Spurgeon First Saw Santa Ana Site from Tall Tree

How the City’s Founder Climbed Sycamore to See New Land Overgrown with Mustard

Terry E. Stephenson
Santa Ana Journal, May 28, 1936

It was not until 1869 that the location, Santa Ana, as it is known today, was put upon the map. It was in that year that William H. Spurgeon bought 76 acres from Yorba heirs and with Ed Tedford carrying the chain and Surveyor Wright checking the instrument, laid out the townsite of Santa Ana.

Before then, the place had been a mere piece of cattle land, over which herds roamed. Before that, on an old Mexican map it was marked merely as “Alisal,” meaning “sycamore grove.”

Sycamores and mustard with occasional clumps of elderberries, without a human habitation of any kind, marked the townsite when it was bought by Mr. Spurgeon. Not even a road seems to have crossed that particular area.

No place in California seems to have been better fitted for the growth of giant sycamores than did the rich level lands of the Santa Ana Valley south of the Santiago creek lying between the Santa Ana River and Red Hill.

Most of those old sycamores have been cut down. In Santa Ana, more than in Tustin, the devastation has been extensive. Here the largest one left is that growing in the yard at the home of Col. S.H. Finley, on East Fourth street. In the Tustin district many of the old sycamores are cherished, as well they might, for no one can put a money value upon them.

santa ana founding site
Santa Ana founding site (1869) – Sycamore St. at Fifth St., Santa Ana (2005)
Courtesy Chris Jepsen

It was into a sycamore tree that Mr. Spurgeon climbed the day that he first came to look over the property that he had bought in Los Angeles.

Anyone at all familiar with the beginnings of Santa Ana has heard that story. I had heard it so many years ago that I could not now even guess at the date. I had heard that the sycamore tree that stood on Sycamore street between First and Second streets was the historic tree into which the founder of this city climbed. This fine old tree was cut down when the Grand Central Market was built.

I had heard that it was the old sycamore that stood on Sycamore street in front of the old Sycamore Hall, between Fourth and Fifth streets, back of Rankin’s store of today. I had heard that it was a tree that was cut down in early days.

My curiosity concerning historical spots and events was aroused, of course, and I took occasion to settle the matter to my own satisfaction. I settled it by interviewing the man who knew most about it, William H. Spurgeon himself. I had called upon Mr. Spurgeon at his home on North Main street, a year or two before his death [in 1915]. One cannot recall Mr. Spurgeon without having in mind his kindliness, his deep interest in affairs, and without seeing him as he was known to old-timers, an active man with a long white beard.

On the occasion of the opening of the new Santa Ana post office building I gathered the photographs of all of the former postmasters and had them placed upon the walls of the postmaster’s office. I went to William H. Spurgeon, Jr., to get pictures of his father, and his uncle, Granville Spurgeon, both of whom had been postmasters, his father being the first and his uncle the fourth postmaster. I told Will that I would like an early day picture of his father, perhaps before his beard had turned white.

“I cannot remember my father when his beard was not white,” said Will. And so far as I can remember, I have never seen a picture of Mr. Spurgeon without that fine white beard of his. Mr. Spurgeon was a man of 40 years of age when he founded Santa Ana.

On the occasion of the visit at Mr. Spurgeon’s home that I have in mind, we talked for awhile about his recollections of his first visit to Santa Ana. He told me that this part of the valley was covered over with mustard, every bit of it that was not occupied by sycamores and elderberries and clumps of shrubs.

“No one today,” said he, “can imagine how heavy was that growth of mustard. It was so high that from horseback I could not get an adequate view of the land. I rode around for awhile trying to get a better idea of the property I had bought. The mustard was so high I couldn’t see a thing.

“I came to a tree from which I believe I could see out over the country. I climbed up into the tree quite a way, perhaps 20 feet. I could look out over the mustard which appeared like a sea, with here and there sycamore trees rising above it.”

“It that tree still standing?” I asked.

“Yes, it is. It is standing across the street, south of the library, just a few feet south of Fifth street.”

I knew the tree well. Years before its top had been cut off, but the heavy, rough trunk, denoting old age, still stood just back of the store building at the southwest corner of Fifth and Sycamore streets.

This old tree, however, went the way of most of the other sycamores that dotted the old townsite of Santa Ana. The owner of the property needed the space for building, and the old sycamore was cut down.

I remember, too, that Mr. Spurgeon told me of cutting a road through the mustard north out of his new town. This road took approximately the line of our present North Main street, crossed the Santiago Creek, and joined the old stage road about a half mile south of Orana [at the corner of Main and Chapman Avenue]. The stage road before it was diverted through Santa Ana had cut directly across from the old crossing of the river above the present state highway bridge to Red Hill.

It was my privilege to know and to talk to many old-timers, pioneers in this valley, and perhaps … I may be pardoned it I say that I prize mostly highly my acquaintanceship with Mr. Spurgeon. He was indeed a fine man, an active and loyal citizen, whose memory should be and will be forever cherished in this city that he founded. His career was exceedingly full of activity. The story of his life for fully 40 years after the day he climbed the old sycamore is very much the story of the growth and development of Santa Ana. There was little that was done in all those years that did not have the help and leadership of this grand old man.

[The site of Spurgeon’s sycamore is now marked by a county historical plaque. A new tree was planted there in 1976.]