By Jan Siegel
Eighty years after its opening, the state highway is once again at the center of discussion
There was a lot of concern over what the opening of Ortega Highway would mean to San Juan Capistrano. That was the opinion expressed by a number of local residents in 1933. Eighty years later, we are still talking about the effect of Ortega Highway on our community.
An article in the The Coastline Dispatch of 1963 stated, “It seems strange that there could have been opposition to the building of this road, but there was and much of it bitter. Petitions to the county supervisors were circulated in San Juan Capistrano demanding that the project be abandoned.”
In 1933, Fifth District Supervisor George Jeffrey was against the project. But the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce backed it. It was one of the main reasons why the Chamber of Commerce was originally organized in the 1920s. Carl Hankey, a local farmer, was named chairman of the project for the town. For over five years, he had tried to work with the supervisors and the townspeople, both here and in Riverside. Finally, he resigned in order to tend to his orange groves. Fred Stoffel took over the project.
In Riverside, the road was called the Elsinore-Capistrano Road. In San Juan Capistrano, it was referred to as the Capistrano-Elsinore Road. Just naming the roadway was a constant impasse.
Another ardent supporter for the new roadway was Father St. John O’Sullivan. At a meeting with Carl Hankey, they decided to think of a different name for the roadway. They thought about naming it the Ortega Highway, after the first white man to walk the trail. The new name worked like a charm. It resolved a lot of the disputes, and the man who had been their biggest opponent became their best supporter. George Jeffrey’s wife was a direct descendent of the early explorer Jose Francisco Ortega, and with the new name, Supervisor Jeffrey really helped push through the necessary funds for the project.
Together, Orange and Riverside counties raised 50 percent of the cost of the project and the state raised the other half. The final cost was $750,000.
“So finally, what was once a primitive trail, often only to be traveled on horseback, washed out by the flood of 1916 and never repaired, became a road. It is 22 feet in width, but the cut is 26 feet for drainage.” The 25-mile roadway extended from Elsinore to San Juan Capistrano. The last part of the roadway to be completed was a 13-mile stretch from San Juan Hot Springs to San Juan Capistrano. It was completed in one year.
The next couple of years are going to require an adjustment by the residents of and the visitors to San Juan Capistrano because of the extension of the Ortega off-ramp of the Interstate 5 Freeway. Before construction starts and makes travel over the Ortega too difficult, ride down this historic roadway and think about it being a one-horse trail and what it looked like 80 years ago. Many historic buildings can still be seen from Ortega. Two centuries of structures can be viewed from this roadway.
In addition to the Mission, the Forster Mansion, in the Mission Revival style, represents the wealth of our area in 1910. The Parra Adobe was the home of a Native American who was trained by the missionaries and became a farmer. The Harrison House, which was typical of a middle class famer’s home in the 19th century, and the Hot Springs, which date back to pre-Mission days and developed in the last part of 20th century, are only some of the structures and architectural styles that you can see.
Spend a moment in time and reflect upon the history of San Juan Capistrano.