Imagine driving through San Clemente in the 1930s or 1940s on the two-lane road that was the only way to get from Los Angeles to San Diego. Suddenly, there are flashing lights behind you, and you are pulled over for speeding.
San Clemente had a reputation as being the place where you would get a ticket if you didn’t slow down to 25 mph. In fact, popular comedian Bob Hope made San Clemente famous by complaining on the radio that the only way to not get a ticket was to swim by or fly over after he was ticketed for speeding through town.
The police officer most well-known for these tickets was nicknamed “The Red Rider.” His real name was Bruce Crego, and he had red hair. He handed out more than 5,000 tickets per year, and it is said that his tickets helped to support the town of then approximately 2,000 people.
San Clemente was incorporated in 1928, and town officials realized right away that they would need a fire station and a police station. Within a year, they had built a fire station with a volunteer fire crew, and within another year, there was a “police force” comprising two officers.
It was years later when an actual jail was built next to the fire station. Later, more space was added for a city yard and a blacksmith shop. The city yard for the police and the fire station was used by the city until 1962, when a new building was built on Avenida Presidio. The city yard space was used until 1974, when it was purchased and converted to restaurants and shops.
The San Clemente Police liked to think that it saved lives by ticketing people for speeding. El Camino Real, also known as Highway 101, was nicknamed “Slaughter Alley,” because so many people died driving on the winding two-lane road between Los Angeles and San Diego.
These were the days before seat belts and airbags. Tickets were also given for drunk driving, and it’s likely that these people spent a night in jail.
You can visit this historic space at 111 W. Avenida Palizada. It is called “The Old Town San Clemente,” and there are now shops and restaurants there. It’s been in business since the 1970s.
The old jail cells have always been available for diners. The most recent restaurant in the old jailhouse space is Inka Mama’s. It is a popular Peruvian restaurant that has been in town for years, but moved to the Old Town a few years ago.
Its main dining room is in what was once the blacksmith shop, and it is currently renovating the old jail, so it can serve guests in this space as well.
Today, you can park your car inside the old city yard and choose a restaurant in which to dine.
Christine Lampert is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society, as well as the American Institute of Architects (AIA,) and has designed many projects in San Clemente and in California. She has been a professor of architecture at USC, OCC and SCAD Hong Kong. She and her family have lived in San Clemente for more than 46 years.