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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Balboa Island

For eons, an ancient stream slowly carved a canyon through land that fronted on the Pacific Ocean, in the process steadily creating what today is the Upper Bay of Newport Beach. The Lower Bay—which now encompasses Balboa Island and the two smaller isles, Harbor and Lido—was little more than a mudflat surrounded by swampland, and the outstretched arm we know today as Balboa Peninsula was hardly larger than a sandspit. 


For thousands of years, the region was inhabited by indigenous peoples, the Acjachemen and Tongva. European colonization first began when Spanish priests founded Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776, a religious and largely agrarian outpost. In the mid-1800s new Europeans arrived, men of secular lifestyles who were interested in commercial opportunities. In the late 1860s, brothers James and Robert McFadden purchased large portions of the future site of Newport, including sections of oceanfront beach, and much of the embryonic Balboa Peninsula. They began subdividing and selling their property to settlers and investors, but also established the future townsite of Newport Beach, plus a successful fishing wharf on that narrow sandspit. They used the bay as a landing to load hides, tallow, hay and other goods for export. 


In 1870, Captain Samuel Dunnell steered his steamship Vaquero into the bay to offload his cargo of lumber and shingles, soon thereafter constructing a small wharf and warehouse he called “Newport Landing.” Five years later the McFadden brothers acquired the landing, and for the next 19 years, operated a thriving commercial trade and shipping business. However, the bay was not a true harbor: sand bars and a treacherous entrance convinced the McFaddens to move their shipping business to calmer waters, so they constructed a large pier at the oceanfront, on the developing peninsula. McFadden Wharf was a booming shipping and commercial center and a town began to grow—until 1899, when the federal government decided to fund a new harbor at San Pedro, with the intention of making it southern California’s major seaport.


In 1902, James McFadden sold his Newport properties, including the fledgling townsite, and about half of the peninsula, to William Collins and C.S. Hanson, seasoned entrepreneurs who immediately saw Newport Bay’s potential as a resort and recreation area. With Henry Huntington as a new partner (whose Pacific Electric Railway “Red Cars” had already attracted thousands of visitors from Los Angeles), they began dredging a channel on the north side of the bay in 1906 to deepen Newport Harbor, depositing the sand and silt on tidelands that helped solidify Balboa Peninsula. Two years later, the dredge started cutting a channel along the bay’s north side, piling the sand and silt up on a mud flat—and thus created Balboa Island. As this began to take shape, William Collins launched a national advertising campaign, offering 30-by-85-foot lots, both inland and waterfront, as summer vacation homesites, promising major infrastructure improvements.     


His promises didn’t materialize soon enough: By 1911 Balboa Island owners were leaving in substantial numbers, tired of non-existent gas and electricity, poor roads, a poorly constructed sewer system, and an inadequate seawall. Lot prices fell to as little as half of what they had sold for in 1909. Unwilling to give up, in 1914 Collins initiated a massive, extravagant marketing campaign, attracting new people from all over who came to enjoy races, tours, food and parades. Before long new owners moved in, and in 1916 Balboa Island became part of the City of Newport Beach.


The promised infrastructure improvements took several years longer, things like paved roads, sewers and street lights; but in 1920 a gas utility finally provided heating and lights, and the first ferry service opened that year. Other improvements, including bridges, rebuilt seawalls, and public docks, have followed over the years.  


Today, man-made Balboa Island is a year-round harborside community, a popular tourist destination known for its exciting boardwalk, trendy shops, quaint restaurants, and pristine beaches; and a favorite recreational area that offers abundant outdoor activities. It is one of the densest communities in Orange County, and also one of the most expensive real estate markets in North America, outside of Lower Manhattan.


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