Saturday, May 20, 2006

Goodbye El Toro

Today we say goodbye to another Orange County Landmark: The El Toro Air Base, which served the U.S. Marine Corps for more than 50 years. Approximately 2,000 people gathered there at the official last salute before the demolition crews start ripping out the four 8,000-10,000 runways that have handled every type of aircraft the Marines have flown since World War II, including propeller-driven planes, fighter jets and helicopters. We would have been there too were it not for the fact that we had already committed to other plans.

El Toro Marine Base from 15,000 feet.

Some people might wonder why I have such an interest in the El Toro airbase. Mostly it's because I'm such a history buff. For example, the base was instrumental in everything from World War II to Desert Storm. It was also the home of the El Toro Air Show, which took place annually from the 1950s until 1997. The airport was even the final stop for President Richard Nixon, both when he landed upon resigning the White House in 1973, and at his funeral in 1994. All presidents in the post-WWII era landed in Air Force One at this airport.

Before El Toro, there were 20,000 acres of lima beans and black beans.

When the base was decommissioned in 1999, El Toro became the focus of an Orange County battleground over post-military use. One side wanted to use the existing runways to build an international airport that would supplant the county's fairly small John Wayne airport in Costa Mesa. The other side was adamantly against building an airport due to traffic congestion, noise, and a host of other concerns. In the end the anti-airport crowd prevailed.

In the 1940s, the U.S. Marine Corps bought a 4,000-acre parcel for $100,000.

Even though we weren't able to take part in the closing ceremonies, we did get to see the grounds when we were there for a GM car show early last year. In fact that was where we first test-drove the Saab that inspired us to buy the one we have now. That was pretty cool, especially since we got to park right on the runway.

The rubble from a section of the runway.

But as we say goodbye to one Orange County landmark, we say hello to another. Replacing El Toro will be the Orange County Great Park, a 1,347-acre public park that will be larger than New York City's Central Park, San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and San Diego's Balboa Park. It's still years away from completion, but that will be very cool.

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