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San Clemente Journal

A Year to Forget, For San Clemente’s First Mayor, it was 1933 ...

Mar 17, 2021 10:25AM ● By Tom Marshall

The Murphine House. This picture was dated one day before it started to slide in May of 1933.

by Tom Marshall, San Clemente Historical Society 

Just like many of us would like to forget 2020, 1933 was an especially bad year for San Clemente’s first mayor, Thomas F. Murphine. The year opened with the city in deep financial problems due to the lingering world-wide financial depression.  There were concerns that the city government would have to declare bankruptcy and disband. At the same time, Murphine was involved in a bitter feud with his longtime associate and friend, town founder Ole Hanson.

After the fall: Many of the bricks and tiles were used to build the San Clemente State Park.


On March 10, things went from bad to much worse for Murphine.  At 5:54 pm a magnitude 6.4 earthquake centered under the ocean southeast of Long Beach, roiled much of Southern California.  At least 120 people were killed; many others injured. News reports told of 230 schools destroyed or damaged so severely that they could not be occupied. Total damage was estimated at $50 million, a lot of money in the Depression era.

At first it seemed San Clemente was spared severe damage. But over the next two months cracks began to appear in the seaside bluff at Murphine’s $75,000 estate south of the pier. The mansion had been featured in Western Decorator magazine three years earlier. On May 5, the house started sliding down the bluff.  The Murphine family had abandoned the structure the day before. The Associated Press reported that “A large section of bluff…broke loose from the mainland and opened a gap 50 feet across.” 

Over the next several days the home slid section by section down the slope to eventually cover the Santa Fe Railroad tracks along the beach. A young boy at the time, Norm Haven documented the event with his camera. He recently donated the photos to the San Clemente Historical Society and are published here for the first time.

“I would stop by the scene with my camera every day after school,” Haven remembered in an oral history interview with the Historical Society a couple years ago.

 Newspaper accounts of the time reported large crowds gathering each day to watch the catastrophe unfold. Murphine was able to salvage many of his belongings including his extensive book collection as the building slid to the sea almost room by room.

The home was never rebuilt. A couple of pillars remain from the original structure which stood where Calle De Los Alamos turns into W. Avenida De Los Lobos Marinos today.  
Three weeks later, Mayor Murphine’s bad year continued as he and the entire city council were asked to resign due to a scandal involving the police chief who the council suspended for alleged inefficiency and non-payment of bills. That led to a recall vote of the mayor and council, supposedly led by Ole Hanson. 

Murphine’s year did end on an up note for him as he won the recall vote 174 to 130.  But disheartened, early the next year Murphine quit as Mayor after seven years in office and moved to Los Angeles.

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