San Diego History

Alonzo Horton ALONZO ERASTUS HORTON stepped off a San Francisco steamer and strolled ashore in 1867 on land that would become the center of a new San Diego, he was awed by what he found. "I have been nearly all over the world," said the man who would one day be known as the father of New San Diego, "and this is just the prettiest place for a city I ever saw."

It was an exclamation to be echoed by millions of others, visitors and residents, with unceasing repetition, for more than a century.

Alonzo Horton was not the first, but he was surely the single most influential San Diego real estate speculator in the history of a city whose story may be told in real estate speculation. Nor was Horton the first to be attracted by San Diego's natural harbor and almost-supernatural beauty.

For centuries, dating back to 9000 B.C., this area belonged to the Southern California coastal region's first Americans, now called the San Dieguito. These San Dieguito were descended from Asians who crossed the land bridge in the Bering Strait in search of game, and from others who moved over the Sierra Nevadas and down the Pacific slope. Not unlike the modern Californians, they sought and found the best places to live.

About 1000 B.C., the Diegueño or Kumeyaay Indians came to the region, mixing with the Indians already here. And until the 16th century A.D., when Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, exploring for Spain, sailed into San Diego Harbor, this uncharted paradise belonged to them.

Cabrillo, the first European to reach the Southern California soil, had not come to colonize it. Cabrillo discovered San Diego while searching for a northwest passage to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. And after his arrival on September 28, 1542, the eve of the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, Cabrillo named his discovery San Miguel. And then, for decades, San Miguel was ignored by outsiders.

Sixty years later, another explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno, sailing north along the California coast for Spain, arrived in San Miguel on November 12, 1602, and renamed it San Diego, for the patron saint of his flagship, San Diego de Alcalá. But Spain was not interested in settling California. Quicker riches and the enhancement of a growing empire elsewhere in the Pacific and in the Orient drew the explorers away from San Diego. Another 167 years would pass before the colonization began.

Spain's reluctant decision to colonize Mexico's Baja California and the rest of California in the mid-1700s was made in an effort to discourage Russian fur traders, who had sailed across the Aleutians and were moving down the coast of northwest America. Rather than wage a full-scale military operation against the local Indians to establish control, Spain instead lent military support to the mission priests, who attempted to make Christians of the Indians. In the process, not incidentally, they raised the flag of Spain.

With Jose de Galvez, an adviser to the Spanish king, Charles III, organizing a force to establish a stronghold at Monterey in Alta (upper) California, Spain began its push north from the Baja California peninsula. And with the Catalonian captain, Don Gaspar de Portolá, leading the military forces, and the Franciscan priest, Fray Junípero Serra, leading the charge for the church, a string of missions, presidios and pueblos was established. San Diego, whose natural harbor was at the halfway point between Loreto in Baja California and Monterey, was the first base for the expedition.

The overland march from Loreto to San Diego was beset by disasters. Food ran out; water was scarce; Indian servants deserted or died. But Serra and Portolá arrived in San Diego in the summer of 1769, and Serra wrote of the area, "It is beautiful to behold and does not belie its reputation." Portola and a group of men continued the march on to Monterey Bay, but Serra stayed. And on July 16, 1769, the first California mission, San Diego de Alcalá, was dedicated. Later, Serra went on to establish a chain of 21 California missions, with some 5,000 Indian converts within their walls, before his death in 1784.

The Spanish mission system survived and prospered into the 19th century, with a healthy commerce in the trading of hides, wine, grain and leatherwork. But after Mexico declared its in- dependence from Spain in 1821, forces were set in motion that would doom the old system. In 1833, after long pressure from the Spanish-Mexican settlers of California, the Mexican government began parceling out the mission property to political favorites.

In 1846, Mission San Diego de Alcalá and its 58,000 acres were granted by Mexico Governor Pio Pico to Don Santiago Arguello. At that time, the town of San Diego, settled at the foot of the presidio in an area now known as Old Town, had a population of about 350.

By then, however, the war between the United States and Mexico had reached the West Coast. And San Diego, with its strategic Southern California port, was taken by U.S. forces meeting minimal resistance. When the war ended in 1847, San Diego, established as the first Spanish mission in California almost 80 years earlier, and under Mexican rule for the past 25 years, became a part of the United States.

But the ceding of San Diego to the United States brought no immediate boom. In fact, by the end of the Civil War, San Diego's population had dropped by half. The gold rush brought settlement to northern California. A land rush ultimately settled Southern California.

IT WAS LAND, and the dream of building a new city, that brought Alonzo Horton, a wealthy trader and landowner, to San Diego in 1867. Horton, who had been living in San Francisco, built his first city, Hortonville, in Wisconsin before moving west. But while Horton may have been awed by the land that would become his "New San Diego" on the bay, he had this to say of the dying town at the foot of the old presidio 3 miles to the north: "I would not give you $5 for a deed to the whole of it. I would not take it as a gift."

But Horton did make a deal. Of that beautiful site to the south, he bought 960 acres, at 271/2 cents an acre, and promptly returned to San Francisco to set up a land sales office boosting San Diego as the city of the future.

At the age of 54, Horton had the ambition of a young man. He first heard of San Diego at a lecture in San Francisco on the ports of California. In an interview in 1905, he told of his decision to move to San Diego: "I could not sleep at night for thinking about San Diego, and at 2 in the morning, I got up and looked on a map to see where San Diego was. And then I went back to bed satisfied. In the morning, I said to my wife, 'I am going to sell my goods and go to San Diego and build a city.'"

Horton was not the first to envision a city where downtown San Diego lies today. Before the National Boundary Survey between the United States and Mexico was completed in 1849, surveyor Andrew Gray had camped at the spot where Alonzo Horton would step ashore 18 years later. Gray was enthusiastic about the prospects for a new city.

He was introduced to William Heath Davis, a San Francisco businessman who had married into an old San Diego family. The men formed a partnership and bought 160 acres of land from city trustees for $2,304. Davis built a wharf out into the bay from the foot of Market Street, and the U.S. government built a supply house and a store there. Gray and Davis convinced a government official in San Diego to secure defenses on the Indian and Mexican frontier and to build new barracks in the town. The official, not surprisingly, became an immediate partner in the new city.

But late the following year, a fire in San Francisco wiped out Davis' empire. His estimated loses were $700,000. Money for building a city evaporated. The government barracks remained, but even they were lost in a flood in 1862. Davis' wharf was demolished for firewood by the stranded troops. When Horton arrived in 1867, the town, known by then as "Davis' Folly," was barren.

The story of San Diego over the next 20 years was a story of boom and bust, with an economy built principally on land speculation. The periods of boom were generally fueled by news of a railroad for the city. And by the mid-1880s, when a rail line finally connected San Diego to the east through Barstow, San Diego was soaring. The population had reached 35,000. The streets and saloons were crowded. Hotels and rooming houses were full.

But the bubble was soon to burst again. San Diego had its railroad, but it was never more than a spur line. The real traffic went through to Los Angeles. San Diego's wharves and warehouses had not filled with the goods of the world. The big cargo ships never came, and the Santa Fe had pushed on to Los An-geles. The boom had fed on itself, and there was little industry or trade to support the thousands of newcomers. Not everyone could sell real estate forever. Some continued to try, but by the late 1880s, San Diego was again "Bust Town."

In the first six years of the new century, San Diego would recover the population it lost in the crash of 1889. John D. Spreckels, the sugar heir who had invested heavily in San Diego, would remain a San Francisco resident during those years, and pour millions of the Spreckels family money into a city he would dominate, sometimes in absentia, for the next two decades. Spreckels owned the streetcar system, two of the town's three newspapers (The San Diego Union and the Evening Tribune), most of Coronado and North Island and the landmark Hotel del Coronado, which had been built at a cost of more than $1 million in 1888 and which Spreckels had taken over when its builder had been unable to repay a loan of $100,000.

In 1900, San Diego's only link with the outside world was the Santa Fe's "Surf Line" running south from rival Los Angeles. It would be nearly 20 years before a rail line was finally completed through San Diego's own mountains to the east. But by then, Los Angeles had firmly established itself as Southern California's transportation center, even creating a man-made harbor to steal commerce from San Diego's natural deep-water port.

WHILE SAN DIEGANS CONTINUED to tie their dreams to railroads and commercial shipping over the next decade, it would be the military that would irrevocably shape the city's future. The Spanish-American War had given evidence of San Diego's stra tegic importance in times of national emergency. And the city's clear flying weather and natural harbor was to attract the military again in World War I.

When Congress declared war on Germany in 1917, San Diego was chosen as the site for the War Department's Army division in the Southwest, and Camp Kearny was established. The Army's Rockwell Field was opened on Coronado's North Island that year, and later transferred to the Naval Air Service. By the end of the war, Rockwell Field had 101 officers, 381 en listed men and 497 planes. And San Diego's future as a Navy city was charted.

Pioneer aviators, such as Glenn Curtiss, were attracted by San Diego's favorable year-round flying conditions. And the U.S. Navy, attracted by Curtiss' demonstrations here, showed new interest in San Diego for the development of naval aviation.

Meanwhile, tourism began to emerge as a factor in San Diego's economy and its future. An exposition in 1915-16, tied to the completion of the Panama Canal, was responsible for building much of the city's 1,400-acre Balboa Park and brought hundreds of thousands of visitors, some of whom never left. A fledgling movie industry began to take hold. The first home of the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography was established in La Jolla.

Tourism continued to boom throughout the 1920s and '30s, with Coronado and La Jolla drawing the film colony south, and Tijuana, across the border in Mexico, attracting crowds to its legal gambling houses. What was to become the world-famous San Diego Zoo found a permanent home within Balboa Park by the early 1920s, with help from local benefactress Ellen Browning Scripps, sister of publisher E.W. Scripps.

Charles Lindbergh built his Spirit of St. Louis in San Diego in 1927, and San Diego staked its claim to a share of the fast-developing aircraft industry. Other pioneering aviators such as Claude Ryan, B.F. Mahoney and Reuben Fleet were attracted to San Diego. With a contract to build flying boats for the Navy, Fleet moved his Consolidated Aircraft Corporation from Buffalo to San Diego, laying the foundation for the future Convair and General Dynamics Corporation-and securing San Diego's future as a major contributor to the U.S. defense industry.

With World War II on the horizon, San Diego's military presence boomed, with the development of the Army's Camp Callen near La Jolla and Camp Elliot on Kearny Mesa. The San Diego area became home to the 11th Naval District Headquarters, the Naval Training Center, Miramar Naval Air Station, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and Camp Pendleton.

The PB2Y Catalina flying boat, built by Consolidated, became the primary patrol plane of the Navy, carrying a major share of Navy combat action in the early months of the war in the Pacific. More than 200 PB2Y Coronado patrol bombers were built by Consolidated for use during the war.

The end of the war left behind thousands of veterans who had discovered San Diego and decided to make it their home. Many of them found jobs in the city's growing defense and aerospace industry, which fueled San Diego's economy for the next two decades.

In the 1960s, with the aerospace industry here in a decline, San Diego entered another down period. Time magazine, in fact, carried a story in 1964 that labeled San Diego "Bust Town, U.S.A." But even as aerospace was going into a decline, the seeds were being planted that would ultimately grow into San Diego's future economy. Two of those seeds took root in La Jolla: the opening by Dr. Jonas Salk of his Salk Institute, and the opening of the 1,000-acre University of California at San Diego campus.

San Diego survived the bust of the 1960s, just as it had survived others throughout its long history. And once again, real estate speculation, coupled with an ever-growing tourism industry and a military presence that continued strong, spawned continued growth and redevelopment through the 1970s and '80s.

In 1996, as the region comes out of one of its deepest recessions and aims toward a new century, most experts are in agreement on San Diego's promising future. While our land will always be of prime value (the speculators will always be with us), and while tourism will continue to flourish (it's our number-three industry), San Diego's destiny seems inextricably tied to its burgeoning growth in the high-tech, biotech and communications fields. And those clean, cutting-edge industries of the 21st century should help maintain what San Diego has preserved of the paradise discovered by the San Dieguito, the Kumeyaay, Cabrillo, Vizcaíno, Portolá, Serra and Horton.

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