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In The Pipeline: Park was once a ranch house

January 12, 2011|By Chris Epting
  • The historic marker at the site of the Northam Ranch House.
The historic marker at the site of the Northam Ranch House. (HB Independent )

After last week's column on the historic site where the Western Trails Museum used to sit, I thought I'd follow up with one more piece of the past.

The day Maria Hall-Brown and I visited the old site to tape a segment of PBS SoCal's "Forgotten OC" series, which we co-host, I also wanted to visit another important, hidden Huntington Beach landmark.

It's right by where Main Street crosses Yorktown Avenue, just across from City Hall. You pull in where Sunrise Senior Living is and park there on the side street. Just in front of a cottage that's part of Sunset is a plaque. The first line on it reads, "Uphill from this marker once stood the Northam Ranch House, a pivotal landmark in the history of Huntington Beach."

Between 1894 and 1897, Col. Robert J. Northam, manager of the Stearns Ranchos Co., bought seven parcels from the company and built his mansion on this site. He actually had a mule team move at least one home to the property, then "Diamond Bob" (as Northam became known for his expensive tastes) added to it over the years.

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Throughout the century, the Northam Ranch House served as a ranch headquarters, a private residence for company managers and became a symbol of the Huntington Beach Co.

But tragically, on the evening of March 22, 2000, the Northam Ranch House was destroyed in a fire. It had been abandoned for a long time and had become a local hangout. Arson or plain carelessness were considered probable causes.

Soon after, developers, city officials and a local architecture firm salvaged whatever historically significant artifacts they could from the rubble. Then, a historic marker was constructed using brick from the house. And that's what visitors find today after following the path up a slight hill from where the plaque is near the parking lot.

But it's also a small, beautiful park, set up high enough to have a steady breeze amid a calm, quiet environment. In 1981, local author Carolyn F. Baily wrote a nice, descriptive passage about what life was like on the hill when Northam was there:

"From there the view was grand. The mesa's verdant barley and alfalfa fields, interlaced with a chain of sparkling fresh water ponds, spread all the way to colorful Shell Beach. Seed barley from the mesa was sold to farmers who had purchased, drained and cultivated the rich alluvium of the swamps.

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