Scandal and Intrigue Surrounded Beach’s Namesake

From a Times Staff Writer

When millionaire oilman Edward L. Doheny Sr. gave California what is now Doheny Beach State Park in 1931, it followed an intriguing and eventful period in Southern California’s history.

A major part of the intrigue centered on Doheny, who had been involved in gold and silver rushes in Arizona, New Mexico and the Dakotas.

When he moved to Los Angeles in 1892, Doheny quickly decided to put his capital and experience to work. Noticing that a tarry pitch stuck to the wheels of carriages and carts in the city, he traced it to a center of oil seepage near Westlake Park. He and a friend leased a lot nearby and, after digging 50 feet, struck a pocket of gas that almost asphyxiated them. They then brought in a driller who struck oil.


That was the beginning of Doheny’s business empire, which eventually stretched from California to Peru. By the 1920s, Doheny had amassed more than $100 million by using his influence to get the nation’s railroads to convert their coal-burning engines to oil.

But his empire--along with President Warren G. Harding’s Administration--tottered in 1921 when a scandal broke that Doheny had secretly sent $100,000 in a satchel to an “old prospector friend,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall.

It turned out that Fall had planned to lease government-owned oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyo., to Doheny and others. In 1928, Fall was convicted and imprisoned. However, Doheny was acquitted of giving the bribe that Fall accepted.

Meanwhile, Doheny’s son, Edward L. Doheny Jr., had bought 1,000 acres of land for a development in Orange County’s Capistrano Beach. The younger Doheny built a family mansion, a beach club and dozens of Spanish casas, but in 1929 he was shot to death in his Los Angeles home by a crazed servant. Doheny Sr. continued the project and in 1931 donated 17 acres along the beach for the state park.

Doheny Sr. died in 1935 at the age of 79.

The Capistrano Beach area has since changed: The beach club was demolished. Some of the original Doheny mansions were lost to devastating floods in the 1930s and some to freeway rights of way in the 1950s.

Sources: “California, a History,” by Andrew F. Rolle and “Dana Point Harbor/Capistrano Bay: Home Port for Romance,” by Doris Walker.