DANA POINT was named for Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of "Two Years Before The Mast". He referred to Stillwater Bay (now Capistrano Bay) as the most Romantic spot on the Coast. Dana was traveling aboard the brig Pilgrim, which at the time had to travel to California via Cape Horn and he stormy Strait of Magellan.
The Pilgrim was a cowhide trading vessel hired by the hide merchants in Boston during the 1830s. The fathers of the San Juan Capistrano Mission sold cowhides to the merchants, which were pitched over the cliffs of Dana Point to small waiting boats below, which transported the hides to the trading ships.
During the 1970s, all the marinas up and down the California coast became central in the massive illegal drug trade. Enormous shipments of contraband were often brought north in unsuspected pleasure boats, unloaded under the cover of a thick layer of coastal fog. One of the most characteristic sounds of Dana Point is the sound of the fog horn, warning sailors to look out for the reefs.
The original community of Dana Point had its origins in a housing development scheme in the 1920s, part of which can still be seen in the unfinished cement foundation for a hotel and bar that rests above the Dana Point Harbor, and which today is the centerpiece of a park. To get a real idea of how unrealistic expectations were back then, the bar was going to seat 1,500, but the hotel would only have beds for about 150 people. A tunnel was bored through the hill, down to what today is the Harbor, but it has been boarded up for years as unsafe. (The old ruins were always attractive to local teenagers, eager to explore).
The original plan for Dana Point was for a Spanish-style town with wide streets named after "Lanterns," and when the streets were laid out, there were actual lanterns for street lights, modeled on the old sailor's kerosene lanterns. This is still part of the community, in street names like Street of the Golden Lantern, Street of the Blue Lantern, and even a recent newcomer, Street of the Crystal Lantern.
The first homes were in the early California style, which was white adobe with red tile roofs. One of those first homes still stands on Blue Lantern, about a block away from Selva Road. Also, the location where today the Renaissance Cafe is situated, was used by the developers to sell lots in Dana Point. Potential buyers would come in from Los Angeles, and after a cozy meal, one of the locals would explain how luxuriant the area was, in the hopes of attracting sales. Then, the Stockmarket Crash of 1929 hit and wiped out the developer, and put a halt to all plans. The hotel and bar were never finished, and most of the homes were not built until decades later.
Other local remains of the original 1923 Dana Point development can be found at the lookout point at the end of Ruby Lantern (on top of the bluff overlooking the Harbor). And the Spanish-style office complex at the northern-most place where Pacific Coast Hwy. splits off, and becomes two one-way only streets. Additionally, the building behind A's Burgers is also the remains of an old gas station, that was probably associated with the old Villa motel, both being built in the 1920s.
In the 1970s, Dana Point was a sleepy little backwater village. It extended inland no further than Selva Road, which did not go all the way through to the Pacific Coast Highway, as it does today; instead it dead-ended on Chula Vista. When Dana Hills High School was built around 1971-72, it was a tremendous innovation (even though the school looked and felt like a Mexican prison). The corrupt Board of Supervisors had big plans for Dana Point, including a six-lane highway that would plow through the rural community down to the Harbor, that took most of the local residents by surprise. Five of the Board members during the 1970s served prison terms for corruption, largely at the hands of real estate developers; rumors had it that one of the big landholders in Dana Point, Avco, was owned by the Mafia, but this was probably an urban legend. One of the largest current landowners in Dana Point is the Chandler family, majority owners of the Los Angeles Times. They have felt free to use their clout to meddle in local politics for years, but none of it ever seems to show up in the newspapers. During the 1970s, there were five independent newspapers serving the south Orange County area; today, there are only two, the L.A. Times and the O.C. Register having bought out all the independents.
Twenty years ago, Dana Point was not "built out," as the Planners call it when a community no longer has raw land left within its city limits. Locals sought incorporation five times, in order to secure local control, but each time the county nixed the plan. Then, in 1989, once all the land had been essentially built out, incorporation was allowed, but really, all the big money had already been made. When Golden Lantern was finally opened up between Selva Road and Crown Valley Parkway, the hills were literally cluttered with new, unsold homes, as far as the eye could see. It was not hard to see that the plans that got approved prior to incorporation amounted to a billion-dollar development.
What finally became the City of Dana Point was a stitched together community that was essentially several well-established communities that were forced to co-exist. Parts of Laguna Niguel were cut off from that City, and were attached to Dana Point, which took place because the community leaders of Laguna Niguel did something to irritate the then Supervisor General Riley, who had the political power to coerce LAFCO to approve the conveyance of Monarch Beach and Monarch Bay to Dana Point, effectively cutting off Laguna Niguel's access to the ocean.
Then to add insult to injury, once the City of Dana Point was formed, a group of "carpetbaggers" (recent arrivals to Dana Point), got elected to the City Council, determined to exploit the economic opportunity that was offered to cities through what is commonly referred to as "Urban Renewal." Through the cities' power to seize private property by eminent domain, the first city council cooked up a scheme that virtually amounted to the seizure of that property located in the "Lantern District," under the Redevelopment statutes. The bottom line was that Redevelopment was an out-and-out land-grab that would have been financed by the Federal Government, enabling the bureaucracy of the newly incorporated City of Dana Point to literally displace the entire original population of Old Dana Point. What is never brought up is the fact that the entire Planning Department, misleadingly called "Community Development," led by Ed Knight, and employing such luminaries as Kit Fox and Angela Duzich, were selected because of their background in Redevelopment schemes in other southern California cities.
The scheme for Redevelopment of the so-called "Lantern District" stirred up a hornet's nest of popular opposition, and the schemers had to temporarily drop their plans; but the City never fired all those city planners, whose backgrounds make them ideal for implementing Redevelopment at some time in the future.
Today, Dana Point stands on the brink of a new age. It can go forward, or it can go backwards, it's all up to the people of Dana Point. At least, some of the negative trends were somewhat arrested, when several long-time residents were finally elected to the City Council. But, of course, it takes more than politics to turn rows of houses into a neighborhood; a community. It takes hope.