Aug 01, 2002 08:27AM
By Don Kindred
I had heard about the protest, even silently saluted it. It took place at the San Juan Capistrano Depot. I saw the picture in the Register afterwards. Former San Juan Mayor Philip Swartze and others stringing what seemed to be a laundry line across the sacred right-of-way of the railroad. They were protesting the threat of a second set of railroad tracks currently planned through their city (and ours) by re-creating the action of another protester; who in 1889 went to prison for presumably doing the same thing.
(Modesta Avila, (pictured right) Orange County's first felon.)
Her name was Modesta Avila. If Modesta is Spanish for “modest”, she was severely mis-named. Orange County historian, Jim Sleeper, described her as a, “charming dark-eyed beauty of San Juan, who depended more on her beauty than her intelligence to keep food on the table and a roof over her head.” She was also evidently a proud woman, who became vigilant when she saw her family¹s rights being trampled by the Santa Fe Railroad. It seems the tracks were laid directly through her mother¹s property. She claimed they never paid for it.
The trains were not only noisy, they were dirty, dangerous and the rumbling of the earth was keeping the chickens from laying their daily eggs. She made up her mind to do something about it. What exactly she did is still debated.
Local legend says she placed her clothesline across the tracks. The Santa Fe folks claim it was a railroad tie. I found a third theory in the introduction of Conquests and Historical Identities in California: 1769-1936, where UC Santa Cruz associate professor of history, Lisbeth Haas, says she nailed a fence post to a railroad track that ran by the home, demanding payment from the Santa Fe Railroad Company for the right of passage. According to Haas, she stuck a piece of paper to the fence post that read: “This land belongs to me. And if the railroad wants to run here, they will have to pay...”. In any case the hindrance was removed by a railroad agent well before a train ever passed.
It might have ended there, but four months later she was arrested and charged with a little known felony called “attempted obstruction of a train.”
A trial ensued, twice, the first one ended in deadlock. Then, before the second had even begun, rumors were circulated that the attractive, but single woman was pregnant. In 1889, questionable moral standards were enough to convict her. She became the newly incorporated Orange County¹s first felon and was sentenced to three years in prison. Her attorney appealed, of course, on the grounds that she was convicted, “on her reputation and not her deed.” The appeal was heard as high as the Supreme Court, but she lost on a technicality.
Modesta Avila died two years later at San Quentin State Prison. She was 22 years old.
No one ever mentioned if she had a baby or not, or if she was really even pregnant. And no one has been able to sell me on the concept of eminent domain. But I am re-thinking that idea of laying down in front of the train if they try to put a second set of tracks through. There¹s gotta be a better way.
Don R. Kindred