“Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror” history quiz by podcaster Bill Lobdell

Bill Lobdell, former Daily Pilot editor and Los Angeles Times journalist, has a podcast called “Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror,” which looks at historical events and people – famous and forgotten – that shaped Newport Beach. You can listen and subscribe to all episodes of his podcast at You can also follow “Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror” on Instagram (@newport_in_the_rearview_mirror) and Facebook (@NewportInTheRearviewMirror). 

Lobdell tests your knowledge with a multiple-choice quiz on Newport Beach’s origins, to see how smart you really are about our town’s storied past. Good luck!

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Courtesy of Bill Lobdell

Newport Landing was Newport’s Plymouth Rock and first port, founded in 1870. It’s now the Lower Castaways (Dover Drive and West Coast Highway). Photo, circa 1885, is from the commemorative book, “Newport 75: 1906 to 1981” published in 1981.


1. After Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo arrived on the California coast in 1542, adventurers and sea merchants spent the next three centuries sailing the Pacific Coast without any mention of Newport Bay on their maps or in their journals. Why didn’t Newport Bay make the historical record until the mid-1800s?

a. The Native American population was too small there to make trading profitable.

b. The area, known for its swamps and clouds of mosquitoes, repelled even the hardiest seaman.

c. Superstitious sailors believed the area was cursed.

d. Newport Bay didn’t exist at the time.

The answer is d. Newport Bay flat-out didn’t exist. Up until about 1825, the coastline of what’s now Newport didn’t include a peninsula or bay. The shoreline was just a continuation of the bluffs and beaches of Crystal Cove and Corona del Mar. But in 1825, a massive flood altered the course of the Santa Ana River, and it began dumping out into the ocean near what’s now Lido Isle, delivering an endless stream of silt, mud and sand that over the next few decades served as the building blocks for the peninsula and eight islands of bay.

2. In 1870, Capt. Samuel S. Dunnells turned his 110-foot, flat-bottomed steamer, the Vaquero, into the newly formed Newport Bay, becoming the first to pilot a commercial boat into those waters. He did this despite stern warnings from the government that the bay’s entrance was a death trap. Why did Capt. Dunnells take such a risk?

a. His boat had been hijacked by two stowaways/fugitives who didn’t want to escape in an unpopulated area.

b. He owed a large debt at the Port of Wilmington (now Los Angeles) and was looking for a way to unload his cargo of lumber elsewhere.

c. He wanted to tap into what he had heard was a growing market for lumber created by farmers settling near Newport Bay.

d. He needed to find fresh spring water to cool the boilers in his steamer.

The answer is b. and c. Capt. Dunnells did owe a large debt and profits from his cargo would be used to back merchants at the Port of Wilmington. In addition, he had heard about the demand for lumber needed for the fences, barns and houses of the many farmers settling near Newport Bay.

3. Where did Capt. Dunnells land the Vaquero in Newport Bay and establish a “new port”?

a. At what’s now Balboa Island.

b. Just inside the harbor entrance at what’s now China Cove.

c. At what’s now the Lower Castaways at Dover Drive and West Coast Highway.

d. Near what’s now the Balboa Pavilion. 

The answer is c. The Lower Castaways was a convenient site, positioned between the Upper and Lower Newport bays. It had a freshwater spring and provided local farmers and merchants a convenient meeting point to import and export goods. 

Soon, a tiny village sprung up at the new port, which included a wharf, warehouses, a few shanties, a two-story home for the port operator and a boarding house for workers. The settlement was known by several names, including Newport, Newport Landing, McFadden Landing and the Port of Orange. 

4. Who were the first non-Native American settlers there?

a. Portuguese fishermen.

b. Mexican fishermen.

c. Los Angeles land speculators.

d. They were a virtual United Nations of residents. 

The answer is d. According to the 1880 census, about 35 people lived in the village, including three Chinese fishermen, a Papago Native American, several Latinos, seven Portuguese and a Scandinavian girl who would marry a Mexican immigrant and have 12 children. Newport wouldn’t see that kind of diversity again for more than 100 years!

5. Despite 18 years of prosperity, Newport Landing became a ghost town virtually overnight. Why?

a. A long drought caused it to go bankrupt.

b. The freshwater spring there dried up.

c. An earthquake leveled the buildings and wharf.

d. The harbor entrance proved too dangerous for boats.

The answer is d. The harbor entrance was a flat-out death trap. Over the years, boats, cargo and men had been lost to the shifting sandbars and the huge waves that formed at the harbor entrance. The McFadden Wharf (now the site of the Newport Pier) was built on the oceanside of the peninsula in 1888 so the bay could be avoided.

If you want to learn more about Newport Beach history, including seven more quiz questions on Newport’s origins, you can subscribe to “Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror” podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify or simply listen at www.newportbeach-podcasts.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for connecting to Bill Lobdell’s future podcasts in Stu News.