The Birth of Orange County

Phil Brigandi (2010)

In 1850, the new State of California was broken up into 27 different counties. What is now Orange County was simply the southern end of Los Angeles County. It took nearly 20 years of struggle before Orange County was born in 1889.

The story begins in 1869, in Anaheim. The 12-year-old community began a dual drive to incorporate as a city, and to form its own county—Anaheim County. Both measures required the approval of the State Legislature.

Incorporation came easy. On February 10, 1870, Governor Henry Haight signed the bill to create the City of Anaheim—the first city in what is now Orange County.

A separate bill to create the County of Anaheim was already making its way through the State Assembly. Max Strobel—who would soon be elected Anaheim’s first mayor—was in Sacramento, leading the lobbying efforts. The opposition was led by Los Angeles Assemblyman Manuel Coronel. Strobel argued that the county spent few of the local tax dollars in the southern end of the county, that it was too far to the county seat, and that the area was ready to stand on its own. Coronel replied that it was only 36 miles from Anaheim to Los Angeles, that the southern end of the county was still largely rural, and that “The proposed measure would only be profitable to a few landed proprietors at Anaheim, and a class of idlers, who hope to earn an easy subsistence by filling the newly created county offices.”

The proposed Anaheim County took in much more area than present-day Orange County. The western boundary extended all the way to the Rio Hondo, while to the north, much of the San Jose Valley was included. The modern communities of Downey, Norwalk, Whittier, and La Puente would have all been in Anaheim County.

The first round went to the Anaheimers—the county bill passed the Assembly on February 25, 1870, and was sent on the State Senate. But there, Strobel’s lobbying efforts failed him, and the Senate postponed the vote on the bill “indefinitely.”

But the idea of a new county was now firmly planted, and hardly a year would go by until 1889 that there was not some effort made towards county division.

In 1871, Anaheim began to enlist the help of some of the new communities in the southern end of Los Angeles County. William H. Spurgeon—the founder of the new town of Santa Ana—lent his support, as did Columbus Tustin. After a failed attempt to call a county division convention over the summer, a series of public meetings began in December 1871. On January 3, 1872, at a meeting in Gallatin (now a part of Downey) a new name was proposed for the venture—Orange County.

There has been some confusion over that name. At the time, there was not a single orange grove in what is now Orange County, only a few scattered trees. Oranges were not the major crop in the area, and the name did not celebrate their success. Nor was it chosen to honor the six month old community of Orange, which at the time was known as Richland. In fact, Orange seems to have been named for the proposed new county, rather than the other way around.

No, Orange County was selected because it sounded nice. Southern California in those days was being promoted as a semi-tropical paradise, America’s Italy, our own Mediterranean coast. And oranges fit that image. People already recognized that the trees did well here, but it was not until after 1900 that citrus became the area’s dominant crop.

A bill to create Orange County was introduced in the State Legislature early in 1872. The county line was moved down to the San Gabriel River, and across the top of the Puente Hills, and despite the new name, Anaheim was retained as the county seat. But the bill never came to a vote.

In 1873, county division continued to have wide support across the area. “County division is a fixed fact,” the Anaheim Gazettte opined that spring. “The Los Angeles papers concede that we will have an easy victory.” Anaheim and Santa Ana both put up a pro-division candidate for State Assembly—Albert L. Bush from Santa Ana, and James M. Guinn from Anaheim. Both were defeated that fall.

But the divisionists still had a voice in the 1874 Legislature. Representatives from Northern California introduced bills in both houses, but despite some vocal lobbying, neither ever came to a vote.

santa ana county 1876
Santa Ana County, 1876
Courtesy Phil Brigandi

The division drive began again in the last days of 1875, when Anaheim sent out a call for public meeting. This time, to try and snare the support of their southern neighbor, they proposed the name Santa Ana County for the area south of the San Gabriel River. But Santa Ana was unimpressed. They had begun to see themselves as the natural county seat, and did not want to let Anaheim win the day.

Anaheim kept pushing, though. Early in 1876, James M. Guinn published a little pamphlet of Facts and Figures for the Opponents of County Division, trying to win them over. A few supporters were found in Orange and Westminster, but there does not even seem to have been a division bill introduced in the Legislature that year.

Except for occasional comments in the local newspapers, there was nothing definite done towards county division again until 1881, when local attorney Victor Montgomery drafted a new bill to create Orange County. “The very name proposed,” one supporter wrote, “…has a charm about it that will arrest the attention of Eastern people whenever they hear it mentioned or see it in their newspapers.”

The Montgomery bill had broader support, especially since it offered a compromise on the county seat question—Anaheim would fill the role for the first two years, then the matter would be submitted to a public vote.

The bill was introduced in both houses during the 1881 legislative session. Anaheim sent James Guinn and Benjamin Dreyfus to Sacramento to lobby for it, and there was talk the James McFadden—Santa Ana’s most prominent Republican—would also go north.

But there were questions about the legality of the bill. California had adopted a new constitution in 1879 which gave the Legislature the authority to create new counties. But Montgomery’s bill proposed a public vote on the matter. Could the Legislature hand over its authority to the voters? It was a question that would not be settled until 1889.

The Assembly’s Judiciary Committee claimed the Montgomery bill was unconstitutional, and it never came to a vote there. While in the State Senate, the Committee on County and Township Government recommended passage of the bill; but for some reason, it never seems to have come to a vote.

Two years later, the area was finally able to send a pro-division candidate to the Assembly—Dr. Henry W. Head, of Garden Grove. He introduced a new Orange County bill during the 1883 legislative session. The bill carried two important changes. First, there would be no public vote on county division—only on the selection of a county seat (thus avoiding the constitutional question). Second, it moved the county line down to Coyote Creek (thus excluding Artesia, Downey, and Los Nietos, where the “most bitter opponents” of county division resided).

But Anaheim saw the boundary shift as a direct attack on their claim on the county seat. Overnight, the Anaheim Gazette turned virulently anti-division, filling column after column with attacks on Dr. Head and his bill. It was “farcical,” “absurd,” and “tainted with fraud.” Dr. Head, they claimed, had assured them before the election that he was not in favor of county division in order to win votes. Now, they said, he had gone back on his word. (The fact that Dr. Head was anti-alcohol, and favored Sunday laws and local option also may not have endeared him to the Anaheimers.)

In the end, the 1883 drive went nowhere.

The whole question of just how to form a new county under the 1879 State Constitution continued to be debated. In 1885, Assemblyman C.F. McGlashan from Truckee introduced a bill to create a general procedure for creating new counties. In order to win support for his measure, he also introduced a bill to create Orange County.

Anaheim was still unhappy over the county line. The Gazette even cited rumors that another bill had been prepared that would move the line down to the Santa Ana River, leaving them out of the new county entirely!

Santa Ana’s Assemblyman, E.E. Edwards, immediately seized on the McGlashan bill, and helped push it through the Assembly by a vote of 49 to 17.

But the outlook still was bleak. “The fact that [the bill] has even reached its present stage is due more to the popularity of Colonel Edwards as an individual member,” the Los Angeles Times’ Sacramento correspondent noted, “aided by an antipathy on the part of a large majority of the members to the member from Los Angeles city [Mr. Hazard].”

And once again, the State Senate refused to take action.

By now all the pieces and almost all the players that would be part of the final drive to county division were in place. In 1888, Col. Edwards was re-elected to the Assembly. On the first day of the 1889 legislative session, he introduced a new version of the Montgomery bill, setting the county line at Coyote Creek, and requiring a 2/3rds vote of local residents to approve division.

Anaheim still did not approve of the shorter boundary. “If the bill had for its purpose the establishment of the county seat in Santa Ana, Mr. Edwards could not have arranged the boundary line with more effect,” the Gazette complained. (In fact, the county seat would be selected by vote of residents.)

The Gazette hammered away against the measure, publishing a pamphlet of Reasons Against County Division, packed with lengthy financial arguments, trying to show that home rule would cost local taxpayers more money.

Santa Ana replied – much as Max Strobel had in 1870—that the taxes they were already paying were going off to Los Angeles, and were never spent in the southern end of the county. At least in a new county, their tax dollars would stay at home.

Assemblyman John R. Brierly of Los Angeles tried to gut the bill, by amending it so that no township west of the Santa Ana River would be included in the new county if a majority of its voters voted no on county division. His amendment failed.

Santa Ana sent its biggest guns to Sacramento to lobby for the bill. Democrat William H. Spurgeon—himself a former Assemblyman – worked side by side with Republican James McFadden. They were armed with a war chest, estimated between $30,-40,000.
(In later years, Santa Ana businessman George Edgar liked to boast: “Hell, yes! We bought the county from the State Legislature for $10,000. I went out and raised the money myself in two hours. And it was a rainy morning at that.”)

With Los Angeles (as always) firmly opposed to the split, the local lobbyists went to work on the San Francisco delegation, pointing out that county division would diminish Los Angeles’ growing financial and political power. Meanwhile, pro- and anti-division forces flooded the legislature with petitions.

Once again, Col. Edwards went to work on the floor of the Assembly, and on February 12, 1889, his bill was passed by a vote of 64-6.

Now it was back to the State Senate, which had sunk so many other proposals. The Committee on Counties, County Government, and Township Organization recommended a no vote. But after more lobbying, and more petitions, the bill finally passed on March 8, by a vote of 28-8. Three days later, Governor Robert Waterman signed it into law.

Now the measure did not create Orange County. It only allowed for a vote of the residents of the proposed county. A 2/3rds majority was required. In the meantime, the Governor appointed a five-man commission to oversee the election, and the initial steps necessary to create a county.

On June 4, 1889, local voters went to the polls. In a banner turnout, they voted 2,509 to 500 in favor of Orange County. Anaheim, and the northern communities of Buena Park and Fullerton— still angry over the shift of the county line—voted strongly against the measure, but could not muster enough votes to overcome huge majorities in Santa Ana, Orange, Tustin, and other smaller communities.

Los Angeles was still fighting as well. They filed three separate lawsuits once again questioning the constitutionality of a public vote. Even though the cases were heard in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, they lost. Having given their blessing to the new county, the judges held, the State Legislature was then free to submit the matter to the voters for final approval.

Now there was just the matter of a county seat. With their anti-division vote, Anaheim had cut themselves out of the contest. Only Orange was left to battle against Santa Ana’s claim on the honor. They offered a three-story brick hotel—the Rochester—as a ready-made courthouse, and argued against concentration too much power in one town.

A second election was set for July 17, 1889. Along with a county seat, voters would also elect a full slate of county officers. Three separate nominating conventions were held, including a non-partisan convention in Santa Ana, and a Republican meeting in Orange.

In the end, Santa Ana captured the county seat, and the non-partisan candidates were elected to almost every office. Orange did manage to squeak local businessman Sam Armor onto the Board of Supervisors by just a four-vote majority.

The new county was officially formed on August 1, 1889, with the Superior Court and several county offices opening for business. The Board of Supervisors met for the first time on August 5. The supervisorial districts had been arranged so that Santa Ana effectively had two seats on the board, and the First District Supervisor—the redoubtable W.H. Spurgeon—automatically became Chairman of the Board.

Space was rented in a downtown business block for the county offices, Superior Court, and board room. It was not until 1900 that the county got around to building a proper courthouse.

In 1889, Orange County had just three incorporated cities, and a population of about 15,000. Today, there are 34 cities, and more than 3,000,000 residents.