The Backbone of Orange County

In the 1950s, southern Orange County, California was a place of open hills, citrus groves, and scattered towns. The I-5 Freeway changed that, paving the way for today's subdivisions.

1 minute read

May 10, 2016, 10:00 AM PDT

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc

Historical I-5 Freeway

Courtesy Orange County Archives | Orange County Archives / Flickr

Running parallel to the coast through the heart of the county, the I-5 Freeway follows the path of the El Camino Real, a famed route from California's Spanish period. "If Orange County had a skeleton, the 5 freeway would be its spine. [...] No other piece of infrastructure so thoroughly binds together the spatial structure of Orange County."

Nathan Masters gives us photos and advertisements from the 1950s, when the freeway was extended past a sparkling new Disneyland, opening up the "Southland." Unlike some L.A. County freeways, the 5 didn't displace residents. "[...] for much of its length, construction crews paved over orange groves, bean fields, and cattle pastures rather than residential neighborhoods; when construction began, Orange County was a decidedly rural place, an agricultural landscape dotted by a few small towns, distinct from the Los Angeles metropolis."

"Its backbone in place, Orange County soon evolved from its rural, embryonic form (1950 population: 216,224) into the fully realized postmodern metropolis (2010 population: 3,010,232) we know today." The 5, also known as the Santa Ana Freeway, now runs the length of the country from Mexico to Canada. 

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