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.

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