Santa Ana of 1870s Recalled by Pioneer Who Tells Many Happenings of that Period

[In the early years of the Orange County Historical Society, the speakers were expected to provide a written copy of their talk to the society. One of the speakers in 1935 was longtime Santa Ana banker E.P. Stafford, who had come to town with his father, Nelson O. Stafford, in 1873. His “Santa Ana Reminiscences” were also published in the Santa Ana Journal.]

E.P. Stafford
Santa Ana Journal, October 19, 1935

I have been very much interested in reading articles published in a Santa Ana paper [the Journal] signed Old-Timer.

Nap Donovan, publisher of the first paper [here, the Santa Ana Valley News, in 1876], was a personal friend of mine. He had associated with him one of the Cobler boys, Theo, I think. There were four of the Cobler boys, also two girls, one of whom, Mr. Clarence Meacham, still lives on North Broadway. The Coblers came to Santa Ana in 1874.

D.M. Dorman, mentioned in one of Old-Timer’s articles, was one of the very early settlers, probably in 1870. I knew him quite well. The property on which Mr. Dorman built the first hotel comprised lots 1-4 and 5, block 14 of the original town of Santa Ana, for which he paid $150. This property had a frontage of 150 feet on the west side of Main street and 125 feet on the north side of Fourth street.

In June 1873, after building the hotel, Dorman sold the property to James Weaver for $2,000. During the same year, 1873, my father thought of buying the property and the owner placed a price of $1,750 on it. However, father did not buy.

In 1874, Noah Palmer, Capt. West, Mr. Cole, H.H. Roper and a man by the name of Conner, I think, came to Santa Ana and purchased the Sepulveda tract, some 2,000 acres or more, lying along the south side of First street and west of Main street. Mr. Palmer bought the old Santa Ana Hotel for a consideration of $1,700, the deed being recorded on May 27, 1874. (I am indebted to my good friend, Harvey Gardner, for these dates.) A short time later Mr. Palmer sold to James Layman, and he reopened it as a hotel.

In 1887 the furniture was sold at auction as the building was to be moved down on Fruit street to make room for the First National Bank building.1 My wife and I purchased a walnut bedroom suite at that time which we still have in our home. Shortly after Layman bought, he built a frame structure on the west of the hotel proper, with a space of about 10 or 12 feet between for a driveway. This frame building was divided into small sleeping rooms, and it was probably in one of these rooms in which the first surgical operation was performed.

One of our first surgeons was a doctor by the name of Burtnett. There was a poor Mexican suffering from a tumor in his throat which was choking him to death. Someone told Dr. Burtnett and the doctor had the fellow brought in. They took a door off the hinges, placed it on two trussels near the open window, placed the fellow on it and gave him an anesthetic. Then the doctor proceeded to operate. As I have already mentioned, the window was open, and there were many gathered around the outside as spectators. I was on my way home from school and being attracted by the crowd, I, too, pushed my way in. I well remember whoever it was helping the doctor with the anesthetic remarked, “Better be careful, doctor, you are getting pretty close to the jugular.”

The doctor stopped work, looked up at the fellow as much as to say, “Perhaps you had better take the knife,” but never spoke a word; then continued his cutting until he had removed the obstruction, sewed up the wound, and placed the patient on a bed. In an incredibly short time the fellow was around and to all appearances was perfectly well.

Dr. Burtnett’s greatest fault was that he could not leave liquor alone. He and a man by name of Hogg, I think (he was the telegraph operator), had a drunken argument and came to blows. Hogg struck Dr. Burtnett in the mouth, and the doctor shut down on his thumb. Blood poisoning set in. I called on the poor fellow when it was thought he could live but a short time, for his arm was badly swollen up to his shoulder. The doctor, however, remained with him night and day, nursing him like a child, and the fellow recovered.

It was in this same hotel that Jim Layman entertained the Honorable George C. Perkins, when he was canvassing the state of California in his campaign for governor. Layman invited my father and mother to dine with them. My parents took my younger brother, Harry, with them. (Harry was afterwards elected county surveyor of Los Angeles county, which position he held at the time Orange County was formed. Later he was elected city engineer of Los Angeles, which position he filled at the time of his death.) On my parents’ return home, after the dinner, Harry was very much elated to think Mr. Perkins spoke to him. Mother, always kindly interested in us boys, asked Harry what the governor said to him. Harry replied, “He stepped on my foot and turned to me and said ‘excuse me.’”

4th and main santa ana 1878
Looking west at Fourth and Main in Santa Ana, circa 1878
Courtesy the First American Corp.

Another incident in connection with the old hotel was during the time Dennis Kearney was sponsoring a new political party in California. I think it was called the “People’s Party.” Well, Kearney was a very rough, boisterous fellow, not lacking in language suitable for the type of person he was. He was stumping the state in the interest of his party and was very abusive of everybody who made a little progress in the business world. He came to Santa Ana on one of his tours, and W.H. Spurgeon, James McFadden, James Fruit and a few others had a platform erected on the Main street side of the hotel from which he was to speak. (In the early days, most of our public speaking was done in the opera house as there were no rooms sufficiently large to accommodate the crowd.) Kearney surely tried himself on this occasion. He called those who had been instrumental in securing him a place from which to speak all the vile names in the category, and he especially mentioned Spurgeon and McFadden as being “a couple of thieves.” He said they had robbed the natives of the lands and sold them to the public for twice the real value. I remember one expression he made was that “their deeds were signed by pens dipped in the very ink of hell.”

I was present at his afternoon address, and Robert McFadden was so riled he was going up on the platform to clean up on him.

It took three men to hold Bob. Kearney repeated his abuse at night. McFadden Bros. at the time were operating at Newport Beach, and they had in their employ one Tom Rule. Tom had come to town in the evening to hear what Kearney had to say. When Kearney finished, Tom took him in hand and pounded his face into a jelly. Kearney ran to the drug store located on the south side of Fourth street, midway between Main and Sycamore. Rule followed, but Kearney got away and ran to Dribble & Lewis’ drug store a block further east, where a doctor patched him up, and he left by stage for San Diego.

After this, Rule was dubbed “McFadden’s Mule” because of his kick.

These experiences all occurred prior to 1878. I remember this because father died in that year, and it was before his death.

Tom Rule afterwards married Helen Coble, a sister of Theodore, who was associated with Nap Donovan.

Rule was later drowned in attempting to rescue some sailors from a wreck in Newport bay.


  1. Much remodeled, and later renamed the Otis building, the old First National building still stands at the northwest corner of Fourth and Main.