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CELEBRATE! : ORANGE COUNTY'S FIRST 100 YEARS : THE GROWTH YEARS : Boom Times in a 'Garden of Eden' : The frantic land rush was on: 'Every purchaser will double his money inside 60 days.'

May 22, 1988|MICHAEL FLAGG | Flagg is a business writer for The Times. and

The mustard grass was so tall in places, the story goes, that even on horseback Uncle Billy Spurgeon couldn't see over it on a fall day in 1869. He had to dismount and climb a sycamore to get a better look at the land he had just bought. And from that vantage point, the waves of mustard grass "appeared like a sea, with here and there sycamore trees rising above it."

Twenty years later, at the age of 60, Spurgeon would be too old and too dignified to climb a tree. Besides, most of the grass would be gone, the land now covered by houses, stores, hotels and banks built during the 1880s real estate boom that put the town Spurgeon called Santa Ana--as well as its rivals: Anaheim, Tustin and Orange--on the map and fueled the movement toward the formation of Orange County.

Santa Ana, the city that was to become the county seat, didn't look like much early in 1886, the year the boom began. Much of downtown Fourth Street--not far from Spurgeon's sycamore tree--was lined with ramshackle buildings, and even the boostering Santa Ana Herald admitted that the town looked a little "down at heels."

Santa Ana had much the same problem as the rest of the state: There was plenty of land but not enough people.

Anyone who would benefit from an influx of immigrants from the East--real estate agents, merchants, railroad operators, landowners--pumped up the overheated advertising rhetoric of the day in newspaper ads such as this one for one of Spurgeon's tracts: "Hip! Hip! Hurrah! A Garden of Eden for a Home. Every purchaser will double his money inside 60 days."

For a time, the railroads--in heated competition for tourist and immigrant traffic--lowered fares from the Mississippi River to California from $125 to $5. The railroads also owned a lot of land, much of it given to them by developers in return for routing a rail line through their towns.

One of the key promoters of the area was a shrewd former postmaster from Massachusetts named George H. Fullerton, who led to California the Santa Fe Railroad's first trainload of tourists from back East. The railroad gave him the considerable sum of $50,000 to beguile Easterners with promises of easy fortunes.

On that first trip, a detachment of soldiers got off in Arizona to fight Apaches. Fullerton's tourists were so nervous during the rest of the ride through the territory that one man rode on the floor with his pistol in his lap.

Fullerton became president of the Pacific Land Improvement Co., a development subsidiary of the Santa Fe Railroad that laid out towns all over what is now Orange County. The railroad sold hundreds of lots in such towns as St. James, which was just south of Olive, and San Juan By-the-Sea, which was perched on cliffs above Capistrano Beach. But many of these "towns" were but names on a map, and they are now long forgotten.

The railroads weren't the only promoters of these "paper towns." Among the noisiest were the owners of a town called Fairview, and much of the noise was probably the sound of desperation. They built a hotel and other commercial buildings on 1,800 acres for which they had paid $300,000. But it all came to naught; the town of Fairview never got off the ground. The land is now the site of Orange Coast College and the Mesa Verde Country Club in Costa Mesa.

But there were successes. As the Santa Fe Railroad pushed into the area, it was originally supposed to stop in Buena Park, but much of the town was inundated by an 1887 flood. When George Fullerton was offered land in a new town north of Buena Park as an incentive to extend the railroad line to that point, he accepted on behalf of the railroad.

On such decisions did the fate of these new towns rest. Stunted by the lack of a railroad, Buena Park didn't incorporate until 1953, while the town that got the railroad was big enough to incorporate in 1904.

The town was Fullerton, although it was almost named Marceline after the wife of the railroad's superintendent.

George Fullerton either left or was forced out of his job shortly afterward--the circumstances are unclear--and probably never lived in the town that bears his name.

Another investor in Fullerton was H. Gaylord Wilshire, who was just warming up his skills as a huckster. After buying the railroad's share of Fullerton land, Wilshire owned three-quarters of the town's first 400 acres, while his partners, brothers Edward and George Amerige, owned the remaining quarter. Wilshire's greatest real estate coup, however, would be in Los Angeles, where he would develop a sizable chunk of what is now Wilshire Boulevard.

Only three of the new towns of the '80s boom survived: Fullerton, Buena Park and El Toro. It was in the older, established towns that the boom had its greatest effect: Tustin, Orange, Anaheim and, of course, Santa Ana.

The impact was reflected in the growth of Santa Ana's population from 2,000 residents in 1886, the year the boom started, to 3,600--nearly double--within four years.

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