Ye Olde Mission Inn

Club house, soon to be Ye Olde Mission Inn, and grand stand of the Pacific Beach Driving Park about 1906 (San Diego History Center #344)

In July 1887 a group of sporting men formed the Southern California Breeders Association and purchased Pueblo Lot 1797, a half-mile square below today’s Garnet Avenue through which Rose Creek flowed toward Mission Bay. The Breeders Association planned to build a race track at the site with stables, a grand stand and a clubhouse. These would actually be the first improvements in the area north of Mission Bay that was soon to become Pacific Beach.

The grandstand was completed by November 1887, in time for a baseball game between the National League’s Philadelphia team and a group of local amateurs, which the Phillies won 31 – 7. The Pacific Beach Driving Park was opened for racing on May 1, 1888, by which time the clubhouse, a three-story building of 22 rooms, had also been completed. Later, in October 1888, nearly 7,000 people crowded the track to watch the noted swordswoman Jaguarina defeat Captain Wiedemann in an exhibition of mounted sword combat.

However, the race track’s location at the mouth of Rose Creek made it vulnerable to flooding during winter storms. The San Diego Union reported that the Pacific Beach race track was demolished by a stream that came down Rose’s Canyon during one storm in December 1889. Other storms in March 1893 and January 1895 compounded the damage to the race course and racing never recovered, although the grand stand was still used for crowd-pleasing events like rodeos, balloon ascents and parachute drops.

In May 1903 the rumor spread that the track had been purchased by A. G. Spaulding, the sporting goods magnate and former major league pitcher, who was then a resident of Point Loma. Although the rumor turned out to be false, or at least premature, the renewed interest in the track prompted its then-owner Col. A. G. Gassen to initiate a program of improvements. Gassen also formed the Belmont Breeders Association and brought a number of thoroughbred horses to the stables at the track. Spaulding did take over the Belmont Breeders Association in September 1903 and renamed it the American Saddle-Horse Breeding Farm. The track itself became known as American Park. However, Spaulding’s ownership was also brief and in November 1904 Pueblo Lot 1797 was acquired by U. S. Grant, Jr., son of the civil war general and former president. Grant sold it to the Mission Bay Park Company in November 1906 and the property was included in the Mission Bay Park subdivision in 1907.

Although the race track had been abandoned, the grand stand, club house and a judges’ stand remained standing and in March 1907 the lots where these buildings stood, about where Figueroa Boulevard and Magnolia Avenue intersected on the Mission Bay Park subdivision map, was purchased by Ye Olde Mission Inn Company, a corporation set up in February 1907 by James H. Babcock and others. Babcock reputedly had an extensive background in the hospitality business. According to the San Diego Union, his first success was as proprietor of the Hotel Bartholdi in New York and he later conducted the Lick café and restaurant in San Francisco, then delighted the palates of the Alaska miners with his St. Nicholas restaurant at Nome. After winning a fortune in the gold mines, he returned to San Francisco and inaugurated the celebrated Bab’s café, which the Union called the most noted restaurant on the coast. Somewhere along the line he was also said to have been proprietor of one of the most famous resorts in Denver. Bab’s, in San Francisco, was a ‘Bohemian’ café, ‘divided into little rooms made to represent prison cells, undertaking establishments, mausoleums and other strange places. Coffins were used for tables and skulls for drinking cups’. Bab’s was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 1906 but Babcock himself made a ‘sensational escape’ from the ruined city. He turned up in San Diego where he purchased Ye Olde Mission Inn at American Park and was ‘fitting everything up in modern elegance’.

Bad fortune had apparently followed him to San Diego, however, and in February 1908 the Mission Inn, a ‘picturesque country resort’, narrowly escaped destruction when a shed at the rear of the hotel used as a carpenter shop caught fire. Although the shed was a total loss, volunteers using a garden hose and bucket brigade prevented the flames from jumping across to an adjacent building formerly used as a judges’ stand. The Union reported that had the fire reached the judges’ stand nothing could have saved the nearby hotel building, formerly the race track’s club house. Among the volunteers fighting the fire was A. B. Cairnes, the first chief of the San Diego fire department, who had retired in 1905 and built a home on a prominent rise overlooking the race track. Chief Cairnes presumably saw the smoke and flames and reacted instinctively by rushing to the fire.

In September 1908 Babcock announced a renovation and improvement of the property that would ‘eclipse’ any country club house in the west, but instead the Mission Inn was completely destroyed by a second fire in November 1908. The Evening Tribune reported ‘only a heap of smoldering ruins where last night there was a pretty and substantial structure’ and the Union added that there was little left to remind one of the ‘old days’. The building was valued at $15,000 and insured for $7000.

Ye Olde Mission Inn Company continued to own the property and in 1910 Babcock proposed building a new club house on the site with 15 sleeping rooms, a large dining hall and a grill, for the use of members of the Pacific Coast Automobile & Driving Club. Membership in the club, of which Babcock was the ‘leading spirit’, would be limited and a membership certificate would cost $25. Every courtesy would be extended to women in the families of members; they would be allowed the privileges of the club at all times and even permitted to invite their women friends as guests. However, although automobiles were beginning to travel along the boulevard connecting Los Angeles and San Diego, which at the time passed through Pacific Beach on what is now Garnet Avenue, the Automobile & Driving club’s club house was never built and the property was auctioned at the courthouse door in February 1912. In 1947 a motel was built on the site to accommodate motorists passing by on the Pacific Highway, U.S. 101. The Rancho 101 Motel incorporated the last remaining structure from the race track, the three-story judges’ stand.

After abandoning the Mission Inn venture James Babcock tried his hand at the hospitality business in downtown San Diego. In November 1911 he was one of the incorporators of the Cecil Hotel Company which leased a new six-story building on Sixth Street between B and C, said to be the first steel frame structure in San Diego. The Union reported that the deal was made through the Babcock Investment Company, whose president James H. Babcock became secretary of the hotel company and whose reputation as a restauranteur guaranteed the success of the new venture from the culinary and epicurean point of view; ‘No man on the Pacific coast commands a higher reputation in this line’.

Babcock became proprietor of the grill in the Hotel Cecil building and also opened a beer garden in an adjoining space; a November 1912 ad in the Union announced that Bab’s German Garden Restaurant, next door to the Cecil Hotel, was ‘quaint and cozy’. Under the personal supervision of James H. Babcock, the entertainment was high class – the chef and cuisine could not be excelled. Tourists and San Diegans were invited to inspect San Diego’s most popular restaurant, where refined ‘Bohemianism’ reigned. However, on December 31 the Evening Tribune reported that patrons of Bab’s German Garden would be robbed of the privilege of ushering in the New Year by frequent libations from the flowing bowl, for the flowing bowl was gone for good from Bab’s and from the emporium of its adjoining neighbor, the Hotel Cecil Grill. Apparently both places had allowed liquor to be served after midnight, without purchase of a bona fide meal, and as much as the patron desired, all apparently in violation of their licenses, which were thereby revoked. Conversations overheard between several chambermaids also indicated that morals at the Hotel Cecil were not all that could be desired (sensitivity about ‘morals’ was high at the time; a few weeks earlier a massive raid on the Stingaree red-light district had rounded up 138 women, all but two of whom had agreed to leave town rather than face further legal proceedings – although most purchased round-trip tickets).

In February 1913 the Tribune reported that the newly organized Olympic Athletic Club had secured quarters at 1140 Sixth Street, the place formerly occupied by Bab’s Restaurant, where it proposed to stage boxing bouts. In April the Union reported that attorneys for the First National Bank had resorted to supplementary proceedings in an effort to discover whether James H. Babcock, secretary of the Cecil Hotel Company, was possessed of funds or property sufficient to satisfy a judgement. No property, funds or things of value had been uncovered. And in July 1913, the Tribune noted that Nick Sargent, a well-known caterer, had returned to San Diego and bought the Hotel Cecil Grill on Sixth Street.