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Rearview Mirror

Ortega Highway a Link to Early California History


Each week thousands of drivers use Ortega Highway, unaware of the pioneer for whom it is named or his role in the settlement of this region.

Generations of schoolchildren have read of Junipero Serra, the Franciscan "Father of the Missions," and Gaspar de Portola, commander of the first Spanish land exploration of Alta California. But Juan Francisco Ortega, also a member of the "Sacred Expedition," is often left out of the story.

Ortega was a sergeant in his mid-30s in 1769 when he trekked north from Loreto in Baja California as pathfinder for the Portola party. He proved himself a skillful guide and was quickly promoted to lieutenant.

In that role, Ortega was a key figure in the founding of Spanish settlements at San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Barbara and Monterey and is credited with being the first under a European flag to reach San Francisco Bay by land. He eventually retired as comandante of Santa Barbara Presidio.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 11, 2000 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Financial Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Explorer's name--The Spanish explorer for whom Ortega Highway is named was Jose Francisco Ortega. An incorrect name was given in a story Sept. 27. In addition, a reader noted that the Ortega, though still popularly known by that name, was officially designated the California Wildland Firefighters Memorial Highway in 1998.

And though he remains overshadowed by Serra and Portola, his name lives on in the Thomas Bros. guide and to anyone who drives the Southern California highway that today bears his name.

The Ortega, as locals refer to this segment of California 74, originates four miles from the Pacific Ocean near Mission San Juan Capistrano. It stretches 32 miles over the Santa Ana Mountains to Lake Elsinore in Riverside County.

The Orange County section is just under 17 miles long. It goes up lower San Juan Canyon--which Ortega explored about 230 years ago--then through a narrow gorge to the Riverside County line. The road climbs a set of switchbacks, reaches the top of the range and descends steeply to Lake Elsinore.


The Ortega's history befits a road characterized by so many twists and turns.

After founding San Juan Capistrano in 1776, the Spanish began to visit the dozens of sulfur-scented hot springs up San Juan Creek. Padres, soldiers and laborers of the settlement basked in the waters--think of it as an early form of a Jacuzzi.

During the 19th century, travelers walked or rode horseback or in donkey carts up the valley till it narrowed to a rocky gorge--today dubbed Ricochet Alley--near the present county line. The path wound between oaks and sycamores and around boulders.

In his book "Turn the Rascals Out," local historian Jim Sleeper notes that after 1888, when the Santa Fe Railroad reached San Juan Capistrano, travel up San Juan Canyon to the hot springs increased, but it still took buggies or wagons nearly three hours to make the 13-mile trip.

By the 1920s, increasing motor vehicle traffic was creating demand for new and better roads. Residents of Orange and Riverside counties, in particular those living near San Juan Capistrano and in Elsinore Valley, called for a direct route across the range. At the time they had to drive through Santa Ana Canyon, the path of today's Riverside Freeway, which more than doubled the distance for many travelers.

A 1971 oral history by Carl Hankey, a public-spirited Orange County rancher and citrus grower, contains many details on the origins of Ortega Highway.

Hankey, whose story was compiled by Cal State Fullerton, shared vivid memories of auto trips to San Juan Canyon circa 1910. He described the meandering course of the road as it followed the creek bed, noting how "seven or eight times . . . we'd have to cross back and forth to get to the hot springs."

Hankey, by then in his late 20s and a resident of San Juan Capistrano, was appointed by a newly chartered Chamber of Commerce in 1923 to head a committee to plan a road to Elsinore. From the start, he and other proponents faced strong opposition.

Tom Talbert, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, was of the opinion that a less expensive one-lane road should be built and that if traffic required it could later be widened to two lanes. Fellow Supervisor George Jeffrey, also citing cost concerns, was able to block the project for several years, Hankey said.

Then Hankey learned two facts, one historical and one current: that Juan Ortega, as point man for the Portola expedition, had been the first European to see San Juan Canyon and that Supervisor Jeffrey's wife was a direct descendant of Ortega's.

Hankey wrote an article for the Santa Ana Register to promote the idea of renaming the proposed "Capistrano-to-Elsinore Highway" in honor of Ortega and his accomplishments.

When Jeffrey learned of this, he called Hankey to inform him that he had changed his mind--and was now a supporter of the highway. He also "revealed" that Ortega was his wife's ancestor.

The cagey Hankey said he replied: "Well, isn't that wonderful?"


Riverside County had already rebuilt a 10-year-old stretch of road from Lake Elsinore to the top of the Santa Ana range in 1925. Now it was up to Orange County to complete the linkup.

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