Tag Archives: Pacific Beach History

Springtime in PB

Vacant lots and other undeveloped spots around Pacific Beach have turned a brilliant shade of green after a series of winter storms blew ashore in January. In 2019 these undeveloped spots are few and far between and the greenery is only apparent in isolated islands between streets, sidewalks and houses.  It makes you wonder what it would have looked like before all the development occurred.

Actually, news reports from those early days did comment on the natural beauty of Pacific Beach after winter and spring rains. In January 1888 the only development in Pacific Beach was a hastily-constructed railway line built along what became Balboa Avenue. The line had been completed as far as Lamont Street in time to deliver more than 2500 people from San Diego to a hillside a couple of blocks north for the laying of the corner-stone of the San Diego College of Letters, the first substantial building in the month-old community. No one could have wished for a better January day, according to the San Diego Union; clouds were threatening rain in the morning but before the second train-load of excursionists reached Pacific Beach the sun had broken through the clouds and the green grass contributed to a sublime scene at the college campus. The San Diego Daily Bee added that the new campus was a lovely spot on a verdant slope. One of the speakers at the corner-stone ceremony also described the spring-like verdure, with the whole scene bathed in perennial sunshine. The college opened in September of 1888 but was not a success and closed in early 1891. The buildings remained, however, and were reopened in 1905 as the Hotel Balboa. A color (or colorized) post card from that time still shows a sublime scene of spring-like verdure bathed in sunshine (in 2019 the site is a parking lot at Pacific Plaza II).

When the college closed most of the academic community moved away but some remained and found the verdant slope surrounding the campus to be ideal for lemon cultivation. Several hundred acres were planted and in March 1895 a report in the Union stated that the lemon trees never looked finer nor made better growth. In other parts of Pacific Beach the fertile soil and winter rains combined to produce crops of grain and hay; the report in May 1895 was that hundreds of acres of grain were being harvested and the yield was good. The hillsides above the fields and orchards also benefited from the rain; the Union reported in February 1897 that ‘the hills and valleys hereabouts are clad in the most attractive emerald’.

Not every year was so ideal. In November 1897 men and teams and plows were said to be at work from daylight until dark getting ready to put in the seed for next year’s hay crop but in March 1898 the news was that although these grain-fields still looked green the need of rain was becoming very urgent. By August less than an inch of additional rain had fallen and the Union reported that the water situation was becoming serious. The ranches nearest the hillside were the greatest sufferers; the lemon ranches were irrigated but there was not enough water to supply the ranches at higher elevations. The Union’s Pacific Beach correspondent added that it was hoped that the experience of August 1873 would be repeated, when 1.95 inches of rain fell. However no rain did fall that August and only another quarter of an inch fell over the next three months.

1899 seemed destined to perpetuate the drought conditions in Pacific Beach. In March the news was that the seriousness of the water situation overshadowed every other topic. The service had been very insufficient for several days and the higher levels were feeling the situation very keenly. However in early May a delightful shower freshened the grass and trees wonderfully and a connection with a well in Rose Canyon had improved the water service. Showers in October were very welcome; the air was clear and beautiful and everyone seemed happy, not because a sufficient amount had fallen but because of the promise of more. By November 1899 the fields and hillsides were taking on the bountiful green so dear to all lovers of nature and O. J. Stough had nearly finished seeding 1200 acres to hay around the Beach.

Winter rains greeted the arrival of the twentieth century; the report from Pacific Beach in January 1900 was that the grain fields were beautiful and farmers said the prospects were never better. By March the grain was looking well since the rain and Pacific Beach ranches were a very pretty sight, the rich dark green of the orange trees mingled with the shades of the fruit from lightest green to deep yellow, contrasted with the pink and white of the peach blossoms. In April the ranches were busy picking lemons and the mowing machines were busy cutting O. J. Stough’s hay.

Although the young grain was looking well and pasture was good early in March 1901 another rain was ‘about due’. Apparently it did arrive on or around March 21, the date of the spring equinox. The report from Pacific Beach was that the ‘equinoctial’ rain was much needed and brought the grain along in fine shape (the correspondent added that arrangements should be made to have an equinox twice a month the whole year). The weather continued to be uncooperative, however. Most of the hay on the beach had been cut by mid-April 1901 but the Evening Tribune reported in late April that after holding off when it could have done the most good, a storm came ‘just in time to catch the new hay in the cocks so the farmers will have to fork it all over’ (ideally farmers ‘make hay while the sun shines’). The hay balers were back at work by the end of May and a quantity of hay was baled and shipped out.

The beneficial effects of winter rains became a common theme in the news from Pacific Beach in the new century. In January 1902 the Tribune reported that all the rain had soaked into the ground, which showed how very dry the earth must have been, but the hills had begun to show green and the lemon trees were looking well and were bearing heavily, with the promise of good price in the near future. A year later, in April 1903, the Union reported that recent rains had made fishing in False Bay (Mission Bay) very good, which kept the anglers busy when not employed in the orchards. The hay was all cut and most of it cured and the orchards were laden with bloom, not only with orange and lemon blossoms but with peach, pear and plum. Although 1903 and 1904 were relatively dry years, 1905 had the second highest annual rainfall ever recorded to that time in San Diego, over 16 inches. In June the Union reported that never had old Soledad been more lovely, with his mantle of variegated green and yellow, the tones of which vary with every hour of the day. The low-lying mesas between La Jolla and San Diego took on a more brilliant coat of red as many varieties of ice plant neared maturity and mingled with the long blooming sunshine flower.

O. J. Stough sold his holdings of over half the territory of Pacific Beach to Folsom Bros. Co. in November 1903. While Stough had plowed and seeded hundreds of acres of his land in the fall to harvest grain and cut hay in the spring, Folsom Bros. Co. was a real estate company that hoped to convert this undeveloped acreage into residential lots. By 1907 they were grading streets and pouring concrete sidewalks, and a subsidiary, Pacific Building Company, was incorporated to build homes for new lot owners. Lemon ranching had also gone into decline as eastern markets were increasingly supplied with lemons from across the Atlantic, particularly from Sicily, and some former lemon ranchers re-subdivided their land into residential lots. As more streets and sidewalks were paved and more houses built, fewer sublime scenes of variegated green were to be seen after winter rains (although the Union reported in 1908 that the people of Pacific Beach had been given a treat from Mother Nature in the fields of wild flowers that cover the hills back of the residence section).

The springtime displays continued to be noted for a few more years in the San Diego Union’s annual New Year’s day report of suburban communities. The Union wrote in 1918 that after the rainy season, which occurred in the winter months, the hills and every available spot in Pacific Beach were ablaze with wild flowers and all vegetation sprang into marvelous growth. No one could do justice to the advantages of living in this particular spot of Southern California. In 1922 the report was that the town occupied a site that might have been chosen by the gods. The setting was that of a beautiful picture in which no form of natural beauty had been omitted. To the north and east were green hills. ‘In such environs abide health and beauty. Hebe herself must have made this her dwelling place.’ (Hebe was the goddess of youth, and cupbearer for the gods and goddesses, serving their nectar and ambrosia).

Population growth and a new surge of residential development and street improvement following the war years of the 1940s eliminated most of the remaining open ground in central Pacific Beach, but for a while there were still green hills to the north and east in the springtime. When Kate Sessions Elementary School was opened at that corner of the community in 1956 this former student can remember a field of yellow mustard extending up the slope to a saddleback on the ridge. The development of Pacifica and Wesley Palms in 1960 replaced the green hills to the east, and the natural look of the hills to the north also disappeared as development continued up the slope of Mount Soledad. But even today, verdure can appear in undeveloped spots following winter rains; the San Diego Union-Tribune commented that the grass along local freeways had turned ‘greener than an Irish meadow’ after heavy rains in February 2019.

PB’s Hotel Balboa

In July 1904 the San Diego Evening Tribune reported that after five days’ careful consideration of over 1,200 names submitted for their new hotel at Pacific Beach, Folsom Bros. Co. wished to announce that the name finally selected was Hotel Balboa. Ten different contestants had suggested the name and Folsom Bros. awarded the prize, choice of a $100 lot in Pacific Beach or $100 in gold, to the first; the other nine would be eligible for a $20 discount on any lot they may select from the company’s holdings. Folsom Bros. Co. had received letters from all over the United States and even from Canada and considered the name a happy choice as the discoverer of the mighty western sea would always be associated with the Pacific Coast. That a splendid hostelry, where the weary traveler may find rest and recuperation, should be built upon the shores of the sea which he discovered and should bear his name seemed both timely and appropriate.

San Diego College of Letters, Pacific Beach, 1888. (SDHC #9800)

The splendid hostelry to be named after the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean was not actually new. The original building had been built in 1888 for the San Diego College of Letters on its campus north of what is now Garnet Avenue and west of Lamont Street. It was the first substantial structure in Pacific Beach, designed and built by James W. Reid, architect of the Hotel del Coronado. A second college building was added in January 1890, just west of the original building and across Garnet from Kendall Street. That building was funded by O. J. Stough, owner of most of Pacific Beach at the time, and became known as Stough Hall. The college failed in 1891 and the college campus property was the subject of several foreclosure auctions at the courthouse door before being acquired by William Johnston, minister of the Pacific Beach Presbyterian Church, with the intention of reestablishing a college at the site. However, the college project never materialized and instead Rev. Johnston and his family moved into the main building and also rented rooms to boarders and visitors, especially easterners visiting during the winter season. By 1901 it was listed in the San Diego city directory as the College Inn, with Rev. Johnston as secretary and manager. Stough Hall became the venue for dances and other community activities for Pacific Beach residents.

Folsom Bros. Co. was a real estate company that controlled the Fortuna Park additions south of Pacific Beach and in 1903 purchased O. J. Stough’s holdings, giving it control of the majority of the property in Pacific Beach as well. To stimulate lot sales Folsom Bros. began a program of improvement and development, grading streets and adding curbs and sidewalks in what was then the center of the community, the area around Hornblend and Kendall streets south of the college campus. In April 1904 the company also leased the campus itself, the four blocks surrounded by Garnet Avenue and Jewell, Emerald and Lamont streets which included the College Inn and Stough Hall. In addition to $50 per month rent Folsom Bros. would be required to spend a like amount in improving and repairing the grounds and buildings – painting the inn was particularly mentioned. The terms included an option to continue the lease for a second year at $100 per month or to purchase the property for $15,000. Folsom Bros. announced that the property would be developed into a first class resort.

After deciding on the appropriate name in July, Folsom Bros. began the conversion of the former college into the promised first class resort. The company announced in September 1904 that a subsidiary, the Pacific Beach Construction Company, would be incorporated to undertake the development and complete the Hotel Balboa. The work was still underway in April 1905 when Folsom Bros. Co. exercised its option to purchase the college campus from Rev. Johnston. In August 1905, the San Diego Union announced that the new Hotel Balboa would be thrown open to the traveler and tourist, although the regular formal opening would take place later, at the beginning of the winter season. Travelers and tourists responded; the weekly Pacific Beach news column listed guests from Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Arizona and Texas during October and November. In mid-November, artistically printed folders and cards distributed throughout the city announced that the new Hotel Balboa was offering the general and traveling public a low special rate for a few weeks until the formal winter opening, affording an unusual opportunity to enjoy a period of sea and bay side life at this favorite Southern California resort at greatly reduced rates.

The Union’s annual New Year’s Day review of San Diego’s communities in 1906 proclaimed the opening of the magnificent Hotel Balboa in the very heart of Pacific Beach to be of first importance among the large number of improvements that had taken place in that suburb during the year 1905. In point of architectural beauty, location and appointment it stood second to none in San Diego. The grounds were in process of being adorned and beautified by flower gardens, stately walks and drives and it had been furnished throughout in admirable style and was capable of accommodating over 100 guests. It was situated on an eminence over 100 feet above sea level giving a magnificent view of every aspect of scenery that this favored spot afforded. A feature that the guests found especially interesting was the observatory erected over the building which contained the dining room and ballroom, which brought the whole country in the environs plainly into view (the dining room and ballroom were in Stough Hall; the ‘observatory’ was the tower Rev. Johnston had built over Stough Hall in 1898). To the south lay Mission Bay, one of the finest bodies of still water in California, four miles long and two miles wide with exceptional opportunity for indulgence in still water sports. The bathing and boating was ideal and during duck season its surface was covered with all sorts of birds. The hotel’s cuisine was un-excelled and its rates reasonable, ranging from two dollars a day upward. Every room had an outside exposure and was provided with city water, electric lights and telephones. The new and elegant furnishings and excellent service made it a delightful spot in which to rest or recreate.

However, the hotel’s first season was a short one. In April 1906 the last two guests, Alexander and Mary McGillivray, returned to North Dakota and the hotel closed for the summer to allow improvements that would greatly add to its list of attractions (the McGillivrays were winter visitors who owned a 20-acre ranch four blocks south of the hotel that never had a ranch house of its own). Larger palms in the ballroom and ping-pong room and several exterior cozy corners were among the latest features. Additional work on the ballroom floor made it so tempting that impromptu dances had been held nearly every night since its completion. Although the hotel itself was closed, many people, both residents and tourists, spent a day or more at Pacific Beach and the Hotel Balboa. Most of them came out of curiosity, having heard what an excellent place it is for a day’s rest or outing. Garnet Avenue had been graded and surfaced with oil and driving over the fine oiled boulevard delighted many of the visitors. Young people found great enjoyment swimming, boating and playing on the hotel tennis courts. It not being in the nature of young people to sit still, the evenings usually ended on that slippery floor in dancing.

That ballroom was the scene of a ‘floral contest’ in June 1906, a ‘fairyland of color and costume’. The San Diego Union reported that the ballroom never looked more beautiful and there had never been a larger or more delighted concourse of people assembled there. Almost the entire population of Pacific Beach turned out, along with visitors from La Jolla, San Diego and Los Angeles. The ping-pong room, converted into a reception hall, was canopied with huge pepper boughs. In the large bay-window alcove of the ballroom cypress branches were used and their pungent fragrance filled the entire building. The ballroom itself was one great bower of palms. Miss Lena Campbell won the prize for the most artistic floral costume, a white princess gown covered with asparagus fern and white carnations. One woman appeared in the unique but somewhat startling costume of Mother Eve, modernized by a black dress under the fig leaves. There were many in white with ropes, wreaths and solid banks of roses, lilies, honeysuckle and other flowers.

Hotel Balboa had been conceived as a year-round resort, and in June 1906 Folsom Bros. Co. published a letter in the Union addressed ‘to the pleasure seeker’; with the approaching of summer the one thought which comes to all is ‘Where shall we spend our vacation?’. The letter suggested that in forming a decision the main points to be taken into consideration should be the opportunities for a complete rest and change, the number of pastimes and pleasures to be enjoyed and lastly the expense. The Hotel Balboa was the most delightful year round resort hotel on the coast; the beautiful parlors, wide verandas, large airy comfortably furnished sleeping apartments, cozy, light dining rooms and the very best cuisine, a large ballroom with splendid floor for dancing, and out of door sports, such as tennis on new double tennis courts, croquet, boating and bathing on Mission Bay, pleasures on the beautiful beach, driving, shooting and rambling in the foothills were but a few of the delightful amusements. There were special weekly and monthly rates for the summer season. The hotel’s amenities and amusements were also described in a beautifully illustrated brochure.

Pacific Beach celebrated the Fourth of July in 1906 with picnic lunches at the beach, games and sports, songs, addresses, a concert by the city guard band and fireworks. Although these activities would take place at the beach, the day would begin and end at the Hotel Balboa. All carriages, automobiles, bicycles, etc., would assemble at the hotel at 8:30 a. m. to march to the water front and after the fireworks display in the evening from the cliff at Diamond Street would return for dancing at Hotel Balboa. The Evening Tribune reported that the program was carried out smoothly from the beginning of the parade until the last dance at midnight.

Activities at the Hotel Balboa increased as the summer season advanced in 1906 but the San Diego Union noted that formal affairs did not find as much favor as impromptu musicales, card parties and dances. Outdoor activities were also popular; from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. all who could be coaxed off the veranda and shaded lawns spent that time in and on the bay, and many enthusiastic fishermen sought the surf every evening. Everyone drives, as the afternoon cools, or else plays tennis or croquet. The young people of Pacific Beach had begun practicing tennis and hoped before long to announce a tournament. After dinner, cards and games were brought out and at the hotel few evenings pass without a visit to the ballroom by the devotees of the dance. For the card games in the parlors of the Hotel Balboa, dignified games like whist were put aside for more frolicsome games of hearts or black-jack. Parties from the hotel also went boating at night to see the ‘phosphorus’, the glassy surface of Mission Bay lighting up wonderfully with the movement of the boat and touch of the oars.

Improvements continued in 1907; Folsom Bros. ads for Pacific Beach real estate noted that the grounds of the Hotel Balboa were being laid out and developed at great expense by the eminent landscape architect responsible for the beautiful Westlake, Eastlake, Elysian, Echo and Hollenbeck parks in Los Angeles. In February a building permit was issued for a pergola connecting the two buildings of the Hotel Balboa, valued at $1000. The Union reported in July that for six months men and teams had been digging, cutting, filling and leveling on the grounds of the Hotel Balboa. The grounds had been laid out on the front and rear and on the west side of the hotel in curb drives and walks, spaces for grass plots and squares for cottages. No planting had been done as yet and would not be until winter rains came but looking at the grounds from the tower over the ballroom of the hotel one could see the lines and curves and could not but realize that the hand of an artist had been at work.

The 1907 makeover of the hotel also involved a change in management and a different approach to the visitor experience. Folsom Bros. had marketed the hotel as a first-class resort, a place for out-of-town visitors to spend a vacation, but in the summer of 1907 ads described Hotel Balboa as a most home-like family hotel, a delightful and restful place in which to spend the ‘week end’. Although the new decorations, furnishings and alterations that had been in progress for several months were not entirely completed, the new management decided to throw open the hotel for its first ’week end’ in July and as a result the house was filled to overflowing with a very select party of San Diego business and professional men and their wives and families. Some came Saturday morning but most arrived on the 3:30 train, prepared to stay until Sunday evening. An eight-course dinner was served at 6 o’clock in the new dining room and then the new ballroom was thrown open and a well-known orchestra called young and old to the dance, which lasted until midnight.

By August 1907 the Union was reporting that the ‘week ends’ recently inaugurated by the new management of Hotel Balboa were proving a great success and seemed to fill a want long felt by those of San Diego’s business and professional men who, with their families, liked to get away from home and business surroundings for a quiet Sunday of rest and recreation. Ever since the recent remodeling and refitting of the hotel the idea of spending weekends at Hotel Balboa had been growing in favor, and now every Saturday afternoon the train dropped an increasing number of people at Pacific Beach to enjoy the outing so that the number of ‘week enders’ together with the regular guests of the hotel filled the house to overflowing. Interestingly, many of the arrivals listed in reports of the hotel ‘week ends’ were Pacific Beach residents and their wives who were unlikely to have arrived on the Saturday afternoon train. Mr. and Mrs. James H. Haskins, whose home was at the corner of Diamond and Ingraham streets, and A. S. Lane, whose home on Hornblend near Kendall (now the Baldwin Academy) was within shouting distance of the hotel, probably walked. Not all the guests were local either; hotel arrivals in September included Mr. and Mrs. A. F. MacFarland, who apparently liked what they saw in the vicinity and bought lots at the corner of Beryl and Lamont where they built the neo-classical home that is still standing there.

San Diegans were again well represented at the Hotel Balboa ‘week ends’ in September, filling the popular hotel to overflowing. The vaudeville entertainment given in the ballroom proved to be the best ever, creating screams of laughter from all sides of the room. The performers (who were dressed up as crows, even to beak and claws) were called back again and again. In addition to the 50 hotel guests, 100 Pacific Beach and La Jolla residents were present. Following the performance light refreshments were served and dancing indulged in until the midnight hour. The hotel arrivals column listed the 50 guests, most of whom were residents of San Diego and again included many Pacific Beach residents including the Haskins and also F. J. Hinkle and family (who lived in the house now at Law and Ingraham streets) and Mr. and Mrs. F. T. Scripps (of the former Braemar mansion at the foot of Bayard). Mrs. Scripps’ sisters, Misses Violet and Fannie Jessop from Coronado, were also hotel guests. Out-of-town visitors in September 1907 included a group of nine ‘Hawaiian beauties’ who visited Pacific Beach, where they were met with carriages and taken by Folsom Bros. on a drive. The tour included a stop at the Hotel Balboa where they had about an hour and a half to themselves; they played pool, danced and sang many of their native songs, then were guests at a delightful tea given by Folsom Bros.

The hotel ‘week ends’ for business and professional people from San Diego came to an end in 1907 and by early 1908 the news was of the entertainment and social activities held at the hotel; old-fashioned dances and songs in the ballroom and whist in the card rooms. Manager C. B. Combe gave a sailing party on Mission Bay and members of the Pacific Beach theatrical club were rehearsing for their entertainment, to be given in the hotel theater. There would be a minstrel part, followed by vaudeville, then refreshments and dancing. In March 1908 a ‘baby party’ was one of the most enjoyable events ever given at the popular house. Every room was full and many guests had to be turned away. A number of gentlemen chose the Buster Brown costume, some appeared as Little Lord Fauntleroy and others were simply Mamma’s Pets in loose jumpers and big sashes. The ladies were so charming that it was a pity they could not dress in the sweet simple costume of a child at all times. The new tennis courts were finished, and although hotel arrivals included some parties from New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and even Nome, Alaska, most arrivals were from the local area, perhaps responding to ads emphasizing a homelike atmosphere and the lowest rates in the city; family rates were said to be lower than housekeeping.

In February 1908 W. W. Whitson, president of the Hillcrest Company, purchased an interest in Folsom Bros. Co. and was installed as its first vice-president and treasurer. In May, Mr. and Mrs. Whitson held a ball and card party at the Hotel Balboa that the society page of the Union called one of the most pretentious society events of the season. Between four and five hundred guests from San Diego took the La Jolla line train from Fourth and C streets downtown, special rates having been secured for their accommodation. On arrival at the pretty village of Pacific Beach a broad boulevard lighted by hundreds of swaying Japanese lanterns led to the brilliantly illuminated hotel, where elaborate decorations of palms, greenery and geraniums were arranged throughout the picturesque rambling structure. A list of the hundreds of guests, a virtual who’s who of San Diego society at the time, was continued on a second page (Mr. Whitson’s association with Folsom Bros. Co., and the hotel, ended in November 1908 when the Folsom brothers bought out his interest).

While the ballroom and other amenities were popular for dances and other community activities and the hotel rooms could be filled on weekends by local residents attracted by the lowest rates in town, the Hotel Balboa never became the commercial success that Folsom Bros. Co. had anticipated and by 1909 it was apparently closed; no ads had appeared since mid-1908, it was no longer listed in the ‘hotel arrivals’ columns and guests were no longer mentioned in the news reports from Pacific Beach. When a group of leading Pacific Beach citizens, including Mr. MacFarland and Mr. Haskins, formed the Pacific Beach Country Club in February 1909 a portion of the Hotel Balboa was sub-leased for their club rooms. When the country club hosted a delightful dance in May 1909 the ‘north wing of the big hostelry’ was turned over to the guests of the club, about fifty of whom were taken out from San Diego on a new gasoline motor car, which made a special round trip for the occasion (one of the new McKeen rail cars, or ‘Red Devils’, introduced to the La Jolla line in 1908).

The hotel buildings and grounds were ready for other opportunities and in November 1910 Captain Thomas A. Davis, a veteran of the Puerto Rican campaign of the Spanish American War, leased the property and opened the San Diego Army and Navy Academy on the site. Although there were only thirteen cadets in the first class and he was the only instructor, the academy thrived under Capt. Davis’ leadership and soon outgrew the original hotel buildings. After considering a move to a larger facility in the Loma Portal area Davis instead purchased the college campus property in 1921 and in 1923 added on by acquiring the two blocks on the north side of the campus and two more blocks on the west side in 1925.

The hotel buildings continued to be used for teaching and administration but the growing battalion of cadets was housed first in rows of wooden cottages and then in enormous reinforced concrete barracks built between 1928 and 1930. The cost of this building program combined with the economic downturn of the Great Depression led to the academy’s bankruptcy in 1936 but it was taken over in 1937 by the John E. Brown College Corp. and operated until 1958 as Brown Military Academy. The property was then developed into a shopping center and the old buildings, once the Hotel Balboa and originally the San Diego College of Letters, were demolished. Workers razing the buildings found a tin baking soda can containing newspapers, maps and other articles placed in the cornerstone at its dedication in 1888.

Today the only reminder of these earlier times is a small monument dedicated to Brown Military Academy outside a Chinese restaurant in the shopping center. The monument includes an aerial photo of the academy that shows the buildings that had once been the Hotel Balboa – and are now a parking lot.

Train Wreck and Reckoning

On January 16, 1908, the 1:55 PM train with 30 passengers bound for Pacific Beach and La Jolla departed from the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway station at the foot of C Street in San Diego. According to the San Diego Union, the train was steaming through Middletown at a fair rate of speed when it left the rails and plowed along the ties for fully 300 feet before the engine turned over on its side at right angles to the track. The engineer, Thomas Robertson, was pinned in the engine’s cab by the reverse lever and scalded to death by steam escaping from the boiler. The fireman, Thomas Fitzgerald, was hurled head foremost into a clump of cactus and also badly burned by escaping steam (he died of his injuries 10 days later). Although women screamed and men made for the doors, the two coaches and mixed coach/baggage car making up the train remained upright and came to a standstill amid the hiss of the steam. Not a passenger was even so much as scratched nor was there a window in either of the three cars broken; the fright incident to the cars bumping along over the ties and a severe shaking up summed up the damage to the passengers.

The Union interviewed one passenger, Miss Zoe Overshiner, a 16-year-old girl from Pacific Beach who was on a front seat of the first car and ‘tells a graphic story of the accident’:

I was talking with [a] friend of mine about something, I’ve forgotten what it was now, when all of a sudden the engine began to act funny and our car began bumping heavily. This was due, as we afterwards found out to the fact that it had left the rails. The first shock was not so bad as might have been expected and we were not frightened until we saw the engine plunge over the bank and turn over on its side. Then the steam hid the engine and I climbed through the window of the car and jumped to the ground. I didn’t want to get hurt and the door wouldn’t open, or at least, I though it wouldn’t. I don’t remember whether I screamed. Maybe I did. It was enough to make any one scream when the engine reared up in the air and turned over on its side. It’s no joke to be in a railroad wreck.

The writer added that ‘it is probable that she is right’.

The 1908 train wreck occurred where Winder Street then crossed the railroad right-of-way, near where West Washington Street passes under I-5 today. The immediate cause was said to have been ‘spreading of the rails’; spikes holding one of the rails to the ties had come loose, the rail had shifted and the engine had fallen through and bumped along on the ties. The railroad company admitted that while much of the line had recently been improved with heavier 60-pound rails, the work of relaying the track had stopped short of the site of the accident, where the rails were of the lighter 35-pound type first used on the line and in service ever since. However, the company claimed that the track where the wreck occurred had been put in good shape two or three days before.

Like Miss Overshiner, most of the passengers who had been scared and severely shaken up in the accident were residents of Pacific Beach or La Jolla, and the two victims were also long-time local residents. Thomas Fitzgerald had worked for what was then the San Diego, Old Town and Pacific Beach Railway when it was first completed to the foot of Grand Avenue in 1888, and he had built a house on Reed Avenue near the depot there. Thomas Robertson’s family had once lived in the Pacific Beach Hotel building near the depot and Mrs. Robertson was a charter member of the Pacific Beach Reading Club. When the railroad was extended to La Jolla in 1894, becoming the San Diego, Pacific Beach and La Jolla Railway, these railway employees had moved to its new base there, where the Robertsons’ home was noted for its rose garden (although the company’s name was changed again in 1906, suggesting a move even further up the coast, the tracks were never extended beyond La Jolla).

Understandably, a fatal train wreck involving a number of their fellow citizens and raising doubts about the safety of their only transportation link to the city caused concern, and sparked anger and outrage, in the affected communities. On January 27, eleven days after the accident, the Union reported that 25 or 30 people attended a hearing before the city council of a petition signed by nearly 200 citizens of Pacific Beach, La Jolla and other points along the line of the LA&SDB asking for an investigation (at the time there were only about 300 households in Pacific Beach and La Jolla combined):

We the undersigned, citizens of Old Town and patrons of the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach railway, most respectfully request that your honorable body fully investigate the conditions and methods of said railroad. That all laws and ordinances of every kind regulating said railroad be vigorously enforced, so that not only our rights as citizens be secured, our comforts and conveniences be regarded, but our lives and those of our families be made reasonably secure when forced to use said railroad. We would call your attention to the following notorious facts:

First. This road is and has been for some time in a frightfully dangerous condition, many of the ties being rotten and the spikes in such a state that they can be extracted with the fingers. Even the new parts of the road being, in the opinion of those competent to judge, badly constructed. The engines and cars are very old, small, out of date and without the safety equipment the law requires, all this making travel perilous to the last degree, so much so that the late sad accident, long predicted, might have been a frightful calamity.

Second. The convenience or wishes of the citizens are in no way considered as to train service or the time table. The trains are too few in number and are run at inconvenient hours.

Only a part of the abuses have been stated, but we pray your honorable body that steps be taken by you to secure our rights and restore our comforts and safety.

At the council meeting, which was also attended by General Manager Hornbeck and Attorney Leovy representing the railroad company, a Mr. Dyer, said to have lately located at Pacific Beach, stated that every statement made in the petition was true (there is no contemporary record of a Mr. Dyer in Pacific Beach; possibly the speaker was Mr. De Hart, who had recently moved to a home on Shasta Street). He said that with reasonably safe and proper railway service many hundreds would be added to the population of Pacific Beach but as it was, every time people boarded the trains they did so with fear and trembling. Mr. Rockwood (of The Rockwood, PB’s first apartment building, at Bayard Street and Thomas Avenue, a block from the railroad’s Ocean Front station on Grand at Bayard) described how he had found a broken rail just the day before the accident and had flagged down a train with a red bandana, possibly preventing another accident. He also explained how it was possible to pull spikes from the ties with the fingers and that dozens of the ties were rotten. A. C. Pike (presumably W. A. Pike, who owned most of the two blocks north of the railroad’s Grand Avenue right-of-way, adjacent to its Pacific Beach station at Lamont Street) stated that he had actually counted 702 rotten ties, that many spikes were not properly driven and many of the rails were rusty, being, in fact, crystalized with it. He closed his remarks with the ‘somewhat  abrupt conclusion’ that the whole road was rotten, equipment, roadbed, even the official management. A. S. Lane (whose home on Hornblend, now the Baldwin Academy, was a block from the Pacific Beach station) asked that a committee be appointed to go over the railroad, although he noted that considerable improvement work had been done since the recent accident.

General Manager Hornbeck replied to the criticisms at considerable length, beginning by complaining  that the petition had been prompted by the spirit expressed by Mr. Pike, that the official management of the railroad was ‘rotten’. He dismissed criticism of the ties, saying that the new, heavier rails were laid on the same class of ties and would have been laid on the existing ties at the scene of the accident except for construction delays. When a protester interrupted Mr. Hornbeck to ask why the railroad had been in such a hurry to burn the ties damaged by the train leaving the track, Mr. Hornbeck replied that this was a dirty, contemptuous story; he agreed that the ties had been burned but that it was 24 hours after the accident, they were worthless and they were burned to get them out of the way.  When Mr. Hornbeck alleged that unfair means had been used to secure signatures for the petition and some had signed without knowing what they were signing, one of the petitioners ‘came to his feet in a hurry’ and declared that Mr. Hornbeck’s statement was a lie. The president of the council attempted to restore order, saying that personalities must not enter into the discussion – to which the petitioner replied that Mr. Hornbeck had started it. Mr. Hornbeck did agree to the suggestion of a first-hand inspection and invited every member of the council to go over the railroad and see for themselves. After further discussion it was decided to make the trip the following week.

Eight out of the nine members of the city council accompanied by City Engineer Crowell, General Manager Hornbeck and a number of the petitioners, made the inspection trip in a special train. To make the examination thorough, the councilmen walked much of the way from the city to the ‘Scripps station beyond Pacific Beach’, presumably referring to the Ocean Front station on Grand at Bayard Street, the palm-lined drive leading to F. T. Scripps’ bayfront mansion (where the Catamaran Hotel now stands). From Pacific Beach to La Jolla, which would have followed a route along today’s Mission Boulevard, La Jolla Hermosa and Electric avenues, and Cuvier Street, the party inspected the roadbed from an open flat car. According to a report in the San Diego Union the following day, the eight council members were expected to report that the statements in the petition were much exaggerated and that the line was reasonably safe for travel, probably as much so as any of the railroads running out of the city. ‘After the representations made by the petitioners I was surprised to find things in as good shape as they are’, said one councilman.

The ninth council member, F. J. Goldkamp, dissented from the general consensus of his colleagues. He had made a personal inspection trip over the railroad before the official inspection because, he said, a petition signed by 200 people, 20 of whom had appeared before the council, was a matter that should not have been delayed for 10 or 12 days and that in the meantime the company had a chance to make improvements of the existing conditions. For example, he reported that he saw a worker being employed driving spikes into the ties. Mr. Goldkamp contended that the complaints of the people were fully borne out by the conditions as he found them, and he had personally pulled spikes out of the ties with his fingers.

The two reports resulting from the separate inspections of the LA&SDB were presented to the city council at a meeting on February 18, 1908. According to the San Diego Union, the report by City Engineer Crowell ‘practically exonerated’ the company from the charges made by citizens of Pacific Beach and La Jolla and concluded that the roadbed was perfectly safe for public travel. Mr. Crowell’s report stated that the roadbed from the downtown station to a point past Winder Street in Middletown was in fine condition, having been recently relaid with new 60-pound steel rails and the grades much improved by cutting down the hills and filling in the low points besides straightening the line and eliminating two bad curves. From the end of the new track to Old Town the track had the old light rails and there were many bad ties, although they were no worse than was found on any other railroad leading out of the city.

Through Old Town the track had been straightened out and entirely reconstructed with new ties and 60-pound rails. The bridge over the San Diego River was in good condition except for some bolts that needed to be tightened. ‘In one or two instances’ he found a tie in a condition that would allow pulling a spike out with the fingers, a condition which also applied to the parallel Santa Fe (a mainline railroad with much more traffic carrying much heavier loads).

From Old Town to Pacific Beach the roadbed had been widened and a cut-off built across the race track, eliminating a number of curves (this cut-off replaced the circuitous route around the former race track east of Rose Creek via what are now Mission Bay Drive and Garnet and Balboa avenues to Lamont Street with the more direct route along present-day Grand Avenue to Lamont). He walked over a good portion the track from the Pacific Beach station (Lamont Street) toward the ocean front and found that portion in good condition. ‘After going over the whole length of the road, I have no hesitancy in saying that I do not consider the roadbed in a dangerous condition’.  Mr. Crowell’s report was referred to the city attorney.

Councilman Goldkamp’s report stated that the complaints of the people were fully borne out by the condition of the road at the time of presenting their petition. Owing to the lapse of ten days between presenting the petition and the inspection the railroad people were enabled to employ a large staff of extra men to repair all the worst parts of the road, to replace broken ties, to drive in loose spikes, to put in new ones and cover up all the defects sufficiently to pass the investigation of the councilmen. Mr. Goldkamp contended that this work of making the road appear safer at the time was only of a temporary nature and owing to the rottenness of the ties and the lightness of the rails these parts were liable to become unsafe again very soon. The rolling stock was old and out of date and made more unsafe by the use of old-fashioned link and pin couplings connecting the cars. He concluded that in view of the growing population of Pacific Beach and La Jolla it was time for the service to be modernized. The owners had apparently expressed a desire to ‘electrize’ the line and the council should call upon them to complete that process within six months or their franchise should be forfeited. Mr. Goldkamp’s report was simply filed.

Although the LA&SDB was never ‘electrized’, it did upgrade its rolling stock in the next few months with a pair of new gasoline-powered McKeen rail cars that had the added advantage of being able to operate over the city’s street railways and convey suburban passengers to and from businesses and theaters near the center of town without changing trains (steam trains were not allowed on downtown streets and could only go as far as the line’s terminus at the foot of C Street). The McKeen cars were painted a ‘rich Tuscan red’ and soon became known as ‘Red Devils’. And despite Mr. Goldkamp’s misgivings, the rottenness of the ties and the lightness of the rails did not contribute to any further accidents on the La Jolla line, although about 20 passengers were injured, one seriously, when a La Jolla train collided with a Santa Fe train in 1917 at a crossing near Old Town. The railroad was also involved in accidents with automobiles, including one in which a woman was killed and several other passengers seriously injured when it collided with a La Jolla train in Old Town in 1909.

Automobiles were first introduced to San Diego in 1900 and as their use increased over time, and roads to Pacific Beach and La Jolla were improved, fewer residents were ‘forced’ to use the train to reach destinations downtown. With fewer passengers to pay operating costs, the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway applied to the Public Utilities Commission to discontinue service and in 1919 the line was abandoned. The rails were torn up and sold for scrap, although the section of right-of-way between Grand Avenue and Bird Rock over what are now Mission Boulevard and La Jolla Hermosa Avenue was reused between 1924 and 1940 for an electric railway line from downtown to La Jolla via Mission Beach. North coast residents forced to use that line were still not entirely secure, however. In 1937 a pair of the electric cars collided head-on in heavy fog in the Midway area, injuring 31 passengers, some seriously.