Have You Seen
The Birthplace of Orange
Photos of Captain Glassell’s tract office are almost impossible to come by. One of the few images is this 1886 bird’s–eye view of Orange looking northeast across downtown. The little building had been moved off the square the year before.

Orange was born on the Plaza. Sometime in late 1870, Captain William T. Glassell came down from Los Angeles and built a little wooden home and tract office. It stood along the west side of the Plaza Square, just south of Chapman Avenue. It had a little porch and two seedling orange trees out front.

Alfred Chapman liked to claim to be “the father of Orange.” But if he was the father, Captain Glassell was the midwife. Chapman and his partner, Andrew Glassell, were busy Los Angeles attorneys. Glassell’s brother, William Glassell, was an ailing Civil War vet with time on his hands. So he was hired as tract agent.

Captain Glassell (1831-1879) had a remarkable record in the Civil War. A career Navy man, the Virginia–born Glassell refused a new loyalty oath at the start of the war and was packed off to a Union POW camp. Traded to the South for a Union prisoner, he joined the Confederate Navy and built one of the first successful “torpedo boats” (an ancestor of the submarine). He called his little boat the David (a Biblical reference) and used it to blow a pretty good hole in the side of the Union New Ironsides in Charleston Harbor in October 1863. Unfortunately, he was captured after the attack and sent back to prison. He came to California after the war to try to recover his health.

It was Captain Glassell who surveyed the townsite (July 1871), supervised the construction of the first irrigation ditch, wrote the first ads, and made the first sales of lots in the new town. He seems to have been a charming, erudite individual, but after several bouts of illness, he left Orange in 1875.

The old Glassell tract office was relocated and remodeled several times. It was moved back in 1885 to make way for a new business building along the Plaza. In 1890, it was moved over to Almond Avenue where it became the home of Joseph Beck, a downtown blacksmith. It was finally torn down in the 1930s.

There’s an Orange County historical plaque in the sidewalk just a few feet from where the tract office originally stood, in front of the old Orange Daily News building in the southwest corner of the Plaza Square. If you visit there, try to picture the area in 1870 – a vast, level plain, dotted with shrubs and cactus, with a few sycamore trees off in the distance along the Santiago Creek. Half–wild cattle and horses grazed where they pleased. And in the midst of this wilderness, one tiny spot of civilization that would become the City of Orange.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Written by Phil Brigandi, Illustration adapted from Orange, Cal., Illustrated & Described (1886)

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