The Journey Behind the Land
By Janine Robinson
One of the first indications that James Irvine I would eventually own much of what is now Orange County in the 19th century—including the dramatic coastal property of The Resort at Pelican Hill®—was his unflinching determination to reach California. The Irish-born immigrant first fled the potato famine of his homeland in the early 1800s with his brother, arriving penniless and in search of a better life in America. He worked in the paper mills of New York, but then set out in search of gold in 1848. To reach California, Irvine sailed to the Caribbean coast of Panama, and crossed the marshy isthmus by canoe, mule and foot—these were pre-canal days—on just the promise another ship waited for him on the western side. He then spent 101 days sailing north to San Francisco on a Dutch ship.
“James Irvine I was very strong-willed,” said Gail Daniels, President of the Irvine Historical Society, who drew off several history books on Irvine, mainly Irvine: A History of Innovation and Growth, to recount Irvine’s life. “When you think about the isthmus and what it took to cross it, it takes a person who believes in him or herself, a person who’s willing to take chances with an eye to make a profit.”
While on the ship, Irvine met two men who greatly affected his future, even though only one, Dr. Benjamin Flint, became a friend, and the other, Collis P. Huntington, a lifelong enemy.
Irvine tried mining for gold, but found more profit by selling goods and services to the miners. Whenever he had extra money, he invested in land in San Francisco, and later in Southern California, most of which had been divided into giant rancheros. The rancheros were mostly owned by Mexican Dons, but by 1860 many started to go broke due to a severe drought and were forced to sell their land.
Irvine became a silent partner with his friend, Dr. Flint from the boat trip, and Flint’s two cousins. They bought about 42,000 acres of the Rancho San Joaquin from Don Jose Sepulveda in 1864 for 37 cents an acre. In 1876, Irvine bought out his partners and became the sole owner. As land became available to the north, Irvine continued to buy it and eventually owned about 100,000 acres, essentially from the San Bernardino County border to the Pacific Ocean, between Newport Avenue (roughly) and Laguna Canyon. The massive parcel was later named “The Irvine Ranch.”
“That’s a lot of land for one man to own,” Daniels said. “The land was cheap and he bought it as an investment. Then he started running sheep instead of cattle, and eventually a ranch manager convinced him to also start leasing the land to tenant farmers.” Daniels explained that with the Civil War there was no cotton available, and soldiers needed wool for their uniforms.
Irvine’s strong will was demonstrated again when his old nemesis, Collis P. Huntington, with whom he had gotten into a fight with while on the ship together 30 some years earlier, wanted to build the railroad through his land.
“James said ‘No,’” Daniels said. “He hated him. Huntington, a major owner of The Southern Pacific Railroad, took him to court, but James Irvine won. Huntington tried to lay the tracks when the courts were closed, but Irvine’s farmers and cowboys stopped the tracks from being laid. Farmers told Irvine how nice it would be to have track close by, and eventually Irvine let the Santa Fe Railroad through. And it still runs through there today.”
Irvine, who married a woman named Nettie Rice and had one son together, James Irvine II, lived permanently in San Francisco, but made visits down to the ranch lands. In Irvine’s will, he stipulated that his only son would inherit his property and assets, but would not take control of it until he turned 25. Irvine I died in 1886, when his son was 18. The following year, the railroad was built through the ranch connecting Los Angeles and San Diego.