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Bolsa Chica History


Native American Presence
The Bolsa Chica Wetlands are remnants of a once extensive wetland system.  A tributary of the Santa Ana River called Freeman Creek flowed into the wetlands, creating a mixture of fresh and saltwater marsh, tidal sloughs, and swampland that supported dense vegetation; tulles, arroyo willows and thickets.  In many places deep artesian wells sprang up to the surface.  This land abounded with wildlife, supporting now extirpated (locally extinct) species such as grizzly bears, bobcats, mule deer, antelope, American badgers, and long tailed weasels.
This beautiful productive estuary was home to Native Americans as far back as 8,000 years ago.  Between 6000 and 3500 B.C. a group of Native Americans lived in the area that are believed to be Hokan speaking and ancestors of the Chumash.  There is little known about this group, however they left an archaeological treasure at Bolsa Chica: Cogged Stones.   More than 150 of these mysterious stones have been unearthed at various Bolsa Chica sites.  The stones are round disks that have grooves, or notches, carved around the edges. Some have holes in the center and some do not.  The use for these stones is unknown.  They do not have any patterns of wear on the outside which indicates they were most likely used ceremonially or for decoration.  One theory is that they may have represented astrological bodies such as the sun, moon and stars and were used as a calendar system. These stones were being manufactured at the Bolsa Chica Mesa.  Similar artifacts have been found in Peru and Chile, however it is unknown whether any connection exists.  This group lived off the land, hunting game and collecting acorns and berries in the nearby brush lands. Few remnants of their existence have survived except for a few burial sites, shell deposits, and cogged stones.
Between 200 and 500 A.D. the early Hokan speaking group at Bolsa Chica was displaced by Native American groups that moved in from the Mojave Desert region of eastern California, Nevada and Arizona.  These tribes are Shoshonean people of Ute-Aztecan lineage.  Two of the Native American groups that lived at Bolsa Chica are the Tongva and the Acjachemen. They lived in seasonal settlements on the Mesa and were accomplished hunters and gatherers. In addition to this, they were particularly adept at creating fine canoes for fishing. They lived in reed and grass hemispherical huts and subsisted on what could be collected from the Mesa. Wearing skin or yucca aprons and rabbit skin capes, the tribes practiced a reverence for nature that allowed their way of life to continue.


Spanish Mission and Rancheros (1768-1848)

Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed the Southern California coast in 1542 in search of trade opportunities and a route to China.  He met and befriended the Tongva living on Santa Catalina Island (Cabrillo had named the island San Salvador).  Sixty years after Cabrillo explored the coast, Sebastian Vizcaino explored the California coast and also encountered Tongva.  His reports said that the Natives he met were friendly and peaceful.  Later accounts of the Native tribes were similar.  Juan Crespi of the Portola expedition recounted:

“Their chief told us by signs which we understood very well that we must come to live with them; that they would make houses for us, and provide us with food…They urged us to do this telling us that all the land that he saw, and there was certainly a great deal of it, was theirs and that they would divide it with us.”


It wasn’t until the early 1700’s that the Spanish showed an interest in colonizing California.  Conflicts with Russians and English led the Spanish to begin setting up missions, presidios (frontier fortresses) and pueblos (small towns).  Father Junipero Serra arrived in California in 1769 and began the establishment of a chain of missions from San Diego to Sonoma.  In 1771 a mission was established at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and was named Mission San Gabriel.  All of the Tongva and Acjachamen were sent to these missions where many were killed by foreign diseases and smallpox epidemics.  Those that survived lost much of their culture; their way of life was devastated.  Subsequently, all native subjugates of the Mission were called Garbieliños by the Spanish missionaries further damaging their unique cultural identities.


In 1787 a Spanish soldier, Manual Perez Nieto, retired from the army and was granted a vast tract of land that extended from the San Gabriel River to the Santa Ana River and from the coast all the way to the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, about 300,000 acres. The padres of the San Gabriel mission protested the grant, claiming that it included some mission property. As a result, the grant was reduced to about 165,000 acres - the largest land grant ever in California. Much of this property was used for cattle ranching. Nieto died in 1804, leaving the land to his heirs.


When Mexico overthrew the Spanish government in 1834, the Nieto property was divided into 6 larger parcels. One parcel that included the Santa Ana river mouth was acquired by Nieto’s widowed daughter-in-law, Catarina Ruiz. She named the parcel of land Rancho Las Bolsas (“The Purses”), perhaps because the rolling hills on the Southern portion of the property looked like purses stacked next to one another. Out of her inheritance, Catarina granted her brother, Joaquin Ruiz, about 8000 acres. The land included one small hill, so in honor of his sister, he named his property Rancho La Bolsa Chica or “The Little Purse”.


The Bolsa Chica Gun Club

After California became part of the union in 1848, American settlers started migrating to California and quickly began dominating the economic and social fabric of the region. Law required all original Spanish lands grants to be registered. Many members of the Nieto family had to borrow money to pay for their grants and when unable to repay their loans, the land was subdivided.  In 1895, a small portion of the original Rancho La Bolsa Chica that bordered the coastline was sold to a group of Los Angeles businessmen for a duck hunting preserve. The Bolsa Chica Gun Club built a hunting lodge and several smaller service buildings on the Bolsa Chica Mesa overlooking Bolsa Bay. Tidal flow made for unfavorable hunting conditions, however, so they hired Tom Talbert to build a dam across the channel known as Freeman Creek.  Flap gates in the dam let fresh water flow out but prevented salt water from flowing in. Within a short time, Inner Bolsa Bay had been transformed from a salt water marsh to fresh water ponds; this devastated the natural ecology of the area.  The dam also caused the ocean inlet to accumulate sand and was soon Outer Bolsa Bay was blocked from tidal flow. In 1900, the Club hired Talbert to cut a channel through the mesa between Bolsa Bay and Anaheim Bay using horse drawn plows. This channel can still be seen today, flowing under the Warner Avenue Bridge. Over the past 100 years, the channel has continued to widen, further isolating the portion of the mesa where the interpretive center is located today.
The Discovery of Oil

Oil was discovered in Huntington Beach in 1920 and the Bolsa Chica gun club signed an oil and gas lease with Standard Oil Company of California. The lowlands were not drilled until 1940 when Signal Oil Company took over the lease. Raised service roads were developed to allow access to the wells that scatter the lowlands.
Military Uses

To provide defense of the harbor during the Second World War, the U.S. Army established artillery battery on the Bolsa Chica Mesa. On 15 May 1942, the War Department acquired land through fee, leaseholds and permits from 14 separate parties. This included leases from the Pacific Electric Railway Company. The site was used by the Army for Harbor Defenses of Los Angeles by Fort MacArthur during World War II, specifically as a shore artillery battery. Structures were built on the northern half of the site consisting of fortification structures and buildings, two gun emplacements, a water tank and tower, transformer vault, two underground tanks, and electrical and water utility systems. Long range gun emplacements were also constructed on the bluff overlooking Outer Bolsa Bay.  Massive concrete bunkers were also built to house personnel and store munitions.


In 1948 all of the sites were declared excess except a 6.20 acre parcel.  In 1949, many of the acres were returned to their former owners. The War Assets Administration (WAA) assumed accountability for other remaining acres with an additional number of acres reassigned for LA Battery Bolsa Chica. Late in 1949, additional acres were declared surplus and again returned in their former owners. The remaining tracts were conveyed by the Government to the Ocean View School District on 12 September 1949. When the OVSD breached the conditions of this contract, the tract was transferred to the Department of the Army on 3 June 1954. Both the tracts were acquired for Nike Battery Bolsa Chica. However, due to a change in criteria for Nike sites, the subject land could not be used.


Currently, the northern part of the site is vacant, and the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve encompasses the southwestern quadrants of the site. The OVSD owns part of the tract with the remaining acres privately owned. The property to the north of Los Patos Ave has been subdivided and developed into several single-family homes.


Pacific Electric Railway

The Pacific Electric Railway was built around 1904 when the Red Line came to Huntington Beach. Pacific Coast Highway was built through the area in 1925 at its present location. The popularity of automobiles saw the demise of the Red Line in the 1950s, leaving the station at Warner Avenue and PCH unused. The building was ultimately demolished, but the concrete pad and associated asphalt paving remained.


Tin Can Beach

In the 1950’s, the beach below Bolsa Chica became known as Tin Can Beach due to the piles of trash (300 tons by one estimate) that had been discarded by campers and squatters who lived for months at a time in makeshift shacks and shanties constructed of cardboard, tarpaper, and scrap lumber. The state purchased the beach in 1961 and established Bolsa Chica State Beach, one of the most popular beach attractions in California.

In 1970, Signal Landmark Corporation purchased more than 1,700 acres from the heirs of the gun club and proposed a large scale residential and commercial development, including more than 5,000 homes and a marina. In 1972 California passed the Coastal Act to protect coastal areas. In 1973 it was determined that a viable wetland existed at Bolsa Chica thus Signal Landmark deeded approximately 310 acres of land to the state, establishing the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.  The Department of Fish and Game worked to restore the reserve and created two nesting islands with a walk bridge that crosses Inner Bolsa Bay. In 1973 the dam that was built by the Gun Club was replaced with a tide gate and salt water flowed into Inner Bolsa Bay once again.


Over the next 30 years with the combined efforts of governmental agencies, community organizations and the landowner, hundreds of acres of degraded wetlands were set aside for restoration.  In 1997, under a state and federal interagency agreement, 880 of the remaining lowland portions of Bolsa Chica were purchases by the state of California using mitigation funds from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for the purpose of wetland restoration.


Lowland Acquisition and Restoration

Beginning in 2004, more than 500 acres of the Bolsa Chica Lowlands was reconstructed to its original conditions in the 1800s.

Restoration included the following major components:


This restoration should gradually improve the habitat quality of Bolsa Chica over the next twenty five years.


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