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How the 5 Freeway Made Orange County Suburban

If Orange County had a skeleton, the 5 freeway would be its spine. Paralleling the coast, the 44-mile superhighway bisects the county lengthwise and links it with Los Angeles to the north and San Diego to the south. Subsidiary freeways – the 91, the 22, the 55 – radiate outward toward the county’s coastal and inland communities. Shopping centers, theme parks, sports venues huddle around its off-ramps. And thanks to its skewed, northwest-southwest orientation, the freeway intersects many of the county’s arterial roads, which tend to follow the cardinal points of the compass. No other piece of infrastructure so thoroughly binds together the spatial structure of Orange County.

Built over eleven years from 1950-60 and opened in several stages, the freeway ­­– signed as Interstate 5 and named the Santa Ana Freeway north of the El Toro Y and the San Diego Freeway south of it – represents the merger of two older, historic transportation corridors. From the Los Angeles County line to Santa Ana, it follows the former route of the Southern Pacific’s Santa Ana branch. South from Santa Ana to the San Diego County line, it traces the path of El Camino Real, the mythic Spanish-era highway that became US-101 in 1926. Repurposing existing rights-of-way meant that, relative to other Southern California freeway projects, construction displaced few people. It also helped that, 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.

It wouldn’t remain so for long. Even before it opened, the 5 freeway lured major aerospace firms like Douglas, Lockheed, and Hughes across the so-called Orange Curtain. When Walt Disney commissioned the Stanford Research Institute to recommend a location for his Magic Kingdom, the consultants suggested Anaheim in part because of the easy access the Santa Ana Freeway would provide. With jobs at Douglas, Lockheed, Hughes, and Disney came new residents, as well as new subdivisions to house them – first on the plains of North County, where Los Angeles’s suburban growth sprawled across the county line, and then on the hilly pastures of South County, where leafy, master-planned communities sprang from the grazing lands and truck farms of the Irvine Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo. 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.

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Anaheim brochure
If this circa 1940s promotional brochure is to be believed, the Santa Ana Freeway (shown here terminating in the distance at downtown Los Angeles) placed Anaheim "in the heart of the Southland." Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Aerial view of the Disneyland and the Santa Ana Freeway's Harbor Boulevard interchange, circa 1965
Disneyland's Autopia ride nearly abuts the Harbor Blvd. interchange of the Santa Ana Freeway – the highway that, in part, persuaded Walt Disney to build his theme park in Anaheim. Circa 1965 aerial photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – Dick Whittington Photography Collection.
Aerial shot of the San Diego Freeway (I-5) through San Juan Capistrano
In Orange County's southern reaches, the San Diego (I-5) Freeway, shown here in 1959 passing by the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano, followed the path of California's El Camino Real. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
At-grade crossing on the Santa Ana Freeway in Anaheim
In 1954, much of Anaheim was still planted with orange groves. Here, the Santa Ana Freeway intersects with an Anaheim road at grade; to speed up construction, several segments were built first to expressway standards. Only later did overpasses and underpasses replace the at-grade crossings. Courtesy of the Anaheim Public Library photograph collection on Anaheim local history, accession number: P1159.
1954 map of US-101
Until 1964, Orange County's I-5 freeway was also signed as US-101. This 1954 map from California Highways and Public Works (published by Caltrans' predecessor agency and digitized by the Metro Transportation Library and Archive) shows how the freeway connected the county with the rest of Southern California. 
San Diego (I-5) Freeway in El Toro
In the 1960s, the I-5 freeway (pictured here at El Toro Road) was a four-lane highway. Today it becoms a 26-lane superfreeway at the El Toro Y interchange with the I-405 freeway. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Santa Ana Freeway in Tustin, circa 1960
The Santa Ana Freeway in a mostly rural Tustin, circa 1960. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Anaheim's Broadway Shopping Center, seen here circa 1963, was located next to a freeway off-ramp.
All along its 44 miles through Orange County, the 5 freeway spurred the development of regional shopping centers near its off-ramps, like the Anaheim Plaza, shown here circa 1964. Courtesy of the Anaheim Public Library photograph collection on Anaheim local history, accession number: P586.
San Diego Freeway in San Clemente, 1961
The southernmost stretch of the 5 freeway through San Clemente was among the last segments to open to traffic. It's shown here on the March-April 1961 cover of California Highways and Public Works, published by Caltrans' predecessor agency and digitized by the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.