History of Laguna Beach

Josephine Yoch
Orange County History Series, Volume 2 (1932)

Forty-three years ago, a covered wagon was proceeding slowly from Tustin to the Aliso Canyon over the San Joaquin Ranch, passing the former old windmill, later known as Culver’s Corner; and passing Irvine and into the hills back of Mr. Lewis Moulton’s present ranch house. At that time the road was undefined through sand, cactus, mustard stalks and much tar weed. Mr. George W. Thurston was the pioneer (died in 1928.) His wife now living at 810 East Third Street, Santa Ana, a charming old lady 84 years old, in a graphic manner described the slowness of the journey over the sheep trail from El Toro and on beside Wood Canyon.

The Thurston family had come from Utah to San Francisco by rail, thence by boat to San Diego for six months, and there purchased two ponies to go with the wagon which they had shipped from San Francisco. They drove from San Diego to Tustin and camped near an artesian well for one month. The rainy weather caused consternation and the father had to pursue his idea of government land. In those days the Land Office gave no information, and it was accidentally that Mr. Thurston heard about the land at Aliso Canyon.

After seeing the land he was disgusted and in despair but finally had to consent to move his family there. Gene Salter had preempted the Thurston Ranch prior to 1871, but had to abandon it.

The Thurston covered wagon could not reach Aliso Canyon the first day out from Tustin, but stayed overnight at the home of Spanish or Mexican people on the big ranch. Here they were treated hospitably. It was due to this circumstance probably that one half-hour after arriving at their new place a group of Mexicans with plows and wagons arrived to contest the Thurston claim. There were angry arguments and the flash of a black snake in the hands of one of the Mexicans, but the right of tenure clearly belonged to the first arrival, and the Mexicans left without further dispute.

In all the later years the Mexicans proved good neighbors and closed the gates of all fences punctiliously. There were other neighbors that were not considerate. The deer would come and eat the barley and beans. Other animals came to get water at the creek. There were coyotes, squirrels, rabbits, pole cats, wild cats, a panther, snakes.

This creek bottom dried almost every year, but in the rainy season it was a raging torrent when the heavy ocean boomed back with a flood of water. It was unhealthy water too, so far as man was concerned, but the horses seemed to thrive on it.

Upon their arrival the eight members of the Thurston family found a one-room shack without doors used as a sheep camp. This was 12 by 14 and underlaid with snakes and squirrels. During the first days the father killed a rattler five feet long. And Mrs. Thurston tells of the constant danger and fear of snakes.

In front of their shack these pioneers at once placed a tent. They had brought pieces of wood sufficient for flooring. Later they built a room in front of the tent and several years afterward a barn, bringing the lumber from Newport. There was a baby three months old, who is now Mrs. Harry Hughes. The other possessions of the family consisted of the team of ponies, the wagon, a blue hen, and forty dollars.

It was some time before they acquired a cow and later another cow. Joseph did not have a dog to help herd his cattle from the wheat until he was eleven years old. He had to herd cattle at the age of eight, walking barefooted over the snake infested hills.

The original clearing of the fields was a task, for there were wagon loads of dry bones and horns of cattle to be removed.

Each member of the family able to do so, putting on a gunny sack apron to assist. Other children were born subsequently, and Grandma Thurston boasts 13 living children, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. There was no chance for school but both father and mother gave lessons, the mother a stickler for grammar.

Then there were a very few books but very good ones, and the teaching of the fear and love of the Lord. Dan Baker’s paper was a blessing and a joy. There was the annual joy of the malva for feed, that beloved California weed.

The days were full of hard work. The land had been surveyed but there was no bridge for years and the horses were often obliged to swim across the water. At times there was a narrow escape.

But in the dry season every drop of drinking water was hauled from a distance. There was one bad fire in a drafty place in the canyon consuming feed. There were all sorts of shifts and turns, accidents and threatening. There were years of dry weather. There were the Damron horses breaking into the crops. They came over from Laguna, fortunately not so often, for the distance was great. If the rain was heavy, the creek formed a lake.

News came about the ships arriving in Wilmington, and about the success of vineyards at Anaheim. The family was impelled to leave Aliso to seek a better fortune, but it was impossible to rent or squat and they had no money to buy, so they had to stay on the ranch.

However they began to raise grapes and gradually this ranch was transformed into a little Paradise. Although without water, the soil is of silt and the climatic conditions ideal like the semi-tropics, and the horticultural talent of Joseph Thurston has combined with Nature’s opportunity.

I will leave to him to tell you his experience in developing and producing his variety and luxuriance of crops. There is no child of early Laguna but will agree with reference to the good quality of the fruit and melons.

The ranch has always been a wonder spot. A naval officer visiting it made the assertion that in all his travels in the East and West Indies, Alaska and Tropics, this spot could match any he had seen.

In 1875 or 1876 Henry Rogers took up 160 acres of government land at Arch Beach just west of the oil well. In the same year Joe Prisk took 160. Henry Rogers bought the land from Joe Prisk and gave it to his son George, who now lives in Garden Grove.

Damron sold his flat right at the mouth of the Laguna Canyon of 528 acres to George Rogers for one thousand dollars. This is part of the present Rogers addition and was later bought by the Warlings. Mrs. Oscar Warling is a niece of George Rogers. This holding at present belongs to Joseph Thurston and he is going to preserve the old house just at the entrance of Laguna, for it is the only remaining landmark.

There are two gum groves up in the hills, the first one having been planted by George Rogers and the one toward the Moulton ranch by Mr. Hemenway. The Hemenways, Goffs and Brooks families all preempted government land, The Hemenway house used to stand on the site of the present Log Cabin of the Skidmore family in the canyon.

Of the former Rogers ranch there is still a shack of one room where old Joe Lucas used to live as a sort of protégé of George Rogers. This picturesque fisherman was born in Fayal, in the Azores and had been a whaler. He used to walk up and down the beach each day with pail and trident, seldom catching anything in his later days, a character combining real religious feeling with picturesque outspoken profanity. He always stopped at the grocery store of J. N. Isch to get his weekly supply of tobacco and groceries generously furnished by the good Supervisors of Orange County. In his cabin were two pieces of furniture, a bed and a table. This table is being preserved in the sacristy of the little Catholic chapel, a gift from “old Joe” to Miss Kate Overton and inscribed y her with the announcement that it had served as an altar for the first Mass said in the Laguna Canyon in the early days.

Billy Shutz was another old time fisherman of a later date who endeavored to squat on a small part of the San Joaquin ranch and he was assisted in his claim by persons from Los Angeles. After being put off his so-called domain, poor Billy betook himself in a row boat, it being summertime and insisted in living out in the ocean beside the raft of the life line. Food was taken to him by his friends and he sulked for the entire month of August and then finally came to land.

There were the four Goffs, all brothers, on government land extending from Laguna to Eagle Rock. They belonged to a family of ten children but only four of them came here from Connecticut. Frank Goff had come to Laguna in 1878 to work for Mr. Rogers and he occupied a house at the bee ranch which was on the opposite side of the canyon from the oil well.

It was possibly this two-story which later was moved to the south of the Laguna Canyon and still stands as one of the landmarks.

Frank Goff worked for Rogers six months and then took up his own claim at Goff worked for Rogers six months and then took up his own claim at Goff Island. His brother, called Lee, had his claim at Eagle Rock. In 1879 Henry Goff lived where the Laguna Villa now stands. He built two hotels at Laguna One of which is still the western part of the Yoch Laguna Beach Hotel. He afterwards sold this to the Spencers. Mrs. Spencer is the mother-in-law of George Peters.

Mr. and Mrs. Spencer ran the hotel in the late 1880’s until Mr. Spencer’s death. The widow let the mortgage take it and the title went to Mr. McCormack of Chicago. It became the deserted home of the squirrel, rabbit and polecat for a couple of years, until bought by Joseph Yoch for the price of the mortgage without the interest or expense.

There were 14 bedrooms, tiny ones, one large airy room, a dismal kitchen, a neat parlor, and wide verandas on three sides, so entrances everywhere.

The Yoch family spent their summers at the Alpha, their home being in Santa Ana. In 1896 the hotel had not rooms enough so The Gray Gables was purchased. This building was used as the store and post office. Joseph Yoch had been the postmaster with his assistant J. N. Isch. The Gray Gables purchase added six rooms to the hotel, but this was insufficient to house the perspiring inlanders from Riverside, San Bernardino and Redlands.

In 1897 Mr. Yoch moved the Arch Beach hotel to Laguna over the ravines and hills, and attached it to the east end of the Goff Hotel. Although the Arch Beach hotel had been deserted for a long time, in its day a number of interesting folk from Riverside and elsewhere had enjoyed its hospitality. Hubbard Goff had been its owner and proprietor in the early days.

After the addition to the Laguna hotel Mr. and Mrs. Yoch set to work in earnest to become hotel managers. They brought the children from the Alpha, contrary to their old prejudice against hotel environment, and in the stress of business, all the family pitched into the loathsome new occupation, ruining the health of Mrs. Yoch who finally was obliged to yield to a wheelchair. At the hotel the succeeding years found the same old time Riversiders as guests, the Lowes, Reynolds, Darlings, Bliss, Judge Brown and son and daughter of the Anchorage.

The son afterwards was elected as mayor of his city, but was killed in an auto accident the day after the election as his car collided with a large truck. Judge Cheney and Mrs. Cheney were annual guests and later Mr. and Mrs. James S. Rice also. They were a delight to their friends as they instituted a regular morning Musicale and were always assisted by Mrs. Arthur Everest and her sister Matie Dyer with their beautiful violin accompaniments.

Mrs. Rice had a beautiful voice and her husband a charming one. Often Madame Modjeska with her adorable husband, Count Bozenta, and a crowd of interesting relatives and friends spent long vacations at the hotel.

Gov. Markham brought his family from Pasadena. His daughters were expert tennis players, These were tea parties every afternoon with cottagers mingling, not to omit the Streeters, Harts, Handy, Cunningham, and Mrs. Seth Marshall with her famous Rock Cookies at the tennis teas. This was the first Mrs. Marshall.

laguna beach 1890
Laguna Beach, circa 1890
Courtesy First American Title

In the early days Arch Beach and Laguna each had its own store, hotel and post office, but one stage coach serving both. The Goffs did fishing, boating and farming in both these villages. Hubbard Goff sold his hotel to Mr. Ambrose who abandoned it.

In 1887 the firm later known as the firm of Raymond Whitcomb, came to Arch Beach looking for a hotel site between Santa Barbara and San Diego. For $25,000 cash they bought the Goff Island acreage and also that belonging to Lee Goff at Eagle Rock. The project was for a hotel, wharves, and a depot for the A. T. & Santa Fe which was expected to pass through Arch Beach on the way to San Diego.

However the panic of 1893 caused the boom to burst and this entire acreage was later sold for taxes and the Santa Fe was built inland.

Henry Goff and George Rogers gave the original land for the schoolhouse and it stood where it now stands. It had been moved down into the Laguna Canyon and back to its original place. The early teachers were Miss Lucy McMoile, now living near Santa Ana, and Miss Vina Hildebrand who married Henry Goff’s son, Ammon. She now lives in Kansas City.

Later the Borings had the store and post office at Arch Beach, but the original storekeeper had the name of Brooks, although no relative of the pioneer Brooks family of Laguna. There were other postmasters at Arch Beach: Mr. Scumadore, then Lulu Stocking, a daughter of Hubbard Goff. The last postmistress of Arch Beach was Miss Tillie Butterfield who later died in the Laguna Canyon.

The original inhabitant of Laguna Canyon was Damron, who must have been there in 1874. He had a house at the present Skidmore Ball Park just beyond the big bend about 100 feet from the bridge and toward Laguna. In the Laguna Canyon at various times were the Hemenways, Butterfields, Farmans, Ladds, Frenches, Fountains, and two families of Thompsons. The school followed the settlers into the canyon where it stayed for several years. Some of the families of the canyon let their stock run over the San Joaquin Ranch, and when the ranch fences were built, these particular folk moved out, for they had been entirely dependent on their stock for a living.

L. N. Brooks, known as Nate Brooks, came to Laguna when the Goffs did. He built the first water system of Laguna Beach. He subdivided the town of Arch Beach. He placed the first lot sold in Laguna Beach on the market.

Although other pioneers left Laguna, Nate remained through the dullest years because he always had faith in the future of his child, this village. W. H. Brooks, a brother, came to Laguna about the same time as Nate.

Another brother, Oliver, came later and the Laguna Pavilion or community center, now the Art Gallery, was the place of Oliver’s funeral. Mrs. Keim, the mother of the Brooks brothers, lived in Tustin but was identified often with the activities at Laguna and in fact became a resident. Nate Brooks preempted government land and bought land from George Rogers, who had bought 600 acres. He dug a 500 foot tunnel into the hills to develop water and constructed at his own expense good roads to Arch Beach. He was always interested in helping the welfare of Laguna and was a good neighbor. His marriage in 1899 brought to Laguna another pioneer California family, the Skidmores. The modern Laguna owes much also to the energy of the members of this family.

Beginning in 1878 the D. H. Burnham family with horses made a yearly pilgrimage from Riverside. Walter Keith had a cottage at Arch Beach, one of the first Riversiders, also the Burgess family. A man named Victor, once Supervisor of San Bernardino County, had a lot to do with Arch Beach. He was the Victor from whom Victorville took its name. The first fishing pier was at Arch Beach.

Mention must be made of the summer camps. There were two of them. The Santa Ana camp was back of Fisherman’s Cove on the Heights. There were two or three long rows of tents and everything was kept in good order. They had a platform for dancing, and many parties, picnics, and clam bakes. At Laguna in the flat part of the present village the Riverside camp held sway. There was friendly rivalry and visits back and forth between the two camps.

O. T. Dyer bought some land from Henry Goff and built a house to escape the summer heat of Riverside. He sold part of his land to other Riversiders and the second house was built by Captain Handy, then followed Dr. Gill, the Hon. H. M. Streeter, and the Nortons. The friends of these families stayed at the hotel.

On the board walk the first cottage was built by D. F. Witmer of Santa Ana, then came Dr. Chaffee, Sherman & Cook, and the Mansurs.

Oscar Farman’s father drove the last of the old Concord stages to go out of business. His stories of the early canyon days were a joy to his passengers. Cal Rosencrans, a relative of the Spencers, had the old red barn prior to J. D. Ponder, and was the stage driver before Mr. Farman.

B.W. Handy was an ardent amateur fisherman every day of the week during the summer months and the faithful and persevering leader of the Community Sunday School.

Laguna has its various myths: the tale of Dana Point where in the early days, dry years, the cattle had to be stampeded over the bank. It is perhaps more authentic to record the stampede not of cattle buy of the wild horses that infested the place.