James Irvine I left lasting legacy in Orange County

The city of Irvine gets its name from the family that once owned the land. The patriarch was James Irvine I, (1827-1886) a determined and disciplined California pioneer whose life embodied the true meaning of a "rags to riches" story.

When he was 19, Irvine left his native Ireland after the Potato Famine and landed in New York state "without a penny in his pocket." After gold was discovered in California in 1848, Irvine decided to seek his fortune in the West.

Before the Panama Canal, the trip to California was an arduous journey by canoe, mule, and on foot. Once on the west coast of Panama, Irvine boarded the Alexander Humboldt. During this voyage, he met Dr. Benjamin Flint who would later become his business partner.

James Irvine landed in San Francisco in 1849 and set out to make his fortune during the Gold Rush. Irvine found success as a merchant not a miner, selling supplies to those who were looking for gold. He invested his profits in San Francisco real estate and, by 1860, had become one of the city's wealthiest businessmen.

About this time, Irvine was asked by his former shipmate, Dr. Flint, to become a partner in a sheep raising venture in Monterey County. The Civil War had interrupted the cotton industry, and wool had become very valuable. The grazing operation was so profitable that Irvine and his partners began to look for more land further south.

After devastating drought and a lavish lifestyle, Don Jose Andres Sepulveda needed to sell his Mexican land grant. In 1864, James Irvine and his partners purchased the ranch for the purpose of grazing sheep, along with portions of two other land grants. All in all, they amassed more than 110,000 acres which covered parts of the present day cities of Irvine, Tustin, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. They paid 38 cents per acre.