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Seeing the seashore: Historical Society walking tour explores La Jolla’s ‘very important’ coastline

Shell Beach in La Jolla was crucial in scientific exploration around the turn of the 20th century.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The coast abounds with landmarks and legends.

La Jolla undoubtedly is a historic community, with enduring buildings and landmarks that predate the theory of relativity and the airplane.

Even the coastline is abounding with history. Some areas have fixtures funded by La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps that are engrained in local lore. Some historical highlights have vanished but remain in local annals.

The La Jolla Historical Society has resumed in-person walking tours, and the Nov. 20 walk on a cloudy and breezy day focused on the coastline. Led by historian Carol Olten, the 90-minute journey departed from Wisteria Cottage, went down to Coast Boulevard and up to Goldfish Point.

“People are always asking ‘What’s so great about La Jolla?’ and you get answers like ‘I like the climate ... I like the views and the neighborhood,’” Olten said. “You have to think about why we have these things that make La Jolla wonderful to us, and the answer is the Pacific Ocean. We wouldn’t have ocean views if we didn’t have the ocean. We wouldn’t have beaches, we wouldn’t have caves and the cultural landscape. So the beaches are very important in La Jolla. They were certainly important in the early days.”

La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten
La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten stands in front of the Children’s Pool as she leads a walking tour of La Jolla’s coastline.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

At the turn of the 20th century, Shell Beach was a place for scientific exploration.

“Shell collectors like Dr. Fred Baker … had a great interest in the sciences. It was he who influenced [Ellen Browning Scripps and her brother] E.W. Scripps to found the Scripps Institution of Oceanography,” Olten said.

“In the late 19th century and early 20th century, people still had a great deal of freedom in terms of what they were doing and interacting with the natural habitat,” she said, noting that La Jolla now has several no-take Marine Protected Areas. “A lot of the algae and mollusks and other marine specimens had not been named or seen by humans, so there was a lot of interest in them. Women were involved as shell collectors. … I think we are fortunate in La Jolla to feel the after-effects of that.”

About 500 yards out to sea from Shell Beach, a “really interesting rock formation” often was photographed in the early 1900s. It was triangular and nearly 40 feet tall. As such, it became known as Cathedral Rock.

“It crashed down in 1906 in a big winter storm,” Olten said. “You can’t see the remains of it today, but it was an important rock formation and was a tourist attraction in those days.”

One tour-goer asked if it was a coincidence that it fell the same year as the San Francisco earthquake, to which Olten replied it “bears some investigation.”

Other local landmarks along the way included the Children’s Pool, which was funded by Ellen Browning Scripps and constructed at 850 Coast Blvd. by way of a breakwater and stairs. It opened in 1931 to provide a wave-free shoreline for children.

The tour also included the coastal shade structures known as belvederes, the high-rise building at 939 Coast Blvd., and the site of the 12-cottage artist colony known as the Green Dragon Colony that was built more than 100 years ago and where condominiums now stand.

Guests on a La Jolla Historical Society walking tour make their way along Coast Boulevard toward La Jolla Cove.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Scripps Park, though named for Ellen Browning Scripps, also has plaques recognizing other people, from a former president to private citizens.

“There is a monument in the ground recognizing … Abraham Lincoln,” Olten said. “The benches have been donated by private individuals in honor of some deceased person, and they have names on them.” She estimated there are 24 plaques and monuments.

At La Jolla Cove, Olten discussed the area’s landscape and the progressive loss of the rock formation known as Alligator Head.

The last spot on the tour, Goldfish Point at the southern end of Coast Walk, is an overlook that stands over Sunny Jim Cave, one of seven sea caves nearby.

The creation of the Cave Store and the tours it provides was a project undertaken by Gustav Schulz, who decided in 1902 to make a little money by charging tourists to go down and look at the cave. He dug down and created a stair structure leading from Goldfish Point to the sea.

“It became an instant tourist attraction and continues to this day,” Olten said.

The name “Sunny Jim” came from a cartoon character used as a marketing tool for Force cereal company in 1902. The story goes that author L. Frank Baum came here in the summer of 1905 after his “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was published and got to know Schulz. He told him it would be a good idea to give the cave a name.

“The silhouette you see inside the cave resembles the cartoon character known as Sunny Jim,” Olten said. The name stuck.

During Baum’s time here, he wrote books inspired by what he saw in La Jolla. One of them, “The Sea Fairies,” is the tale of a sea captain and a young girl who take a boat out to the ocean. They find a set of sea caves, where a mermaid pops up and invites them to her underwater fairy land.

“By some miraculous means ... they are able to see her kingdom,” Olten said. “The kingdom is having problems, so the old man and the young girl help the sea fairy get rid of the bad guys and have a nice kingdom again. The two leave the kingdom, row back, get out of the cave and make it home for supper. It’s a lovely story.”

The last walking tour of the year is sold out, but plans are underway for walks in 2022. To learn more about La Jolla Historical Society programs and next year’s tours, visit lajollahistory.org.