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Adapting to Cityhood

Following incorporation, San Juan Capistrano faces the challenge of balancing growth with preserving the past.

In our previous episode, I discussed San Juan Capistrano’s difficult path toward cityhood in the early 1960s. This week, we pick up where we left off, delving a bit further into the town’s incorporation to discuss what impact it had overall on the community.

Just as a reminder from last week, the reasons for incorporation were all about local control. Becoming an official town, it was argued, would put the future of Capistrano into the hands of its own citizens. This notion hit close to home, in light of a long, tumultuous battle between Capistrano and San Clemente over where their new high school should be located.

Incorporation was put to a vote April 11, 1961. At that time, the town had only around 1,100 residents. With 76 percent of registered voters turning out, the measure passed overwhelmingly, 363 votes to and 89. On April 19, San Juan Capistrano’s cityhood was made official.

Another component of the special election chose the city’s first council members. Of the 14 candidates, the top five--Carl Buchheim, William Bathgate, Don Dumford, Antonio Olivares and Edward Chermak--became the first City Council. At their first meeting on April 24, Buchheim was appointed to his first of two one-year terms as mayor of San Juan Capistrano. (Interesting side note: A few years prior, Buchheim helped save an important piece of town folklore, a giant sycamore known as “The Trysting Tree,” from state Highway Commission plans to build a freeway off-ramp right through it.)

Following incorporation, San Juan Capistrano underwent a massive growth spurt. Much of this is attributable to the I-5 freeway, which rolled into town at the tail end of the 1950s, making it more commuter-friendly. Although Capistrano had a population of barely over 1,000 people in 1961, by 1975 it had exploded to roughly 12,850.

Some have commented on how a lot of the town’s history was lost as a result. They are correct. In 1963, the Canedo adobe was sold to Texaco and subsequently demolished. In 1964, the Capistrano Hotel was sold and torn down to make room for Capistrano Plaza. At the same time, the Casa Grande, which dated back to 1883, was also destroyed. Indeed, many staples of San Juan Capistrano history fell by the wayside during the expansive '60s.

However, I don’t think the blame lies squarely with city officials. In fact, Pamela Hallan-Gibson points out that one of the City Council's first acts was trying to stop a county plan to widen Ortega Highway to six lanes around the Mission, which “would have wiped out much of the historic Los Rios area.” When supporters of incorporation argued that Orange County officials would not always have the town’s best interests at heart, episodes like these showed just how important cityhood was for the town.

Around the same time, the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society was founded. Headquartered at the O’Neill Museum on Los Rios Street, the organization has played an active role in the preservation of our local heritage for nearly 50 years.

The point I am getting at is this: Although it is always tempting to look back and wonder what could have been, the reality is that by the 1950s and '60s, growth was inevitable for Capistrano. As the freeway extended farther south and as Orange County development boomed, growth was not going to pass San Juan Capistrano by. The town had to adapt to the changing times, as it always has. Fortunately, I think there were some leaders who really understood the importance of our town’s past and helped us navigate through the changes. And although not everything was spared, I certainly think it is safe to say San Juan Capistrano came out the other side with its identity intact.

Let's end this week's History Hole with Pamela Gibson’s thoughts on Capistrano’s growth during the '60s because I think she speaks to the lasting appeal the town has always had:

“During a time of national restlessness, San Juan Capistrano represented stability and endurance. It was a town whose roots stretched dos cientos años, and at its center was the epitome of permanence, the mission. In a period when student unrest, riots in city ghettos and the daily horrors of war filled newspapers and televison screens, San Juan Capistrano must have seemed an oasis untouched by the grim realities of the outside world.”

Further Reading: Pamela Hallan-Gibson’s Two Hundred Years in San Juan Capistrano

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