1868 – The Year that Made Orange County
(A talk presented to the Orange County Historical Society, January 11, 2018)
So here’s your vocabulary word for the next five or six years: Sesquicentennial
We’re about to enter a string of sesquicentennials – 150th anniversary celebrations. Towns, churches, school districts, post offices. And it all starts in 1868 – 150 years ago.
It really was a remarkable time. The old Mexican ranchos were being subdivided, and opportunity was everywhere. In fact I’ll go a step further. I’d like to suggest that 1868 was “the year that made Orange County.” At least, Orange County the way we know it today.
1868 was a turning point in our history. In that one year, drought and debt would combine to open much of this area to settlement for the first time.
Prior to 1868, most of this area was locked up in the old Mexican ranchos, used only for grazing half-wild cattle, horses, and sheep. The vast plains along the Santa Ana River were a dusty grasslands, dotted with a few sycamore trees. Here and there, a cluster of old adobes marked the headquarters of one of the ranchos. The man-made oasis at Anaheim was a rare exception, safe behind a wall of willow trees that encircled the townsite.
And there the land sat, for years, for decades. A few outlanders had come in the 1850s and ‘60s and bought large tracts. But there was nothing for the small farmer, the homeowner, the shopkeeper. Much of the land had never even been properly surveyed, much less subdivided.
But times were changing. A severe drought in 1863-64 decimated the local livestock industry, forcing many of the rancheros into debt. Through sale and foreclosure, the old Mexican ranchos began to pass into other hands.
Speculators, investors, and a few hopeful settlers saw their opportunity. Once the ranchos were divided into smaller parcels, the land could be sold and subdivided.
It all came to a head in 1868, when more than 150,000 acres on both sides of the Santa Ana River all went on the market at once.
The area would never be the same. In less than five years, half a dozen new towns were founded, irrigation ditches dug, hundreds of farmers put the land to the plow, railroad surveyors were at work, and the drive had begun to create Orange County. Many of the cities we know today – Santa Ana, Orange, Tustin, Westminster, Garden Grove – were all born in that rush to subdivide and build, and the foundations were laid for Newport Beach, Placentia, Fountain Valley, and many other communities.
This sudden burst of population and prosperity set the stage for modern Orange County.
But first, we need to go a little further back into old Orange County. At the time of the American take-over of California in 1848, almost all the flatlands in what is now Orange County were part of one big Mexican rancho or another. A typical rancho was about 50,000 acres.
Prior to 1848, the ranchos were primarily used for raising cattle. The hides and tallow were then sold to trading ships (remember Dana tossing the hides?).
Then came the California Gold Rush, and cattle that sold for a dollar or two for their hides were suddenly worth as much as $100 on the hoof as beef to fed the hungry miners.
Of course it couldn’t last. The Gold Rush died down, and competition lowered prices.
Then in 1863 and ’64, Southern California suffered a terrible drought. Cattle died by the thousands, and the rancheros – who had gotten used to their rich lifestyle – slipped into debt.
Of course, some people are always ready to take advantage of bad times. One of them was Abel Stearns.
Abel Stearns was a New England Yankee, who had come to California in 1829. After several successful years as a merchant and trader, in 1842 he purchased the Rancho Los Alamitos that straddles the county line in the western part of Orange County. From there, Stearns went on to build the largest cattle empire in Southern California.
He had two main ways of acquiring more land. Some he just bought from the Mexican rancheros. But other times, he’d loan then money and wait for the debt to come due (interest rates were insane in those days, by the way). And when the time came to settle up, the only asset these rancheros had was land. And Abel Stearns took it.
By the early 1860s, he owned most everything on the west side of the Santa Ana River – the Rancho Los Coyotes, the Rancho La Habra, the Rancho Las Bolsas and the adjoining Bolsa Chica, a good chunk of the Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana, and even an interest in the old Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana on this side of the river.
But while Stearns was busy foreclosing on others, his own debts were mounting. Like so many rancheros – Mexican and otherwise – the final blow came with the drought of 1863-64. A year later, Stearns lost the Rancho Los Alamitos to debt.
As he struggled on, Stearns continued his efforts to collect on the debts owed to him by others. Following his old scheme, in 1866 Stearns sued the Yorba and Peralta heirs who had secured their loans with their shares of the old Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana.
But there was a problem. Legally, the rancho was still one massive, 70,000 acre parcel. So before Stearns could seize their land for debt, they had to have an identifiable piece of land that he could take.
So before anything else could happen, the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana had to be partitioned – surveyed and divided up between all the heirs and owners. It took nearly two years to figure it all out.
The court divided the entire rancho into one million “units,” then divvied them out based on genealogy. The Yorba heirs and the Peralta heirs each got half.
Now, José Antonio Yorba had four sons, so they each got one quarter of a half. His son, Bernardo, had 14 children, so they each got 1/14th of one quarter of one half. One of Bernardo’s grandchildren received one-twelfth of one-fourteenth of one-quarter of one-half of the rancho.
In the end, the rancho was broken up into seventy-two separate parcels, ranging from just 25 acres to 12,155 acres.
Of course, by 1868, when the case was finally settled, many of the heirs had already sold or encumbered their share, so there are other familiar names among the recipients.
The largest parcel – that 12,000 acres – went to Flint, Bixby & Co., who already owned the adjoining ranchos Lomas de Santiago and the San Joaquin. The “& Co.” of Flint-Bixby was a San Francisco merchant named James Irvine, who bought out his partners in 1876.
Third and fifth on the list were Los Angeles attorneys Alfred Chapman and Andrew Glassell. Chapman was allotted 4,845 acres where he would later found the town of Orange. Glassell received the southernmost 4,077 acres of the rancho, in the Costa Mesa area. Most of it was later acquired by Phineas Banning, and we still know the last open part of it today as the Banning Ranch.
James McFadden received the fourth largest share – 4,756 acres. Warner Avenue between the Santa Ana River and the Costa Mesa Freeway marks the northern end of his tract.
Nelson Stafford and Columbus Tustin got 1,359 acres. Jacob Ross, who along with his family would play an important role in the early development of Santa Ana, received 722 acres.
Abel Stearns himself was not even in the top ten of the claimants. His 1,385-acre share (figured at 23/432nds of the rancho) was located in the southwest portion of what is now downtown Orange.
But it was too late. Stearns’ debts were still growing. Early in 1868 he mortgaged almost all of his ranchos to a San Francisco bank. When that loan came due, it looked like it was all over for Abel Stearns.
Then at the last moment, a group of San Francisco investors led by Alfred Robinson, one of Stearns’ oldest friends, made him a remarkable proposition:
In return for most of his ranchos, they would pay him $50,000 up front to settle his debts, pay him $1.50 an acre out of every future sale, and give him a 1/8th interest in what became known as The Robinson Trust.
Stearns knew a good thing when he saw it. On May 25, 1868, he deeded over 178,000 acres of choice Southern California real estate, including almost everything west of the Santa Ana River.
So it was that in 1868 – 150 years ago – much of what is now Orange County all went on the market at once.
The Robinson Trust set up the Los Angeles & San Bernardino Land Company to subdivide and market their land – but nobody called it that. Most everybody simply called it the Stearns Ranchos. The land was divided up into farm lots ranging from 20 to 160 acres. Sales began in the second half of 1868, and within just a few months, over 12,000 acres had been sold.
On this side of the river, sales were beginning as well, as Yorba and Peralta heirs sold out to investors and settlers – but there was no concerted marketing campaign like on the Stearns Ranchos.
But the Robinson Trust had a problem, and its name was Abel Stearns. Abel Stearns proved “difficult” as a partner. In fact he went right acting as if he was still the sole owner of the property. The problem was only solved by his death in 1871. But by then, he was once again a very rich man.
The other thing that slowed growth on the west side of the river was that the Stearns Ranchos retained all the water rights. And the common complaint was that the company didn’t do enough to develop the water resources on their lands, especially during the dry years of the 1870s.
Their other problem also had to do with water, in a way.
The first rancho on the west side of the river was established by Manuel Nieto in 1784. It was big. In fact he got everything from the Santa Ana River all the way to the San Gabriel River. The problem was – in the big floods of 1825, the Santa Ana River moved east to where it is today. So there were people in the 1870s who argued that the land between the old and new riverbeds wasn’t part of any rancho, and could be homesteaded, just any other government land. They called themselves settlers. The ranch owners called them squatters – The Bolsa Squatters.
Soon there were so many squatters they started forming their own little communities. Nathan Sears and a group of his kinfolks settled east of Westminster in what would be the Little Saigon area today. The Anaheim Gazette usually referred to the area as the Sears Settlement, but in 1871, when the settlers organized a school district, they named it Bolsa Grande. Later the community there was known simply as Bolsa.
Other squatters settled southeast of Garden Grove in an area that became known as the Willows. The Willows never even grew to the status of settlement, though for a couple of years the Garden Grove School District maintained a second schoolhouse there.
To the south, in 1879, another group of settlers formed their own school district, which they called New Hope. South of Westminster, the Ocean View School District was formed in 1875. Nearby was the similarly named Bay View district.
But the heart of “Squatterdom” was Fountain Valley. There were enough settlers in the area by 1875 that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors created the Fountain Valley Township, giving them a constable and a justice of the peace. A year later, a school district and a voting precinct were established.
(And by the way, that’s not Gospel Swamp. Gospel Swamp was on this side of the river, down by South Coast Plaza. The old Greenville Country Church is the best landmark.)
By the beginning of 1876, the Anaheim Gazette reported there were 274 squatters and their families living on the Bolsas, supporting four public schools.
The Stearns Ranchos spent years in court trying to eject all the squatters. It didn’t help land sales – who wants to buy a lawsuit?
In 1877, the federal government at long last decided all the land between the old and new beds of the Santa Ana River was indeed part of the Rancho Las Bolsas. The location of the river at the time of the Nieto’s 1784 concession didn’t enter into it, they ruled, because in 1834 (after the river had shifted) the Nieto rancho was re-granted as five smaller ranchos, including the Las Bolsas.
Yet more squatters continued to arrive, settling on other parts of the Bolsas, even north of Westminster, far from the disputed lands. In May of 1878 the Land Company finally decided they had had enough. It was time to evict the squatters from their land. But in a neat trick, the company did not sue the squatters directly. They leased a portion of the rancho to a man named Edwin Whitmore, who was said to be from New York. This allowed the case to be filled in the U.S. Circuit Court in San Francisco, rather than the Los Angeles County Superior Court, adding to the trouble and expense for the squatters. More than 300 of them were named as defendants in the suit of Whitmore versus Azbill, which sought their removal, and $50,000 in damages.
Through various legal maneuverings and postponements, it was not until July 1879 that the circuit court heard the case. The entire hearing lasted only about four days.
In October, eviction notices were served on all the squatters. All agreed to leave peacefully. “Many who are able to do so will purchase” their farms, the Anaheim Gazette reported, but “the majority” could not afford the Land Company’s prices. When they left they took with them everything they could carry. Some even picked up their houses and moved them into Westminster or other nearby communities.
The population across the lowlands plummeted. Schools closed, and by 1880 there were only 143 residents left in the entire Fountain Valley Township. The Bolsa Squatters (and their eviction) slowed the development of the area for years.
Two other communities west of the river have very different stories.
Westminster was founded in 1870 by the Rev. Lemuel Webber, a minister who dreamed of a Presbyterian temperance colony.
This idea of a “colony” development was not unique in the 1870s, but it does seem to confuse some people today. They see “colony” and “cooperative” and somehow hear “communist.” That wasn’t the idea at all. The Westminster colony was a joint-venture, a combined business investment. Cooperative, yes; but each settler was working on his own capital, for his own profit. The goal was to produce a successful, attractive community where people would want to live. Hence the temperance idea.
Rev. Webber made a deal with the Stearns Ranchos to handle sales for 7,000 acres as their exclusive agent – no one could buy land without his approval. He then published a detailed “prospectus” for his colony, which reads in part:
“It has long been a cherished purpose of the projector of this colony, to establish a settlement of persons whose religious faith, notions of morals and education, should be so nearly alike, that they might cordially co-operate from the first, in the maintenance of a Christian Church and a superior school. It has seemed to him that, if instead of scattering about, without definite purpose, persons of like views, in regard to the value of morals, founded upon the Bible and sustained by a broad education, would settle together in a proper locality, they might at once secure the blessings of well-regulated society, and enjoy the most permanent prosperity.”
But while Rev. Webber had very clear ideas of what he wanted his colony to be, he seems to have been unwilling to force them on others. So he welcomed settlers from other religious denominations – in fact, both the Methodists and the Congregationalists built churches in Westminster before the Presbyterians dedicated their first sanctuary in 1879.
By then the “colony” scheme had run its course. Rev. Webber died in 1874, and his successor, Rev. Robert Strong – another Presbyterian minister – gave up four years later. By then, the population had topped 600.
Other “colony” plans succeeded in Southern California. Anaheim is the most famous here, but Riverside and Pasadena also both began as colonies.
Ivana Bollman, who wrote her Master’s thesis on the colony, suggests several possible reasons why Westminster never fulfilled Rev. Webber’s dream, including the lack of good transportation facilities, the early death of Rev. Webber, problems with alkali soil in the area, and the many marshy areas that needed drainage, not irrigation.
“Individual leaders were never as important in this colony as they appear to have been in others,” she notes. “The government of the colony was always democratic. The Presbyterian Church itself is organized so that lay members and the clergy have equal voting rights.”
Thus, it was often every man for himself. Instead of a co-operative colony, Westminster went on to develop like many other small Southern California communities.
Bollman’s mention of transportation deserves another note. In the 1870s, shipping was also still an important form of transportation. Orange County had two ports in those days – Anaheim Landing, and the “new port” at Newport.
Anaheim Landing had been established in 1864, at the mouth of the San Gabriel River, to provide a shipping point for Anaheim. Once the area in between began to settle up, it was an asset for all the local farmers. In fact, goods were hauled from as far away as San Bernardino. A small wharf was built in 1864, along with a warehouse to store goods coming and going, but large, ocean-going ships could not tie up in the shallow waters at Anaheim Landing. To move goods in and out, small wooden boats called “lighters” were used, or lumber might just be floated ashore, and dried before being shipped on to its final destination.
The floods of 1867 silted in the shallow landing, so operations were moved about a mile south to Anaheim Bay, on the edge of what is now Seal Beach. But once Anaheim got a railroad in 1875, interest in the landing faded, and shipments dropped off as the SP offered special freight rates to draw traffic away from the port.
The farmers around Westminster didn’t have a railroad, so they tried to keep the port going, taking over from the Anaheim folks. But by the 1880s, commercial traffic had just about ended. Instead, Anaheim Landing became a tourist destination, which survived until the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station was established during World War II.
The “new port” down the coast got its start in 1870 when the first cargo ship found its way through the mud flats into Newport Bay, anchoring off Castaways Bluff, where Dover comes down to meet the Coast Highway. A few years later the McFadden Brothers took over the operation. Bringing in lumber was a big part of their business. They even had their own steam-powered schooner, the Newport. But the bay was so shallow she could only come in every two weeks, when the tides were at their highest. And even then, the port captain had to go out every time and take fresh soundings to chart out the best course. But ships still ran aground, and several men were killed in the rough surf at the mouth of the bay. So in 1888, the McFaddens built a wharf on the ocean side of the peninsula, and moved all their operations there. In 1892 they laid out a townsite at the foot of the wharf called Newport Beach.
Stepping back to the 1870s, we find another example of how towns started with Garden Grove.
Garden Grove just sort of happened. Quite a few farmers had already moved to the area by 1874, when Alonzo Cook arrived and purchased 160 acres at what is now the northwest corner of Euclid and Garden Grove Blvd. Cook was an attorney, and also later a homeopathic physician. By 1875, enough families had arrived to justify a local school district. It was Cook who suggested the name Garden Grove. Some folks objected to the name, said there wasn’t anything that could be called a tree in the whole district, but Mr. Cook said, “Well, we’ll make it appropriate by planting trees and making it beautiful.”
Alonzo Cook did much to further the growth of early Garden Grove. He provided the new school district with the site for their first schoolhouse. He founded a local Sunday School which grew into the Methodist Church. He sold off portions of his quarter section to other settlers. And in 1877 he and Converse Howe founded the community’s first general store, which was also home to the local post office – with Cook’s father-in-law, David Webster, as serving as postmaster.
Mr. Cook never laid out an actual townsite, but by 1876, he was working to build a community. (I know, I know, the city uses a different date, but that’s the year Mr. Cook always said he founded the town.)
But young Garden Grove made little progress over the coming years. Cook left town, and while the big real estate boom of the 1880s resulted in a few local subdivisions, the real growth of the townsite didn’t begin until the arrival of the Pacific Electric railroad in 1905.
On this side of the river, things went a little better. For one thing, there was no Stearns Ranchos company trying to control everything – especially water rights. There were also no squatters – well, almost no squatters.
But once again, it took a few determined individuals to take ranch land that was turning into farmland, and turn it into a town.
You’ve probably already heard of William H. Spurgeon – Uncle Billy Spurgeon. He had lived in Central California for a number of years, but was drawn south by news of the partition of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana. In 1869, he and a partner named Ward Bradford bought 74 acres from Jacob Ross, and Spurgeon used his half to found a new town he called Santa Ana.
Santa Ana had several advantages. It had good soil, was well-watered, and it was centrally located. But its biggest advantage was Uncle Billy Spurgeon. Before 1869 was out he’d opened a store, was aiming to get a post office, and even convinced the stage company to run their stagecoaches through his new town – after he built them a detour off the old El Camino Real. By the end of 1870, Santa Ana claimed a population of about 150.
Spurgeon also always had an eye out for partners. Not just Ward Bradford, but Abram Bush (who at least still gets a street name), and Daniel Samis – who no one seems to remember.
That’s in part because Spurgeon lived until 1915, and kept boosting Santa Ana all along. He helped bring the railroad to town in the 1870s. He helped Santa Ana become our county seat in the 1880s. He did everything he could to make Santa Ana the boss town of the county – and he succeeded (much to the disgust of Anaheim). He truly deserves the title of “Town Father.”
In contrast, the City of Orange only had step-fathers. Los Angeles attorneys Alfred Chapman and Andrew Glassell had begun buying up shares in the old Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana in the mid-1860s, so when the partition suit came, they were in the curious position of being both defense counsel and defendants.
You’ll hear that they got their land in lieu of legal fees. But that was only a small portion of what they acquired – first through the partition, and then from buying up the allotments of various Yorba and Peralta heirs – and even old Abel Stearns.
In 1870, Chapman had several thousand acres subdivided into farm lots and began construction of an irrigation ditch down from the Santa Ana Canyon. When it was finished in 1871 he had a townsite laid out at the end of the ditch, right where downtown Orange is today. Except he didn’t call it Orange – he called it “Richland.” This was going to be a farm town, after all. The Orange name came along two years later when they went to get a post office and discovered there was already a “Richland, California” up by Sacramento.
Now, I expect to go to my grave trying to beat down this story that Chapman and Glassell and two other men played a game a poker to pick the new name. That’s just an old wives tale that doesn’t even show up till about 60 years later.
The real reason Orange was named Orange is that even in 1873 there was already talk of breaking away from Los Angeles and forming a separate “Orange County.” That’s probably where the Orangethorpe School District comes from, too, which started the same year.
Orange makes an interesting contrast with Santa Ana. They had many of the same assets – location, water, soil – but Santa Ana quickly outgrew its younger rival. Why? Well, I think one of the reasons was that while Alfred Chapman liked to call himself the “father” of Orange, he never took much interest in his child. It was just another real estate investment. So while Spurgeon put his whole life – and almost every dollar he ever earned – into building up Santa Ana, Chapman and Glassell siphoned off the profits from Orange and called it good.
Uncle Billy Spurgeon – I might add – never got rich. But he was fondly remembered by all the old timers. Alfred Chapman and Andrew Glassell got very rich, but would hardly be remembered in Orange if they hadn’t named the two main streets after themselves.
And then there’s Tustin.
Columbus Tustin had bought a share of the old Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana just before the partition in 1868. He ended up with 840 acres. Like Uncle Billy Spurgeon, he decided to found a town. Like Chapman, he had his land surveyed into farm lots and town lots. The town was laid out in 1871, just a few months before Orange. Like Santa Ana, he had a good location, close to the old stage road. Like Orange and Santa Ana, he had good soil and decent water. Like Spurgeon, he pushed his town hard, and devoted himself to its development. Yet the place he called “Tustin City” never grew very big.
So why is that?
Well, part of the problem was probably because Santa Ana and Orange were so nearby. It was also a lot further to bring down an irrigation ditch. Tustin also missed out on the Southern Pacific railroad, which reached Santa Ana in 1877. James Irvine hated Collis Huntington, one of the “Big Four” of the SP, and would never let them cross the ranch. Tustin also didn’t have the capital that Chapman and Glassell had, and didn’t seem to have the knack (or interest) in finding partners, the way Uncle Billy Spurgeon did.
In the end, Tustin historian Carol Jordan concludes that “Columbus Tustin apparently lacked the drive, know-how, and physical attributes necessary to win against the likes of Spurgeon. Tustin was rather short in stature, slightly cross-eyed, and … not terribly literate.” She also speaks of “His lack of salesmanship and [financial] backing.” Yet C.E. Utt, who arrived in 1874, later recalled, “Tustin has never had, nor do I think ever will have, a more public spirited citizen.”
Some other new communities never really came together at all, or eventually failed. Orangethorpe barely ever rose to the level of a town, yet years later it was briefly its own city. Located northwest of Anaheim, settlers began arriving when the Stearns Ranchos went on sale in 1868, and by 1873 they had enough children to get their own school district.
But water was always a problem. They built a ditch from the Santa Ana River, but Anaheim was in between, so there was little water left for Orangethorpe. Eventually they gave up their water rights to the Anaheim Union Water Company.
There was never a townsite laid out, but when Fullerton tried to build their sewer farm in the area in the 1920s, the residents voted to form the City of Orangethorpe, to keep them out. The city lasted less than two years – just long enough to force Fullerton to take its sewage elsewhere. Then voters returned to the polls and voted to dis-incorporate. The school district survived until 1954, when it was divided between Anaheim and Fullerton. Today, Orangethorpe is just a street name.
Lack of water also slowed development in the Placentia area. In 1875, local ranchers began work on their own irrigation ditch, but only got about eight miles dug before things fell apart. In 1877, the Cajon Irrigation Company was incorporated and took over the project. Cajon was the name they gave their first school district, as well. It came from the name of the old Ontiveros rancho – the Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana.
The Cajon Company actually got their water system built, but a few years later they also joined with the Anaheim Union Water Company.
To the north and west, that same lack of water held back the development of the La Habra Valley. In fact it was mostly used for grazing sheep in the 1870s and ‘80s.
Southwest of Anaheim another farming community began to take shape, and in 1870 the local ranchers formed the Fairview School District. (This is not to be confused with the 1880s boomtown of Fairview, north of Costa Mesa.) The Fairview School was at the corner of Katella and West Street, and was the area’s main feature. Fairview never had its own post office, and shopping usually meant a trip to Anaheim. As Anaheim grew, Fairview was eventually swallowed up, and lost its identity.
Hoping to capitalize on the colony trend, the Stearns Ranchos Company laid out at least two other tracts, hope to lure a town founder and a group of ready-made settlers. Neither project proved successful.
The first tract was known as Savanna. It was primarily in the La Mirada area, but a bit of it crossed Coyote Creek into what is now Orange County as well. In 1869, the Land Company filed a tract map with Los Angeles County, and began boosting Savanna in its sales literature. But the tract never took off. Historian James Guinn’s description of his first visit there has been quoted many times:
“In 1868 and ’69 Southern California was in a transition state…. The Stearns ranchos … had been subdivided into small tracts and thrown on to the market at prices varying from $2.50 to $10 per acre. Just before we cast loose from the wharf at San Francisco an active young man came aboard the steamer with an armful of boom literature, the first I had seen. It was maps, plots and circulars descriptive of the lands of the … Stearns ranchos. These he distributed where he thought they would do the most good. A map and description of the city of Savana fell to my lot. The city was described as located on a gently sloping mesa overlooking the valley of the Santa Ana. Sites had been reserved by its founders for churches and schools, and a central location was held in reserve for a city hall. A few weeks after my arrival I visited the city. I found it on the western slope of the Coyote Hills, about six miles north of Anaheim. Long rows of white stakes marked the line of its streets. A solitary coyote on a round-top knoll, possibly the site of the prospective city hall, gazed despondently down the street upon the debris of a deserted sheep camp. The other inhabitants of the city of Savana had not arrived, nor have they to this day put in an appearance.”
In 1875, the company decided to give it another try. The railroad to Anaheim had just been completed, and on the south side Coyote Creek, at what is now the Orange County line, a station was established known as Costa.
With a railroad in place, the Land Company proceeded to lay out a 370-acre tract around Costa station. It was laid out for farming, with the smallest lots still two acres each; there was no defined townsite. The tract was dubbed Centralia, “from its proximity to the center of the valley” – five and a half miles from Anaheim, six miles from Artesia, and six miles from Westminster.
A number of settlers bought land in the tract, and in 1876 formed the Centralia School District. But as late as 1880, the Land Company was still looking for a town founder to lure colonists to the area.
On the other hand, the old German colony at Anaheim benefitted from all this growth going on around it. They were the only real town in the area in 1868, and quickly became the supply point for most of the earliest residents of the Santa Ana Valley. The Stearns Ranchos Company also subdivided the land surrounding the original townsite, bringing even more ranchers to the area. In fact, Anaheim grew so fast that in 1870 they became the first incorporated city here.
And they didn’t stop at that. In 1870 they also proposed a new county, to be carved out of the southern end of Los Angeles County. Of course they called it Anaheim County – and Anaheim would naturally be the county seat. The bill even made it through the state assembly, but died in the senate. The proposal would be revived off and on for the next 20 years, as Orange County, Santa Ana County, and then Orange County again. It took until 1889 to get out of Los Angeles’ clutches, but it was worth every minute.
(Pause) History does not repeat itself, but there are certain factors that influence every era. Among the most obvious in the life of a community are the availability of land, a dependable water supply, access to transportation, and a basis for the local economy.
Availability of land is key to what happened in 1868. When much of this area was controlled by just a few large landowners, there was no opportunity for growth.
Yet even with the break up of the old ranchos, nothing was going to change very much without water. Wells and irrigation systems made agriculture possible here, and agriculture was the backbone of the local economy for more than 75 years.
But again, the richest harvest is worthless without access to transportation. The first successful crops here were those that could survive a long, slow trip to market – grains, dried fruit (such as raisins), and wine. It was the arrival of the railroad that really made agriculture profitable – especially with oranges.
So all of these factors are related; change any one of them, and you change the story.
But there are other factors, less tangible factors, that also influence our history. And the biggest of these are the people who settled here. When our population was small, even a single individual could make an important impact on their community.
Consider our town founders and their different approaches to developing a new community. William Spurgeon had intelligence, determination, and the ability to sell his ideas to others. For him, Santa Ana was not just a real estate investment, it was also his home, and he committed himself to building up the community. He was a “Town Father” in the true sense of the word. And with “Uncle Billy” at the helm, Santa Ana quickly grew larger and more important – not just than its siblings (the other new towns of the 1870s) but even well-established Anaheim.
Rev. Lemuel Webber was perhaps the biggest dreamer of all our town founders, but could never find a way to make his dreams a reality. He had a clear vision of what he wanted Westminster to be, but was unwilling (or unable) to attract residents who shared enough of that vision. He also lacked capital to start things moving. His death in 1874 left Westminster an orphan. It never really was a Presbyterian temperance colony, only a scattered agricultural community.
Alonzo Cook also hoped to live in a temperance community, but seems to have only been willing to take some of the steps needed to get there. A school, a church, a store, a post office – Cook had a hand in many of the enterprises that build a community. But Garden Grove had no townsite, no advertising blitz, nothing to really set it apart from a dozen other little cross-roads communities in the Santa Ana Valley in the 1870s.
Then there were those towns that had no father at all. All were stunted in their growth, and most have long since vanished. Where is Fairview, Orangethorpe, Gospel Swamp, Ocean View, or Newhope? All of them lacked that guiding presence of a town father. Several also suffered from unsettled land titles, and dubious water supplies.
Town founding is a risky business, and none of our early town fathers ever got rich. But some of them succeeded in building a community, and eventually – a county. Along with many other pioneers, they were able to lay the foundation for much of the development that followed. The best of them were able to look beyond themselves, and to join together with others and share both the risks and the rewards. It was people like these that made Orange County.