The story of the Playa Ensenada begins in 1924 when a group of entrepreneurs formed the Ensenada Beach Club, S. A., in Baja California with the idea to create a resort. This particular enterprise was founded in Mexico to capitalize on the profits being made along the border due to Prohibition. Between 1919 and 1933, many people invested in casinos, hotels, brothels and saloons south of the border where liquor was easy to obtain, buy and sell. Ensenada was chosen for the site of the new beach club because of its competitive location 65-miles south of Tijuana and Mexicali, border towns crowded with all kinds of hotels and gambling houses. In 1928, the American professional boxer Jack Dempsey—at one time the world heavyweight champion—became the public face of a resort that sold itself as a place to enjoy sport fishing, hunting, and beach activities. Although the hotel was never a financial success, its story sheds light on the long history of US-Mexican investment in Baja California.

One of the earliest settlements in the region, the port city of Ensenada began to be developed in the 1880s by the British-operated Mexican Land and Colonization Company. Designated as the capital of the Northern District of Baja California in 1882, Ensenada was influenced by both English and American capitalist enterprises. According to historian David Piñera, “Its urban development and economy, as well as several other substantial aspects of its existence as a human community, depended to some extent on foreign companies.”1 With the development of agriculture in Mexicali and surrounding areas in the early 1900s, the Mexican Colonization Company began to lose interest in the region. The government of President Porfirio Díaz, nevertheless, reaffirmed its concessions in 1906. In 1915, the capital of Northern Baja California was moved from Ensenada to Mexicali. Two years later, during the Mexican Revolution and brief government of President Venustiano Carranza, the concessions held by the Company were made null and void because of “the nonfulfillment of the duties stipulated in the concession contracts and restricting access by Mexican growers to agricultural lands by fixing high sales or leasing.”2

When the dust settled after the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, foreign investors were again attracted to Baja California. They, however, found that they had to invest in infrastructure in order to profit from the exploitation of any kind of activity in the region. This was the case of the Agua Caliente Mexican Company, established in Tijuana by American entrepreneurs and Abelardo L. Rodríguez, governor of the Northern District of Baja California, to establish and manage the hotel and casino Agua Caliente. The governor played a key role as he served as a tenant and facilitated the land where the hotel was constructed. The Agua Caliente group, meanwhile, advertised extensively in San Diego and Los Angeles newspapers and magazines in order to attract tourists.3

Ensenada circa 1928. José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection, Archivo Histórico de Ensenada.

The media also covered Ensenada, located approximately 65 miles south of the border. Travel writers portrayed Ensenada as a peaceful get-away spot, unlike the noisy and boisterous Tijuana. In 1924, Aurelio de Vivanco described the city in his Baja California Al Día, Lower California Up to Date, remarking on its wide streets, timber-framed houses, “each with its small and pretty garden,” and population of 3,000 inhabitants. He continued, … the tourists that come by the thousands to this beautiful port find a pleasure in contemplating its extremely attractive beach of some ten kilometers in length by two hundred meters in width, from where excellent fishing is to be had and beautiful sunset views to be obtained, the fantastic full moon effects produced in the vast liquid mass of the bay reflecting with their planetary rays what may be compared as to an immense mollusk with a moving shell which reflects all the shades from the emerald green to an intense indigo blue, while the fanciful mirror of the sea shining on the shore reflects with the clearness of the moon breaking of the huge waves with the curtain of spume which gently kiss the beach of the sleeping city.4

De Vivanco emphasized that Ensenada’s inhabitants spoke English perfectly, so if Californians visited they would have no problem communicating. Located close to the border, it had a number of American residents. This made Ensenada a favorable place for vacationing in Baja California, as it also had a calm and friendly background. De Vivanco’s description of Ensenada was typical of Southern California’s press; one can find similar examples in The San Diego Sun and The San Diego Union. We do not know if any American capitalist relied on newspaper reports, books, or pamphlets to choose Ensenada as the place to develop a tourist complex in Baja California, but if he did, he certainly would have concluded that Ensenada was an ideal place to invest, particularly as it had not changed much in years since its founding (1882) and did not have yet a large luxury hotel.

The Ensenada Beach Club, S.A. was formed with the idea to erect a grand hotel on the beach of Ensenada. The exact date of its creation is unknown but by June 1, 1924, it was announced that the Club was made up of one hundred founding members, plus an advisory council of 10 members. Table 1 lists the names of the members of the Advisory Board of Ensenada Beach Club and Table 2 (see Appendix A) lists the names and occupations of the hundred founding members of the Club.

As a first step to ensure the success of the future hotel, investors arranged for transportation to get tourists from California to Ensenada. In the maritime field, the Club requested the services of the Los Angeles-based California Marine Transportation Company to establish special rates for passengers who wanted to go to Ensenada in their company’s steamers. In August 1924, the ocean transport company agreed to this and the Club members were advised that the company had unanimously decided to support the request and set a special rate for those who decided to travel to Ensenada. In addition, the Company informed the Club that as of October 1924 they could perform the service in one of their boats.5

American investors and members of Club Internationale in Ensenada, circa 1928. From left to right:
1. Unidentified man, 2. Unidentified man, 3. James L. Miller, 4. Charles Baad, 5. L.S. Rounsavelle, 6.
Unidentified man, 7. Unidentified man, 8. Unidentified woman, 9. Unidentified man, 10. F.G. Hoffine, 11. Unidentified man, 12. Malcolm Crowe. Photo author’s collection.

After establishing the agreement for the transfer of passengers by sea, members of the Ensenada Beach Club approached the Douglas Aircraft Company based in Santa Monica, California. Due to the great success that the American aeronautical industry was having at this time—airplanes being an attractive and novel means of transportation—it was agreed that the company would be ideal to carry out this movement of tourists to Baja California. Founded in 1921, the Douglas Aircraft Company built numerous large and small aircraft that established and broke world aviation records. In fact, on the date that the Club requested the services of this company, four of its aircraft were circling the world.

In early September 1924, Douglas Aircraft informed the Club that they were willing to offer their services to fly passengers on one of their aircraft to the Mexican port. To carry out the route between Santa Monica and Ensenada, they put in service the modified biplane Cloudster for the transfer of passengers. This aircraft had been chosen to circumnavigate the world but, at the last minute, another aircraft from the same company was selected to perform this task. A unique model, the Cloudster had flown for the first time in 1921; by 1923, it had already been adapted to fly passengers from one point to another. It could seat first five, then seven, finally ten passengers. It flew from Santa Monica to Ensenada from 1924 to 1926 when a mechanical failure caused the aircraft to make a forced landing on the beach. It was destroyed by the rising tide before it could be rescued.6

For unknown reasons, the Ensenada Beach Club, S.A. dissolved in 1926. A very small number of its members, however, joined a new company called Club Internationale, S.A. in order to continue the project of building the tourist complex in Ensenada. The officers included F. G. Hoffine, President; P. H. Halbriter, Vice President; John Hauerwass, Treasurer; and J. K. McDonald, Secretary and Manager.

Club Internationale registered in Mexico as the Ensenada Development Company (EDC) so that they could acquire land from the central government of Mexico. They also gained the necessary rights and privileges on Mexican soil.

The Cloudster offered two-hour trips to Ensenada from Los Angeles. Photo captioned “Ladies of the Air starting for Ensenada.” José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection, Archivo Histórico de Ensenada.

On January 15, 1926, EDC signed a contract with various Mexican government agencies in Mexico City, pledging to build a post office in Ensenada and to carry out the construction of a modern commercial pier that would serve to supply or discharge cargo of large boats. In return, the Mexican government provided a long-term lease on the property that EDC had requested for the purpose of building a hotel. EDC (and the investors in Club Internationale) could boast of having the only concession for the creation of a grand resort by the beach in Baja California (see Table 4, Appendix C).7

In addition to announcing the project in the San Diego and Los Angeles press, the Club produced a book in English, Club Internationale of Ensenada (1926), describing the creation of a high-class resort in Ensenada (see Table 3, Appendix B). At a time when the “attractions” in border cities like Tijuana included drinking and gambling, the hotel offered different kinds of relaxation. Activities revolved around the outdoors such as swimming, fishing, boating, and hunting. If a visitor wanted to enjoy card games, roulette, and so on, the hotel had a casino lounge to meet those needs, as well as a small canteen where they could get alcoholic drinks; however, none of these services were intended to be the main attraction of the hotel.

Visitors were enticed by descriptions of the beach and the bay. Photographs in the Club Internationale of Ensenada showed the length of the beach in Ensenada and the tranquility of its waves. The promotional book promised calm waters with no dangerous currents. The bather would have to swim 200 meters off the shore to reach deep water. As such, it was a perfect venue for swimming events. Avid sport fishermen were informed that Ensenada Bay produced great quantities of commercial fish, including tuna, swordfish, yellowfin, barracuda, bonito, cod, sea bass and other species. In the environs of Punta Banda, south of Ensenada, there were abundant fields of lobster that provided local meals. The Club promised to make available fast boats, elegantly decorated and piloted by expert fishermen who in a matter of minutes could transfer the sport fisherman to the best spots. Boat rides, meanwhile, offered views of one of the most beautiful marine gardens on the Pacific Coast, with large plants, huge goldfish and other striking species.8

Hunting was another activity that visitors could pursue. This sport was becoming increasingly popular in California, drawing hunters from different parts of the United States. Relatively few people hunted in Baja California, however, so the area had plentiful deer. Mountain lambs, wild pigeons, and peacocks could also be found in some places around Ensenada. For the comfort of the guests who wanted to try their hand, the hotel owners offered excursions to look for these species. Club Internationale of Ensenada described the possibilities for sport as follows:

To the members of the Club Internationale and chosen guests
will be offered the incomparable allurement of exclusive access to
a vast track of proven hunting grounds which are almost virgin
territory for ducks. This huge acreage is known as the Ojos Negros
Rancho and comprises some twenty-three thousand (23,000) acres.
It is situated but 28 miles from Ensenada, over a fair dirt road,
and upon a high mesa of near 3000 feet elevation. In this high
country the hunter is assured bright, crisp mornings through the
summer and a bag of ducks from three to six weeks earlier than
upon the lowlands. The magnificent and unparalleled preserve lies
in a high basin, surrounded by timbered mountains; and dotted
over portions of its surface are six perpetual spring-fed lakes,
skirted by long grass tules, where all manner of ducks nest and
feed through the entire year, and where deer have always been
plentiful upon the borders of this mesa. An Overnight Lodge, in
charge of a chef and an attendant, will be at the service of the Club
Members, who will be provided with transportation from Ensenada
in Club automobiles. No other exclusive hunting preserve of similar
magnitude, or so ideally located, is so readily accessible—sufficient
enticement, in itself, to lovers of this fast waning sport.

Construction material on the beach for the completion of the Playa Ensenada Hotel, 1929. Photo author’s collection.

Other sporting activities included golf, tennis, polo and horseback riding. The Club planned to erect one of the most attractive golf courses on the Pacific coast with nineteen instead of the traditional eighteen holes. Modern cement tennis courts would be built, along with polo grounds. Horseback riders could travel from the hotel to one of several summerhouses located on the hills above the port where they would have a beautiful view of the sea.10

First, however, the investors had to fulfill their promises to make costly improvements to Ensenada’s infrastructure. After starting to construct a pier in the port of Ensenada between 1926 and 1927, the EDC ran out of money, ceded its rights in the project, and granted its obligations to the Ensenada Improvement Company (hereinafter EIC), a subsidiary of the Compañía Mexicana del Rosarito (hereinafter CMR), consisting mainly of US shareholders.11

CMR had been formed in 1928 as a way to obtain the concessions granted to companies who left behind unfinished tourist projects in Rosarito and Ensenada.12 Its management included Penn Philipps, president; Manuel Reachi, vice president; Jack Dempsey, second vice president; W. Byron Nelly, treasurer; Andres de Segurola, secretary; and Gene Normile, games and sports manager. The officers of its subsidiary, the EIC, were C. B. Kerr, president and general manager; Thomas C. Brady; James L. Miller; and José Vera Estañol. Both Reachi and Estañol were important shareholders.13

In order to make the necessary contracts to erect the tourist complex in the port of Ensenada, Brady was sent to Mexico City as the representative of the EIC. On March 9, 1928, he signed a contract with Colonel Adalberto Tejeda, Secretary of the Interior, for the establishment and operation of games and sports in a seaside resort to be built in the port of Ensenada. The authorized recreational activities were: fishing; swimming; regattas; excursions in airplanes, riding cars or other vehicles or means of locomotion; golf; polo; baseball; football; tennis and any other ball games; fights including boxing; exercises or maneuvers of all kinds in which the strength or skill of the people were tested; sports and games of all kinds, including card games like poker in its various varieties; seven and a half or twenty-one; dice games or dominoes; coin and slot machines; and lotteries in all its varieties. The company could also establish billiards, bowling, and a canteen in connection with the hotel.14

The opening of the hotel would bring favorable economic benefits to the federal, state and municipal government since, among other things, it was stipulated in the contract that the EIC would pay 25 percent tax on the profits collected in the hotel for the license of games and sports authorized. This percentage would be divided as follows: 10 percent to the federal government, 10 percent to the state government, and 5 percent to the municipal government. In addition, the municipal government of Ensenada would be paid the taxes due to operate in this locality.

Construction of the Playa Ensenada Hotel, 1929. José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection,
Archivo Histórico de Ensenada.

Brady and Ramon Ross, Secretary of State and the Office of Communications and Public Works of Mexico, signed a contract on March 10, 1928, in which land was leased to the EIC to develop a tourist complex on the beach of the port of Ensenada. Under this contract, it was specified in the second clause that the EIC was obligated to complete the construction of the fiscal pier started by the EDC, with a value of 250,000.00 pesos, and upon completion of the work, it would be owned by the nation. In addition, it was determined in the same contract that once the pier was completed, the EIC would build a railroad for the transportation of cargo and passengers and a post office at a cost of 30,000.00 pesos.15 This contract did not contain provisions for the sale of alcohol. The EIC intended to create a tourist complex that attracted a clientele interested in relaxation and recreation, not liquor and gambling.

Sideview of the construction of the Playa Ensenada Hotel by the beach, circa 1929. Photo author’s collection.

Inspecting the treasures of Gordon E. Mayer seen in the background. From left to right: 1. Unidentified man, 2. F.G. Hoffine, 3. José Maria Tapia (interim Governor of Baja California), 4. David Zarate Zazueta
(Mayor of Ensenada on several occasions), 5. James L. Miller, 6. Charles Baad, 7. L.S. Rounsavelle.
José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection, Archivo Histórico de Ensenada.

In addition to the land leased to the EIC in this contract, located in blocks 31, 32, 48, 49, 50 and 51 facing the sea, according to Richard Stephens’s map of the Colonia Carlos Pacheco of 1887, known also as Ensenada, the company would be entitled to 7,500 meters of the beach area between the tourist complex and the fiscal pier.16 This portion of federal property would have a platform or sidewalk for free public access on foot or in cars, so long as the safety of pedestrians was respected. The term for the concession of all these improvements in Ensenada— the creation of a tourist complex on the beach and the lease of the land on which the platform stood, as well as the free use of the pier—would be for nineteen years and eleven months.17

The EIC also could make agreements with any shipping company for the transport of passengers without paying taxes for the use of the dock or railroad that would be built at the port. This coincided with the arrangements made by the Ensenada Beach Club with the California Marine Transportation Company back in 1924 to carry out this work.

By the middle of 1928, the EIC had begun construction of the hotel, now called the Playa Ensenada, in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Popularized by the Panama-California Exposition (1915), this style was used through the 1920s and 1930s in an attempt to recreate what people believed to have been the indigenous architecture of Spanish California.

Alfredo Ramos Martinez posing with one of his paintings in the Playa Ensenada Hotel, circa 1930.
José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection, Archivo Histórico de Ensenada. Reproduced with
the permission of ©The Alfredo Ramos Martinez Research Project.

Characteristics included white stucco walls, red roof tiles, and wood-beamed ceilings. Much of the material for its construction was transported from California by sea because Ensenada lacked the wood and construction resources to carry out the work.18

Controversy over the land on which the hotel complex was to be located, however, delayed the start of construction. Carlos de Hoyos, a resident of the port, claimed the land as his property and prevented construction from being carried out. The CMR, however, claimed to have obtained the blocks from Alejandro Guerrero y Porres, a resident of Ensenada, in August 1929. The latter wrote to the District governor in confirming CMR’s purchase

On April 16, 1926, that Government [of the Northern District of Baja California]
ordered the Municipal President of this port to carry out the procedure; that in compliance with that order, the Municipal President, in delegation, of that Government, dated May 20, 1926, awarded me these blocks of land at a public auction. That on the 29th of August last [1929], in turn, I alienated the aforementioned blocks of land to Mr. Manuel Reachi…19

The local authorities, however, could not solve the problem and turned the file over to the Ministry of Agriculture and Development. This department reviewed its documentation and concluded that the land did not belong to de Hoyos but to CMR.20 The EIC was able to continue construction in November 1929, shortly after the stock market crash of October 1929.

Architect Gordon E. Mayer was in charge of both the design and the decoration of the hotel. In the early 1920s he worked in Florida and made several trips to the Caribbean. An avid collector, he brought from the islands many architectural objects such as highly decorated, antique doors and windows from buildings in Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Guadalupe, and Barbados. In order to give the Playa Ensenada a personal touch, he used several pieces from his collection as decoration and constructed niches for their protection.21 To highlight these unique pieces, the EIC produced a pamphlet that revealed a little of their history, where they were originally, how they were used, who owned them, and in what year they were produced.

Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martínez, meanwhile, created neo-Latin American murals both outside and inside the hotel. At the time, Ramos Martínez was in Ensenada waiting for the US consulate to approve his immigration visa to the United States (his daughter had health problems not treatable in Mexico) so it was convenient for him to be employed by the hotel.22

Jack Dempsey (second from left) poses in front of the construction of the Playa Ensenada Hotel in 1929.
José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection, Archivo Histórico de Ensenada.

To make known the work that was being carried out in the port of Ensenada, several notes were published in California newspapers. On December 20, 1929, The San Diego Union included this notice:

The first unit of the sun-bathed enterprise will be opened on May
30, 1930, with a ceremony that is expected to attract dignitaries and
pleasure seekers from the length of the Pacific coast. Jack Dempsey,
former heavyweight title holder, is interested in the resort, as are other
coast sportsmen. Nowhere else can you find within two hours of the
American border such an exotic land as that in and about Ensenada,
a land wholly alien to our own and so fresh and inviting. The trip to
Ensenada along the ocean is like traversing 20 La Jollas rolled into one…
Hundreds of tons of building materials are pouring into Ensenada.23

Jack Dempsey was key to attracting tourists, particularly those interested in recreation and sports rather than drinking and gambling. One of the best boxers of his time, Dempsey appeared in much of the hotel’s advertising between 1929 and 1931. He also built for himself and his wife a private house adjoining the hotel facing the sea.24

View of the Playa Ensenada Hotel once it was finished in October 1930. José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection, Archivo Histórico de Ensenada.

It is likely that Dempsey got involved with the Ensenada hotel through his promoter Gene Normile who had worked in Tijuana for Baron Long, an investor in the Agua Caliente hotel complex. Normile then became the sports and game manager for the new Playa Ensenada hotel and casino. Dempsey’s brother, Joe, was also involved with the CMR to some extent.25 Since Jack Dempsey routinely bought real estate, it is not surprising that he also looked over the California border for investment opportunities (see Table 5, Appendix B).

A new subsidiary company, Hotel Playa Ensenada, S.A., was formed in October 1930 to run the resort. The officers were US hoteliers Charles B. Hervey and James Woods; Henderson Stockton; Joseph Rossi; and Pedro Rendon. The capital stock of that company was $10,000 distributed in 100,000 shares of ten cents each. Hervey was the main shareholder with 99,960 shares, followed by Woods, Stockton, Rossi and Rendon with 10 each.26

The Playa Ensenada hotel and casino opened on October 31, 1930 with Hollywood celebrities and businessmen from California and Baja California in attendance. By this time, Jack Dempsey was the de facto president of the hotel, having been appointed just a few days before the opening. The Playa Ensenada Orchestra played during the festivities, and featured the appearance of famed music director Xavier Cugat, Marga (La mexicanita), Yucatán Quintet, and tenor Luis de Ibargüen.27 It was reported that the $2,000,000 hotel had 74 luxury rooms (down from the 250 rooms announced by the Club Internationale in 1926, and 167 rooms anticipated by the EIC in 1929) along with almost all the activities described in the book published by Club Internacionale in 1926.28

The manager of the hotel, Charles Hervey, invited anyone interested to see the hotel. An article in The San Diego Sun described its striking location:

New hotel and casino Playa Ensenada, destined to be one of the great
resort hotels of the world, completes the perfection of Ensenada, which
has lacked only this mammoth, labyrinthine structure to become the
most notable watering place on the Pacific. Infinitely remote in aspect,
time, color and charm, yet physically distant only minutes by airplane
and a few hours by motorcar or steamer from California, Ensenada
is engagingly accessible. Snugly ensconced between mountains and
ocean, Ensenada possesses an unrivalled natural situation. Cool in
summer, warm in winter, Ensenada is blessed with a resort climate
par excellence. Sheltered by a half-moon bay concededly one of the
most beautiful in existence, Ensenada is a Newport which invites
alike the smallest yacht and the largest steamer. In fact, under the
able direction of Andres de Segurola of the resort company, a series
of yachting regattas and other marine and land sports will be staged
in Ensenada almost continuously as befits this rendezvous pleasure.
Ensenada is a gateway to an unspoiled sportsman’s paradise, on water
as well as land.29

The most practical and convenient way to travel to Ensenada was by sea. On November 1, 1930, the Panamanian vessel Playa Ensenada, under the direction

Jack Dempsey (pictured near the door of the bar holding two pitchers) hosting the workers of the Playa Ensenada in 1930. José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection, Archivo Histórico de Ensenada of the Liberty Line, was made available to those interested in going directly to Ensenada. The steamer Admiral Rogers regularly carried passengers to Ensenada from San Diego and Los Angeles once a week, but added a second voyage once the hotel was built.30 Tourists interested in a little more luxury could opt to take the luxurious steamers Ruth Alexander or Emma Alexander from San Diego or Los Angeles. Operated by the Pacific Steamship Company the Alexander steamers were transoceanic in size, having operated in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. The rates varied from $17.50 to $37.50 per trip from Los Angeles and from $10.00 to $27.50 per trip from San Diego.31

Tourists from California and the plane that brought them to the Playa Ensenada Hotel, circa 1933.
José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection, Archivo Histórico de Ensenada.

Private yachts also played an important role in attracting tourism to the city. In order to take advantage of the Southern California Yachting Association’s excursion to Ensenada, Dempsey promoted a regatta that took place over the weekend of November 15 to 17, 1930. Andres de Segurola organized the various yacht clubs of Southern California, including Southwestern Yacht Club, Santa Barbara Yacht Club, Los Angeles Yacht Club, Long Beach Yacht Club, Newport Yacht Club, and Balboa Yacht Club, and offered a 50 percent reduced rate for contestants. Afterwards, a dinner-dance and presentation of trophies was held at the Playa Ensenada. Mexican actress Dolores del Rio hosted the event and gave each winner a trophy bearing her name. It was estimated that around 50 yachts made the trip to Ensenada, a relatively small number that reveals the impact of the stock market crash among the yacht-owning set.32

Other options for transportation included the automobile; stage coaches operated by the Woollet Stages Company; and a three-engine Ford aircraft from Maddux Airlines that offered weekly air travel between Los Angeles and the Agua Caliente casino in Tijuana.33 A number of Hollywood celebrities visited the hotel in the 1930s, including Frank Morgan, Marion Davies, Merle Norman, Johnny Weismueller, Myrna Loy, Arthur Hornblow, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Lana Turner and Gene Tierney. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst also spent time at the resort.34

In the background and center of the image the Playa Ensenada, Hotel and Casino and to its right Jack Dempsey’s house, circa 1938. José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection, Archivo Histórico de

By 1930, the stock market crash had given way to the Great Depression, with the result that the bubble burst for the investors of the Playa Ensenada. The hotel could not draw large crowds of tourists to Ensenada nor could they get much press attention, unlike Agua Caliente. It is said of the Playa Ensenada enterprise that “Jack Dempsey and Gene Normile backed by way of seeking to outdo the famous Caliente hotel [was a failure because] after a lavish opening to eclipse all openings, the crowds failed to come over the sometimes tortuous old road and Dempsey and Normile gave up the ghost within the first year.”35

Advertising, which had been instrumental in attracting both the investor and the California tourist to Ensenada, declined, as did steamer traffic. As a result, the hotel managers had to shut the resort down for the winter, two months after its grand opening, only reopening it in the summer. This went on and off until its closure in 1938.

Jack Dempsey’s relationship to the Playa Ensenada ended on a sour note, as he apparently lost a sizable amount of money on the resort. A year later, in 1939, he was asked whether he was in Reno, Nevada, to invest in another hotel and casino when, in fact, he was there to divorce his wife Estelle Taylor. Dempsey responded with a laugh, “Ensenada cured me of that type of investment.”36


1.David Piñera, American and English Influence on the Early Development of Ensenada, Baja California,
Mexico (San Diego: Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias, San Diego State University,
1995), 1.
2. Ibid., 80-81.
3. For more information on tourism in Baja California in the 1920s, see Lawrence D. Taylor, “The
Wild Frontier Moves South: U.S. Entrepreneurs and the Growth of Tijuana´s Vice Industry,
1908-1935,” The Journal of San Diego History (hereafter JSDH) 48, no. 3, (Summer 2002): 204-29;
José Alfredo Gómez Estrada, Gobierno y Casinos: El Origen de la Riqueza de Abelardo L. Rodríguez
(2nd ed.; Tijuana, México: Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, 2007); Francisco Alberto
Núñez Tapia, “Aspectos del Turismo en el Distrito Norte de Baja California, 1920-1929,” Meyibó
3, no. 6 (July-December, 2012): 37-67.
4. Aurelio de Vivanco, Baja California Al Día = Lower California Up to Date (Los Angeles: Wolfer,
1924), 225.
5. José Luis Fernández Ruiz-Jeanette Miller Collection, Archivo Histórico de Ensenada.
6. “The Cloudster Passenger Biplane: Historical Snapshot,” Boeing,
history/products/ (accessed March 11, 2017).
7. Club Internationale of Ensenada (Los Angeles: Club Internationale, 1926), 3.
8. Ibid., 3.
9. Ibid., 15.
10. Ibid., 23.
11. Playa Ensenada Hotel, permission and concession to exploit games in favor of the Ensenada
Improvement Company, March 9, 1928, and January 1, 1930, Box 311, File 9, Gobierno del
Estado Collection, Series: Entertainment, sports and games, Archivo Histórico del Estado de
Baja California (hereinafter AHEBC).
12. María Eugenia Bonifaz de Novelo. Centro Social, Cívico y Cultural Antiguo Hotel Playa (Ensenada:
XVII Ayuntamiento de Ensenada, 2003), 8.
13. Baja California Scripture Testimonies. September 25, 1930, tome 53, no. 3007, Archivo General
de Notarías de Baja California (hereafter AGNBC). The subsidiary was intended to last 98 years,
ending in December 2027 with an initial capital stock of 10,000 pesos divided into 10,000 shares,
with a value of one Mexican peso each. C.B. Kerr would be president of the subsidiary until
December 31, 1929 and was replaced in this position by Manuel Reachi, Vice President of the
CMR. Neither Jack Dempsey, the face and attraction of the hotel, C.B. Kerr the president of
EIC nor James Miller, builder of the resort in Ensenada, were listed as shareholders.
14. Playa Ensenada Hotel, March 9, 1928, AHEBC.
15. Ibid.
16. Antonio Padilla Corona, “Influencias urbanas en la región” in Ensenada: Nuevas aportaciones
para su historia (Mexicali: Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, 1999), 250.
17. Playa Ensenada Hotel, March 10, 1928, Box 311, File 9, Gobierno del Estado Collection, Series:
Entertainment, sports and games, AHEBC.
18. Claudia M. Calderón Aguilera and Bruno Geffroy Aguilar, Un siglo de arquitectura en Ensenada
(México: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 2001), 40. Architect James L. Miller
supervised the project. In her writings, María Eugenia Bonifaz de Novelo indicated that
there were additional builders on the project aside from Miller, Bill Blexton, and engineer
Negrete, but evidence could not be found among the documents used for this article. María
Eugenia Bonifaz de Novelo, “The Hotel Riviera del Pacifico, Social, Civic and Cultural Centerof Ensenada,” JSDH 29, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 77-85; Bonifaz de Novelo, Centro Cívico Social, Cívicoy Cultural Riviera de Ensenada.
19. Playa Ensenada Hotel, March 10, 1928, AHEBC.
20. Ibid.
21. “Introducing Gordon E. Mayer,” The San Diego Sun, November 7, 1930.
22. Ibid.; Bonifaz de Novelo, Centro Cívico Social, Cívico y Cultural Riviera de Ensenada, 8.
23. “San Diegan Named Director of Ensenada Resort,” The San Diego Union, December 20, 1929.
24. The “Dempsey House,” as local residents called it, was built on the beach property of the
Playa Ensenada hotel. Dempsey built it for his wife Estelle Taylor at a cost of $35,000, but the
couple never occupied it because they separated by the time it was ready for occupancy.
“Weissmuller Lessee of Ensenada Home,” The San Diego Union, July 7, 1938.
25. In his autobiography, Jack Dempsey writes that his brother Joe was a successful real estate
investor in Los Angeles, but he does not provide further details of his work. Jack Dempsey,
Dempsey by the Man Himself as told to Bob Considine and Bill Slocum (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1960), 191, 219.
26. Baja California Scripture Testimonies, October 4, 1930, tome 51, number 2922, AGNBC.
27. Playa Ensenada Hotel, October 31, 1930, AHEBC.
28. “Introducing Gordon E. Mayer,” The San Diego Sun, November 7, 1930.
29. “Be my guest at Ensenada,” The San Diego Sun, November 5, 1930.
30. “Ship Starts New Ensenada Service,” The San Diego Sun, November 1, 1930.
31. Ensenada, Old México. California´s Glorious Week-end Cruise to the Old World (Los Angeles: Pacific
Steamship Co., 1930).
32. “Ensenada Regatta Planned,” The San Diego Sun, November 5, 1930; “Yachtsmen Stand by for
Ensenada Cruise, Races,” The San Diego Sun, November 13, 1930; “Seven Local Cruisers in
Race Today,” The San Diego Sun, November 15, 1930.
33. “Maddux Airlines,” The Maddox Family,
maddox-famous/maddux-airlines (accessed March 11, 2017).
34. Del Hotel Playa Ensenada al Centro Cultural Riviera, 75 años de historia gráfica (Mexicali: Gobierno
del Estado de Baja California / Museo de Historia de Ensenada, 2005), 13.
35. “Second Glance,” The San Diego Union, April 9, 1953.
36. “Jack Dempsey Admits He Is In Reno To Get Divorce From Estelle,” The San Diego Union, April
13, 1931.