I never met Ella Christensen, known by many in Huntington Beach as the queen of the pier.
What else would you call someone who at one time owned three thriving businesses on the city's most iconic structure? The Tackle Box, Neptune's Locker and the Captain's Galley were all owned and operated at various times by Christensen and various family members.
Though I never got to meet her, I certainly feel as if I got to know her recently when, at a bonfire, my friend Scott Rothert lent me a rare copy of a book, "The Queen of the Pier — Ella Christensen's 37 Years on the Huntington Beach Pier."
Released in 1989 by Donald Skinner, it is a loving biography-scrapbook that details Christensen's life, including her move across the prairies during the Depression and arrival in Huntington Beach in 1951.
That year, she and her husband, Carl, purchased The Tackle Box bait shop near the end of the pier from Genevieve and Port Woods. The Christensens ran it successfully, and then in 1969, their daughter Joy purchased Neptune's Locker, a tiny pub on the pier. Ella took that over in the early 1970s and ran it until its closing in the late 1980s.
Then there was the Captain's Galley, a former lifeguard station and card room that Ella purchased in 1975 and turned into a fast-food restaurant.
Thumbing through the meticulously prepared life story, I learned about Ella's entire family. But her story drew me in. Feisty and outspoken, she was one part businesswoman, one part activist and another part good listener for her many customers.
She was not happy in 1988 when officials decided to close the then-74-year-old pier. Earlier that year, the end of the pier had been destroyed by a storm. Sensing that her 37 years in business were all but done, she expressed to the city that she wanted to remain open.
Officials said the pier was no longer safe, but she fought back. Her attitude was repair the part that's broken and leave her businesses alone.
In the book is this interesting passage: "Ella said closing the pier cost the downtown Huntington Beach merchants dearly the following summer. Without a pier, tourism dropped off and so did business downtown. She also believes the closure was an attempt to drive down property values so city officials could proceed with the downtown redevelopment project."
Was she right? I suppose that's up to the reader. But her basic premise is something I've heard bandied about for many years.
All that said, she and her family made a tremendous mark on the city. Many high school kids would work at her establishments. She was good friends with local law officials. And Ella and her husband started the annual Huck Finn contest, the popular off-the-pier fishing competition.
It's hard to walk by the spot where Neptune's used to be and not think about some of the stories in the book. Ella's television was perched above the bar there, and for many years she had to climb onto a stool and up on the serving counter to change channels. Police officers, who were also customers, were afraid she would fall, so they bought her a remote-control TV set for Christmas.
She described Neptune's like this: "It was just a plain, little old homey place with very common people. The whole building covered only 400 feet. It had a seating capacity for 21 people, but that didn't count the ones standing up. It was packed every day during noon and sunset. We had the most beautiful view of the sunsets in the ocean, only not enough of it. There just wasn't enough space."
There was also this: "Everybody knew pretty well that I wouldn't tolerate trouble. I used to chase troublemakers out with my broom, and that worked pretty well. One time some big bikers came in. They were in the back of the restaurant, and one stood up and started taking pokes at another. I went back there and picked up a short stool made out of a piece of utility pole. I tipped it over and rolled up behind the fella's legs, and down to the floor he went. I said, 'Now get out of here!' and that was all it took."
These days, I think it would be nice to have Ella at a few places downtown.
The book is long out of print, but it is such a precious piece of Huntington Beach treasure that I'm going to see if it might be possible to have it reprinted so that others may enjoy a copy.
In the meantime, if any of you have personal stories about Ella and her family, please let me know. Perhaps there's a way to add to the book with a remembrances section based on your anecdotes.
Ella passed away in 2003 at the age of 89. These were her thoughts after having to close her businesses in 1988: "It's been a real pleasure because I enjoy the people. Each one has his problems, whims and stories. It's so nice to have so many friends. Friendliness and happiness, that's what makes us go."
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 25 books, including the new "Huntington Beach Chronicles: The Heart of Surf City" from History Press. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.