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Santa Ana at 125

By Rob Richardson, from Santa Ana, An Illustrated History, ©1994. Used with permission. 


Webster's defines history as a chronological sequence of events. This timeline of events can include an understanding of what caused various things to happen and develop. In undertaking a history for Santa Ana, Diann Marsh and the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society have 125 years of events to cover since William Spurgeon first laid out the townsite that became Santa Ana. In fact, the chronology of events predates Mr. Spurgeon's arrival so that the student of history can learn about Santa Ana in depth.


What comes to mind on the 125th anniversary of Santa Ana? One word comes to my mind and that word is opportunity. From the very beginning, Santa Ana has been a place of opportunity. For the early settlers who came to the plains south of Los Angeles where roads were few and poor, the land was rich and offered a chance for farming. Beans, walnuts, and oranges were the staple crops that helped chart the area's future.


The crops and the budding farm community gave the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) a reason to push south from Los Angeles in 1887 and Santa Ana became the terminus for the SP in what became Orange County. When the Santa Fe Railroad arrived in Santa Ana in 1887 and continued south to San Diego, the young city's future as a transportation and business hub began to form. Opportunity was shaping up in the form of importance regionally as Santa Ana successfully competed to become county seat of Orange County which was severed from Los Angeles County.


With the concrete evidence of prominence demonstrated by the construction of the County Courthouse in 1900, Santa Ana's success and place for opportunity was further enhanced with the 1905 arrival of the Pacific Electric Railway. The vast interurban electric railway system connected Santa Ana with Los Angeles and the Southland and led to the rapid development of West 4th Street along the spine of the Pacific Electric corridor. Additional lines radiated from Santa Ana to Orange and to Huntington Beach. While the town was growing, it was still small. After all, the West End Theater (1815) was located at 4th and Birch streets!


Santa Ana's niche as a place for opportunity is best exemplified by institutions that we know today because of their continued national, and indeed, international influence. The Orange County Register, originally the Santa Ana Register; is the flagship of Freedom Newspapers and has grown right along with Santa Ana and Orange County. The county's birth in 1889 led to the establishment of the Orange County Title Company which has become First American Financial Corporation; the firm today is the largest the nation in the field of title insurance and continues to be headquartered in Downtown Santa Ana on the same block where it was founded.


Toastmasters International was founded in Santa Ana by Ralph Smedley in the basement of the YMCA Building at Sycamore and Civic Center Drive. California's well-known market chain, Alpha Beta, had two of its first stores on 4th Street and was headquartered at 4th and Spurgeon for a number of years; the owners, the Gerards, built a palatial mansion on Victoria Drive in 1927. Santa Ana continues to be blessed as a place of opportunity for business. As this is written. Ingram Micro, the nation's largest computer wholesaler, has announced the purchase of their corporate headquarters site in southeast Santa Ana.


The location selected by Ingram Micro was, until recently, farmed for strawberries and other seasonal crops. Today barely 200 acres within city limits remains dedicated to agricultural use. Alma Plavan Mead, a 1911 graduate of Santa Ana High School told me during Santa Ana High School's centennial in 1989 about the community back its those days. Mrs. Mead's recollections remind us that much of history revolves on themes similar to our own experience.


Her family moved out of central Santa Ana back in 1909 to "get out of the hubbub for quieter surroundings." They settled on farmland in the Greenville area (near today's Alton and Greenville intersection). Mrs. Mead told me about taking the Pacific Electric streetcar to go to town for shopping and to finish up high school. She also reminded that some needs go unfulfilled for a long time. As a member of the First Presbyterian Church during those early years, Mrs. Mead asked me (in 1989) if the church had resolved its parking problem - she was very pleased to learn about the church's recent renovation and new parking lot. "I am so happy because we never had a nice place for a good morning out on the sidewalk."


While history is definitely local in nature, no one can dispute that Santa Ana's development, especially since 1940, has been affected by national and international events. The onset of World War II probably represents the single biggest occurrence that has shaped Santa Ana and the development of Southern California. The development of major military installations, such as the Santa Ana Army Air Base, funneled thousands of Americans though Santa Ana. After the war, many remembered the pleasant climate of California and before too long they returned in droves. Coupled with the development of defense related industry in the Postwar and Cold War era, Santa Ana and Southern California began the rapid transition to becoming a complex economic powerhouse that no longer placed agriculture as king.


Santa Ana's growth pattern demonstrates the impact. From a healthy 45,533 residents in 1950, the City better than doubled in size to 100,350 in 1960, and grew by 50 percent in the next 10 years to 156,601 in 1970. The rate of growth, mirrored by Orange County's own population explosion, has continued into the 1990s and Santa Ana's population today exceeds 310,000 to be Orange County's biggest city and the ninth largest in California. This is a far cry from the dusty farm town of yesteryear.


Santa Ana definitely remains characterized by opportunity. It's the cradle of small business in Orange County and has more businesses than any other city. It's also demonstrates the impact of an international pattern of immigration. Ethnic groups constitute nearly 80 percent of Santa Ana's population and have helped create a rich pattern of cultural experiences and diversity. Today, Santa Ana is a major gateway for newcomers arriving in the United States with groups' origins as diverse as El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines. The end of the Vietnam War signaled the mass migrations of thousands of Vietnamese who settled in Orange County; while Westminster is known as Little Saigon, more Vietnamese-Americans actually reside in Santa Ana. This trend of ethnic change is perhaps best charted by 1990 census figures that describe Santa Ana's population as 51 percent born outside the United Stares, with two-thirds of that number having arrived since 1980.


This massive change has brought about the need to cope with new social, educational and community changes. Santa Ana's ability to adapt and address this change will, in large measure, tell us about California's future as well since Santa Ana is really a microcosm of the social and demographic changes sweeping the State.


What an exciting time and what an exciting place to be. We know that history represents a continuum, an ongoing sequence of events. Each event or occurrence shapes all that follows. 125 years have demonstrated Santa Ana to be a unique, resilient community with opportunity. A snapshot of today's Santa Ana, already on its way to becoming a part of history, shows every indication that opportunity will continue to present itself and will be manifested in new and yet unknown ways.


The appreciation of all that has happened-the unique events and everyday history, the great accomplishments that still touch us today suggest a future that will be shaped more and more by national and international trends. The history captured in this book illustrates in rich detail the opportunity that has been Santa Ana's hallmark. Embedded in every moment is a golden opportunity; it is up to each observer of history to see that truth and continue to make our Santa Ana a place for opportunity defined by the involvement in our own home, our neighborhoods, our schools and our businesses.


(Rob was born and raised in Santa Ana. One of his areas of interest (and definite expertise) is Santa Ana history. He just recently stepped down after two terms as City Councilperson. This piece was written for the forward of Diann Marsh's Santa Ana, An Illustrated History book.)

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