Orange County

County’s long (& maybe shady) birth

The old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, opened in 1901.

The old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, opened in 1901.

By Jim Tortolano

Sometimes you hear people complaining about having to drive to the civic center of Santa Ana to do business at County of Orange offices.

Can you imagine having to hitch up a horse and buggy and travel along muddy, rutted roads to do the same in Los Angeles?

Although it may seem as if Orange County has been around forever, that’s not the case. It was broken off from Los Angeles County in 1889, making it younger than many communities such as Anaheim (1857), Santa Ana (1869) Westminster (1870) and Garden Grove (1874).

This area was commonly referred to as the Santa Ana Valley, long before dams and flood control channels tamed that mighty river and turned it into a concrete ditch.

It was the southeastern wing of Los Angeles County. By the 1880s it was slowly but surely growing a separate identity; Anaheim for a time was the second-largest city in the county.

But the distance between what would eventually became Dodgertown and Disneyland was a formidable obstacle to good government. There was no rail service connecting the two areas and few paved roads; a trip to the county seat in he City of Angels to attend a trial, file paperwork or lobby lawmakers was a grueling undertaking. According to famed Orange County historian Jim Sleeper, stage coach fare to L.A. cost $6 (a large sum in those days) and “the only roll of fire hose in the county was kept in L.A.”

It wasn’t long after the Santa Ana Valley began its agricultural phase (after floods and droughts wiped out the cattle business) that the first attempts to lop off L.A. County’s lower-third began. A bill was introduced in the state legislature for the 1869-70 session to create a new “County of Anaheim.” That effort went nowhere in Sacramento, nor did an 1871 try at launching an “Orange County.”

Another effort in 1873 and yet another in 1875 came to naught. Another plan floated in 1876 was for a “County of Santa Ana,” which, ironically, would have made Anaheim the county seat. To some minds, the name “Santa Ana” lended itself too easily to suggestions of “Satan,” someone that politicians in Sacramento probably had good knowledge of.

A sixth attempt fell short in 1881, and another to create the County of Orange passed the state Assembly in 1886, but never came up for a vote in the state Senate.. It was opposed by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the City of Anaheim, the latter of which was offended because this new county would have Santa Ana as its seat.

A lively battle in the local press continued between the area’s two largest cities, but the real war was in the state capitol. In late 1888, two companion bills (one in the senate and one in the assembly) were introduced. After a tough battle, both houses approved the measures and sent the idea of “division” to voters.

A whiff of larceny surrounded the process. Why, after all those rejections, did state legislators (some of them from Los Angeles County), change their minds? In his book, “Orange County Chronicles,” Phil Brigandi wrote that a Santa Ana businessman bragged of his political-financial cleverness.

“Hell, yes,” George Edgar said in 1926. “We bought this county from the state Legislature for $10,000, and I went out and raised the money myself in two hours and it was a rainy morning at that.”

Some support came also from lawmakers in San Francisco, always glad to undercut their growing rival in Southern California.

The decision was put to voters in the affected area on June 4, 1889. It was a landslide, with 2509 ballots in favor of county division and 500 against, with most of the opposing vote coming from miffed Anaheimers.

Could such a thing happen again? Could there someday be a North Orange County and a South Orange County? Not unless state law changed. Currently, any political division requires the approval of all parties to the proposed “divorce.”

On the other hand, the creation of Orange County took 20 years, at least seven attempts, and perhaps $10,000. It was a long shot, but sometimes with persistence (and currency) they come in.

Sources: “Orange County: A Centennial Celebration” (Doris Walker), “Nothing Rhymes with Orange” (Stan Oftelie), “Orange County Chronicles” (Phil Brigandi) and Jim Sleeper’s “Second Orange County Almanac.”

1 reply »

Leave a Reply