Olive Through the Ages

Santa Ana River at Olive: Taming of the wild river

Taming the river | Maps and images

When I initially started working on this essay about the Santa Ana River, I was only going to cite important historical events that occurred along the River. However, as I kept finding relevant information, including the Works Progress Administration research paper: "A History of Irrigation in Orange County," I continued writing. Months later, I have a much lengthier essay than anticipated, filled with details about the River's history and its usage in the Olive area up to present times.

This educational journey began with a few personal visits to the Santa Ana River near Olive and was enriched thanks to assistance and materials provided by local historians. In particular, Gordon McClelland provided several historical newspaper articles from Los Angeles Times that give details about events pertaining to the usage and control of the Santa Ana River during the late 1800s through the early 1920s when the region was largely agricultural. My journey came full circle when T.D. Hoffmann and I saw William Wendt's 1928 oil painting of the Santa Ana River in the Santa Ana Canyon and later identified the location of that site on a ride along the 91 (Riverside) Freeway. How much the view of the River and Canyon has changed in the last 80 years. - Daralee


The Spanish encounter the River in Olive, initiate irrigation

The Santa Ana River, the longest river in Southern California, flows west through San Bernardino and Riverside Counties and then into the Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County where it bends around Olive before heading southwest, emptying into the Pacific Ocean between Huntington and Newport Beaches. The river carved out the Santa Ana Canyon during the last glacial period, and provided a source of water for indigenous peoples for more than 9,000 years, up until the arrival of Europeans in the Orange County region.

On July 28, 1769, the river was first encountered by non-indigenous people when Governor Gaspár de Portolá's party of soldiers and padres stopped in the Olive area while on their journey to Northern California. Portolá's camp was met by friendly native people, and the soldiers named the valley—and later its river—after Saint Anne, since the party's arrival coincided with Saint Anne's Day. Franciscan priest Father Juan Crespí described the river at Olive as "a bed of running water" about 28 feet wide and 17 inches deep, and the area as having "a great deal of good land which can easily be irrigated." Cosmographer Miguel Costansó noted the "beautiful river" and "many groves of willows and very good soil all of which can be irrigated for a great distance."

Young Corporal José Antonio Yorba may have shared these thoughts about the terrain, because years after he retired from the army he returned to claim this land and establish a home in the area that would become known as Olive. As the party continued on their journey, they crossed the Santa Ana with great difficulty since the current was very swift.

But before the Yorba settlement would be established, other parties passed through this yet unclaimed territory. In 1771, Father Junipero Serra and his group of missionaries selected the Olive site along the southern banks of the Santa Ana River as the desired location of the fourth California mission to be named San Gabriel. However, hostile encounters with local Gabrielinos drove them away. The party crossed the river and headed north, founding Mission San Gabriel Arcángel three years later in the area that we know as San Gabriel Valley.

On a journey to found San Francisco, Juan Bautista de Anza stopped in San Gabriel, but having learned of an uprising of the natives that resulted in the burning of the San Diego Mission and the murder of Father Luis Jayme, Anza and members of his escort were ordered to San Diego to suppress the rebellion. The relief party made their first camp on the southern banks of the Santa Ana River near Olive on January 7, 1776.

In 1797 Sergeant Yorba, now in his early 50s, retired from the army and returned to the Orange County region to settle with his family. One of the first homes he built was in the Olive area. On July 1, 1810, the Spanish governor of Alta California confirmed 62,512 acres for Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana to Yorba and his nephew Juan Pablo Peralta. A couple of years later, Yorba, then in his late 60s, founded the settlement of Santa Ana Viejo (Old Santa Ana) just below the bend in the Santa Ana River. He and his sons would be credited with beginning the first irrigation system in the area.

The Yorbas lived in Old Santa Ana for several decades while the region was under Mexican rule; Mexico having attained independence from Spain in 1821. The year Yorba passed away, 1825, the Santa Ana River overflowed and flooded the area where the family lived. About that time, Yorba's eldest son Tomás built a dam further up the river in the Santa Ana Canyon, and dug a lengthy canal from present day Imperial Highway to the family property site in the Olive area. Yorba's youngest son Teodocio also dug a canal circa the late 1830s on the southern side of the river to irrigate his fields and vineyards. The canal started about where present day Glassell Street begins and curved around Olive towards Villa Park.

In 1846 the way of life in Southern California's ranchos was about to come to an end with the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. General Stephen Watts Kearny, Commodore Robert Field Stockton, and 600 soldiers of the "Army of the West" camped on the southern banks of the Santa Ana River near Olive on January 6, 1847. They would engage in combat with General Andrés Pico and his Californios at the Battle of San Gabriel two days later. That night on the Yorba's property in Old Santa Ana, the soldiers were kept awake by the Santa Ana Winds howling through the Canyon. The outcome of the engagement in San Gabriel resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, ending the War and Mexican rule in California. Two years later, California attained statehood, and soon the Spanish and Mexican land grants in California were being questioned by outside parties.

When the Santa Ana River overflowed in 1861 and 1862, the Yorbas' irrigation ditches were destroyed. They dug a new ditch south of the Santa Ana River, five feet wide, one foot deep, and three-and-a-half miles in length. Following these flood years, two consecutive drought years devastated the land, killing thousands of the Yorbas' cattle. In 1868 when the land grant for Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana was declared illegal, the rancho was partitioned amongst the heirs of Yorba and Peralta with portions of it sold to cover legal fees. Though in 1883 the title to Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana would be granted in favor of the descendants of Yorba and Peralta, by that time ownership of that land had been transferred to several outside parties.

Americans pursue irrigation efforts, realize profits from the River

The first American landowners in the Olive area who pursued irrigating the land were Henry Watson, son Jonathan, and son-in-law John M. Bush. In 1869 they purchased 6,000 acres from the Yorbas and established the Bush and Watson ditch using Teodocio Yorba's old irrigation ditch as a basis. The intake of the new ditch was set three miles further upstream and the ditch was extended further south to irrigate their alfalfa fields.

A year later lawyer Alfred B. Chapman, who received more than 16,000 acres of land at Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana as payment for his legal services, and his legal partner Andrew Glassell, began widening and extending the Yorba canal. When completed in 1871, the Chapman Canal was 10 miles in length, four feet across at the bottom, and two-and-a-half feet deep. Its intake began around present-day Weir Canyon Road and from there the canal ran west along the edge of the canyon over to the hill at Olive—then known as Burruel Point—where it headed south, emptying into the reservoir which today is the lake at Eisenhower Park.

In 1873 Chapman and Glassell were among members of the newly formed Semi-Tropic Water Company that supplied water to landowners in the area. Henry Watson also helped irrigation efforts in the region with the assistance of Nathan Fletcher and Los Angeles Mayor James R. Toberman, extending the Bush and Watson ditch further south to Charles P. Taft's groves between Olive and Orange. By 1876 the Watsons had sold some of their acreage in the Olive area to Toberman who would form Olive Tract a half mile south of present day Olive Heights.

Landowners in the Olive, Orange, Santa Ana, and Tustin areas were demanding more water than the Chapman Canal could provide. To accommodate their growing needs, the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company (S.A.V.I. Co.) was incorporated in July 1877 and co-existed alongside the Semi-Tropic Company for several years. The S.A.V.I. Co. oversaw the enlargement and extension of the canal they now called the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation ditch that ran alongside Santa Ana Canyon Road. In 1876 this ditch was 15 miles long and 10 feet wide on the bottom, and had been blasted through solid rock. Two wooden tunnels were constructed through Burruel Point and completed in 1878, the longer of the two which emptied into the reservoir, the present day pond at Eisenhower Park.

The location at Burruel Point where the S.A.V.I. tunnel was constructed became a prime site for the flour mill that would be built in 1882 by Thomas Dillin and sons on land leased by the S.A.V.I. Co. The mill operated using water from the tunnel during summer months and steam power throughout the remainder of the year. The Dillin Mill thrived beyond the founding of Olive Heights in 1887, up until the second decade of the 20th Century. Some of the grain processed at the mill was grown by local farmers and some of it was imported.

The irrigation efforts established by S.A.V.I. Co. not only aided crops producing grain processed by the mill, but also laid out the path for the citrus industry that would give Orange County its name. Even as early as January 10, 1882 Los Angeles Times enthusiastically reported: "Santa Ana Valley is one of the most favored and delightful places this world affords.... In the time of drought we can turn the waters of the great Santa Ana river into our large, elegant ditch, and supply the whole surrounding orchards and vineyards with abundance of water: so we are no longer seriously affected by a dry year, if it should come...."

As Olive and the surrounding area began developing more and more into an agricultural region, control over the flow of the Santa Ana River became increasingly important. On July 15, 1883, Los Angeles Times announced: "On Thursday the Board of Directors of the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company resolved to proceed at once to develop the water in the bed of the Santa Ana river. All arrangements have been perfected to make a pile dam, the location selected, and a force of men is now at work, in charge of an engineer, changing the head ditch to correspond with the location of the proposed dam...." On June 13, 1886, Los Angeles Times informed readers about irrigation developments in Olive: "The canal, from the mill to the north end of the Santa Ana river flume, is being concreted for a distance of about 1200 feet...."

The land boom hit Southern California the following year, and in 1889 Orange County was founded. By 1892 the S.A.V.I. Co. completed its concrete tunnel at Olive, replacing the wooden tunnel. The irrigation channel, touted by Los Angeles Times on April 10, 1892 as "the largest conduit in the world," was an "open cement canal," five feet deep, 11 feet across at the bottom, 26 feet across at the top, 724 feet in length, and six feet, nine inches in diameter in the open space across the cylindrical section of the tunnel. "The company's ditches and private ditches together measure more than 150 miles," the article continued. On May 5, 1899 Los Angeles Times reported an agreement was filed between the S.A.V.I. Co. and Anaheim Union Water Company to equally divide the water of the Santa Ana River for irrigation purposes. For at least 15 years prior to this time, the two companies had been independently serving farmers in the region. About 1910 the S.A.V.I. Co. replaced the open ditches on the hill at Olive with concrete pipes to prevent seepage of water into the ground.

Cyclical flood patterns emerge, aid in managing the River

The Orange County Board of Supervisors began putting efforts into managing the Santa Ana River. By the end of 1890 they invested resources to prevent erosion of the western banks of the Santa Ana and the loss of farmland. In 1913 the Board agreed to the construction of a cement Jefferson Street (Tustin Avenue) bridge—across the river at Olive—replacing the old wooden bridge. At that time, in the early 1910s up until the mid-1950s, Olive's boundaries extended northeast up to about Imperial Highway, and down south just past Taft Avenue. The new bridge among others were tested on January 18, 1916 when the Santa Ana River overflowed. Though the Jefferson Street bridge survived, the cement bridge over Anaheim-Olive Road (Lincoln Avenue) in Olive did not. On February 6, 1916 Los Angeles Times reported: "The storms demonstrated that the new concrete bridges across the Santa Ana River on the Anaheim-Olive Road and across the Santiago Creek at Tustin avenue and Villa Park are too short to span the heaviest floods...." The next paragraph of this article adds: "Over the county there is a persistent call for the creation of a large flood control district. Many are advocating making the district fit the boundaries of the county...."

On February 27 to March 3, 1938 a series of storms caused the Santa Ana River to overflow, causing the deaths of 19 residents and leaving 2,000 homeless. In Olive, though the Anaheim-Olive bridge remained intact, the Santa Fe Railway bridge and the Jefferson Street bridge were both damaged in what would be declared the worst flood in Orange County in the 20th Century. Then 14-year-old Olive resident Flora Burbank recalled 50 year later in an article published in the March 2, 1988 edition of the The Orange County Register: "I was watching when the Jefferson Street bridge went down. It was very scary. Wires were flipping around, trees were flowing down the river. The river was coming way over the bank." The Prado Dam, authorized for construction in 1936 and completed in 1941, has since helped to control the flood plain.

The years of sufficient rainfall that began in 1937 lasted until 1944. Then in 1945 Orange County began experiencing a lengthy drought. Olive water consumers, who had been receiving water from the Southern California Water company, were dissatisfied with their service. They took their complaints to the Olive Improvement Association water committee in 1949, requesting new water lines and additional pressure pumps. But for all of Orange County in general, the groundwater basin sorely needed to be replenished. The Orange County Water District (OCWD) that was established in 1933 to ensure an adequate supply of quality water to local residents, formed an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) to access water from the Colorado River. As a result of this agreement, on October 19, 1956 Colorado River water flowed into the Santa Ana River near Olive, carried via a newly-completed, 20-mile, underground MWD pipeline that prevented the evaporation of water and accumulation of silt as the water approached the Prado Dam.

In the late 1950s, real estate values soared in Orange County and the citrus industry began winding down. Olive's boundaries gradually receded as acres of groves were sold to developers and the land was annexed to the cities of Orange and Anaheim. When the housing boom hit Orange County in the early 1960s, the demand for water shifted from agricultural to residential usage. The OC Board of Supervisors, OCWD, and Orange County Flood Control District proposed several ideas for better flood control and management of the River, but a lack of funding prevented their plans from being implemented. The storms that arrived in early 1969 brought the River's water level to flood capacity. While the Olive area did not suffer damages, other areas in the County were harmed, though not as severely as in the flood of 1938.

As housing developments continued cropping up all over Southern California, the network of highways and freeways expanded. During the 1960s when the Riverside Freeway was constructed through the area of the Santa Ana Canyon near Olive, portions of the freeway were built above flood danger, and the Santa Ana River was confined for several miles within a concrete channel. In the mid-1970s the closure of the S.A.V.I. Co. signified the end of the agricultural era in Orange County, and the continuance of a burgeoning urban population. Beginning in 1989 construction began on a concrete channel for managing the River in Orange County.

Today the Santa Ana River in the Olive area remains confined to its concrete channel and is kept under control. Due to the current four-year drought in Southern California the riverbed is often dry, though the storms of early 2010 briefly filled the channel with a swiftly flowing stream of water. Standing on the banks alongside the River near Olive, with its channel considerably widened and deepened in modern times, it is difficult to imagine how the River looked in its natural state when the first Europeans encountered it in 1769. In its current environment, the old river that once flowed wildly and freely through the Santa Ana Canyon and around the hill at Olive is now tame.


Sources: ProQuest Historical Newspaper Los Angeles Times articles; "Olive Water Problem: Two Plans for Improved Water Service Submitted for Olive Area," Santa Ana Register, December 12, 1949; "Flood of 1938 hit OC hard, spurred dam," by John Westcott, The Orange County Register, March 2, 1988; Vol. 2., The Historical Volume and Reference Works: Orange County, Whittier, CA: Historical Publishers, 1963; A History of Irrigation in Orange County, by Cecil V. Robinson, et al, Santa Ana, CA: Works Progress Administration, Southern California, Orange County Research Group, 1936; Orange County Through Four Centuries, by Leo J. Friis, Santa Ana, CA: Pioneer Press, 1965; Images of America: Orange, by Phil Brigandi, Arcadia Publishing, 2008; José Antonio Yorba I, by Arnold O. Dominguez, Orange County Historical Society, 1967; Santa Ana River Guide: From Crest to Coast - 110 miles along Southern California's largest river system, by Patrick Mitchell, Berkeley, CA: Wilderness Press, 2006; "Ramon Peralta Adobe, 1871" brochure by County of Orange Harbors, Beaches & Parks, 2007; "Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana: The Grijalva, Yorba, Peralta, and Sepulveda Families" article by Diann Marsh, from Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society Web site, http://www.santaanahistory.com/articles/ranchos.html (accessed February 2, 2009); "Santa Ana River Floods" from San Bernardino County Flood Control District, http://www.sbcounty.gov/flood/Flood Planning/pages/ storm.htm (accessed February 2, 2009); Santa Ana River Watershed, http://www.sawpa.org/watershedinfo.html (accessed December 23, 2009); Online Archive of California, http://www.oac.cdlib.org (accessed March 7, 2010); American Society of Civil Engineers: Los Angeles Section, http://www.ascelasection.org/ (accessed March 7, 2010); Orange County Water District, http://www.ocwd.com (accessed March 7, 2010); "Prado Dam" from NASA Earth Observatory, http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=5195 (accessed March 9, 2010).


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