Day-Trips from Santa Ana, California (1945-1955):
Part I: Automobiles, Roads, and Traffic of the Day
by Shayla Ann Markham
It is difficult, in the year 2004, to imagine driving for pure enjoyment on crowded Orange County highways. However, in the 1940s and early 1950s, when I was growing up in Santa Ana, California, driving in traffic was not a big issue. At that time, when mothers told children to look both ways before crossing the road, they meant really look because the occasional on-coming car was often a surprise on those quiet streets! The most congested intersection I remember in Santa Ana back then was First at Main, where, occasionally, one had to wait for a while to make a left turn. Otherwise, Santa Ana traffic was so light throughout much of the day that youngsters could safely ride bicycles along the curb of many major streets. This is unheard of today in most areas of the city of Santa Ana as well as in most other cities.
As I grew up, I learned to drive on such lightly traveled roadways as Fairview, Harbor Blvd., and even south Main which stretched way down to Costa Mesa. Great expanses of bean fields, instead of businesses, lined those streets, especially south of Delhi Rd. (later renamed Warner; hereafter referred to as Delhi/Warner). I later practiced driving throughout Santa Ana streets with ease as I became more confident. Today, when I drive Santa Ana streets, I never fail to reflect on what the word traffic means in the year 2004 versus what it meant during the years of my childhood. Back then, the city of Santa Ana, the County of Orange, and, in fact, southern California in general made up a spacious Father Knows Best or Donna Reed Show setting where there seemed to be plenty of room for everyone and everything!
The era of the forties and early fifties was not far removed from the time when automobiles sounded like delicate sewing machines and required hand-cranking to start up. There were still plenty of lovely old classics on the road in Santa Ana. I was fortunate to be familiar with a few of those old cars first hand because my Dad was manager of his brother's business, Rice Auto Parts, on Fifth St. at Garfield. Rice Auto Parts was a large wrecking yard that bought wrecked and old cars for scrap metal, sold parts for most brands of cars, and also sponsored race cars. Thus, the automobile was a common family topic and I learned to take a special interest in cars (and to NEVER call a wrecking yard a junk yard!!). Unfortunately, older cars, not yet considered to be classics at that time, were often scrapped because they tended to be drafty and impractical in a time when faster, more reliable, and more comfortable cars were becoming available. Consequently, my Dad sometimes brought home from the wrecking yard a great old car in decent running condition. He drove it around to help ensure its resale so it would not meet an unhappy end. I remember, particularly, the wonderful Model A Ford Sport Coupe with the rumble seat and unforgettable "aooga" horn (Model A Fords were built between1927-1931) as well as the big 1936 Buick with the long running boards. Both of these cars had tremendous attitude and were a joy to ride in. The splendid dashboards with quaint dial gauges were made of solid materials, and one heard a thick, sturdy sound when the doors closed. My Dad starting up the Model A Ford was an experience I will never forget. He sometimes had to work under the hood cover which folded up and over the hood like a bird's wing. Every time the car finally started, we really cheered! Thankfully, those great old cars we rode in were resold rather than scrapped. I wish I had them today!
While older cars were fast being replaced, pioneer driving knowledge and skills were still required in Santa Ana in the forties and early fifties. It is difficult to believe, but Santa Ana was much smaller before the land surrounding it was developed into the multitude of tract homes and apartment buildings we see today. I recall that some areas north of Seventeenth, and, as touched upon earlier, especially the areas west of Bristol, east of Grand, and south of Delhi/Warner were farmland and orange groves at that time. Though much of the city of Santa Ana did include well-paved streets, drivers still negotiated occasional rural dirt and mud roads with potholes. This was particularly so as one drove into the undeveloped regions surrounding the city proper. The gravel road was a welcome sight in these areas and one was grateful if driving a newer, more powerful automobile! This was also a time when conscientious drivers still knew that not hanging a canvas desert bag full of extra radiator water by its rope handle, either from the hood ornament or from the radiator itself, especially on older cars, could spell disaster on a longer trip. Thus, back then, as streets and highways improved and opened up, one drove the better, more contemporary car greater distances simply because one could. The bonus came in experiencing splendid views of beautiful landscapes along Orange County and southern California highways. We took for granted those views would always be there.
A drive during the forties and early fifties through Santa Ana and Orange County, or out to the desert and back, also served to check out the automobile, its every sound, and whether or not it could pass other cars with ease. In fact, passing cars on the then-typical two-lane highway was an important skill because of safety issues, especially when a blind curve was ahead! Engine power was critically important in completing the passing process in good time. There was only one lane each way and, just like today, passing was not allowed on the shoulder of the road. One had to pass another car on the left, in the on-coming lane, after making certain the way up ahead was clear. If passing another car by using the on-coming lane went wrong, lives suffered. Later, three-lane highways began to crop up. The middle lane often remained clear because it was only to be used as a passing lane by cars in either direction. Great care in making sure the way was clear was still necessary before completing the pass. These daily roadway limitations are difficult to appreciate today in our world of multiple-lane streets and highways.
Today, we drive sophisticated highway systems in remarkably reliable cars with comfortable, convenient features. Most modern-day cars offer basic capabilities. Thus, we consider buying new cars with on-board computers, four-wheel drive, DVD players, and navigational systems, and ever more sophisticated engines. However, back in the forties and early fifties, people were impressed by basic improvements such as higher horsepower yielded by big V-8 engines for the ease of passing other cars. Buyers were also enthused about such features as automatic transmissions, power steering, power brakes, reliable tires, adjustable spot lights, and the fact that one could, indeed, get from one point to another without that radiator boiling over! However, the greatest excitement, aside from engine power, was all about unique exterior designs, so unlike the many "near-clones" sold today. In other words, a Buick looked unmistakably like a Buick, and ditto for Fords, Studebakers, and so on! In short, folks were then enthralled with the car itself and with basic automotive innovations, in much the same way many of us, today, are enchanted by ever-faster computers, the Internet, and cell phones with cameras!
Accordingly, in the forties and early fifties, my parents thought nothing of driving to various places in Southern California. Going for drives and day-trips on uncrowded highways in our up-to-date General Motors automobile (always a Buick!) was a favorite weekend leisure-time activity of my parents. I was an only child at the time, so our mixed Cocker Spaniel, Lady, and I were usually the backseat passengers. We often went to such places as Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, and Wrightwood to enjoy winter snow. We frequented various Orange County beaches, fished off the Newport and Balboa piers, had fun at the Long Beach Pike, and rode in our car on the wonderful Balboa Ferry. We also regularly visited Oï¿½Neill Regional Park as well as the old Irvine Park riding stables, where I loved to ride a pretty roan mare named Sugarfoot on the five-mile trail. Unfortunately, traffic subtly increased over time. For example, I recall that coming home from a day at the snow gradually became a nightmare over the years. Before long, it required traveling hills at a crawl, in lines of traffic, on the then three-lane highway through Riverside and Orange Counties. This eventually brought about the 91 Freeway and other highways, but even these have not enabled us to keep up with population growth.
Adequate provision for crowded automobile traffic was still a newer concept back in the forties and early fifties. I can truly understand why more proactive road construction was not begun sooner. Who could have foreseen that Santa Ana and Orange County would grow so big so fast? Back when I was a child, this area was a rural, agricultural environment. Most folks simply did not think about nonexistent crowded road conditions. There were occasional horses with riders and wagons yet sharing Santa Ana roads. In fact, our house on south Lowell St., close to Memorial Park in south Santa Ana, initially shared a gravel street with just a few other homes where horses and other livestock were kept. Farmland and orange groves, not freeways, criss-crossed Orange County. The major Santa Ana streets I recall traveling regularly during my childhood were simple to understand and drive upon. Included were the four streets I lived on: Eastwood St., Orange Ave., Hickory St., and S. Lowell St. We also frequented Main, Broadway, Flower, St. Gertrude, Warner/Delhi, Edinger, Bristol, Grand, Garfield, First St., Fourth St., Fifth St., and Seventeenth St., as well as Chapman Ave. (in Orange). None of these streets had freeway on-ramps or off-ramps. Many soon-to-be major intersections were then only 2-way or 4-way stops without signals. Intersection right-turn and left-turn arrows and flashing pedestrian walk/don't walk signs did not yet exist. Turn signals on cars were not common either. We instead used hand signals according to the State of California rules of the road.
The era of the forties and early fifties was clearly a time of transition in Santa Ana and Orange County. We did not fully realize it at the time, of course. In retrospect, I tend to think of that time as the lull before the storm of technological changes we have experienced for several years. You might say we were teetering on the techie edge back then. Many of our minds were on living the good life, the American Dream. I believe we did just that. By the late1940s, World War II, which had profoundly affected all Americans, ended. Much seemed right with the world. As discussed previously, we enjoyed our improved cars with plenty of room to drive on uncrowded streets and highways! We bought homes. Children attended high-quality schools. We suddenly had television bringing pictures of the world into our homes. Imagine, if you can, simple 10-minute television newscasts objectively broadcast just two or three times daily. It was a good time in many respects.
My parents might disagree with me if they were living today, however, in my view, times seemed far less complex back in the forties and early fifties. This included our use of the automobile. My family's frequent goal was to simply drive to enjoy the car itself. Today, ironically, the very automotive improvements and greater driving distances we once hoped for enable us to cram too much into the day, every day. All too often, we drive to literally inch today's cars through traffic bottlenecks to serve issues of time (and stress!) rather than for enjoyment. Even so, although I sometimes long for the good old days, I must admit that I cannot wait to see what tomorrow's technology will bring us! If there is one thing the past sixty years have taught me, it is that time and innovations truly do not stand still!
In closing, I want to commend the city of Santa Ana, and all who took part, for the wonderful revitalization of the original downtown area. It is heart-warming to see my home town Santa Ana, the County Seat of Orange County, looking so utterly grand!
Shayla Ann Markham
March 1, 2004