A-Beach: The inner beach forgotten by time

MORRO BAY, Calif. (CN) — After waxing my surfboard on a recent summer weekend, I walked past the Morro Strand State Beach sign with a knowing smile.

Ask anyone who’s been surfing here a while, and they’ll tell you:

It’s not Morro Strand.

“I never called it that,” said Mike Jones, a longtime surfer here and owner of Azhiaziam surf shop.

Jones knows – it’s A-Beach. Abbreviation for Atascadero Beach.

Once upon a time (if you can imagine) real estate in California was a big deal of the buyer market, prompting a Midwestern visionary to market the inland colony he founded as a seaside escape. But as EG Lewis’s dreams of a utopian colony failed, more than a century later, the beach town of Morro Bay and the landlocked Atascadero remain linked.

“He was a brilliant marketer,” Len Johnson of the Atascadero Historical Society said when I asked about Lewis’ complicated past. “He was so ahead of his peers in so many ways.”

Lewis was also a two-time city founder, advocate for women’s suffrage, possibly racist and guilty of fraud.

Born in Connecticut in 1869, Lewis moved to St. Louis at the turn of the century, where he eventually became a magazine and newspaper publisher and then a developer, founding University City near the World’s 1904 (“Meet Me in St. Louis” ). Fair. After promoting women’s suffrage, he traveled west, settling in 1913 in San Luis Obispo County, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, intending to establish a perfect colony.

Its first building, a printing press, still exists. And as he formed a temporary tent city, Lewis continued his grand plans for a sustainable agrarian community with automobile-capable urban amenities. He hired experts in agriculture, engineering, and urban planning to develop a city of 30,000 people. A water system was installed and thousands of acres of orchards were planted.

Construction of the domed City Hall in Atascadero began in 1914. The style was inspired by buildings in the St. Louis Exposition. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

However, he soon realized that Atascadero gets quite hot in the summer. And its name – Spanish for “a muddy place” – suggested it could use a PR jolt. So he encouraged the creation of a highway that would make it easier for Atascadero residents to flee to cooler, more seaside climes.

While the beach was just 13 miles away — as the crow flies — with no road to cross the rugged terrain, Missourians were just as likely to see the ocean. Construction of Highway 41 began in 1914, paving the way for Lewis’s next big move: the marketing of Atascadero as a seaside community.

In 1916, Lewis bought parcels of land on the Morro Bay waterfront, named part of it Atascadero Beach, and presented an offer you couldn’t refuse: Buy 10 acres of land in Atascadero, get free land at Atascadero Beach.

Imagine that, frustrated potential first buyers.

While the 576ft Morro Rock was still blasted for quarrying, Lewis recognized its appeal long before it became a protected landmark. Its brochures featuring Atascadero prominently featured “The Rock”, while failing to mention the trek required to reach it.

“He featured the beach in almost all of his marketing materials,” Johnson said.

To his credit, getting to the beach became easier, thanks to its highway (an 18-mile journey, with winding roads) and the automobile, which had only just overtaken horses as the main mode of transportation in the United States. But passing off Atascadero as a beach community was probably overkill.

And while beachfront homes are a symbol of wealth and success today, back in the days of World War I, you apparently couldn’t afford a beachfront property.

“It wasn’t until the 1940s that beaches became important,” Johnson said.

Lewis had to make Atascadero Beach more appealing, which he did with the Cloisters Hotel, featuring food, music and dancing.

“The Cloisters was a beautiful hotel,” Johnson said.

The Morro Bay Trolley is a fun way to see the city. In the background, houses now exist where the Cloisters Hotel once stood. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

Of course, Utopia wasn’t for everyone – literally. In 2013, as Atascadero’s centennial was underway, the historical society was embroiled in controversy when one of its members pointed out that property in the original settlement could only be purchased by whites. While Lewis defenders have pointed out that such “boilerplate acts” were legal – and common practice – at the time, defending the restrictions section titled “White Race” is a hard sell.

Ultimately, Atascadero was a tough sell. And when Lewis ran into legal and financial problems, his Utopia plans came crashing down like a wave of Morro Bay shutting down. Once dubbed the “Champion Borrower of All Time” by editorial writers, Lewis was sentenced to five years in prison in 1928 for abusing the mail in a “personal loan campaign”.

Supporters said he was just a bad businessman.

The Cloisters Hotel remained in operation into the 1930s, and it was used for Navy training during World War II, before the state purchased the hotel and beach from Atascadero in 1948. Lewis kept a personal cottage at the Cloisters, and after his death in 1950, at age 81, he was quietly interred at Pine Mountain Cemetery in Atascadero, where his easy-to-miss grave is still marked by a modest headstone.

The state combined Atascadero Beach and Morro Beach to the north in 1988 and renamed the entire stretch Morro Strand State Park.

Navigating winding roads through canyons and steep inclines, it still takes surfers 25 minutes to get from Atascadero to A-Beach, but it’s much easier than before thanks to the EG Lewis Highway (aka Highway 41). And this city that Lewis envisioned with 30,000 inhabitants? It’s just about 30,000 people. Meanwhile, City Hall, which was built in 1914, remains the city’s epicenter – having survived an earthquake in 2003 – its sunken gardens adorned with a statue Lewis bought from the ‘World Exhibition.

At the beach, Morro Strand State Park includes a popular campground, located next to the sand, while a housing section just south is called Cloisters.

There’s no sign for Atascadero Beach, but when I started surfing here in 1999, surfers were quick to tell me that was it.

Despite an increase in shark activity in recent years (an A-Beach story for another time), new surfers continue to arrive with sunscreen and Costco boards. After my recent (shark-free) surf session, I considered asking some of these young surfers about the name of this beach. But after thinking, I thought the experience here is more important than the name.

And unlike Lewis, I’m not trying to introduce the place to anyone. More surfers just translates to fewer waves for me.

“Only older guys call it A-Beach now,” Jones said. “Some younger and newer crowds call it ‘The Strand’.”

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