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.