USA East Coast Surfing Begins
When did riding wooden surfboards first begin on the East Coast of the United States? When did the first images of surfing appear and who were the first East Coast surfers?
The first printed image of a surfer on the East Coast is “The Sandwich Island Girl,” on the cover of the cover of the National Police Gazette of August 18, 1888.1 The second is a picture postcard from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina,
hand dated 1907. The first known surfers were Burke Haywood Bridgers at Wrightsville in the late summer of 1909 and Eugene Johnson in Daytona Beach, Florida, at the same time.
All four of these significant historical finds have been discovered in recent years by the same surfer and East Coast research/historian: Joseph “Skipper” Funderburg.2
Wrightsville Beach Postcards, 1907-1920s
With the exception of “The Sandwich Island Girl” etching in 1888, the earliest known image of a surfboard and surfer on the East Coast of the United States is the picture
postcard of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, hand dated 1907.3
The postcard is a photographic view of a large crowd of people surf bathing on the ocean side of Wrightsville’s Sea Shore Hotel. The 1907 postcard clearly shows a surfer boy
on a Hawaiian styled body board (keoe) or possibly short alaia.4
The postcard is entitled “The Sea Shore Hotel, Wrightsville Beach, NC.” In handwriting, the postcard sender wrote: “How about a swimming lesson?” and hand
dated it March 24, 1907. “Based on the date, it’s pretty obvious the photo was taken during the summer of 1906 or before,” wrote East Coast surf historian J. Skipper Funderburg.5
Steve Massengill, author of A North Carolina Postcard Album, agreed: “the photograph could date a year or more earlier.”6
Massengill is considered an expert on the history of picture postcards, having worked in the field of non-textual materials as
a public historian and having published several works in the field.7
“Prior to the days of automobile access,” detailed Skipper Funderburg, “the location is on the old railroad line at Station Three. The Sea Shore Hotel had a magnificent
view out to sea and a gently sloping beach leading to the” Atlantic Ocean. “The hard packed sandy beach between the island and the sea provided the opportunity for guests to bath in the surf. Without question,
the hoopla in the surf invariably crystallized around the nucleus of the oceanfront of the grand hotels, clubs and bathing establishments. We do not know exactly when surf bathers began to clutch wooden planks to their bodies
and hold them before a breaking wave to hitch a ride to shore. We do know surfing in its earliest form was obviously occurring at this location. The wooden planks in the image confirm surfing was occurring on Wrightsville
Beach in 1907, but more likely 1906 or before.”8
Three additional Wrightsville Beach postcards have been found; two hand dated and U.S. Postal Service stamped in 1909 and 1912 and a third hand dated July 19, 1922 and postmarked the following day, showing body boarders surfing
prone on body boards with what may be an alaia sized board.
Wrote Steve Massengill: “it was not uncommon for postcard manufacturers to use the same negative when printing new postcards.” “One will see the same scene on
various postcards with different dates and used on different style cards – undivided back and divided back, etc.” “The companies would use different coloring and sometimes add small details and crop out others.”9
“Postcard companies would hire photographers, either local or itinerant, to take pictures of tourist spots,” explained Funderburg. “Then the companies would produce
multiple printed cards of photos in hopes of cashing in on tourists and vacationers mailing cards back to loved ones. North Carolina postcards were not prevalent until after 1906, and postcards prior to 1912 were printed in
Germany. After 1912, postcards were printed in England and the USA, because of broken ties with Germany.”10
Wrightsville postcard hand-dated 1907:
Wrightsville postcard hand-dated 1909 and US Postal Service stamped:
A closer look:
Wrightsville Beach Postcard, hand dated and U.S. Postal Service stamped July 15, 1912:
Wrightsville Beach Postcard, 1922:
In the book Land of the Golden River, Vol. 1, published in 1975, local author Lewis Phillip Hall (1907-1980), wrote of his personal experiences surfing Wrightsville Beach. “In the early twenties (1920’s), before the jetties were constructed,
a sand bar ran the entire length of the beach. We swam out to the combers where (it was) making up. At times there would be ten or fifteen youths in a crowd. It was a beautiful sight, ten surfers riding the cresting wave a
long time... I'll have to admit, however, that we did not ride our boards standing erect, but lying halfway the board.”11
“Riding the Surfboard”
Back in the Hawaiian Islands, South Carolinian Alexander Hume Ford created and established the Outrigger Canoe and Surfboard Club at Waikiki, Hawaii, in 1908, to develop the “great
sport of surfing in Hawaii.”12
He also wrote about surfing itself. “Riding the Surfboard” was published in the August 14, 1909 edition of Colliers National Weekly, New York City, and read widely throughout the United States. In it, Ford encouraged readers to try the sport.13
Two particular people on USA’s East Coast immediately did so: Burke Haywood Bridgers, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, and Eugene Johnson at Daytona Beach, Florida. Likely,
there were others, but these are the two we know a little bit about.
Burke Bridgers, Wrightsville, late August 1909
We know about Burke Haywood Bridgers because of a letter he wrote to Alexander Hume Ford. Not knowing Ford’s address, Bridgers wrote to him in care
of Colliers. The letter was then “forwarded to the press -- Pacific Commercial Advertiser in Honolulu.”14
Bridgers’ letter was subsequently published in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser on April 2, 1910.15
“The illustrated articles on surfboard riding published in St. Nicholas and in Collier’s by Alexander Hume Ford,” a writer at the newspaper prefaced, “are still attracting attention in the east. Last summer a number of youngsters along the Atlantic Coast attempted to build surfboards,
using the pictures in the St. Nicholas article as models.”16
In his letter, Bridgers asked Ford questions about surf boards and wrote about some experiences he and his friends had had at
the end of the previous summer:
“I was very much interested in your article entitled Riding the Surfboard, which came out in Colliers Weekly for August 14, 1909. During the past summer, we tried this sport to a very considerable extent, but did not meet with any great success, due to the fact the boards
did not have sufficient supporting ability to carry the weight of a man, except when reclining at full length on the board.”17
“Of course,” Bridgers letter continued, “in this case, the body was more or less submerged and therefore buoyed up by the water. I do not know whether this lack
of success was due to the type of board used or the character of the surf on the coast.”18
Bridgers continued: “Most of the surfboards used here were made out of juniper – a very light wood-an inch and a half thick, eighteen to twenty inches wide and from
six to seven feet long.”19
“The Bridgers Family owned large, long established and well financed timber yards,” notes Funderburg, “so the timbers were probably harvested on their own land,
and probably planed there.”20
“Junipers are Atlantic White Cedar (Eastern White Cedar),” Skipper also noted, “and their wood is a traditional favorite of boat and ship builders, as it is resistant
to wood-boring worms. Carolina bays and swamps support vast quantities of Juniper trees.”21
Bridgers wrote to Ford: “These boards would invariably stop and sink in every case where the passenger attempted to stand upright, although the balance
was frequently maintained. The most successful effort toward coming in erect, were by small boys under 100 pounds in weight.”22
Continuing: “The surf on this coast usually breaks within a hundred to a hundred and fifty yards of the shore, except in storms. So far no one has
been able to force a board out beyond the breakers in stormy weather. A pier is now being erected, which during the coming summer will enable us to obviate this difficulty; and if the waves here are sufficiently large, or
the wave speed sufficiently fast we should be able to do all that can be done in other places. If you can give me information on the following points, I will thank you very much.”23
Bridgers ended his letter with some specific questions:
“What is the thickness and weight of the usual Hawaiian surf board?
“Are these boards made perfectly straight on the bottom, or do they curve up at the bow and sides?
“Has anyone ever come in standing up in this country? What is the average height and wave speed in the Hawaiian Islands?
“Are the waves there ridden at all before they break, if so, generally how far?
“Has the experiment of launching these boards from a chute ever been tried?”
“Yours very truly, Burke H. Bridgers.”24
A Pacific Commercial Advertiser writer responded to Bridgers letter, that “Alexander Hume Ford is sending for a juniper board, and is informing the Wilmington, North Carolina correspondent that the board is just right, although the Waikiki
boys now go for boards two inches thick and eight feet long, pointed at the bow and tapering slightly at the stern.”25
“Anyone who has learned to ride and stand on a board at Waikiki can perform the same feat elsewhere, but Hawaii is the only place where rollers form and roll for a quarter
of a mile without breaking.”26
It is not known whether or not Ford wrote or contacted Bridgers subsequently.
In addition to the Bridgers letter to Alexander Hume Ford, there are area newspaper articles mentioning a surfing contest on Wrightsville Beach, at the end of the summer of 1909
and a Lumina Pavilion program guide for a surfing contest on July 4, 1910:
The Wilmington Evening Dispatch, on August 29, 1909, touted a surf board riding contest to be held at the Lumina Pavilion on Labor Day. Similarly, an article in the Wilmington Morning Star of September 1, 1909 described planned Labor Day activities that included “surf board sports, always interesting and entertaining for spectators.”27
In a 2014 interview “Laurence Gray Sprunt, former owner of Orton Plantation, recalled growing up next door to Burke Bridgers at Wrightsville Beach in the late 1930s and 1940s. Sprunt stated that Bridgers
taught local boys how to surf and was the ‘original surfing leader.’”28
From this, we can see that surfing -- at least seasonally
-- became on-going activity at Wrightsville.
Burke Haywood Bridgers, 1903
Eugene Johnson and Wife, Daytona, 1909
At about the same time Burke Haywood Bridgers was making his surfboard in late August, 1909, Eugene Johnson was making his own at Daytona Beach, Florida.
Published on the social page of the Daytona Gazette-News, Florida, “Seabreeze and Daytona Beach” by Mrs. H. A. Bernard, August 28, 1909 documents that Eugene Johnson at Daytona was also inspired by Alexander Hume Ford’s “Riding the Surfboard”
and built his own surfboard and rode it, along with his wife.29
“Eugene Johnson has recently constructed what is called a surfboard, and he and his wife had fine sport at the beach last Thursday afternoon riding the waves. It is a new
wrinkle that is taking well with surf bathers. Eugene got the idea from Colliers Magazine.”30
Since the Daytona article was published Saturday, August 28 and the Collier's
article was published on August 14, that means Bridgers and Johnson were surfing roughly about the same time on Alexander Hume Ford inspired surfboards.
So, in terms of knowing the names of people first surfing the East Coast, credit goes to both Burke Haywood Bridgers and Eugene Johnson and wife, in late August 1909. The earliest
record of surfing in an area -- even if it might just be on a rental board from a bath house -- goes to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Postcard evidence documents surfing activity there before and after Bridgers made
his first board.
Significantly, we also have record of sustained surfing activity at Wrightsville from about 1906 onwards, which we don’t have for Daytona Beach or any other location on the
East Coast. The personal recollections that Burke H. Bridgers continued to surf and helped others surf in the decades following separates it distinctly from Daytona or Virginia Beaches where surfing as an on-going activity
did not begin until the early 1930s, with the arrival of the Tom Blake hollow board.32
Duke Kahanamoku, 1912-1919
Surfing remained virtually unknown on USA’s East Coast until “The Father of Modern Surfing,” Duke Paoa Kahanamoku gave his famous surfing and bodysurfing demonstrations on the Jersey Shore and Long Island, 1912-1919.
On his way back from Stockholm’s Summer Olympics in 1912, Duke stopped at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had first trained prior to going to Europe for the Olympics.
While at Penn, he went down with some others to the Jersey Shore and put on demonstrations of swimming and surfing at Atlantic City and bodysurfing on Long Island, New York.33
Duke recalled that he did not board surf on Long Island in 1912. “I did bodysurf there [in New York, on Long Island] – Far Rockaway
and Sea Gate and places like that. But the boards – I never had a chance to carry a board or anything like that… in 1912, after I came back from the Olympics... I came back to Philadelphia… I was training
there with George Kistler of the University of Pennsylvania… I came back and then I went over to Atlantic City and rode the board there (laughs) and the water was, well – water was all right [it was probably much
colder than he was used to]. And then I… [took] that doggone board. I’d carry it on the pier and then throw it off the pier. And, you know, those piers down at Atlantic City there [are] very high. I used to chuck
this doggone surfboard off the pier and into the water and then jump or dive and picked up the board and then ride them by the side of the pier.”34
After 1912, Duke Kahanamoku continued his surfing ambassadorship along the Atlantic East Coast, during his time with the Red Cross, as part of the war effort.35
“I was part of a group of aquatic stars organized into a unit with the Red Cross for the purpose of touring the Continent and Canada,” explained Duke. “We put
on water sports exhibitions before vast crowds to collect revenue for relief for the war wounded... I demonstrated surfboard riding at Castles-by-the-Sea, the Long Island resort started by Vernon Castle, the great dancer of
that era. A big storm was blowing, but we were on limited time and we wouldn’t be back; so it was then or not at all. Cold was the word! But the gods smiled down upon me, for I didn’t have to sit my board for long. I caught a giant swell and roared in all the way
to shore at express train speed. The throng on shore loved it.”36
“Some instruction followed, then a lot of advice on how to build boards – and the seed was planted there. Surfing took hold...”37
Labels: 1888, 1907, 1909, 1912, 1919, Alexander Hume Ford, Burke Haywood Bridgers, Daytona Beach, Duke Kahanamoku, Eugene Johnson, Long Island, New Jersey, postcards, Sandwich Island Girl, Wrightsville Beach