Pacific Beach, 1916

A century ago, in 1916, Pacific Beach was a sparsely populated suburb of San Diego; the 1916 San Diego City Directory listed about 150 residences in the community, including those in outlying areas like Mission Bay Park, American Park, Venice Park, Soledad Terrace and the Fortuna Park subdivisions. The community’s center, the location of offices, stores, churches, the post office, schoolhouse, etc., was the area around Lamont Street, between Grand and Garnet Avenues. It was noted as the home of San Diego Army and Navy Academy, founded in 1910 on the former campus of San Diego College of Letters and now the site of Pacific Plaza.

Pacific Beach was connected to the city by a railroad line that ran along the entire length of Grand Avenue with stations at Lamont Street and at the ocean front, where it turned north toward La Jolla. Although officially named the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway, the railroad actually terminated in La Jolla and was generally known as the La Jolla line. A time card from January 1916 showed ten trains a day in each direction, four in the morning and six in the afternoon, with an extra round-trip on Saturday evenings. Pacific Beach was also connected to the city by a water main and natural gas pipeline and electric power and telephone lines.

La Jolla Railway train on right-of-way along today’s Grand Avenue near Mission Bay High School, 1914 (San Diego History Center, #91:18564-1666)

According to the January 1, 1916, San Diego Union, in its annual New Year’s Day overview of suburban communities, the situation and surrounding conditions of Pacific Beach were perfect for those who wished for a home within easy reach of the city, near the ocean and on the bay, who can have all the comforts and conveniences of the city together with the freedom of country life. Ironically, the situation and surrounding conditions changed dramatically in the first few weeks of 1916, and while residents could still enjoy the freedom of country life, the comforts and conveniences of the city, eight miles away, were temporarily out of reach.

Charles Hatfield was a self-styled rainmaker who had approached the Common Council with an offer to fill the recently completed but still mostly empty Morena Reservoir in San Diego’s backcountry for a payment of $10,000. The city accepted his offer and in early January he began releasing his secret concoction of vapors into the air above the reservoir. On January 14 it began to rain and by January 17 the rain had become a deluge, not just around Morena Dam but all over Southern California. Although Hatfield’s chemicals could never actually have influenced the weather patterns which occurred over a wide area in the following weeks, the epic floods that resulted were inevitably attributed to Hatfield’s activities (although the rains did fill Morena Reservoir, Hatfield was never paid, in part to distance the city from responsibility for damage caused by the flooding).

Among the creeks and rivers that flooded during the first week of the Hatfield storm was the San Diego River, which drained a large section of the county through Mission Valley and at that time emptied into Mission Bay. The La Jolla railroad line crossed the river on a bridge near Old Town, which also carried the water main to Pacific Beach and La Jolla. A three-year-old concrete bridge a few hundred yards upstream carried the highway from San Diego to the north via Pacific Beach and La Jolla, as well as the gas and electric lines to these suburbs. The Santa Fe railroad line to Los Angeles also crossed the river on a bridge next to the La Jolla line.

As the river rose and threatened these bridges, City Manager of Operation Lockwood had local reservoirs in Pacific Beach and La Jolla filled to their limits and then shut down the water pipeline. Although the La Jolla railway bridge was still standing on January 19, eight of its bents or pilings were reported down and the water main had broken. However, skies were clearing, the river was receding and the Santa Fe and highway bridges across the San Diego River at Old Town were believed saved. Manager Lockwood began replacing the lost pipeline to restore water service to the beach communities.

In Pacific Beach, both the railroad line and the road to the north also crossed Rose Creek and both of these bridges over this normally placid stream had also washed out. Wagon and automobile traffic to Pacific Beach was diverted to the recently completed bridge across the mouth of Mission Bay, between Ocean Beach and Mission Beach. The Evening Tribune also reported a bad washout near Fred Scripps’ place at the foot of Bayard Street. By January 22 this pond of water, which practically surrounded the Scripps home, had been drained and Manager Lockwood declared that highway traffic between San Diego and Del Mar was normal.

On January 24 another storm system arrived (Morena Reservoir had not yet filled and Hatfield was still at work) and with the rivers still high and the ground still saturated from the rains of the previous week the damage was even more severe. The highway bridge across the San Diego River at Old Town was washed away on January 27, breaking the four-inch high pressure gas supply line to Pacific Beach and La Jolla. Gangs of repair men were put to work laying pipe through Mission Beach for a temporary connection and limited gas service was available on January 28. Electric power and telephone service was also cut off and not restored for several days.

The Santa Fe railway bridge across the San Diego River had also washed away within a couple of hours of the highway bridge on January 27. The Santa Fe and La Jolla lines were essentially parallel to each other from downtown San Diego to Morena, at which point the local line turned west into Pacific Beach. With both of their bridges over the San Diego River gone, the two railroads reached a deal in which the La Jolla line lent the Santa Fe a pair of pile drivers to help rebuild the Santa Fe’s bridge and the Santa Fe agreed to allow the La Jolla line to use its tracks from San Diego to Morena over the rebuilt bridge until the La Jolla line was able to rebuild its own bridge.

A replacement for the Santa Fe bridge was ready and limited rail service to Pacific Beach and La Jolla was resumed on February 11 using the Santa Fe tracks from the downtown station to Morena. In the meantime, the Tribune reported that several young women attending high school in San Diego had been forced to take up residence in San Diego and San Diego boys attending the Army and Navy Academy in Pacific Beach could not attend school. The Santa Fe had suffered damage in several other locations along its line and it did not complete those repairs and resume operations into San Diego until a week later. The La Jolla line resumed operation over its own tracks and under its normal schedule on March 1 (the pilings which supported its rebuilt bridge over the San Diego River are still visible today). A wooden trestle replacement for the concrete highway bridge swept away in the floods opened in April. Also in April, a new 10-inch water main to Pacific Beach and La Jolla was laid across the river on the Santa Fe bridge.

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The San Diego River today, with pilings from the 1916 La Jolla Railway bridge in the foreground and bridges for the main rail line to Los Angeles, formerly the Santa Fe, and the San Diego trolley in the background.

While attention had been focused on restoring connections to the city, much was still going on in Pacific Beach and its environs in early 1916. A road had been built from the north end of Lamont Street to the summit of Mount Soledad and in April the Evening Tribune announced that it would be ‘dedicated, or christened, or something of that sort’ by the San Diego Floral Association, in a ceremony led by Kate Sessions. Five Torrey pines and three Mt. Diablo big cone pines, grown from seed and donated by Miss Sessions, were planted at the summit. The view from the top was said to be well worth the trip. Later, in June, the Common Council determined that the city owned the summit of Mount Soledad and voted to set it aside as a city park, but did not decide on a name. A Union columnist quipped that the city fathers were puzzled whether to call it after a former mayor or a well-known movie picture star; ‘What possible ground is there for indecision in the matter’. The council also did not provide any funds for improvements at that time. The name and status of the summit of Mount Soledad and its subsequent ‘improvement’ with a memorial cross has still not been resolved a century later.

The San Diego Army and Navy Academy, founded in 1910 with Captain Thomas A. Davis as the only instructor and an initial class of just 13 students, held its 1916 graduation exercises in June at which six students received diplomas. Opening exercises for the fall term were held on September 18 and an ad in the Evening Tribune cordially invited the public to attend; ‘The La Jolla Line car, leaving the Fourth street office at 2:15 will arrive at the Academy in time for exercises’. The ad introduced the faculty, which in addition to Davis included heads of the departments of Sciences, Mathematics and Ancient Languages, English, and Modern Languages, and a Professor of Military Science and Tactics who doubled as the Commandant of Cadets. There was also an Assistant Commandant, a Substitute in English Department, Instructor of Primary Department and a Housemother. The entire enrollment ‘up to Saturday’, totaling 62 boys, was listed by name along with their home towns.

Another important event on the academy calendar was Founder’s Day, November 23, the date the academy had been founded in 1910. The celebration in 1916 included an afternoon athletic meet and an evening banquet for students, faculty and outside friends, with Capt. Davis as toastmaster. The banquet menu (iced celery, ripe olives, pineapple salad, roast turkey with cranberries and oyster dressing, asparagus tips, drawn butter, snowed potatoes, mince and pumpkin pies) was detailed in the Tribune. Opening and graduation exercises and Founder’s Day celebrations at the academy continued to be annual events and grew in size and importance as the academy expanded over the coming decades. San Diego Army and Navy Academy failed during the depression and in 1936 became Brown Military Academy, which Davis returned to lead until his retirement in 1954. Brown Military Academy remained on the site until 1958 and many of the former academy buildings stood until 1965.

Another event which affected Pacific Beach in 1916 was the opening of an electric rail line to Mission Beach and the establishment of the Mission Beach Tent City. The Bay Shore Railroad had been incorporated in 1914 with plans to build a bridge across the inlet of Mission Bay to connect the new subdivision of Mission Beach with San Diego’s trolley system via Point Loma and Ocean Beach. The bridge had been built in 1915, and in fact had been the only route by which automobile traffic could reach Pacific Beach from the city when the highway bridge at Old Town had washed out in January. Work on the rail line began in March 1916 and by June it had been completed between Ocean Beach and Redondo Court in north Mission Beach. In north Mission Beach, work began on a Tent City, ‘a brand new, spick and span, thoroughly modern city of tents and fine bungalows; a veritable Dream City by the sea’, complete with a bath house, dressing rooms, and a shallow pool for the little folks. The developer was Josephus M. Asher, Jr., a Pacific Beach resident and local real estate operator, who agreed to develop a tent city, including streets, wooden curbs and sidewalks, a bath house, pools and a pier in exchange for title to the site. An informal opening of the Tent City and inauguration of the trolley service occurred on July 15 (final completion and a formal opening of the Tent City occurred in the summer of 1917).

In October the Union reported that United States Army ‘birdmen’ attached to the signal corps aviation school at North Island had made 5815 flights for a total time aloft of 2760 hours and a distance of about 165,000 miles so far during 1916, with only one minor mishap. Cross-country flights had been made to Pacific Beach and La Jolla, and as far away as Encinitas, and landings were made at each place. Two new 135 horsepower steel battleplanes capable of a speed of 80 miles an hour carrying a pilot and a bomb thrower were currently being assembled. The landings at Pacific Beach had been on 75 acres of land adjoining Mission Bay where the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation proposed establishing a testing plant and training station to facilitate delivery of aeroplanes ordered for the signal corps school. The bay would also have offered an admirable place for the teaching of seaplane students, but the proposed testing and training station was never built.

Also in October, the La Jolla railway applied to the state railway commission for permission to reduce service and increase fares. According to president E. S. Babcock the railroad had been operating at a loss for years because of the general depression and the growing number of private automobiles. This application was eventually dismissed, but it foreshadowed an application to discontinue rail service which was granted in 1919, after which the line was shut down and the rails torn up. Portions of the right-of-way between Grand Avenue and La Jolla, and the Bayshore Railroad in Mission Beach, were later incorporated into an electric rail line that ran from San Diego through Mission Beach and Pacific Beach to La Jolla between 1924 and 1940.

In 2016, meteorologists are suggesting that history may repeat itself; that ‘el niño’ conditions in the Pacific Ocean may produce storms to compare with Hatfield’s a century ago. If so, the rain will fall in a far different situation and surrounding conditions in Pacific Beach, where the comforts and conveniences of the city remain but the country life is gone forever.