CityDig: This 1939 Map Charts Balboa Island’s Transformation From Swampy Mudflat to Prime Real Estate

Newport Harbor Orange County Harbor District, Newport Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Claude G. Putnam, 1939

The cartographic charm of master mapmaker Claude George Putnam is on dazzling display in this enchanting come-on carte for beautiful Balboa Island, depicted here at the end of its transformative period. Despite living most of his life in Glendale, Putnam had two great loves: the Newport Harbor and yachting (both of which are represented here). He was a senior staff commodore of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, director of the Southern California Yacht Club, founder of the Trans-Pacific Yacht Club, and charter member of the Woofilbirds Yachting Fraternity. If that weren’t enough, he was also one of the best pictorial mapmakers ever.

Putnam trained as a painter in Paris but found great success in Southern California as an illustrator in many forms (his masterful and historic Roads to Romance maps, done for a group of chambers of commerce that cover several local counties, are just one example of his success). Here he is paying homage to his passion: the commodore drew six types of sailing vessels at the top of this map and sundry delightful depictions of frolicking in or near the Pacific Ocean at the bottom.

While it may seem like a stretch to include Newport and Balboa Island as part of a collection of Los Angeles maps, the areas are well-connected dating back to the 1860s. The swampy mudflat now known as Balboa Island was once part of Los Angeles County, though not good for too much—that is, until the enterprising McFadden brothers, James and Robert, bought it (along with much of the ocean front of Newport Beach) and established a wharf where hay, tallow, and hides from visiting commercial ships were traded. In 1875, the McFaddens bought another landing that had been developed by sea captain Samuel Dunnells and constructed a large pier on the sand that would eventually become Balboa Peninsula. By 1889—the year Orange County came into being—another larger wharf was connected by rail to Santa Ana.

The area did fine as a commercial entity, but James McFadden sold his 900 acres by 1902. In swooped developers William S. Collins and A.C. Hanson, both of whom transformed the region from trading post into resort. They teamed up with Henry Huntington (of Huntington Library fame), who brought the Red Cars (soon to be Pacific Electric) to Newport in 1905 and the Balboa Peninsula in 1906. This connection allowed for a steady flow of wealthy buyers from big L.A. and old money Pasadena, which encouraged Collins to subdivide the area into 30’ x 85’ lots that were first put on the market around 1909 (parcels were advertised for $350 and up, with oceanfront properties asking for $600 or $750. Even so, it’s rumored that Collins sold the lots for as little as $25).

The area experienced ups and down in terms of infrastructure and oceanfront upkeep through the teens and twenties, but its romantic setting couldn’t be beat by Mother Nature’s challenges. Eventually those precious homes on top of what was once a mudflat became some of the most coveted in the country; to this day there are only 3,000 residents who call Balboa Island home. By 1939, the time of this map, the landscape that still stands today was mostly in place—except for the price of the real estate, which is second only to Manhattan in cost per square foot.

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Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.