History of Orange County

Ole Hanson’s haven by the sea

San Clemente shoreline, from the city pier (Tribune photo).

San Clemente shoreline, from the city pier (Tribune photo).

By Jim Tortolano

At the far southeast edge of Orange County lies San Clemente, a city conceived and originally developed by a man from the far northwest of the United States. Once isolated from the rest of the county by distance and lifestyle, this city of about 65,000 people is slowly turning from its sleepy coastal feel to a more urbanized and suburbanized community.

Unlike many other Orange County cities, this town – named after San Clemente Island, which in turn is named after Saint Clement – is not a product of the 19th century. Its birth was in the Roaring Twenties, the brainchild of the former mayor of Seattle, a colorful character by the name of Ole Hanson. In 1925, he and a land syndicate bought a large chunk of land on the far south coast of the county, where Hanson envisioned a 2,000-acre community far from the madding crowd and fast pace of big 20th century cities.

Ole Hanson in 1919 (Wikipedia photo).

Ole Hanson in 1919 (Wikipedia photo).

Hanson led an interesting life before landing on what would become Pacific Coast Highway. Literally born in a log cabin, he became a lawyer first and then a real estate developer. He helped create Lake Forest Park in the suburbs of Seattle.

His politics started in one direction, then swerved another. Elected to the Washington State legislature, he joined Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in 1912 and ran a strong race for the U.S. Senate in 1914.

It was in 1918 that Hanson began to appear on the national stage. He was elected mayor of Seattle and soon become embroiled in the labor unrest of the era. His opposition to the general strike of 1918 made him a bit of a hero with anti-labor forces and a target of pro-labor radicals. A bomb mailed to him failed to kill him, but it might have given him the jitters. He quit the mayoral post in August 1919, but his anti-union writing and speeches made him much more money than he would have earned as mayor.

He took some of that money to invest in his plan to create San Clemente. He brought many of his now-conservative views with him: the new community would require that the “hired help” (especially non-whites) live outside the city limits, and union workers were especially banned. But in pursuing a unique and picturesque look for his “San Clemente By the Sea,” all deeds sold to new property owners required them to submit their building plans to an architectural review board to make sure they followed the Spanish Colonial Revival theme. It’s the kind of urban planning that some folks would consider excessive today.

That influence remains today. Walk to the end of the pier and look inland, and it looks as if every building in town has whitewashed walls with red tile roofs. Hanson also helped create many local institutions, including a fire department and the incorporation of the city in 1928.

Hanson’s fate eventually was not as successful as the city he founded. He lost his fortune in the Great Depression and died of a heart attack at 66 in 1940.

Today, “sleepy” San Clemente is slowly turning into less relaxed beach town. Development is increasing and the city is starting to look down the highway to the South San Clemente area. Ole Hanson may be long gone, but his spirit goes developing on.


Sources: Wikipedia, San Clemente Sun Post News, sanclemente.com.





Leave a Reply