Modern community takes shape on the coast

Editor’s note: This is part of a year-long series to explore the history of Cardiff-by-the-Sea as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.
CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA — The once sleepy hamlet entered into an era of expedited growth and development immediately after World War II and into the late 1960s. Not only did the geographical landscape expand into previously uninhabited land, but the population swelled.
The Poinsettia Heights residential development built up the land to the east where only flower fields and greenhouses once stood. The late 1950s housing boom brought an additional 1,700 residents to the community. Interstate 5 was built, expanding the flow of traffic and bifurcating the town as flooding damaged large areas of Coast Highway 101.
“I can remember when they put in the interstate,” recalls longtime resident Jay Williams. “Before that it was just our little road (Coast Highway 101) and if it flooded we had to make do.”
The interstate brought an influx of commerce as well as easing local traffic issues. Infrastructure was shored up to diminish the eroding coastline as more and more visitors made their way to the sandy beaches to dine at George’s or the Breakers.
Some of the most distinguishing characteristics of the community became apparent during this time period. Cullen School — now Cardiff Elementary — celebrated Hobo Days to the delight of both students and faculty.
“We would bundle up our lunches in a cloth and tie it to a stick,” remembers Doug White, another longtime Cardiff resident. “We built fire pits and rubbed our faces to look as dirty as we could.”
The ever-respectable school principal, Ada Harris, for whom another school is now named, was a joyful participant in the activities.
“You’d see her (Harris) out there in long pants with the kids,” White recalls. “She always dressed so nice like all the teachers but on Hobo Days she played the part.”
The tradition was indicative of the time period according to local historical records. So-called “tramps or “hobos” rode the trains in search of a new location to work and live; many descending on Cardiff beaches after jumping off the freight trains that rumbled through town.
“We had all manner of characters coming through here,” Williams said. “But back then we just accepted it as a part of life.”
Two of the areas most infamous buildings began to morph during the time. The seemingly inconspicuous house along San Elijo Avenue was never home to anyone according to historical records. Rather, it was used during World War II as a telephone communications center. Williams confirmed that government attempts to disguise the real purpose of the building from Japanese bombers that might have been patrolling the Pacific coast with faux doors and windows actually made it stand out even more.
Without another house around for miles, the old “telephone building,” as locals referred to it, was a target for ridicule if not for air raids. Today, the building stands idle next to Cardiff Elementary School.
The community’s oldest structure, the Cardiff Mercantile Building, ceased to serve as the area post office in the mid 1950s.
“I remember the train coming by and throwing a sack of mail,” Williams said. Cardiff Market and Pearson Realty quickly moved in and occupied the ground floor for years afterward.

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