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A-Beach: The inland beach that time forgot

In the early 20th century, an intrepid Midwesterner came to California to build his utopia. But can utopia really be utopia when it's 13 miles from the beach?

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 smirk.

Ask anyone who has surfed here a while, and they’ll tell you:

It ain’t Morro Strand.

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

Jones knows — it’s A-Beach. Short for Atascadero Beach.

Once upon a time, (if you can imagine) real estate in California was a major buyer’s market, prompting a visionary from the Midwest to market the inland colony he founded as a beachfront escape. But while E.G. Lewis’ dreams of a utopian colony fell short, more than a century later the seaside city of Morro Bay and landlocked Atascadero remain intertwined.

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

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

Born in Connecticut in 1869, Lewis moved to St. Louis near the turn of the century, where he eventually became a magazine and newspaper publisher and then a developer, founding University City near the 1904 (“Meet Me in St. Louis”) World’s Fair.  After promoting women’s voting rights, he went West, relocating in 1913 to San Luis Obispo County, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with plans to establish a perfect colony.

His first building, a printery, still exists. And as he formed a temporary tent city, Lewis pursued his grand plans for a sustainable agrarian community with urban amenities that could accommodate the automobile. He hired experts in agriculture, engineering and city planning to develop a city for 30,000 residents. A water system was installed and thousands of acres of orchards were planted.

Construction on the domed city hall in Atascadero began in 1914. The style was inspired by the buildings at the St. Louis Exposition. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

However, he soon realized that Atascadero gets pretty toasty in the summer. And its name — Spanish for “a muddy place” — suggested it could use a public relations jolt. So he promoted the creation of a highway that would make it easier for Atascadero residents to flee to cooler, beachier climates.

While the beach was only 13 miles away — as the seagull flies — with no road to get through the rugged terrain, Missourians were just as likely to see the ocean. Construction on Highway 41 began in 1914, paving the way for Lewis’ next big push: Marketing Atascadero as a beach community.

In 1916, Lewis purchased plots of land on Morro Bay’s beachfront, named a stretch of it Atascadero Beach, and presented an offer you couldn’t refuse: Buy 10 acres of land in Atascadero, get a free plot at Atascadero Beach.

Imagine that, frustrated would-be first homebuyers.

While the 576-foot Morro Rock was still being blasted for quarry, Lewis recognized its appeal long before it became a protected landmark. His brochures pitching 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.

In his defense, traveling to the beach became easier, thanks to his highway (an 18-mile drive, with the winding roads) and the automobile, which had just recently surpassed horses as the main method of transportation in the United States.  But passing Atascadero off as a beach community was arguably a stretch.

And while oceanfront homes are a symbol of wealth and success today, in the World War I era you apparently couldn’t give away beachfront property.

“It wasn’t until the 40s that the beaches became important,” Johnson said.

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

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

The Morro Bay Trolley is a fun way to see the city. In the background, homes 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 under way, the historical society was embroiled in controversy when one of its members pointed out that original colony property could be purchased by whites only. While Lewis defenders pointed out that such “boilerplate deeds” were legal — and common practice — back then, defending the section of the restrictions titled “White Race” is a tough sell.  

As it turned out, Atascadero was a tough sell.  And when Lewis encountered legal and money problems, his Utopia plans crashed like a Morro Bay closeout wave. Once dubbed the “Champion Borrower of All Time” by editorial writers, Lewis was sentenced to five years in prison in 1928 for misusing the mail in a “personal loan campaign.”

Supporters said he was just a bad businessman.

The Cloisters Hotel stayed in business through the 1930s, though, and it was used for Navy training during World War II, before the state bought the hotel and Atascadero Beach in 1948. Lewis kept a personal cottage at the Cloisters, and after he died in 1950, at 81, he was quietly laid to rest at the Pine Mountain Cemetery in Atascadero, where his easy-to-miss grave is still marked by a modest tombstone.

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 grades, it still takes surfers 25 minutes to get from Atascadero to A-Beach, but it’s a lot easier than it once was thanks to the E.G. Lewis Highway (aka Highway 41). And that city Lewis envisioned with 30,000 people? It’s right at about 30,000 people. Meanwhile, the city hall, which underwent construction in 1914, remains the city’s epicenter — having survived an earthquake in 2003 — its sunken gardens adorned with a statue Lewis purchased at the World’s Fair.  

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

There are no signs for Atascadero Beach, but when I began surfing here in 1999 surfers quickly told me that’s what it was.

Despite an uptick 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 surveying some of these younger surfers about the name of this beach. But upon reflection, I figured the experience here is more important than the name.

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

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

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