Looking down the Coast Highway through Capistrano Beach, 1930 (Courtesy the Orange County Archives).

Looking down the Coast Highway through Capistrano Beach, 1930 (Courtesy the Orange County Archives).

How Many Names Does One Place Need?

In writing about local place names, I always tried to include the names of places people once said they were from. Not just all the forgotten little communities, but all of the places that have had two or three different names over the years.

But there are a few places that have had so many different names it gets downright confusing.

Capistrano Beach probably leads the list. The first townsite there was laid out in 1887, during the railroad boom. It was known as San Juan by-the-Sea. That was too much for the railroad, though, and the depot there was simply signed “San Juan.”

San Juan By-the-Sea enjoyed a little popularity as a beach resort, but soon faded, and the Santa Fe railroad eventually changed the name of the station there to Serra, in honor of the first Father-President of the California missions, Junípero Serra (1713-1784). There was a Serra School District here from 1908 to 1948.

In 1925, a townsite was laid out and dubbed Capistrano Beach. They got a post office that same year. In 1928, Edward L. Doheny, Jr., the son of a rich Southland oil family, began boosting the community. But Doheny died a few months later, and in 1931 the community (and the post office) were renamed Doheny Park in his honor. The family also donated the land for Doheny State Beach, established in 1931.

In 1947, the residents voted to go back to Capistrano Beach, and petitioned the post office department for a name change, which took effect January 1, 1948. The Serra School District also changed its name to Capistrano Beach that same year.

In the interim, things were especially confusing. “For some time now it has required considerable explanation to friends in various parts of the country as to the reason for the community being called Capistrano Beach when the postoffice was named Doheny Park, the school district Serra and the telephone exchange Dana Point.” (Coastline Dispatch, November 21, 1947)

Finally, in June 1988, the residents of Capistrano Beach, Monarch Bay, and Dana Point voted to incorporate as the City of Dana Point. But locals still call that part of town Capistrano Beach.


 The old Newport Methodist Episcopal Church South, 1911. Today it is part of the Greenville Country Church campus (Courtesy the First American Corporation).

The old Newport Methodist Episcopal Church South, 1911. Today it is part of the Greenville Country Church campus (Courtesy the First American Corporation).

How Many Names Does One Place Need? – Part 2

One of the first areas settled by Americans on the south side of the Santa Ana River was near what is now South Coast Plaza. The earliest name for the area seems to have been the Williams Settlement. Isaac Williams (1822-1870) purchased a portion of the old Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana there about 1868, and brought some of the first settlers to the area.

The area was noted for its moist, fertile soil, and the religious fervor of some of the settlers. One local wag soon dubbed the area Gospel Swamp, and the name proved so popular that later residents have tried to stretch it as far west as Huntington Beach. But the original Gospel Swamp was on the south side of the river.

The name was already in common use in 1872, when the Southern Californian (a variant name for the Anaheim Gazette) reported, “Not that the people are so very religious, but that the ministers of the Gospel take a delight in endeavoring to convert the sinner.” The editor goes on to say that he disliked using “so irreverent a title” – “but as the people call themselves by that name we feel constrained to ‘follow suit.’ Could they not adopt something which would be prettier and in better taste?”

The “Swamp Angels” were long considered Orange County’s country cousins. In 1875 the Los Angeles Herald joked that they had a spelling bee down at Gospel Swamp. The first 26 contestants, they said, went down on the first word – “cat.” “The last man would have gone down too, only he stuttered and couldn’t get in the second ‘t’ quick enough.” (Quoted in Anaheim Gazette, April 24, 1875).

When a school district was established in 1871, of course it needed a more formal name, so the residents chose Newport. It had only been a year since a “new port” had been established on Newport Bay, and area was undoubtedly included in the new district. The schoolhouse was located near what is now the corner of Greenville Street and Sunflower Avenue. In 1875, the Newport Post Office was also established in the Gospel Swamp area.

Of course, once Newport Beach was founded at the foot of the wharf in the late 1880s, this led to some confusion, and so people began referring to the inland community as Old Newport.

The Newport post office survived until 1901. The school district was renamed Greenville in 1918. There was also a Greenville stop on the Pacific Electric branch line between Santa Ana and Huntington Beach.

By the 1970s, some people were calling the area Griset Park, after one of the longtime local farming families, but the name never really caught on. Today you will sometimes here the area called South Coast Metro. Some of it is in Santa Ana, while the rest is part of Costa Mesa.

The best surviving landmark of Old Newport is the Greenville Country Church at Greenville Street and MacArthur Boulevard, which was established in 1876 as the Newport Methodist Episcopal Church-South. And over on Alton Avenue, the Greenville lima bean warehouse also still stands.