Dana Point Auto Service owner of 45 years donates historic beacon

From 1928 to 1971, a 125-foot tower welcomed Pacific Coast Highway drivers to the Richfield station in Capistrano Beach. Photo Courtesy of the Dana Point Historical Society
From 1928 to 1971, a 125-foot tower welcomed Pacific Coast Highway drivers to the Richfield station in Capistrano Beach. Photo Courtesy of the Dana Point Historical Society

By Carlos N. Olvera

Still standing, but in a renewed edition, the ARCO gas station at 34342 Pacific Coast Highway has history behind it. The Richfield Oil Corporation was a West Coast industry leader in the 1920s, with its first station opening in Los Angeles in 1917.

Carlos N. Olvera. File photo
Carlos N. Olvera. File photo

Quality was high and profits were up. This was the impetus for a new marketing strategy called the “Great Richfield Way,” announced in July 1928. Richfield laid out a $10-million plan for a string of neon-lighted towers with air beacons on highways from the Mexican to Canadian borders.

The first three were erected in Palm City, Beaumont and Capistrano Beach (September 1928) on what was called Roosevelt Highway. The highway was renamed in 1941, and later alternate U.S. Route 101.

The goal was to have service stations in Spanish-American architecture throughout Southern California to establish a starting point for communities, with a one-story hotel, café, stores and homes. The style changed to English-Norman with steep-roof design going north, beginning in Mount Shasta. The station closed in 1964 but still stands today as a residence on U.S. Highway 99. It too had a beacon, but its top is now adorned by an Osprey nest.

A total of 36 were built with the first lighted on Dec. 17, 1928, on the 25th anniversary of the first flight of the Wright Brothers.

The beacon atop the 125-foot tower—with 8-foot government mandated red neon letters—would rotate as a navigational aid to planes and motorists alike. If not near airfields, as was the case with the local tower, a constant 24-inch directional beacon pointed the way to the nearest airport.

The Richfield Oil Corporation went into receivership due to the depression and merged with Consolidated Oil Corporation. The company was renamed ARCO with the merger of Atlantic Refining Company in 1966. Today it is owned by British Petroleum.

When a lease for the station came available, a newly married young man name Richard Deffenbaugh and his wife Geody bought the lease in 1969. Deffenbaugh was from Fullerton and had surfed in Dana Point since 1962. This was an ideal opportunity to work and surf. His father worked for Richfield and encouraged him to get this very popular station. He went to the Richfield training school for owners and soon set up shop.

Next to the station was a Flake’s Bros. Hamburger stand, located where A’s Burgers is now. In the ’70s the state widened Pacific Coast Highway, which required Richfield to move the 125-foot tower. The cost to do so was prohibitive and it was taken down. Deffenbaugh kept his eye on that flashing beacon.

Dana Point Auto owner Richard Deffenbaugh donated the Richfield Tower beacon to the Dana Point Historical Society. Courtesy photo
Dana Point Auto owner Richard Deffenbaugh donated the Richfield Tower beacon to the Dana Point Historical Society. Courtesy photo

The tower’s dismantling became a news sensation. Local Los Angeles television station, Channel 2, sent out Connie Chung and Deffenbaugh had his 15 minutes of fame. Simply called Dick’s Richfield, he has owned the station for 45 years.

While there, many well-known individuals would stop at this coastal paradise location, either to or from San Diego and Los Angeles. Customers included Lon Cheney, Ester Williams and Fernando Llamas. Steve McQueen also stopped off. He was in the back of a pickup looking for the closest hospital, after breaking his leg in an off-roading motorcycle incident.

On Jan. 22, Deffenbaugh donated the Richfield Tower beacon to the Dana Point Historical Society at their annual meeting. During his presentation, Deffenbaugh related many of his memories over the past 45 years, annotated by his wife. A longtime friend, Paul Tanaka, of the San Juan Capistrano Tanaka Farm, manufactured a stand to support the beacon. It is now on display at the Dana Point Heritage Museum, along with its history.

Carlos N. Olvera is Vice Chair of the OC Historical Commission, and a Dana Point Councilman.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard Deffenbaugh’s Dana Point Auto Service was named Business of the Year by the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 27.

In an effort to provide our readers with a wide variety of opinions from our community, the DP Times provides Guest Opinion opportunities in which selected columnists’ opinions are shared. The opinions expressed in these columns are entirely those of the columnist alone and do not reflect those of the DP Times or Picket Fence Media. If you would like to respond to this column, please email us at editorial@danapointtimes.com.

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