Friday, March 8, 2019

The Tragedy of Tomato Springs

Water bubbled up from below and broke the surface of the rocky ground, providing water to a thirsty Padre Francisco Gomez. As one of the first European’s to walk in California, he discovered the little spring, and dubbed it “San Pantaleón.” The name didn’t stick. Once Gomez passed on, the locals began to call it “the Springs of Father Gomez.”

By the time two centuries passed, folks just called the place Tomato Springs, as wild tomatoes grew along its banks. But in 1912, it became one of the most infamous sites in Orange County. Accounts vary, but the tragedy of Tomato Springs happened something like this:

William Cook had a large bean farm at what is now The Great Park, in Irvine. Cook’s place was isolated, but on one December afternoon a drifter came knocking on Cook’s door asking if there was any work. Cook said no, but the drifter, James “Joe” Matlock, hung around. While he was asking for work, he noticed two young girls who were Cook’s nieces, Myrtle and Jesse. Matlock snuck back onto the property that evening.

After supper, the dog started barking, so Cook told the girls to go out and see why their dog was puttin’ up a fuss, Outside, by the barn, they ran into Matlock, who fired a shot in the ground to scare them and ensure their cooperation. Why no one else heard that shot isn’t mentioned in the accounts.

Matlock asked which one of them was the eldest, and Myrtle said she was, So he tied Jesse to a fencepost, and took Myrtle behind the barn to a haystack. Then he fled. Jesse managed to free herself and quickly located her uncle, telling him what happened.

Cook was unarmed, so he returned to his house to get a rifle, and then went to neighbors to enlist some help. Someone took Myrtle to safety and she was said to be doing just fine, though again, details were vague. Others began tracking Matlock.

It took time to locate Santa Ana Sherriff Ruddock, who had been called to the Fullerton area on a domestic violence incident. Left to man the office was a former Canadian Mountie by the name of Robert Squires. Squires was 44 and had come south from Canada, briefly working as a scout in Montana.

Using a tracking dog and carrying ropes and weapons, the men picked up Matlock’s trail leading to the eastern edge of James Irvine’s ranch. The posse found tracks of Matlock’s hobnail boots headed up the foothills above Tomato Springs. Too dark to pursue him further, they decided to reconvene at dawn.

The legend of the Tomato Springs Bandit started growing that very morning, when there were reports that Matlock had somehow found his way to Ed Chamber’s ranch, demanded some breakfast, and then returned to his hideout. The cook said Matlock taunted them, daring them to track him down as he headed back toward the hills, vowing to shoot anyone who came near.

It was dawn, and as the morning sun cast the shadow of Saddleback Mountain over Tomato Springs, the small tracking group had grown to a mob, some saying as many as 200 people. Well sheltered by rock outcroppings, Matlock could pick off anyone who ventured near, while no one could get close enough to get a clean shot up the hill.

Squires had an idea. While the mob below kept Matlock busy, he and some other lawmen tried to ascend the slope to get behind and surprise Matlock. It didn’t work. Matlock saw them approaching. Squires managed to get off about five shots as Matlock met him at close range, firing a Winchester rifle.

Squires fell forward and down the rocky terrain about 50 feet, unable to be spotted by the rest. More men went up to rescue the wounded and became wounded or cornered themselves, including a 27-year-old man who worked for Cook named Alfred Prater. Prater received a head wound, but no one could get near to lend aid.

The battle raged, bullets flying as Matlock shouted profanities and taunts. Finally, at about 11:00 am, the California National Guard entered the fray and stormed the barricaded outlaw, only to find Matlock dead. The wounded were evacuated, including Prater; and there were many others. Squires body was located and was confirmed dead. To this day over 100 years later, the Tragedy of Tomato Springs remains one of the bloodiest law enforcement battles in OC history. Squires was given a hero’s funeral that very week, and Prater died three weeks later.

It took a while to get a positive identification on the desperado. It was finally determined that Matlock was the disgraced son of a prominent citizen in Eugene Oregon. A former mayor, Matlock Sr. publicly denied the relationship, but two years later privately admitted the man had been his son. The coroner confirmed that the Tomato Springs Bandit had taken his own life, which was about to end soon anyway, as he had tuberculosis.

And when the mortuary where they had taken the bodies was dismantled many years later, they found a long-forgotten safe where inside lay both Squires’ and Matlock’s guns.

More recently they named the 241 toll road plaza located just south of the springs “Tomato Springs Plaza,” and the hillside where the posse had gathered below the spring has been levelled and a fresh crop of Irvine condominiums has sprung up. It’s now called Portola Springs (developers thought that sounded more marketable), so you might not hear the name “Tomato Springs” much longer.

But the memory of Robert Squires will long be remembered in OC. Today Robert Squires name tops the list on the Orange County Peace Officer’s Memorial located at the Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy on Armstrong Avenue in Tustin. 52 additional names are also honored. We thank them for giving the ultimate sacrifice to keep Orange County one of the safest places to live.

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