At the end of the 19th century, Balboa Island was nothing more than an underwater sandbar flanked by the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ana River, a mere hindrance to its then owner, James McFadden. McFadden was the founder and owner of nearly all of the swamp and overflow land in the bay that made up the township of Newport Beach at the turn of the century. McFadden needed to secure funding to remove the sandbar in order to allow large ships to enter his “new port” between San Diego and Anaheim Landing (now Seal Beach).
Fortunately, for those of us who love what became of that pesky sandbar, McFadden’s dream of a commercial port fizzled and, in frustration, he sold the tideland property to Riverside developer, William S. Collins. Collins had a completely different vision for the land and, from 1905 to 1913, he set out to “turn sand into money” by dredging around the island and piling the silt and sand onto the lowest areas of the sandbar until the entire island was dry at low tide. Wooden (later concrete) bulkheads were constructed to keep out the high tide, and horses pulling heavy metal rakes smoothed and leveled the sand. From this, three separate segments were created, making up the main island, Little Island and Collins Island, where Collins later built his legendary private castle.
In 1906, Collins began ferry service to the island, later taken over by Joe Beek (the Beek family still owns and operates the ferry service today). In 1908, gondolier John Scarpa and local boater Fred Beckwith put lanterns on their boats and created a nighttime reproduction staging of the Battle of Manila off the shores of Balboa Island. Today, the event has morphed into the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, which garners more than a million viewers each year.
Understanding the value of Newport Bay’s resort and recreational potential, Collins partnered with Henry E. Huntington and created the Newport Beach Company. A smart move, since Huntington had formed the Pacific Electric Railway, which by 1906 extended its “Red Car” route to Newport. Using the new transportation system to promote new communities outside of Los Angeles, subdivision maps were drawn, and Collins and his realtors began offering Balboa Island lots for between $300 and $600 (waterfront). The lots were to include all improvements and a promise never to incorporate, thus preventing taxation by the city.
Most of the first lots were purchased by residents of Pasadena for vacation homes. Because the automobile was still a new-fangled invention, it was a tough purchase decision, largely due to the fact that the lots were about the same price as a new car. As World War I loomed, Collins was only able to sell half of the 1,400 lots, which didn’t provide enough income to make good his promise of including improvements, such as water, power, sewers, paving of sidewalks and streets. Bankruptcy would follow, and water to the island was cut off due to none payment. Lot owners were not happy, to say the least.
As a result, by 1916, Collins had left and many lots were abandoned. The only hope was to become incorporated by the City of Newport Beach. Many lot owners, disillusioned with their purchases, were not willing to sink more money into what they felt was a failing investment by paying taxes on their lots to the city. Thus, ownership of many lots reverted to the city and were sold to new owners for between $25 and $50, the price of the back taxes on each lot!
However, some lot owners dug in their heels, and a determined group from Los Angeles decided to establish the Balboa Island Improvement Association (BIIA), which advocated with the city to set improvement priorities and provide the money to complete them. Thankfully, they were successful and things progressed in a positive direction.
By the Roaring ‘20’s, islanders were enjoying better times with a few paved streets, lighting, water, gas and a reliable ferry service. In those days, water for the island came from the famous wooden water tower. People still had outhouses while the sewer system was being created and most buried trash in big holes dug on adjacent vacant lots. The majority of homes had no heat and were shut up tight during the winter. Interestingly, in 1920, the Orange County Harbor Commission offered to raise the island three feet with dredged material at a cost of $15 per lot. Lot owners refused the offer. It was also during this time that Joe and Carroll Beek founded the Balboa Island Yacht Club, offering sabot sailing lessons to children 6-16, a tradition that continues to this day.
Property values began to rise despite the Great Depression years and, after World War II, with a permanent military community nearby, more homes began to be built and full-time residents settled in the tranquil seaside hamlet. In fact, the population grew from a little over 100 in 1929 to today’s 4,500 residents in winter and close to 10,000 summer renters.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, Balboa Island (and the Peninsula) was the place to be during spring break for high school and college revelers. Dubbed “Bal Week,” the tradition included high-spirited shenanigans centered around the famous Rendezvous Ballroom (now Harborside Pavilion), where party-goers danced to Big Band performers and created the Balboa Swing.
With the establishment of UC Irvine in 1965, the island was populated in the 1970s by more full-time residents than ever, and also created an influx of young winter renters attending school from out of town. When the students migrated home in June, the summer renters arrived, filling the beaches and boardwalks with happy tourists.
From the 1980s until today, Balboa Island has continued to embody the spirit of the quaint California casual lifestyle that those of us who are lucky enough to live, work and play here enjoy every day. The Island bayfront lots that once sold for $25 in back taxes are now valued at $3 million dollars and up. Yet, Balboa Island residents and business owners remain committed to the charm and small-town feel that emerged from a long-ago sandbar to become a beloved home and enchanted vacation destination for generations.