The Charm of San Juan Capistrano

1776: Father Junipero Serra establishes Mission San Juan Capistrano. Originally founded by Father Fermin Lasuen on October 30, 1775, San Juan Capistrano has the unique distinction of being twice founded. Eight days after the first occasion news of an impending Indian attack forced Fr. Lasuen and his party to bury the bells of the mission and returned to San Diego. One year later Father Junipero Serra was the head of the founding party as he and his men arrived at the former site to find the cross still standing. Soon the bells of the Mission were recovered and the date of the second founding is November 1, 1776.

The first chapel was built, completed, and is still in use today. It is believed to be the oldest church in California, and since it is one of only two still standing where Father Serra is known to have said Mass it is called “Father Serra’s Church.”

1794: Construction of what were probably the first structures within the vicinity of present day El Camino Real occurred. Forty adobe dwellings were built south of the quadrangle as permanent housing for the Mission Indians. The fact that neophytes later occupied most of the structures on El Camino Real at the time the lands were granted (in 1841) suggests that these buildings were constructed as part of the 74 neophyte dwellings building in 1794 and within the vicinity of present day El Camino Real and Camino Capistrano.

Work begins on a large stone church, it was to be the most magnificent of all the California mission churches. The Great Stone Church was built in the shape of a cross, 180 feet long and 40 feet wide with a belltower of 120 feet tall that could be seen for miles.

1806: Dedication of The Great Stone Church.
According to Mission history, September 7, 1806 is the official dedication date of The Great Stone Church, which for the next six years becomes the splendid edifice and pride of the Mission.

Deemed the most prosperous year for the Capistrano Mission, it produced 500,000 pounds of wheat, 190,000 pounds of barley, 202,000 pounds of corn, 20,600 pounds of beans, 14,000 cattle, 16,000 sheep, and 740 horses.

1812: Earthquake destroys The Great Stone Church.
December 8, 1812, a devastating earthquake strikes during a Mass and destroys The Great Stone Church, as well as the lives of 40 people. The magnificent church would lay in ruin until attempts at restorations were made some forty years later. Until then, Liturgical services were once again held in the little Serra Chapel with the bells of the fallen tower hung in the wall. In fact, this sight can still be seen today.
In an attempt to provide Indians with an opportunity for independence, Governor Figueroa chose Capistrano as the site for a pueblo of “free” Indians. During this period of secularization, the land soon gravitated into the hands of settlers and the last of San Juan Capistrano’s property was sold by Pio Pico to his brother-in-law (Juan Forster) and a partner (James McKinley) in 1845 in exchange for hide and tallow equal to the amount of $710 dollars.

The Forster Family resides on Mission grounds and occupies the rooms that make up the present day museum and gift shop, while allowing Church authorities to keep the Serra Chapel and a small room for the priest. In 1864 the Forster’s move out of the Mission and onto their Santa Margarita Ranch.

1865: Mission lands returned to Catholic Church.
A portion of the Mission lands are returned to the Catholic Church by the United States Government on March 18, 1865 after the signing of the Patient by President Abraham Lincoln which gave the Bishop of Monterey and his successors rights to this land for the practices of religious purpose and use.

San Juan Capistrano consisted of a school telegraph office, post office, two stores, hotel, four saloons, and forty to fifty homes, mostly of Adobe.

A total of 31 non-Spanish speaking residents and 345 native born Californios of Mexican descent reside in San Juan Capistrano.

1881: Arrival of the railroad.
Arrival of the railroad brings significant changes and establishes a link with the outside world. This marks the beginning of San Juan Capistrano as “visitor destination” during a time when there is intense public interest in the Spanish and Mexican periods of California, which had been popularized as a “golden age” by such writers, as Helen Hunt Jackson, Charles Lummis and Hubert Howe Bancroft.

Orange County incorporates, breaking off from Los Angeles County. San Juan Capistrano is already 113 years old as a community.

San Juan Capistrano resident Modesta Avila is ordered to stand trial for attempted obstruction of the railroad by hanging laundry across the track. She is convicted and later dies in prison, the first female prisoner in newly incorporated Orange County.

1936: Beginning of Fiesta de las Golondrinas.
A popular radio host broadcasts from the Mission, announcing to the world the return of the swallows. Hence began the Fiesta de las Golondrinas, a celebration marking the return of the swallows that still takes place today.

1958: San Diego freeway built.
The San Diego freeway is built, changing the face of the small town forever by splitting the community in half with a ribbon of concrete.

July 21, five residents take out incorporation papers to initiate the City’s incorporation process. These residents were: Carl Buchheim, Larry Buchheim, Reginald Erikson, C. Fulton Shaw, and Henry Stewart.

1961: San Juan Capistrano becomes an official City.
In April, San Juan Capistrano becomes an official City with its incorporation. Population is: 1130. The first five Council Members are Bill Bathgate, Carl Buchheim, Ed Chermak, Don Durnford, and Tony Olivares.

City adopts first General Plan that establishes a goal to become a large urban community with a projected population of 84,000.

City adopts a new General Plan which significantly changes the direction of the community by emphasizing its small village-like character, preservation of major ridgelines to define the limits of the community by these natural features, setting aside a minimum of 30% of the City as open space (including areas for preserving active agricultural operations), maintaining a rural equestrian lifestyle and establishment of goals and policies for the future management of growth in the community.

City establishes the Cultural Heritage Commission and adopts a resolution designating historically and culturally significant structures throughout the community.

City adopts first ever Home Warranty Program for new residential construction in California. All residential developments to have a minimum three-year warranty on all aspects of a new residence.

City adopts Agriculture Preservation Program that is designed to preserve approximately 220 acres of active agricultural operations. City establishes funding mechanism that is applied to new development to assist in financing this program. Eventually, approximately 120 acres would be purchased through an Open Space Bond measure approved in 1990 by approximately 74% of the voters.

City hosts Freedom Train to celebrate the bi-centennial of the Country. The train is a moving museum of major historic documents of the Country’s history. San Juan Capistrano is one of only four stops in Southern California to host the train.

Los Rios Precise Plan adopted to preserve and guide development in the oldest residential neighborhood in California. Portions of the neighborhood along Los Rios Street is recognized as an Historic District and placed on the National Inventory.

City adopts first growth management program in Orange County, and one of the first in California. Program restricted residential development to a maximum of 400 building permits in any given year. Was designed to extend buildout of the community from 1985 to 1990 (population projected at 42,000 by General Plan). Program is still in effect with the population at 33,826 (2000 Census).

City and Glendale Savings and Loan execute an agreement for development of 1,220 acres of land that includes dedication of approximately 700 acres of open space to the City, including the major ridgelines that form the natural separation between the community and the City of San Clemente to the southeast.

City creates a Community Redevelopment Agency to assist in the financing of major infrastructure improvements and create an economic development package for improving the viability of the downtown commercial sector.

Library designed by Michael Graves opens and immediately becomes a tourist attraction for architects from all over the world. Librarian has to limit tour groups to certain days in order to keep the facility open and maintain availability for residents

The new Catholic Church (which is a recreation of the original Stone Church destroyed by an earthquake in 1812) is completed. It represents the tallest building in the community with its bell tower at 104 feet and the main rotunda at 85 feet in height.

City assembly’s vacant land parcels in the downtown core for future commercial development and selects a developer to create a commercial plaza and hotel in the area known as the Historic Town Center.

City celebrates its 25th anniversary in a tent during a major rainstorm. Although water was running through the tent, the celebrants took off their shoes and danced the night away.

City retained archaeologist team conducting survey testing of the Historic Town Center discover major building foundations and native American artifacts. Due to the presence of these artifacts, City puts Historic Town Center project on hold.

City approves the Franciscan Plaza project that represents the first large scale redevelopment project in the downtown. It is to include retail shops, a five screen Edwards Theater and parking structure. During construction, a number of artifacts are revealed and recovered prior to construction of the buildings. Project was completed in 1989.

City prohibits sale and discharge of fireworks and establishes program to conduct a free fireworks program for celebration of Fourth of July.

Citizens Committee formed to investigate and support a possible $21 million Open Space Bond measure to acquire approximately 120 acres of land for open space/recreation use. In April 1990, this bond measure passes with 74% support of the voters. In subsequent years, the approved funds are used to acquire 120 acres, including the area known as “Kinoshita Farms”. The 56 acres have been developed with the San Juan Community Center and Sports Park, along with the preservation of a 28 acre active farming operation. Most recently the original farm house has been restored (Condgon House, first wood frame building in the Capistrano Valley).

City embarks on the preparation and approval of an Open Space Master Plan for the City. Its adoption in 1991 establishes the priorities for the development of open space properties throughout the City. It is recognized for its comprehensive planning by the Orange County Chapter of the American Planning Association excellence in Comprehensive Planning.

City conducts a public participation planning program to consider development options for the Historic Town Center Project. In 1993, the City adopts the Historic Town Center Master Plan which established a central park area that includes the location of significant historic artifacts that are located below the ground. Also included in the park is the Blas Aguilar Adobe that is now being used as a Native American History Museum.

The period 1993/1994 saw a major adjustment in the City’s organization due to the recession. The staffing levels were reduced by approximately 30%. In order to meet the needs of the community, computers and other technology was employed to maintain the same service levels that the residents had expected. Today, although workloads have increased, the use of technology efficiencies have not resulted in increased staffing levels to those of the pre-recession years, in many instances department levels have not changed from that of post 1994.

First woman Mayor selected by City Council colleagues, Collene Campbell.

Capistrano Depot celebrates its 100th Birthday.

City approves, and provides, financial assistance for first 100% affordable housing senior apartment project within the City.

City approves a major historic renovation of the Mission Promenade property across from Mission San Juan Capistrano.

San Juan Capistrano becomes the first city in the nation to adopt a Rodeo Ordinance to ensure humane treatment of rodeo animals. The ordinance is set to the safety standards of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association.
Over 20 historic buildings receive plaques through a generous donation of The Decorative Arts Study Center.

City Motto is adopted “Preserving the Past to Enhance the Future.”

Grand opening of the new sports field complex made possible by Open Space Bond proceeds. Complex included lighted baseball fields, three regulation soccer fields, community gardens, refreshment building and parking.

City celebrates the first Holiday Tree Lighting at Historic Town Center Park, despite the El Nino storms.

City develops its first official website www.sanjuancapistrano.org.

City enters into lease with South Coast Farms to operate the Kinoshita Farm, agricultural land at Camino Del Avion and Alipaz Street. Ultimately farmer George Kibby receives certification to farm the land as the first organic active farm site in Orange County.

City Council initiates a comprehensive update to the City’s General Plan that had served as the vision for the community since its adoption in 1974. This intense update program that included a significant number of public meetings and community workshops concludes in December 1999 with the adoption of a new General Plan. The adoption of the new plan comes almost exactly 25 years from the date of the previous plan approval and will continue to provide major visionary direction of the previous plan approval.

City successfully initiates Summer Concert Series and Shop and Dine Expo in the Historic Town Center area.

December grand opening of phase I of the new community center at the Sports Park. This initial phase includes administrative offices, meeting rooms and main hall, senior center and kitchen facilities.

First time in the City’s history, all three incumbent City Council members are elected without need for an election due to no challengers.

Downtown lighting project, phase 1, is installed bringing lights to the historic downtown.

Phase II construction of the gymnasium is completed for the community center complex.

Revised General Plan adopted for community, designed to address the needs of the City as it enters the 21st century.


Camino Real Bill is replaced at Arguello Way through efforts by the California Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Phase III construction of the youth center is completed and opened as part of a joint project with the Capistrano Valley Boys and Girls Club. Construction of this phase was made possible with a grant of $500,000 from the federal government under the sponsorship of Congressman Ron Packard.

Diane Bathgate, daughter of original Council Member Bill Bathgate, is elected to City Council.

City officially names park in downtown “Historic Town Center Park.”

San Juan Capistrano proudly hosts the West Coast debut of Olympic Trials Equestrian Competition. Three rounds of show jumping competition grace the field at the Rancho Oaks Blenheim Mission Viejo Riding Park.

City celebrates 40th Anniversary of Incorporation – population is 33,826.

City Council Members include Wyatt Hart, Mayor; David Swerdlin, Mayor Pro-Tem; Diane Bathgate; John Gelff; John Greiner.

First Leadership Academy started by Mayor Diane Bathgate, informing citizens about city government.

Veteran’s monument placed in mini-park, renamed Veteran’s Park.

Regional Transportation Strategy developed.

Stone Field renovated with assistance of Mission Hospital; field is one of only a handful of WPA projects left in Orange County.

Joel Congdon House, dating back to 1877, renovated and placed on National Register of Historic Places.

Construction begins on groundwater recovery plant, which is expected to cut reliance on outside water sources by 50 percent.

Stage completed for Historic Town Center Park through generous donation by Collene and Gary Campbell.

Double-tracking solution found, which removes the threat of double-tracking from the downtown.

Blue Ribbon Committee completes plan to revitalize the dowtown business community.

City adopts financial strategy designed to protect programs from state cutbacks.

Historic Preservation Manager hired to protect city’s hisotric resources.

Special Thanks
Thank you to everyone who played a part in helping to bring together the celebration of this momentous occasion.

Special Thanks to Mr. Tom Tomlinson for his valuable contributions to this timeline.

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