The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1975, Volume 21, Number 2
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Reviw Editor

Newport Bay: A Pioneer History. By Ellen K. Lee. Foreword by Don C. Meadows. Fullerton, Ca.: Newport Beach Historical Society (and) Sultana Press, 1973. Chronology. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 127 pages. $9.95.

Reviewed by Dr. William 0. Hendricks, Director, Sherman Foundation Library, Corona del Mar, Ca.

For a city no older than it is (it began in 1889 as a wharfside hamlet on the Newport-Balboa peninsula), and no larger than it is (present population about 60,000), Newport Beach is rather well represented by historical literature. There have been, up to this time, besides shorter pieces, two standard works on the history of the area. Back in 1931, when the city numbered a mere 2,200 inhabitants, H. L. Sherman°put together A History of Newport Beach; and in 1957, when the city was celebrating a half-century of incorporation and, with a population of 20,000, just beginning the tremendous growth it has undergone in the years since then, Samuel A. Meyer brought out his Fifty Golden Years: A History of the City of Newport Beach, 1906-1956. Now to these two older volumes has been added this new one by Ellen Lee.

Meyer’s book borrowed freely from Sherman’s, then added coverage on the subsequent quarter-century. Mrs. Lee does not repeat this procedure. Instead, her focus, rather than on the city, is on the bay. Nevertheless, she includes a great deal about the history of the area surrounding the bay as well-as was almost bound to be the case, since the bay is the city’s dominating feature, and vice versa. One of the virtues of her book is that it leans but slightly on the two earlier works and is based largely upon original research. She has been particularly diligent in working with old newspaper sources.

Her book opens with the “discovery” of the bay by the U. S. Coast Survey schooner Humbolt in 1860, followed by that organization’s initial charting of it in 1875. She then discusses the origin of the bay, which, in reality, is two bays which, together, form a large but (in their natural state) quite shallow, T-shaped body of water. The stem of the T, the so-called upper bay, is approximately a half-mile wide and extends inland for well over three miles. It represents a former estuary cut through the surrounding mesa by an ancient ancestor of the Santa Ana River. This upper bay remains, to this day, basically undeveloped, and what should or should not be done with it has recently been a source of fierce contention. The lower bay, the cross member of the T, runs parallel to the coast and is approximately five miles long and about a mile in width. It came into being when a much later channel of the Santa Ana River created the large sandspit that is now the Newport-Balboa peninsula. It is this lower bay which man-made changes have transformed into the great pleasure boat haven, Newport Harbor.

The balance of the first five chapters deal primarily with early activities around the inland side of the bay. Mrs. Lee touches on what little is known of the Indians who once lived here; mentions the uses to which Mission San Juan Capistrano put this area (the mission fathers, though they grew grain and grazed cattle nearby, apparently made no effort to utilize the bay as a shipping point); and discusses the Spanish and Mexican land grants of this vicinity. The most significant consideration to emerge, however, in terms of later developments, is that by 1876 all the land surrounding the upper bay and most of that along the inland shore-of the lower bay had become the property of James Irvine. Hence, in the years since then, the history of this particular area has been largely that of the Irvine Ranch.

Mrs. Lee’s next six chapters treat the late nineteenth-century attempt to turn the bay into a commercial seaport. This began in 1870 when Samuel S. Dunnells, a San Diego sea captain, first put in at this “new port” on his flat-bottomed sternwheeler, Vaquero. The main attempt along this line, however, came through the use of the steamer Newport and the efforts of the McFadden brothers, James and Robert. But in the late 1880s, after the federal government refused to appropriate funds for harbor improvement, the McFaddens finally gave up on the bay properwhich because of shallowness, tricky currents, and shifting sand bars was dangerous of entry. Instead, they built a wharf on the ocean side of the peninsula and moved their shipping business there. They also built a railroad line that ran from their wharf inland to the town of Santa Ana. They soon found, though, that they could not compete with the port of Los Angeles and the rail lines extending from that city, and by 1900 the wharf and the railroad had passed into the hands of the Southern Pacific. That company’s interest in the acquisition was not in developing commerce but in stifling competition.

The remaining nine chapters pertain to the first four decades of the twentieth century. They cover the various steps taken to improve the bay and turn it into a small-boat harbor; the growth and development of the community around the bay; and a picture of what life in this area was like during that era. Back in the 1890’s, James McFadden had acquires title from the state to a sizable portion of the peninsula as swamp and overflow lands. He had also acquired the sandy patches in the lower bay which, with dredging and filling afterward became Balboa, Lido, and Harbor islands. McFadden disposed of his remaining bay-area holdings in 1902, to persons who laid out a number of subdivisions. This combined with the arrival of the electric railway line down the coast from Los Angeles in 1905, marked the start of Newport’s real estate promotion era. There were times during this era when those seeking economic profit from growth of almost any kind revived the idea of turning the bay into a thriving commercial seaport-or even into a Navy submarine base. Ironically, as Mrs. Lee points out, had these plans come about, Newport would not today be the delightful place that it is in which to live.

Harbor improvements, which began during World War I, reached their peak, interestingly enough, during the great economic depression of the 1930s. The author entitles her chapter on this, “The Depression Brings a Surprise”; it might have been titled “Newport’s Debt to the New Deal”-though this undoubtedly would not have appealed to most of the local inhabitants.

Mrs. Lee’s book is well written and as enjoyable to read as it is informative. It contains seventy-eight illustrations, including, besides many excellent photographs, eight ink sketches, two maps, and a diseno of Rancho San Joaquin. It is also nicely printed and designed-with the possible exception of its shape: personally, though recognizing that they lend themselves well to photographs, I do not care for oblong books.

The bulk of the initial printing of this book, like so many other books, was lost in the great fire of December 1973 which destroyed the South Gate plant of the Pacific Library Binding Company. Fortunately, the plates remained standing and another press run was made. But those who pay attention to such matters should note that most copies will read, Second Printing, May 1974.