Wednesday, September 2, 2020

 The Infamous Modesta Avila

There are a lot of people expressing their opinion regarding what constitutes a peaceful protest, and how far people are willing to go to make their viewpoint known.  But did you know that the first female felon, indeed, first official felon and state prisoner from Orange County, was a woman named Modesta Avila.  Her crime: Protesting. In fact, Avila died in prison for her crime.

What did she do?  She hung up laundry. 

Avila was born in the late 1860's (exact year unknown) in San Juan Capistrano, and managed, in her short life, to earn herself quite a reputation.  She had prior arrests for "vagrancy," a general term that was very often leveled against women for prostitution.  She was often described as attractive, and upon her death her obituary even described her as "a well-known favorite of the Santa Ana boys."

So perhaps she was a bit passionate when she took to defending her property.  On her mother's death, she inherited a piece of property on the northern end of San Juan Capistrano, and raised chickens.  But when the Santa Fe Railroad built their tracks across her land just 15 feet from her house, Modesta Avila protested by hanging her laundry across the railroad tracks. 

Others say she went so far as to also lay a railroad tie across the track, and even erect a post between the rails with a sign that read "This land belongs to me.  And if the railroad wants to run here, they will have to pay me ten thousand dollars!"

Enter Max Mendelson, representative of the Santa Fe Railroad in San Juan Capistrano.  He removed the blockage, informed Avila that the Railroad was most certainly in their rights to run there, and warned her to not try it again.  

No arrest was made at the time, yet at one point, Avila somehow got the idea in her head that she had won, because she threw a large party in celebration of the impending collection of ten grand.  But instead of the money, the county sheriff came and arrested her -four months after her protest.  Single and now pregnant, the cards were stacked against Modesta Avila.  The railroad wanted Avila to be made an example and warning against anyone else protesting the mighty Santa Fe. 

It was also her misfortune to be tried by judge Edward Eugenes, who was anxious to seal his reputation as a law and order kind of guy.  He had just been elected to the state assembly, and used the opportunity to make certain the first criminal to be convicted was his. 

But there was a problem.  The trial ended in a hung jury, 6-6.  Eugenes set a retrial, and now it was becoming increasingly evident Avila was pregnant.  Avila's attorney, George Hayford, confirmed the pregancy to the public.  The reputation didn't help her case, and she was convicted and sentence to spend three years in San Quentin State.  Hayford appealed, but lost the appeal on a technicality.  

There is no record of what happened to Avila's child. One gentleman who called himself her boyfriend did so at his own peril.  He was fired from his job as the county pushed forward a reputation for clean living and a low tolerance for criminal elements Just short of three years, Avila caught pneumonia and died in San Quentin, at about the age of 24.  

That is pretty much the end of Modesta's story.  She nearly got away with her protest, until she overplayed her hand and crossed paths with some ambitious politicians. She was the first person in the county to be arrested, tried and convicted. But there was one final note in her obituary Published in The Santa Ana Standard, the last words were this: "Let those who are without sin throw the first stone."

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Back Bay Trail

As you drive down Jamboree Blvd, just past Bristol, the road takes a gentle descending turn to the left as you travel over a bridge where the Santiago Creek meets Newport Back Bay.  A sprawling delta that connects to Newport Harbor, Back Bay covers over 140 acres of waterways containing many bird and animal species. 
Newport Back Bay-Photograph by D Ramey Logan

Formed during the Pleistocene Epoch (2 million to 11,000 years ago), the area was home to many large mammals.  Fossil remains of mammoths, giant sloths and bison have been found here. As glacial masses receded, it carved out this shallow bed that led to the ocean.  In more recent history, Gabrielino Indians lived here, hunting and fishing, until they abandoned the area during the California mission years. 

Now owned by the Irvine Company, the Newport Back Bay has undergone many changes in the past 100 years.  For a time the area was used to make salt by cutting into the bed of the bay, creating drying beds, and letting captured water evaporate, leaving behind sea salt.  But in 1969 the bay was flooded by torrential rains, and the salt works was destroyed. The ecological impact on the bay was devastating, and for several years the bay was clogged and flooded often. 

Developers wanted to create a water-skiing attraction in the lower part of the bay, but preservation-minded citizens began to rally to restore Newport Back Bay. Preservationists won the day, and a massive dredging project was begun, removing the remnants of the salt flats, and restoring the original depth and natural water flow. 

Many species that had disappeared from the area began to return, and today the Newport Back Bay and surrounding bluffs serve as an ecological preserve. 

You can visit the bay easily by taking a right off of Jamboree on East Bluff Drive, just past the bridge. Park along the street, and descend down the drive on foot... or perhaps the better option is on bicycle, as the Back Bay trail is over ten miles long, terminating behind the Hyatt Newporter Hotel at Newport Dunes. While some do travel by car, we don't recommend it because there is so much to see up close.

It is hard to imagine, many large mammals frequent back bay, including coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and even an occasional bobcat. For Marine life, several species of algae serve to attract small fish, like anchovy and mullet.  Invertebrates are also here in the form of worms and various species of moluscs, like clams, mussels, and fiddler crabs.  The list is lengthy, but none of it should be eaten, as  the runoff that makes its way to Back Bay contains toxic bacteria.  Birds abound, and the plant species have recovered nicely, not without the good effort of volunteers. 

Newport's Back Bay is one of Orange County's largest treasures. Other activities that are open to the public include kayaking, canoeing, picnicking, horseback riding, and bird watching. The trails tend to be crowded with people on the weekends. Newport Back Bay is open from 7:00 a.m. to sunset, and the Ecological Information center is open 7:00 am to 4:00 pm every day of the week except Monday.

 The Infamous Modesta Avila There are a lot of people expressing their opinion regarding what constitutes a peaceful protest, and how far pe...