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The beginnings of Balboa

By DUNCAN FORGEY

In 1905, the Palmer kids jumped off the very first Red Car from Los Angeles and ran to the sandy beach as fast as they could. Their parents knew this day was to become part of Southern California history. Mom, Dad and their three children had left Pasadena less than two hours ago and now found themselves in a totally new and exciting land. Rapid transit had come to Newport’s Balboa Peninsula. 

The beginnings of Balboa

Courtesy of Orange County Archives

Balboa, 1900

The vast ocean lay on one side and a swampy harbor on the other. All was backdropped by beautiful snowcapped mountains to the east. How unique this Balboa was to these landlubbers from LA County. The kids had heard about Newport because their father and his business associates traveled here to fish and hunt duck. But now electric Red Cars, ran from LA to McFadden’s Wharf.  Soon it would go all the way to Balboa when the next leg opened up. The trip took a little over an hour and along the way they got to see parts of Long Beach, Huntington Beach and vast agricultural lands of turn-of-the-century Southern California. 

After the trolley bridged the Santa Ana River it turned right and clattered down the peninsula to the depot near McFadden’s Wharf. This was the end of the line until Balboa was opened shortly. Legitimate discussions among the powerful took place regarding a bridge over the harbor entrance so the Red Cars could reach Corona del Mar. This was not to happen.   

The City of Los Angeles had a population of 102,479 and in business circles of the city, there were discussions about investing in this new resort [Balboa]. Many in LA and Pasadena had watched Santa Monica and Redondo grow, but this Balboa/Newport area was different. Plus, it now had the Red Car. 

The beginnings of electric red cars

Courtesy of Orange County Archives

Pacific Electric Red Cars

The beginnings of modern-day Balboa, however, started over two decades earlier. Brothers by the name of Abbott settled near Tustin in the late 1800s. In these early days, ranchers and farmers were searching for ways to get their products to the larger markets of LA, San Francisco and San Diego.

One of these brothers, Edward J. Abbott, a world traveler and adventurer, saw opportunity. He had traveled throughout Europe and experienced Egypt, where he climbed atop the Cheops Pyramid at the impressive age of 60. 

Enthralled by the Pacific Ocean for a lifetime, he began collecting shells as a hobby, while studying the many critters that lived along the shoreline. During a trip to the Hawaiian Islands, he brought back 10 large barrels of tropical shells.  This catapulted his hobby into a business and made him the first conchologist in Southern California. 

Initiated by this love of seashells, Abbott figured others might want to return home with beautiful reminders of the seaside. It was not yet 1900, and this introduction of shell collecting would eventually denude local beaches. Within two generations, Newport’s coastline and beaches were no longer scattered with some of the prettiest aspects of the ocean.

In 1891, his natural curiosity and love of the ocean secured Abbott to the peninsula permanently. He bought a swamp and overflow land which was a portion of Section 35. It lay between today’s 9th and L streets which is all of the current township of Balboa. Abbott built his white house between B and C streets and immediately set out to beautify his newly acquired land. He planted the peninsula’s first trees near Palm Street. He also planted Monterey cypress trees along a knoll near Bay Island. The sandy soil was so poor that trees struggled, so Abbott buried large Newport Bay sharks beneath each tree to provide nourishment. Additionally, he built small shallow trenches to assist in collecting the little fresh water that was available. The trees took root and lasted until decades later when street upgrades forced their removal.    

Abbott took in partner Joseph Ferguson and established the Bayside Tract of land. This encompassed most of what is today’s Balboa Village. They encouraged the purchase of sandy lots for homes and businesses which created the town of Balboa. 

The beginnings of Balboa Hotel

Courtesy of Orange County Archives

Balboa Hotel, 1906

Turn-of-the-19th-century Newport Bay was a hunter’s and fisherman’s paradise. Local kids told stories of being surrounded in natural abundance.  Large schools of fish of every type swam in the ocean and the bay. Lobsters, clams and abalones were accessible with little effort. Plus, the skies teemed with ducks, resulting in Rufus Sanborn and a group of wealthy LA businessmen buying Bay Island for $350 and opening up a private duck club. 

Life was simple. Roads were rough, mail was unreliable, and supplies came in by ship, wagons and eventually cars. There were little improvements for the residents and structures were self-made. Vast open space surrounded the hamlet offering no real infrastructure. Case in point: Dr. Seeber was hunting and accidently got shot. The wounded man was taken to Abbott’s shell shack for first aid. The decision was made that the only place for proper medical support was Santa Ana. By the time word got to Dr. C.D. Ball and he hitched up his horse and buggy, rode to McFadden’s Landing, met a boat and was rowed across the bay, it had been hours. Dr. Seeber died of his wound before Dr. Ball’s arrival. 

Spread over the large beaches, like crosses on a battlefield graveyard, were thousands of intricate shells once home to living organisms. Mollusk, clam, mussel and abalone shells littered the beaches. Abbott sensed something special about this place, with its vast beaches, pounding waves, long peninsula, marshy bay and of course, a seemingly endless supply of seashells. Finding such a fertile habitat, he immediately started to mine his newly found treasure.  Abbott collected barrel after barrel of abalone shells, which he polished and sold.

Abbott’s conch shack was located where Palm and the Ferry Landing is today, giving the area the name of Abbott’s Landing. This name oftentimes became confused with another important person in Newport’s early development, Captain Moses Abbott. He was the captain and master of the side wheel steamer Vaquero; a vitally important ship shipping out of the first McFadden’s Landing located at the Castaways. 

The beginnings of Peninsula Point

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Orange County Archives

Peninsula Point, 1923

In his later years, Edward J. Abbott built a small steamboat intended for excursions and ocean trips for visitors. The federal government refused to issue the necessary permit to operate, so he was forced to take the vessel to Lake Elsinore. When loading the boat on a railway car, Abbott was seriously injured which was believed to have led to his death in 1885. 

His Balboa land holdings were transferred to a brother-in-law, Clinton Andre.  Much of the peninsula was now the property of Andre, who began subdividing the land. He sold the first home to Santa Ana attorney E.E. Keech, which was the beginning of a 135-year process of growth and development that we can see in today’s Newport Beach.   

The beginnings of Robins garage

Courtesy of Bob Robins

Theodore Robins’ Balboa garage

By 1904, many future founders of Newport Beach believing in the potential of the peninsula and harbor made Balboa their home. W.S. Collins, J.P. Greely, Joe Ferguson, Joseph Beek, Frank Vallely, Theodore Robins and F.W. Harding and others hopscotched over to the peninsula making efforts to establish businesses and sell lots to new residents. By the end of 1905 with the arrival of the Pacific Electric Railway Company (Red Cars), the construction of the Balboa Pavilion and the opening of the Balboa Hotel, an ever-increasing number of tourists and investors came to Newport Harbor. These accomplishments led to the City of Newport Beach being incorporated in 1906 with a population of 206 citizens. Because of these pioneers, Newport Beach was well on its way to becoming one of the most well-known resort cities on the West Coast. 

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Duncan Forgey, a lifelong resident of Newport Beach, now makes his home in Hawaii. He is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport. Forgey’s book “Flyin’ Kai: A Pelican’s Tale,” is scheduled to be released in February 2022. It is a tale of a rebellious adolescent brown pelican that leaves his home on Anacapa Island to explore the mainland. He arrives in Newport Beach and his adventures begin. He is immediately confronted with an intense conflict between humans and nature. This novel will be enjoyed by young adults, friends of the environment and aging baby boomers.