History of Orange County

The charm of Old Town Tustin

Main Street at El Camino Real in Tustin.

Main Street at El Camino Real in Tustin.

Second in a series of places of historical interest in Orange County.

By Jim Tortolano

Much attention lately has been focused on the burgeoning downtowns of Santa Ana, Orange and Huntington Beach. But far from the spotlights focused on the growing central business districts of the bigger cities is the often-overlooked charm of Tustin.

This city of about 77,000 people sits north of Santa Ana and west of Irvine, and has not only a long and colorful history but is booming with its recent growth spurt, the latest and greatest leap forward for the city.

Tustin’s story is almost as interesting as its tree-shaded downtown, located generally along El Camino Real, between West First Street and Main Street (northwest of Newport Avenue and Interstate 5) and a bit south.

Anyone looking for an off-the-beaten path but fascinating walk back in time might enjoy a stroll through the Old Town area. Some of the buildings date back over 100 years, and in the several blocks of the downtown the historic structures interspersed with new construction and open space, accompanied by the hum of low-key bustle.

Here, one can easily imagine the founding of the community in the late 1860s and early 1870s by a man with the suitably pioneering name of Columbus; Columbus Tustin.

Originally from Petaluma in northern California, he and a partner (Nelson Safford) bought 1300 acres that were originally part of the Rancho Santiago of Santa Ana.

From 1868 to 1872 he worked to found “Tustin City,” helping to establish what is now the Tustin Unified School District, and a post office. But Tustin’s first bid for greatness was frustrated when the Southern Pacific Railroad chose Santa Ana as the southern end of its new rail line, establishing that city, rather than Tustin, as a destination fated for growth and prominence.

Tustin grew slowly around what is now its downtown. Unlike some other Orange County cities, many of the original and early buildings from the first few decades of the city (incorporated in 1927) still stand, and many have been repurposed to contemporary uses. The old Tustin Garage now houses The Black Marlin, a bar, fish-house and grill, for example.

The Tustin Area Museum offers residents and visitors a deeper look into the community’s past. Nearby there are a wide variety of service businesses, stores and eateries; I had lunch recently at the charming Quinn’s Old Town Grill, which features a wide variety of American and Irish fare and drinks.

Quinn's Old Town Grill

Quinn’s Old Town Grill

There are medical offices, office buildings, boutiques and a large, attractive Armstrong Garden Center.

In recent years, the community has spread out north and south; North Tustin sits north of Irvine Boulevard; Tustin Legacy is south of Edinger Avenue. It includes a large auto dealership center facing the “Five” freeway, as well as two regional shopping malls, Tustin Marketplace and The District.

There’s a lot of growth ahead for Tustin but perhaps the most intriguing part of the town is still where it all started with the dream of Columbus Tustin.

Sources: City of Tustin, Tustin Area Historical Society, The Tustin News, Wikipedia.


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