Pacific Beach Driving Park

Grandstand and clubhouse at the Pacific Beach racetrack about 1906. The central section of Pacific Beach is visible in the background beyond the track, with the former college buildings at top left (San Diego History Center photo #344)

In July 1887 the Southern California Breeders’ Association acquired San Diego Pueblo Lot 1797, a 160 acre half-mile square lot extending from what today is the intersection of Garnet Avenue and Mission Bay Drive at its northeast corner to the southwest corner of the Mission Bay High School campus. At the time this lot and Pacific Beach Company’s property to its west were entirely undeveloped, although the Pacific Beach Company would draw up a subdivision map and hold an opening sale of lots by the end of 1887. The Breeders’ Association announced that its lot would be developed as a racetrack and by September 1887 the San Diego Union reported that they were ‘pushing along operations lively’ in construction of their track and buildings.

Eastern section of 1887 Pacific Beach subdivision map showing location of racetrack and the railroad line to Pacific Beach

The buildings would include a grandstand with a frontage of 150 feet and a depth of 32 feet, a three-story judges’ stand and a club house, a very fine and convenient structure 45- by 32-feet in size, with an attic, two towers and two large bay windows giving the front a very showy appearance. There would also be a shed 100 feet long for the accommodation of teams and fifty stables, each 14 by 14 feet in size. A tight board fence, eight feet high, would surround the track. A month later, in October, the Union reported that the grading of the track and the fence were almost completed, 30 stables had been finished, the grandstand was ready for painting and work would begin the next week on the club house.

Detail from the map shows the locations of the clubhouse, grandstand, judges’ stand and stables

The grandstand had apparently been painted by November 15, 1887, when the Pacific Beach Driving Park was the scene of a baseball game between the San Diegos and the Philadelphias, or Phillies, the same National League franchise that plays there today. That morning’s Union reported that the boys from Philadelphia had arrived on the evening train and the San Diego club would cross bats with them at the Pacific Beach racetrack.  The home team had been in training for several days and the game promised to be an interesting one.  Round trip train tickets and admission to the grandstand, with special accommodations for ladies, would be 75 cents. A special train would leave the California Southern station at 1 o’clock for the park.

The November 16 Union reported that the Philadelphia and San Diego baseball clubs had crossed bats the previous afternoon and the home team was most woefully beaten, 31 – 7. The paper explained that the visitors were athletes who made a profession of playing ball while the San Diego club was a new organization only lately put in the field and the members had practiced together but once. The game was played at the new driving park at Pacific Beach and about 300 lovers of the National game witnessed the exhibition, among the spectators being a number of ladies. The game was interesting only from the fact that the spectators had an opportunity to see a first-class club play on a San Diego ball field.

Pacific Beach Driving Park had been built for racing, however, and in April 1888 the San Diego Union reported that it was being put into condition for the spring meeting. The track, built entirely of ‘made ground’, had been pronounced a good track by prominent horsemen.  The clubhouse, a three-story building of 22 rooms, was just about finished. The Grand Opening of the Pacific Beach Driving Park under the auspices of the Breeders’ Association of Southern California would include three days of racing, May 1, 2 and 3, and $1,250 in purses.

According to the Union, opening day at the new racetrack was a good day for horses, and by noon a large crowd was ‘off for the races’:

The procession which passed through the gates at Pacific Beach Driving Park was a jolly and good-natured, and expectant throng of well-dressed admirers of horse-flesh – and the pools.  They were there, all of them.  Gentlemen of leisure and gentlemen of business.  Ladies too, in their brightest array of spring colors sat in their carriages, and the throng which filled the grandstand was a lively and interested one.  The broad track over which the racers were to fly was smooth as a floor, firm, fast and in fine condition as any race-course could be.

The Union’s report on the second day of racing also emphasized the makeup of the crowd, especially the ‘fair’ members:

From early morning until afternoon the motor trains bore out their loads of merry freight, and the road to the north along the bay, was lined with carriages laden with business men, beaux and beauty, bound for the races at Pacific Park.  Every man who could get away from the busy duties of city life and evade the rules of domestic remonstrances against the seductive attractions of the uncertain pool box, donned his brightest plaid, and with dustproof hat, departed for the track.  Many there were who pleased their wives and at the same time avoided all danger of a cross-examination by taking with them the fair members of the family to enjoy the pleasures of the day.  Long before the bell had sounded the summons for the contending steeds, the carriage space of the Driving Park was well filled with a variety of gay equipages, a happy throng of pedestrian spectators moved to and fro and the grand stand presented a picture of fashion and feminine beauty.  In fact, if not in name, it was “Ladies’ Day” at the races, and the fairest of San Diego’s fair were out in all their style and bright colors of spring costumes.

The third and final day of the first race meeting at Pacific Beach Driving Park proved irresistible, according to the Union, and found the largest crowd of the season at the Pacific Beach Driving Park:

Everybody was there that could get there, and they went without much regard to the manner of their going.  They came in the closed coaches, and in the open cars of the motor, and even crowded upon the flat-cars and came out with the band. Vehicles of all descriptions were brought into use, and a constant stream of carriages poured through the gates of the Park.  There were buggies, phaetons, tandems and more than one four-in-hand in the procession, and even the “one-horse shay” was not missing, while manly equestrians and lovely equestriennes added their skillful grace to the scene of motion.  It was a great day and all had come prepared to enjoy it, so that not a cloud arose to cast its shadow over the field of pleasure – at least not until the unforeseen contingencies of the race course began to drop like a moist blanket upon the spirits of the heavy losers.

A second race meeting was scheduled for the Fall of 1888 and as that meeting approached an advertisement appeared in the Union promoting not only the Fall Race Program!, Four Days of First-Class Racing! Including running races, trotting and pacing, but also Two Extraordinary Special Days!, a Ladies’ Day and the People’s Day, which promised to be ‘the two greatest days in the annals of sport on the Pacific slope’.

As the San Diego Union had promised, People’s Day on Sunday, October 28, 1888, was a great day in the annals of sport, at least for Pacific Beach.  According to the Union, nearly 7,000 people were in attendance (out of a total San Diego population of perhaps 25,000 in late 1888). The crowd first watched a series of footraces and a blindfold wheelbarrow race before a recess was taken at noon for luncheon, ‘served in excellent style in the clubhouse’.  After lunch there were a couple of quarter-mile horse-races before the ‘event of the day’, a mounted sword combat between Captain Wiedemann and the woman who called herself Jaguarina.

Captain Wiedemann was from Germany and a leader of the local Turnverein, a gymnastic movement popular among the German immigrant population in the nineteenth century.   According to the Union he weighed 185 pounds with a chest measurement of 43 inches and biceps measuring 15 inches, and had received a thorough training in fencing. Jaguarina was described as a famous swordswoman now at Ensenada who had participated in (and generally won) similar battles in the past (her fine French military cuirasse, of brass and copper, ‘still bears deep indentations, as marks of respect from Captains Davis, Jennings and Marshal, received in former contests’).

The Union provided a blow-by-blow description of the resulting battle, which was tied after twelve rounds, each contestant having scored five points (no points had been scored in two of the rounds):

When the trumpet called the contestants to the charge for the thirteenth and last time the score stood five to five, and this final attack ended with Wiedemann aiming a cut at Jaguarina in high carte, which she parried and, before he could protect himself, ‘the sound of Jaguarina’s blade was heard on his cuirasse from a vigorous and unmistakable cut in carte’ which ended the contest with a score of six to five in favor of Jaguarina. The victor at once doffed her helmet and cuirasse and received round after round of applause from those present, many of her more enthusiastic friends throwing their caps high in the air.  After a gallop round the track with her second, Jaguarina returned to her dressing room receiving the congratulations of her friends en route.

Pueblo Lot 1797 is located at the foot of Rose Canyon, which drains a wide area extending upstream to beyond Miramar. Rose Creek normally carries the runoff from this area through Pueblo Lot 1797 and into Mission Bay but the racetrack’s location on the banks of the creek made it vulnerable to flooding from winter storms. A particularly severe storm on December 16, 1889, caused extensive flooding that washed out bridges over Rose Creek and wreaked havoc on the track.  According to the December 17 Union:

The Pacific Beach racetrack was demolished by a stream that came down Rose’s Canyon and was deflected across the north side of the grounds across the track, in the neighborhood of the Judges’ stand.  It is estimated that fully one-fourth of a mile of the track has been washed away on the east side, and several hundred feet more on the west side at the grandstand.  The water at one time was five feet deep and backed up the hill to the Pavillion.  Several of the lower sheds, down near the private gates, were also washed down.

The Pacific Beach racetrack was never fully repaired after this flood and racing never entirely recovered, but crowds still came to the grandstand to enjoy other forms of entertainment.  In November 1891 the Union reported that fully 1,000 people visited Pacific Beach to watch as a great balloon flew skyward about 2,000 feet and ‘from that giddy height a woman and monkey descended by means of parachutes’.  A triple parachute jump involving a man, a woman and a monkey and a ‘monstrous’ balloon 75 feet high and 41 feet in diameter was held at the Pacific Beach racetrack on Christmas Day 1891.

In 1890 the Breeders’ Association’s title to Pueblo Lot 1797 was challenged in court and in 1893, after a number of judicial proceedings, the property came under the control of Frederick Schulenburg, a retired lumber magnate from St. Louis. However, Schulenburg died in 1894 and in 1897, apparently in response to unpaid debts, the court ordered his estate to sell it. The Evening Tribune noted what it called ‘A Rare Opportunity’ in January 1898:

Attention is called to the legal notice in this paper offering for sale the 160-acre tract known as the ‘Race Track’ in this city.  The sale, by the administrator of the Schulenburg estate, affords the opportunity of securing a fine acreage adjoining the elegant suburban ranch homes and lemon orchards of Pacific Beach. This land is capable of producing as equally fine orchards, and a portion has been pronounced the best of alfalfa land.  The improvements alone cost more than is asked for the place.

The Union reported in September 1898 that the administrator had sold 160 acres of land belonging to the estate to a Los Angeles man, Dr. J. Mills Boal, who intended to ‘plow up’ the racetrack and set out the property to trees.  However, in November 1898, the news was that Col. A. G. Gassen had outbid Dr. Boal and became the owner of the Pacific Beach racetrack. Gassen had been involved with the Breeders’ Association and also owned other property in the area, including the brickyard in Rose Canyon. The Union added that he would spend about $2,500 for improvements intended to make the racetrack and neighboring property a pleasure resort and summer home for himself and his family.  He was expected to set out about 2,500 eucalyptus trees, build a five-board fence around the track, clear willows and other unnecessary trees and bushes from the creek bed and put part of the land into grain and alfalfa.

In May 1903 the San Diego Union reported a rumor that Col. Gassen had sold the track to A. G. Spalding, the sporting goods magnate then living in Point Loma, noting that the track had at one time been one of the finest speedways on the Pacific coast but had fallen into disrepair and would have to be wholly rehabilitated to become what it once was. Albert Goodwill Spalding was a former professional baseball player who in 1876 had founded the A. G. Spalding & Bros. sporting goods company which made baseballs and, in 1877, the first baseball gloves, which he was one of the first players to wear. Spalding and his second wife, an ardent Theosophist, moved to Point Loma in 1903 to participate in Katherine Tingley’s Lomaland Theosophical community.

Although the rumor of the track’s sale was false, or at least premature, Spalding’s interest apparently inspired Gassen to consider rehabilitating the track. In June 1903 the Union reported that he was having the track overhauled and more stalls built in anticipation of reopening in the fall and winter.  Fifty or sixty fine animals from Kentucky and Illinois would winter there, with the possibility of many more joining them during the cold season. Gassen said it was ‘not improbable’ that there would be a number of meets involving the eastern and local horses. He did not expect that the track would require a great deal of work to put it in proper shape and the fence, which had been out of repair for some time, had been repaired and painted and the grandstand and judges stand had also been fixed up. A new organization, the Belmont Breeders Association, was incorporated and Gassen tried to convince the Santa Fe Railroad to build a siding to the track so that horses could be unloaded at the stables.

The first shipment of the eastern horses arrived in September 1903, but the big news, a few weeks later, was that Spalding had taken over the Belmont Breeders’ Association and the track and stables of the Pacific Beach racetrack. The name was to be changed to the American Saddle-Horse Breeding Farm and the track to be hereafter known as American Park.  The Tribune noted that Mr. Spalding had always been an admirer of the American or Kentucky type of combination gaited saddle and driving animals and ‘the breeding of this high class of horses will be the special purpose of the establishment’. However, the saddle-horse breeding venture was not successful and was abandoned later the same year. Although the newspapers had referred to Spalding’s take-over of Gassen’s Belmont Breeders’ Association as a purchase or buy-out, the transaction apparently did not include the racetrack property itself and there is no record of any actual transfer at the San Diego County Recorder’s office. Gassen had retained ownership and in November 1904 granted ‘all of that certain property known as the Pacific Beach Race Track’ and other property at the mouth of Rose Canyon to U. S. Grant, Jr., son of the Civil War general and former president.

The track continued to be neglected, although in March 1906 the Union reported that while not much had been done with the track of late years it was still in good condition. There was a club house and grandstand on the grounds, the latter having a good seating capacity, and the accommodations at the track were first class in every respect. However, in October of that year another Union headline announced that the Pacific Beach Track had been sold For $75,000.00; this time U. S. Grant, Jr. had sold Pueblo Lot 1797, popularly known as the Pacific Beach race track, and other adjoining property to Archibald Hart, who intended to divide the property into villa lots and city lots. In November 1906 Hart and others incorporated the Mission Bay Park Company to lay out, improve and beautify their acquisition, particularly that part known as the Pacific Beach Race Track. The racetrack itself was to be eliminated; beginning in early 1907 the railroad that had serviced Pacific Beach since 1888 and had originally circled around the track via what today are Mission Bay Drive and Garnet and Balboa avenues (all then called Grand Avenue) was realigned along the route of today’s Grand Avenue (then called Ivy Avenue), cutting through the area where the track had once been.

The map of the Mission Bay Park tract filed in February 1907 subdivided the property in much the same grid pattern as that of the Pacific Beach subdivision to its west, including extensions of Hornblend, Ivy, Thomas, Reed, Oliver and Pacific Avenues from Pacific Beach and new streets like Figueroa Boulevard, Magnolia Avenue and Bond Street. Curiously, the Mission Bay Park subdivision map did not include Rose Creek, a stream which flows through the center of the tract and during wet winters in the recent past had inundated much of it. Today the Rose Creek flood control channel runs through the subdivision on what was originally laid out as Pico Street.

However, the Mission Bay Park Company failed to effectively develop or market its tract and the only property sale recorded was for lots 6, 7 and 8 of block 29 and lots 1, 2, 3 and 30 to 33 of block 32, the locations of the actual structures remaining from the former racetrack; the judges’ stand, club house and grandstand. This parcel was sold in March 1907 to Ye Olde Mission Inn Company, a corporation set up in February 1907 by James H. Babcock and others. The clubhouse became known as the Mission Inn and a year later, in February 1908, it narrowly escaped destruction when volunteers using a garden hose and bucket brigade prevented fire at a nearby shed from spreading to the hotel ‘formerly used by the racetrack people as a club house’. One of the volunteers was former San Diego fire department chief A. B. Cairnes, who lived in a home overlooking the racetrack property and who naturally responded to the sight of smoke and flames. However, the Mission Inn caught fire again later the same year, in November 1908, and was completely destroyed.

Unable to interest prospective buyers in their tract, the Mission Bay Park Company transferred it back to U. S. Grant, Jr. in November 1908, minus the 1.25-acre Mission Inn property, which was auctioned at the courthouse door in February 1912. The structures remaining on the site were abandoned and fell into disrepair. The San Diego Sun reported in 1931 that the ruins of the grandstand and the stables were still to be found ‘almost hidden by the rank vegetation of two score years’.  Aerial photos of the area from 1941 show the outlines of some of the streets laid out in the Mission Bay Park subdivision map but little actual development and no trace of anything resembling the former mile-long oval racecourse.

The Federal Public Housing Authority took over much of the property of the Mission Bay Park tract in 1941 and parts of the Bayview Terrace Project for wartime defense workers and Bayview Terrace (now Barnard) Elementary School were built on the western portions.  The southern portion of Pueblo Lot 1797 eventually became Mission Bay High School, the Mission Bay Athletic Fields and the back nine of the Mission Bay Golf Course.  One structure from the track itself, a three-story wooden judges’ stand, remained standing and was incorporated into the Rancho 101 Motel on Pacific Highway (Mission Bay Drive) in 1947.  The motel (and judges’ stand) was finally demolished in 1968, eliminating the last remaining trace of the former racetrack in Pacific Beach. The block west of Mission Bay Drive between Magnolia Avenue and Hornblend Street where the club house, grandstand and judges’ stand once stood and where thousands of nineteenth century San Diego sports fans once gathered to enjoy races, baseball games, mounted sword combat and parachute drops is now (2020) occupied by an automobile dealership.