Orange County Branch Newsletter

September 2011

OC History

Fifty Years Ago in Orange County

By Carl Nelson, P.E.

When I came to work with the Orange County Flood Control District (OCFCD) in 1960, the district was in the midst of building out planned projects authorized in the successful bond issuance election of 1956. H. “George” Osborne had been appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 1955 to the position of “Flood Control Engineer” (later changed to “Chief Engineer”). Senior engineers in the relatively small organization included Joe Brunner, Jack Schwarze, Max Sloan, Don Martinson, Elmer Christiansen, John Huntsman, Joe Devlin, Dick Schmid, and Joe Natsuhara. Before my time a number of other young engineers were recruited, including Milt Madole, Jim Brennan, Wayne Osborne, Don Talley, Lloyd Lichlyter and Wayne Osborne. Several went on to form new firms (Madole, Christiansen, Brennan), or joined private engineering firms such as Schmid to Williamson & Schmid, and Martinson to Lowry. Some became City Engineers; Devlin to Newport Beach and Lichlyter & Osborne to Fountain Valley.

To accommodate the expanding staff, the Board of Supervisors had acquired the former St. Anne’s Inn (a tourist hotel of the 1920s) across Broadway from the Old County Courthouse in Santa Ana to house the engineering offices of the OCFCD and the County Road Department.

St Annes Inn Honeymoon Hotel of the 1930s which became County Offices in the 1950s

St. Anne’s Inn, “Honeymoon Hotel” of the 1930s became County Offices in the 1950’s
- Photo Courtesy of OC Archives -

In 1961, our offices were moved into the adjacent, newly completed Engineering/Finance Building at the corner of 8th & Broadway. Demolition and removal of the old hotel had cleared the way for construction of the present Hall of Administration, and the east end of the Civic Center Mall.

Early OCFCD bond elections in 1929 and 1931 had failed to receive the required two-thirds majority for passage. Accordingly, the district’s work until 1956 was limited to planning, engineering and participation in federal projects authorized by the Congress in 1936. These federal projects included Prado, Brea, and Fullerton Dams, constructed in 1941 to reduce peak floods crossing downstream rural farmlands.

Carbon Canyon Crossing Euclid Ave., West Anaheim January 1952

Carbon Canyon Crossing Euclid Ave., West Anaheim January 1952
- Photo Courtesy of OC Archives -

Eight new cities were incorporated within the County during the Fifties, despite a need for improved channelization across the alluvial plain to provide for the burgeoning west county growth. The authorized federal dam in Carbon Canyon (not constructed until 1960) would reduce flood flows following the wash of Carbon Creek westerly through downtown Anaheim and on to a confluence with Coyote Creek.

The Flood Control Engineer’s Report of 1955, (a prerequisite for conducting a flood control bond election) had been prepared under contract by the local engineering firm of Harrison & Woolley, adopted by the Board of Supervisors and approved by the voters in 1956. The scope of the $43 million program was countywide.

The 1956 bonds would fund a skeleton system of earthen channels, anticipating the probable need for future concrete lining to be funded by subsequent bond issues. Channels were laid out to follow and/or enlarge natural, unnamed drainage patterns across west Orange County. South county improvements were planned for Laguna, Aliso, Trabuco, San Juan, and San Clemente Creeks. Retarding Basins and dams were planned in several locations, including the previously proposed (federal) dam at Villa Park.

Until expansion of the OCFCD design staff, most of the early design work on bond projects was performed by established private engineering firms such as Harrison & Woolley, Lowry Engineering and Boyle Engineering. Early projects included improvement of the Santa Ana River levees revetment, the Talbert Channel, the Los Alamitos Pump Station and the Carbon Canyon Diversion Channel. The work was supervised by the District’s design division under the leadership of Jack Schwarze and Max Sloan.


January 1952 Carbon Creek Flowing Westerly along La Palma Ave Undergrounding to be Funded by 1956 Bond

January 1952 - Carbon Creek Flowing Westerly along La Palma Ave
Undergrounding to be Funded by 1956 Bond
- Photo Courtesy of OC Archives -

After establishing standard design practices, staff engineers John Huntsman, Elmer Christiansen, and Joe Natsuhara handled almost all design projects across western Orange County. During the Sixties, the district began assigning about half its design load to private engineering firms. VTN, a Los Angeles area firm had opened a Westminster office. Start-up firms about that time included John Toups (formerly Fullerton City Engineer), Hall & Foreman (formerly City of Santa Ana), Willdan (Bill Stookey and Dan Heil of Fullerton) and Woodside Associates (formerly with J. A. Woolley).

One of my earliest design assignments was to assist Mr. Harrison with the design of the Santa Ana River/Santiago Creek confluence. The levee improvement allowed the City of Santa Ana to reclaim riverbed area for expansion of what is now River View Golf Course.  South county bond projects were of slightly less time priority because the already incised watercourses offered a low level of flood protection to then mostly undeveloped land. One of the early south county projects was an extension of Laguna Canyon Channel from downtown to about a mile upstream.

In 1962, when it appeared the funds from 1956 would be insufficient to keep pace with county growth, Jack Schwarze assigned me to do a countywide review of additional flood protection needs following completion of the 1956 bond program. The final report to the Board of Supervisors in 1964 was entitled “An Investigation of Flood Control and Water Conservation Deficiencies in Orange County, California”.

About that time when I first visited the Irvine Ranch, master planning was underway for the development that would accompany and support the impending University of California, Irvine campus. A Master Plan for the 100,000 acre ranch by famed architects William Perreira Associates, was supervised by planner Ray Watt and ranch engineer Bill Mason (each would later become President of the Irvine Company). Offices were in the former Ranch headquarters and family mansion. At the conclusion of morning meetings we would be invited to lunch. This was served “family-style”; salad, soup, meat & potatoes or spaghetti. Attendees in the “bunkhouse mess hall” would include “ranch hands & bosses” alongside planners and engineers.

More will be said in my next article about Irvine Ranch, UCI, and San Diego Creek which was a meandering wash until it was channelized in 1963 by OCFCD. Meanwhile, please see this newsletter’s announcement of the plaque dedication for the Irvine Ranch Irrigation System as a Local Civil Engineering Historic Landmark.

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