Many people trying to find information about Pacific Beach today would probably start with an internet search and find themselves looking at the Wikipedia page for ‘Pacific Beach, San Diego’. In the ‘History’ section they would learn that Pacific Beach was developed during the boom years of 1886-1888 by D. C. Reed, A. G. Gassen, Charles W. Pauley, R. A. Thomas, and O. S. Hubbell, and that it was Hubbell who ‘cleared away the grainfields, pitched a tent, mapped out the lots, hired an auctioneer and started to work’. This description of PB’s origin is also repeated verbatim in the websites of dozens of other organizations and businesses with some connection to Pacific Beach. However, while it is true that Pacific Beach was established during San Diego’s boom years and the individuals listed were among PB’s developers, this colorful account of its creation is mostly a myth.
The Wikipedia article cites Zelma Bays Locker’s 1976 Journal of San Diego History paper Whatever Happened to Izard Street? Pacific Beach and its Street Names as the source for this information, and the first problem with the Wikipedia account appears to be simply a misunderstanding of Mrs. Locker’s grammar. She never said ‘it was Hubbell’; what she said was ‘Promoters of the new subdivision were D. C. Reed, A. G. Gassen, Charles W. Pauley, R. A. Thomas and O. S. Hubbell, who “cleared away the grainfields, pitched a tent, mapped out the lots, hired an auctioneer and started to work.”’ While this sentence could have been phrased more clearly, it does seem that Mrs. Locker intended to attribute those development activities to the entire group of promoters, not to Hubbell alone. Nothing else in the historical record suggests that Hubbell had a preeminent role in the early development of Pacific Beach.
A more serious problem is that most of the activities attributed to the promoters (or Hubbell) never actually happened. The quotation about clearing the grainfields, pitching a tent, etc. came from a story by M. V. Depew that had appeared in the San Diego Sun in 1931, more than 40 years earlier. That article was about the race track that once stood on the east side of Rose Creek, where the ruins of the grandstand and the stables were still to be found ‘almost hidden by the rank vegetation of two score years’. According to Depew, it had been more than 40 years since clods flew from the hoofs of horses but nature with all her weapons of obliteration had been unable to wipe out the traces of those halcyon days. In those days, land companies were formed, maps were made and auctioneers pitched their tents on the sites. Brass bands, wind-whipped flags and flowery advertising led to frenzied days of untold profit, and ‘in this period Pacific Beach was born’. Reed, Gassen, Pauley, Thomas and Hubbell formed the Pacific Beach Company and, in the now-familiar words from Wikipedia, started to work.
Pacific Beach may have been born in the halcyon days when auctioneers pitched tents, but reports from those days indicate that its birth didn’t exactly follow this script. The Pacific Beach Company was incorporated in July 1887, originally by Reed, R. A. Thomas, and Hubbell, but also J. R. and W. W. Thomas, D. P. Hale, Thos. E. Metcalf, Chas. Collins and Geo. B. Hensley, later joined by Gassen and Pauley. The Pacific Beach Company did have a map drawn up by City Engineer H. K. Wheeler, in October 1887, laying out streets and avenues, blocks and lots. However, the lots were not sold at auction; on the contrary, the Pacific Beach Company announced that lots would be placed on sale December 12, 1887, and that the first man in line at their office at 8 o’clock Monday would have first choice of lots (Bancroft & Co., real estate agents, actually had a relay of men hold the first place in line after the office closed Saturday night, guaranteeing their clients that they could secure them any lot in Pacific Beach).
According to the December 13, 1887, San Diego Union, the opening sale of Pacific Beach lots was the most successful in the history of San Diego real estate transactions, all things considered. There was a large crowd of purchasers and the Pacific Beach Company did not resort to the usual methods of ‘booming’ the sale; there was no band in attendance, no free carriages and no free lunch. The property was sold in the same manner that all other business is transacted, on the recognized principle of ‘first come, first served’.
So, O. S. Hubbell may have pitched a tent but he didn’t map out the lots; that was done by City Engineer H. K. Wheeler. He may have hired an auctioneer but the opening sale was held at the Pacific Beach Company’s office downtown and purchasers were allowed to buy their choice of lots ‘first come, first served’. There was no brass band or free lunch, and no mention of wind-whipped flags, flowery advertising or other signs of the frenzied days of untold profits that were supposed to have characterized the period when Pacific Beach was born.
And what about the grain fields? The San Diego Union reported in December 1887 that grading on the route of the Pacific Beach railroad from Morena to the beach (along Balboa and Grand Avenues) was progressing rapidly, that excavation for the planned college had been finished and brickwork begun, and that men were at work laying pipe from the city water works. However, there was nothing in the Union to suggest that the rest of the tract had been cleared or otherwise prepared for development.
If anything was done to the grain fields in 1887 the effects were short-lived, and Pacific Beach continued to produce large crops of grain and hay for decades. For example, in May 1895 the Union reported that hundreds of acres of grain were being harvested in Pacific Beach and the yield was good. Pacific Beach ranchers shipped $3,000 worth of produce, principally grain, to San Francisco on the steamer Santa Rosa in July 1897, according to the Evening Tribune. In November 1897 the Tribune noted that men and teams and plows were at work from daylight until dark putting in seed for next year’s hay crop. In 1899 the report was that O. J. Stough had nearly finished seeding 1200 acres to hay around the Beach (1200 acres is nearly 2 square miles; practically the entire area of Pacific Beach). In 1900 ‘The grain fields are beautiful and farmers say the prospects were never better’.
So, the Pacific Beach creation story turns out to be somewhat less dramatic than what is portrayed in Wikipedia, but just as historic. And as an interesting footnote, Wikipedia’s own creation story turns out to have a connection with Pacific Beach, and with Pacific Beach history. In 2001 the founders of Wikipedia worked at an office at the corner of Lamont and Hornblend Streets and they came up with the idea for an online encyclopedia with collaborative editing over dinner at Mama Mia’s restaurant, on Balboa Avenue between Lamont and Morrell. That restaurant building dates from about 1889, one of the first houses built in Pacific Beach and one of the oldest, if not the oldest, still standing. It was originally the home of PB pioneers Henry and Fannie Gleason.