Part of an advertising flier for Modjeska Mineral Springs in Williams Canyon, circa 1909.

Part of an advertising flier for Modjeska Mineral Springs in Williams Canyon, circa 1909.

A Few Words on Williams Canyon

            Williams Canyon has never loomed large in the saga of the Santa Ana Mountains. Silverado Canyon to the north, with its long mining history, and Modjeska Canyon to the south, the home of famed 19th century Shakespearean actress Helena Modjeska, have naturally drawn more interest. But Williams Canyon had its share of interesting residents as well.

The Higueras

            The first recorded residents were the Higuera family in the 1870s. “The Higueras were famous throughout the hills for their riding and roping prowess, general hell-raising, and an incredible capacity for downing cheap wine,” longtime county historian Jim Sleeper noted.[1] “Vocationally, the Higueras raised a few horses, chopped a little wood, and filled out the rest of the day poaching or pilfering.... All of them were superb horsemen who would rope a rider even at full gallop.”[2]

            Doroteo Higuera, “an old Mexican soldier,” had a house “with rock and adobe base” on the flats near mouth of what was then known as Cañada Seca. It stood along the southern edge of Section 18, just east of the boundary of the Irvine Ranch. Another adobe was located further up the canyon, just about at the middle of the northern end of Section 20. On an 1881 survey plat it is marked as the home of “S. Higuera” – presumably a son of Doroteo.[3]

            Another son was Jesus Higuera. In May 1883 he got into a bar fight with an Apache Indian called Juan Duarte outside a saloon in Carbondale (a short-lived mining town near the mouth of Silverado Canyon). Duarte later went to the Higuera place, presumably looking for Jesus, and found his 60-year-old father instead. Duarte brutally murdered and mutilated Doroteo Higuera as his daughter Dolores looked on in horror. He then stole a horse and escaped.

            Doroteo Higuera was buried a few hundred feet from his home, and his grave was a well-known landmark along Santiago Canyon Road for decades. Durate was finally captured in Yuma in 1886. He plead guilty in return for not being hanged, and got 73 years at Folsom instead.

            “Jesus,” Jim Sleeper added, “the toughest of the bunch, ‘got his,’ so to speak, when El Toro’s foremost Indian woodchopper, ‘Old Antón’ (Daniel) carved him up in Aliso Canyon [in 1897].[4]

Marshall Williams

            Even before Doroteo Higuera’s murder, a bachelor beekeeper named Marshall Williams (1842-1901) had settled in the canyon, and given it its name.[5]

            The name first begins to appear in the Anaheim Gazette in 1878 in the local news from Santiago City, a failed townsite in Harding Canyon, born during the days of the silver mining boom in the Santa Anas. Their correspondent is a little contemptuous of the name. Williams Canyon, he noted in October 1878, “can hardly be called a canyon; [it] is more like a gulch.”[6]

            Beekeeping provided a much more dependable income for mountain pioneers than mining, and every major canyon in the Santa Anas had a least a couple of “bee ranches” in the late 19th century.

            “Marsh” Williams lived in the canyon for many years without any real title to the land – perhaps waiting until all area had been firmly surveyed. The Irvine Ranch boundaries were notoriously flexible in the early days, and the Southern Pacific railroad had also been given large tracts of land in the Santa Anas as part of their government subsidy for building the first railroad through Southern California. The land was granted in a checkerboard pattern of alternating 640-acre sections, including Section 17, on the north side of Williams Canyon.

            In any case, it was not until about 1889 that Marshall Williams filed a 160-acre homestead in the northwest corner of Section 20, on the south side of the canyon. He “proved up” in 1894, and received a patent that August. It included the site of the “S. Higuera” home shown in 1881, and it is possible he lived there at one time.

            When Williams died in 1901, the Santa Ana Blade (June 17, 1901) praised him as “a quiet, inoffensive man, well liked and much respected among his acquaintances.”

            According to Terry Stephenson, Williams died in the canyon that still bears his name, and left his property to Mrs. Cash Harvey, the former Postmaster at Silverado, in payment of a loan. Mrs. Harvey sold it “years ago” to Jerome Schulz, who still lived there in 1931.[7]

Judge Pleasants

            But the canyon’s most famous resident was Joseph Edward Pleasants (1839-1934), who had come to California as a boy in ‘49, and first visited the Santa Ana Mountains on a hunting trip a decade later.

            “Ed” Pleasants, or “Judge” Pleasants, as he was later known (he judged horse races), returned to the mountains in 1861 to manage William Wolfskill’s cattle operations on the Rancho Lomas de Santiago (later the northern end of the Irvine Ranch). He spent most of the next 73 years living in the mountains. He farmed, raised goats, and kept bees, serving as County Bee Inspector for decades.

            For a number of years, Judge Pleasants and his wife, the former Mary Refugio Carpenter, lived in the upper end of Santiago Canyon. In 1888, after Refugio’s death, he sold out to Polish-born Shakespearean actress Helena Modjeska (1840-1909), who had his little mountain cabin expanded into a fine summer home, where she could rest between her international theatrical tours. Eventually that stretch of the upper Santiago became known as Modjeska Canyon. In 1890, Judge Pleasants married the Silverado schoolteacher, Mary Adeline Brown.

            Shortly after his second marriage, Judge Pleasants moved one canyon north to the mouth of Williams Canyon, eventually acquiring about 318 acres which included the old Doroteo Higuera place along the east side of the Irvine Ranch boundary, in sections 18 and 19. He lived there for the rest of his long life, dying in 1934 at the age of 95.[8]

Mineral Water

            German-born George Opp (1837-1915), came to the upper reaches of Williams Canyon around 1890 and filed a homestead above the Williams place. His son, Herman Opp, filed an adjoining homestead three years later. That gave them 320 acres on the south side of the canyon.[9]

            George Opp is listed as a farmer in the 1900 census, but at some point – perhaps as early as 1895 – he began selling water from a mineral spring on his ranch to the folks down in the flatlands. Health seekers also came and stayed on the ranch while ‘taking the waters.’[10]

            His homestead secure, sometime after 1900 Opp moved down to Santa Ana, where he continued to promote his mineral water. This advertisement appeared in the 1903 Orange County Directory:

... OPP ...


From a Mineral Spring in Orange County, Gal.,

Near Madame Modjeska’s Home.


Acids — Carbonic, Hydrochloric and Sulphuric.

Bases — Iron, Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium and Potassium.

A superior remedy for rheumatism, biliousness and all kidney troubles,

Acts as a gentle laxative.

          414 B. Walnut St., Santa Ana, Cal.                                                 GEO. OPP, Proprietor.

            George Opp was not the only person to see the value of the mineral springs on his ranch. In February 1906, Ernest E. Burson (1867-1953) of Los Angeles purchased both Opp homesteads (with just two tiny parcels reserved by George Opp). He also acquired 160 acres in section 17, to the north, and other adjoining property.

            In May 1909, Burson filed a subdivision for Modjeska Mineral Springs, where six springs were being developed. The water “has for years been sold in Santa Ana as table water,” the Anaheim Gazette noted.[11] Burson also told the papers he planned a large sanitarium at the springs.

            About the same time, Burson incorporated the Modjeska Mineral Springs Land & Town Co. The stockholders were Burson, his wife Ada, and their daughter, Laura Burson Hill. He also incorporated the Pleasant Canyon Water Co. The water company was authorized to issue $50,000 in stock; the land company $25,000.

            The street names in Modjeska Mineral Springs show that this was designed as a place for folks seeking health and recreation. The main street is Hope, crossed by Utopian, Bonhomie, San Souci, Elysium, Prosper, Halcyon, Harmony, and Faith streets, with Love, Concord, Arcadia, and Pleasant (not Pleasants) streets beside. These names reflect the utopian dreams then common with some Californians – or at least, made for good marketing.

            Burson had about 40 acres cleared, and brought in well drillers to drill at least four more mineral springs on the property.[12]

            A number of small rental cabins were built, and tents were pitched during the summer. Campers bringing their own gear were allowed to stay for free. A horse-drawn “canyon stage” brought guests up from Orange, and Burson and his wife personally managed the place. Several wells were drilled to open up more springs. Their water, Burson claimed, cured rheumatism, stomach and kidney troubles, while the altitude cured asthma and catarrh.[13]        

            The health resort ran until at least 1914, but probably not much longer – especially with America’s entry into World War I in 1917.[14] A glance at the county’s deed index for those years suggests Burson only made about half a dozen sales of lots. In 1921, he filed a second tract map (Tract 150) returning some of the Modjeska Mineral Springs lots to acreage.

            As usual, Jim Sleeper provided the coda – Modjeska Mineral Springs, he wrote, “was short-lived and the property proved more successful as a winery and bootleggers’ rendezvous in the 1930’s.”[15]

Canyon Memories

            In 1973, Sleeper interviewed Naomi Schultz (1888-1979), who married Jerome (“Jerry”) Schulz in 1905. She had heard that Williams bought his place (presumably from the Higueras) for a 60-pound can of honey. He had a little one-room shack that he lived in, until near the end when he lived with the Opps. He grew prunes, and had sheep and a few goats.

            Jerry Schulz bought the place from Cash Harvey’s widow in 1902. He eventually had 21 acres of grain (mostly corn), two acres of prunes and apricots, and ran a few cattle. This was dry farming mostly, plus water from two hand-dug wells.

            George Opp, she recalled, had cattle, sheep, and some prunes. His wife didn’t want to live in the canyon, and spent much of her time in Santa Ana. His first home was part adobe, and Sleeper speculated that it might have been the old Salvador Higuera place.

            Burson bought most of Opp’s property, she said, though Opp kept one of the springs, which were located on the south side of the canyon. Burson thought he was going to make a killing on the resort, but anyone who paid $50 for one of those lots was a fool, she added.

            Burson cleared the area, put in some tents, and built a boarding house out of lumber salvaged from Opp’s barn and home. Mrs. Burson did the cooking, and it was hard work. Sleeper said he remembered seeing the building in the 1940s.

            Burson sold the spring water to campers, but there were no baths or anything like that. He also tried planting muscat grapes. Eventually he gave up and went back to Los Angeles.[16]


[1]    Sleeper, A Boys’ Book of Bear Stories (1976) p 72.

[2]    Sleeper, “A Saga of the Santiago,” Rancho San Joaquin Gazette, July 1886 [ = March 1968]. Published as a promotional piece by The Irvine Company, this issue of the Gazette is devoted entirely to the Higuera murder. See also the Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1883.

[3]    General Land Office, Plat of Township 5 South, Range 7 West (1882) – available on the General Land Office records section of the Bureau of Land Management’s website –

[4]    Sleeper, Bears, p 174.

[5]    United States Census returns, 1880, 1900.

[6]    Anaheim Gazette, September 28, October 12, 1878.

[7]    Stephenson, Shadows of Old Saddleback (1931) p 26.

[8]    There are a number of published sources on J.E. Pleasants, including Sleeper, Bears, and Don Meadows, The Cattle Drives of J.E. Pleasants (1965).

[9]    George Opp received his patent in 1896; Herman in 1899 (see the BLM website). Opp was a Civil War veteran. He was married in Wisconsin in 1864 (Register, December 29, 1914). According to the 1900 census, George Opp immigrated to the United States in 1857. Son Herman was born in 1868 in Wisconsin, and daughter, Eleanore (Nora), was born in Missouri six years later. Clearly he moved around a little bit before settling in Orange County.

[10]  See the testimonials in the “Modjeska Mineral Springs” brochure (ca 1909), which refer to the place as Opp’s Mountain House or Opp’s Farm. The Santa Ana Blade (March 14, 1901) reports that he was selling spring water in Santa Ana for regular household use.

[11]  Anaheim Gazette, May 27, 1909. See also the Santa Ana Register, May 25, 1909. The Gazette described the tract as near the “well known” Pleasants ranch.

[12]  Santa Ana Blade, May 23, 24, 1910.

[13]  Los Angeles Times, April 18, July 21, 1911; Orange Daily News, May 7, 1912.

[14]  The last mention of the resort in the Orange Daily News seems to be August 27, 1914.

[15] “A Traveler’s Guide to Historical Sites on the Irvine Ranch,” The Rancho San Joaquin Gazette, 1919 [= 1968].

[16]  Notes from an interview with Naomi Schulz, May 18, 1973. Jim Sleeper Collection. A number of these stories (including the 60-pound can of honey) are also told in Jerome Schulz’s biography in the 1921 Armor History of Orange County (p 1579).

Silverado Road District, 1913.jpg

This map from the Plat Book of Orange County (1913) is helpful for understanding the early property ownership in the area. Williams Canyon itself runs generally along the east-west line between sections 17 and 20. Note that much of section 17 was still owned by the Southern Pacific railroad. The old Williams homestead (shown in green) was then owned by J.V. Schulz. The Pleasants ranch is shown in in gold, the diagonal line on the east is the boundary of the Irvine Ranch. The Modjeska Mineral Springs tract is shown in blue. Notice the two small parcels still owned by the Opps.