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The Newport Dream

WEB-EXCLUSIVE: Newport Beach wasn't always the Orange County center for luxury living. It was once the dream of two brothers who really just wanted a shipping business.

McFadden Wharf, with railroad tracks stretching out into the sea, December 21, 1892/Courtesy of Historical Collections, The First American Corporation

Newport Beach hasn't always been about living the high life. In fact, it began as a worthless piece of land a pair of brothers dreamed of turning into a shipping port.

On April 19, 1875, wealthy businessmen from Delhi, New York, James and Robert McFadden, purchased a small harbor, once known as San Joaquin Bay when under Mexican rule. This 20-acre land was not an immediate steal for its price. After all, what use could fair weather and sand possibly lend itself for two 19th century businessmen?

So they decided to turn their new purchase into a new… port.

They were off to a slow start. Frustration built as the marsh and narrow passages slowed incoming boats seeking better ground. Getting cargo through was difficult, and much of the harbor needed dredging – which happened decades too late.

But the McFadden brothers held fast and did not give up on their dream of a magnificent Southern California shipping empire. There was plenty of sea nearby... enough to compete with the San Pedro port, the rising upstart to the north.

The McFaddens stayed at Newport Landing, their base of operations for nearly 25 years. The shipping business continued to struggle with the landscape, even as accidental drownings of several employees, including Civil War veteran Tom Rule, lowered morale.

In desperation, the McFaddens called upon the U.S. government to help make the area workable. In 1887, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent a representative who surveyed the area. Sadly, the survey estimate was $1.2 million dollars to fix the land, which the government rejected.

McFadden Wharf, with railroad tracks stretching out into the sea, December 21, 1892/Courtesy of Historical Collections, The First American Corporation

Still, the brothers did not give up. They set a new, better plan into motion. This time, moving their shipping business away from the most problematic area of their land. They constructed a wharf (completed in 1888) 60 feet wide and a quarter of a mile long in the area that much later became the Newport Pier. They also built a railroad system, which opened in 1891 and stretched 11 miles from the wharf to the Santa Ana Depot.

Good times arrived for the McFaddens. With a workforce of more than 100 men, their shipping business was soon the biggest around and quite profitable. In 1896, they used the profits to buy the surrounding area for a dollar an acre from the State of California, where the town of Newport Beach blossomed.

Unfortunately, so did the port of San Pedro, where the booming business received bigger contracts, cheaper rates and government assistance with the surrounding development. In addition, more ports and towns grew to the north, while the McFadden Wharf lost business and became a burden to its owners.

So in 1899, James McFadden sold the wharf and railroad to the Southern Pacific railroad company. They, in turn, shrank the railroad business with higher rates until its last run eight years later. Then in 1902, James sold the town to Williams S. Collins, a playboy who envisioned a different destiny for Newport Beach.

One man’s failed dream is another man’s... resort town.


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