Orange County

The biblical waters of Gospel Swamp

All Saints Anglican church in Fountain Valley (Tribune photo).

All Saints Anglican church in Fountain Valley (Tribune photo).

By Jim Tortolano

Orange County is known for a lot of things, including some famous houses of worship. But some of the most colorful religious communities in the county were more like tents of worship, and they spread across a colorful bunch of communities with the colorful name of Gospel Swamp.

Just where “Gospel Swamp” was located is a matter of opinion. There could have been as many as three or four Gospel Swamps, just as there are at least two Little Saigons in Orange County.

What’s fairly certain is the reason for the name. Some areas of the county along the coast (and quite a distance inland) were wetlands, either because of the meandering nature of the Santa Ana River or because there was a high water table underneath the soil from artesian wells and such.

The “Gospel” adjective was added because those areas, not especially well-populated, attracted itinerant preachers of an evangelical nature, who staged revival meetings in the moist regions of what are now Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach and even the southern reaches of Garden Grove and Westminster.

As early as 1873, a Los Angeles newspaper made mention of the old community of Greenville in what is now northern Costa Mesa and southern Santa Ana. It referred to a “more than usual proportion of preachers, so the community was remarkable for their piety and church-going.”

The “swamp angels” were by-and-large southerners with a long tradition of emotional religious ceremonies. But that was only one “wing” of the angels.

Further north, in what is now Fountain Valley, preachers found small islands among the swamplands to set up their tents, islands raised by similar soil conditions at the “other” Gospel Swamp. More permanent residents established agricultural settlements in the area around Talbert and Newland streets, and the area was most commonly referred to as Talbert, although the Fountain Valley school also gave its name to the town.

Some historians list Rev. Issac Hickey as a leading light of the Gospel Swamp’s golden age, prominent among the squatters who located their canvas sanctuaries on otherwise undesirable little hillocks to offer their brand of fire and brimstone.

More solid religious structures were built here and there, and a few of them, such as the All-Saints Anglican Church (originally a Methodist sanctuary) on Bushard Street near Talbert, survived the coming of development. During a period of vacancy, it served as a temporary platform for other revivalist ministers.

For many people today, the only legacy of the “holy roller” past of the area is the persistence of semi-solid soil in the Lower Santa Ana River Valley. The underground water has led to expensive reconstruction projects at the West Justice Center in Westminster and Golden West College in Huntington Beach.

Geologists warn that in the case of a major earthquake in that area, the result could be liquefaction, a mixing of earth and water that would create a vast muddy plain where buildings would sink and the roads would be impassable.

It would be a watery disaster of biblical proportions, just the kind of thing that the revivalist preachers of the old Gospel Swamp area might find very comfortable.

 Sources: Los Angeles Star, Orange County Register,, ochistoricblogspot.


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