History of Westminster

Westminster Through the Years

A review of Westminster’s history can help recognize trends and events that shaped the way the City has evolved over the last 200 years. Westminster’s roots run deep, with history dating back to the 1800s, as early as any other community in Orange County. In fact, Westminster was the second colony in Orange County to be deliberately founded, but in contrast to the first (Anaheim), Westminster was not founded by any one ethnic group nor did it center on one product economy; this diversity in culture and trade is still evident in modern-day Westminster. Over the years, Westminster grew from an agrarian community to one with a diversity of land use, including a range of residential neighborhoods, job choices, and recreational amenities. A brief overview of the community’s history is outlined in this section to provide the framework for moving forward over the next 20-30 years. 

Agrarian Roots: 1800s – 1920s 

Westminster’s roots date back to the 1800s, when it was founded by Reverend Lemuel P. Webber as the second Presbyterian temperance colony in Orange County (after Anaheim). The colony was named after the Westminster Assembly of 1643, which prescribed the basic principles of the Presbyterian faith. The economy was established throughout the 19th century, when the completion of the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroads brought settlers from the east coast, along with immigrants from China, Japan, and Mexico. Many people were attracted to the region’s rich productive soils, and the area was eventually transformed from a “small quiet village” into an agricultural hub with some of the most productive dairying centers, celery fields, and sugar factories in the country. However, even with growing interest in the region, the population of Westminster was only 225 people by 1874. 

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the town’s business economy started to take shape. The town’s first general store and schoolhouse were established to serve the growing community; the general store kicked-off Westminster’s first business district on Almond Avenue, which today is known as Westminster Boulevard. By the end of the 19th century, the town had a range of commercial services while maintaining its reputation as a premiere agricultural center. The first library was built in 1900 and in 1902 the first telephone line reached what would become the City of Westminster. To support the community’s growing economic interests, the town’s Chamber of Commerce was established and the “Plaza Association” was organized to develop Sigler Park, which still serves as a signature landmark and local destination in Westminster. 

A Growing Community: 1920s – 1950s

The suburban residential tracts developed in Westminster in the 1920s-1950s are still a prominent fixture of the community’s urban fabric as the majority of the City’s acres support residential uses. In 1924 the Midway City subdivision began construction, followed shortly by Barber City in 1927. During the 1920s, the world’s largest goldfish farm moved into the area where the Westminster Mall stands today. Despite the growth of the community in the 1920s, the Great Depression stifled growth for much of the 1930s. In addition to the economic strains of the Depression, natural disasters including a major earthquake in 1933 and a severe flood in 1938 held Westminster back from embracing the development the city experienced in its early years. 

Despite its stagnant growth in the early 1900s, by the 1940s and 1950s, the nationwide war and post-war boom brought exponential population growth to most areas throughout Southern California, especially those communities with access to jobs near the ports and aeronautic facilities. Following the war, servicemen who were located in Southern California decided to stay for the warm climate, and many large housing tracts grew around the agricultural lands of Westminster. The City’s population nearly quadrupled during this time from 2,500 in 1942 to nearly 10,800 in 1956. 

In 1957, proceedings began to form a municipality called Tri City, in a proposal to combine three communities into one: Westminster, Barber City, and Midway City. Before the vote, Midway City withdrew from the venture and remains unincorporated today. The proposal to incorporate Westminster and Barber City was approved by a vote of 1,096 to 1,008, and Westminster became California’s 337th city in 1957.

Becoming a City: 1960s – 1970s 

By 1963, the Orange County population had surpassed one million, as tourism, manufacturing and the service industries took over local economies once Disneyland opened its gates in 1955. During the 1960s, Westminster’s population exploded, more than doubling in a single decade from 25,000 at the beginning of the 1960s to 60,000 by 1970. As a result, the majority of the City’s residential neighborhoods were built during this time. Westminster continued to thrive throughout the 1960s and 1970s, especially after the Southland Freeway (I-405) system was completed and the Westminster Mall was constructed, the latter of which became a regional attraction that continues to be the City’s primary sales tax generator. As commerce and tourism continued to develop throughout the city and county, municipal construction projects in Westminster—including a new administration building, senior citizens facility, fire department buildings, and a renovation of the civic auditorium—demonstrated the prosperity of the time. By the end of the 1970s, very little vacant land remained in Westminster, and some of the community’s older buildings had already reached the end of their useful life and were redeveloped. 

Creation of a Cultural Destination: 1970s – 1980s 

In the 1970s and 1980s a large number of Vietnamese refugees fleeing from conflict in their homeland settled in an area of Westminster and Garden Grove referred to as “Little Saigon.” This influx of new immigrants spurred the construction and development of a variety of Southeast Asian businesses, restaurants, and professional services, which establish a new commercial activity center in the city and supported the largest Vietnamese cultural enclave outside of Vietnam (some 500 businesses opened in the Bolsa Avenue area in the 1980s alone). Although several other Vietnamese enclaves have emerged throughout the United States (including in San Jose, Houston, and Chicago) Little Saigon here in the Westminster/Garden Grove area is unofficially considered the Vietnamese “capital” of the United States, with a 2010 population of 36,000 Vietnamese Americans (the highest municipal concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the nation). On weekends, the number of people in Westminster triples, as Little Saigon regularly draws visitors from Los Angeles, San Diego, and even northern California. 

Westminster Today: 1990s – Present Day 

Well-established by the 1990s as a multicultural community with deep roots in Western, Mexican, and Vietnamese histories, in 1996 Westminster was designated an “All-America City” by the National Civic League for civic accomplishments, made possible by the cooperative efforts of business, government, the volunteer sector, and other individuals. Westminster continues to support the needs of a diverse population today and is widely seen as a welcoming community, with many services and venues to serve its visitors and residents including a 420-seat theater at the Westminster Rose Center, a satellite campus of Coastline Community College, Sid Goldstein Freedom Park, and Westminster Mall. 

Upgrades to the City’s infrastructure continue, with the City continually investing in multi-modal transportation, water services, waste operations, parks and recreation facilities, public administration offices, and public safety services. In the first part of the 2000s, there was a special focus on improving and maintaining community facilities most important to a primarily built-out city, including roadways, utilities, and parks. Westminster demonstrates its commitment to continue providing a high quality of life for its residents, property owners, business owners, and visitors.