Canyon of Adventure

In Orange County's Santa Ana Mountains

May 22, 1960
Robert H. Signor
Independent Press-Telegram (Long Beach, CA)

With rapid growth and progress running at high speed in Orange County, the Santa Ana Mountains provide a means of relaxation and escape from today's hurried existence. An easy two hours of driving in the Santa Anas east of the city of Orange rewards the motorist with beautiful parks, lakes, small picturesque towns and a mountain scenery with a history as colorful as any, legends of buried treasure, a silver boom and more recently the discovery of oil add flavor to an area filled with mysterious canyons where bandits hid and Portola's expedition camped.

Irvine Park, in the foothills of the Santa Anas, has long been a favorite recreation spot for thousands of Southlanders since James Irvine made its 180 acres a gift to the county in 1897. Many old-time residents remember the area as the scene of long rides in horse-drawn vehicles. They can also remember when the abundance of water made Santiago Creek a rushing mountain stream. Today the park provides many picnic tables and outdoor cooking facilities; playgrounds for the kids and boating on its man-made lake. A small zoo and the lure of miniature golf beckons harried city folk to a lazy Sunday afternoon amid the park's ancient live oaks and sycamores.

The Santa Anas remember the silver boom of 1877, when precious ore was discovered by William Curry and Hank Smith of Santa Ana. Their discovery turned the peaceful canyon into a western mining camp virtually overnight when two mines, the Silver Bell and the Santa Clara, went into operation. Shortly after, the canyon, which had been known as Canada de la Madera, or Canyon of the Woods, became Silverado Canyon and the town of Silverado was born. About 1883, the mines petered out and coal was discovered. The town name was then changed to Carbondale. When the veins of coal gave out it reverted back to its original name of Silverado.

Among some of the more colorful characters who lived in the canyon was a man called "Dad" Justice, who was said to have been the 'Colonel Sellers" of Mark Twain tales. Others who made the canyon their home were J.E. Pleasants and Samuel Shrewsbury, who figured heavily in Orange County's early history. Robert Louis Stevenson and his new bride made their home in the canyon near the town of Silverado.

Today the only remnant of the silver boom is the rotting and decayed Bluelight Mine established in 1880 by J.D. Dunnlop. Forest growth is rapidly taking over and the weakened timbers make it unsafe to be worked, according to Orville Pember, the Bluelight's present owner. Pember took over in 1921 when he came to the area for his health following a siege of influenza. He put the mining operation on a scientific-geologic basis and disproved some theories that the silver ore could not be brought out because of the greatly folded strata. During World War II, the United States government took over the mine when a rich deposit of mica was discovered along with the silver ore. Following the war, labor and materials soared to more than three times the cost of earlier days and the Bluelight Mine ceased operations even though Pember says that silver still exists in the hills.

Until the white man came, Shoshone Indians camped in the canyon which today bears the name of perhaps the greatest dramatic actress of all time, Madame Modjeska. Madame Modjeska purchased the canyon in which she made her home in 1888. The Modjeska home at one time was visited by many famous people, a month them Paderewski, the pianist, and Sienkiewicz, the auto of "Quo Vadis."

In 1857 the canyon was the scene of violence when a posse led by Gen. Andres Pico routed out the young rebel, Juan Flores and his gang after a killing in San Juan Capistrano. Two of Flores' men were hanged from an old oak tree on orders of Gen. Pico when it was leaned that Flores had escaped.

After Madame Modjeska's death the land was subdivided, and a Long Beach banker, B.F. Tucker, purchased a portion of it. Following the death of Tucker's wife, who loved birds, the Dorothy May Tucker Memorial Bird Sanctuary was founded and given to the California Audubon Society by her husband. The sanctuary is maintained today in Modjeska Canyon by memberships, contributions from visitors and the sale of bird feeders.

O'Neill Park, Orange County's newest and largest, is situated at the foot of Trabuco Canyon. The park was presented to the county by the pioneer family of O'Neills at a dedication in 1950. The park's history dates back to the colorful days of the Spanish Dons in California. The area was part of a land grant originally given to Don Juan Forrester by Gov. Pio Pico.

Gaspar de Portola and his men camped in nearby Trabuco Canyon on his first expedition north in 1769. Legend has it that one of Portola's men named the canyon after loosing a blunderbus. Trabuco is the Spanish word for blunderbus.

Tales of buried treasure abound although none has ever been found. In the 1920's an oil well was drilled and although gas blowouts indicated the presence of oil, none materialized and the well was abandoned. In a small canyon nearby, a small stream runs nearly all year long and is fed by a 30-foot waterfall by the bizarre name of Holy Jim Falls. Located in Holy Jim Canyon about a mile from the last of the cabins in Trabuco Canyon, a foot trail leads to the falls named after an old-time who roamed the area in the 1880's.

To most Southern Californians, particularly those living in Orange County, the mountains to the east of Santa Ana, known simply as Old Saddleback, is a familiar sight. Actually, Saddleback consists of two separate peaks: 5,569 foot Santiago Peak and 5,470 foot Mt. Modjeska. From below they appear as one with a depression between which looks like a saddle, but they are more than a mile apart. A narrow dirt road leads to the forestry lookout station atop Santiago Peak and affords the adventurer with some spectacular scenery, lush stands of timber and an abundance of driving thrills.

This road is not recommended for any but the experienced mountain driver. It is closed during the fire season.

Should the adventurous family reach the top of Santiago Peak, Forest Service Officer Roy Winter and his wife, Eva, will offer a warm welcome and a tour through the lookout station. Roy and Eva live on the peak all year, and during the fire season which begins about the first of July they spend 24 hours a day in the lookout tower.

Deep in the interior, the steep and narrow dirt road climbs through dense pine forests and mountain scenery not apparent to the eye as one looks at the mountains from below. There are those, particularly in the town of Silverado, who can visualize a two-lane paved road back into country which has been virtually untouched by man since the mountain lion and California grizzly bear made this area their home.

Forest Ranger Roy Winter

Roy Winter