The Santa Ana River is the longest river in Southern California at 96 miles long and drains a watershed originating in the San Bernardino Mountains at 8,700 foot elevation. In the eastern San Gabriel Mountain the Santa Ana River flows west through San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange Counties and empties into the Pacific Ocean between Huntington and Newport Beaches. The river irrigates Orange County’s rich agricultural Santa Ana Valley that is sixteen miles by twenty miles and includes the communities of Santa Ana, Orange, Olive, and Tustin. Los Angeles is 33 miles away and the Cleveland National Forest is nearby. In 2010 the city of Santa Ana, Orange County, in southern California was 27.2 square miles. (Beard, 2014, 170)
In 1877 the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company (SAVI) was incorporated to bring an irrigation system to the rich agricultural valley using the waters of the Santa Ana River. The new company hired Chinese workers a year earlier to begin digging the necessary ditches that eventually covered fifteen miles. Some of these workers worked on some of the valley’s farms and ranches while others were probably hired through Chinese labor bosses from places like San Francisco. Other Chinese workers were railroad construction workers. In 1873, 125 Chinese and 15 Euro-American men began work on the Anaheim to Santa Ana Southern Pacific Railroad branch and in 1887, 1,500 Chinese worked on the Santa Fe Railroad Company line from Santa Ana to San Bernardino. ((San Francisco Bulletin, December 31, 1873; Lin, 30)
One of the outstanding SAVI accomplishments was the wooden tunnels. The Chinese workers built two one hundred yard long wooden tunnels to channel the Santa Ana River waters. Once the project was completed in 1878, some of the Chinese workers remained to do maintenance and expansion work on the irrigation system. Eisenhower Park in Orange County was the terminating reservoir of the main system. Eisenhower Park remains today as a nice park in Orange County. The 1890 SAVI payroll records listed “John Lee, Chinese boss,” and therefore headed the team of Chinese workers. He was responsible for the hours each man worked, and distributed the pay according to the number of hours worked. A limited review of payroll records from 1894 to 1900 listed three Chinese workers who received direct payments from SAVI and were undoubtedly “Chinese bosses.” (SAVI payroll.) The irrigation system and the railroads initiated and contributed to the growth and prosperity of Santa Ana Valley and today’s Orange County.
North of Orange County along the Santa Ana River, the Chinese were active in farming and ranching with their main center in Riverside’s historical Chinatown, now a demolished but designated site. The Santa Ana River Recreational Trail follows much of the river where the Chinese were active.
Eisenhower Park: 2864 North Tustin Street, Orange, CA. Exit State Highway 55 southward at North Tustin Street, go west at Lincoln to terminating reservoir lake, Orange. State Highway 55 northward exit at N. Santiago Street, Orange, to Lincoln.