With all it’s planned communities and suburban developments, many people see Orange County -- and much of Southern California -- as lacking history. But there are landmarks and pieces of history that tell the story of Native American peoples who once populated these lands; early European settlements, ecological evolution, and both political and military development. Here’s a guide to some key historical points of interest in the O.C.
Part of the original (and rare) Spanish land grant, Rancho de Santa Ana, which included 66,000-acres of Orange County territory, Santa Ana became the hub of civic activity for the entire county. In recent years, there have been efforts to revitalize the downtown area, to showcase both the growing arts community as well as the history of the city. The Historic District is populated with many “historical properties,” including the old courthouse and city hall, the Bowers Museum, and Howe-Waffle House and Medical Museum, among others.
The city of Orange started as a mile-square town with 10-acres of farmland. Over the years, Orange has grown into a dusty suburb with “Old Towne” Orange at its center. In addition to many beautiful historical homes (many more than 100 years old), and a few businesses that have been around since the town’s founding, The Plaza and Orange Circle are a treasure trove of vintage and antique shops to explore.
The Great Park in Irvine is a former Marine training base that became part of a legal and political battle. Ultimately the land was auctioned to a developer who was required to transfer nearly 1,500-acres of that land to public ownership for the development of a park and nature reserve. The plan for the Great Park is sustainable growth and preservation of history, with development happening in phases and making use of recycled materials from the base. While the park is still “growing,” visitors can see the dedication to history take shape in the use of the refurbished air hanger, the walkable timeline, and the Great Park Balloon flights which offer an aerial tour of the park landscape.
Land developments are often at odds with the natural ecosystem and its inhabitants. This is the story of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and for more than a century, there has been a tug-o-war between land developers an conservationists. As must happen when modernization and sustainability conflict, a compromise was achieved and The Bolsa Chica Wetands are a nature reserve, that tells the story of man vs. nature, WWII, Native Americans, and California’s endangered coastal marine life.
With thousands of hours of video, broadcast and audio recordings, gifts from world diplomats and photographs, the Nixon presidency is arguably one of the most documented in history. While the Richard Nixon Library opened in 1990, many of the materials and documentation of Nixon’s presidential tenure were required to remain in Washington D.C. In 2004 this all changed and control of the Nixon Library and Birthplace were transferred to the federal government, and the Nixon archives sent to the Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda. The museum houses most of the archival materials from Nixon’s presidency, and just behind it is the old farmhouse where the late and former president Richard Nixon was born.
During Spanish rule, it was customary for priests to build missions in the "new land" to use as both homes and places to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. The two-centuries old Mission San Juan Capistrano is one such mission, which stands today as a legacy of the culture and history of the interaction between the Native and Spanish peoples, where visitors can explore the mission grounds and view artifacts from California's history.
It is only appropos that the International Surfing Museum is located in the O.C.'s "Surf City," Huntington Beach. The Surfing Walk of Fame tells the story of a half-centery old surfing competition that attracts international athletes, while paying special tribute to local legends who have heped to shape the culture of surfing and action sports as we know it today. This museum also features art works, collections and other exhibits exploring the history of the sport and honoring the the contribution of surfers the world over.