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The Rockwood and the Palms

In November 1897 the ‘personal mention’ column of the San Diego Union mentioned that Misses M. J. and L. Clarkson of Melrose, Massachusetts had arrived in the city to remain for the winter. They must have liked it; barely a month later the paper reported that ‘The New Thought’, a monthly publication of sixteen pages whose home is at Melrose, Mass, had announced that their editor and publisher, M. J. Clarkson, and associate editor, Lida Clarkson, had crossed the continent to make their new home at San Diego.

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Actually, while The New Thought was the sisters’ most recent venture, both had already experienced remarkable careers in publishing. When Mary Josephine Clarkson married Carl Akerman in San Diego a year later the Union noted that the bride had been connected with her sister in editing a department of the Ladies’ Home Journal for three years and afterward edited an art magazine for eight more years before becoming interested in metaphysical study and launching her journal. Lida Clarkson was an accomplished artist and author of books on home decoration and art instruction, based on articles she had contributed to Ladies’ Home Journal. She also produced a number of color plate gift books featuring chromolithographs of botanical themes and poetry.

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In February 1900 Lida Clarkson purchased Thomas Fitzgerald’s home at the northwest corner of Bayard Street and Reed Avenue in Pacific Beach for $300. This home, on lots 22 and 23 of Block 262, was the eastern-most of the row of houses that had been built by railroad employees working out of the depot grounds at the end of the railway line. The paper reported that she was having the house remodeled. A week later she also bought the lots across the alley, lots 20 and 21, the southwest corner of Bayard and Thomas, consolidating her ownership of the east end of Block 262.

In July 1900 Lida Clarkson paid $700 for an entire block, Block 264, between Cass and Dawes Streets and Thomas and Reed Avenues, where the Pacific Beach branch library now stands, and only a block from her other properties. In November she sold this block to the Akermans and they moved in with Miss Clarkson while superintending the improvements on their property.

John Maynard Rockwood was a miner who operated in the San Diego County backcountry, particularly in the Mesa Grande mining district. He bought and sold mining claims and in 1899 made news for selling a Mesa Grande mine for $4000. While not in the mountains he lodged in the home of Elbert Higbee, one of the very first houses in Pacific Beach, located near the foot of Bayard Street just a few feet from Mission Bay. Mr. Higbee was a painter and Mr. Rockwood was reported to have joined him in painting the Pacific Beach schoolhouse in 1896.

When Miss Clarkson moved to the southwest corner of Pacific Beach in 1900 she and Mr. Rockwood became neighbors and shortly afterward, in July, the Evening Tribune reported that a marriage license had been issued for John M. Rockwood, aged 48, and Lida Clarkson, aged 45. A few days later the Tribune reported that Miss Clarkson and Mr. Rockwood had married and would make their home ‘on the Beach’. The paper added that Mrs. Rockwood was one of the most celebrated women in the country as Lida Clarkson, known far and wide as art editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal and with a world reputation as an artist.

The couple’s ‘home on the Beach’ was Mrs. Rockwood’s house at Bayard and Reed, and in 1901 they added a second story which the Tribune claimed would make it one of the finest residences on the Beach. Over the next few years the Rockwoods bought up most of the rest of the block, eventually owning all but 4 of the 32 lots in Block 262, surrounded by Bayard, Reed, Thomas and what was then the railroad spur to the depot grounds and later Mission Boulevard. Some of these lots were won in public auctions at the courthouse door, sold by the Tax Collector because the Pacific Beach Company had failed to pay the property tax of 11 cents in 1893 and the taxes had remained delinquent over the intervening years.

In August 1904 a San Diego Union article described the remarkable activity in building operations in Pacific Beach in the past week, the most noticeable being the commencement of a magnificent and spacious apartment house, the first structure of its kind in Pacific Beach, being constructed by John Rockwood on Bayard near Grand Avenue. It would contain sixteen apartments with all the modern conveniences and with bathroom accommodations. The Rockwood, as the apartment building was first called, was located on the west side of Bayard, just north of the alley separating it from the Rockwoods’ home at Bayard and Reed, and residents were moving in by 1905. Beginning in October 1907 the Union advertised The Rockwood, rooms and board, 3 blocks from beach bathing, no undertow. Teams to all points of interest. Braemar Sta., La Jolla R.R.

The dining facilities were apparently the highlight of the Rockwood’s design. A 1909 Union article mentioned that the Monday Night 500 club was royally entertained by the Braemar 500 club at the Rockwood flats on the Ocean Front. The large dining room was beautifully decorated for the occasion.

However, The Rockwood does not appear to have been much of a success commercially. The advertisements in the Union disappeared after a few months. By 1911 it had also disappeared from the city directory and J. M. Rockwood no longer described himself as proprietor.

In 1912 the apartments were reopened under new management and with a new business model; a Union article in July noted that M. A. Raines had opened the Rockwood Apartments at Pacific Beach and would make a specialty of entertaining week-end parties. Chicken dinner would be served on Sundays. Apartments for the week or month could be arranged for at reasonable rates. According to ads in the Union the Rockwood Apartments had housekeeping rooms with free gas for cooking, electric lights, telephone – all modern conveniences; ‘Take La Jolla car, get off at Ocean Front Station’. The dining room remained an important draw; another ‘elaborate luncheon’ was put on by the ‘charming hostess of the week’ Mrs. George Hannahs at the Rockwood Apartments at Pacific Beach.

J. M. Rockwood died in February 1915 and in 1916 Lida Rockwood sold her remaining holdings, which by then consisted of 10 lots at the east end of the block including the home at Bayard and Reed and the apartment building, to her nephew David Clarkson. In 1918 her brother-in-law Carl Akerman also died and shortly afterward she moved out of the Pacific Beach home, where she had continued to live, and joined her sister at the Akerman home on I (now Island) Street in the Grant Hill neighborhood of San Diego. Mrs. Rockwood died in 1924 and Mrs. Akerman in 1931; the home on Island Street is still standing.

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The Akerman home on Island Street, 2014

Captain J. M. Ray and his wife Estella had been the officers in charge of the Salvation Army’s Maud B. Booth Children’s Home in San Diego. In 1916 J. M. Ray bought the St. Lawrence Hotel on H (Market) Street downtown. The St. Lawrence had previously been a Helping Hand Home, a refuge for the ‘deserving poor’, and many indigent people still came to the St. Lawrence hoping to find assistance. If Ray had room he would sometimes put them up and eventually, with assistance from the Board of Supervisors, he found himself furnishing about 40 rooms for the ‘aged and decrepit’. When the numbers continued to grow Ray got more help from the board to establish a home for aged women in Pacific Beach: the Rockwood Apartments. The home in Pacific Beach, managed by Estella Ray, eventually became known as the Rockwood Home for the Aged (the St. Lawrence Hotel downtown also became the Rockwood Hotel, before it was torn down in 1923). A U. S. Census enumerator recorded a matron and six patients, ranging in age from 73 to 88, at the Rockwood Home in January 1920.

In about 1919, after Lida Rockwood had left to live with her sister in Grant Hill, the Rays moved into her former house at the corner of Reed and Bayard, across the alley from the Rockwood Home. While living in Pacific Beach the Rays experienced a family tragedy when their 16-year-old son Dwight was accidently shot on December 31, 1919. According to the Evening Tribune, he and two companions were returning home when they decided to fire a volley to salute the new year. One of the companions’ gun hung fire and when he tried to unload it it fired, striking Dwight Ray in the back of the head and killing him. The paper noted that the younger Ray had attended the Army and Navy Academy and that his father was superintendent of the Rockwood Home for the Aged in Pacific Beach. Tragedy also struck the home itself in 1921 when an 80-year-old woman burned to death after a lighted oil stove overturned, setting her clothing afire and scattering burning oil over her room.

The Rockwood Home for the Aged operated for about five years in Pacific Beach. A 1920 Union article summarizing the home’s treasurer’s annual report gives an idea of the scale of their operation. Expenses were said to be $5670 while income was $5844, about half of which was supplied by the county. More than 7000 free meals were served, out of a total of 44,500 meals. 2500 beds were furnished free. The article explained that old people whom relatives and friends could not care for personally were sent to the home and board and rent was paid. Other aged were kept by the home without any payment (which was presumably made up for by the county).

By 1923 the home had outgrown the former apartment building in Pacific Beach and the Rays moved the residents to the Palms Hotel building at the northeast corner of I Street (Island Avenue) and 12th Street (Park Boulevard) downtown. The Palms Hotel was formerly the Bay View Hotel, built in 1889 on the site of an earlier Bay View Hotel which had been in existence since the 1870s. The new Rockwood Home at the Palms Hotel was much larger than the Pacific Beach facility, more than a quarter of a city block, and within walking distance of most points of interest downtown. The Evening Tribune reported that it had all the conveniences of a first-class modern hotel with over 100 large airy rooms, each one located so that guests would have easy access to the dining rooms, reading rooms and the sun porch. Mrs. Ray, the kindly little lady who was giving so freely of her time and money for a cause that was dear to her heart, told the Tribune correspondent that ‘We are trying to do good work here, and we are meeting with wonderful success’.

After the aged residents were moved downtown, J. M. Ray used the Rockwood apartment building as headquarters for his short-lived real estate company in 1924 and after that it apparently reverted to being an apartment or rooming house again. The city directory showed two residents at the 4270 Bayard Street address in 1925, one in 1926 and one 1927. In 1928 4270 Bayard was vacant, but one resident was listed in 1929. From 1930 to 1932 the city directory showed 4270 Bayard as vacant and after 1932 the address was no longer listed. Today a large apartment or condominium building with underground parking covers the northeast corner of the block but a row of Canary Island date palms, now nearly 100 years older and considerably taller, still line Bayard Street just like they did when the old folks posed for a photo in front of their home about 1919.

Site of Rockwood Apartments, behind the Phoenix canariensis palms on Bayard

Site of Rockwood Apartments, behind the Canary Island palms on Bayard Street, Pacific Beach, 2014

Postscript:
After buying the Palms Hotel and assuming a large mortgage the Rays apparently planned to increase occupancy by offering ‘life memberships’; room, board and care for life, for an advance payment of between $1000 and $3000. They did recruit a number of ‘life members’ but over time they found that their expenses exceeded the income generated by these payments and began engaging in dubious practices to try to make ends meet.

In 1927 ‘inmates’ of the Palms Hotel for the Aged (as they were called) began complaining of financial irregularities. In April a 70-year-old woman who had paid $1050 for a life membership filed suit against the Rays contending that they had not lived up to the terms of their agreement. In September she was awarded a judgment of $1390.

In October 1927 the Rays apparently just walked away from the home and abandoned the inmates. The Union reported that 63 inmates of the Palm Hotel for the Aged, including 48 ‘life members’ who had paid in advance for care for the remainder of their lives, enjoyed a good dinner through the intervention of the county board of supervisors after it appeared that the aged unfortunates would have to go to bed ‘supperless’ . Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Ray, owners of the hotel, had been absent for several days. A grand jury was investigating the situation.

In November Mrs. Ray answered a subpoena to testify to the grand jury and while she was at the courthouse waiting to be called she was arrested for violating state wage laws by allegedly paying employees with post-dated checks. Mrs. Ray was later convicted of this misdemeanor and fined $25 for each check. Mr. Ray was still ‘absent from the city’ but he was finally brought into court a week later on a bench warrant charging him with failing to obey a subpoena. Meanwhile, the county welfare board heard from inmates that the Rays had collected $13,260 so far this year for life memberships. Nine men and women said they had paid from $1000 to $3000 each for a home and care for the remainder of their lives but were left stranded when the Rays left the place.

Although the county board of supervisors had stepped up to provide supper, and were able to find room for a few of the inmates at the county poor farm, there was little to be done for most of them. The Rays were unable to make their payments on the mortgage, the hotel was sold at auction in March 1928, and the remaining inmates were turned out on the street. The grand jury returned indictments against the Rays for grand larceny, embezzlement and obtaining money under false pretenses, but in three separate trials over the next few months none of the charges stuck; some were dismissed, others resulted in mistrials, they were acquitted on some charges, and Mrs. Ray’s appeal of her two convictions was upheld by an appellate court.

In 1929 the state supreme court overturned Mrs. Ray’s appeal and, faced with yet another trial, she pleaded guilty to the embezzlement of funds from an elderly man for whose estate she had been appointed guardian. She appealed to the court for a sentence of probation only but her probation report recommended that she serve jail time. Although the papers didn’t report the outcome, the fifteenth census of the United States, enumerated in April 1930, included a page for the San Diego County Jail which listed a Ray, Estella, age 53, prisoner. And, on the same day that Mrs. Ray received word that the supreme court had denied her appeal, Mr. Ray, the former Salvation Army officer, was arrested for drunken driving. Ray’s car had become ‘tangled’ with two others, one of which was driven by Policeman Mike Shea. Officer Shea said Ray appeared to be in a ‘stupor’.

The Palms Hotel is still standing at the northeast corner of Park Boulevard and Island, a magnificent example of a late nineteenth century hotel building.

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Palms Hotel, Park Boulevard and Island

A Professor and a Botanist

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Professor Edward Snyder

Edward Snyder was born in Sokal, Austrian Poland (now part of Ukraine) in 1835 and educated at Lemberg (now Lviv) and later at the University of Vienna. He became an officer in the Austrian army, taught languages and history at a cadet school and took part in Austria’s campaign in Italy in 1859. In 1862 he emigrated to the United States, enlisted in a New York regiment and served during the American Civil War. After the war he taught high school in the St. Louis area before becoming one of the first professors at the new University of Illinois in 1869, where he taught German and military science and was commissioned colonel in the Illinois national guard, commanding the University battalion.

Professor Snyder remained at the University of Illinois for 28 years, finally retiring as Dean of the College of Literature in 1896. In addition to his years of service, he donated $12,000 to the University to be used for student aid, loaned to students to enable them to complete their studies. Today Snyder Hall, a student residence at the University, is named in his honor.

In 1869 Edward Snyder had married Mary Stoddard Patchen, also a teacher in the St. Louis area. Mrs. Snyder was an amateur botanist and avid collector of botanical specimens, particularly marine algae, and it may have been her avocation that brought the Snyders to La Jolla, in 1895, where she spent the summer collecting on the beaches of La Jolla, Pacific Beach and False (Mission) Bay. They apparently liked the area and before returning to Illinois purchased a lot in La Jolla and property in Block 214 of Pacific Beach, the block now surrounded by Morrell, Hornblend and Lamont Streets and Garnet Avenue, about a block east of the former San Diego College of Letters buildings, which were west of Lamont and north of Garnet.

The Snyders originally purchased 12 lots in the eastern portion of Block 214 (from E. C. and Rose Hartwick Thorpe, for $500) but within a year the addition of four more lots gave them ownership of the entire east end of the block. The San Diego Union reported that Professor Snyder had arranged for improvements and expected ‘eventually to make his home in this charming locality’. A few weeks later, after their return home, he wrote that the weather in the east was so hot and sultry that he and his wife were ‘sighing for a breath of our cool ocean breezes’, according to the paper.

Professor Snyder did retire in 1896 and the Snyders wasted no time executing their retirement plan. ‘Hotel Arrivals’ in the June 18, 1896 Union listed Edward Snyder and wife from Champaign, Ill. at the Hotel Brewster; ‘Pacific Beach Notes’ for July 11 mentioned that Prof. Snyder and wife were in their cottage; on September 1 Messrs. Ash and Boughton had begun to build an eight-room cottage for Professor Snyder and on September 18 it was reported to soon be ready for occupancy. By 1897 the paper reported that he was adding another room to his home for a library. This home, at the northwest corner of Hornblend and Morrell, is still standing today.

Snyder home, Hornblend and Morrell

Snyder home, Hornblend and Morrell

The Snyders soon became active in the social life of their new community. Mary Snyder joined the Pacific Beach Reading Club and often hosted meetings at her home. When its founder, the world-famous poetess Rose Hartwick Thorpe, requested to be relieved of the presidency Mrs. Snyder was elected to take her place. She also was a member and eventually president of the Shakespeare Club.

Of course, Mary Snyder also continued collecting botanical specimens, particularly the sea weed and other marine plants that she found on the shore at Pacific Beach and La Jolla. In 1899 the San Diego Union noted that Prof. and Mrs. Snyder spent several days in La Jolla gathering sea weeds ‘of which Mrs. Snyder, who is an expert botanist, has a large and valuable collection’. In 1900 they built a cottage on their La Jolla lot, on Prospect overlooking Seal Rock, where they could stay while Mrs. Snyder explored the shoreline during low tides.

Professor Snyder died in September 1903 and within a few months his widow moved to La Jolla, acquiring another house on Fay Avenue near Prospect Street and selling the property in Pacific Beach. The papers reported that she spent her time naming and classifying a collection of her specimens to be La Jolla’s representative exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, for which she reportedly won a gold medal. The following year, 1905, her exhibit of mounted sea mosses won a gold medal at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon.

Mary Snyder lived the rest of her life in La Jolla, where she again became active in civic organizations, serving as president of the Woman’s Club from 1906 to 1908. In 1910 she acquired yet another home on Fay which she named Amphiroa Cottage (after a genus of thalloid alga, a sea weed). The house was remodeled to include a herbarium for her collection of sea weeds and for arranging and mounting new specimens.

Through her knowledge and expertise in collecting, identifying and presenting these specimens Mary Snyder became recognized as the preeminent authority on marine algae in Southern California in the first decades of the twentieth century. When she died in 1926 at the age of 87 her collection was donated to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and is now in the Herbarium at the San Diego Museum of Natural History in Balboa Park. The museum notes that her beautifully preserved seaweeds resemble art prints that would be suitable for framing.

Snyders grave at Mt. Hope Cemetery

The Snyders’ grave at Mt. Hope Cemetery in San Diego

PB Depot Neighborhood

Doyle house - one of the originals

Doyle house – one of the originals

The real estate promoters who formed the Pacific Beach Company in 1887 knew that their prospective community would require a railroad line to downtown San Diego. They formed the San Diego and Pacific Beach Railroad and built a line which extended the existing San Diego and Old Town Railroad north and then west around False (Mission) Bay to the beach. Trains were running by April 1888 and in July the two lines merged to become the San Diego, Old Town and Pacific Beach Railroad.

The railway line ran through Pacific Beach on what are now Balboa and Grand Avenues and terminated near the foot of Grand, where it turned south into the ‘depot grounds’. The SD, OT & PB RR built a large engine house (a ’round house’ except that it wasn’t round) at the end of the line in the depot grounds, about where today’s Mission Boulevard and Oliver Avenue would intersect. Between this final bend in the line and the beach the Pacific Beach Company built a hotel and a dance pavilion, the hotel just south of Grand and east of Mission and the pavilion west of Mission between Thomas and Reed Avenues.

The railroad not only provided transportation for Pacific Beach residents but it also employed a sizable proportion of these residents; six of the 37 residences listed for Pacific Beach in Montieth’s Directory of San Diego and Vicinity for 1889-90 were railroad employees. The railroad employees lived in Pacific Beach because the daily service began and ended there; the first train in the morning left Pacific Beach for San Diego at 6 A.M. and the last train left San Diego for Pacific Beach at 6:25 P.M.

Three of these railroad employees purchased lots in Block 262, adjacent to the depot grounds on the north side of Reed Avenue west of what is now Bayard Street. Lots 22 and 23, nearest to Bayard, were acquired by Thomas F. Fitzgerald in 1891 and a house assessed at $200 had been built there by 1893. He sold the property in 1900 but continued to work for the railroad. In 1908 he was the fireman on a locomotive that derailed and overturned near Winder Street in San Diego. The engineer was killed by the escaping steam, ‘literally cooked alive’ according to the papers, and Fitzgerald was ‘hurled head foremost into a clump of cactus’ and also severely burned. He was taken to a sanitarium and treated but died ten days later. This was the only fatal accident in the railroad’s history.

Frank H. Woodworth lived next door, on lots 24 and 25, although he also owned property across the alley fronting on Thomas Avenue. His home on Reed was assessed at $150 in 1893. Woodworth was described as the ‘popular’ conductor of the Pacific Beach railroad, and when he planned an eastern trip with his family in 1901 the Evening Tribune noted that he had been ‘navigating’ the train for thirteen years and deserved a vacation. His wife was an active member of the Pacific Beach Reading Club, the woman’s group founded by Rose Hartwick Thorpe, and often hosted meetings at their home. In 1898 the Woodworths moved their house across the alley to their lots on Thomas, which ‘greatly improved the appearance of the place’ in the words of the San Diego Union. In 1900, after the birth of their third daughter, they moved to a larger home in Pacific Beach, a former college dormitory at Lamont and Hornblend Streets.

Locomotive engineer E. C. Doyle owned lots 26 and 27, adjoining the Woodworth’s on the west, and also with a home assessed at $150. Doyle left the Pacific Beach line about 1895 and went to work for the San Diego, Cuyamaca and Eastern Railway where he again established a residence at the end of that line, in Foster, north of Lakeside. The SDC&E never continued on to Cuyamaca, much less the East, but the route is now used by the San Diego Trolley line to El Cajon and Santee. Then and now the line also runs through Mt. Hope Cemetery and when Doyle’s wife Ada died in 1899 her funeral services were scheduled for ‘the arrival of the afternoon train from Foster Station’.

Ada Doyle's grave at Mt. Hope Cemetery, with red San Diego Trolley, following route of SDC&E, passing in background.

Ada Doyle’s grave at Mt. Hope Cemetery, with red San Diego Trolley, following route of SDC&E, passing in background.

Homes on adjoining properties are universal in Pacific Beach today but were unusual in the 1890s and stood out on a 1891 map:

Employees

Pacific Beach, 1891, showing route of the railroad and the depot neighborhood, lower left. The row of employee homes is circled.

The hotel and pavilion were removed from their beachside locations in 1896, literally lifted up and pulled along Grand Avenue to new locations north of Grand and east of Lamont. In its new location at Hornblend and Morrell the pavilion served as a lemon curing and packing house, the largest in the county, during the height of the Pacific Beach lemon era. In 1907, with the lemon business in decline, it was remodeled and used as a Methodist church. It was finally torn down about 1922.

The hotel, at Lamont and Hornblend, became the offices of the Folsom Bros. Co., later the San Diego Beach Company, which owned much of Pacific Beach after acquiring O. J. Stough’s share of the unsold properties of the Pacific Beach Company in 1903. The hotel building burned down in 1931. The fire marshal believed the blaze was set, citing two other attempts to burn the structure earlier in the year. More than 35 cadets from the nearby San Diego Army and Navy Academy aided firemen fighting the blaze. The house on the north side of Hornblend, across from the hotel, the same house that the Woodworths had moved into in 1900, had also burned down a few months earlier under suspicious circumstances.

The railroad itself was scrapped in 1919, although much of the right-of-way along the coast became the route of the San Diego Electric Railway interurban line to La Jolla via Mission Beach and Pacific Beach in 1924. The electric line was discontinued in 1940 and also scrapped.

Reed Avenue west of Bayard is now lined with houses, duplexes and apartment buildings like the rest of Pacific Beach, but one of these houses, 854 Reed, Doyle’s home, is an actual survivor from those early days when railroad employees lived next to the depot grounds at the end of the line in Pacific Beach.

Edward Crosier carved this inscription into the sidewalk in front of his home at 852 Reed, next to the Doyle house, built in 1912.

Edward Crosier carved this inscription into the sidewalk in front of the home at 852 Reed, next to the Doyle house, that he built in 1912.

Loring Hill and the Ashers

Loring Street Hill

Loring Street Hill

Loring Street in Pacific Beach is known for the steep hill which angles up steeply from the coastal plain to the Mount Soledad foothills in the length of a single city block. The panoramic view from the top of Loring Street Hill is one of the reasons that the area is now crowded with expensive new residences, but one home in particular stands out from the rest, and has for nearly ninety years now. Located on the north side of Loring at the very top of the hill, and distinguished by the long flight of steps leading up from the street, this home has been known to generations of PB residents as the ‘Loring Hill House’.

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The Loring Hill House was built in 1926 by Josephus Marion (J. M.) Asher, Jr., a local real estate operator. Asher was born in 1878 in San Diego, one of the first children of American settlers (his older sister Josephine believed she was the first settler child). His parents had been friends with Alonzo Horton in San Francisco and followed him to San Diego in 1869 where the senior J. M. Asher established San Diego’s first nursery and florist shop, later acquired by Kate Sessions to launch her noted horticultural career. J. M. Asher Jr.’s career was also noted, not only for his real estate ventures in Pacific Beach, Bay Park and Mission Beach, but also for pursuits as varied as singing and marksmanship.

In 1905 J. M. Asher, Jr., married Mabel Olive Littlefield in the first wedding to be held at the Hotel Balboa in Pacific Beach, the newly remodeled buildings of the former San Diego College of Letters, built in 1888 but closed in 1891. Both the bride and groom were musically inclined; Mr. Asher was renowned as one of the best bass soloists on the coast and Mrs. Asher was an accomplished pianist (especially ragtime; her composition Cinder-Ella Rag was published in 1910).

The couple had apparently moved to San Francisco where they and her brother Warren Littlefield ‘passed through the horror’ of the great earthquake of April 18, 1906, losing all their possessions and spending several nights in the open air after narrowly escaping death from falling buildings. They retreated to Pacific Beach, where her parents had a home, ‘overjoyed to reach a place where such calamities are unknown’ and planning to remain some time to recuperate from the ‘terrible nervous shock’.

The two brothers-in-law formed the real estate firm of Asher & Littlefield, specializing in Pacific Beach, where they acquired large holdings of property in the first decade of the twentieth century (their trademark was a clover leaf, their slogan ‘you will find the bargains at the sign of the 4-leaf clover’). When Warren Littlefield returned to his native Maine in 1910 Asher continued the business on his own, branching out to Bay Park and subdividing Asher’s Clover Leaf Terrace subdivision in 1913 (where Asher and Littlefield Streets join Morena Boulevard). Also in 1913, Asher acquired the northwest corner of Kendall Street and Reed Avenue in Pacific Beach and built the home with the cobblestone porch that still stands today.

The Ashers' house at Kendall and Reed

The Ashers’ house at Kendall and Reed

In 1914 a syndicate of investors purchased the sandy peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and Mission Bay and subdivided it as Mission Beach. A bridge was built across the opening of Mission Bay and a rail line laid from a connection with the Point Loma Railroad in Ocean Beach across the bridge and as far north as Redondo Court in the new Mission Beach subdivision. The Mission Beach Syndicate planned a beach resort at the far end of the line and to develop this new resort the syndicate turned to Asher, granting him a large slice of North Mission Beach, all of the property between Santa Clara Place and San Jose Place plus the property east of Mission Boulevard between San Jose Place and Tangier Court, all then empty sand dunes. The terms of Asher’s contract required him to set up a tent city, grade and surface the streets, install wooden curbs and sidewalks and construct a bath house, swimming pool and pier, all by October 1, 1916. Asher set up the Mission Beach Tent City Company and went about achieving all of these objectives. For his efforts he has come to be known as the ‘Father of Mission Beach’. He also built a home on Bayside Walk and in 1918 the Ashers moved from Kendall and Reed to their new home at Mission Beach.

The Father of Mission Beach did not entirely turn his back on Pacific Beach, however, and in the 1920s he acquired a portion of Acre Lot 11 adjoining the Pacific Beach reservoir site and Kate Sessions’ Soledad Terrace subdivision (where Kate Sessions was having her own house built at about the same time) and began building the Loring Hill House. A building permit was issued to J. M. Asher in February 1926 for a garage in Acre Lot 11 valued at $1000 (at about the same time a permit for a garage on Hornblend was valued at $150). In June, a permit followed for a stucco residence in Acre Lot 11 valued at $15,000 (while a permit for a board house on Noyes Street was valued at $800).

Construction was completed before the end of the year; a December Mission Beach Notes column reported that Mr. and Mrs. Asher had moved to their new home ‘on the hills adjoining Mission Beach’ and a promotional piece for the North Shore Highlands development included a photo of the Asher residence ‘which commands a typical North Shore Highlands panoramic view of ocean, bays, Point Loma, the city and mountains of old Mexico’ (there was also a photo of the ‘new’ Dunaway building in PB’s ‘business center’). In succeeding years society columns frequently reported luncheons and bridge parties at the Ashers’ residence.

In addition to his business career and his musical achievements J. M. Asher, Jr. was a noted sportsman; he had been a championship swimmer and in 1907 he reportedly caught 30 fish in the surf at Pacific Beach. However, the sport in which he achieved his greatest success was target shooting. In 1923, as a member of the San Diego Rifle and Revolver Club, he competed against a team from the U. S. Marine Corps for the ‘Asher Trophy’, which he had donated to promote greater interest in rifle shooting (this time the marines won). By 1925 he was the ‘high gun’ on the California civilian rifle team that won the national trophy at the National Matches at Camp Perry, the ‘world series’ of shooting sports. He was described as ‘among the nation’s crack shots’ and ‘one of the greatest rifle shots in the world’. He generally won his matches, often with perfect scores, at ranges of 600 or even 1000 yards, and often in competition with active-duty military marksmen. One of the factors contributing to Asher’s success may have been the rifle range that was built into the Loring Hill House; a later real estate listing noted that in addition to being one of the highest spots in Pacific Beach with a million-dollar view, the house included a ‘shooting gallery’ (in addition to riding stables and butler and maids quarters).

However, the Ashers’ residence in their new home above Loring Hill was a limited one, presumably due at least in part to the Great Depression of the 1930s and its effect on the San Diego real estate market. By 1932 they had moved back to their Bayside Walk home and the Loring Hill House sat vacant. In Mission Beach J. M. Asher Jr. took over a gas station on Mission Boulevard which he leased to his son, J. M. Asher II. He also apparently worked there himself; where City Directories had once listed him as ‘Capitalist’, by 1939 he was a ‘station attendant’ at Asher’s Service Station. In 1942, at a time of wartime rationing, Josephus M. Asher was the operator of a service station on Mission Boulevard fined $25 for selling gasoline illegally, in cans that were greater than one gallon and not painted red and labeled ‘gasoline’ in letters at least one inch high.

J. M. Asher, Jr. died in 1954. A brief notice in the San Diego Union described him as a member of a pioneer San Diego family and a developer of Mission Beach. J. M. Asher II enlisted in the Navy during World War II and was lost in 1943 aboard the submarine USS Corvina. When Mission Bay was dredged and reborn as Mission Bay Park in the 1950s one of the coves created by Santa Clara Point, near his parents’ home, was named Asher Cove in his honor (but renamed in the 1960s over the protests of his mother). Mabel Asher sold their Bayside Walk property in 1965 to a group who intended to build the 9-story ‘Asher Towers’, but with public sentiment running against high-rise developments in the beach areas they settled for the three-story condominium which is there now. When Mabel Asher died at 89 in 1969 she was living in a duplex on Diamond Street near Cass and still playing the piano, although failing eyesight prevented her from reading music.

After the Ashers’ departure in the early 1930s the Loring Hill House remained vacant for a few years but since then has been home to a succession of residents including, in 1938, San Diego’s primary Hupmobile dealer. More recently even more imposing homes have been built on neighboring properties, including further subdivisions of the Ashers’ original lot in Acre Lot 11. While these homes may share the view, they can’t claim the heritage of the house which has looked over Pacific Beach (and Mission Beach) from the top of Loring Hill since the 1920s.

Loring Hill House

Celebrity PB Pioneer

 

Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight - Rose Hartwick Thorpe, 1883

Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight – Rose Hartwick Thorpe, 1883

Rose Hartwick Thorpe was famous long before she moved to Pacific Beach. In 1867 Rose Hartwick was a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Litchfield, Michigan who from an early age had shown an aptitude for writing poetry. One night, inspired by the story ‘Love and Loyalty’ in Peterson’s Magazine, she had written the narrative poem ‘Bessie and the Curfew’. In the poem, set in England during the English civil war of 1600s, Bessie risked everything by climbing the slimy ladder to the church tower and clinging to the tongue of the bell as it swung to and fro over the city far below to prevent it from sounding curfew, the time set for the execution of her lover Basil Underwood on suspicion of spying for the royalist Cavaliers:

She had listened while the judges read, without a tear or sigh,
‘At the ringing of the curfew, Basil Underwood must die.’
And her breath came fast and faster, and her eyes grew large and bright;
One low murmur, faintly spoken. “Curfew must not ring tonight!’.

When Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan leader, road into town, Bessie knelt at his feet and told her story, showing him her bruised and torn hands, and touched his heart with sudden pity, saving Basil’s life:

“Go! your lover lives,” said Cromwell. “Curfew shall not ring tonight!”.

Rose Hartwick’s poetry had appeared in local newspapers before but when this poem, renamed ‘Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight’, was printed in 1870 it became a sensation and was reprinted by newspapers all over the country and even in published collections. It became one of the most popular poems of the nineteenth century, familiar to almost everyone.

In 1871 Rose Hartwick married Edward Carson (E. C.) Thorpe, a carriage maker, and they soon had a daughter, Lulo. In the early 1880s the Thorpes moved from Michigan to San Antonio, Texas, where they hoped the warmer climate would improve Mr. Thorpe’s health.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, a transcontinental rail line had arrived in 1885 and the city experienced a huge influx of settlers known as the ‘great boom’. The boom also attracted visionaries who saw the potential for San Diego to become a great city and hoped to participate in shaping its future. Harr Wagner was publisher of the Golden Era, a literary journal based in San Francisco. In 1887 Wagner moved the paper to San Diego, where he began a campaign for civic improvements which included the establishment of an institution of higher learning. He founded a college and arranged with the Pacific Beach Company to integrate it into the community they were planning to develop.

Wagner also reached out to Mrs. Thorpe, an occasional contributor to the Golden Era: ‘He wrote me that they wanted me here, that they were starting the college of letters at Pacific Beach’. So the Thorpes moved to San Diego; in September San Diego Union reported that ‘E. C. Thorpe and Rose Hartwick Thorpe, the author of the “Curfew Must Not Ring”, arrived yesterday and will relocate in this city’. Mr. Thorpe joined Wagner as a director and shareholder of the Golden Era Company and Mrs. Thorpe edited a children’s section called ‘Our Homes’ and contributed poetry to the publication.

The Pacific Beach Company began selling lots in December 1887 with the college as one of the subdivision’s primary attractions. A four-block parcel in the center of the community was set aside and in January 1888 the cornerstone of the San Diego College of Letters was laid. When the college opened in September Mrs. Thorpe recalled that both she and her daughter Lulo attended classes. Both also appeared at other college activities; a reception for the college president in October featured a new poem, ‘Margaret’, by Rose Hartwick Thorpe, author of ‘Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight’, read by that gifted lady. At the college’s first commencement the following summer, Miss Lulo Thorpe, daughter of Rose Hartwick Thorpe, the gifted authoress of ‘Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight’, read an able and interesting history of the school year.

E. C. Thorpe joined the real estate boom by becoming a dealer in ‘portable houses’, small wooden structures held together by pins rather than nails or screws. Apparently the Thorpes lived in one themselves; reliving the ‘old days’ for PB’s fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1937 Mrs. Thorpe recalled that ‘We moved our portable cottage to Pacific Beach, and we thus became the very first settlers there’.

However, the great boom came to an end in early 1888. E. C. Thorpe later wrote that the depression that followed in the wake of the boom necessitated the closing of the college in 1890 and many moved away so that by the following year only three or four families remained in the college settlement. One of those that remained was the Barnes family, whose sons Edward and Theodore had also been students at the college. The Thorpes and the Barnes were soon to discover a new source of prosperity in Pacific Beach, lemon cultivation. They also became neighbors, their lemon ranches on opposite sides of Lamont Street, between Diamond and Emerald, the Barnes to the west and the Thorpes to the east. In 1895 Edward Barnes and Lulo Thorpe were married and the couple moved to their own lemon ranch next to his father’s, on Jewell Street.

Rose Hartwick Thorpe was a world-renowned celebrity and always in demand at cultural and artistic events but her husband also became popular as a performer, adopting the character of ‘Hans’ and performing recitations in the broken English of a Dutchman. A favorite was ‘Dot Bacific Peach Flea’ (‘Vot schumps und viggles und bites . . . Und keepen me avake effry nights’). The Thorpes frequently combined their talents for public recitations. In 1890 the ‘popular gifted litterateurs Edward Carson Thorpe and Rose Hartwick Thorpe charmed the hearts of their hearers from first to last. ‘Hans’, as usual, convulsed his audience with laughter. The famed authoress of ‘Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight’ won her audience, as she always does, by rendering her own compositions’.

Rose Hartwick Thorpe also did her part to improve the cultural environment of the community. In 1895 the ladies of Pacific Beach met at her home and formed a reading club, with Mrs. Thorpe as president. For years the club met at members homes (the members were all women) but in 1911 they built their own clubhouse, now the Pacific Beach Womans Club, at 1721 Hornblend Street.

Lemon ranching dominated Pacific Beach for more than a decade after the college collapsed but when residential growth resumed in the late 1890s E. C. Thorpe also became a building contractor. Much of his business was in La Jolla and in 1901 the Thorpes moved into a cottage he had built there, selling the orchard and home in Pacific Beach to their daughter and son-in-law. In 1906 both families moved downtown, the Thorpes to 3rd Avenue in Hillcrest and then to locations in Mission Hills overlooking San Diego Bay and the Barnes to 4th Avenue, across Upas Street from his parents, who had also sold their Pacific Beach ranch and moved to the city. After E. C. Thorpe died in 1916 Mrs. Thorpe moved back to Hillcrest and later joined the Barnes colony at 4th and Upas. Rose Hartwick Thorpe died in 1939 at the age of 89.

After the Thorpes and the Barnes left Pacific Beach their former home at Lamont and Emerald became the parsonage for the Methodist Church and later the home of ‘Mother’ Davis, whose son, Capt. Thomas A. Davis, was the founder and long-time president of San Diego Army and Navy Academy. In 1957 the old house burned to the ground in a spectacular blaze witnessed by many in Pacific Beach (myself included).

Few people today have heard of Rose Hartwick Thorpe or ‘Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight’ but one of her poems may actually have changed the map of San Diego. The shallow lagoon south of Pacific Beach had originally been called False Bay to distinguish it from San Diego Bay, the ‘true’ natural harbor further to the south. Mrs. Thorpe is said to have suggested that ‘Mission Bay’ would be a more fitting name and her poem ‘Mission Bay’ (‘now blue, now gray’) in the August 1888 Golden Era initiated the campaign to rename it. Although the bay was known by both names for years her choice became increasingly popular and False Bay was officially renamed Mission Bay in 1915.

RHT - Autograph

The House Next Door

 

Gridley Ranch House, Diamond Street, 1968

Gridley/McConnell Ranch House, 1790 Diamond Street, 1968

An old 2-story frame house with white siding, green trim, a shingle roof and a brick chimney stood next door to our home on Diamond Street during the 1950s and 60s. Widening and paving the street had cut into the front yard leaving a badly eroded bank down to the sidewalk. An unpaved driveway cut through this bank on the east side and led to a garage at the back of the lot. There was a patio with a large brick outdoor fireplace or incinerator in the yard and a fish pond with large goldfish by the side of the house.

Our lot and the lot that this old house sat on were separated by a cement-block wall with bricks on top. The unpaved alley that ran behind both of our lots all the way between Jewell and Lamont Street was also blocked by a wooden fence along this same line, and by another fence further west, so this portion of the alley was blocked off from either end. We always wondered why.

It turns out that the cement-block wall and the fence in the alley marked the boundary between two historical Pacific Beach ‘acre lots’, and the blocked section of alley was a consequence of the different ways these two acre lots had been developed. When the Pacific Beach Company first sold lots to the public in December 1887 their map of Pacific Beach was a grid of north-south streets and east-west avenues which divided the entire area into residential blocks of 40 lots each. However, the Pacific Beach Company found that most people preferred to buy lots in a central corridor centered around Grand Avenue, which was also the route of the railroad to San Diego. To encourage sales in the outlying areas to potential farmers and ranchers, the company filed an amended subdivision map in 1892 in which most of the area south of Reed Avenue and north of Diamond Street (then Alabama Avenue) was consolidated into ‘acre lots’ of about 10 acres each, eliminating many of the original streets and avenues. In our area, Missouri Avenue and Jewell and Kendall Streets (then Ninth and Tenth Streets) were removed and Acre Lot 48 formed from the land between Diamond and Chalcedony (then Idaho) and what had been Jewell and the east side of Kendall on the original map. Acre Lot 49 was the land east of Kendall between Chalcedony, Diamond and Lamont (Eleventh) Street.

The acre lots went on sale in 1892 for $100 an acre and both of these lots were quickly sold. Mary E. Rowe purchased Acre Lot 49 and developed a lemon ranch on the property. Her 2-story ranch house stood near the center of the lot, where the apartments at 1828-1840½ Missouri Street are now (the large palm tree in front of these apartments once stood in front of the Rowe ranch house). Mrs. Rowe had moved to Pacific Beach in 1889 and her daughters Evangeline and Mabel had been students at the San Diego College of Letters. Her lemon ranching venture began successfully and by 1897 the San Diego Union singled her out  in reporting that ‘the ladies of Pacific Beach were justly proud of their ranches’; hers was then valued at $9000.

Mrs. Rowe moved to Los Angeles in 1900 and left the lemon ranch in the hands of her son Percy. However, by then the lemon business had seen its day and the new century brought another ‘boom’ in residential development. In 1903 Acre Lot 49 was sold to John and Julia Hauser and the Hausers re-subdivided the property into residential lots. The map for Hauser’s Subdivision reinstated Missouri Street and re-established the original two blocks of 40 25 X 125 foot lots which had preceded the acre lot. Like the originals, and most other blocks in Pacific Beach, these blocks included a 20-foot wide alley. Julia Hauser died in 1937, John Hauser remarried in 1939, and in 1950 my parents bought lots 39 and 40 of Block 2, Hauser’s Subdivision, from Martha Hauser, his widow. Block 2 was between Diamond and Missouri Streets and lots 39 and 40 were at the southwest corner, on Diamond Street adjoining Acre Lot 48.

By contrast, Acre Lot 48 has never been re-subdivided and was broken up piecemeal over the years into the irregularly-sized lots that exist today. In 1892 Hannah Cogswell had acquired the western half and Milton Trumbauer the eastern half; Trumbauer’s deed specified that his property had a frontage of 290 feet on ‘Alhambra’ (Alabama) Avenue, a depth of 680 feet and contained 4.65 acres. Today this would be from the cement-block wall half way down the block toward Jewell Street, and from Diamond Street to Chalcedony. Trumbauer did not hold on to his half of the lot for long; by 1894 county records show that the E 1/2 of Acre Lot 48 was owned by Fannie B. Gridley.

The old house on the property was built for Mrs. Gridley in 1896 by E. C. Thorpe, the contractor (and lemon rancher) who was also the husband of the famous poet Rose Hartwick Thorpe. Mrs. Thorpe’s 1896 diary mentions that he secured the contract to build the house on January 6, commenced work on January 13 and that it was finished by March 11, 1896, despite occasional delays due to rain. The status of the Gridleys’ house was also reported in the Pacific Beach Notes column of the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune; on February 24, 1896 the note was that Mrs. Gridley’s house was nearing completion and would soon be ready for occupancy and on March 15 Mrs. Gridley was said to be moving into her new home. These reports are confirmed by county records; beginning in 1897 the ‘value of improvements’ on the E 1/2 of Acre Lot 48 ($250) corresponded to about what other houses in Pacific Beach were assessed at in those days.

The Gridleys remained in the house for six years and were noted in other Pacific Beach Notes; in 1899 Mr. Gridley was thrown from his carriage and badly injured in a runaway accident and in 1900 Miss Kate Gridley left for Stanford University on Sunday’s steamer. In 1902 they sold their half of the acre lot to Francis Kinney and in 1903 Kinney sold to J. W. Stump. The Stumps were prominent in organizing the Pacific Beach Methodist Church, which was then located at the corner of Lamont and Emerald, just a block away. When Mrs. Stump’s health compelled them to move in 1906  a procession of about forty people from the church marched over for a surprise party bearing food and gifts.

The Stumps also initiated the haphazard re-subdivision of Acre Lot 48 by splitting off the southeast quarter of their eastern half, where their house stood, and selling the remainder to Sterling Honeycutt. Honeycutt was a prominent real estate developer in Pacific Beach at the time and he proceeded to carve up his portion of the property into residential lots, while also setting aside land for the westward extension of Missouri Street and the alleys laid out in Hausers Addition to the east.

The southeastern corner of Acre Lot 48 was put on the market by real estate agents Asher & Littlefield who placed the following ad in the February 11, 1907, Union:

Here’s a Money Maker

At Pacific Beach, a beautiful southeast corner, 125X270, with a nice 8-room house, bath, hot and cold water, fireplace, etc.: barn, chicken house, 30 lemon trees in full bearing, 5 peach trees, 11 guava bushes, 2 fig trees, flowers, shrubs, etc. This is on Diamond avenue, and only one block from Hotel Balboa. Would be a good buy at $5000. Our price is only $4000.

(Hotel Balboa was the most recent occupant of the defunct San Diego College of Letters buildings; they were taken over by the San Diego Army and Navy Academy in 1910 and demolished to make room for Pacific Plaza in 1958.)

This 125 X 270 parcel, a strip 125 feet wide on the east line of the lot between Diamond Street and Missouri, including the house, barn, chicken house and fruit trees, was sold in 1906 to Ralph Houck. In 1912 it was sold again, to Kate McConnell. The McConnell family, Thomas and Elizabeth and their 9 children, had immigrated from Ireland to Iowa in 1881. In 1897, one of the sons, also named Thomas, had moved to Pacific Beach and began buying agricultural properties. In 1900 he had been joined by his father, sister Kate and brother John, and the McConnell family became well-established in Pacific Beach.

Although Miss McConnell granted easements to Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company and San Diego Consolidated Gas & Electric Company for a telephone line and natural gas pipeline above and under her property in what would later become the alley, the parcel between Diamond and Missouri remained intact for decades until she sold to Arthur and Marion Hansen in 1946. Within a year the Hansens had divided the property into three parcels and sold them off. The east 65 feet of the south 125 feet, between Diamond Street and the future alley, including the old house, was sold to Roy and Catherine Pridemore in 1947. The west 60 feet of the south 125 feet was also sold in 1947, to Florence Dreher. The Pridemores acquired Ms. Dreher’s  lot in 1948 and in 1950 sold off the west 50 feet of their combined property while retaining the east 75 feet. These two properties thus came to resemble normal Pacific Beach residential parcels made up of 25 X 125-foot lots.

The remaining parcel, the north 145 feet of the east 125 feet, between these properties and Missouri Street, was much larger and was initially advertised as suitable for a motel. While other lots carved out of larger tracts in Acre Lot 48 had set aside land for public alleys and even for Missouri Street, there was no such exception for this parcel. The south 20 feet stood in the way of the 20-foot-wide alleys on either side and fences were built to block access from the alleys. Raymond and Clara Butchart purchased it from the Hansens in 1947 and in 1965 they finally granted the city an easement over that 20-foot strip. The fences were then removed and the alley opened and paved from Jewell to Lamont Streets.

The house itself, one of the last remaining ranch houses from Pacific Beach’s acre lots, stood for a few years after that. In 1968 the property was sold and the old buildings demolished and replaced by a 12-unit apartment complex, the Tiffany, which now practically fills the 75 X 125 foot lot. Our former home, remodeled with the addition of a second story, has also been sold. The two properties are still divided by a cement-block wall.

 

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Gridley/McConnell House

Bird Rock Question

Bike Trail 1962

Between 1924 and 1940 the San Diego Electric Railway Company operated trains between downtown and La Jolla, passing through Mission Beach and Pacific Beach over what is now Mission Boulevard and continuing on to La Jolla on a right-of-way that is now La Jolla Hermosa Avenue (then called Electric Avenue) in Bird Rock and the La Jolla bike path beyond. After passing to the east of La Jolla High School, the route followed Fay Street to a terminal on Prospect. (Ironically, the electric trains never ran over what is now Electric Avenue in La Jolla, which was the route of the original La Jolla steam railway. The SDER followed much of the old route between Pacific Beach and La Jolla but bypassed that section of the line.)

Long before the bike path was paved and officially recognized, the level surface and lack of automobile traffic made it the preferred route for kids to ride from Pacific Beach to La Jolla, and in the 1960s it was still possible to see evidence of the old trolley line. Steel rails were embedded in Fay Street north of the high school, a passenger platform stood along the path behind the Methodist Church (which we learned had originally been built as a trolley station) and a strip of asphalt down the middle of La Jolla Hermosa Avenue covered whatever remained of the roadbed there. But what was really intriguing to a curious kid was that just north of Forward Street another strip of asphalt branched off from the main line to the curb on the west side of the street, and a pair of gaps or slots angled across the sidewalk into the front yard of one of the houses on the street. La Jolla Hermosa Avenue has been repaved in the intervening decades so the asphalt strips are no longer apparent, but the slots in the sidewalk which had obviously once held steel rails are still there. So, what could have once been located in this quiet residential block that rated a siding on a commuter trolley line?

In the 1920s this may not have been such a quiet residential block.  To the west, the street that is now La Jolla Boulevard with its traffic-calming roundabouts was then the Coast Highway, the only paved road between San Diego and Los Angeles and points north (the Rose Canyon route wasn’t paved until the 1930s). Any vehicle being driven between these cities would have passed along the west side of the block. The noisy trolleys on the east side of the block ran every half-hour in each direction and the electric railway also hauled freight.

Vehicular traffic must have been relatively light if everyone driving between San Diego and Los Angeles passed through Bird Rock, but it was growing – and all these vehicles needed fuel. Standard Oil reported that service stations and garages selling its Red Crown gasoline in San Diego had increased from 59 in October 1924 to 85 in January 1925. To meet this unprecedented demand, Standard Oil expanded its distribution system. According to the January 9, 1925, San Diego Union Standard Oil Company of California had acquired an entire block of land at Bird Rock, lying between the Coast Highway and the San Diego Electric Railway, for the establishment of a storage yard and distributing station. The company would erect several large storage tanks and a warehouse and garage. Trucks would carry Standard Oil products from there to La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach and Point Loma. The distribution plant did open in February 1925, making deliveries of gasoline, kerosene, lubricating oils and other petroleum products to communities in the Mission Bay region.

Although there was no word at the time on how the petroleum products would arrive at the storage site, in 1934 the San Diego Electric Railway Company applied to the state railroad commission for permission to discontinue its freight service. The company claimed that the sole user of its freight service at that time, Standard Oil, had acquired a fleet of trucks and was no longer shipping oil by rail. So it would appear that between its construction in 1925 and 1934, the Standard Oil storage and distribution plant at Forward Street had been receiving its deliveries from the San Diego Electric Railway.

In 1940, a few years after discontinuing freight service, the electric railway also abandoned its passenger service to La Jolla and then, in 1949, it ended all rail service in the city. Standard Oil also moved out in 1942 or 1943 and the property is now occupied by homes. All that is left from that earlier era is a couple of gaps in the sidewalk where tank cars once rolled between the main line and the tank farm.

SDER Siding Bird Rock

SDER Standard Oil Siding Bird Rock

PB Mystery House

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When I was a kid in the 1950s I remember going with my Dad to watch a model railroad exhibit in Pacific Beach. I was too young to remember exactly where it was, but I seemed to recall that it was in the basement of a large old-fashioned house painted in vivid colors on the top of a hill. We never went to see the model trains again but we did occasionally drive past what seemed like a large haunted house on the slope above the road which I somehow associated with the model railroad layout. I do remember where that house was, even though the surrounding area was transformed into a Navy housing project around 1960 and the road at the bottom of the slope was widened and extended and renamed Soledad Mountain Road. The house itself disappeared during this redevelopment but signs of its previous existence, crumbling walls and other ruins on the side of the hill, remained and can still be seen near the corner of Felspar Street.

My Dad didn’t remember anything about this (he’s 94 and has lived on the other side of the country for the last 40 years) so I decided to do some research on my own. The San Diego History Center library in Balboa Park has a huge collection of historical photos, including aerial photos of Pacific Beach in the 1940s and 1950s featuring the Bayview Terrace public housing project.  Bayview Terrace was built in 1941 to accommodate wartime aircraft workers and covered pretty much all of Pacific Beach east of Olney Street.  The aerial photos show a network of streets lined with small temporary ‘demountable’ houses and, where the haunted house/model railroad exhibit had stood, an unusual building with dormer windows in the attic, turret-like bay windows protruding from the south side and what looked like an observation deck or widows walk on the roof. The photos showed the building to be at the top of a slope with what appears to be a driveway with concrete curbs leading down to the road and a retaining wall at the bottom.

The streets which currently surround the property, Soledad Mountain Road, Felspar and Blom Streets, did not exist while the house was standing. A map from 1952 shows the road on the east side of the property, now Soledad Mountain Road, was then called Calle Breve. The 1952 City Directory included only one address on Calle Breve and it was the Bayview Terrace Housing Project Child Care Center, which is still there on the northwest corner of Soledad Mountain and Garnet, so that wasn’t what I was looking for. The road on the west was called Calle Tinto in 1952; there were dozens of addresses on Calle Tinto but none of them stood out; certainly none of them was occupied by a model railroad club.

Calle Breve, Calle Tinto and the other streets of Bayview Terrace had only existed since 1941.  Prior to that time, addresses would have referenced streets described on local subdivision maps. County parcel maps still reference the site, on the west side of Soledad Mountain Road at Felspar Street, as Blocks 173 and 174 of Pacific Beach, according to Map 791, at the extreme southeast corner of Pueblo Lot 1789 and the eastern edge of the Pacific Beach subdivision. According to Map 791, Block 173 was on the east side of Randall Street between Diamond and Emerald. Block 174 was south of Emerald.  The top of the hill where the house had been was in the northwest corner of Block 173, or the southeast corner of Diamond and Randall Streets.  City Directories in the years before 1941 did not show any addresses on Diamond or Randall streets in this vicinity, however.

The Pacific Beach Company had subdivided the area between the ocean and bay and the foothills and Rose Creek and sold parcels to the public starting in 1887, and amid the hundreds of deeds granted by the Pacific Beach Company from 1887 to 1898 (when the PB Company was dissolved) was one from September 1888 granting John D. Hoff and George Hazzard Blocks 173 and 174 (as well as some property immediately to the east in Pueblo Lot 1788) with the only consideration being that they build a corrugated iron asbestos mill on the site starting within 30 days, to be completed within 3 months, and to operate for 3 years.

The asbestos mill was built and for several years made heat-resistant boiler coatings and paint from asbestos mined near Elsinore and transported to the site by rail (the railroad ran along the north side of what was then called Grand, now Garnet Avenue). An important customer for their products was the Stonewall Mine in the Cuyamaca mining district. Apparently the asbestos mill in Pacific Beach was not a success, however, and in 1892 Hoff and Hazzard sold the property to A. B. Cairnes, although Hoff’s deed to Cairnes stipulated that he could continue to operate the asbestos mill (although he didn’t, and the mill was soon removed).  Alexander B. Cairnes was the first chief engineer (Fire Chief) when San Diego established a professional fire department in 1889. He also was an inventor; he held a patent for the first extension fire-ladder. He retired from the Fire Department on his 65th birthday in 1905.

County Lot Books, also found in the History Center library, documented the ownership and assessed valuation of improvements of every lot in the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Beginning in 1893 the Lot Books showed that Blocks 173 and 174 of Pacific Beach were owned by A. B. Cairnes but there were no significant improvements listed until 1908, when improvements in lots 1 – 4 of Block 173 were assessed at $625, a value consistent with a large house (Lots 1 – 4 are the northwest corner of block 173, the southwest corner of Diamond and Randall on the old maps). The San Diego Union had reported in September 1906 that among the building permits issued by the board of public works was ‘A. B. Cairnes, cottage, Pacific Beach, Seventeenth and Albatross avenue.  $2000.’  (17th street had actually been renamed Randall in 1900 and Albatross was presumably a misprint for Alabama Avenue, which became Diamond in 1900).  By November, Cairnes was said to be pushing work on his home, a ‘large, two-story structure, with a stone base and stone terraces surround it, which being situated on a knoll, give it somewhat the appearance of a castle’.

Chief Cairnes soon took up residence in his new home; City Directories showed Cairnes Alexander B.  as ‘rancher, Pacific Beach’ (1906 – 1909),  ‘treas Mohawk Petroleum & Gas Co’ (1911), and as ‘n s Feldspar av nr Quincy’ (1913, 1914). The north side of Felspar near Quincy location would have been about a block away from the actual location of the house, both south and west, but perhaps there was a road or driveway between these locations.

In 1918 and 1919 the City Directory entry for Cairnes gave his address as 2504 Grand av, Pacific Beach. Although the house and Block 173 were some distance from Grand (later Balboa and now Garnet), Cairnes’ property in Block 174 to the south and Pueblo Lot 1788 to the east would have given him access to Grand. The 2504 Grand  address is also in the same block as Kate Sessions’ nursery (2590 Grand), although Miss Sessions did not acquire her property there until 1924.

Cairnes lived at this home for the remainder of his life, during which he still occasionally made news. He ‘rendered yeoman service’ in fighting a fire (naturally) at Ye Olde Mission Inn, formerly the club house of the Pacific Beach Race Track, in 1908. The Mission Inn was just across Rose Creek from his home and he was among the volunteers using a garden hose and bucket brigade to prevent the fire from spreading (although the Mission Inn burned to the ground in a second fire later the same year).

Chief Cairnes died in 1919 and by 1923 the property was owned by Ernest Lagar and C. Agnes Thompson.  The 1924 City Directory showed the Pacific Beach Auto Camp (R. H. Thompson) at 2504 Grand.   In 1925 Mr. Lagar acquired Mrs. Thompson’s interest at an auction at the courthouse door and from 1928 to 1939 Ernest and Mary Lagar lived there. Mary, widowed, continued to live there in 1940 and 1941.

In 1941 the entire area was bought up by the Public Housing Agency for the construction of housing for the defense workers who were flooding into San Diego as industry, particularly Consolidated Aircraft, began mobilizing for war.  Mary A. Lagar (and Ernest Lagar estate) was included in a long list of ‘defendants’ in a proceeding by which the US Government condemned and acquired several tracts, including Blocks 173 and 174, which was included in Tract III. These tracts became the Bayview Terrace housing project. All of the existing structures within the Bayview Terrace tracts were razed and replaced with demountable housing units with the exception of the Cairnes home.

So, there really was a building on the site with a well-established history and an unusual appearance, but what about a model railroad? For years (until 1991) there was a model railroad layout at the Del Mar Fairgrounds called the Pacific Beach Model Railroad Club. Currently, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park (right next door to the History Center Library) has a Pacific Beach Model Railroad Club Room. The Model Railroad museum also has a library, so I checked there one day to see if they knew anything about the Pacific Beach club and why it was called that and where it might have met in the 1950s. They didn’t, but they did take my email address and promised to check with some old-timers.

Later the same day I got an email from a woman who said she had joined the club in 1954 when she married one of the founders and that the club met in Kate Sessions Park, in the basement of the Kate Sessions Mansion which was on top of the hill. She went on to say that the Navy bought the land the house sat on for the Navy housing project and it was torn down so they had to leave and that’s when they went to Del Mar. When they had to leave Del Mar they couldn’t find another place for their layout so they disbanded but donated their remaining money to the San Diego club, which now honors them with the room at the museum.

This information that the club met in the basement of a mansion on top of a hill and that it was torn down for a Navy housing project corresponded with my memory, but other details of this account couldn’t be entirely accurate. In the first place, Kate Sessions Park in Pacific Beach has always been city property and there never were any houses on it, much less a mansion. Secondly, although Kate Sessions did live in a house near but outside of Kate Sessions Park, and at the time it may have been considered a mansion, it is still standing and Navy housing was never built anywhere near it. Also, I’m pretty sure I would have remembered going to that Kate Sessions home even as a kid; for one thing my Dad’s boss and another colleague, and several of my own friends, lived in the same neighborhood, and also this Kate Sessions mansion doesn’t look anything like what I remembered of the model railroad exhibit.

Still, this sounded like a confirmation to me. Although it hadn’t actually been Kate Sessions’ mansion and wasn’t actually in Kate Sessions Park, the Cairnes house was mansion-like and in the same area as Kate Sessions’ historic nursery, which was marked by a prominent historic monument, so the description was close enough.

Further evidence came from the archives of the San Diego Union, which are now accessible online. On most Tuesdays from 1953 to 1956 the Union’s ‘What’s Doing in San Diego’ column included the notice ‘7:30 – 10 p.m. – Model railroad operation exhibition, Bayview Terrace Community Building’.  It appeared that the former Cairnes residence in the midst of the Bayview Terrace housing project had been spared so that it could function as the Bayview Terrace Community Building, and for a few years in the mid-1950s it hosted weekly model railroad exhibitions, one of which I had apparently attended.  On March 13, 1956, there was also a notice that the Bayview Model Railroad Club had applied for a lease on Tierra del Fuego island.  The lease application for Tierra del Fuego must have been turned down and the club relocated instead to the Del Mar Fairgrounds.  Final confirmation came in a report from the Union archives that a landmark Pacific Beach home thought to have been built by A. B. Cairnes, San Diego’s first fire chief, had burned down on October 20, 1957. The Union article mentioned that a model railroad club had used the basement until earlier that year.

What still remains on the site is a retaining wall along the road at the bottom of the hill and some remains of the driveway that used to run up the hill to the house. The wall is on the west side of Soledad Mountain Road north of Felspar Street (of course you can also see these ruins today with Street View). The side of the wall facing downhill and open to view is covered with a purple or mauve plaster and grooved to resemble rectangular blocks, although much of it is now cracked and crumbled and reveals the the wall was also made from cobblestones. There is a hint that the top of the wall was painted yellow (vividly colored?).  Of course, parts of the wall are now spray-painted with graffiti.  At the one inside corner of the wall is a cobblestone structure that looks like it may have been a hearth or incinerator (people burned their trash in the old days; even we had an incinerator in the 1950s). There were a few pieces of hardware cloth screen that could have been some sort of spark arrester for the incinerator.

In the winter the hillside is often covered with tall green grass but in the summer when the grass dries out and is beaten down you can also see what appear to be the curbs outlining the driveway which ran up the hill. Actually this driveway occupies the space reserved for an alley between the two sides of Block 173, and may have been city property.  A concrete post laying on its side looks like it would have once fit on the end of one of these curbs; a gatepost, like the aerial photos from the 1940s seem to show.

In the 1970s, the Navy returned a few parcels of land along Soledad Mountain Road that had not been incorporated into their housing project to the city to be dedicated as parkland. One parcel north of the Cairnes home site has been developed as a dog park.  The site of the Cairnes home/Bayview Terrace Community Building/Model Railroad, its ruins relatively undisturbed for over 50 years, has also inadvertently become a sort of historic park, preserving this piece of Pacific Beach history.

 

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