Friday, October 15, 2010

Spies in Centennial Park

Doug M. recently wrote with an interesting query: "I have often wondered what the government installation was at the southwest corner of Edinger Ave. and Fairview St. [many years ago] ...I remember seeing large 'No Trespassing, Government Property," signs. The property is developed now and nothing remains of the white, large, two-story, woodframe structure that once stood in the middle of the field. Was it a listening post, agricultural research, etc...?"
Today, the site in question is part of Santa Ana and has become Centennial Park, Hector Godinez High School, and the Heritage Museum of Orange County.
Newspapers and the web turned up very little information on the site's history, so I dug into the historical aerial photos. The 1959 image of the site, shown above, is probably the most interesting. (Click to enlarge.) At first, it appears to be a farm house with a circular driveway, surrounded by open fields. But curiously, the fields appear to be fallow in most years. Even more curiously, closer inspection reveals a rather large array of antennas spread across the property.
The 1955 aerial (detail shown below), shows a white, circular object to the east of the "farmhouse," It looks a bit like those radar installations that dotted Orange County during the Cold War.
Next, I contacted Greg Rankin, President of the Orange County Historical Society and Principal of Godinez High School. He didn't know anything about it, but forwarded my query to my old pal Adam England at the aforementioned Heritage Museum of Orange County.
Adam wrote, "I have some info on the Centennial Park land I’ve gleaned through numerous interviews with various founders of this museum as well as my own research. ...On June 9, 1941, the United States Government acquired the land from W.F. and Marine M. Croddy.
"...The property was used during WWII for 'spy training', the antennas on the picture were 300’ relay towers, during the Cold war, utilized for missile guidance. The farm house was a two story affair, made of thick cement, with three additional stories underground, used by government for unknown purposes. Paul Reardon, one of the early founders of [our] museum, wanted to put his office there but was refused. Individual farmers were allowed to farm the land, and the Santa Ana Unified School District was permitted to park equipment there.
"It was owned by the government until June 15, 1967 when it was donated to the Santa Ana Unified School District. The remaining 99 acres were given to form Centennial Park and [an annex of] Santa Ana College sometime after this period.
."SAUSD put Mitchell School on the grounds, but the rest sat unused. They were informed they would lose the land if they didn’t do anything with it of an educational nature. That was when the Exploratory Learning Center, [now the Heritage Museum of Orange County,] was formed around 1980."
It just goes to show that you never know what historic sites may be right in your own backyard.

(See the follow-up post HERE.)


Jim B said...

I remember that site very well. As a young newly licensed ham radio operator in 1967 I allways had an interest in the antennas. A couple of my friends went up to the gate one day to see if they could take a tour but were told (not in friendly terms either) to leave. When we first moved to OC in 1964 it seemed like it was out in the middle of nowhere.

Doug MacIntosh said...

Thank you Chris for your diligent research. You have shed light on a childhood curiosity. My how OC has changed. I too remember this complex sitting out in the "middle of now where".
Wonder if there is an EIR for the park that describes the historic uses of the site?
Would be cool to see a historic street view of the old complex.

Chris Jepsen said...

I don't know about an EIR, but pretty much everyone I talk to remembers that there was a "secret government facility" there or a "radar installation" or something like that. Finding someone with more details was the trickier bit. My thanks (again) to Adam England.

CoxPilot said...

Growing up in Santa Ana (we lived in the 1400 block of Olive, just off Edinger and Flower) we would ride our bikes out west on Edinger (past Lukin's Dairly) to the Santa Ana river, to the notorious Edinger dip. This was about 1955. One time we decided to take out pellet guns out to the river and hunt mice and rats. We parked our bikes at the bottom of the dip in the sand and proceeded to walk west down the river to see what we could find. This placed us parallel with the antennas. Then, suddenly, we were confronted with a couple of men with guns and badges, and were told that we were not to be in that area, and that it would be best if we left. They said they were government guards, not police, and we would not be reported if we didn't return. We never did.

ItsNotAPlace said...

Wow... I had never thought about that plot of land where the park and the museum is... but it makes sense. Most of the parks in OC seem to have been former military property. Loved the post! Always fascinating!

Trapped in a box said...

I wonder if the three underground stories are filled in or still under there!

Rich S. said...

I grew up in the area from 1953 to 1963. I was told by my father, a federal employee, that the site was an FCC monitoring station, the largest on the west coast. It was guarded because of the "threat of war and possibility of communications takeovers" and remember, this was when people were putting bomb shelters in their back yards.

Doug said...

This was a great post Chris. Thanks for your digging efforts.
Had a friend check for an EIR, etc..nothing was ever filed as far as we could find.

Revert Cancer Survivor said...

Historic aerials says that at first it was an "FCC" site, then later became an "FAA" site. Of course, that is the story for public consumption. A truly secret government site isn't going to come right out and SAY "we are a secret government site," right? Look how long the government said "Area 51? What Area 51?" and "Groom lake? We don't have anything at Groom lake!"

Watson aName said...

The FCC called it a monitoring station. The monitoring stations were used to make sure the commercial broadcasters were complying with the broadcasting regulations. But the antennas were much more sophisticated than what they needed to do that. So 'spy' station is probably more appropriate.

Watson aName said...

I guarantee that they are totally gone. I worked there for Santa Ana College, and I've been in all the buildings where Centennial Education Center is, and I have never seen anything underground.

Watson aName said...

There was also an antenna farm in the mountains up by Santiago Peak. I think this was also a government facility.

Watson aName said...

There was an RCA Global Communications antenna farm in Cerritos, I believe. They transmitted telegraph messages on 475 kHz, to locations overseas. My educated guess is that this 'monitoring station' was intercepting messages from overseas to the Cerritos site. The basement was probably filled with teletype machines.