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Lake El Toro's 'Naval War'

For any Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn wannabe growing up in El Toro, the large pond just south of the old Keating home offered adventure and—more often than many cared to admit—a good old-fashioned dunk.

Back in January 2011, while still getting up to speed on this area’s history, I wrote a column explaining the "forest" in Lake Forest. One week later, I did the same for the "lake." 

gives El Toro founder Dwight Whiting credit for today's abundance of eucalyptus trees. And those of you who caught may remember Whiting being eulogized in the Los Angeles Times as a "forester" and “general authority on eucalyptus culture in America” rather than as someone who jump-started a community.

Lake Forest's man-made lakes, however, seemed a strictly modern phenomena.

But that was before I happened across a section in ’s 1992 publication, Stories of Saddleback Valley, with the rather startling title of "Naval War On Lake El Toro."  

So yes, Virginia, there was a Lake El Toro. Although, as Joe concedes, it was really more of a pond than a lake.    

And the "Naval War"? Strictly a crusade fought by local boys!

But, for the moment, let's put aside the issue of how a rural lagoon and the events it inspired might be labeled. Instead, I’d like you to picture today’s busy intersection of El Toro Road and Muirlands Drive: the traffic lights and the almost 24/7 rush of trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians. Not to mention the many nearby places of business: fast-food restaurants, shops, a pharmacy and more. 

Now let’s go back in time—about 70 years or so—to that very same place.

SETTING THE SCENE

"Just below the imposing house," Joe begins, "[and]  lies a body of water which, if the term is used loosely—and it is—represents Lake El Toro. 

“Considering the dimensions of the body of water, it would no doubt be more accurate to apply the word pond. But to youth it is a lake, which through the rainy season measures some two hundred yards in length and about half that distance across. 

“At the south end of the body of water, a low earthen dam had been constructed as a flood-control measure to prevent the accumulation of water from rushing down and inundating the crop and orchard land below as the water followed its natural, sprawling, rather ill-defined course, which led to a merger with Aliso Creek just above the highway. 

"One other explanation holds that the dam was put in by the first in order to create a waterfowl shooting situation as a part of his colonizing project in the 1880s. A gun club, as well as a proposed cricket ground and other amenities, it was hoped, would prove attractive to the at whom the colonizing project was aimed."

HUCKLEBERRY FRIENDS 

But alas, Whiting's concept didn't quite pan out as planned.

Instead, El Toro developed into a thriving whistle-stop. Or, if you will, a small country village featuring a train depot and warehouses, as well as a general store/post office, blacksmith's shop, school, church and, at any given time, about 10 to 20 residences, plus outlying farmhouses and ranches. 

So guess who ended up using that sportsman's lake?

Perhaps the following passage will provide a clue:

"Under a flawless, briliant blue spring sky, the traditional little red wagon makes its way down El Toro Road, moving souith from the railroad tracks.

"Balanced in a precaious manner by two boys who've reached the first decade of their existence in the little country town of El Toro, the wagon contains the makings of a sloop-of-war which the boys will launch on the waters of El Toro's resident lake ... the prefabricated materials consist of two railroad ties and an assorted collection of remnants of packing-crate wood from hardware which has been sent to the , [plus] a hammer and nails."

If you guessed the two youngest Osterman boys, Joe and Jim—by that time collectively known as "Jimmy-Joe"—you are correct.

For why in the world live near a lake—or a pond—if you can't use it for sailing? 

The barbed-wire fence around the pond and nearby pastureland was easy enough to circumvent: There's a nifty place near the lane leading to the Keating compound with plenty of room to scoot under. Once inside, you busily get to work building your raft. The frame is made from discarded planks left by railroad workers as they replace old ties with new. As for a raft pole? Why, the nearby eucalyptus groves will readily yield the perfect 8- to 10-foot branch or sapling—the necessary length for plumbing, and pushing, through the fairly shallow waters.

THIS MEANS WAR!

Other El Toro boys, of course, had the same idea. And, most of the time,  whatever followed was mainly along the lines of a regatta. 

But occasionally these water vehicles drew a bit too close to each other and poles from one raft would become tangled with those from another. Then the battle was on!

"The race is now forgotten and the goal is to disable the enemy ship by stripping the poles. Strip one pole, you win the race; take over both and your victim has to hand-paddle the raft to shore. Since this feat is virtually impossible, the loser is reduced to the ultimate ignominy: He gets off and wades ashore, pushing his ship into port and vowing vengeance."

Or, preparing in advance, you could have "artillery"—clumps of wild oats, pulled from the nearby bank before your launch—which can be fired at will, causing your opponents to duck and, quite often, lose their balance and fall into the drink.

When this happened, Joe writes, you had no choice but to dry out on that same embankment, flush with soft wild oats, then trudge home and hope no one noticed. Which they didn't—or so you thought—until years later when you learned your parents had known exactly what happened, but decided not to make a big deal of it.

SOME WORDS FROM JIM

Soon after I began researching Lake El Toro, I emailed Jim Osterman, the youngest of the three Osterman boys, and asked him a number of questions, such as how they all happened to know how to swim.

"I really don’t recall where the three of us learned to swim," Jim replied, "but we probably did in our Uncle Bennie’s reservoir [Uncle Bennie being the eldest son of ] which was north of the ranch and fairly close to Serrano Creek.  It is my recollection that the water for the reservoir came from wells, not from the creek."

And just how deep was that pond? 

"The depth of the pond depended on the amount of rain we got, but I don’t remember that it was very deep. It was quite muddy and, accordingly, one time when my swimming trunks came off I was in a real panic until I luckily found them solely by feel. I was a very shy boy and you must remember that the entire pond could be seen from El Toro Road."

Yikes! Come to think of it, by that time wasn't really a secluded country lane. It was the area's main thoroughfare. And what with so many of the "sailors" either losing their clothes or having to remove them after getting dunked, I guess Jim, Joe, and all their co-conspirators were darn lucky that cellphone cameras hadn't yet been invented.

ABOUT THAT ACCOMPANYING PHOTO

As somebody else's caption says, this is a view of "Downtown El Toro" around 1890, almost three decades prior to  and their living in town in quarters at the back their store. Only a few changes should be noted: By the time the Ostermans moved in, the hotel—which had mostly served the railroad builders and other workers—had burned down. But the , and were all just as they appear in the photo.

Today, of course, the only landmark in the photo still in its original location is Saddleback Mountain, visible ever-so-faintly in the distance.

Charles August 05, 2012 at 09:45 PM
These are the best articles in the Patch. I really enjoy reading them. I've read Osterman's book and the Pankey's book and a few others. Lots of neat photos on Orange County history on Flickr too.
Janet Whitcomb August 09, 2012 at 03:45 AM
Charles, thank you so much! It's not late-breaking news, but I hope that in its own way El Toro & More is of interest to Patch readers! Janet

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