For twelve million years the Santa Ana River has drained the mountains that surround Southern California. Throughout this time it has flooded the coastal plains we now know as Orange County. Periodically and regularly, the river would change course carving new channels, abandoning old ones and leaving large wetlands in between. Rich sediments were laid down as flood waters receded and the river found a new path to the ocean. As a result of the Santa Ana River’s waters both on the surface and underground, very large freshwater marshes were created. Where the sediments remained dry for any period, valley grassland and coastal sage scrub would replace freshwater marshes creating a dynamic mosaic of habitats across most of Orange County’s coastal plain.

One of these large wetland complexes became known as Gospel Swamp, covering much of what is now Garden Grove, Fountain Valley and Santa Ana. The exact location of Gospel Swamp has been disputed for years. The original Gospel Swamp was located in what is now the southwest side of Santa Ana (today known as Greenville and South Coast Metro). It later referred to areas further west such as Fountain Valley and subsequently it was used to refer to parts of Huntington Beach and Bolsa Chica.

Although it is not a true swamp, it is actually a wet meadow with rich layers of peat deposits, thick willows, Tule reeds, and brush. At first, it was considered worthless land, but drainage of the land proved useful in turning it into extremely fruitful land which gave it the nickname of “The Egypt of America.” The high quality sediments laid down by the Santa Ana River allowed these areas to become some of the finest farmland in North America. Its fertile soil gave rise to amazing fruits and vegetables which won many awards at local fairs and were touted across the nation in travel account. Livestock was also raised on the fertile land once it was drained.  As a result of the agricultural quality, the marshes were drained and plowed and eventually developed. Many traveling churches set up tent revivals on the edge of the marsh to minister to the remote farm families and that is how the area came to be known as Gospel Swamp.

Today very little marshland remains. Efforts to restore portions of Southern California’s vast marshes have occurred but with limited success. The Gospel Swamp Natural Area Restoration Effort will provide several significant ecological benefits including increased habitat quality, improved nesting opportunities and species diversity. In addition, the community involvement will lead to better protection and appreciation for the habitat at the Gospel Swamp natural area. Gospel Swamp is like a shiny emerald on a brown and black necklace we call the Santa Ana River, flowing through Santa Ana. The riparian habitat is like a magnet for birds that use the river as a guiding flyway. We have identified more than 150 birds that utilize the site and have seen Gnatcatchers, Least Bell’s Vireos and other species on site. Due to the poor condition of the habitat, these species have not stayed to nest on site.

Fortunately, HMOC was awarded a grant from the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project to help us start the restoration of our two wetlands and riparian uplands that drain into the wetland areas. Over the past 18 months volunteers and staff have planted over 1400 native plants and trees, cleared 70 cubic yards of invasive plants and 56 yards of non-plant material. These efforts are paying off. The native plants are flourishing and very soon birds and mammals will return to make this area their home. More work needs to be done but we have a good start.

Godinez Fundamental High School, which borders HMOC, encourages partnerships with the Museum by encouraging its science classes to utilize the site for outside-the-classroom educational experiences. Godinez students also regularly volunteer at the Museum and have begun to use the site for senior projects as well.

HMOC also utilizes the natural area for educational programs for Mitchell Child Development Center, the Museum’s neighbor to the south which provides preschool services to Santa Ana Unified School District and provides services for special needs children. These students, many of whom have been diagnosed with autism, visit the Gospel Swamp natural area to explore and discover the world of the wetlands. Come explore our “oasis” in the Urban Landscape of Santa Ana.

A popular addition to the Gospel Swamp natural area is a gold mine set used as part of our Gold Rush tour for fourth graders. It includes a mine shaft, a mine car on tracks, and a head frame that feeds water to a small stream where visiting students pan for “Heritage Gold.”