Saturday, January 27, 2024

O.C. 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

O.C. 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

O. C. 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

O.C. 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.