Water has always played a great part in the shaping of Orange County. Too much of it has caused tragic flooding, too little has caused decimating drought. But perhaps no other water-related event had more influence on the course of local history than the Great Drought of 1864.
OC Weekly Editor, Gustavo Arellano, summarized the effect in his article, Orange County’s Drought of 1864 (2014)
…”Orange County as we know it exists because of the Great Drought of 1864. It wrecked Southern California’s cattle industry, then one of the largest in the world and the heart of the area’s economy, and forced ranchers to unload their land at fire-sale rates. Developers swooped in and divided their newly acquired properties into lots that evolved into the cities of today. Those settlements, in turn, drew in Americans who pushed out the state’s original Californio families. Enough people came to make Orange County’s secession from Los Angeles County in 1889 a natural. And those residents transformed pastoral OC into a suburban paradise that brought us national acclaim–and also sowed the seeds for our current water crisis.”
The Ranchos of the mid 1800’s enjoyed a flourishing industry, based largely on cattle. At first, these herds of Longhorn were traded for their hides and tallow. Eventually, after the Gold Rush brought hungry miners with a taste for beef, the local cattle industry made the rancheros very wealthy indeed. In typical years, the spring rainfall would supply just enough water to cover the rolling hills with grass. Acres of dry alfalfa and clover blanketed the ranges, providing abundant grazing for the herds.
However, in the 1860’s, a succession of disastrous seasons brought an abrupt end to the Rancho Era. Out of the Dons’ misfortune came an economic transformation that would forever alter the local landscape.
First Came Heavy Rains….
It all began with water: too much water. A storm arrived right before Christmas of 1861 and didn’t leave until a month later. The rarity of sunshine was reported in the Los Angeles Star.
“On Tuesday, last the sun made its appearance. The phenomenon lasted several minutes and was witnessed by a great number of persons.”
The prolonged rain caused major flooding which drowned thousands of heads of cattle and destroyed possibly a fourth of the state’s taxable wealth. The decimation of the floods may have caused locals to pray for an end to the rain. What came next, may have left them wishing for its return.
Devastating Drought Wipes out The Ranchos
Initially, the heavy rains left a bounty of grasses for the remaining herd, but soon a shift from wet to dry brought even more devastation.
As Arellano writes,
“..By the spring of 1863, the Californios knew something was about to go terribly wrong. “It is the opinion of the rancheros that we shall have the worst year known for a long time,” wrote an American businessman who lived in the area. “We have had very warm weather, and what little grass we had is all dry and burnt. . . . There is absolutely no grass, and it is the opinion of the ranch men [that] the cattle will commence dying within a month.”
…Southern California’s economy soon buckled. Lands were left fallow because there was no water for crops, drastically increasing the cost of produce. The Santa Ana, San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers were reduced to gulches; their tributaries virtually evaporated. Ranchers took out loans or mortgaged land to stay afloat. Desperate cattlemen started selling livestock at bargain prices–$2 per head was on the high end of the scale–or left the state altogether with their herds. Even this proved too costly; ranchers were reduced to slaughtering tens of thousands of cattle solely for their hides and horns, until even that wasn’t profitable.
And still, the rain didn’t come.
By January of 1864, the parched landscape had made living conditions unbearable. Ranchero Don Juan Forster recalled that “The climate was very dry. It was the most miserable drought…there was no moisture and our cattle died off in great numbers. About that winter, the whole country from North to South became almost depopulated of cattle. Before the year 1864 had passed away there was a perfect devastation.”
In February of 1864 there was a brief respite in the form of a few cloudburst.
“At last, through hope and fears, and smile and tears, we have evidence . . . that God has not forgotten us in our needs.” read the Los Angeles Star.
But the rain was short-lived and soon. According to historian Robert Glass Cleland, the dry Santa Ana winds kicked up dust storms and “the earth once more became iron and the sky brass.”
Facing the loss of their primary income, the Californios were forced to sell their ranchos.
Rancheros Misfortune Leads to the Creation of the Irvine Ranch
The Irvine Ranch owes its creation to the same devastating drought. In 1864, San Francisco Investment group. Flint, Bixby and Company, purchased portions of three Spanish-Mexican land grants from Rancheros who lost their fortunes along with their cattle. The Rancho San Joaquin, The Rancho Lomas de Santiago, and part of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana formed a new ranch, later named for the investment group’s silent partner: James Irvine.
Water has always played an integral part in the story of Orange County, but as historian Robert Glass Cleland wrote in his book “The Cattle On A Thousand Hills : Southern California, 1850-1880”
“Never before or since has [Southern California] suffered as it suffered during those dry years, but out of the land’s misfortunes came a major economic revolution and a new Southern California.”