Balboa Island Museum & Historical Society
The museum is staffed by residents who enjoy sharing the history of their community with visitors to the island.
Backstory and Context
The following history of Balboa Island comes from the Balboa Island Museum and Historical Society Website
Our beloved island rose from the surf through the combined forces of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ana River between 1825 and 1865. Prior to 1902, the underwater sand bar that would become Balboa Island was nothing more than a hindrance to James McFadden. As Newport Beach township founder and owner of almost all the swamp and overflow land in the bay, he wanted to secure funding to have had the whole sand bar removed. This would have made way to have large ships enter his “new port” between San Diego and Anaheim Landing (Seal Beach). Fortunately, for current island residents and visitors, the commercial port never came into fruition. In frustration, McFadden sold the tideland property to Riverside developer, William S. Collins.
Collins’ vision to “turn sand into money” began with a dredger and a good deal of imagination. From 1905 to 1913 he dredged around the island, piling silt and sand onto the lowest areas until the entire island could be dry at low tide. (Later, wooden, then cement bulk heads would be constructed to keep out the high tide). Horses pulling heavy rakes smoothed and leveled the sand from the dredger. Three sections were created, the main island, Little Island, and Collins Island (where Collins built his own famous castle). Maps were drawn to subdivide the land. Collins and his realtors began offering lots for between $300 and $600, including all improvements and a promise to never be incorporated, thus, no city taxes. Most of the first lots were sold by agents to residents of Pasadena for vacation homes. In 1905, the Balboa Pavilion and Balboa Pier were constructed in anticipation of the 1906 arrival of the Pacific Red Car Line and tourists from Los Angeles. Realtors met the cars, offering picnics and boat rides over to the island for the purpose of selling lots for vacation homes. It was a tough decision at the time because the automobile was still a new invention and the cost of a lot was just about the same price as a new car. They sold about half the lots sold. This was not enough income for Collins to secure improvements such as sewers, power, water and paving of streets and sidewalks.
By 1916, Collins was gone, lots were abandoned and the only way in sight to save the Island was to become incorporated by the City of Newport Beach. That meant taxes for Island lot owners, most disillusioned by their purchase and not willing to sink more money into this failing investment. Ownership of many lots reverted to the city and were sold to new owners for between $25 and $50, the price of the back taxes. Then, to the rescue, came the establishment of the Balboa Island Improvement Association, a group of Island lot owners that met in Los Angeles, listed the priority of improvements needed and then advocated for the money to see them completed.
The 1920s provided better times with improvements like sewers, streets, lights, water, gas and a reliable ferry service. The Island was still primarily a vacation spot with very few year round residents. But it hung in there and property values rose, even through the Great Depression years. After World War II, more homes were built on the Island. Some residents even lived here year round due to a more permanent military community.
In the 40s, 50s and 60s, this was the place to be for spring break. High school and college revelers jammed the Island and Peninsula for “Bal Week”, a tradition of high-spirited shenanigans that centered around the Peninsula’s famous Rendezvous Ballroom. This is where they danced to Big Band groups and created the Balboa swing.
In the 1970s, more year-round residents moved to the Island. The recently established University of California at Irvine (UCI – est. 1965), created an influx of young “winter” renters. When these students migrated home in June, the summer renters arrived and filled the beaches with towels, umbrellas and the delightful laughter of happy children.
From the 1980s until today, we’ve seen a steady rise of single family homes and a full school bus transporting Island kids to the local elementary school. Our community has seen a lot of change in our 100+ years, but one thing is for sure, you will never find a group of people happier to be living where they are today.