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Vintage San Diego: Rent a Tent

In the early 1900s, the Hotel de Coronado was renting oceanfront tents to the rising tide of visitors


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Photo circa 1905

Back before glamping was a thing, Hotel del Coronado was offering semi-luxe oceanfront tents at a bargain price. Tent City, originally called Camp Coronado, began in 1900. Its family-friendly accommodations were designed for a rising tide of visitors—the middle class, most of whom were unable to spring for a room in the actual hotel.

Vacations via tent were becoming popular, and the success of nearby campgrounds like Catalina inspired Hotel Del owner John D. Spreckels to build something similar in Coronado. Tent City’s activity peaked during summertime, but some residents lived there year-round. The peninsula’s mild climate and coastal breezes served as a major draw for people from New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. (The Zonies were coming, even then!)

The tents varied in size and could hold up to eight people. A standard furnished tent came with beds, chairs, cooking utensils, electric lights, housekeeping, and more. The area, about a mile in length, functioned like a real city, with a daily newspaper and its own police department. Entertainment attractions included a soda fountain, floating casino, dance hall, carousel, shooting gallery, and high dive. Legend has it that John Philip Sousa once conducted the Tent City Band, and Wyatt Earp is also rumored to have paid a visit.

The photo above shows its site on the Silver Strand just south of the hotel, where the Coronado Shores condos now stand. The railcar was part of the Coronado Railroad Company, which went down to National City and up to downtown San Diego. Tent City continued to thrive until the late 1930s, officially closing in 1939.

The onset of World War II and popularization of the automobile are said to have contributed to its demise. But pieces of Tent City’s history remain. Parts of the dance hall roof were used to build the movie theater on North Island, and the Tent City carousel was moved (and still operates!) outside the San Diego Zoo.

By the Numbers

600 - Number of tents and cottages

10,000+ - Number of people who stayed at Tent City in 1914

$2.25 - Price per day for a four-person tent in 1909, or $10 per week

$3.00 - Price per day for a room at the Hotel Del in the early 1900s

12 - Speed limit (mph) for cars within Tent City

50¢ - Price for a one-way train ride from downtown San Diego to Coronado

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