Orange County Branch Newsletter
History and Heritage
Heritage Hill Historical Park, Lake Forest, Calif.
By: Carl Nelson, P.E.
The Heritage Hill Historical Park is a popular storehouse of structures and info about the evolution of old El Toro. Before the railroads came, the Rancho Canada Los Alisos was a Mexican Land Grant to Jose Serrano, and the adobe was built circa 1840s along what would be later be called Serrano Creek, a source of spring water that could support a small domestic water supply. A group of Englishmen came to the area, including Dwight Whiting and he tried a number of ways to earn a living, selling portions along Aliso Creek (a spring-fed stream) to other English immigrants. The land along Aliso Creek was subdivided around 1870s as Aliso City when Orange County was still a part of Los Angeles County. I don’t know if Whiting sold or granted the Station Grounds and rail rights of way for the former El Toro Station of the Santa Fe railroad when it crossed El Toro Road in 1885. The Adobe was modernized and preserved by the Whiting family in the early 1930s. The preservation was completed by 1935 by successors to the Whitings.
Whiting experimented with Eucalyptus plantings on his dry land now known as “Lake Forest”. The Lake part of the name came from 1960s subdivisions (which fronted the new I-5 freeway) and had an impressive 50 ft. tall, pump-fed fountain for advertising. It was removed after the freeway-fronting homes were sold but the name Lake Forest survived. The Forest part of the name came from Whiting’s remnant, unsuccessful Eucalyptus plantings.
Among the purchasers of small farm lots in the Aliso City subdivision was Harvey Bennett, around 1900. His home was located at the corner of 2nd street and Cherry street. I recall buying $1 bags of oranges from their corner neighbors, under the Balzer family orange orchards in 1964 after I bought a home in the first El Toro tract. At that time the El Toro Country Store, run by the Osterman family, was the primary business of the area, still on a two lane road offering anything from fresh meat, groceries, Levi's jeans or potbellied stoves.
The County’s EMA organization was formed in 1975, consolidating Roads, Flood and Parks. At that time the area surrounding the Serrano adobe was owned by Occidental Petroleum who subdivided the “forest” area. As a part of the planning commission approval of their tentative tracts, they dedicated the adobe and land, along with the land along Serrano Creek “woods”, so as to avoid having to construct flood channel improvements.
This was the founding of “Heritage Hill” Historic Park. About that time the road department was building the El Toro Road overhead of the Santa Fe railroad which involved removal of the original El Toro Schoolhouse; which for many years had served as the El Toro Catholic Church. It was moved to the new “hill” and restored. Unfortunately, neither the Country Store, nor the El Toro Woman’s Clubhouse, survived the Road Department. The historic Clubhouse could not be moved and restored because of the hexagonal floor-plan and thin-wall construction. I recall attending community meetings at the clubhouse and experiencing the outdoor “privy” facilities. Concurrently the original St. George’s Episcopal mission church, built in the 1890s at the corner of El Toro Road and Whisler Drive was also dedicated and moved to Heritage Hill. Incidentally, one of the “oldtimers”, Elmer Whisler, was still a “railsitter” at the country store when I moved to El Toro. Mr. Bennett’s widow asked OC Parks to accept donation of the Bennett family home, and it was moved to Heritage Hill. All except the Woman’s Clubhouse and the Country Store were restored in the 1980s by the Parks Department under direction of the Environmental Management Agency, along with construction of parking, trails and picnicking facilities.
I was proud to be Director of Public Works during this period of design, construction and preservation. Since that time the OC Parks Department has received considerable support from the Saddleback Historical Society and other community interests.
Heritage Hill Historical Park is currently owned and operated by OC Parks/County of Orange. It is open to the public Wednesday – Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You are free to walk around on your own, or if you would like a docent led tour, those are offered at 2 p.m. everyday it’s open, and also at 11 a.m. on the weekends. Special events are offered throughout the year, as well as school tours. Please visit http://ocparks.com/historic/heritage or call (949) 923-2230 for more information.
Special thanks to Carey Baughman, Historical Resource Specialist - South County Historical Parks, for the images and information contributed to this article.