A Brief History of Orange

Phil Brigandi (2011)

The City of Orange was founded in 1871 on part of the old Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana. For generations, the land had been a cattle ranch, owned by the Yorba and Peralta families. In 1868, the rancho was divided among the many heirs and claimants, and towns and farms began to appear.

Two Los Angeles attorneys, Alfred Chapman and Andrews Glassell, bought up thousands of acres in the area, and received additional land in return for legal services during the partition of the rancho. In 1870, Chapman had his lands subdivided and began construction of an irrigation ditch down from the Santa Ana River. In 1871, a townsite was laid out. Since it was going to be a farming community, the new town was named Richland.

Chapman and Glassell were busy with their law practice, so Glassell’s brother, Captain William T. Glassell, was sent down to serve as tract agent. He surveyed the townsite, supervised work on the irrigation ditch, planted crops, and advertised and sold land.

The original townsite was just eight city blocks, stretching from Almond to Maple avenues, between Grand and Lemon streets, with a public plaza in the center. Around the townsite were 10-acre farm lots.

The little town grew slowly. In 1872 a school district was formed. 1873 saw the first general store, the first church (now the First United Methodist Church of Orange), and a post office.

But there was a problem. It turned out there was already another Richland, California, so a new name had to be selected – Orange.

The citrus industry was only in its infancy in those days, but the name fit well with Southern California’s image, and even then, there was already talk of creating a separate Orange County.

At the time, the big crops in the area were grain and raisin grapes. The first orange grove here was planted around 1873, and the first local packing house opened in 1883.

The Southern Pacific built the first railroad through the area in 1877, but missed Orange by several miles. In 1887, the Santa Fe arrived, touching off a frantic real estate boom. Farm land was subdivided into residential lots, and several new towns were laid out around Orange. El Modena and Olive survived, but St. James and McPherson soon faded.

To beautify the town, a circular park was laid out in the center of the Plaza Square, and the women raised the money for an elegant fountain (now located outside the Orange Public Library & History Center).

In 1888, the City of Orange was incorporated, with a population of about 1,500. A year later, Orange County was formed out of the southern end of Los Angeles County. But by then, the real estate boom was winding down, and to make matters worse, a blight destroyed many of the local vineyards.

It was only then that oranges began to dominate the local economy. The railroads allowed fresh fruit to be shipped throughout the country. Local growers banded together to form cooperative packing houses, and the cooperatives formed the Southern California Fruit Exchange (now known as Sunkist Growers) to market their crop. By the 1920s, about a third of Orange’s labor force worked in the citrus industry, and there were a dozen packing houses in the area. The Santiago Orange Growers Association was the largest Valencia packing house in the world then. Their old packing house was later taken over by Villa Park Orchards, and operated until 2006—the last citrus packing house to close in Orange County.

orange circa 1907
Downtown Orange, circa 1907
Courtesy Phil Brigandi

Downtown Orange still reflects the success of the citrus industry in the early 1900s. Many of the business blocks around the Plaza were built between 1905 and 1930. There are also more than 1,400 pre-1940 homes in Orange, representing a wealth of architectural styles from Victorian to Streamline Moderne. Much of old downtown Orange is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Depression of the 1930s, and the world war that followed, brought many challenges to Orange. The community struggled to take care of its own until Federal relief programs began. Government work programs such as the WPA also built several projects in town, including much of the original construction at the Orange City Park (now W.O. Hart Park).

During World War II, hundreds of our young men and women served in the Armed Forces, while hundreds more worked in manufacturing plants, and purchased war bonds and saving stamps to support the war effort.

After the war, Southern California’s population began to surge. It took a few years for the growth to reach Orange. The first large-scale subdivision (98 homes) was built in 1950. The first freeway (SR 55) reached the area in 1962. Between 1950 and 1970, Orange’s population jumped from 10,000 to over 77,000.

As tract houses replaced orange groves, Orange’s economy shifted from agriculture to light manufacturing and the service sector, including education, medical, retail, and restaurants. The freeways allowed other residents to find jobs throughout the region.

The city annexed more and more land, taking in most of old El Modena and Olive. But the little town of Villa Park was determined not to be swallowed up, and in 1962 incorporated as their own city, to preserve their rural ambiance.

Growth slowed in the 1970s, then accelerated again beginning in the ‘80s as new areas were subdivided in the foothills east of town.

Today, Orange has grown to over 135,000 people. Yet it is still thought of as a small town by many residents and visitors alike. Our historic downtown helps keep that image alive. Long a haven for antique lovers, in recent years restaurants and galleries have also appeared. The area is also popular with filmmakers, looking for that small town feel.