What’s in a name? For three cities, a lot of history

Orange. Riverside. Thousand Oaks.

A handful of cities from a handful of Southern California counties, all with descriptive names and years of history behind them.

But today, do these cities still live up to their name?

The short answer: no, sort of, and yes.

Let’s start with the city of Orange, which took a while to grow into its name.

When it was founded in 1871, Orange was primarily cattle land. City founders, however, hoped irrigation would transform the area into farmland, and therefore named it Richland in anticipation of the agricultural bounty that was to come, according to Phil Brigandi, author of Orange County Place Names A to Z.

Two years later, however, officials discovered that a city near Sacramento had already staked claim to the name Richland. Undeterred, the enterprising municipalists renamed the city Orange. Even though there were no orange groves to be found in the city, leaders believed the name would attract new residents.

“In those days, Southern California was being touted as a semitropical paradise,” Brigandi said. “It was America’s Mediterranean coast, and oranges fit in with the lush image people had of the region.”

Within a few years, the town began living up to its name. After experimenting with such crops as bananas and pineapples, local farmers discovered that oranges grew best in the area. The first marketable crop was produced in 1876, and others soon followed.

Orange’s citrus industry blossomed in the hands of hundreds of small growers who formed cooperative packinghouses, Brigandi said. Eventually about a dozen packinghouses in Orange thrived, including several that produced the well-known Sunkist brand. And by 1920, citrus “reigned supreme in Orange, dominating every other agricultural or industrial pursuit,” said Brigandi.

The orange’s heyday continued through the 1940s, until subdivisions began to squeeze out citrus growers. A mysterious disease called the “Quick Decline” also claimed more groves, and the packinghouses began shutting down.

By the 1980s, almost all the groves were gone, Brigandi said. The last packinghouse closed in 2006.

Today, all that remains of the city’s glorious agricultural past is its name.

Riverside, though, is a different story. Its name still fits — even if the river has changed over the years.

The city, founded in 1870, was named for the Santa Ana River, which skirts the city’s northern border and runs from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Like Orange, however, Riverside wasn’t the founding fathers’ first choice of names, said local historian Steve Lech. They considered Jurupa, an Indian name that by one definition means “place of the sagebrush,” but were worried no one could pronounce it. Instead they decided on the more marketable Riverside, which promised enough water and fertile land for people to grow crops and prosper.

The river proved to be both a giver and a taker. It irrigated the city’s own citrus industry, which boomed from the 1880s to the 1940s and produced such wealth that Riverside enjoyed the highest per capita income in the country in 1895.

But the river could also be destructive.

In 1862, a flood wiped out an entire settlement in what today is Colton. Ironically, the community was named Agua Mansa, which means “gentle water.”

In 1938 and 1969 the river flooded again, causing widespread damage.

Today, however, the risk of such disasters has been reduced with a variety of flood-control measures, including the use of levees and the construction of Seven Oaks Dam, north of Redlands, according to Steven E. Mains, a local water rights expert.

Many Riverside visitors will hardly recall seeing a river there — especially if they were looking for white, rushing waters. That’s because the river’s flow is “far less today due to pumping of the local groundwater basins by all the cities and water companies in the valley,” Mains said. Pumping has not only lowered the water table, but it has also pushed the river underground in some places.

As for Thousand Oaks, incorporated in 1964, the moniker remains accurate. The naming of the community dates to the early 1920s, when a developer and doctor, Homer Hansen, bought the land. Not knowing what to call it, he held a contest seeking suggestions, according to local historian Miriam Sprankling. A 16-year-old boy, Bobby Harrington, received $5 and a small plot of land for submitting the winning name, which was based on the area’s abundance of majestic oak trees.

In the 1940s, some local boys thought they’d see if there really were “thousands” of oaks and fanned out to do some counting. The grand total: 3,422.

Today, although some oak trees have no doubt been lost because of development, “there are still thousands of oaks in the city just like there were when it was founded,” Sprankling said. The city enforces an oak protection ordinance that prohibits residents from removing or even pruning an oak without a permit.

So it looks like the trees will be around tomorrow as well.