History : SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO : Age Is in the Eye of the Beholder


Mayor Gil Jones always thought he lived on a street that had some history behind it. After all, local historians say Los Rios Street is the oldest neighborhood in California, containing adobe homes that were built just before the turn of the century. The 19th Century.

Then Jones had a visit from some friends who live in Greece.

“When I told them our neighborhood is almost 200 years old, they laughed because their home was built 1,500 years ago,” Jones said. “And they said it’s one of the newer ones.”

But in a Southern Californian culture that is only a few hundred years old, Los Rios Street was there at the start.


In addition to laying claim to being the oldest neighborhood, residents like to say the circa-1860 jail cell on Los Rios Street is the oldest in the state. Nine generations of the Rios family have lived in one of the original adobes since 1794, when Feliciano Rios, a Spanish soldier, built his home near the Mission San Juan.

It is also a place surrounded by myth and legend--like the tales of ghosts that some say still haunt the neighborhood and the 19th-Century desperados that reputedly used the adobes as temporary hide-outs.

Only three of the original adobes remain--the rest are small, wood frame homes built at the beginning of the 20th Century. But residents take pride in their street, which is on the National Historic Register.

“I’ve always looked at this as an island in an urban environment,” Jones said. “From the missionaries and Indians to the ranchers that settled in this area, this place has such a rich history.”

Tony Alarcon, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1926, said several multi-generational families live in the Los Rios Historic District. And few people move away.

“Everybody here knows everybody here,” he said. “Parents have children and become grandparents and then the children move back in. I’m very fortunate to be living in a place that appreciates its history.”


The homes here are meticulously cared for, much to the delight of tourists. But most residents aren’t happy to have unannounced visitors walking on their lawns. Tourists are more welcome at the unoccupied Montanez adobe, which is open to the public and has been spruced up by the city, which leases the building.

Nearby, the O’Neil Museum gives visitors a history of the area. And the old jail cell down the street is always open.

Los Rios Street runs parallel to the San Juan Capistrano train depot in the historic downtown center. The entrance is about 100 feet from where passengers disembark from the trains. A plaque near the entrance details the locations of historic homes on the street.

Walking tours of the downtown area that include Los Rios Street are occasionally conducted by the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. For information, call (714) 493-8444.