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Newport Beach Dredges Up Past, Celebrates

Clearing mud out of the harbor, adding jetties made possible the affluent city of today. Fireworks, concert culminate centennial.

October 07, 2006|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Local historian David W. Muller believes there are two things responsible for the exalted financial status of Newport Beach: dredging and jetties.

"There's nothing exotic or O.C. about them," he said, "but they led to the city that exists today; without them, you'd have a marsh."

On Sunday a yearlong celebration of that 100-year march from mud to money will culminate in a 6 1/2 -hour extravaganza featuring, among other things, fireworks off two piers and a performance by legendary surf guitarist Dick Dale.

Muller, executive director of the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum, said it's entirely fitting that Dale, a former Newport Beach resident who ignited the surf-music craze in the early 1960s with a band called the Deltones, should take the stage at the end of the city's official centennial celebration.

"The beach culture [in Newport Beach and Orange County] created billion-dollar industries now recognized worldwide" as depicted in popular TV shows such as "The OC," Muller said.

Organizers say they expect as many as 30,000 people at the events planned between the Newport and Balboa piers from 2 to 8:30 p.m. There will be games, exhibits, a carnival, classic car show and art walk. Near the day's end, Dale will take the stage at the foot of the Balboa Pier, the culmination of centennial observances kicked off by the Beach Boys 12 months ago.

Amid the Sunday celebration, it's unlikely that anyone will pay tribute to the role of dredging in Newport Beach history, but without it, the city would be more aptly named Mudville.

In the late 19th century, huge mounds of mud clogged what was to become Newport Harbor, making it impassable to ships.

In 1860, the U.S. Coast Survey made the first preliminary examination of the Santa Ana River estuary (now Newport Harbor). "What they found was a bay that was unnavigable. So they ignored it," Muller said.

By 1891, brothers James and Robert McFadden had built a wharf -- now called Newport Pier -- and connected it to a rail line to allow farmers to easily export their citrus fruits, strawberries and beans, and builders to more cheaply import lumber.

In 1892, James McFadden bought a large portion of the peninsula from 40th Street to 9th Street for a dollar an acre from the federal government. It was classified as "swamp and overflow land."

The city's growth was aided by the development of the Pacific Electric Red Car, the legendary trolley that brought people down from Los Angeles beginning in 1905. Since it never ran on Sundays, visitors to Newport Beach would stay overnight and quickly made the town a weekend tourist destination.

As commerce boomed, city officials began to dredge the seemingly interminable submarine mountains of mud deposited by the Santa Ana River, a task that continues to this day. The effort resulted in waters accessible to commercial and recreational boating, creating the economic underpinnings for the city.

"People think Newport is an affluent community," Muller said, "but we're a dredging community. We couldn't exist if the harbor hadn't been dredged."

The city's second great innovation of the last century followed: the construction of its vast network of jetties beginning in the 1920s. The jetties kept waves out of the harbor mouth and left sand on the beach, providing the bulwark on which the leisure culture of sand, sun, surf and recreational boating that has since become synonymous with Newport Beach was built.

"Back in the 1920s," Muller said, "they were selling Balboa Island lots for $200 apiece and they couldn't give them away. Now land costs $1,000 per [water] front foot and we've got houses worth upward of $4 million."

But life in Newport isn't just about the affluent lifestyles depicted in "The OC," says Mayor Don Webb, who has lived in the city since 1965.

"We're real people here," he said. "We have as much of a variety of income levels and activities as you'll see anywhere. We enjoy our community and have the same family values that you would find in any other community."

The centennial, he said, has helped some residents appreciate that. "It's been an opportunity for us to learn a little about our heritage, to come together in a celebration that you don't get to participate in very often."

Muller says he agrees.

"It's a far cry from where we were," he said of the city he has grown to love, "but part of the lesson of the centennial is to understand and appreciate from where we came.

"You're here for the first time and you think it's always been this way. Well, it hasn't. We need to respect that."



Newport Beach through the years

Highlights in the early history of Newport Beach, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year:

1860: First attempt by U.S. Coast Survey to make a preliminary examination of the Santa Ana River estuary (now Newport Harbor).

* 1870: The steamer Vaquero enters Newport Bay; Newport Landing established on the inner shores.

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