San Onofre: A Brief History
Before we go down this road any further, how did we get to this point? Let’s jump in the way back machine and dive in. The first time “San Onofre” shows up in history is in the original Santa Margarita Land Grant documents dating back to 1836. Where it came from before that is up for debate.
Some believe that “San Onofre” is a mash-up of the local Native American dialect and Spanish used by early European settlers to describe the nearby creek and valleys. Others theorize that Spanish missionaries named the area after the sixth century Egyptian saint, Onofreas. Whatever the case, when a small train station was built in 1880 and a hand-lettered sign hung out front reading, “San Onofre,” it was official.
The area was surfed for the first time until the 1920s. It’s been estimated that going into the ’30s there were less than 100 surfers in Southern California. Eventually, word of a fishing camp on a desolate stretch of beach halfway between L.A. and San Diego captured the imagination of this intrepid group.
In 1937, a man by the name of Frank Ulrich took control of the fishing camp. He opened a gas station and café along the Pacific Coast Highway and began charging surfers 25 cents to spend the day at “his” beach (50 cents covered you for the weekend).
“Times were tough in those days, money–wise,” lifelong San Onofre surfer E.J Oshier told the San Onofre Parks Foundation. He passed away in 2007. “It was still in the depression days, see? Money was hard to come by, and some of us guys were coming all the way down from the Palos Verdes area. So, we’d get a few of us to pitch in enough for some gas and jug of wine…That’s why we didn’t spend money on surfboards or trunks back then. If any of us had [money] we were off to ‘Nofre.”
Very quickly, the bohemian surf lifestyle took hold at San Onofre.
“We’d camp out there for days at a time and just sleep on the beach,” explained the late LeRoy Grannis, who was a surf photography pioneer and distinguished member of the Palos Verdes Surfing Club. “During the week, you would get it all to yourself; but on the weekend, all sorts of characters showed up.”
Throughout the ‘30s, the crew at San Onofre coalesced around the concept of remaining aloof from the rest of the Southern California surf scene, which by this time was starting to take itself more seriously. Competitions were starting to be organized and regional surf clubs formed.
“The real ‘Nofre guys didn’t care about a Club,” explained Oshier. “They went there to get away from that.”
In 1941, the United States entered into World War II and a lot of the San O regulars signed up for the service. In ’43, the U.S. Department of Interior claimed eminent domain over the Santa Margarita Ranch property and it was leased to the Marine Corps and Camp Pendleton was built.
After the war, the San Onofre Surfing Club was founded in 1951. The good times rolled on the beach until the turbulent ‘60s, when President Richard Nixon’s Western White House, the Vietnam War and the construction of the nuclear power plant all contributed to a rapidly changing landscape. Somehow, everyone still managed to figure out how to keep surfing.