A few weeks ago at a book signing at Martha's Bookstore on Balboa Island, I met and began talking to Sharon and Bob Lambert, who live on the island.
They told me about the existence of two things I didn't know about, which I now pass along to you. The first is the annual Balboa Island Parade, and the second is the Balboa Island Museum and Historical Society.
Since 1993, on the first Sunday in June, there has been a parade on Balboa Island's Marine Avenue. Participants include drill teams and bands, decorated golf carts and floats, interesting people and "island dogs" in costumes, children on bicycles, vintage cars and lots of other "craziness."
This year, the theme of the parade is "Balboa Island — the Spirit of America," and it will be held at 11 a.m. June 5. The bridge to the island will be closed at 10:30 a.m., so plan accordingly. You can see pictures of past parades at http://www.balboa-island.com and http://www.balboa-island.net.
The Balboa Island Museum and Historical Society was founded in 2000, and the museum itself opened in 2002 at 502 S. Bay Front, Unit A, which is on the second floor and right next to the ferry dock. In fact, they are still collecting memorabilia reflecting life on the island, including pictures and stories. So if you have any, please consider providing them to the museum.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and you can call them at (949) 675-3952.
From the Historical Society's website, I learned that Balboa Island came into existence in 1906 when W.S. Collins, an early land developer, began dredging up sand to build up the island so that it would not be under water at high tide. Then, beginning in 1907, waterfront lots were sold to the public for $600, while the ones not on the water went for $300. Collins built a concrete "castle" on Collins Island for his wife.
For many years, the houses or cottages on Balboa Island were only used during the summertime and were boarded up the rest of the year. Until natural gas was brought to the island in 1920, all cooking was done on gasoline stoves, and the only lighting came from coal oil lanterns or candles. In addition, for many years, the residents used outhouses because there were no sewers.
The first seawall was built of wood in 1909, but it was replaced in many places by cement in 1914. The first bridge to the main island was a 12-foot wooden structure that was built in 1912, but in the first two years it was not strong enough to handle anything but foot traffic and a few horses. It was replaced with a cement bridge in 1929, and the original wood from the bridge was then used to build the Jolly Roger Restaurant (now Wilma's). This landmark was where our family bought ice cream cones before our nightly walks around the island during my childhood vacations. So it has always been a special place for me. The entire bridge was expanded in 1981 to include the present 9-foot walkways on each side.
The Grand Canal separating the Little Island from the main island was dug in 1913, and the dredging of sand and the build-up of the both islands were completed at the same time. During the 1920s and '30s, many movies were filmed there. James Cagney owned Collins Island for 10 years beginning in 1938, and it was used by the U.S. Coast Guard during most of World War II.
Collins operated the original ferry between Balboa Peninsula and the island from 1909 until 1914, but the service was irregular. Then in 1919, Joseph Allen Beek procured the contract. His original ferry was a large rowboat, "The Ark," and it was powered by a small engine.
Three years later, that boat was replaced by the "Fat Ferry," which carried up to 20 passengers. Not long after that Beek added a one-car barge that was pushed by his ferry and charged 10 cents for each car that he pushed across the bay.
The ferry service contract is still held by the same Beek family, so they are now getting close to their 100th anniversary. The present three 64-foot ferry boats, the "Captain," "Commodore," and "Admiral," began in operation in the 1950s. Their top speed is 4 mph, and it is estimated that these boats have made this 1,000-foot crossing about 22,500 times every year since then. That means that each of these ferry boats has traveled far enough to have gone around the world more than seven times.
So lots of things of interest have occurred on Balboa Island, and many of them are celebrated at the museum. Make plans to be a part of that history, and attend the parade with your children and grandchildren June 5. And while you are at it, also visit the museum, which will be open from 1 to 4 p.m. on the day of the parade.
It will be a slice of Americana at its best.
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the musical revue "Americans All" (Heuer Publishing), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or through his website at http://www.JudgeJimGray.com.