Saturday, March 02, 2024

O.C. Q&A: San Juan Capistrano Edition

Santa Fe Railroad Depot, San Juan Capistrano, circa 1890s.

Q:  I hear Abe Lincoln gave Mission San Juan Capistrano back to the Church. Did he visit Orange County?

A:  Definitely not. The Mexican government ended the Mission system in the 1830s and put the land in private hands. But soon after California became a state, petitions were made to the government to return the Missions to the Catholic Church. In 1863, while embroiled in a few other historic events you may have heard about, Lincoln signed documents (in Washington D.C.) returning California’s missions to the Church. 

The way some folks around here carry on, you'd swear Abe had stopped for a beer at the Swallows Inn on his way down to ring the bells. There are stories that Lincoln planned to finally visit California after leaving office. Sadly, he never had the opportunity.

Q:  Is there a connection between Zorro and San Juan Capistrano?

A:  San Juan Capistrano was where this masked hero first swashed and buckled. New York pulp writer Johnston McCulley set the first Zorro story there: The Curse of Capistrano (1919). Unfortunately, McCulley seems to have gained all his knowledge of Spanish-Era California from encyclopedias, and his descriptions of Capistrano are decidedly vague. 

When that same story was turned into the first Zorro movie – Douglas Fairbank’s “The Mark of Zorro” (1920) – portions of it were shot in San Juan Capistrano. The town also appeared in many of Zorro’s later on-screen adventures, including Disney’s popular 1950s TV version. 

Zorro doesn’t return to Capistrano quite as often as the swallows, but it’s still worth watching for the mark of the Z.

Q:  How did Capistrano end up with a huge Swallows Day festival but no swallows?

A:  In the 1920s, the Mission's Fr. St. John O'Sullivan helped spin the story of the cliff swallows' 6,000-mile, clockwork-like annual migration into a romantic legend. In 1930, O'Sullivan's version of the tale was published in the book, Capistrano Nights, becoming a P.R. juggernaut. In the book, he credited his dear friend (and the last full-blooded Juaneño/Acjachemen) José de Gracia Cruz -- better known as Acú -- as the source of the story. 

The swallows' habit of returning around March 19th each year was readily apparent to all. But Acú shared a local folktale about it with O'Sullivan: The swallows supposedly wintered in Jerusalem each winter, carrying twigs as flotation devices on which they occasionally rested during their long flight across the Atlantic. They returned each year, timing their arrival to St. Joseph's Day. 

(We now know that the Swallows migrate to and from Argentina, not Jerusalem. And even at the time it was doubtful whether birds were interested in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. But their migration is remarkable nonetheless.)

After the publication of Capistrano Nights, media coverage of the swallows' return brought increasing crowds to town each March 19th. The hit song, "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano," further fed the flames.  

In 1937, Capistrano High School principal Paul Richards launched what's now Fiesta de las Golondrinas to entertain the visitors. Originally featuring contests, games, and dancing, the event grew to include a trail ride and, beginning in the late 1950s, the equestrian Swallows Day Parade. 

The swallows themselves still migrate but they skedaddled to the suburbs when downtown congestion and development drove them out. 

Q:  What’s special about San Juan Capistrano’s Hidden House Coffee building?

A:  The spare, single-wall construction of the Olivares House, at 31791 Los Rios Street, reflects the scarcity of lumber before the railroad arrived in 1888. The cottage’s past ownership included San Juan pioneer names such as Forster, Rios, and Yorba. But Delfina Manriquez de Olivares (1896-1976) was its best-remembered owner. 

Known for her hospitality, Olivares’ home was a neighborhood gathering place. She didn’t buy the house until 1947, but her local roots ran deep: She was a descendant of mason Isidro Aguilar, who’d overseen the construction of the Mission’s stone church in 1797. In 1970, the city’s historical society dubbed her the town Matriarch—a title she held until her death. 

Thanks to legendary historical preservationist Ilse Byrnes, the Olivares House, along with the rest of California’s oldest neighborhood—the Los Rios District—is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

O. C. Q&A: Newport Beach Edition

McFadden's Wharf (Newport Beach Pier), circa 1906.

Q:  Why are so many things in Newport Beach named "Balboa?"

A:  When the town of Balboa was founded in 1905, the neighboring community of Newport Beach was already well-established just down the peninsula at the foot of what’s now the Newport Pier. Balboa soon lent its name to its own Pavilion, to an adjacent island, to a hotel, and to the peninsula on which both towns stand. Balboa was created by the Newport Bay Investment Co., whose president named it in honor of Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Once a deadbeat, stowing away on ships to avoid paying his debts, Señor Balboa ended up the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. Actually, he ended up beheaded for treason, but that’s another story.

In 1906, Newport Beach, Balboa, West Newport and East Newport banded together to incorporate as the City of Newport Beach. It could just has easily have been named the City of Balboa. But in 1940, a referendum to rename the city Balboa was decapitated at the polls. 

Q:  Is there a rule against skimpy bathing suits in Newport Beach?

A:  No, municipal code only dictates that one must cover one’s naughty bits and then defines which bits those are. There were once stricter rules, but that ended badly. 

In 1923, wealthy and eccentric Newport pioneer Tom Robinson needed a hobby. He soon discovered an old unenforced ordinance declaring “the distance between a woman’s swim skirt and kneecap must not exceed 10 inches,” and creating the position of city bathing suit inspector. Robinson, 68, appointed himself to the vacant job and City Hall went along with it. 

Soon Robinson was on the beach, measuring women’s exposed thighs using the width of his two hands. A visiting Santa Ana woman clobbered him, but he was undeterred. In 1925, Newport’s women successfully petitioned for the removal of both the ordinance and the inspector. With his groping days behind him, Robinson quickly became a recluse, fell ill, and in late 1926 ended his life by walking into the ocean fully clothed. 

Q:  Are there any remains of the 1953 Boy Scout Jamboree encampment?

A:  During the 1953 National Jamboree about 50,000 Boy Scouts and their leaders -- from every state and more than twenty nations -- camped at a site that stretched from MacArthur Blvd. to Upper Newport Bay in what's now Newport Beach. What remains today are Jamboree Road (built for the event), the flagpole at the Newport Sea Scout Base, and something more...

In the 1970s, archaeologists began studying a site in Newport occupied by native peoples some 9,500 to 4,300 years ago. According to archaeologist Henry Koerper, they soon found strange artifacts. Seemingly ancient arrowheads turned out to be made at the Jamboree, while seemingly modern beads proved to be ancient.  They also found souvenirs and trinkets brought by Scouts from all over the world to trade with other Scouts.  

Imagine how confused archaeologists will be when they excavate this site again in another 9,500 years.

Q:  What’s that separate little island on the west side of Balboa Island?

A:  Collins Island was created in 1906 while developer William Steppe Collins was turning an existing mud flat and sediment dredged from Newport Bay into today’s Balboa Island. He built a home called White Swan for himself on the separate, one-acre Collins Island, which he connected to the larger Balboa Island with a pedestrian bridge. His neighbor around the bay nicknamed White Swan "Collins' Castle."

Collins Island was purchased in 1938 for about $32,000 by iconic actor James “You Dirty Rat” Cagney. During World War II, Cagney leased White Swan to the Coast Guard for use as their Newport headquarters. 

When "Collins' Castle" was demolished in 1953, the upper floor was moved to 2072 Placentia Ave. in Costa Mesa, where it still stands today. Longtime local journalist William Lobdell recently figured out this connection in his Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror podcast.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

O.C. Q&A: Native American Edition

Acjachemen Chief Clarence Lobo (1912-1985)  

Q:  What happened to the Indian tribes who lived in Orange County?

A:  From the Mission system, to European-introduced diseases, to the Indian "removals" that continued into the 20th Century, California Indians have dwindled in number dramatically. But they're not gone. You probably cross paths with Tongva (a.k.a. Gabrielino) and Acjachemen (a.k.a. Juaneño) people -- the two main native groups who lived here when the Spanish arrived -- more often than you know. Over the centuries, most have intermarried with the Spanish, Mexican, and American families who settled here. But if you ask around, it's not difficult to find families whose Orange County roots go back at least 2,000 years. 

What's more mysterious is what happened to the so-called "Millingstone Horizon" culture (known earlier as the "Oak Grove" culture) -- People who lived here thousands of years before the Tongva and Acjachemen arrived, and who didn't leave a forwarding address.

Q:  Have any local Indian words stayed in our dialect?

A: The only one most folks know is "Niguel" -- and even that word was likely altered to suit the Spanish ear and tongue. Niguel (or something similar) began as the name of a spring on Aliso Creek, and a nearby Juaneño Indian village. The name was later attached to the surrounding area and, in the 1840s, to the Rancho Niguel. Much, much later, the Rancho's name was co-opted by various housing developments and the City of Laguna Niguel. There's some uncertainty about the actual meaning of the word, although Acú (one of the last full-blooded Juaneño) and later anthropologist/archaeologist Stephen O'Neil both indicated that the word probably refers to a young woman. Their opinions trump the shakier theory that "Niguel" means "the place where ziggurats become white elephants."

Q:  Who were the very first people to live in Orange County?

A:  While we don't know with any certainty, let me explain about a longtime contender for that honor,...

In 1933, Laguna Beach teenagers Howard Wilson and Ed Marriner found bones, including an oddly shaped skull, exposed by construction excavation along St. Ann's Drive near Pacific Coast Highway.  Howard's mother didn't want a skull in the house and repeatedly tried to throw it away. Howard always fished it out of the trash when she wasn't looking. (Every boy with a mother and a comic book collection will instantly recognize this scenario.) In the 1960s, the skull was brought to the attention of famed paleoanthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey who determined that it was more than 17,000 years old, and perhaps as old as 40,000 years. That would have made "Laguna Woman," as she's known, one of the the earliest Americans ever discovered. 

However, later testing with more sophisticated methods showed Laguna Woman's skull to have been no more 5,500 years old. At that point, she dropped from contention as the earliest Orange Countian. Stone tools and other artifacts show there were people living here at least 9,000 years ago.

Q:  Why did Juaneño Chief Clarence Lobo dress like a Plains Indian, when California tribes' actual traditional attire was very different?

A:  Even Lobo's friend, historian Jim Sleeper, teased him in his Third Orange County Almanac: "You still wearing that Sioux headdress, Clarence?" But Lobo knew exactly what he was doing. 

I covered this in my lecture on "San Juan Capistrano, 1860-1960" at the Mission last August, but the story is worth retelling... 

"In 1946, Clarence Lobo became Chief of the Juaneño or Acjachemen native people. After generations of his people gradually fading from view and being absorbed into the larger population, Lobo brought attention to the tribe’s uniqueness, culture and history. He fought for native rights, tribal recognition by the government, and a better understanding among his own people of their roots. 

"After many instances of traveling to meet government officials only to be ignored, he realized that he needed to LOOK like an Indian chief to get the attention of the white man. He adopted an elaborate headdress of the Sioux variety, along with the other colorful beadwork and trappings of plains Indians. Those who knew anything about California Indians snickered, but it worked. He was no longer ignored."

All those (primarily white) government officials ushed him into their offices immediately, because he looked like the kind of Indian they recognized from Hollywood movies. This, in turn, gave Lobo the window he needed to plead his case.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

O.C. Q&A: Coastal Edition

Wreck of the Charles Brown, Laguna Beach, 1933 (Courtesy Steve Lawson)

Q:  Are there any shipwrecks off Orange County’s coast?

A:  There are a handful, including the Elsie I. Built in New Jersey in 1943, the 150-foot Navy landing craft was unromantically dubbed the LCI(G) 465. With a crew of 70 and armed to the teeth as a gunboat, she earned four battle stars, taking part in the liberation of Guam, the Philippines and Okinawa, and even survived kamikaze attacks. 

After the war, she was purchased by Ivey Sparks of Huntington Beach, who renamed her the Elsie I (get it?) and used her as a deep-sea sport fishing barge. In 1949, she was purchased by Shorty Ingersoll (the ship’s captain) and Herb Berry, who continued the business.

On April 29, 1951, the Elsie I was anchored a half-mile off of Goldenwest Street when a storm capsized her, killing bargemaster Wade Showalter. During a salvage attempt the barge broke in two and sank 3 1/2 miles off Huntington Beach. 

Today, the wreck acts as an artificial reef, thriving with marine life. 

Q:  Was Costa Mesa originally called Goat Hill?

A:  The Goat Hill name dates to the opening of Newport Harbor High School in 1930. The Costa Mesa students derisively referred to Newport Beach as "Mackerel Flats," and the Newport kids belittled Costa Mesa by calling it "Goat Hill."

The mudslinging nicknames still live on via the Goat Hill Tavern and Fairview Park's small-scale Mackerel Flats & Goat Hill Junction Railroad.

Meanwhile, there are a number of REAL placenames (not jokes) that are part of Costa Mesa’s history. The city includes the historic communities of Fairview, Paularino, Harper, and arguably the southern portion of Gospel Swamp. 

Q:  Sunset Beach doesn't look like our other beach towns. Why?

A:  From the enormous neon swordfish at Sam’s Seafood/Don the Beachcomber to a life-sized painting of Superman suspended over a (now missing) phone booth, and from multi-million-dollar homes to tumbledown cottages, the Sunset Beach landscape is unique. Like many unincorporated communities, the town became home to a lot of unconventional people and eclectic businesses. Looser restrictions allowed it to organically develop its own character. 

Sunset Beach sprang up in 1904 along the new Pacific Electric Railway tracks between Seal Beach and the Bolsa Chica wetlands. Against the wishes of many of its 1,000 independent-minded residents, it was absorbed into Huntington Beach in 2011. 

The town’s best-known landmark is an 87-foot-tall water-tower-turned-house. The tower was built in 1945 and supplied water to Sunset Beach and Surfside until 1974. Anesthesiologist Robert Odell and college math teacher George Armstrong bought the tower and converted it into a luxury three-level home in the mid-1980s. Inside you'll now find such amenities as a 7-foot firepit, a 145-gallon built-in fish tank, a Jacuzzi, a steam bath, two master suites and a wine cellar.  The home has had numerous owners since then. Maintenance costs are high and it's not the most practical place to live.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Prohibition and Booze in O.C.

Sheriff Jernigan and deputies destroy contraband liquor at the Fruit Street Yard, 1932.

During Prohibition -- from 1920 to 1933 -- it was illegal to make, sell, or transport alcoholic beverages in the United States. Prohibition in Orange County, California was a study in contrasts. On one hand, forty-two miles of largely unpatrolled coastline attracted rum runners. But in many local communities, the roots of temperance and prohibition went back generations prior to the Volstead Act’s attempt to take the “roar” out of the “Roaring ‘20s.” 

Orange County’s origins followed closely on the heels of the development of the Prohibition Party, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and other anti-alcohol organizations backed (in many cases) by various Protestant denominations. Many of these groups had formed in part as a response to the many traumatized Civil War veterans who had returned home, self-medicated for their PTSD with alcohol, and thereby created a national epidemic of beaten women and children.
The Exchange Saloon, 132 W Center St, Anaheim, in 1908. Proprietor William Stark (at the end of the bar) would serve as mayor from 1920 to 1923.
At the same time, there was pushback against the "drys" from Catholics, German Lutherans, Episcopalians, ardent hell-raisers, and others who felt the government had no business legislating either alcohol or morality. 

As early as 1894, the Orange County Board of Supervisors tried to instate an anti-saloon ordinance, but voters shot it down. The battle over liquor was at the very heart of our local politics, and a candidate’s success usually depended on whether his stance on the issue matched that of the residents of his town or district.

Like much of America, this left Orange County as a patchwork of “wet” and “dry” communities, depending on local attitudes. People in dry towns like Brea visited wet towns like the former German vineyard colony of Anaheim to “tie one on.”  Further south, Seal Beach thrived as a legal wet resort. Huntington Beach began with the intention that no liquor would ever be permitted within its borders, but found itself at the opposite end of the spectrum when the oil boom brought thousands of “roughnecks” to town.

Santa Ana parade float sponsored by Women’s Christian Temperance Union, circa 1900. (Courtesy First American Corp.)
“Orange…was incorporated in 1888 solely to keep out saloons,” the Los Angeles Times’ Orange County Edition explained in a 1976 retrospective on local politics. “By 1903, Santa Ana would pass a Prohibition ordinance that would last… thirty years... On the other hand, Fullerton would be incorporated in 1904 as a means of retaining the saloons...”

This somewhat chaotic, localized approach was swept away in 1920 when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Volstead Act went into effect, banning most alcohol nationwide. Almost immediately, people found ways around the law: smuggling, making home-brew booze, and going to secret “speak easy” saloons which served alcohol and also sometimes catered to other vices like gambling. With an approximate 700% profit margin, criminals had the most to gain from prohibition and gangs took over various regions of the country, often fighting each other for territory. 

But unlike Al Capone’s Chicago or mob-run New York, Southern California never had a powerful organized crime syndicate or czar running everything. There were many local bootleggers running operations large and small. They tended to respect each other’s “territory” and seldom created the kind of gang violence seen “back east.” 

The thinly populated coast of Orange County was a popular place for smuggling. Large boats from Canada or Mexico would anchor far out in international waters. Speedboats would offload cargo from these liquor boats and make deliveries to hush-hush delivery points all along the coast. Al Capone even made a trip out from Chicago to make a serious but failed attempt to purchase the entire Rancho Santa Margarita -- almost certainly for its unguarded Mexico-adjacent coastline.

Bootlegging equipment confiscated from a warehouse at 708 Huntington Ave., Huntington Beach. (Huntington Beach News, 1-7-1932)
As it was, local fishermen were often recruited as rum runners, a job which came to have almost a folk-hero-like aura about it. Many doubled their incomes this way. They’d often come ashore at night, amid the cliff-sheltered coves around Laguna, at Alamitos Bay or Anaheim Landing, anywhere south of Salt Creek, or at the piers in Seal Beach and San Clemente. Sometimes trucks were waiting for the delivery and sometimes cases of liquor were hidden in the sand or among the bushes for later pick-up. Locals who happened to see the activity knew enough to look the other way, a practice which, as historian Doris Walker put it, often “netted them free bottles” and kept their liquor cabinets “among the best-stocked around.”

Locally, Tony “the Admiral” Cornero – with help from his brother Frank -- ran one of the most successful bootlegging operations, using a shrimping business as a cover. Seal Beach historian Larry Strawther identifies at least two other operations also smuggling booze on the north coast of Orange County: “The City Hall Gang (so named because of its very strong influence at Los Angeles City Hall) was led by Marvin ‘Doc’ Schoulweiler and L.A. gambling kingpin Milton ‘Farmer’ Page. Getting a larger and larger foothold were the Black Hand Sicilians (with their New York and Chicago roots)..." 

Los Angeles organized crime historian J. Michael Niotta responds that he's unsure "if the Page brothers ever bootlegged. I believe their outfit specialized in hijacking rum runner shipments once they got loaded onto trucks." 

"Plenty of legal operations were exploited as well," Niotta writes, including pharmacies that were sanctioned by the government "to produce and sell medicinal whiskies and vineyards [that were] allowed to produce wine for religious ceremonies. My great grandfather had several businesses that were legally allowed to purchase alcohol for making hair tonics and perfumes. They then converted it to drinkable liquor and sold it in bulk to resell bootleggers. Plenty of other slick plays were in motion."

As Prohibition dragged on, the game of cat and mouse between bootleggers and law enforcement as well as a little head-butting between rival criminal operations took many twists and turns. 

Of course, most Orange Countians purchased and consumed their bootleg liquor surreptitiously throughout Prohibition. A knowing wink to the right storekeeper – or often the local pharmacist – could get you a bottle easily enough. Most of the “good stuff” smuggled through O.C. was destined for Los Angeles. But Orange Countians were sometimes stuck with pure grain alcohol or homemade “bathtub gin,” both of which tended to induce vomiting even when mixed with soda or grapefruit juice. Still, it was good enough to keep places like Seal Beach and Balboa full of tipsy weekend revelers and to fill the local jails. 
Balboa, Aug. 1928. During Prohibition, Balboa was a “wide-open town” with minimal enforcement of liquor laws.
Not all bootlegging was done secretively. Judge Robert Gardner, who grew up in Balboa, remembered, “you could unload your illegal liquor at the city dock... One of my most vivid recollections of Balboa in the early twenties is that of sitting on the railing of the city dock and watching [bootlegger Tony Cornero’s] rum runners in action. …[Around midnight] a long line of black sedans would line up on Washington Street. The drivers would get out and stand around and smoke cigarettes… Then I would hear the muffled, rumbling roar of high-speed motors idling up the bay. Pretty soon, sleek, powerful speedboats would come into view and moor at the city dock. The drivers of the cars would pick up the cases and load them into their cars. When all the cases were loaded, the drivers would take off for Los Angeles. It was all very open.” 

Gardner would then run down to the Green Dragon soda fountain where he worked, to welcome the smugglers for a late night snack. The “tough-looking, unshaven bunch, attired in watch caps and pea jackets” stacked their rifles and “gorged themselves on sundaes, sodas, banana splits, malts, everything we had.” 

Eventually, being so open would backfire, as Frank Cornero (Tony’s brother) was arrested by the Feds during one such Balboa delivery. 

Meanwhile, writes Strawther, Tony Cornero “bribed officials in Laguna Beach and Seal Beach,” sometimes throwing as much as $25,000 worth of cash in bundles into the windows of parked police cars. It’s not hard to imagine that this may have gone on in other communities as well.
Jewel City Cafe, Seal Beach, circa 1921.
By late 1922, Seal Beach was “the wettest spot in Southern California,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Already considered “wide-open,” its reputation was solidified during the wild Prohibition era. In addition to wholesome fun on the sand and at the Joy Zone amusement park, Seal Beach was also a hotbed of liquor, prostitution, gambling and other vice. Sweeps by Orange County Sheriff Sam Jernigan's deputies, sometimes netting hundreds of gallons of booze and dozens of arrests – barely made a dent in the crime.

Once Pacific Coast Highway was completed, many vice-bent Angelenos would drive down to Mexico for a weekend of drinking and gambling. Beachside lunchrooms and refreshment stands in Orange County towns like San Clemente became popular stop-offs for travelers. Unfortunately, auto wrecks from inebriated drivers coming back from Tijuana also became common.

Danni Murphy of the Orange County District Attorney’s office wrote that the D.A. “hired detectives to attempt to purchase liquor in ‘blind pig’ establishments, places… pretending to be engaged in some legitimate business activity. Raids turned up everything from pints of raw corn liquor to complete and sophisticated stills… First offenders were allowed to plead guilty to illegal possession of alcoholic beverage and were fined $500... ‘Repeaters’ were charged with unlawful sale and usually sentenced to six months in jail.” At the end of these trials the booze was sometimes poured down a manhole near the Courthouse or at the County Yard, “as a message to the rest of the public. Apparently, one defendant escaped a jail sentence when his attorney grabbed the jar containing the alleged liquor and drank it right in front of the jury. With the evidence destroyed, the judge had to dismiss the case.”

Prohibition had been controversial from the start, but it became less popular with each passing year.  Although dramatically lowering the rates of cirrhosis, prohibition increased crime, imposed a set of moral values on citizens who didn’t uniformly share those beliefs, and kept local government from collecting vast sums in taxes.
O.C. Sheriff Sam Jernigan (center, in glasses) watches illegal liquor being poured down a manhole. Such contraband was often stored in the Old Courthouse basement until the bootleggers’ trial was complete.
“The Noble Experiment” of nationwide Prohibition ended with the repeal of the 18th Amendment by the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933. Orange County’s south coast, which had fared better than many areas during the Great Depression, went into an economic slump. But the fishermen went back to fishing full time and found the fish population had rebounded significantly during the years they’d been busy smuggling booze. Meanwhile, divers would, for many years, find large amounts of liquor on the ocean floor – no doubt dumped by rum runners when the Coast Guard came after them. 

Back on shore, bars and liquor stores opened their doors and alcohol once again flowed in restaurants, casinos, clubs and private residences. Legal booze was here to stay.


(This article is largely based on several of my articles that were published elsewhere in the past. Special thanks to Southern California organized crime historian Richard Warner for his sage advice and to J. Michael Niotta for his insights.)

Sunday, February 04, 2024

O.C. Q&A: Huntington Beach Surfing Edition

Surfer on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier, 2008.

Q:  How did “The Trolleys” surf break, off Huntington Beach, get its name?

A:  Tall tales and the sea go hand-in-hand, but there’s a least a little reality to this backstory. First of all, The Trolleys (sometimes called Trolley Cars or Box Cars) is a surf break about a mile out from the “Huntington Cliffs,” just south of Goldenwest Street.  The waves only break there maybe twice in a decade, when conditions are exactly right: high waves, low tide, etc. These same conditions also make it nearly impossible to reach The Trolleys, reinforcing its legendary status.

In the 1960s, “Red Cars” from the defunct Pacific Electric Railway were dumped into the sea to create artificial reefs off the Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach piers. In addition to drawing marine life, they also created surf breaks way out in the ocean. The rumor began that Huntington’s Brigadoon-like break was also the product of dumped trolleys. This tale was probably reinforced by the unused Pacific Electric tracks surfers still had to cross on their way to the water. However, the break is actually created by a sand bar which accumulated over an oil pipeline. Admittedly, undersea Red Cars make a better story. 

Q:  Isn’t “Surf City” just a fake name dreamt up by Huntington Beach P.R. people?

A:  Maybe, but it’s also part of a rich tradition. The first and last time Huntington Beach had a non-commercial name was 1900, when it was called Shell Beach or just "the beach at Santa Ana." 

In 1901, Philip Stanton and his partners bought the land to develop a resort town. He named it Pacific City, hoping people would think it resembled then-popular Atlantic City. A year later, Stanton sold, and railroad magnate Henry Huntington bought a controlling interest. Huntington added some snazzy tourist amenities and immediately began work on a link to his Pacific Electric Railway. The place was pragmatically renamed Huntington Beach. 

In 2004 the nickname “Surf City USA” was trademarked for use in a worldwide tourism marketing blitz. Got a better name? Buy the whole town -- the way Mr. Stanton or Mr. Huntington did -- and the naming rights could be yours!

Q:  Aren't the Surfing Walk of Fame and the Surfers' Hall of Fame, on opposite sides of Main St. in Huntington Beach, a little redundant?

A:  Probably, yes. But they have somewhat different criteria and methods for induction. And what's wrong with having twice as many nice things to say about skilled sportsmen? Anyway, as you might expect from a bunch of laid-back surfers, the rivalry between the two award organizations is pretty friendly. Sometimes, when they honor the same notable surfer during the same year, the two groups even split the airfare for the inductee.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

OC/Q&A: Santa Ana Mountains Edition

View from Modjeska Peak, July 2009 (Photo by author)

Q:  Why do you call the prominent double-peak in the Santa Ana Mountains "Old Saddleback" and not just "Saddleback?" 

A:  According to the late great historian Phil Brigandi, we call it “Old Saddleback” because that’s been its name since the 1860s. 

The distinctive silhouette of Old Saddleback is made up of Santiago Peak and Modjeska Peak, the highest summits in Santa Ana Mountains. In the last half-century, it's been popular to apply an abbreviated "Saddleback" moniker to schools, businesses, churches and even the Saddleback Valley. But the mountains don't change. They even appear on our county's logo.

Historian Don Meadows wrote, "No paisano would ever think of shortening the name. It is always OLD Saddleback to those who love the country." 

Dropping "Old" from the name is like saying "Frisco" instead of San Francisco: Locals will inspect you for bruises left by your fall from the turnip truck.

Q:  Is there any gold to be mined here in Orange County?

A:  There's gold in them thar Santa Ana Mountains! But probably not enough to make searching for it worthwhile. 

Perhaps the most notable of the many prospectors who learned this the hard way was Fullerton's Jacob "Jake" Yaeger. In 1886, while hunting game in Trabuco Canyon, he stumbled across an outcropping of gold ore. 

By 1922 he had spent $125,000, and the best years of his life, digging over 5,000 feet of mine tunnels, (and an additional 1,900 feet just to drain water out of the mine). He worked by candlelight, with rattlesnakes, bears, and mountain lions as his neighbors. Jake remained optimistic right up to his death in 1928, but he never found enough gold to pay for even a fraction of his efforts.

Currently, there’s another fellow who claims he’s found a bit of gold ore in Lucas Canyon and has staked a claim. But if history and geology are any indicators, it’s probably best not to hold your breath waiting for a second California Gold Rush.

Q:  "Carbondale” is listed as one of Orange County’s California Historical Landmarks. What is it? 

A:  Located near the mouth of Silverado Canyon, the town of Carbondale simply disappeared. Ramon Mesquida found coal here in 1878 and told a few miners who were still lingering in Silverado after the silver boom. They formed the Santa Clara Coal Mining Co. and their biggest customer was the Southern Pacific Railroad. Coincidentally, it turned out the railroad already owned the land the miners claimed. 

The Railroad took over in 1881, and a boom town quickly sprang up. Modestly named Harrisburg by mine superintendent Tom Harris, it had a store, saloon, hotel, school, and miners’ shacks. But there was already a Harrisburg, California, and so it was renamed Carbondale. Like Silverado, Carbondale’s boom went bust and the town was nearly empty by 1883. Carbondale died when the saloon closed, but spasmodic attempts at mining continued until 1917. 

Today, the only signs of Carbondale are historical plaques outside Calvary Chapel of the Canyons. [Update: Mountain maven Mike Boeck posts that the Bond Fire of Dec. 2020 burned away enough brush to expose a remaining small portion of one of Carbondale's buildings. He says the mine itself still exists "on the north side of the road,"but that the approach is too clogged with brush for even an experienced bushwhacker like himself to access it.]

Saturday, January 20, 2024

OC/Q&A: Street History Edition

Orange crate label from Charles C. Chapman's Old Mission brand.

Q:  Why are there two major avenues named for Mr. Chapman in Orange County?

A:  They are named for two different Chapmans. Chapman Avenue in Fullerton is named for Charles C. Chapman, a pioneering Valencia orange grower who also made a fortune in oil and real estate and became the first mayor of Fullerton.

Chapman Avenue in Orange is named for L.A. Attorney Alfred B. Chapman, who, along with his partner, Andrew Glassell, founded the town of Orange (which they originally called Richland) in 1871. 

If that clears things up, allow me re-confuse you: Chapman University, not far from Chapman Avenue in Orange, is actually named for Fullerton's Charles C. Chapman.

Q:  Why do streets change direction from straight to diagonal when crossing Newport Avenue in Tustin and Costa Mesa?

A:  Blame the Mexican Governors of early California. The shift in angle is based on the alignment of the Irvine Ranch. Newport Avenue/Boulevard essentially runs along the western edge of the old Irvine Ranch. The ranch boundary, in turn, paralleled the western boundaries of the Mexican Ranchos that once occupied the same land, beginning in the late 1830s and '40s: Rancho San Joaquin and Rancho Lomas de Santiago. Land grabs shifted the boundaries a bit over the centuries, but the principle remains the same: Everything's cockeyed on the Irvine Ranch. 

Q:  How did the Imperial Highway get its name?

A:  It doesn’t seem all that magnificently imperial, does it? Actually, the Imperial Highway once followed the old Butterfield Stage route from the Imperial Valley to Los Angeles. The valley, in turn, was named for the Imperial Land Co., which had developed much of the desert there into a productive agricultural region. Highway construction began in 1930 and – with a Great Depression and a war intervening – ended in 1961. The Orange County section was completed in 1937. Today, the highway is largely superseded by freeways and only retains its "Imperial" name from regal El Segundo through majestic Yorba Linda. 

Q:  Does Lake Forest have its own Muppet-filled Sesame Street?

A:  Sort of. The Kimberly Gardens mobile home park, on Muirlands Blvd, near El Toro Park, includes the following streets: Kermit Drive, Big Bird Lane, Muppet Way, Sesame Street, Grover Lane, Oscar Way and Cookie Monster Lane. Disappointingly, it looks just like any other trailer park. Sesame Street debuted on PBS in late 1969 and was almost immediately popular. Kimberly Gardens was carved out of the orange groves in early 1972. Sadly, the character Mr. Snuffleupagus was only just being introduced, or we could have had one of the all-time greatest Orange County street names!

As themes go, Muppets are good. By contrast, the Moore Homes tract – laid out in 1960 along Warner Ave. in Huntington Beach – has cigarette brands as street names, including Viceroy, Camel, Kent and Salem. Even in the smoking-friendly 1960s, it garnered a few raised eyebrows and the nickname "Tobacco Row."

Saturday, January 13, 2024

OC/Q&A: Sea Life Edition

Wanda the Whale is captured in Newport Harbor, 1961.

Q:  I've heard that the first killer whale in captivity came from Newport Harbor. True?

A:  Surprisingly, it's true. In November 1961 a team from L.A.'s Marineland of the Pacific spent nine hours struggling to capture a female orca in Newport's turning basin.  About 5,000 locals stood on shore and cheered for the whale to escape, shouting "Ole!" each time she evaded the ropes and nets. But ultimately Wanda (as the whale was soon named) was hauled ashore, loaded onto a flatbed truck and driven to Marineland, where they dubbed her kind the "most vicious animal on land or sea." Wanda lived for two days in a large tank before dying from old age, pneumonia, gastroenteritis, and stress brought about by her capture. Rather than apprehending a vicious killer, they'd only harassed a dying, gassy, old lady.

Q:  How did the Dana Point Festival of Whales begin?

A:  The boundlessly energetic Doris Walker (1933-2011) was Dana Point's foremost "town booster" for almost half a century. Along with writing the definitive books on Dana Point's history; writing for newspapers, magazines and newsletters; and founding the town's historical society, she also launched the Festival of Whales in 1971 to highlight the brand new Dana Point Harbor. The festival marks the annual return of gray whales. Today it includes whale watching, art festivals, street fairs, a parade, exhibits, contests, and more. The 2024 festival will be held March 1-3.

Q:  Are grunion (and "grunion runs") a thing of the past in Orange County?

A:  Technically, no. Although the busier and more crowded our coastline becomes, the less appealing it is to these silvery little fish. Still, millions of them come up on our shores to spawn, but only on sandy, south-facing beaches and only at night, during high tide, during full and new moons between March and August. In short, they’re ridiculously finicky about having exactly the right mood for sweet fishy love. 

But gathering grunion with your bare hands in the surf during the "grunion run" is as much a part of Southern California lore as the Double-Double, beach bonfires, and Cal Worthington's dog, Spot. Catching grunion is banned in April and May, and those over age 16 need a fishing license. If you go, play it cool. Lights, noise, and other hubbub ruin the romantic mood and can end the big fish orgy before it begins.

Saturday, January 06, 2024

OC/Q&A: Irvine Park Edition

Circa 1920 photo of the 1914 boathouse at Irvine Park. (Courtesy Don Dobmeier)

Q:  I found an old photo labeled “Orange County Park,” but I can’t find it on a map. What gives? 

A:  They didn’t mislay a whole park. It just got a name change. In 1929, it was renamed Irvine Park, in honor of James Irvine, II, who donated the land to create this first county park in 1897. From the 1860s, when people first started picnicking there, until it became a park, this spot simply was known as “the Picnic Grounds.”  

Q:  What are oldest living things in Orange County?

A:  According to the late great Orange County Historian Jim Sleeper, the "gnarled old live oak trees in Irvine Park" are the county's oldest residents. (And no, they are not regulars at Polly's Pies.) At Sleeper's request, the State Department of Forestry took core samples, revealing some of the larger oaks to be almost 800 years old. When they first sprouted, Genghis Kahn was terrorizing Central Asia, and Gothic architecture was becoming popular in Europe.

Q:  Why are there peacocks at Irvine Park?

A: In 1910, Albert A. Leake became superintendent of the new Marcy Ranch, headquartered near Newport Avenue and Marcy Drive, north of Tustin. He not only maintained the citrus and avocado trees, cattle, and buildings, but also a park that he kept stocked with swans and peafowl (peacocks and peahens). The descendants of the peafowl were still around in the 1960s, finding shelter in the stables at the adjacent Peacock Hill Riding Club. When the club evolved into the Peacock Hill Equestrian Center and moved to Irvine Park in 1980, owners William and Kathryn Warne brought the peacocks with them. In 1987, about 24 of the noisy birds haunted the park. Now there are well over 100. 

“They’re pretty,” said the equestrian center’s current owner, Robin Bisogno, “but there are way too many of them." She politely ignored offers of peafowl recipes, but suggested it might be possible for people to adopt some of the birds. If you want some large, loud, dumb, but beautiful birds, this may be your chance.

Q:  How long has there been an “Orange County Zoo” at Irvine Park?

A:  In 1919, J. A. Turner of the Santiago Hunt Club began raising red foxes in cages at the park for hunting purposes. The 1920, the addition of pens for deer and a lethargic alligator made it a zoo. Animals added later included monkeys, birds, and Horatio the pancake-loving bear. Enclosures were scattered around the park. 

The zoo lost steam when the park closed during WWII. In 1969, many animals were released during a flood. In the early 1970s, efforts began to consolidate the enclosures into one area, and in 1984 a new zoo facility was opened, focusing primarily on native California animals.


More Reading: For the definitive history of Irvine Park, see the hardbound edition of Jim Sleeper's book, Bears to Briquets: A History of Irvine Park, 1897-1997

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Post-holiday community bonfires

Christmas tree bonfire, Eastbluff Dr., Newport Beach, 1970.

From the 1950s into the early 1970s, many Orange County communities held large municipal bonfires of Christmas trees in early January. Generally, these events were sponsored by community organizations like the local Jaycees or Women's Club. In many cases, the city or waste management company would help by collecting discarded trees from the curbs in front of homes and bringing them to a central point like a park for the fire.

Local communities holding such events included Santa Ana, La Habra, Tustin, Brea, Stanton, Westminster, and Leisure World (now Laguna Woods). Sometimes as many as 6,000 trees were burned together. By 1970, Newport Beach was holding large bonfires at five locations throughout town.

The "Operation Safe Flame" bonfire, Tustin, January 4, 1964.

The post-holiday bonfire tradition was an old one that was popular in parts of the Eastern U.S. and was often held on the Twelfth Night of Christmas, accompanied by community caroling. The idea was to prevent smaller unregulated bonfires throughout town that might pose public safety hazards. (It was not uncommon for groups of neighborhood kids to drag bunches of old Christmas trees to a vacant lot and set them ablaze.) The official community bonfires were also done in the hopes of deterring house fires caused by dried out old trees being kept too long.

Traditional or not, the AQMD would never let 'em get away with this now.