Balboa Island: Then and Now
Newport Beach’s iconic island celebrates 100 years with the city.
“Back in the 1950s, we knew only one guy on Balboa Island who had a motorboat. He was really popular because he could pull us on water skis. We were self-taught and terrible, but it was great fun.” — Ben Peters, Balboa resident
Balboa’s beginnings trace back to the mid-1800s, when the bay was used mainly as a shipping port for hay and hides and other ranch goods for export. Newport Landing, named after the warehouse and wharf that Captain Samuel S. Dunnells would build around the same time, outfitted the west end of the island for success in commercial trade. Business really boomed after brothers James and Robert McFadden took over, relocating to a more easily accessible pier on the oceanfront. When the seaport was swept over by a new, greater harbor — as often happens in business — the area once again saw new ownership, and with it, potential as something completely different: a resort destination.
Prior to the early 1900s, when the Pacific Electric line Red Cars began traveling to Newport, Balboa Island wasn’t easily reachable from the mainland. Where we see the winding, four-lane Coast Highway hugged by developments, shops and restaurants now, once sprawled ranchlands and orange groves. The rail cars, however, soon made the island a desirable destination for Angelenos, and so began Balboa’s growth as a nearby getaway for folks looking to escape the big city. In 1916, it was incorporated into the City of Newport Beach.
As improvements to its infrastructure were made with the aid of the Balboa Island Improvement Association (BIIA), the area continued to evolve into a spring break and summer hotspot for people who lived in and around Los Angeles. Roads were paved, sidewalks poured and the main street bridge was rebuilt to withstand the traffic that would eventually frequent the island. The renowned Balboa Island Ferry that carries passengers to and from the Peninsula and famous Fun Zone made it even more travelable, not only to summer-home owners and beachgoers but to early filmmakers who came here to set the scenes for their black and white and silent movies.
Ben Peters, a retired schoolteacher who grew up on Balboa Island and recently returned after spending part of his career in Philadelphia, recalls what it was like to be a teenager here.
“My family was from Pasadena and my parents bought a small house on Sapphire in 1952,” Ben says. “We planted a tree in the front yard, which became known as ‘the house with the tree in front,’ because there weren’t any trees on the island back then! None of the homes were particularly big or fancy, like the ones you see today. We didn’t even have air conditioning.”
Ben recalls “cleaner water” and everyone swimming in the bay back in those days. “The boats were mostly sailboats — I knew only one guy on Balboa Island who had a motorboat boat. He was really popular because he could pull us on water skis. We were self-taught and terrible, but it was great fun!”
Ben remembers spring breaks and summers spent walking around the island “Trying to get up the nerve to speak to the girls on the beach — I got lots of exercise doing that!” It was a time of innocence and playing at The Fun Zone (a Ferris wheel and Merry-Go-Round at the time) and two-week romances with girls who had “white noses” (zinc oxide). Things changed a bit in the 1960s, Ben says, when topless sunbathers began scandalizing the conservative elderly community.
Over time, this sweet seasonal retreat — early houses had no heat, making it undesirable in the winter months — became a year-round home to settlers of all ages and elite professions. Modest beach bungalows that were once afforded by the working class were soon replaced or neighbored by multi-million dollar mansions, making Balboa a highly desirable place to reside, but one for a lucky few. Adding to its draw is a tight-knit community and quaint village feel — one enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. Many traditions are to be enjoyed here, like boating and fishing and such celebrated events as the holiday Balboa Boat Parade. (Beginning in 1913 as the “Illuminated Boat Parade,” the festivity now draws crowds from all over Orange County and beyond to see its many boats decked in lights and creative decorations.)
Now that Ben and his wife have a grandchild who comes to visit, they enjoy revisiting many of the things in Balboa they enjoyed in their youth. “I’m an elderly beach bum. I like to see friends and hang out — and take my grandchild across the Ferry and relive old times.”
Maureen Gilmer, an author and horticulturist who still vacations in the Balboa summer home she grew up in during the 1980s, also has fond memories from the days of yore — a much more “conservative” time. “My grandparents had one of the earliest houses on Balboa Island in the 1920s,” she says. Maureen and her six siblings spent their childhood playing on the quiet beaches outside their Diamond Street home and spending afternoons on a 95-yacht called the Sea Cloud. Her mother had grown up wading in those very same tiny waves.
She remembers taking sailing lessons and riding longboards out in the bay. “Hobie Cats were huge then, and we’d take those around the harbor, too. We’d go over to Little Corona and water ski in the mornings where the water was flat.” She deep-sea fished and bodysurfed The Wedge and biked around the Peninsula and when she was older, sipped beer in a bay-raft and partied with friends from Rogers Gardens.
The construction of larger homes, traffic and beach congestion in more recent years have made Maureen a bit “claustrophobic,” she says, but she still enjoys the beauty of the island the quiet where she can find it. “This place is filled with epic gardens. I love to walk around the island and look at those. I still like to sit on the South Bay and watch the boats and kids play, like we used to do.”