Geographers to Take a Peek at Old Saddleback

Times Staff Writer

Call it the battle for Saddleback Mountain.

On one side is a community college librarian who fiercely loves the lofty, twin-peaked Saddleback in south Orange County.

On the other side is Merriam-Webster Inc., which calls itself “America’s first publishers of dictionaries and fine reference books.”

The battle involves trying to get Merriam-Webster to give international recognition to Saddleback Mountain.


The widely known landmark is neither a single mountain nor officially known as Saddleback. The twin peaks jointly called Saddleback are part of the Santa Ana Mountains. One peak is officially named Santiago and is 5,687 feet tall--the highest point in Orange County. The other peak is officially designated as Modjeska, elevation 5,496 feet.

Best-Known Natural Landmark

Together, the two peaks form the county’s best-known natural landmark. They cast a silhouette against the sky of a huge saddle. Some unknown settler more than 110 years ago appreciatively looked at the mountain silhouette and pronounced it “Old Saddleback,” according to county historian Jim Sleeper. Millions of Southern California residents have since grown up calling the peaks Saddleback.

Indeed, Saddleback is a name that graces everything in the county from an appliance store in Laguna Hills to a YMCA in Mission Viejo. Almost an entire page of phone listings in the south county phone directory start with Saddleback.

One listing, of course, is for Saddleback College--where the battle for Saddleback Mountain began this spring.

Ann Hagerty, a reference librarian at Saddleback College, in March wanted to check the spelling of Modjeska Peak. She reached for the library’s up-to-date copy of Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary. She frowned as she found no listing for Modjeska Peak. The frown deepened as she subsequently found no listing for Santiago Peak.

Surprised It Was Missing

“And I was really surprised to find that although three other Saddleback Mountains are listed in the geographical dictionary, our Saddleback Mountain is not,” she said. Saddleback and its peaks are also not listed in world atlases, which include fewer place names than the geographical dictionary.


Hagerty fired off a letter to Merriam-Webster of Springfield, Mass., publisher of the geographical dictionary.

“It has come to our attention that your volume . . . does not contain the name of our Saddleback Mountain, which is located in Orange County in the Santa Ana Mountains, in the Cleveland National Forest,” Hagerty wrote.

“Our mountain consists of two peaks, Santiago Peak and Modjeska Peak. This peak was named for Helena Modjeska (1844-1909)--internationally famous Polish-American actress who settled in Orange County in 1890.

“We noticed three other Saddleback Mountains listed . . . and ours is higher than all of the others. . . . Our college is within great view of the mountain, which is especially beautiful in the winter, when there is snow. I am enclosing a picture for you to note.”

Daniel J. Hopkins, the Merriam-Webster editor in charge of of geographical listings, responded to Hagerty’s letter: “If room (in the dictionary) becomes available . . . we will consider adding it. The California mountain has in its favor its height in relation to the Saddlebacks already entered and the fact that its name has been chosen for the college, which is listed in the Colleges and Universities backmatter section of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.”

Two ‘Limiting Factors’

That was Hopkins’ good news. He then unloaded the bad news:

“However, there are two factors limiting its chances of entry in our place-name dictionary. First is the fact that the California Saddleback is much less important in relation to other California mountains (Whitney is 14,494 feet) than are the other Saddlebacks in relation to other mountains in their respective political units. In addition, space is at a premium in Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary, in order to keep the book handy in size and reasonable in price.”

Hagerty sensed the battle could not be won without further efforts. She dispatched a second letter to Merriam-Webster.

“We agree there are more significant mountains in California,” she wrote. “However, we also feel there are many more people who see our mountain every day than any of the other California mountains, or the other Saddleback Mountains anywhere else, combined. They are people who would want to look up this mountain (in the geographical dictionary) to ascertain its heights.

“On a clear day, Saddleback Mountain is visible throughout the whole Los Angeles and Orange County area, over 60 miles, and as our college with over 20,000 students has its name, so do a number of other activities, as you can see by the enclosed list of Saddleback-named facilities on the page from our most recent phone book, which is enclosed.”

In a recent telephone interview, editor Hopkins said he is impressed with Hagerty’s spunk in pursuing dictionary recognition for Saddleback.

“If I had my way, I’d add it to the dictionary,” he said, but added that most of the changes made to a geographical dictionary involve geopolitical upheavals, such as new names for sovereign nations.

‘Difficult to Keep Updated’

“When the African nation of Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso, for instance, that required us to open up several changes in the book,” Hopkins said. “Things keep changing in the world. It’s very difficult to keep updated.”

But Hopkins said Merriam-Webster is not deaf to suggestions that previously overlooked geographical landmarks be added: “A primary consideration for adding new places depends on how likely a dictionary user is to encounter that term.”

If that’s the case, the county should have a good shot at getting its Saddleback listed, Hagerty said: “Just consider how many names have Saddleback in it in our area, including this community college.”

Hagerty added that she will probably enlist the Saddleback Regional Chamber of Commerce, which serves the south county, to help in the fight.

Pat Crockett, executive director of the chamber, said she applauds Hagerty’s battle: “I’m glad somebody is out there doing this. We’d probably be her cheering section.”

Crockett then turned to the serious side of the Saddleback name: “I think Saddleback is definitely an identifiable landmark, especially in Orange County. When I say I’m from the Saddleback Regional Chamber of Commerce, people know where I’m situated.

“Now I don’t know how the name affects the economy of Orange County. But I know that Saddleback certainly affects the beauty of our county. You can see it all over. It is so great, for instance, to lie on the beach and look up and see that beautiful Saddleback.”

County historian Sleeper also praised Hagerty’s efforts: “First of all, it (Saddleback) is the highest point in Orange County. For Orange County, it’s the ultimate high. And to see the commonality of the name, all you have to do is look in the phone book at all the Saddleback names.

Microwave Relay Towers

“Apart from sentimentality, Saddleback is the nerve center of Orange County. There’s a forest of microwave relay towers up there.”

Sleeper also noted that in 1970, the state Department of Parks and Recreation officially designated Saddleback as a state site of historic interest.

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, editor Hopkins said: “The dictionary is open for change every five years, and the next time it comes up for change, Saddleback Mountain (in Orange County) is to be considered.”

Hopkins declined to specify the exact date when the next dictionary revision is to be made.

But he emphasized that Hagerty’s efforts in behalf of Saddleback have made a mark on the august offices of Merriam-Webster.

“I was very impressed with her letters,” he said.