Ask a historian: Who checked into the ritzy Manhattan Beach hotels of old?
Michael from Manhattan Beach asks: What guests visited the Manhattan and Oriental hotels during their 25-year existence in Manhattan Beach?
More than I can count, Michael, but let’s start with two: Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
In 1896, the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies held a convention at the swanky Oriental Hotel. Henry Ford attended. He had worked for the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit since 1891, when he sold his lumber company. Representatives from New York, Chicago, Detroit and other ancillary Edison companies attended the meeting.
At the convention, Ford — then 33, and an admirer of the 49-year-old Edison — spent a brief time showing Edison plans for his gasoline-powered Quadricycle. Edison was impressed. Ford had brought his camera to the meeting and subsequently took several candid photos of his idol, including one of him dozing off on the Oriental’s verandah porch.
In 1893, Ford received a promotion to chief engineer at the Edison company — but he had also completed the engine that he had discussed with Edison in 1896. So, he resigned in 1899, refusing a significant salary increase, to focus on developing his automobile and establish the Detroit Automobile Company.
The relationship of the two titans of engineering continued when they embarked on posh annual camping trips starting in 1916. These journeys embellished typical backpacker sojourns with a staff of servants and food served on a giant Lazy Susan table, as seen in Ford films. Harvey Firestone joined them, as well as John Burroughs, the naturalist. In 1921, President Warren Harding was a guest.
Back in 1886, Edison had purchased land in Fort Meyers, Florida, to escape from New Jersey in the winter. Ford joined him in 1916 when he purchased the neighboring estate. Today the Edison and Ford Winter Estates remain a major attraction in Southwest Florida.
Over the quarter-century life of the Manhattan Beach hotels created by banker tycoon and Long Island Rail Road president Austin Corbin, other celebrities escaped the summer heat to relax by the oceanside.
Politicians arrived such as the powerful State Sen. Thomas Platt who moved his “A-Men Corner,” his private conference on current issues, from New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel to Brooklyn’s shore.
President William Taft attended a bankers’ dinner at The Manhattan in 1912, its final year, adding to two prior presidents: U.S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes.
Adm. Thomas Dewey visited after his successful battles in the Spanish-American War.
Since the Brooklyn Jockey Club had their office in The Manhattan, Leonard Jerome, August Belmont and William Vanderbilt, all horsemen, became regular visitors.
“Diamond Jim” Brady, a financier, often visited with his friends, Lillian Russell and Lily Langtry, singers and actresses.
Visiting musicians included John Philip Sousa, his predecessor, Patrick Gilmore, and his successor, Victor Herbert.
And don’t palm them off as alumni or college faculty. It was long ago and very far away. Contemporaries wouldn’t recognize the desolate Manhattan Beach peninsula with two railroads running its length.
But we still have the products of those original engineers who met at Manhattan Beach: automobiles and electricity.
Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below.
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