The Silverado-Modjeska area consists of approximately 65 square miles of mountainous terrain on the eastern edge of Orange County, California. Silverado and Modjeska are the most heavily populated canyons, with homes also in Ladd, Black Star, Williams, Harding and Baker canyons. Geographically, socially and visually, Silverado-Modjeska is a unique island within Orange County.
Eighty-five percent of the land is surrounded by the Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest on the north, east and south. On the west is the permanently dedicated open space of the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve.
Built on the site of an old mining town in the late 1800s, Silverado is the largest town in the cluster of small communities. Miles from the nearest grocery store or gas station, the communities are nestled between high mountain ridges, with wild sage, scrub and oaks running up the slopes. Creeks and spontaneous waterfalls, sometimes dropping 100 feet, provide a forest oasis. A third of the houses were built before 1939; about half were constructed prior to 1950. The majority started as small summer cabins for Los Angeles residents. While almost all have been updated, they still retain a rustic feel. Because of the surrounding mountains, many lots are patchwork size, with narrow roads threading through them.
With 3,607 residents per square mile, Orange County is the second most urbanized county in California. According to the 2000 Census, the canyons have 1,782 residents in 800 homes. As urbanization presses closer, not only is concrete sprawl creeping towards the forest, it’s also covering over the land, destroying the biological diversity and eliminating the connective corridors vital to a healthy ecosystem.
Over 75 to 80 million years, the slow, steady downward dripping and lateral cutting of water carved out the rugged canyons. On the cliff faces, iron rich minerals leached out by water produce stunning red stains. Combined with yellow and brown sandstone and finer-stained gray mudstone and shale, they paint a colorful palate on the canyon walls.
Within the canyons, geology students will find excellent examples of exfoliation, in which rock layers peel back like layers of an onion, and of frost wedging, in which ice trapped in a crack expands to split a rock. Archeology students will see fossils of millions of clams, snails, and small-shelled, squid-like creatures left behind during the five times that seas washed over the ground.
Appearing more than 12 million years ago, the highest points surrounding the canyons are Santiago Peak at 5,691 feet and Modjeska Peak at 5,481 feet. Together the pair forms “Old Saddleback,” an easily recognizable landmark.
The first people to live in the canyons were Native Americans. They arrived to find dense woods filled with live oaks, sycamores, mountain ash, and pines buffeted by winds. Dependent on acorns as their staple food, the Native Americans cut paths through the wilderness to reach oak groves. After collecting the acorns, they carried them to canyon streams and immersed the nuts in the running water to leach out the bitter tannic acid. Once done, they carried the acorns to a large boulder or rock outcropping, where they used mortars to grind the nuts into powder. Over open fires, they cooked a porridge called “atole.”
Today rocks marked by mortars abound in Black Star and other canyon areas. Two huge boulders pitted with holes now belong to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CA; a third is in Orange County’s nearby Irvine Park. But hikers can still find grinding holes throughout the canyons.
The canyons first appear in historical records in 1769, when the Governor of Lower California, Senor Don Gaspar de Portola, a former explorer, celebrated Saint Anne’s feast day on July 26th in the foothills. He called the area “Canyon de la Madera,” or “Canyon of Timber.” At the time, the Spanish had received land grants in the canyons from the Spanish and Mexican administrations. They grazed their cattle and horses in its fields and logged its trees to build their homes and missions. Much of the San Juan Capistrano Mission, for example, was made with canyon timber. But the land holders didn’t construct their own homes in the canyons---at the time, the only residents were the Native Americans and Mexicans guarding the grazing animals.
The canyons achieved notoriety in 1831, when Black Star was the site of the last Native American massacre in southern California. It occurred after mountain men slaughtered a group of horse thieves they had tracked from Los Angeles. Today the site is Registered California Historical Landmark Number 217 and Orange County Landmark Number 93. In 1857, a posse chasing a highwayman who had killed a sheriff found a cluster of Indian caves outside Modjeska Canyon. Inside were stunning baskets that now reside in the Bowers Museum.
In 1860, William Wolfskill bought the Rancho Lomas de Santiago at the entrance to Silverado canyon. He became a leading horticulturalist and developed California’s first orange grove. Soon after, the first homesteader, Sam Shrewsbury, took up residence. An avid beekeeper, Shrewsbury launched the local commercial production of honey. Because of the canyons’ assortment of sages-- from white to black to purple to buckwheat—the honey reflected a feast of flavors and hues. Shrewsbury also prospered from collecting limestone and burning it for construction use. During the 1870’s, homesteaders trickled into the canyons and before long almost every canyon housed a handful.
But the relative quiet didn’t last. In 1877, Santa Ana residents Hank Smith and William Curry were hunting in the mountains when they spotted a rock that looked like silver ore. They took it for tests, which came back positive, assaying at $60 a ton. They staked a claim and dug a tunnel. A newspaper got wind of their find and within a week, 250 to 300 men had rushed into Silverado. Eventually 500 claims were filed.
A year later, coal was found near the canyon’s entrance. The 900-foot shaft of the Carbondale mine soon yielded six to ten tons daily.
Two boom towns arose—one centered on silver and the other on coal. The canyon’s population reached more than 1,500 and the area included three hotels, three stores, two blacksmiths, two meat markets and seven saloons. The canyons even had two post offices—one for Carbondale and the other for Silverado. Three stagecoaches traveled daily to Santa Ana and two to Los Angeles.
The boom, however, was short-lived. By 1881, Carbondale closed. Two years later, Silverado faded as well. Brush soon covered most of the trails and openings. Today the Carbondale site at 8002 Silverado Canyon Road is Registered State Landmark Number 228.
In 1888, the canyon area again rose to national prominence when the famous Polish actress, Helena Modjeska (1840-1909), bought 16 acres in what is now known as Modjeska Canyon. She hired one of America’s leading architects, Stanford White, to design a large country house with Victorian accents. Modjeska filled the house with antiques, planted rows of olive trees and installed gardens that resembled the Arden forest in Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It.” Modjeska sold the house in 1907. In 1986, Orange County Harbors, Beaches and Parks purchased it and established a Historical site. Under the county’s ownership, a limited number of visitors are allowed on tours. Modjeska House is the only surviving structure on the West Coast designed by White; he later oversaw the 1900 restoration of the White House and he was the architect for Madison Square Garden in New York City.
About the time that Modjeska bought her property, the U.S. government conducted a survey of the surrounding forest. In 1893, a Presidential proclamation established the Trabuco Reserve, the first step towards creating a national forest. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt named 122,163 acres in honor of former President Grover Cleveland. Today the 567,000 acre Cleveland National Forest extends from within five miles of the Mexican border north 135 miles. Its western edge zigzags, running from six to 60 miles inland from the Pacific coast.
By 1900, except for the mining district, only five homes remained in Silverado Canyon. In 1901, Joseph Holtz purchased a 112 acre ranch just past remnants of the Carbondale mine. A year later, the Orange school district paid $50 for one acre and built the canyon’s first school. In 1904, Holtz constructed his home. Over the next 80 years, his family grew wheat, barley, alfalfa, English walnuts, avocadoes and a variety of fruit. At one time, they had 160 bee colonies, ten acres of barley, three of wheat, three of corn, ten of alfalfa and one acre of fruit trees. They also had a dairy and creamery and raised turkeys and chickens.
From 1920 until the mid 1950s, silver mining resumed at the Blue Light Mine at the end of Silverado Canyon. The Blue Light Mine (later known as the Silverado Mine Company) produced $47,000 worth of zinc, lead, gold and silver from 1942 to 1946. Until recently, mill relics remained near the National Forest gate.
In the 1920s and 30s, Los Angeles residents discovered hot sulphur springs in Silverado canyon. Advertisements recommended the dry, moderate Mediterranean climate for relief of asthma, respiratory infections and arthritis. Families with sick children built cabins in the area. In 1929, the log cabin housing the Silverado Post Office also became home to the first local public library. In 1931, a dam to supply drinking water to nearby towns created Irvine Lake near Silverado’s entrance. Over the years, the number of houses slowly grew.
In February 1969, eighteen inches of rain fell in 72 hours and Silverado, Harding, Modjeska and Santiago creeks flooded. Roads washed out and houses disappeared. Eleven people died when a mudslide fell on the Silverado volunteer fire station sheltering flood refugees. Afterwards, the Army Corps of Engineers helped re-channel the creek and build bridges to better withstand flooding.
Today new homes and developments from nearby urban areas are encroaching on the canyons. The largest proposed projects are by The Irvine Company, which plans to build two developments stretching along Santiago Canyon Road from Jamboree Road past Irvine Lake. The first, situated on both sides of the 241 toll road, will consist of 1,746 homes on 496 acres. The second development, overlooking Irvine Lake, will add 2,400 more homes on 1,000 acres. With these projects, one of the last large undeveloped parcels in the county—the gateway to the canyons--will disappear.
Resources in the Canyons
Biodiversity within the canyons is globally important. Mediterranean-climate ecosystems, such as those found in the canyons, cover only 5% of the Earth’s land mass in six widely separated regions, yet they contain more than 20% of the world’s plant species. Thanks to its climate and mountainous terrain, the area between Los Angeles and San Diego houses 2,500 plant species that live nowhere else, as well as an abundance of animal diversity. However, all Mediterranean-climate ecosystems are under attack from habitat conversion, fragmentation, fire, grazing, and invasive species. By some estimates, 200 plant species and 200 animal species—from bighorn sheep to foxes and butterflies—are threatened in Southern California.
The northern Santa Ana Range and adjacent foothills protect one of the last large blocks of natural habitat in Southern California.
In Silverado and Modjeska canyons, low elevations consist of broad washes bordered by sycamore and willow riparian habitats, oak woodland, native and non-native annual grasslands and coastal sage scrub. Higher up, the vegetation becomes dense chamise and broadleaf chaparral. Major ecological communities are: Foothill woodland (coast live oak woodland); Cismontane Chaparral and Scrub (coastal sage scrub, buckwheat/white sage, northern mixed chaparral, southern mixed chaparral, chamise chaparral, scrub oak chaparral and montane chaparral), and Lower Montane Forest (bigcone Douglas fir/canyon live oak, coulter pine, canyon live oak woodland and broadleaved upland forest).
The major river in Orange County, the Santa Ana, flows above or below ground more than 90 miles from headwaters near Big Bear Lake through San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange Counties to the Pacific. The largest tributary, Santiago Creek, originates in the canyons at Santiago Peak and runs for 28 miles to Santa Ana. Roughly one part natural canyon and two parts leveed sandbottom channel, Santiago Creek is the only section of the river with some “nature” of its own. It provides critical habitat for a range of resident and migratory bird and mammal species. In the lower canyons, loss of riparian vegetation, channelization, and impoundments and diversions have modified much of the habitats, but freshwater ecosystems in the upper canyons remain largely intact. In them live populations of the native Santa Ana speckled dace and some of the last native steelhead trout in the region. Before Orange County installed its pumps and water systems, steelhead salmon spawned in the mountain streams. Other distinctive natural features include populations of knobcone pine, Tecate cypress, big-cone Douglass Fir, and Coulter pine, rock outcrops, oak woodlands, endangered California native grasslands, and springs.
Although grizzly bears and wolves have been gone for a century, within the forest still roam mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, ringtail cats, badger, mule deer, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, grey fox, rabbits, wood rats, deer mice, and a great diversity of butterflies and other invertebrates. On its 2006 Christmas count, the Audubon Society identified 55 species of birds in the canyons. Among the resident birds are buzzards, California quail, bats, acorn woodpeckers, scrub jays, cactus wrens, gnatcatchers, hummingbirds, orioles, blackbirds, doves, owls, and the black-chinned sparrow. The canyons also provide habitat for a tremendous diversity of nesting raptors, including hawks, owls, and falcons, with occasional sightings of golden eagles and ospreys. The area is home to the Mexican Freetail bat and the Western mastiff bat, which is the largest in California with a 23-inch wingspan. Overall, the canyons house 13 species of amphibians and 30 species of reptiles. These include salamanders, turtles, snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, coast horned lizards, butterflies, tarantulas, spiders, and Pacific pond turtles. The Pacific treefrog, which is the most abundant frog in the mountains, sings throughout the spring and summer.
Threatened species include the Many-Stemmed Dudleya, Intermediate Mariposa Lily, Braunton’s Milk Vetch, Santa Ana Speckled Dace (fish), Least Bell’s Vireo, California Yellow Warbler, Yellow-Breasted Chat, California Gnatcatcher, and Coastal Cactus Wren. Currently, the best known endangered species in the canyons is the Arroyo Toad, which was placed on the Federal Endangered Species list in 1994. Found in coastal and desert drainages, the toad population suffered extensive habitat loss from the 1920s into the 1990s. Scientists believe it has been removed from 76% of its previously occupied habitat. In the canyons, it still mates in the creeks as they fill in the spring. Other species of special interest include Steelhead trout, Badger, Ringtail Cat (Miner’s Cat), Coast Horned Lizard, Western Spadefoot Toad, and Orange-throated Whiptail lizard.
of the Canyons’ Natural Resources
Outdoor recreation represents one of the greatest gifts of the canyons and thousands of people each year enjoy hiking, biking, horseback riding, and driving through its mountains.
Because of Santiago Canyon Road’s visual beauty, Orange County’s Scenic Highway Element designates it as a “Type I” Recreation Corridor. This is “a route that traverses a ribbon of park-like development and a scenic corridor of relatively high aesthetic value giving easy access to a multiplicity of recreation activities, with control of access.” What makes the route scenic are the steep hillsides and towering ridge lines silhouetted against the sky, together with the chaparral and riparian brush in the rock-studded creeks winding through the floodplain.
Present commercial uses related to natural resources include the Peltzer Pines Christmas tree farm at the entrance to Silverado Canyon and the Plantenders Nursery on Santiago Canyon Road. Black Star Canyon houses Baker Canyon Green Recycling, an extensive green waste operation that is helping meet mandates for reduction of landfill waste by recycling much of the organic debris collected in the canyons. Until recently, the area hosted a number of bee-keeping and honey production facilities.