Thursday, December 21, 2023

O.C. Q&A: Disneyland Edition

The Dairy Bar in Tomorrowland, 1957 (Courtesy Dave DeCaro,

Q:  Which Disneyland attraction was the biggest flop?

A:  The short-lived, twenty-million-dollar Light Magic parade (1997), with step-dancing, child-frightening pixies is a contender for this. But does a parade count as an attraction? 

Some of the worst attractions were the “filler” stuffed into the still-incomplete Tomorrowland during the first few years Disneyland was open. At least the Color Gallery, sponsored by Dutch Boy Paint, let kids mix and match colors and kept its doors open into the early 1960s. 

But the Dairy Bar, sponsored by the American Dairy Association, was a (milk) dud which disappeared in less than three years.  It featured static models of futuristic cows watching color TVs and of milkmen making deliveries in helicopter jetpacks. At the spine-tingling conclusion, guests received a glass of milk. Lactose-intolerant guests undoubtedly appreciated the Bathroom of Tomorrow exhibit next door.

You can read much more about the Dairy Bar and view lots of photos on my pal Dave DeCaro's wonderful Daveland website. 

Q:.  What else, other than "it's a small world," came to Anaheim from the 1964 New York World's Fair?

A:  Disney ended up adopting numerous attractions they'd developed for the Fair, including Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, from the Illinois Pavilion; General Electric's Carousel of Progress; and animatronic dinosaurs from Ford's Magic Skyway. 

The Dancing Waters, a German water and light show, operated like a pipe organ, was featured at the Fair and was a fixture at the Disneyland Hotel from 1970 into the 2000s. 

Another European import to the Fair, The Wide World In Wax, spent 1966 and 1967 at 1850 S. Harbor Blvd. Its columned facade now graces the Hotel Lulu. The museum featured "religious, fictional and historical scenes with over 100 wax figures." Their figure of Moses looked exactly like his driver's license photo.

Q:  What’s the strangest-ever Disneyland attraction?

A:  There have been some pips, from the aforementioned Bathroom of Tomorrow to a cow with Mickey Mouse-shaped spots. But it’s hard to top the high weirdness of The Wizard of Bras. 

When Disneyland opened, the Hollywood-Maxwell Brassiere Co. had an Intimate Apparel Shop on Main Street. In addition to racks of unmentionables, the store had a show. The Wizard of Bras -- a  talking figure that predated “audio animatronics” -- served as MC for an 1890s fashion show. As the show’s revolving stage turned, “3D” images of models did a nap-inducing strip tease, from turn-of-the-century outerwear to just corsets and pantaloons. The shop closed six months after opening. The storefront, with a porch and a couple chairs out front, can still be found on the east side of Main Street.

See photos and read more about the Wizard it at my friend Werner Weiss' wonderful Yesterland website.

Q:  Where does the slang term "E ticket" come from?

A:  Orange Countians of a certain age will remember when Disneyland, rather than including all attractions with general admission, sold ticket books. From 1959 until ticket books were completely phased out in 1982, the most popular attractions required an "E ticket." The least popular were A tickets. B, C, and D ticket attractions fell between. Internally at least, Disney still refers to their snazziest rides as "E tickets." Today, this O.C.-born phrase is used nationwide to describe any major adrenaline-producing experience. Examples of real-life E ticket experiences include skating down slopes of Laguna's Third Street, bodysurfing at the Wedge, and making the steep ascent out of John Wayne Airport.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

O.C. Q&A: Christmas Edition

Newport Beach City Hall, decked out of "40 Miles of Christmas Smiles," 1950.
Q:  Did O.C. have any special Christmas traditions that have now been forgotten?

A:  Yes, lots! But the biggest was "Forty Miles of Christmas Smiles," a town-versus-town decorating contest. All along the Orange County coast, piers, city halls, businesses, homes, boats, churches and schools featured elaborate exhibits. Once, Huntington Beach even turned an oil derrick into a giant Christmas tree and topped a row of oil pumps with Santa's Sleigh and reindeer, so they appeared to fly as the pumps worked. Started during the Depression, the contest was sponsored by local chambers of commerce and the Orange County Coast Association. World War II temporarily halted the event, but it didn't actually end until the mid-1970s, when energy conservation efforts took the fun out of it.

Q:  How did Christmas Cove, in South Laguna, get its name?

A.  Certain weather and ocean conditions – which often appear around Christmas – sometimes create a temporary sand bar and surfing break at this small beach near Blue Lagoon and the Montage Resort. According to Laguna Beach Marine Safety Captain Tom Trager, it all began over the holidays during the El Niño years of 1982 and 1983. A few local kids, with two weeks of vacation and a great new surf spot, began calling the beach “Christmas Cove.” Over a decade ago, a lifeguard tower was placed there, and the name became official. The break still reappears from time to time, like Brigadoon.

Q:  How did land-locked Villa Park end up with a holiday boat parade?

A:  In 1981, five teens launched the tongue-in-cheek Villa Park High School Yacht Club.  At a 1982 holiday party, one member's father, Chuck Beesley, expanded the idea by proposing "The First Annual Unofficial Non-Sanctioned Villa Park Dry-Land Holiday Lighted Boat Parade," poking fun at Newport's famous traditional Christmas boat parade. Some of Villa Park’s hastily decorated entries were pretty motley. But thousands came to watch 38 festooned boats towed through the streets. The event returned in 1983 but then fell apart. However, people remembered the parade fondly, and in 1998 it was revived in a community effort led by City Councilman Richard Freschi. Today, a lampoon of a tradition has become its own tradition.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

A Kellogg House blast from the past

The H. Clay Kellogg House, Santa Ana, in 2019.
I just stumbled across this old Los Angeles Times article (below) from January 1, 1994. I apologize for drifting into nostalgia, but A) At least it relates directly to local history, and B) It's my blog, so I can wander off course a bit if I want to. 

Yes, I was briefly focused on history as an area of study at Orange Coast College -- at least until I realized that it paid about as well as my original major: art. I went on to get a degree in communications from CSU Fullerton. That said, working as a "site interpreter" at what's now called the Heritage Museum of Orange County was not my first job in the local history field. But it was another step in the right direction for me. 

(Click to embiggen)

Monday, December 11, 2023

O.C. Q&A: Santa Ana Edition

4th St. at Main, Santa Ana, circa 1940s (Santa Ana Public Library)

Q:  Is the City of Santa Ana named for General Santa Anna of Alamo fame?

A:  No relation. O.C.’s Santa Ana moniker began when our local mountains were “discovered” by the Portolá Expedition on the Feast Day of St. Anne in 1769. The friars in the party named them the Santa Ana Mountains. Days later, the expedition named the Santa Ana River after the mountains it seemed to flow from. Later, the river’s name was applied to Santa Ana Canyon and Santa Ana Valley, through which it flowed. In California’s Mexican era, three local ranchos incorporated the name:  Cañón de Santa Ana, San Juan Cajón de Santa Ana, and Santiago de Santa Ana. The name was applied to a couple communities before town founder William Spurgeon attached it to the place we now know as the City of Santa Ana. Aren’t you glad Portolá didn’t come across those mountains on the Feast Day of St. Chrysogonus?

Q:  How did Santa Ana get its own zoo?

A:  In 1949 local old-timer J. E. Prentice gave the City of Santa Ana sixteen acres adjacent to his home for a park. There were two provisos: 1) The park had to be named Prentice Park, and, 2) The park had to include a zoo containing no fewer than fifty monkeys. Prentice was fond of monkeys and let four or five of them have the run of his mansion, infuriating his housekeepers.

During the zoo's construction, the eccentric Prentice harangued construction workers from his porch, shouting, waving his arms, and contradicting the foreman's orders. 

The Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park opened in 1952 at 1801 E. Chestnut Ave. Today it includes animals from all over the world. 

In 2008, Prentice's great-nephew threatened to take the land back when the zoo's monkey count dropped to forty-eight. The birth of twin golden lion tamarins saved the day.

Q:  When and where did Orange County get its first traffic signal?

A:  The earliest I can find is a simple flashing light atop a directional sign at the center of the intersection at First St. and Main in Santa Ana. This “lighthouse flash signal” proved a road hazard and lasted only a few days. The next attempt occurred a few blocks away, when “automatic traffic signals” were installed at the intersections where Fourth St. crosses Main and Broadway (then the county’s commercial hub). Instead of lights, these signals had arms marked “Stop” and “Go” which swung into view on alternating cycles, accompanied by a bell. By 1939, when Fourth and Main got the town’s first modern red-yellow-green lights, people were sick of the bells. 

Friday, December 08, 2023

O.C. Q&A: Sports Edition

Los Alamitos Race Course concept art by Ken Nichols, circa 1951.

Q: Why isn’t the Los Alamitos Race Course in Los Alamitos?

A:  It almost was. The racetrack opened in 1951 and two petitions for the annexation of the racetrack were filed on Oct. 17, 1955: One from the City of Los Alamitos and the other from Cypress. According to author Larry Strawther, Cypress offered to forestall a turnstile tax for years and to connect the track to city sewer and water immediately. Los Alamitos made no such offers. Track owner Frank Vessels may also have been annoyed with Los Alamitos blocking his effort to sell 77 acres for a mortuary and cemetery earlier that year. Vessels signed both petitions but found a way to delay Los Alamitos' petition, making it arrive at the County Recorder an hour and two minutes later than the Cypress petition. The loss of the track is a sore point in Los Alamitos to this day. 

Q:  Where were the Orange County venues for the 1984 Olympics?

A:  I smell a driving tour! Venues included CSUF's gym (handball), the Anaheim Convention Center (wrestling), Irvine's Heritage Park Aquatic Center (pentathlon - swimming), and the Coto Valley Country Club and Coto de Caza Equestrian Center (more pentathlon). Olympic cyclists' route through Mission Viejo began eastbound at Olympiad Rd. near Lake Mission Viejo, then turned right on Marguerite, left on Los Alisos, left on Mustang Run, right on Crucero, left on Hidalgo, left on Vista del Lago, right on Marguerite, left on La Paz, and left on Olympiad, back to the beginning.  

Q:  Was skimboarding actually invented in Orange County?

A:  Laguna Beach lifeguards originated the sport in the late 1920′s, using round pieces of plywood to slide down the sand on the shallow wash of receding waves. Skimboarders at Victoria Beach in the 1960s popularized the sport. Eventually, skimboarding spread around the world and now boasts professional competitions. Most of the top pros still come from Laguna. Interestingly, you can skimboard anywhere there's water: From beaches that are too dangerous to surf, to lakes, to wet grass. If grandpa spills his bourbon, the grandkids can skim the resulting puddle.

Monday, November 20, 2023

When pigs fly...

This image is the result of the author's first attempt to use ChatGPT.

In the annals of aviation, little is mentioned about the first American pig to FLY. 

In February 1919, in the wake of World War I, Bluford Callaway Baxter of Placentia – a farmer of sweet potatoes, Valencia oranges and pigs – extended a strange offer. If an Army aviator would land at his ranch on E. Orangethorpe Ave., pick up a pig, and fly said pig to San Diego, then "the boys at [U.S. Army] Camp Kearny" could KEEP that pig. Strangely enough, the boys at Camp Kearny were interested. However, the land around Baxter’s ranch was so heavily planted that no plane could safely land there.

But Baxter REALLY wanted to see a pig fly. So he waited for the 5th Victory Loan Campaign's “flying circus” air show in Orange County that April and repeated his pitch. The show was a way to advertise and sell war bonds, travelling the land with a team of pilots and crew totaling around fifty. Six planes were to perform aerial stunt shows over Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana on April 24th, with the pilots selling war bonds at each venue after each performance. 

Baxter made the terms of his deal less onerous this time. He would bring one of his prize Poland China pigs to the pilots at McFadden’s Field in Santa Ana and they would fly it around for a while (not all the way to San Diego), at which point the pig would then be given to the “the boys” at March Field—an Army Air Service flight training base in Moreno Valley.  

The flying circus welcomed the idea and on April 24, 1919, Bluford’s dream came true: A pig flew! (Presumably, this was one of his more adventurous pigs.) 
Soaring over Orange County (Pig courtesy Larry Wentzel via CC 2.0)
Late that afternoon, Lieut. Fred Hoyt (flying instructor and flight commander of the squadron) put the pig in a box, strapped the box into his airplane, and took off toward Anaheim. (Hoyt didn’t even have to claim the need for an “emotional support pig” to get clearance!) The plan was for a quick round-trip. But mechanical trouble required an emergency landing in Orange and a quick repair before taking off again for Santa Ana around 6:30 p.m. 

All through the flight, Hoyt executed a series of tailspins, loops and other aerobatic feats to wow the locals. The pig was not harmed but suffered from a remarkable bout of air sickness that lasted for some time after the flight had concluded. 

Fred Day Hoyt, circa 1919 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The pilots gave the pig a nickname and made him their mascot at March Field. Baxter was so pleased with the day's events that he also offered to send a large pork meal (presumably a different pig) to the fliers' barracks once they returned home.  

Meanwhile, the aerial show over Orange sold $12,500 in bonds, the show over Santa Ana raised almost as much, and Anaheimers bought $40,000 in bonds that day. The planes also made passes over Fullerton and Huntington Beach, but it's unknown if those fly-bys resulted in any patriotic investment.

But back to the flying pig…

To be clear, this was not the first pig ever to fly. The first was a piglet named Icarus II, who was a passenger on a 3.5-mile roundtrip over the Thames Estuary in England aboard the Short Brothers Biplane on Nov. 4, 1909. However, the pig over Orange County was the first porker to fly in the United States.

Four months later, on Aug. 20, 1919, another pig, a Duroc-Jersey named Florrie, was a passenger aboard a plane in La Grange, Georgia where the local press proclaimed her the "first flying pig." But Orange County had already established American porcine air supremacy.

A similar pig (perhaps a distant cousin) in San Juan Capistrano.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Orange County’s Missing River

The Freeman River disappeared from Orange County in the early 20th Century. Attempts to preserve it repeatedly escalated to armed conflict and finally ended up in the State Supreme Court. Some of the richest men in America once controlled it, only to have it become the domain of Sea-Monkeys. But for all that, few today have ever heard of this river-gone-AWOL. 

To tell the story of the Freeman River, one must first look to the Santa Ana River.

To Orange Countians, the Santa Ana River is THE river. And rightly so. It is, by far, the county’s largest watercourse. And it’s been the lifeblood of the agriculture – from Yorba Linda to Anaheim to Huntington Beach – which underlay almost all of Orange County’s growth and development prior to World War II. 

Talbert Lake -- now part of Huntington Beach's Central Park -- was just one of the water sources that fed the Freeman River. (Photo taken in 2023 by author)
In the millennia before engineers began to channelize, dam, and otherwise tame the Santa Ana River, it remained wild and free, with no permanent defined boundaries between the mouth of Santa Ana Canyon and the Pacific. It generally cut a path down through some part of the Santa Ana Valley. But in particularly rainy years it could change course dramatically and empty into the sea anywhere from Newport Bay to Alamitos Bay. 

Many of the Santa Ana River’s historic routes retained a certain amount of subsurface water flow or marshiness long after the river proper moved on. But one of these routes to the sea was particularly notable for having a strong flow of surface water – largely supplied by natural springs – even when the Santa Ana River’s course had drifted miles away. First cut by, and then abandoned by the wandering Santa Ana, The Freeman River – also sometimes (and perhaps more accurately) known as Freeman Creek, Bolsa Chica Creek, or Bolsa Creek – took on a life all its own. 

A detail from an 1869 map of the Stearns Ranchos shows two branches of the Freeman River.

The Freeman River was usually significantly deeper than a man was tall and was the primary source of fresh water entering the Bolsa Chica wetlands. Local pioneer, real estate man and civic leader Tom Talbert later recalled it as “a short river but one which carried a considerable volume of water. It headed in Westminster and carried the storm drainage." On rare occasion, in times of heavy flooding, the Freeman would again become a tributary of the Santa Ana River. 

“In the days… when the country back of Huntington Beach was lush with willows, springs and peat bogs, a beautiful river originated in several large springs just south of Westminster,” said historian Don Meadows. “It flowed south by southwest, passed just west of Wintersburg, swept along the western base of the Huntington Beach mesa and entered the sea through Bolsa Bay. It was named for J. G. Freeman, who owned some of the land across which it meandered.”

It seems that numerous Freeman family members lived in the area over the years, including Walter Joseph Freeman and his wife Chloe; and rancher Archibald C. Freeman, who helped organize the Lomita Land and Water Co. in an effort to protect farmers’ water rights.

The Freeman once cut through this area near the intersection of Edwards St. and Talbert Ave. in Huntington Beach. (Photo taken 2023 by author)

According to Amigos de Bolsa Chica board member and former Huntington Beach Mayor Vic Leipzig and longtime environmental columnist Lou Murray, the Freeman River “flowed year-round, deriving most of its water from the peat springs in what is now Central Park. At least one branch of Freeman Creek may have originated in an artesian spring in the old town of Wintersburg, on present-day Ocean View High School property near Warner Avenue and Gothard Street. …Freeman Creek flowed through what is now Central Park, with additional water coming from the springs in Talbert Lake and Blackbird Pond [now in Shipley Nature Center area]. …Freeman Creek appears to have entered the Bolsa Chica lowlands near Edwards Thumb [now an oil field southwest of the intersection of Edwards Street and Talbert Avenue]. From there it meandered around to the end of Springdale [Street], where there is still a freshwater pond. …At times, the Santa Ana [River] shifted course and joined Freeman Creek to flow out through the Bolsa Chica outlet at Los Patos [near Warner Ave.].” (Los Angeles Times, 3-20-2003)

View from the end of Springdale Ave., 2012. (Photo by author)

The celery farmers of the surrounding peatlands used the Freeman River both for fresh water and as a navigable stream (using small boats) down to Bolsa Bay and the coast. Some collected oyster shells to feed their poultry and (in a time before good roads) others just rowed down to enjoy a picnic at the beach. Along the way, they often shot a few ducks or caught a few fish for dinner. Their assumption was that being navigable, the Freeman and Bolsa Bay were public property (that is, they belonged to the Federal Government) and could not be owned or modified by the Bolsa Chica Gun Club, which claimed much of the wetlands as their own. 

Bolsa Chica Gun Club clubhouse, 1933. Santa Ana Herald editor Dan Baker wrote, “The club is made up of men who have never tilled the soil but doubtless have soiled many a till.”

However, the Bolsa Chica Gun Club – founded by Count Jasco Jaro von Schmidt and composed L.A. and Pasadena multi-millionaires with familiar names like James Slauson, Henry Huntington, and Edward Doheny – soon hired Tom Talbert to dam the Freeman River as a way to improve their duck ponds. The project cost $10,000. The dam, finished around January 1900, was some fifty feet wide and rose twenty feet above the water line. 

Almost immediately, the Orange County Board of Supervisors declared that “the dam built across the outlet of Bolsa Chica Bay by the Bolsa Chica Gun Club [is] a public nuisance and a damage to the lands in the upper portion of the Bolsa drainage district." The Board initially instructed District Attorney R. Y. Williams "to bring an action in the name of the People of the State of California to abate said nuisance and obstruction." 
A rather murky image of the dam from the Los Angeles Times, 1903.
But local farmer Frank R. Hazard accurately observed that the County had, in fact, no intention of moving ahead with this action in a manner timely enough to make a difference. In a letter to the Santa Ana Herald, Hazard called out the officials involved and described the damage already being done by the dam: 
“Bolsa Chica Creek is a channel some 300 feet wide and 10 feet deep. It was formerly the best breeding ground for mullet known on this southern coast; always a great place for oysters and other shell fish; the best place for fishermen to procure bait; a good harbor for fishing and pleasure craft; much frequented by people as a pleasure resort, for fishing, boating and bathing. There always was quite a crowd there on Sunday. It was also the best hunting ground in the county; but the greatest importance was on account of the drainage it afforded for the Peatlands.

"It is this creek that the association of wealthy men has excluded the right of way to and obstructed the navigation of, killed all the fish, killed all the oysters, destroyed the breeding grounds of the mullet, destroyed the harbor and monopolized the shooting. There was great indignation from the start, but the brilliant legal light [District Attorney] whose duty it is to look after the interests of the people said that the club men had a deed to the bay. There is no such deed known to the County Clerk. The same 'electric light' of the bar claims that the channel is not navigable water, although there are hundreds of men now living who are willing to testify to having navigated it.”
The dam caused the bay's natural entrance from the sea to become sanded in, which began the process of drying up the wetlands. It also clogged up the Freeman River itself with backed up silt and mud. Adding insult to injury, the Gun Club also installed fences across the river and began ejecting anyone who came near the club grounds. 

Frank Hazard was hardly the only Peatlands local angered by the hijacking of the Freeman. Soon, the celery farmers were tearing down the Club's fences -- sometimes right in front of armed guards from the Club. The Anaheim Gazette referred to it as the “Uprising of the Webfeet.”
Dennis McGirk, 1903
One of the leaders among these Peatlands farmers was Dennis McGirk, whose celery farm was “only a biscuit throw from the edge of the Bolsa Chica hunting preserve," wrote the Gazette. "The annual profits from his farm [are] probably about equal to the dues of one of the members of the gun club. Dennis is not a duck shooter himself. He does not care to boat on the lake which the millionaires have fenced off. He believes, however, that the gun club has appropriated land that actually belongs to the United States government.”

Another farmer, Iowa native John H. Cole, whose land sat on the bluffs overlooking the Bolsa Chica Gun Club, had also been a bitter enemy of the Club until he was hired as their head keeper and detective.
J. H. Cole, club detective, 1903
The farmers claimed that the dam not only made the river impassable but also backed up the streambed, clogging the river with mud, making the water stagnant, and bringing a season of typhoid pneumonia to the area. They also said the U.S. engineers had declared the river to be under the auspices of the federal government and that thirty feet on either side of the stream had long since been deeded to the Bolsa Irrigation District. 

By 1903 the river was only 2 1/2 feet deep. In late fall of that year, John Cole was out patrolling one day and heard someone again tampering with the Club's fence across the river. He rushed down and found a group of twenty farmers -- all armed -- attempting to cut the fence down. A good deal of yelling followed. Cole pulled his pistol and several farmers responded by raising and cocking their guns. Cole, outnumbered, could only stand by while the farmers finished pulling apart the fence. 
This detail from a 1901 USGS map already shows the Freeman becoming more of a wet area than a stream.
Soon after, there was another incident in which Cole ran into W. H. Barton, a Westminster-area farmer who was hunting on the Club's grounds. Cole ordered him off the property, but Barton responded by drawing a revolver on Cole and threatening to kill him. Cole ceded that round also.

Something of a peace conference between the officers of the Bolsa Chica Gun Club and a couple spokesmen from the local farmers was set for Thanksgiving 1903. But instead of one or two farmers, forty to fifty of them showed up with shotguns and blazed away at waterfowl as they crossed the Club’s property on the way to their meeting. Negotiations were brief and unproductive.

In early December, Frank Hazard, poled a launch up from the ocean to the Club's dam and formally demanded to be allowed to pass. Obviously, his demand could not be met, but he'd made his point.
A boathouse and kennels along the Freeman River, 1903.
In another instance, Cole "accidentally" fired off his revolver while shooing away two boys who were on the Club's land. This incident caused quite a ruckus among the locals. Facing off with armed adults was one thing. Firing guns to scare away children was another. 

On another occasion, it was a Club member, headed out to shoot ducks, who came across one of the area's richest farmers, Jeff Lewis, wading in the now-shallow river. The member asked Lewis if he knew whose land he was on. "Yes," Lewis responded, "[it] belongs to a relative of mine." "Who's that?" asked the hunter. "Uncle Sam," said Lewis.
Two women hunting at the Bolsa Chica Gun Club, 1904.
It was eventually decided that the courts, not gun, were the best way to settle the ongoing dispute. In December a court date was scheduled, and an injunction was filed that kept the farmers off the land until a decision was reached. Prominent Santa Ana attorney Fabius O. Daniel was hired to represent the farmers. The case first went before Judge Z. B. West in Orange County Superior Court.

On Dec 18, 1903, the case went to trial. Simultaneously, the Orange County Grand Jury took a look at the Freeman River and recommended against the addition of new bridges or fences across it, as they limited the ability of small boats to navigate the river. Moreover, they strongly encouraged the removal of the Bolsa Chica Gun Club's dam and existing bridges and fences. 

The Grand Jury's input seemed to make no impact. Meanwhile, the court case dragged through a trial and the appeals process for several years. 
Orange County celery farmers bring in the harvest in the Peatlands.
Finally, in 1907, the State Supreme Court ruled that the Freeman River was a drainage ditch, not a navigable stream and that the Gun Club could keep their dam. Of course, the river had been choked down to a drainage ditch from a navigable stream because the Gun Club had dammed it. One also wonders how much of a chance a group of celery farmers stood in court against some of California’s richest and most influential men and their top-drawer lawyers. The controversial ruling proved to later be a major embarrassment to the State Supreme Court and decisions made decades later would contradict it.

Perhaps in the hope of bringing back the fresh water supply they’d spoiled, the Bolsa Chica Gun Club finished digging a new 1 1/2-mile-long channel for the river in 1908, starting from Bolsa Bay and reaching almost to Wintersburg. (It seems this was something of a forerunner to the East Garden Grove-Wintersburg Channel, which was built in the early 1960s for flood control.)
Thomas B. Talbert, 1912. For decades, Tom was the go-to guy for nearly everything in the Huntington Beach area. He later served as mayor and county supervisor.
While a shadow of its former self, for many years the Freeman River still had enough water in it to provide for a limited amount of farm irrigation. Ironically, one of those to see the river’s remaining potential was Tom Talbert.
"About 1916... business in Huntington Beach was at an extremely low ebb,” Talbert wrote in his memoirs. “The [Huntington Beach C]ompany was trying to sell small farm tracts. The struggle for existence by the inhabitants of Huntington Beach became a bit serious. I endeavored to form an irrigation district and file on the waters of the Freeman River so as to bring this water to irrigate our dry mesa lands. I could not stir up great interest, as people considered the expense would be too great to put this project over...”
A survey done by the State in 1918 indicated that even in the dry season, and even in its severely diminished state, the Freeman River still poured 500 inches of water into Bolsa Bay, meaning it put much more fresh water into the Bay during the rainy season.

In 1919, efforts were again made to form a 2,600-acre irrigation district to utilize the water of the Freeman River for the Huntington Beach mesa. But the application, proposed by George F. Fowler of Huntington Beach, was never filed with the State Water Commission and the idea fizzled. Disagreements between the local farmers regarding the district’s creation may have been behind some of Fowler’s hesitation to move forward. But there were also other factors as well.

“In 1919 the drilling of the first oil well killed any interest in small farms and an irrigation project,” wrote Talbert. “Long Beach then undertook to file on the waters of the Freeman River to meet her domestic needs, but the people of this district stubbornly refused to let this water be taken away.”

1935 USGS Seal Beach topographical map (detail). Note the prominence of the Freeman (center of map) even 35 years after the dam choked it down to a mere shadow of its former self. 
Thanks to the dam, the digging of drainage ditches, and increased well extraction, the Freeman River continued to diminish over the years, its surface water gradually running down to a mere trickle. Most of the remaining water – much of it now flowing underground -- came from runoff draining from the surrounding farmlands and communities. Only during heavy floods did the river act a little like its old self. Apparently because of these occasional floods, Talbert was able to claim that “a considerable amount of water still flow[ed] into Bolsa Chica Bay" from the Freeman as late as 1952.

Few signs of the Freeman River remain today. As Leipzig and Murray point out, “grading, fill and development have made tracing the old creek bed difficult.” A bit of a ditch marking the Freeman's path can still be found running through the Shipley Nature Center in Huntington Beach’s Central Park. And the mouth of the creek – now amid oil fields – has no inlet or outlet. The only water in this stub end of the creek is seawater that seeps in from the surrounding wetlands. And even that water stagnates, evaporates, and becomes so salty that only a few species, like brine shrimp (a.k.a. Sea-Monkeys) can survive in it.  
A 2012 view from the Linear Park extension of Central Park, showing an area where the Freeman River once ran. (Photo by author)
Throughout history, Southern Californians have regularly diverted rivers and creeks; built dams and reservoirs, drained lakes, dug irrigation and flood control channels, fudged maps to steal each other’s riparian rights, lied and politicked to steal the Owens Valley’s water, and otherwise drastically altered their water landscape. In the greater scheme of things, the disappearance of the so-called Freeman River may be unremarkable. But the story of the loss of one of Orange County’s top natural sources of fresh water – and human drama that accompanied that loss – is still worth telling.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Free O.C. history books online!

I've added a list of links to free online local history books in the column of links on the right side of this page. Scroll way down and you'll find them just below my "Land & Property" links. 

Friday, November 10, 2023

San Francisco Cable Cars at Knott's Berry Farm

A Cable Car running through the Knott's Berry Farm parking lot, 1965.
My new article about the San Francisco Cable Cars that once operated at Knott's Berry Farm is now available online at my pal Werner Weiss' excellent website, Click on over for the article and loads of photos.
Ticket courtesy O C Archives.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

The burning of the North Hangar, MCAS Tustin

The early hours of the morning, 11-7-2023. (Photo courtesy Tustin Fire Dept.)

On the morning of November 7, 2023, we lost one of Orange County's most remarkable landmarks to fire. The enormous North Hangar at old MCAS Tustin has been one of the most recognizable parts of the local landscape for more than four generations. 

The two Lighter-Than-Air (a.k.a. blimp) Hangars at what was originally Naval Air Station Santa Ana were constructed in only six months in 1942 as part of the effort to protect our coastline from enemy attack. Each hangar is 17 stories tall, more than 1,000 feet long, 300 feet wide, and could house six inflated blimps. There are no larger free-standing wooden buildings in the world. They are an important reminder of our military history and a testament to American architectural ingenuity.

The base closed after World War II, but was reopened in 1951 (during the Korean War) as Marine Corps Air Station Santa Ana, primarily as a helicopter base. It was renamed MCAS Tustin in the 1980s and closed for good in 1999. However, the Department of the Navy continued to own the North Hangar and leased it out for events, television productions and other uses. 

Possibly the first film shot at the hangars was This Man’s Navy (1945) whose protagonist was a Navy blimp pilot. In 1975, the hangars were used again in the filming of the movie The Hindenberg. Two years later the TV show The Waltons used them in an episode depicting "John Boy's" witnessing of the Hindenberg disaster. More recently, the hangars appeared in JAG, The X Files, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Pearl Harbor, the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, and lots of car commercials. Many Californians probably got to know the hangars best through Huell Howser’s California’s Gold, which dedicated an episode to these enormous historic buildings.

Note the scale of the fire truck (left) compared to the hangar. (Photo courtesy Leslie Stone)

From the minute the base closure was announced, there were people who wanted the hangars demolished to make way for new development. But by 2009, OC Parks was dreaming up adaptive reuse options for the hangar as part of a combined historical and regional park.

 In 2012 the Parks Commission approved the creation of a regional park on a large parcel that includes the North Hangar (a.k.a. Hangar 28), the air traffic control tower, and a lot of surrounding acreage. At the time, OC Parks claimed they would preserve and adaptively reuse the historic structures. The Navy had already approved the idea that the North Hangar and the surrounding land would ultimately be handed over to OC Parks. Similarly, the South Hangar and surrounding land would go to the City of Tustin.

The author in the North Hangar, 2013.

By 2013, OC Parks was holding meetings and a few public events in the North Hangar to discuss the forthcoming regional park. That's when I finally got the chance to visit.

I've often heard the phrase, "I can't believe my eyes," but this was the first literal example I've ever experienced. My brain couldn't accept the hangar's enormity when I was standing inside. Looking at a standard-sized row of doors on the far side of the hangar did not help me grasp the scale of the building. I know that sounds nuts, but it really was a surreal experience. 

By late morning, at least half of the hangar had collapsed. (Photo courtesy Leslie Stone)

The park plans stalled when the building was damaged by the wind in 2013, causing damage to an experimental high-tech $35 million dollar zeppelin being constructed inside by tenant Worldwide Aeros. 

The extensive wind damage raised questions about the old hangars' integrity and how costly or even possible adaptive reuse would be. Repairs were not made, and the Navy (which still owns the hangars) did little to no preservation, restoration or maintenance. Finally, in 2021, the Tustin City Council finally put a stake in the heart of the park plans but said they wanted to preserve the site. 

Now, in the wake of the fire, the City says it remains interested in helping preserve the remaining hangar. The undamaged South hangar awaits environmental remediation in advance of any further reuse planning.

South Coast Air Quality Management District warning, the day after the fire began.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Historic tree cut down for streetcar

Tree at Sycamore St. and Santa Ana Blvd. by the Orange County Courthouse, circa 1920s.

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2023, I noticed that one of the historic trees surrounding the Old Orange County Courthouse was being cut down. The tree has been there since 1897 and has always been part of the classic image of this historic heart of our county. 

I talked to the crew and they said the tree was being removed because of the streetcar construction project that's [glacially] working its way through Downtown Santa Ana. The crew returned the following day to HEAVILY prune back the other historic trees along the side of the block facing Santa Ana Blvd. (For now, I'll hope that these other grand old trees survive the attack and return my focus to the excised tree.)

The tree is cut down on Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo by author.)

In the County's Old County Courthouse Historic Park Master Planning Program (1988), Historic Resources Planner Marlene Brajdic wrote, 

"The grounds include specimen trees which are designated on the Orange County Heritage Tree list. [Approved in the mid-1980s.] These heritage trees are Canary Island Date Palms, Camphor Trees, Magnolias and Coco Palms. To enhance the 'County Square' as the property was known, the camphors and acacias were placed around the perimeter in 1897. The magnolias and several date palms were established just following the courthouse construction."

Courthouse Square, circa 1898. The tree is barely visible and highlighted in green on the upper left. (Courtesy First American Corp.)

While I believe the tree torn out on Tuesday was a magnolia -- which according to Marlene would argue for a date circa 1901 -- early photos seem to indicate that this tree was larger than the other magnolias on the block and thus likely predated them. That would argue that the tree was planted along with the block's camphor and acacia trees by convict laborers in 1897.

Corroborating that assumption, the photo above shows the Courthouse Block soon after the 1897 construction of the County Jail (upper right) but before construction of the Courthouse began in 1900. The tree is barely visible behind other trees on the upper left. I've highlighted it in green to make it slightly more visible. There are also photos of the tree in situ *during* the construction of the Courthouse in 1900. (See below.)

Tree appears on far left (highlighted in green) during construction of the Courthouse, 1900.
The heritage trees ringing the Courthouse Block are an integral part of one of the County's most beloved and instantly recognizable historic sites. They bring beauty and an added sense of stability not just to the block but also to the Santa Ana Civic Center and Downtown Santa Ana. They provide homes to a great numbers of birds, bees and squirrels. And they've provided the shady backdrop for countless thousands of wedding pictures over the past 126 years. It's a crying shame to see even one of these trees destroyed.
Aerial view of Courthouse Block, circa 1910. Tree highlighted in green.
The destruction is even sadder when you consider that it was all done to help make way for the 4.15-mile "Trolly to Nowhere" (a.k.a. Orange County Streetcar) project that will cost more than $408 million, which nobody asked for, which has crippled downtown businesses all along the route, which has wasted millions of man-hours in traffic snarls over the past six years, which will ensure horrible traffic problems for decades to come, which can't be efficiently re-reouted (like a bus) when needs change, and which will (like most urban public transit systems) likely end up becoming a deeply unpleasant if not dangerous way to travel. 

For what it's worth, innumerable OTHER trees have also been destroyed throughout central Santa Ana to make way for this boondoggle. I just happen to be focusing on THIS tree because it's part of a well-defined historic environment with which I'm very familiar. Consider it a symbol of similar outrages up and down the line.
The same tree, offering shade to Santa Ana Parade of Products participants and their horses, early 1900s.

If it's ever completed, the new Orange County Streetcar line will connect the Santa Ana Metrolink station (which itself is only reachable from a handful of mostly strategically inconvenient stops in Orange County) and take passengers to that hub of happiness we know and love as the corner of Harbor Blvd. and Trask Ave. in Garden Grove. And I think we all know what awaits us there, right?: An old Yoshinoya, a Shell Station and a check cashing place! Good times!

With all due respect to those who love rail in all its forms -- Light rail isn't and never again will be viable for Southern Californians. Yes, the Pacific Electric's Red Cars were swell in their day, but not so swell that people didn't switch to automobiles the nanosecond they could afford them. Almost every bit of Southern California evolved around the automobile -- not light rail. As such, there are no hubs. People live everywhere, people work everywhere, people want to go everywhere. One would have to tear down ALL of Southern California and rebuild it to make such a sea change even theoretically workable. Even then, we are almost a century past the point where residents would be content to be confined by the limited travel/commute opportunities represented by public transportation. 

The same tree is front and (just left of) center in this 1979 photo.
The only argument that may remain for these electric trolleys is that they will run "clean and green." But even that's bunk. Rather than burning fossil fuel IN the vehicle, the fuel will have to be burned at a power plant and the power transported by inefficient transmission cables to the trolley, wasting much of the energy in the transmission process. And even if we completely destroy the rest of America's deserts and other open spaces with endless windmills and solar farms, the resulting "green" energy will not begin to meet the demand during the lifetime of this trolley system. 

It's interesting that in the wake of the lovably Lorax-y environmental movement of the 1970s, the County of Orange created the aforementioned Heritage Trees list and policies regarding the protecting of such trees. (If anyone has a copy, let me know.) 

But today's "environmental movement" isn't all that interested in things like old growth trees. I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide what they are interested in instead.

The view on the morning of Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo by author)

Monday, October 09, 2023

O.C. Q&A: Casual Restaurants Edition

Q: I remember a restaurant sign with Carl’s Jr.’s Happy Star wearing a sombrero. Is my memory playing tricks on me?

A: Nope. In 1972, Orange County hamburger king Carl Karcher started a Mexican fast food chain called Taco de Carlos. Menu items included California Burritos (chimichangas), Crisperitos (super-gringo chimichangas), machaca burritos, tacos, and green chile burgers. At its peak, there were 17 restaurants, but the chain fizzled. Karcher sold the restaurants in the early 1980s, but it seems that visions of tacos still danced in his head. In 1994 the first dual-branded Carl's Jr./Green Burrito restaurant opened, and in 2002 Carl Karcher Enterprises bought Green Burrito outright. 

Q. What's with the old church in the parking lot at Moreno's Mexican Restaurant in El Modena?

A. I'd love to report that someone formed a religion around Mexican food, but the truth proves almost as interesting. Orange County's first Quaker house of worship was built on that site -- now 4328 E. Chapman Ave. -- in 1887. Sadly, the Friends' building plans didn't take Santa Ana winds into account, and within weeks the place was literally blown apart. The sturdier 1888 replacement building served the Quakers for about 80 years and is now used for events and overflow seating at Moreno's.

Q. I remember a pink restaurant with huge portions near Disneyland. What was that place?

A. That was Garden Grove's legendary Belisle's, on Harbor Blvd. Harvey and Charlotte Belisle opened it shortly before Disneyland opened in 1955. Their enormous portions, vast menu, home cooking, and family atmosphere made it popular. Outside, a large man with a bell or a little person in a chef's hat beckoned to potential customers. Belisle's made a grape and lettuce-free meal for Cesar Chavez and meatloaf for President Reagan. If you wanted something that wasn't on the menu, Belisle's would still try to oblige -- from goat chops to ostrich eggs. The restaurant was demolished by the local redevelopment agency in the 1990s and replaced with a couple less popular chain restaurants.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Suspicious historians

I just stumbled across this Tustin Police blotter item in the Tustin News from Aug. 31, 1989: "Police investigate the report of a suspicious person in a vehicle at 235 South A Street. The woman in the car is studying Tustin's history." 

Haven't ALL local historians and preservationists been stopped many times for the "weird" behavior of documenting historic sites?  Ha!

Anyway, the classic California Bungalow in question here was built by Paul and Mary Anderson in 1922. And the "suspicious" woman was undoubtedly one of the volunteers working on the 1990 City of Tustin Historical Survey (which is a resource I use often now, thanks to Guy Ball sending me a copy). I'd bet money the suspicious woman was local historian Carol Jordan, who did a tremendous amount of work on that survey. Carol's now 95 and still great company. Had lunch with her a few weeks ago.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

About those Al Capone stories in the Register and Orange Coast magazine...

Photoshopped image by Fr. Bill Krekelberg.
A lot of traffic has been driven here by coverage in the Orange County Register and Orange Coast magazine relating to my ORIGINAL ARTICLE about Al Capone and Rancho Santa Margarita. 

Want to attend my lecture on the same topic at the Orange County Historical Society this Thursday evening (9/14/2023)? CLICK HERE for details.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

O.C. Q&A: South Santa Ana Edition

Diamond School, South Santa Ana, circa late 1890s.

Q: I've heard the name "Gospel Swamp" applied to areas from Huntington Beach to Garden Grove. Where was it actually located?

A: Today, every neighborhood with a puddle claims it was part of Gospel Swamp, because it's such a great nickname. However, contemporary records indicate that the name was originally and primarily applied to the marshy area at what's now the south end of Santa Ana -- from McFadden Ave. down through the South Coast Metro area. Soon, the name drifted over the Santa Ana River a bit, into parts of Fountain Valley. But no, the name did not apply to such far-flung locales as Westminster Garden Grove, or Huntington Beach. 

The name comes from the mid-to-late 1800s, when the population of that rural area skewed toward Southerners, Democrats, and pious holy-rollers. The area also featured an unusually high concentration of preachers. According to the late historian Phil Brigandi, it was George Lynch who coined the name "Gospel Swamp" immediately after attending a sermon by fellow pioneer Rev. Isaac Hickey. Soon the name was in general use. The more urbane Santa Ana residents began referring to the area's residents as "Swamp Angels." 

Q: A few years ago, they added a big arch over Main Street, just north of Warner Ave., reading "Historic South Main Business District." How did it get there, and why is the area considered historic?

A: The arch was built in 2007 as part of a redevelopment project. For most of its history, largely Hispanic South Santa Ana centered around the Holly Sugar Factory on Dyer Road. The plant opened in 1912 and was demolished in 1983. Many local residents worked there, and other businesses sprang up to serve them.  

The arch itself is a replica of one that stood over Highway 101 near Chapman Ave. before the I-5 Freeway was built.

Q: Nothing says California like palm trees. Where’s the best place in O.C. to appreciate them?

A: South Coast Plaza has an amazing collection of well over fifty varieties of palm trees from all over the world, including rare ones like Howea belmoreana, Rhapis excelsa, and Dypsis leptocheilos. Rows of Cuban royal palms along Bear St. (56 in all) are the only such stands of this species between Florida and Hawaii. The Segerstrom family, who owns the mall, is fond (not frond) of palms and even planted an additional 100 trees to honor the centennial anniversary of their family's arrival in Orange County.

If you go on a palm jungle scavenger hunt, be sure to check every nook and cranny, including parking lots, road medians, and the wing formerly known as “Crystal Court.” Adventure awaits! But unlike most tropical safaris, you should worry more about texting drivers than venomous snakes.