Bolsa Chica History
The Bolsa Chica Wetlands are remnants of a once-extensive marshland. The freshwater of Freeman Creek, a tributary of the Santa Ana River, flowed into the marshes, meeting water from the Pacific Ocean, and creating a brackish environment. The swampland supported dense vegetation, including tulles, arroyo, willows and thickets, as well as diverse wildlife, such as grizzly bears, bobcats, mule deer and antelope!
Native American Presence
This beautiful estuary was home to ancestors of Native Americans as far back as 9,000 years ago, who likely migrated across the Bering Land Bridge. Unfortunately, not much is known about these early inhabitants due to destruction of archaeological sites due to flooding and human activities. As time passed, tribes began to establish themselves, and the main tribes that lived at Bolsa Chica were known as the Tongva and the Acjachemen. They lived in seasonal settlements on the Mesa, using the mild coastal weather to escape the harsh winter conditions in the Santa Ana Mountains, utilizing reed and grass hemispherical huts called wickiups or wigwams, and subsisting on what could be collected from the land. They were accomplished hunters and gatherers and were particularly skilled at creating fine canoes for fishing and traveling to the nearby Catalina Island. Like the early inhabitants, little is known about these tribes, with the exception of a few burial sites, shell deposits, and an archaeological treasure: Cog stones. More than 150 of these mysterious stones have been uncovered at Bolsa Chica. Cog stones are rounded and flattened some may have a singular hole in the center, and may have grooves or carvings around the edges, but they do not show signs of erosion, which could imply they were used for ceremonies or decoration. One theory is that they may have represented astrological bodies such as the sun, moon and stars and were used as a calendar system. Similar artifacts have been found in Peru and Chile – however it is unknown whether any connection exists between the South American and North American locations.
Spanish Mission and Rancheros (1768-1848)
In 1542 Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed the Southern California coast in search of trade opportunities and a route to China. He met and befriended the Tongva tribe living on Santa Catalina Island (later to be renamed by Cabrillo to “San Salvador”). Sixty years after Cabrillo explored the coast, Sebastian Vizcaino explored the same area and encountered the Tongva as well; his reports said that the Natives he met were friendly and peaceful, which was further supported by later accounts. Juan Crespi of the Portola expedition recounted:
“Their chief told us by signs which we understood very well that we must come to live with them; that they would make houses for us, and provide us with food…They urged us to do this telling us that all the land that he saw, and there was certainly a great deal of it, was theirs and that they would divide it with us.”
In the early 18th century, the Spanish began setting up missions, presidios (frontier fortresses) and pueblos (small towns) in an effort to colonize the coastal area of California. Father Junipero Serra arrived in California in 1769 and began the establishment of a chain of missions from San Diego to Sonoma. All of the peoples from the Tongva and Acjachamen tribes were sent to these missions; members of the Tongva were collectively renamed (alongside other tribes in the immediate area) the Gabrielinos and forced into labor and service at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, while the Acjachemen were renamed the Juaneños and forced into service at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Many were killed by smallpox epidemics and other foreign diseases, and those that survived were forced into the practice of Christianity and Spanish language and culture, resulting in the loss of much of their culture and devastation of their lives.
In 1787, a retired Spanish soldier, Manuel Perez Nieto, was granted a massive expanse of land (~300,000 acres) that stretched across the San Gabriel River, Santa Ana River and all the way to the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. While this expanse of land was later reduced to around 150,000 acres, as the padres of Mission San Gabriel argued that the grant included land that belonged to the mission, it was still one of the largest land grants to occur in California. Following Nieto’s death in 1804, the property was divided into several smaller sects of land. Nieto’s widowed daughter-in-law, Catarina Ruiz, acquired some of this land, and gave her brother, Joaquin Ruiz, a small section of the land. He named his property Rancho La Bolsa Chica, or “The Little Purse.”
The Bolsa Chica Gun Club
In 1848, after California joined the Union, American settlers started migrating West and quickly dominated the economic and social fabric of the region. Law required all original Spanish lands grants to be registered, so the Nieto family had to borrow money to pay for their land, and when they were unable to repay the loans, their land was subdivided. In 1895, a small portion of the original Rancho La Bolsa Chica that bordered the coastline was sold to a group of Los Angeles businessmen for a duck hunting preserve. This group of men started “The Bolsa Chica Gun Club” and built a hunting lodge and several smaller buildings on the Bolsa Chica Mesa. Tidal flow made for unfavorable hunting conditions, however, so they hired contractor Tom Talbert to build a dam across the Freeman Creek channel; specialized gates in the dam allowed freshwater to flow out but prevented salt water from flowing in. Within a short time, Inner Bolsa Bay had been transformed from a saltwater marsh to freshwater ponds. The dam also caused the ocean inlet to accumulate sand, which soon led to Outer Bolsa Bay being blocked from tidal flow. This was devastating to the natural ecology of the area.
In 1900, the Club hired Talbert again to cut a channel through the mesa between Bolsa Bay and Anaheim Bay. This channel can still be seen today, flowing under the Warner Avenue Bridge. Over the past 100 years, the channel has continued to widen, further isolating the portion of the mesa where the Bolsa Chica Conservancy center is located today.
Discovery of Oil
In 1920, Oil was discovered in Huntington Beach. The Bolsa Chica Gun Club quickly signed an oil and gas lease with Standard Oil Company of California to gain permission to drill for oil. However, the lowlands were not drilled until 1940 when Signal Oil Company took over the lease. This led to the construction of raised service roads to allow access to the wells that are scattered throughout the lowlands. These service roads can still be seen today in the trails that span much of the southern half of the ecological reserve.
During World War II, the U.S. Army acquired the Bolsa Chica lands through fee, leasehold and permits from 14 parties following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The War Department wanted to construct an artillery battery in order to provide defense of the nearby Port of Long Beach and Fort MacArthur. Several buildings were constructed on the northern half of the Bolsa Chica site, consisting of fortification establishments, personnel and munitions storage, gun emplacements, a water tank and tower, transformer vault, two underground tanks, and electrical and water utility systems. Long range gun emplacements were also constructed on the bluff overlooking Outer Bolsa Bay. The remnants of one of these emplacements can be seen near the Tide Gates on the northern end of the ecological reserve.
Only six years later, all of the sites were declared excess with the exception 0f a 6.20 acre parcel. In 1949, most of the land was returned to its former owners. The War Assets Administration (WAA) assumed accountability for other remaining acres and additional acres were reassigned for the LA Battery Bolsa Chica. Late that year, more acres were declared surplus and again returned to their former owners. The remaining land tracts were conveyed by the Government to the Ocean View School District on 12 September 1949. In 1954, the OVSD breached the conditions of this contract, and the land was transferred back to the Department of the Army. Both the tracts were acquired for Nike Battery Bolsa Chica. However, due to a change in criteria for Nike sites, the subject land could not be used.
Currently, the northern part of the site is vacant, and the property to the north of Los Patos Ave has been subdivided and developed into several single-family homes. The OVSD owns part of the land, and the remaining acres are privately owned. The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve encompasses the southwestern quadrants of the site.
Pacific Electric Railway
In 1904, the Pacific Electric Railway was built when the Red Line came to Huntington Beach. Pacific Coast Highway was built through the area in 1925. The popularity of automobiles saw the demise of the Red Line in the 1950s, leaving the station at Warner Avenue and PCH unused. The building was ultimately demolished, but the concrete pad and associated asphalt paving remained.
Tin Can Beach
In the 1950’s, the beach below Bolsa Chica became known as Tin Can Beach due to the 300-ton piles of trash that had been improperly discarded of and left there. Campers and squatters lived in the area for months at a time in makeshift shacks and shanties constructed of cardboard, tarpaper, and scrap lumber. When the state purchased the beach in 1961, it was cleaned and established as the Bolsa Chica State Beach, which is now one of the most popular beach attractions in California.
Lowland Acquisition and Restoration
In 1970, Signal Landmark Corporation purchased more than 1,700 acres from the Gun Club and proposed a large scale residential and commercial development, which included plans for more than 5,000 homes and a marina. In 1972, California passed the Coastal Act to protect these at-risk coastal areas. In 1973, it was discovered that a viable wetland existed within the Bolsa Chica lands. This led to Signal Landmark signing off approximately 310 acres of land to the state, who then established the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. The Department of Fish and Game worked to restore the reserve and created two nesting islands with a walk bridge that crosses Inner Bolsa Bay. In 1973, the dam that was built by the Gun Club was replaced with a tide gate and salt water flowed into Inner Bolsa Bay once again.
Over the next 30 years with the combined efforts of governmental agencies, community organizations and the landowner, hundreds of acres of degraded wetlands were set aside for restoration. In 1997, under a state and federal interagency agreement, 880 of the remaining lowland portions of Bolsa Chica were purchased by the state of California using mitigation funds for the purpose of wetland restoration.