Then and Now

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CASTAWAYS: The Seed that Started It All!

American flags line the trails at Castaways Park during the recent Field of Honor celebration.

On any particular day in the 1950s, you might have found movie stars next to blue-collared workers plus the politically powerful of Orange County sitting in front of an expansive view of the ocean, bay and vacant land that would someday be East Bluff, Promontory Point and Dover Shores. Beneath the popular Castaways Restaurant were the two-lane Coast Highway bridge and a horse stable that would eventually be developed into the desirable neighborhood of Irvine Terrace.

“Marge, how about a scotch neat and two beers,” was the friendly command coming from the circle of blue cigarette smoke. Every Friday, these three friends sat at the same table in the Castaways Restaurant and talked about the local fishing scene. That trio, like so many Newport Beach residents, was unaware that they drank and dined in Newport Beach’s most historical important spot.

Even though the name the Castaways remains today, the decade-old homes, Bob Henry Park, the Lutheran Church and the Castaways walking park, give no clue of the historical significance of this area in the overall development of Newport Beach.

At the end of the 19th Century, this area was known as Newport Landing, McFadden’s Landing or Port Orange. The McFadden brothers (John, James and Robert) built a wharf in 1875 to service a “new port” located on the San Joaquin slough. Their entrepreneurial goal was to create a business tie to San Francisco and San Diego with what they perceived to be a burgeoning market around Santa Ana.

The upper bluff was a staging area for hogs, beef, wheat, barley and corn, as well as, the all important lumber needed for construction. Below this mesa, they built a wharf and docking facilities for cargo schooners named Golden Gate, Solano and Newport.  The three brothers created a transportation hub that would become the embryo for the complex metropolitan city that Newport Beach would be in the 21st Century.

McFadden’s Landing moved to the oceanfront in 1889, because of the many shipping accidents resulting from the large waves and shifting sands of the harbor’s entrance. At this new location, Newport Beach not only had its ocean connection to other major ports but also had a straight rail connection to Santa Ana. By the early 1900s, Newport Beach was alive and well, but the original landing had been neglected.

Eventually, the vacant bluff top was made into a golf course which was the precursor to the Santa Ana Country Club. The fairways on the bluff had little grass and the “greens” were slicked down with petroleum, making putting easier. The golf club included two restaurants over the years: Mona’s and The Castaways. Many of the earlier residents considered these restaurants to be “out in the boonies” and business sometimes suffered. By the 1950s, The Castaways was established as one of the most popular spots in town. The décor was early Polynesian and the views were endless.

Beneath the bluff, Coast Highway and its bridge were built and became the main traffic artery of the fledging town. This sparked development in Corona del Mar as well as, making the old landing a busy corner.  Several key businesses sprang up including a gas station, bait shop and boat businesses for sales and repair. Many a lifelong resident remembers eating their favorite desserts at Wil Wrights. Built after World War II, the ice cream parlor was awash in rich scarlet and gold. Each order was accompanied with their famous macaroon cookie. Every child in those days believed that Wil Wrights was the real downtown of Newport Beach.

Behind the strip center was The Bayshore Trailer Park, with its well-groomed grounds and boat launch. This boat ramp became the center for water ski enthusiasts, who enjoyed skiing the Back Bay. Many a local would slice and cut through its calm waters behind some of the fastest motor boats in the harbor.

The fire that destroyed the Castaways Restaurant in the 1950s is not known by many residents. It was not as big as the Rendezvous Ballroom fire or the Mariner’s Mile fire, but it has equal historical significance to the other two more famous fires. The destruction of The Castaways marked an end of an era and destined some of Newport Beach’s prime land to lay vacant for many years to come.

It was not until the 1990s that Taylor Woodrow, one of that decade’s most successful developers, built a planned community named after the hallowed restaurant. In cooperation with the Irvine Company and the City of Newport Beach, Castaways was built in three phases with five different models. It literally drew thousands of lookers during its early promotions. The project was a tremendous success, due to the outstanding presentation of the homes and its unique bluff top location. An unusually high percentage of families with small children bought a home in the Castaways. These lucky buyers got the added bonus of Bob Henry Park, named in honor of a local policeman killed on the same bluff in the line of duty. This park provided local kids with a large athletic facility at the Castaways front gate.

Early homes sold for just under a million dollars depending on lot size and plan number.  Front row views sold for more. Currently, within the first resale cycle of about one year, all sales register over the million dollar mark. This week, there was only one residence for sale with two currently in escrow. Prices range from $1,400,000 +/- to more than $2,000,000 for front row properties.

Contrary to what many people believe, it was not West Newport, Balboa Island, Corona del Mar, nor the Peninsula that was the incubator of beautiful Newport Harbor. Lido Isle, Harbor Island and Newport Heights and every other neighborhood came to be many decades after Newport Landing. It was a vast empty bluff full of pig pens and bales of wheat built by the McFadden brothers that morphed into one of today’s wealthiest and most beautiful cities in the world.

Specters and spirits of the old timers that worked the landing with names like Captain Brown, the Hooper brothers, Indian Joe and the McFaddens still swirl about this beautiful spot. Their sweat and toil started the process that turned a useless swampland into one of the most vital small boat harbors in the world.

So next time your SUV climbs Dover Drive, you cruise the Back Bay on your bike or in your kayak, or your plane passes overhead on the way to some exotic vacation, reflect on the importance of this oft forgotten mesa, where Newport Beach was born and swaddled until it grew into the gorgeous grown child that it is today.

Reach Duncan Forgey at 949.548.4800 or Forgey5000@yahoo.com