When growing up in the city of Orange, I was aware of two local mountains.
The first was a snowy peak rising out of 1960s suburbia, complete with gondolas traveling through its center.
Whenever we drove over to Anaheim or along the 5 Freeway, you could depend on my mom to say, "Look, look—there’s the Matterhorn!"
The second, however, couldn’t have been more different: a soft blue outline rising out of the eastern horizon, formed out of two separate peaks and named for the western accessory it so remarkably resembles.
When the smog wasn't too bad, I could see Saddleback from my school's playground. Tetherball, knees scraped on the black top, and "Ol' Saddleback" ... those are among my most vivid recess time memories.
These days I live so close to Saddleback that it sometimes seems within arm's reach. I'm sure that's how folks in Old El Toro often felt, and certainly those who homesteaded in the canyons or worked "the Trabuco" harvesting barley must have had similar thoughts. Not to mention the late great Jim Sleeper, who often wrote about the landmark while typing in the upstairs office of his Holy Jim cabin.
SADDLEBACK SCHOLAR But today I'm consulting the classic 1931 Shadows of Old Saddleback: Tales of the Santa Ana Mountains. The author, Terry E. Stephenson (1880-1943), wore a number of hats at various times of his life, including that of newspaper editor, county tax collector, and Santa Ana's postmaster. But anyone who reads Shadows will quickly realize that Stephenson's heart was in Orange County's highlands.
Here's an example:
"Though Old Saddleback is made up of two peaks, the crests of which lie almost exactly a mile apart, to the old-timers it was always one mountain, and to the casual observer of today it appears as one mountain . . .
"When the first white men passed this way in 1769 under Governor Gaspar de Portola, making their way northward to a place they knew as Monterey, a camp was made at a spot described by Father Crespi as located 'on a very long mesa of earth, which runs to the foot of a high mountain range, from which flows an arroyo of good water.' There, with the ridges of Old Saddleback unfolded before them, the peak of the high mountain distant not more than eight miles rising majestically, the mass of St. Anne's Day was celebrated. The place, at that time designated as San Francisco Solano, soon afterward became known as Trabuco. Tradition has it that a Spanish soldier lost a blunderbuss at the camp. In Spanish, 'trabuco' means 'blunderbuss.'
"The name Trabuco was attached to the canyon, and probably from earliest mission days the same name was given to the high mountain."
By the 1890s, Stephenson continues, when surveyors appeared, the name Santiago—often used to describe the entire range of mountains—was applied to the tallest peak. The other peak, "lower than Santiago by some 1,113 feet, was given the name of Trabuco.
"However," he adds, "the map-makers were not done with the big mountain." Upon the death of long-time canyon resident and famed actress Helena Modjeska, friends "sought the renaming of Santiago peak in honor of the great tragedienne. It was found that the name could not be changed. However, the forest service reported that the lower and northwestern peak of Old Saddleback, though locally known as North Peak, had never been officially given a name." And so, Stephenson concludes, "the name was put upon the maps, so that today Old Saddleback is officially titled Santiago Peak and Modjeska Peak.
"But whatever map-makers might say, to the old-timers who came here in the '70s and '80s, the big mountain, with its two peaks, is always Old Saddleback, and it will be Old Saddleback to them to the end of their days and probably to their children and their children's children."
About this column: Every week, history buff and longtime Saddleback Valley resident Janet Whitcomb unearths another swashbuckling tale from when Lake Forest wasn't called Lake Forest.