles that were weather beaten and had thus become lighter (weighing 100 pounds instead of 135 pounds), and then were planed down to thinner planks, with attached metal “nose guards” that protected them from damage when they ran into the pier on a wave.

Featured Local Surfers of Today

Brett SimpsonBrett was born in Long Beach, CA on January 5, 1985. His family moved to Huntington Beach, where he graduated from high school.  He is currently the inaugural head coach of the U.S. Olympic surfing team, and he won the U.S. Open of Surfing two years in a row, in 2009 and 2010.  In 2018, he was inducted into the Surfer’s Hall of Fame.  He still lives in Huntington Beach, where he works as a surf coach.

Kelly Slater – Kelly was born in Cocoa Beach, Florida on February 2, 1972, but he considers Huntington Beach to be his “home away from home”.  His many accomplishments include having won the World Champion Surf League eleven times, and he was inducted into both the Surfing Walk of Fame and the Surfer’s Hall of Fame in 2002.  In 2017, he received the “key to Huntington Beach”, and was welcomed to the city for being “someone who has been able to capture the essence of surfing” like no other, and is “possibly one of the best to ever ride a wave.”  He is a true champion of surfing, having won the U.S. Open of Surfing twice, in 1996 and again in 2011.  

Corky Carroll – Corky was born in Alhambra, CA on September 29, 1947.  In 1959, at the tender age of 11, he placed first in his first ever surf contest – the inaugural “West Coast Surfboard Championships”. From 1966-1970, he won first place in that same contest, newly named the “U.S. Surfing Championship.”  Corky’s resume is quite impressive: after ending his surfing career, he became a musician and recorded 9 albums.  He operates a surfing school, designed surfboards, and helped design the first authentic surf trunks with Nancy Katin.  A Surfer Magazine poll even proclaimed him the best-known surfer in the world.  He currently holds the record for the most won titles in surfing (over 100).  He still lives in Huntington Beach.  



The World's Largest Surfboard, 2015

International Surfing Museum

In 1990, the International Surfing Museum was set up in a 1935 Art Deco/Moderne building that once served as early doctor Ralph Hawes’ office and as a hospital.  Located on the corner of Olive Avenue and Main Street, the museum plays tribute to surfing giants like Corky Carroll, and features an original hardwood board once owned by Duke Kahanamoku, Surfing Music King Dick Dale’s first electric guitar, and a gold record donated by Jan and Dean.  Of particular interest, even though they are not part of the museum, are the two Surfing Walks of Fame.  The actual Walk of Fame started in 1994, while the Hall of Fame started in 2002 when its plaques were moved from inside a surf store to the pavement around the statue of Duke Kahanamoku, at the end of Main Street.  Also featured is the 42 foot long “World’s Largest Surfboard” hanging next to the museum’s parking lot, which set a world record in 2015 when 66 people climbed aboard and rode a wave for 12 seconds, next to the HB Pier!  In addition to Duke’s surfboard, there is a bronze bust and plaque of him on display.  Dedicated in 1969, this bust used to be located at the end of the pier, but it was moved to the museum in 1997.  The International Surfing Museum is stop #21 on the HB Walking Tour.

Huntington Beach Public Library
7111 Talbert Ave. Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Phone 714-842-4481