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College of Letters in PB

Laying the Cornerstone, San Diego College of Letters, January 28, 1888
Laying the Cornerstone, San Diego College of Letters, January 28, 1888

An announcement in the San Diego Union on Saturday, January 28, 1888, invited citizens to attend the laying of the cornerstone of the San Diego College of Letters in Pacific Beach. Speakers at the ceremony would include the celebrated poet Joaquin Miller, the ‘Poet of the Sierras’, and a free lunch was promised. Trains would leave the downtown depot at 9 and 10 o’clock A. M. and return at 1 and 3 P.M. Fare for adults was 50 cents, children 25 cents.

The college was intended to be the centerpiece of the new community planned for the area north of Mission Bay and east of the Pacific Ocean, and was to be built on a four-block campus now occupied by the Pacific Plaza shopping center on Garnet Avenue between Jewell and Lamont streets. At the time, Pacific Beach was almost entirely undeveloped; the Pacific Beach Company had been incorporated in July 1887, a subdivision map was drawn up in October and the opening sale of lots had been held in December 1887, just a few weeks before the cornerstone ceremony was to take place (the platform built for the ceremony may have been the largest structure around at the time). The railroad from San Diego was still under construction and passengers attending the cornerstone ceremony in January 1888 would actually have traveled over the rails of the California Southern mainline railway from downtown to Morena, where they would have switched over to a portion of the Pacific Beach line which continued from there to the vicinity of the college campus (the railway from downtown San Diego to a depot near the beach at the foot of Grand Avenue was finally completed in April 1888).

According to the Union about 2500 people traveled to Pacific Beach to witness the laying of the college cornerstone, and the green grass and the sublime scene from the college campus made the occasion a most interesting one. One of the speakers described the scene as a ‘hilltop with its slopes stretching down to the placid bay and out to the roiling sea, while in the distance, but in full view, lies the busy city and the harbor filled with ships, and beyond the majestic sweep of the mountains, some green with spring-like verdure, and others white with snow’.

When Joaquin Miller stepped to the front of the platform to read the poem he had composed for the occasion he was greeted with an ovation ‘that could not but have gratified the gifted man of verse and sentiment’. The sentiments in Mr. Miller’s verses included:

We lift this lighthouse by the sea,
The west-most sea, the west-most shore,
To guide man’s ship of destiny
When Scylla and Charybdis roar;
To teach him strength, to proudly teach
God’s grandeur, by Pacific Beach.

(Scylla and Charybdis were a pair of mythological sea monsters on opposite sides of a narrow strait, menacing seafarers forced to sail between them)

There were other orations, music by the City Guard band and an address by the president of the college company which concluded with the promise that San Diego College would become ‘a scientific and literary light-house, guiding the people of the city and the world into the golden harbor of wealth, culture, character and happiness’. The cornerstone was then loaded with copies of local newspapers, copies of the poems and addresses delivered on the occasion, coins, and a copy of the Bible. It was then lowered into place with the words ‘we lay the cornerstone of San Diego College – unsectarian but not un-Christian – her faith the faith of Christendom – her hope the hope of the civilized Christian world.’

The San Diego College of Letters was the brainchild of Harr Wagner, publisher of the Golden Era magazine which Wagner had moved from San Francisco to San Diego in 1887. He believed that San Diego was destined to become a great city and that the city was the right size to support a college, ‘not a small insignificant institute, but an institution that will compare favorably with the noted colleges of America’. In August 1887 Wagner and two other alumni of his alma mater, Wittenberg College, in Springfield, Ohio, formed the San Diego College Company ‘to erect and construct buildings to be used for colleges, universities, and in connection therewith to carry on, control and maintain colleges and universities’. Wagner’s partners in the college company were C. S. Sprecher and F. P. Davidson (who was married to Sprecher’s sister Ella). C. S. (and Ella) Sprecher’s father Samuel Sprecher had served as president of Wittenberg from 1849 to 1874 and played a major role in establishing it as a successful educational institution (Wittenberg University still exists in Springfield). Hoping to repeat this success in Pacific Beach, the partners recruited the elder Sprecher to serve as president of their new college.

The college company also came to an agreement with O. S. Hubbell, one of the founders of the Pacific Beach Company, to include the college in plans for their new town site. Accordingly, the original Pacific Beach subdivision map featured a four-block college campus near the center of the community (on College, now Garnet, Avenue). The company contracted with James W. Reid, architect of the Hotel del Coronado, to design and supervise construction of the college buildings, and following the cornerstone ceremony construction proceeded through the spring and summer of 1888.

The September/October edition of the Golden Era contained the announcement that the college would begin its educational work on September 20, 1888. It would be undenominational and would admit both sexes to all the advantages of the curriculum. One of the advantages both sexes could enjoy was the opportunity for out-door drill, summer and winter, due to the evenness of the climate. The exercise would be ‘healthful and invigorating’ and the young ladies would be allowed to form their own military company.

A Bachelor of Arts degree would be conferred on students who completed the Classical course after four years of study. Applicants for the Classical course would have to be at least 14 years of age and would be examined in Latin, Greek (or its equivalent), mathematics, history, geography, English and physiology. There would also be Scientific and Literary courses leading to comparable degrees, and for which modern languages could be substituted for Greek. Latin would be optional after the sophomore year, but students were expected to able to read the classics (in their original languages) with literary pleasure, as repositories of history and literature. Students younger than 14 or not meeting the requirements for admission could enter a Preparatory course, designed to prepare them to enter the freshman class but also to provide a course of study that was complete and practical in itself. The academic year would consist of three terms of 13 weeks each with each term’s tuition set at $16.50 for Preparatory students and $22.00 for Classical, Scientific and Literary students. Resident students would also pay $97.50 for board and room rent, and an extra fee of $10.00 was added for music, $3.00 for voice culture and elocution, and $5.00 for painting.

San Diego College of Letters, 1888, with students in their military uniforms.
San Diego College of Letters, 1888. The young ladies and young men are in their separate military companies wearing their military uniforms. (San Diego History Center #9800)

The San Diego College of Letters did open on September 20, 1888 with 37 students, and enrollment increased to 104 for the second term in January 1889. The Annual Catalogue for the 1888-1889 collegiate year included a list of the students’ names and home towns which showed that 23 of the 104 students were residents of Pacific Beach, 45 were from other areas of San Diego, 12 from Coronado and 10 from other parts of San Diego County. Only 8 students were from out of state, including two from Lower California. Judging by their names (Bessie, Hattie, Emma, etc.) 46 of the students were young ladies and 57 were young men (e.g., Horace, Edgar, Cyrus).

In addition to the grant of the college campus property, the Pacific Beach Company had given the college company hundreds of residential lots throughout the community as an endowment to secure its financial future. However, San Diego’s ‘Great Boom’ which had followed the completion of a transcontinental railroad link in 1885 and the influx of thousands of potential settlers collapsed in 1888, causing a sharp decline in the population and a corresponding lack of demand for residential real estate. The college attempted to generate interest in its lots by holding auctions where choice residence and villa sites would be sold to the highest bidder. Potential buyers were also treated to lunch, which could be roasted ox, ‘carved and served to the hungry throng’, or a fish fry. Three auctions were held in February and March of 1889 which drew large crowds but apparently few bidders. Instead, to relieve its immediate debt and other obligations, the college mortgaged much of its real estate. The financial outlook deteriorated further in April 1889 when James W. Reid sued the college company for what he claimed was owed for the design and supervision of construction of the college building.

Still, when the first academic year came to an end in June 1889 the mood at the college was upbeat. The final edition of the College Rambler, the student newspaper, included an editorial ‘to you fellow students whose years work is so nearly ended, it extends congratulations if your record has been good, its sympathy, if ill. You, like it, have been making history. You as pioneer students have helped to found a College; to rear an institution of higher learning here in this bright Sunland’. The keynote speaker at the college commencement ceremony added that it did not task the imagination to predict that the time was not far distant when San Diego College of Letters would take rank among the leading institution of learning in the country.

The second academic year opened in September 1889 with a few additions to the faculty and many of the same students. A new college building was opened in January 1890, financed by and named for Oliver J. Stough, a real estate investor with interests in Pacific Beach. Stough Hall became the popular venue for students’ elocution contests and musical recitals, watched by citizens who arrived in special trains from downtown San Diego. Closing exercises for the college’s second academic year were held in Stough Hall in June 1890.

During the summer of 1890 a number of changes were made in the administration and corporate structure of the college. The San Diego Union reported that the original partners in the college company, Harr Wagner, C. S. Sprecher and F. P. Davidson, transferred their interests in the company to ‘eastern parties’. Wagner and Sprecher both resigned from the faculty to devote their full attention to the Golden Era. Davidson remained at the college in a caretaker role, representing the new ownership, which was expected to lift the burdensome debt from the young but vigorous institution.

When classes resumed for the fall term in September 1890 about 50 students were enrolled, the majority from Pacific Beach or elsewhere in San Diego. In December the San Diego Union reported that the term had closed and all but two or three students from the East had dispersed to their homes for the holidays. If the students did return for the second term in January 1891 they did not remain for long. In March 1891 the Union reported that Captain and Mrs. Woods had moved in and taken charge of the College of Letters and added that Mrs. Woods had been a teacher there for some time and the college would be in good hands. There was no explanation for why this was necessary and no further news from the college for the remainder of what would have been the academic year. Although the San Diego Union reported in August 1891 that a Prof. Vinton Busby from Indiana State University would accept the presidency of the college and had arrived in town to make final arrangements, these arrangements apparently fell through and the San Diego College of Letters in Pacific Beach never reopened.

James W. Reid’s lawsuit over the debt he was owed for design and construction of the first college building had been decided in Reid’s favor in March 1891 and with no other assets available to satisfy the judgement the court ordered the sheriff to seize the college company’s real estate. The college campus property was subsequently auctioned at the court house door on three separate occasions over the next five years before being acquired in 1898 by Rev. William L. Johnston of the Pacific Beach Presbyterian Church, as trustee for Pacific Beach College, an organization of residents determined to reestablish an institution of learning there. Some alterations were made to the college buildings, including a tower on Stough Hall, but no progress was made toward reestablishing the college. Instead, the campus was used for various purposes including a Y.M.C.A. summer camp. In 1901 it was described as the College Inn, with W. Johnston as secretary and manager, and local news items occasionally commented on its guests (‘Mr. and Mrs. Sewel of Los Angeles spent last week at the College Inn’). Stough Hall became the center for dances and other gatherings in Pacific Beach.

In 1903 Folsom Bros. Co., a real estate developer which had recently acquired the Fortuna Park subdivisions south of what is now Pacific Beach Drive, purchased most of the rest of Pacific Beach from O. J. Stough (the Union headline read ‘Pacific Beach Has Changed Owners’) and began a program of improvement and development to enhance the value of their investment. In April 1904 they also leased the college campus (with option to buy) from W. L. Johnston and announced plans to develop the former college buildings into a first class resort. While this development was underway they held a contest to choose a name for their new resort. The name chosen (for which the lucky winner received a $100 lot in Pacific Beach or $100 in gold) was Hotel Balboa. Folsom Bros. exercised their option to buy the property in 1905 and over the next few years alterations and repairs were said to have added greatly to its attractions. In 1907 the hotel grounds were landscaped and the surrounding streets graded, ‘sidewalked’ and lined with palms trees (some of which are still growing). However, despite the efforts of Folsom Bros. Co., the Hotel Balboa also was not a success.

In 1910 Capt. Thomas A. Davis leased the buildings and grounds and started the San Diego Army and Navy Academy with 13 students and himself as the only instructor. Unlike its previous occupants, the military academy thrived and grew over the years. Davis purchased the property in 1921 and eventually added a number of larger buildings which surrounded and dwarfed the original college buildings. During the depression of the early 1930s the academy, like the college before it, was unable to repay the costs of its building program and was acquired by John Brown Schools and renamed Brown Military Academy. In the 1950s Pacific Beach growth encroached on the academy and in 1958 it moved to a new location in Glendora.

The new owners of the college campus property proceeded with plans to convert it into a shopping center and in August 1958 the San Diego Union reported that workmen razing one of the buildings on the site had found a baking soda tin in its cornerstone containing papers dating to 1887, including San Diego newspapers and a Pacific Beach subdivision map.

Mt. Soledad and the Cross

Mt. Soledad Cross

Mt. Soledad, which rises abruptly to the east of La Jolla and descends more gradually south to Pacific Beach, is the highest point in the city of San Diego. At 822 feet above sea level and within about a mile of the Pacific Ocean it is also said to be the highest coastal elevation in California. With an unobstructed view from horizon to horizon it has long been popular as an observation point. In 1905, the San Diego Union’s annual New Year’s Day report from La Jolla noted that Old Soledad rose majestically, keeping watch over the town nestling at its feet, and that the half-hour’s stiff climb to the old signal station at the top was amply repaid by the panorama you would find yourself the center of; San Diego, Coronado and grand old Point Loma, the broad expanse of Rose Canyon, the mountains, and the illimitable expanse of ocean, Clemente and Catalina showing clear and distinct in the distance. If you were also one of those favored mortals privileged to see one of La Jolla’s gorgeous sunsets from that vantage point, you would return a ‘better and a wiser man for what it has been granted you to look upon’ (the ‘old signal station’ was apparently the survey station established on the summit in 1899 by A. T. Mossman of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey).

In April 1908 the Union recommended the summit of Mt. Soledad as a rare natural observatory from which to get a first glimpse of the Great White Fleet, the armada of U. S. battleships that was making its first United States port call at San Diego after sailing around Cape Horn on a round-the-world voyage. The fleet’s arrival on April 13 drew the largest crowds ever seen in San Diego at the time, but La Jolla residents and visitors who did not wish to go to San Diego could view the coming of the fleet from the mountain top. Other sights were also best seen from the mountain; in April 1910 the Union reported that a comet party made its adventurous way up Mt. Soledad to gain in the clear upper air an unobstructed view of the celestial wanderer (Halley’s comet).

To make the way up Mt. Soledad a little less adventurous, in 1913 A. H. Frost, president of the San Diego Beach Company, which owned much of Pacific Beach, and Clark Bailey, a La Jolla capitalist, built a four-mile-long road from the foothills above Pacific Beach to the summit of Mt. Soledad. The Evening Tribune reported that the route started near the Pacific Beach reservoir and by an easy grade followed the contour of the hills, providing a splendid view of mountains, sea and islands. The road was improved and realigned in 1916 to connect it to the end of Lamont Street in Pacific Beach and its completion was celebrated in April of that year when 60 members of the San Diego Floral Association guided by Kate Sessions drove to the top in twelve automobiles and planted five Torrey Pines and three Mount Diablo big cone pines, grown from seed and donated by Miss Sessions. The ‘flower lovers’ declared that the view was well worth the trip to the top.

View from Mt. Soledad, 1954
View from Mt. Soledad, 1954

Mt. Soledad lies within the pueblo lands of San Diego and in June 1916 La Jolla residents petitioned the city council to set aside the south 120 acres of Pueblo Lot 1265, described as the summit of Mt. Soledad, for a public park (actually, the highest point in Pueblo Lot 1265 is 811 feet; the 822-foot summit of Mt. Soledad is about half a mile west, within Pueblo Lot 1264). The council voted unanimously to approve the petition and the south 120 acres of Pueblo Lot 1265, ‘commanding a view of the ocean, mountains and of the entire city’, became a city park in July 1916.

View from Cross today
View from Mt. Soledad today

In 1926 the chambers of commerce of La Jolla, Mission Beach and ‘San Diego Beach’ (the would-be name for a hoped-for redevelopment of Pacific Beach) formed the North Shores Civic League to promote their communities. The League noted that a neglected feature of the North Shores area was the wonderful scenic panorama that could be observed from Mt. Soledad and they recommended that the ‘fair trail’ from Pacific Beach to the summit should be developed into an auto road. According to the San Diego Union, citizens of La Jolla and Pacific Beach assembled with shovels and rakes and aided by scrapers furnished by the city performed wonders in turning the trail into a serviceable dirt road by which autos could reach the summit in high gear. The completion of this ‘new road from the south’ was the occasion for a celebration at the summit in which Dr. H. K. W. Kumm, ‘traveler, writer and lecturer’ (and Pacific Beach resident), declared that while such sights as the Grand Canyon and Victoria Falls might be more awe-inspiring, they could hardly be considered more beautiful than the view from Mt. Soledad (although the San Diego Union admitted that the day was a trifle hazy and the usual clear view of the mountains was obscured). Kate Sessions planted three more pine trees and cadets from the Army and Navy Academy in Pacific Beach were in charge of a military ceremony and flag raising.

For more than 80 years now the top of Mt. Soledad has been marked by a large cross, standing over 30 feet tall. There are reports that a redwood cross was dragged up the mountain with a good deal of labor and patience and that worshipers held Easter services beneath it in 1913, but if so it was probably not at the same location as the current cross. The San Diego Union announced in 1914 that the churches of La Jolla would hold a joint sunrise Easter service at the reservoir, presumably meaning what is now the Exchange Place reservoir in La Jolla, and in the early 1920s the churches again joined to conduct Easter sunrise services near the clubhouse of the La Jolla golf course. The redwood cross was reportedly stolen in 1922, but if this cross ever existed it was probably located at one of these sites on the lower slopes of Mt. Soledad.

View from Mt. Soledad, 1953
View from Mt. Soledad, 1953

By 1925 the Union reported that Easter sunrise services had become an annual institution in La Jolla and attracted increasingly large crowds each year. In 1929 plans were announced for the sunrise service to be held by the pastors of North Shore protestant churches at a ‘scenic point on Soledad Mountain’. According to the Tribune, the Pacific Beach chamber of commerce had cleared the ground on Mt. Soledad and would clear the road up the mountain from Pacific Beach. The PB Boy Scout troop had agreed to take a hiking trip from the head of Lamont Street to the scenic point a few days before Easter and throw any stray rocks and pebbles out of the road. Representatives from La Jolla were also expected to clear two other routes from La Jolla, opening up three avenues of traffic to help avoid congestion. A special committee was appointed to supervise the erection of a cross and platform. The ‘scenic point’ was apparently the city park on Mt. Soledad, which was to become the site of annual Easter sunrise services in the coming decades.

View from Mt. Soledad today
View from Mt. Soledad today

One thousand residents of the North Shore district attended the first Easter sunrise service at the park on Mt. Soledad in 1929 and the Evening Tribune reported that a two-mile chain of torches along the highways leading up to the mountain had been arranged in the form of a gigantic cross. An Easter sunrise service was also held on Mt. Soledad in 1930, attended by 500, but the custom then apparently lapsed until being revived in 1934 under the auspices of the Pacific Beach chamber of commerce. In March 1934, just a few days before Easter, the city built a ‘frame stucco cross’ in the city park and on Easter morning hundreds of residents gathered before the cross as Army and Navy Academy buglers heralded the beginning of the service.

Easter sunrise services at the cross on Mt. Soledad became an annual event but just before Easter in March 1952 the San Diego Union reported that the weather-scarred old cross, pitted with BB shot launched at it by mischievous youngsters and buffeted through the years by the elements, had been toppled by wind and shattered beyond reasonable repair. The Union noted that city employees had patched, stuccoed and strung framework over chicken-wire fabric to construct the 30-foot cross and that throughout its existence it had withstood all influences except one: an act of God.

Plans to replace the stucco cross began immediately and contributions were accepted at the 1952 Easter sunrise service. In May 1952 the Mt. Soledad Memorial Committee announced that plans were nearly completed for a ‘lasting cross’ atop ‘historic Mt. Soledad’. The proposal included a new cross of reinforced concrete as well as a paved assembly area large enough for several thousand persons, a parking area for 800 or more automobiles and about 2000 feet of new highway.

In 1953 the 32nd annual Easter sunrise service was held at the site of the old cross. A temporary cross was erected and an offering taken to go towards rebuilding the cross. By September the Memorial Committee had obtained sufficient funds for building and maintenance of the cross and grounds, and announced that construction would begin as soon as city approval was gained. Actual construction involved pouring twenty tons of concrete into forms laid out on the ground and allowing it to cure for 60 days. However, when a pair of cranes attempted to raise the cross into position in February 1954 its weight produced ‘certain stresses that it wouldn’t take’ and it cracked in two places just below the horizontal section of the cross. Contractors, engineers and architects studied the problem and decided they could remove and recast the cracked section and still have the cross in place before Easter. In fact, the cross was repaired and raised in time to be dedicated on Easter Sunday, 1954. The paved assembly area and parking lot for thousands of people originally proposed by the Memorial Committee was never built.

La Jolla topographic map showing Mt. Soledad, 1953
La Jolla topographic map showing Mt. Soledad, 1953

The cross built within the city park on Mt. Soledad in 1934 and rebuilt in 1954 was specifically intended for Easter sunrise services, and for years maps identified the site as the Mt. Soledad Easter Cross. However, in the 1980s, the presence of a prominent religious symbol on public property in apparent violation of the constitution led to lawsuits, and at one point a court ordered the cross to be removed. Instead, the constitutional issue was resolved by returning the land under the cross to private ownership.  The Easter cross became the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial Cross, a tribute to armed forces servicemen and women, and in 2006 the property was taken over by the U. S.  Department of Defense. After an act of congress in 2014 allowed it to be transferred to private ownership it was sold to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association in 2015. In September 2016 the courts ruled that since the cross no longer stood on public property the case for its removal was moot.

The legal battles may now be over, the cross on Mt. Soledad is still standing, and the panorama a visitor may find themselves the center of amply repays the few minutes it now takes to drive to it.


PB and the Mattoon Act

Pacific Beach experienced a period of growth in the mid-1920s, including a new business district at the corner of Garnet Avenue and Cass Street, Crystal Pier and the opening of new subdivisions like Pacific Pines, North Shore Highlands and Crown Point. However, this growth soon stalled and was followed by a period of stagnation that lasted through most of the 1930s. While the Great Depression which followed the stock market crash of October 1929 undoubtedly played a role, many blamed this slowdown on the Mattoon Act.

The Mattoon Act, or Acquisition and Improvement Act, was passed by the California legislature in 1925. Named for its author, Everett Mattoon, it was intended to facilitate community development by allowing local authorities to create improvement districts where property owners would be assessed to pay for construction projects which benefited the district. The authorities would also have the right to acquire property for an improvement project through condemnation, if necessary.

Promoters of an improvement project would petition the local government authority to approve a project and an assessment district created to pay for it. While approval of a project did not require a vote of property owners in the district, a signed protest by 51 percent of the owners would be required to stop it. Once a project was approved and a district established the project would be funded by bonds to be repaid by an ad valorem tax on property owners within the district. A collective lien was placed on all property in the district, remaining in effect until the assessment for the entire district had been paid in full. Any delinquent payments were to be added, or ‘pyramided’, onto the district’s assessment for the next year, in effect requiring owners who did pay their taxes to pay their neighbors’ delinquent taxes as well.

The impact of the Mattoon Act on Pacific Beach was primarily the result of one project, the Mission Bay Causeway, a roadway built across what had been mud flats and open water between West Point Loma Boulevard and Crown Point. In April 1927 a petition was filed with the San Diego City Council asking for construction of a causeway under the provisions of the Mattoon Act. The San Diego Union reported that the project would be of immense proportions, costing thousands of dollars, and would mean the creation of an extensive assessment district north of the bay and on the Old Town flats, with the issuance of 6 percent bonds. A month later, in May 1927 the council voted unanimously to begin proceedings which could result in the construction project, estimated to cost about $500,000.

The causeway project was not without opposition, however. Attorney H. C. Gardiner, representing 150 Pacific Beach residents, protested that it was an unwarranted and unnecessary burden and threatened to fight it in court. After the council adopted a resolution of intention in August 1928, and set a date a month later to hear protests, Gardiner outlined his objections in a letter to the Union, complaining about the cost of the project, its potential to spoil Mission Bay, and the Mattoon Act itself, recently condemned by the Real Estate Association of San Diego and already in ill repute due to its ‘vicious provisions’ and ‘objectionable features’. In their September meeting, the council overruled these protests and formally authorized the project.

In November 1928 the council voted four to one in favor of issuing bonds and acquiring rights-of-way for the causeway project, again sweeping aside protests. In December, opponents of the project, led by Gardiner, filed another protest with the city council, claiming that the Mattoon Act was purely a street improvement measure and conferred no authority for the construction of bridges, which was the greater part of the Mission Bay Causeway project. When construction actually began, later in December 1928, Gardiner filed suit, and in January 1929 a judge granted a temporary injunction, halting the work.

In what was called one of the most bitterly fought court cases in recent years (attorneys were said to be like ‘gladiators sparring for position’) the project was nearly struck down in April 1929 when the judge ruled against 36 separate objections to the project but upheld one, that the proposed right-of-way crossed a small section of federal property and that the permit to cross this land was revocable by the Secretary of War and therefore did not represent a permanent dedication to the public (the property in question had been acquired by the federal government in 1878 to build a levee to divert the waters of the San Diego River into Mission Bay). Judge Griffin was prepared to make the temporary injunction against the causeway project permanent, but before his final ruling the attorney representing the promoters of the project made a ‘spectacular dash’ across the continent by air mail plane to Washington, D.C., returning with a permanent easement for a right-of-way for highway purposes signed by the Secretary of War. The judge reopened the case and reversed his former decision, although he did permit the injunction to stand pending appeal, provided the plaintiffs posted a $50,000 bond. The protesters were unable to raise the bond, Judge Griffin lifted the injunction, and construction work was resumed in July 1929.

With the Mission Bay Causeway finally under construction, some prominent Pacific Beach residents expressed positive opinions about the project. J. M. Asher Jr., who lived in his recently completed mansion at the top of Loring Street hill, was quoted as saying that his interests in Pacific Beach led him to be enthusiastic about the causeway; ‘I am convinced that land owners here will find it a great factor in the rise of property values’. An ad in the Evening Tribune in February 1930 noted that San Diego residents could already drive from Barnett Avenue to the south end of the causeway and if they did they would grasp the significance of the statement that the new causeway would effect such a transformation in Pacific Beach as it has never known. A transformation not only in the lives of its people but also in Pacific Beach real estate values. ‘But you should invest here now! Later may be too late for maximum profit’.

The new causeway did effect a transformation in Pacific Beach, in the lives of its people and in real estate values, but not in the way that its promoters had hoped. By 1930 the negative effects of the Mattoon Act were already being felt in districts around the city and county. The assessments added to property taxes to repay improvement bonds both increased the cost of ownership and reduced the value of the property, and increasing numbers of owners were either unable or unwilling to make their payments. The pyramiding provision of the Mattoon Act meant that these delinquent payments could be added to future assessments, which even more owners would fail to pay, creating a potential death spiral of rising assessments and more delinquencies.

In January 1930 a joint meeting of city councilmen and county supervisors pledged all possible relief for owners of property in Mattoon Act assessment districts. It was the ‘sense of the meeting’ that there should be no further pyramiding of assessments and that each landowner should be required to pay only his share of the cost of the improvement for which the district was formed. If bondholders did not agree they should take their case to the state courts, where the local officials believed they would find no legal basis for pyramiding. In August the supervisors established a revolving fund of about $60,000 to eliminate the year’s delinquencies on bond payments and also canceled penalties on delinquencies. According to the Evening Tribune, these measures created a ‘better feeling’ about tax bills in local Mattoon districts.

Construction of the Mission Bay Causeway was completed and a grand opening was held in January 1931. Four cadets from the San Diego Army and Navy Academy in Pacific Beach officially cut the ribbon at the south end of the roadway at Rosecrans Street. The Tribune noted that the large crowd was sprinkled by residents of Pacific Beach, Crown Point and owners of adjoining property who would pay the bills. The opening of the causeway was also accompanied by renewed advertising for Crown Point and other subdivisions in Pacific Beach.

However, delinquencies within Mattoon Act districts, including the Causeway district, continued to increase, exacerbated by the general economic collapse of the Great Depression. In February 1931 the county assessor reduced tax valuation of property in Mattoon districts by approximately 50 percent. Although he said the reduction was effected to bring relief to overburdened property owners, he noted that it was also justified by the present sales value, or lack of it, in the territory bearing heavy improvement assessments. The large, and growing, tax burden on property in these districts undermined its value, in some cases making it unsaleable.

Relief for overburdened property owners and increased delinquencies also meant that improvement districts did not raise enough revenue to make scheduled payments to bondholders. In August 1933 holders of Causeway bonds, led by the American Securities Company, won a state supreme court ruling that would have forced the city to levy a special tax to make up $31,000 in delinquent interest payments. In April 1934 the court also ruled in favor of the securities company’s demand that the city pyramid all amounts delinquent to date in the next year’s assessment. James Abbey, deputy district attorney in charge of Mattoon litigation, objected, predicting that pyramiding would result in immediate and total collapse of Mattoon Act districts, that taxpayers would no doubt refuse to pay any further assessments when they saw their tax bills, and that the situation should bring the bondholders of Mattoon Act districts to the realization that there is very little prospect for immediate payment of their bonds. Supervisor S. P. McMullen actually advocated a tax strike by property owners; ‘It’s getting better all the time for the property owners’, he said. ‘The more penalties accrue, the quicker the owners will realize how impossible it is to carry their burden, and they will quit paying taxes at all and thus force the bondholders to terms’. Rather than comply with the state supreme court ruling, the city appealed to the United States Supreme Court in July 1934 to halt pyramiding in the Mission Bay Causeway district on the grounds that pyramiding would amount to illegal taking of property without due cause, but in January 1935 the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Mattoon Act in the Causeway district, denying the city’s appeal.

The June 7, 1935, San Diego Union ran to 134 pages; 28 pages of news and advertising and over 100 pages dedicated to a delinquent tax list, eight columns to a page, listing the owners, descriptions and amount of taxes delinquent for property in the county. In some of the newer subdivisions in the Pacific Beach area like North Shore Highlands, Congress Heights, Pacific Pines and Crown Point, nearly every lot in the tract appeared to be listed. Some prominent citizens were included on the list, like Kate Sessions, who owed $152.92 on property in her Soledad Terrace subdivision and $66.86 on her nursery in the Homeland Villas No. 2 tract as well as additional taxes on other properties around the city. J. M. Asher Jr. owed $91.34 on the property in Acre Lot 11, where he had built his house at the top of Loring Street hill. The San Diego Army and Navy Academy, located on 31 acres in the heart of Pacific Beach that is now the Pacific Plaza shopping center, and with improvements that included recently completed 4-story dormitory buildings, was delinquent by over $8000. For the academy, this failure to pay property taxes was a fatal blow. Overextended by the dormitory building program, founder Thomas Davis had been forced to mortgage the property, buildings and furnishings, down to the silverware in the mess hall, to Security Trust & Savings Bank of San Diego. One of the conditions of the resulting deed of trust was that the academy would be responsible for property taxes, and when Davis failed to pay the delinquent taxes the trust company declared default in 1936. The campus was sold to the John E. Brown College Corporation in 1937 and was known thereafter as Brown Military Academy.

Although the U. S. Supreme Court had denied their last legal defense against pyramiding delinquent Mattoon assessments, it was obvious to local officials that pyramiding was not a viable option. According to deputy district attorney Abbey the situation had ‘just gone plain crazy’; the law seemed to give no alternative but to pyramid but under pyramiding many a lot would be called upon to pay a district assessment at least five times as great as its assessed valuation. The Causeway district was already 54 percent delinquent and if the assessments were pyramided, they would become 100 percent delinquent, like many districts already were. The county assessor added to the alarm, saying that the 100-page delinquent tax list spoke for itself; out of 155,000 real estate accounts the previous year approximately 80,000 were delinquent. Also 16,000 had been removed from the tax rolls for being delinquent over five years, reducing the tax rolls to 139,000. The supreme court order would add $3,500,000 special taxes to pay in addition to the regular levy, and the possibility of payment of such a huge sum was ‘far beyond the realm of possibility’. All such districts would without doubt go 100 percent delinquent and another 20,000 accounts would go off the rolls.

Instead of pyramiding more taxes on property owners in assessment districts, most of whom could not or would not pay them, the county proposed a $2,600,000 bond issue which would be used to buy up the existing Mattoon Act bonds at deep discounts. About half of this county bond would then be repaid by property owners in the districts, but with reasonable assessments so that the owners would resume paying their taxes. The other half would be repaid from general property taxes and gasoline taxes, reflecting the fact that much of the improvement work had involved the construction of arterial roads that actually benefit the entire region, not just the district in which they are located.

Abbey had prepared legislation enabling the Mattoon settlement plan which was introduced by the San Diego county delegation and enacted during the 1935 session of the state legislature. The settlement plan was put to a vote in San Diego County on October 29, 1935, and passed by a margin of 3 to 1. The San Diego Union celebrated it as not only a relief measure for assessment-burdened property, allowing it to be returned to general taxation and affording owners a practical method of repaying their obligations and clearing their titles, but also as a ‘Go’ signal, clearing away the wreckage from an era of reckless and unscrupulous promotion and promising renewed initiative and foresight to back projects for future progress.

The state supreme court upheld the Mattoon settlement legislation in July 1936 and in March 1937 Abbey went to San Francisco to negotiate with representatives of a large block of Causeway district bonds, which the county was to buy and retire at 50 percent of their face value. According to the San Diego Union, the district was 65 percent delinquent in city and county taxes because of the Mattoon blight. It had approximately 1500 taxpayers and included lands from the Marine base to La Jolla. In June 1937 the Union announced that settlement of the Causeway Mattoon district was voted unanimously by the county board of supervisors. $730,000 of the $743,000 bonds were in the county treasurer’s office and money was available to pay for them at the county’s price.

The Causeway district had the largest area of any Mattoon district in the county, with 56 percent or over half of the assessed valuation of such districts, and a Union editorial noted that clearing up 56 percent of the Mattoon blight meant that the hardest half of an extremely difficult task was almost finished. A solution to the Mattoon problem, a disastrous community blunder, would lift an immense worry from the literally thousands of local residents involved in the maze of legal complications created by promoters, salesmen and contractors who exploited the Mattoon Act as an easy means of making a quick cleanup in San Diego. The settlement would free the community to begin again where it left off nearly 10 years before when a small minority of individuals deluded the rest of the community with reckless promise of sudden and unearned speculative profit.

Title insurance companies agreed to issue title insurance policies in the Causeway Mattoon district without mention of the fact that the properties had been in such a district. The policies would include a note saying that San Diego County had forever waived the right to levy future Mattoon assessments on land in the district. An ad in the Union by the Southern Title and Trust Company announced that the company would insure titles in the entire Causeway district showing the property to be clear of Mattoon bonds as long as there were no delinquent assessments.

On the Fourth of July, 1937, Pacific Beach celebrated the Causeway district’s ‘declaration of independence’ from Mattoon Act ‘bond-age’ with fireworks and a huge ‘bond-fire’ at the beach, symbolizing burning of the last Mattoon bonds. City and county officials and citizens who had labored long to release the district from the heavy Mattoon yoke joined in the festivities (James Abbey had the privilege of throwing the first bundle of bonds on the fire), and predicted an era of progress and prosperity. The president of the Pacific Beach Chamber of Commerce declared that nothing could stop Pacific Beach now; ‘Our unfortunate experience with Mattoon bonds set back our development, but only temporarily. From now on watch us grow’.

Early PB Water Supply

When the Pacific Beach Company was formed in 1887 one of the tasks the founders assigned themselves in developing the new community was to ‘construct water works, reservoirs, [and] lay down mains and water pipe’. In the days leading up to the opening sale of lots at Pacific Beach in December 1887, their advertisements emphasized that arrangements had been made to give Pacific Beach a ‘splendid water system’, and that ‘men were already at work laying the pipe from the city water works’. When they cut prices in half a few months later to revive lot sales (San Diego’s ‘great boom’ collapsed in the spring of 1888), they also assured potential purchasers of an ‘abundant supply of city water’ and other substantial improvements.

The city water that was piped to Pacific Beach in 1888 was provided by the San Diego Water Company from wells beneath the San Diego River in Mission Valley. Construction was also underway on a 35-mile wooden flume which would reach up the river to Boulder Creek and deliver a flow of mountain water to the city water system. The completion of the flume was marked by a gala celebration and parade in San Diego on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1889.

This additional water became particularly important for Pacific Beach when the community turned to agriculture, especially lemon cultivation, after the failure of its original centerpiece, the San Diego College of Letters, in 1891. In March 1892 the San Diego Union’s Local Intelligence column noted that a Mr. Bowers, who had come west last fall from Tennessee, had purchased a thirty-acre tract at Pacific Beach and was having 4,000 feet of water pipe laid over his land. The property was to be put in lemons during the next few weeks. In April, C. H. Raiter, a Minnesota banker who had spent the previous winter in Pacific Beach, sent instructions to have a ten-acre tract in PB piped, fenced and broken. In July, George Hensley, secretary of the Pacific Beach Company, claimed that much of the new water available to San Diego was going to waste and proposed giving anyone planting an orchard of at least five acres free water for the next year. He reported that the 170 acres lately planted in Pacific Beach were making a fine growth.

The lemon ranches in Pacific Beach were concentrated between what are now Ingraham and Noyes streets and extended from Pacific Beach Drive uphill to north of Beryl Street (the Bowers ranch bordered Beryl, the Raiter ranch PB Drive). The lower ranches began at an elevation of about 50 feet while the upper ranches were at nearly 200 feet above sea level. The Pacific Beach Company built a reservoir at an elevation of about 300 feet and in August 1893 asked for permission to connect with the city water system. The reservoir, located in the foothills near Los Altos Road, is still used to store water for Pacific Beach.

Although the flume was often represented as a new source of water for San Diego, in fact both the wells in Mission Valley and the flume from Boulder Creek were ultimately dependent on rainfall in the San Diego River watershed. In 1894 the San Diego region experienced a drought which dried up the river and its tributary creeks and drained the relatively shallow Cuyamaca reservoir, which held the flume company’s reserves. With flume deliveries cut back the water company was unable to maintain consistent supplies of water to more remote areas, including Pacific Beach. In October 1894 the Union’s Pacific Beach Notes column reported that the reservoir was dry and those living in the higher lands were out of water a good part of the time. In this instance the rains did return; a storm in the middle of January 1895 caused flooding all over the county. In Pacific Beach, Rose Creek was reported to be a roaring river, the country around the race track east of the creek was a vast lake and the tracks of the Pacific Beach railroad were nowhere to be seen.

The flume was built of redwood and open to the sky and the essence of the wet wood apparently infused the pure mountain water on its 35-mile ride to the city. In June 1896 Pacific Beach Notes noted that some citizens were buying Coronado water because of the ‘rare old peculiar odor of flume water’. Worse than the odor, some believed that the water was unhealthy. The Union reported in September 1896 that a worker on Mrs. Rowe’s ranch in Pacific Beach had typhoid fever caused, it is said, by drinking too much flume water. The water was cheap, however. In July 1897, Maj. W. D. Hall told the Union that he did not pay so much for water for his entire 10 acres as for enough, in Phoenix, Arizona, to water an acre and a half. He used it so plentifully that his trees were kept free from scale.

Drought returned in 1898; a June Pacific Beach Notes column reported that the ranchers near the hillside had been absolutely without water the past two days. Although the Union’s correspondent hoped this was only a temporary scarcity, the report in August was that the water situation was becoming serious. The ranches nearest the hillside were the greatest sufferers. Again, the correspondent held out hope that ‘that the experience of August, 1873, will be repeated, when, according to the Union, 1.95 inches of rain fell’. History did not repeat itself in this case; in November the news was that water on the higher levels was at a premium. ‘Weeks go by without any water at all, that being used for domestic purposes being hauled in tanks’.

The 1898 drought was not relieved by a January storm either, and in March 1899 the Union’s Local Intelligence column reported that F. W. Barnes of Pacific Beach was tired of waiting for the San Diego Water company to furnish water, and was putting in a well; ‘If he gets water, William D. Hall will at once put in a well, and others at the Beach will probably do the same. The seriousness of the water situation overshadows every other topic. For several days past the service has been very insufficient, the higher levels feeling the situation very keenly’. There is no indication that Barnes ever got water, though, or that others at the Beach did the same.

Although a delightful shower freshened the grass and trees wonderfully in May 1899, wells were sunk in Rose Canyon and a pumping plant put in with the hope of insuring a good supply of water during the coming summer. Connection was made with the Rose Canyon well in June and the water service was said to have improved. The president and an engineer from the San Diego Water Company visited Pacific Beach in July with a view to making an ‘equal distribution of water’. They concluded that if the reservoir could be filled and an extra check valve installed for the higher ranches, it would solve all the difficulties.

The water shortages also caused lemon ranchers to take other conservation measures. Pacific Beach Notes noted in December 1899 that many ranchers were cutting out their cypress hedges, as it had been proved they do more harm than good, and enough water cannot be given them to satisfy their thirst. ‘They will take all you give them and rob the lemon trees as well. It is a pity as a cypress is a thing of beauty’.

The water company’s improvements apparently did have a beneficial effect and an Evening Tribune Pacific Beach Notes column in March 1900 reported that everybody in Pacific Beach was grateful to the water company for carrying them through the drought. In September 1900 the Tribune reported that the water service had been very good on the beach that summer; ‘when we remember that this is our third dry year that is a good deal to say that water has been of the very best quality and has been furnished in abundance’.

In 1901 the holdings of the San Diego Water Company within the city limits were purchased by the city and water distribution became the responsibility of the city water department. This reorganization did not include any new sources of water, however, and the water supply to relatively remote sections like Pacific Beach remained unreliable. The Evening Tribune reported in June 1902 that the water service on the Beach had been very poor that summer. Sterling Honeycutt had become the latest resident to try his luck with a well and in October the news was that his well had struck salt water and then, at 215 feet, indications of oil. This had led to much excitement but in the end neither oil nor fresh water in sufficient quantities were found.

Water shortages in Pacific Beach were compounded by a deteriorating water distribution infrastructure. The superintendent of the city water system reported in January 1903 that the mains in many places had ‘outlived their usefulness’, especially if laid in salt, alkali or adobe soil. He particularly called attention to the Pacific Beach pipeline and announced that he had ordered 5000 feet of cast iron pipe to replace portions of kalamein pipe that were giving trouble and causing the loss of millions of gallons of water (kalamein was an alloy coating for iron pipes). A letter to the editor of the Evening Tribune in March by a Pacific Beach resident described the condition of a water main that supplied some of the upper ranches at Pacific Beach. The main was about 500 yards long and during the past seven years had often experienced two or three breaks in one week. About 25 yards of the main was simply covered with a string of rubber bands and clamps. The writer claimed that during the past two years out of a total of 230 acres of bearing orchard at Pacific Beach, 60 acres had been cut down or abandoned, largely on account of the difficulty and expense of procuring an adequate supply of water.

The new cast iron section of the Pacific Beach pipeline was completed and connected in May of 1903 and concern about the water supply subsided. ‘Abundant water is now assured’ reported the Tribune correspondent, but the water that came through the new pipes ‘is very much in the nature of ink on account of the tar in the pipes’. It was not unwholesome to drink on that account, but was ‘unsatisfactory just now to wash with’.

The Pacific Beach Company had been dissolved in 1898 and its remaining holdings, the property it had been unable to sell, distributed to its shareholders. However, the five-acre site of the Pacific Beach reservoir had not been included in this distribution and the trustees of the defunct company finally sold the site, and the reservoir, to the city for $2000 in 1906.

Most of the other unsold property was acquired by Folsom Bros. Co. and this company initiated an ambitious effort to market Pacific Beach to prospective purchasers by developing or improving the community before offering lots for sale. The improvements would include grading streets, putting in curbs and sidewalks, and laying water mains. In January 1907 the Union reported much improvement going on in Pacific Beach; miles and miles of water pipe laid and streets graded by Folsom Bros. Co. By June Folsom Bros. Co. ads highlighted its improvements; sidewalks are being laid on block after block, avenues of fine palms are being planted. New water mains are being laid to tap each section as it is developed.

By August 1909 nearly a mile of cement sidewalk and curbing has been laid in Pacific Beach. Over two miles of street grading has been completed. The water supply has been increased. A concrete storage reservoir had been completed (presumably meaning that the Pacific Beach reservoir had been lined with concrete).

In 1912 horticulturist Kate Sessions and her brother Frank bought the western portion of Pueblo Lot 1785, 74 acres, as additional growing fields for their expanding nursery operations. Frank Sessions also leased the eastern 86 acres of the pueblo lot from the city. Pueblo Lot 1785 is in the foothills above Pacific Beach and adjoins the Pacific Beach reservoir site; the eastern portion is now Kate Sessions Park. Since much of this land was above the level of the existing reservoir, Frank Sessions dug another reservoir at the highest point on his land, above today’s Soledad Way, where he could store water to irrigate the growing fields below. In January 1913 he received a permit from the city to build a pumping plant on the city reservoir site to pump water further uphill to his reservoir. The Sessions’ reservoir was also eventually deeded to the city, in 1918 (the site is now a private home and tennis court).

The water situation in Pacific Beach stabilized, but for some the memory of drought and shortages remained. In September of 1913 the San Diego Union described a palatial home being built in Pacific Beach for C. C. Norris. The home, still standing on Collingwood Drive, is only a short distance from the Pacific Beach reservoir and not far below its elevation, and Norris apparently was well aware of the history of water shortages at the higher elevations of Pacific Beach. Among the details provided of the home’s interior (birch doors . . . old colonial type stairs with spiral newel post composed of a spindel balustrade . . . large tile mantle of unique design) the basement included a cistern with pump to furnish the house with rain water.

Over the ensuing century the San Diego region has expanded its water supply to keep pace with population growth, at first from a system of dams on local rivers, then by importing water from the Colorado River and Northern California, and most recently by desalinating sea water, so even though the past few years have seen a return of drought conditions like in the 1890s, the residences built on what were once the upper lemon ranches in Pacific Beach are not out of water a good part of the time, at least not yet.

The Pacific Highway

Northern end of the Pacific Highway, San Diego's Gateway to the North.
Northern end of the original Pacific Highway, San Diego’s former Gateway to the North, with Torrey Pines Park and the older (upper) and newer (lower) Torrey Pines grades in the background.

A road from San Diego north toward other population centers along the California coast has existed since the 18th century. El Camino Real led from Old Town around the eastern shore of Mission Bay, through Rose Canyon and over the mesa to Sorrento Valley. From there it continued north through what are now Carmel Valley, Rancho Santa Fe, Encinitas and Carlsbad to Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, and beyond. Much of its original route in these areas, and in other parts of California further north, is traced by streets, roads and highways which are still called El Camino Real.

In the 19th century, most travel between San Diego and other coastal California towns was by ship or, after 1885, by rail, although from the 1860s to the 1880s a stagecoach line ran to Los Angeles from Old Town, and later from downtown, over much of the same route as El Camino Real. Improvements to the road north began in 1894 when A. G. Gassen, who owned most of the property in Rose Canyon, offered to deed the city a 40-foot right-of-way through his property if the city would build a wagon road along the side of the canyon, avoiding the old road in the creek bed which was ‘troublesome and dangerous in the rainy season’. Although the mayor objected to what he felt was the improvement of Gassen’s property at city expense, gangs of ‘pick and shovel men’ were put to work on the city wagon road and it was eventually completed in 1895.

Meanwhile, San Diego was growing and this growth included new communities along its northern shores, beginning in 1887 with the La Jolla Park and Pacific Beach subdivisions. The streets of these subdivisions and subsequent extensions and additions eventually connected and provided an alternative route along the coast from the mouth of Rose Canyon to La Jolla. This coastal route was later extended beyond La Jolla to accommodate tourists who wanted to visit what became, in 1899, Torrey Pines Park, first on burros and then in large tally-ho coaches.

In 1898 the San Diego Union reported on an international exhibition of automobile vehicles being held in Paris and added that the close of the century could find the horseless wagon coming into general use in the United States, and that its advent would be marked by the long desired era of good roads. The first automobile was seen in San Diego in October 1899 as part of a circus parade. In December 1899 D. C. Collier, a prominent real estate operator, was reported to have ordered one from the east which, according to the Union, was expected to be scaring horses in San Diego in about 4 weeks. Collier did have the distinction of being the first San Diegan to own an automobile, in February 1900, and he was soon joined by others, beginning the inexorable growth in automobile traffic and the need for more and better roads that has never really stopped.

In May 1904 the Los Angeles Times reported on the first ever trip by car from Los Angeles to San Diego along the coast route. The Times claimed that many had gone as far as Oceanside and San Luis Rey by being helped over the sand at San Onofre, but had then gone inland to Escondido; the run along the coast was considered impossible for most automobile users because of steep grades, deep sand stretches and the fords. Nevertheless, a driver with three guests left the Times building at 8:10 AM and passed the San Diego courthouse a few minutes before 6 PM, having covered the 115 miles in only 9 ¾ hours, including two hours at various stops.

By 1909 an automobile trip to Los Angeles was no longer considered impossible, but was still noteworthy. The Union reported in August that the MacFarlands, a prominent Pacific Beach couple, traveled to ‘Elks Week’ in Los Angeles overland in their Maxwell Runabout. On their return they made the distance between Los Angeles and Pacific Beach in eight hours.

In 1912 the California state highway commission announced its intention to build a highway to Los Angeles beginning at the San Diego city limits near Del Mar and working north. Feeling that the city should build a proper connection with the state road, the council authorized the city engineer to recommend a feasible route from Old Town to the city limits. The routes under consideration were either by way of La Jolla or Rose Canyon, and both routes would begin with a fine concrete and steel bridge over the San Diego River at Old Town.

The city engineer’s recommendation, presented in August 1912, favored the coast route, via Pacific Beach, La Jolla and the Torrey Pines grade. He reasoned that the coast highway, except for the Torrey Pines grade, was built over comparatively level country and would be easier to grade and maintain. It also had water available for sprinkling, at least as far as the Biological station (now Scripps Institution of Oceanography), and the alignment as a whole was far superior to the other road. The coast road passed through a populous and rapidly growing district and would accommodate increasing local as well as through traffic. Finally, this was one of the finest scenic drives in the vicinity of San Diego, invaluable as an advertisement, and always had been and always would be by far the most popular route.

By contrast, the road through Rose Canyon had been located and constructed as a wagon road before the automobile was dreamed of and was a ‘side-hill’ road, following the windings of the side-hill upon which it was built with a view more to economy in construction than good alignment. It had many sharp turns, was narrow in places and the hillside on which it was built sloped anywhere from 15 to 35 degrees. It could be improved by straightening out some of the worst turns but converting it into a boulevard equal in width and alignment to the La Jolla road would be expensive. It was also hot, dusty and unattractive in the summer months and there was no water available for sprinkling purposes. The city engineer conceded that it was 3.5 miles shorter, which would have been an argument in its favor in the days of horse-drawn vehicles, but with 90% of travel now by automobile, the straighter alignment of the coast road, presumably allowing higher speeds, was as important as distance.

The city engineer did recommend that the Torrey Pines grade, with a grade of 9 or 10 percent and a short, dangerous turn or ‘switch back’, should be entirely relocated and rebuilt (this was a route from Torrey Pines beach to Torrey Pines mesa now followed by Torrey Pines Park Road). The grade opposite the Biological station (now the northern extension of La Jolla Shores Drive) was also ‘susceptible of improvement’ in several places, with three sharp turns that should be straightened out.

The city engineer’s concern about water for sprinkling purposes was related to the fact that he believed that the time when the city would be financially able to improve a boulevard with a substantial pavement was not yet at hand. Instead, he respectfully suggested that the coast road be surfaced with good road material, decomposed granite, and the pipeline extended from the Biological station, where in addition to dust abatement it could probably also be used on the city farm on Torrey Pines mesa. The city engineer also suggested a connecting link between the coast and Rose Canyon routes at a point near the city farm to allow those who preferred the shorter route via Rose Canyon an opportunity to go that way.

Although the city council adopted the city engineer’s recommendation, a group of ‘Rose Canyon boosters’ objected to the coastal route and prepared a petition outlining the advantages of Rose Canyon. In addition to being four miles shorter and avoiding two dangerous grades, the petitioners noted that from a scenic standpoint the Rose Canyon route was preferable to the route by way of Torrey Pines since it would furnish the traveler a change of scenery, the traveler having already been in view of the ocean for the greater portion of the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego. They also made the prescient point that the Rose Canyon route would open up a large area of the city of San Diego to future development.

By 1913 surveyors were at work on the Torrey Pines grade and despite the city engineer’s concerns about funding the plan did include concrete pavement with a surface of coarse sand and oil. Property owners in Pacific Beach and La Jolla, who would be expected to pay for improvement of streets in their neighborhoods, also endorsed paving the coast highway through their communities. The Evening Tribune noted that the coming Exposition of 1915 was expected to attract large crowds, many of whom would arrive by automobile, and an improved highway would give residents of these communities the advantage of this heavy influx of visitors.

However, the paving projects in Pacific Beach and La Jolla were delayed by local politics. In Pacific Beach, the dispute was whether to pave Grand or Garnet avenues. Grand Avenue was also the right-of-way of the ‘La Jolla Line’, the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway, which ran down the center of the wide avenue and which would have complicated the paving project. The council initially voted unanimously to pave Grand, but after continuing protests over the Grand Avenue assessment district, reversed course and in February 1915 decided to pave Garnet Avenue.

Prior to 1915 the only route from San Diego to Pacific Beach and La Jolla passed east of Mission Bay and entered Pacific Beach over Grand or Garnet avenues. In 1915, however, the Bay Shore Railway built a bridge over the inlet to Mission Bay between Ocean Beach and the sandy peninsula that became Mission Beach. When the ‘Hatfield flood’ of January 1916 washed out the bridges over the San Diego River at Old Town this bridge briefly became the only route from San Diego to Pacific Beach, La Jolla and the north. The bridge at Old Town was eventually rebuilt but when the route for a paved highway to the north was being considered in April 1916, rival groups representing Ocean Beach and Old Town appeared before the city council to make their case. Drawing upon history, the Old Town faction noted that Father Junipero Serra was something of a pathfinder and road builder and that in making his way north he chose the road through Old Town that became known as El Camino Real. The Ocean Beach party responded that although they had the greatest respect for the Padres, they had also established their settlement at Old Town while San Diego grew up at an entirely different site, so they might have also been mistaken in their location of the best route north.

Debates about which route to pave did not immediately translate into action, however. In April 1917, the Automobile Club of Southern California report on highway conditions for the Los Angeles Coast Route stated that pavement was complete from Second and Broadway to the India and Winder street crossing, thence dirt road to the top of Torrey Pines grade, with the exception of the Biological hill which is paved. From Torrey Pines into Los Angeles pavement was complete.

In July 1918 the news was that the city engineer’s office was working on plans for paving La Jolla Boulevard to Turquoise Street, Turquoise to Cass and Cass to Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach. Garnet would be paved next and ultimately paving would be completed to Winder Street. New specifications called for 4 inches of concrete on a 20-foot wide roadway. The city would pay 60 percent with the remainder to be assessed against the abutting property on a 10-year bonding plan. Progress was slow, however; Garnet Avenue was finally paved in November 1919 and the remaining sections of paving completed in early 1920, finally giving motorists a continuous paved highway from San Diego to Los Angeles via Pacific Beach and La Jolla.

Meanwhile, despite being relegated to secondary status, the Rose Canyon road was also being improved. In January 1919 the Evening Tribune reported that a gang of city prisoners with picks and shovels was putting the road between Morena and Sorrento in first class shape for auto truck travel, widening a number of sharp curves so that two machines can make the turns without danger of colliding. According to the Tribune most truck hauling between San Diego and Los Angeles used that road because it is 5 miles shorter. The city also had in view future paving of that highway, which had been the main highway to the north before the coast highway was improved.

In 1924 Mission Boulevard through Mission Beach was paved as part of the extension of the San Diego Electric Railway through Mission Beach to La Jolla, providing another paved route between Pacific Beach and San Diego proper. This alternative route joined the coast highway at Garnet Avenue and Cass Street via Pacific Avenue (later Pacific Beach Drive) and Cass. The route was reportedly somewhat shorter and avoided the ‘unsavory back door of the city’, presumably referring to the slaughterhouse on the north side of the San Diego River across from Old Town.

An Evening Tribune headline in December 1924 announced that ‘Pigs May Build Rose Canyon Highway’. According to the Tribune, the sale of hogs raised at the city farm on municipally-collected garbage had raised over $5000. Other recent sales had swollen the pork barrel from the municipal piggery to such an extent that the city manager had decided to go ahead with construction of the Rose Canyon highway. He proposed to appropriate $12,000 for a gasoline power shovel and $12,000 for a fleet of six trucks to improve the grade through Rose canyon. This would take heavy truck traffic off the paved highway through La Jolla and the Biological and Torrey Pines grades. The Rose Canyon route remained unpaved, however, while the paved coast highway through the beach communities became part of U.S. Route 101 in the new nation-wide system of standardized roads in 1926.

In 1927 the state highway commission indicated that it would aid San Diego in its plans to pave Rose Canyon and re-route the Torrey Pines grade. The city council adopted a resolution in March 1927 authorizing plans and specifications under which the city would grade and prepare the road for paving and the state highway commission would pave the road to a width of 30 feet. In August 1927 the San Diego Union reported that a petition with the signatures of more than 650 citizens asked the council to start proceedings for the paving of the Rose Canyon road, then little used because of its rough, unpaved condition but which, if paved, would take all the stage, truck and other heavy traffic off the coast route. In January 1928 the state highway commission did make provision in its budget for paving the Rose Canyon road if the city would obtain the rights of way and grade the road to state standards.

In February 1929 the common council again discussed construction of a continuous paved highway by way of Rose Canyon north to a new connection with the state highway just this side of Del Mar. The discussions included a new 6% grade down Torrey Pines hill and a new approach for the highway into Del Mar, including a new overhead crossing over the Santa Fe tracks just south of Del Mar. The current paved highway across Torrey Pines mesa would be materially widened. In August 1929 a contract for grading the Rose Canyon highway was awarded to the R. E. Hazard Company; the city council also provided funds to change the channel of the creek in Rose Canyon to straighten out the road and make it unnecessary to build a bridge over the creek. The new road would be 29,000 feet long and graded to a width of 46 feet. Plans called for paving the road for a width of 30 feet. The road would leave Balboa Avenue near Pacific Beach and head north, following the old Rose Canyon grade for several miles and then swinging down into the canyon to parallel the Santa Fe right of way for a mile before swinging back to the west to climb up to the Torrey Pines mesa road several miles south of the Torrey Pines grade.

Grading was completed and the new highway opened to traffic in June 1930. The Union reported that it was not merely an old road widened but departed from the old route to seek an easier gradient and more wide-angle turns. Plans would permit use of the road until the work of paving was started by the state, perhaps before the next rainy season.

Paving was completed and state highway officials came to town for an official opening in December 1930. The ceremonies took place at the junction of the new Rose Canyon highway with the old Torrey Pines highway at the city farm, about where Revelle College at the University of California, San Diego, is now located. The improvement effort then moved north to where four steam shovels were expected to begin removing dirt for the new gradient that would replace the tortuous Torrey Pines grade. The city administration was also planning to improve the road by widening the causeway across the flats near the northern limits, widening of the Torrey Pines mesa road and improving the road from the mouth of Rose canyon into the city.

The original plan to replace the Torrey Pines grade had been for a bypass road with a 6% grade on the west, or ocean side, of Torrey Pines Park. In addition to improving the grade, the new road would be the finest scenic highway in Southern California, in the opinion of the division engineer for the state highway commission. However, even in the 1930s, the plan to carve a highway out of scenic cliffs in what was then a city park met opposition and the League to Save Torrey Pines Park was organized in La Jolla. Under pressure from the League, the park board voted to oppose the road. The city responded by voting to rescind the 1899 ordinance setting aside Torrey Pines Park, withdrawing it from the jurisdiction of the park board. The park board sued, and won, and eventually a compromise was reached in which a new road would be built within the park, but on the east, or valley side, instead. Initially the new route was to be for northbound traffic only, with southbound traffic continuing to use the old grade.

The widening of the road on Torrey Pines mesa south of Torrey Pines Park was also affected by environmental concerns, this time over the fate of a line of trees on the east side of the existing road. This controversy was solved by building a separate roadway to the east of the trees, allowing the trees to remain in the center of the divided highway. Although the highway is now long gone, some of these trees remain on what is now the UCSD campus.

With the completion of the new Torrey Pines grade in June 1931 the San Diego Union began to refer to the highway project as the Million Dollar Gateway to the North, and to note that only the segments south of Rose Canyon remained uncompleted. Improvement of the road from Rose Canyon into the city would involve grading and paving an extension of what was then Atlantic Street (now Pacific Highway) from Barnett Avenue to the Rose Canyon highway at Balboa Avenue. The city would grade the Atlantic Street extension and the state would then pave the entire route from Rose Canyon to Broadway. State aid was also expected for an overhead bridge over the Santa Fe tracks south of Del Mar provided the city would build a bridge over Sorrento Slough (the outlet from Los Penasquitos creek and lagoon on Torrey Pines Beach).

The Sorrento bridge was completed in September 1932 but it could not be opened until the overhead bridge was completed. In January 1933 contracts for two other bridges, over Cudahy Creek and Tecolote Creek, north of the San Diego River, were awarded and the bridge over the San Diego River was advertised for bid. Grading of the Atlantic Street extension between Barnett Avenue and Balboa Avenue began in March 1933 and was expected to be completed within 90 days. However, construction work was delayed in April by heavy rain, 1.3 inches in 4 hours, and many places along the highway were flooded with mud and water. The muddy condition of the fill across Morena temporarily halted construction work there and work on the San Diego River bridge was delayed when a truck carrying steel rods for the bridge became stuck.

The overhead bridge at Del Mar was completed in June 1933 and in August the contract to pave Atlantic Street and extension was awarded. The new San Diego River bridge was expected to be ready by the time the paving was complete. The work was completed and a formal dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony opened the Million Dollar Gateway to the North in December 1933. After the dedication at the downtown terminus of the new road, a caravan of several hundred automobiles, three abreast, carried the crowd to the ribbon-cutting at the foot of Rose Canyon.

A few months after the formal opening of the Gateway to the North, in April 1934, the city planning commission decided that the proper name for Atlantic Boulevard would be Pacific Highway and voted to ask the council to order the change in name. In June 1935 an ordinance was adopted changing the names of Atlantic Street, West Atlantic Street, Rose Canyon Highway, Torrey Pines Mesa Road and Torrey Pines Road to Pacific Highway (Pacific Avenue in Pacific Beach had earlier been renamed Braemar Avenue to avoid any confusion with the new Pacific Highway; it was renamed again in June 1935 to Pacific Beach Drive).

Pacific Highway Sign

As San Diego continued to grow, and traffic on the gateway to the north continued to increase, further improvements were made to Pacific Highway. In 1938, for example, the 9.7-mile section between Barnett Avenue and Miramar Road, including the bridge over Rose Creek in Pacific Beach, was widened to four lanes with a raised area dividing the highway. By the 1960s, however, these incremental improvements had also become inadequate and the gateway to the north was completely rebuilt. The new freeway, Interstate 5, followed much the same route as Pacific Highway from San Diego through Rose Canyon, but then diverged in a northerly direction toward Sorrento Valley and beyond.

Some portions of the original highway that weren’t buried under the new freeway remain in service today. The former Atlantic Street in San Diego is still called Pacific Highway from its beginning at what was once the ferry landing on the bay and is now Seaport Village to just beyond the San Diego River, which it crosses on its original bridge. Where Pacific Highway turns toward Mission Bay and becomes Fiesta Island Road a short segment of the original route continues over Cudahy Slough, where the 1933 bridge is still standing (although now a dead end).

1933 Pacific Highewy bridge over Cudahy Slough
1933 Pacific Highway bridge over Cudahy Slough

A few other sections of the former Pacific Highway, including Mission Bay Drive in Pacific Beach, Gilman Drive between Interstate 5 and UCSD and North Torrey Pines Road between UCSD and Del Mar are also still in use. The ‘overhead bridge’ over the railroad tracks south of Del Mar is also still there and was recently retrofitted to meet modern structural and seismic standards. When San Diego relinquished its interest in the bridge to Del Mar (the bridge lies within both cities), Del Mar declared the bridge to be a historic site and the redevelopment effort also preserved that monument to the former Pacific Highway, San Diego’s Gateway to the North.

Recently restored 1933 North Torrey Pines Bridge

Historic Pacific Beach Trees

Screen grab of Google Street View, Ingraham Street south of Fortuna Drive, before January 30, 2016.
Screen grab, Google Street View, looking north on Ingraham Street south of Fortuna Drive, sometime before January 30, 2016.

A massive pine tree growing along the west side of Ingraham Street south of Fortuna Drive in Pacific Beach recently blew over in a fierce windstorm, killing a passing motorist. The story in the San Diego Union-Tribune mourned the victim, a popular musician on her way to a performance, but also noted that many residents expressed a fondness for the tree, which one likened to an old friend; ‘I’ve known that tree for a long time. It was an icon, it really was’. Some residents estimated the tree was about 100 years old. Although this particular tree probably wasn’t that old, there are trees in Pacific Beach that are that old or older and many others which may be considered icons or old friends.

The most iconic tree in Pacific Beach would be the Kate Sessions Tipuana tree which stands on the site of her former nursery at the corner of Garnet Avenue and Pico Street. It has been a local icon for at least 75 years; an item in the San Diego Union’s Public Forum in June 1941 written by Max Matousek, a former foreman at her nursery, encouraged all tree-lovers to visit it the next week-end when it would be in flower, a mass of golden yellow and a living monument to Kate Sessions. He described the tree, probably about 15 years old at the time, as 35 feet tall and spreading its branches 65 feet in one direction and 55 feet in the other, one of the finest and largest specimens in Southern California.

Kate Sessions Tipuana Tree
Kate Sessions Tipuana Tree

Kate Sessions had come to San Diego in 1884 to replace the principal of the Russ School, predecessor of San Diego High School, who had abruptly resigned. However, she soon resigned herself, entered the nursery business and became active in civic organizations dedicated to improving and beautifying San Diego by planting trees (civic leader Julius Wangenheim later recalled that she apparently decided it was easier to get something out of the good earth than into the heads of young San Diegans). She was allowed to use a portion of the City Park, now Balboa Park, in exchange for planting and caring for 100 trees and donating an additional 300 trees in boxes to the city each year. She moved her nursery from the park to Mission Hills in 1905 and in 1912 acquired property in the foothills above Pacific Beach for her nursery operations. In 1924 she purchased property on both sides of Rose Creek north of what was then Grand and is now Garnet Avenue, and moved her sales office from Mission Hills to that location. Apparently she planted the Tipuana tree shortly after this move; in 1946 it was said to have been planted over 20 years before. She became a Pacific Beach resident in 1927 and died at the age of 83 in 1940.

In 1941 the Federal Public Housing Authority expropriated most of eastern Pacific Beach to build the Bayview Terrace housing project for defense workers and their families. An announcement of the project noted that the nursery formerly owned by the late Kate Sessions, prominent San Diego horticulturist, was included in the site, and the blooming acacia trees, long a landmark in San Diego, would be preserved in a proper setting. The preservation effort apparently extended to the Tipuana tree as well, which survived this project and others which threatened its future.

In July 1960, for example, the Union reported that a tree planted 40 years ago by a woman who brought greenness to San Diego was scheduled for alteration as the march of progress cut under its friendly boughs. The street under its friendly boughs, now Garnet but by then called Balboa Avenue, was being widened and traffic lanes would pass from 7 to 10 feet from the base of the tree, which might have made it necessary to trim branches to allow vertical clearance and remove some minor roots. However, city officials backed down after the Pacific Beach Garden Club and the Pacific Beach Women’s Club organized a campaign to protect the tree and modified the plan to add a 15-foot buffer between the street and the tree. ‘I know of no one in city government who wants to harm a twig on this fine old tree’, said the city park and recreation director. ‘We’re going to do nothing to damage it’. A senior design engineer in the city engineer’s office agreed, saying ‘our instructions are to avoid damaging the tree in any way’.

Emboldened by their success, the campaign to protect Kate Sessions’ Tipuana tree then petitioned the state park board to make the tree a state historical monument, and in May 1961 their proposal was accepted. A story in the Union reported that the tree, said to have been planted in 1905 (years before Kate Sessions first acquired property in PB and nearly 20 years before she owned the property where it stands), would become a state historical monument. A plaque recognizing Kate Olivia Sessions’ Nursery Site and commemorating the life and influence of a woman who envisioned San Diego beautiful was dedicated on July 7, 1961. The plaque was actually mounted on a stone monument under the tree and didn’t refer to the tree at all, but news reports emphasized that the Tipuana tree, said to be 50 years old, was the actual landmark.

The San Diego Union’s report on the campaign to save the Kate Sessions Tipuana tree also mentioned that construction crews were trying to preserve another, even larger tree believed planted by Miss Sessions on the construction site for the Capehart housing project (successor to the Bayview Terrace project and now the Admiral Hartman Community). This tree, thought to be a Ficus, was located on a promontory overlooking Mission Bay about 1 quarter mile south of Kate Sessions school. This description matches a huge Moreton Bay Fig tree (Ficus macrophylla) still growing today behind houses near the intersection of Chalcedony and Donaldson Drive, south of Kate Sessions school and overlooking Mission Bay. It is unlikely, however, that this tree was planted by Kate Sessions; it actually appears to be one of the last remaining signs of the area’s lemon ranching past.

Moreton Bay Fig tree, Chalcedony Street and Donaldson Drive.
Moreton Bay Fig tree, Chalcedony Street and Donaldson Drive.

For over a decade beginning in 1892 life in Pacific Beach revolved around growing, packing and shipping lemons. Most of the lemons were grown on ‘acre lots’, parcels of approximately ten acres corresponding to pairs of today’s residential blocks. Most acre lots were located on what were then the fringes of the community, south of Reed Avenue and north of Diamond Street, and there are still traces of the former lemon ranches to be seen in these areas. The large two-story frame home at 1860 Law Street was originally the ranch house for the Wilson and Bowers lemon ranch on Acre Lot 34, now the two blocks surrounded by Lamont, Chalcedony, Kendall and Beryl streets (although the house, built in 1892, was moved from other side of Law about 1912). Two other ranch houses, at 1932 Diamond, built for the Coffeens in 1895, and at 4775 Lamont, built for the Roxburghs in 1904, remain on Acre Lot 50, the two blocks east of Lamont between Diamond and Chalcedony.

On other former acre lots the ranch houses have disappeared but the sites are still marked by the trees which once stood next to them. The two blocks east of Olney Street between Chalcedony and Beryl where the large Moreton Bay Fig tree stands was once Acre Lot 30, where Frank Marshall established a lemon ranch in 1894. A panoramic photo of Pacific Beach from the east taken in 1906 shows lemon groves and a ranch house surrounded by large trees on this site.

Lemons ranches on Acre Lots 53 and 30 from Bunker Hill, 1906.
Pacific Beach lemon ranches from Bunker Hill, 1906, showing ranch house and trees on Acre Lot 30 (San Diego History Center #283).

The lemon groves eventually died out and after the area was reconfigured for the Bayview Terrace housing project in 1941 the ranch house had also disappeared, but the tree was spared and can be seen in an aerial photo of the area from 1946. The builders of the Capehart housing project also succeeded in their efforts to preserve this iconic tree, saving the last visible reminder of the Marshall’s lemon ranch.

1946 aerial view of Bayview Terrace housing project showing Moreton Bay Fig (San Diego History Center #10356-2)
1946 aerial view of Bayview Terrace housing project showing Moreton Bay Fig (San Diego History Center #10356-2)

Trees are also the only survivors of other former lemon ranches in Pacific Beach. On the former Acre Lot 33, east of Lamont between Chalcedony and Beryl streets, a ranch house built for Wilson and Bowers in 1893 was torn down in the 1940s and the entire area was cleared for one of the first planned developments in Pacific Beach, Lamont Terrace (the homes with the brick chimneys and shingle siding). The only thing left standing was another Moreton Bay Fig tree which once stood beside the ranch house and is now in front of the house at 1922 Law.

Moreton Bay Fig tree, 1922 Law Street.
Moreton Bay Fig tree, 1922 Law Street.

On Acre Lot 49, west of Lamont between Diamond and Chalcedony, the house on Mary Rowe’s lemon ranch was demolished in the 1950s but a large palm tree which once marked her ranch house still stands in front of the apartment buildings at 1828-1840 1/2 Missouri.

Palm from Mary Rowe lemon ranch, now in front of 1828-1840 1/2 Missouri
Palm from Mary Rowe lemon ranch, now in front of 1828-1840 1/2 Missouri

In other parts of Pacific Beach, it is not individual trees but rows of trees, many of them over a century old, which have become iconic. In 1907 Folsom Bros. Co., which owned most of Pacific Beach and was trying to attract buyers by grading streets and laying sidewalks and water mains, also advertised that avenues of fine palms were being planted. These rows of palms still line parts of Lamont and Hornblend streets. The rows of palms along Bayard Street south of Grand Avenue and Pacific Beach Drive west of Bayard were also planted in the early years of the twentieth century. These trees lined the approach to Braemar Manor, the bayside mansion of the F. T. Scripps family and now the site of the Catamaran Hotel.

Palm trees along Pacific Beach Drive and Bayard Street
Palm trees along Pacific Beach Drive and Bayard Street

The group of Canary Island palms on the west side of Bayard between Reed and Thomas Avenues once stood in front of the Rockwood Apartments, later the Rockwood Home for the Aged, built in 1904 (2022 note; these palm trees have been cut down).

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

Another century-old Canary Island palm tree is growing in the patio of the Pacific Beach Presbyterian Church at Garnet Avenue and Jewell Street. The church’s web site actually presents its history through the character of this tree; ‘My name is Phoenix Canariensis . . . I live and grow in the patio of the Pacific Beach Presbyterian Church. I really don’t know where I came from but that’s not important because new life began for me in 1915 when the Ladies Aid Society transplanted me to beautify the barren sandy soil around their church’. After recounting a century of history, the tree describes its present environment; ‘I now live on the busiest street in all of San Diego. I am completely surrounded by businesses and apartments. Parking is a problem. People from the streets sometimes sleep in this patio, giving testimony to the gravity of the times’. It even considers its future; ‘Some say that the life of a Canary Date Palm is about 80 years. I know that I shall soon complete my cycle of life. The men seem to know it too. They are giving me extra attention . . . I even see a new family of palm trees in the refurbished patio’.

Phoenix canariensis in the patio of Pacific Beach Presbyterian Church
Phoenix canariensis in the patio of Pacific Beach Presbyterian Church

Other trees in Pacific Beach may not qualify as iconic but could still be considered old friends. When I was growing up on Diamond Street across from Brown Military Academy in the 1950s we had a decent view to the southwest, including the bay, Point Loma and the ocean. Before that view was obscured by the glaring Newberry’s sign in 1961 and completely blotted out by the Plaza Apartments in 1970, one of the most prominent landmarks visible from our front window was a tall Norfolk Island Pine tree, perfectly symmetrical, growing a few blocks south.

Norfolk Island Pine tree in front of Baldwin Academy, Hornblend Street.

We traced it to Hornblend Street, just west of Kendall Street, where it is still growing in front of the historic house which is now the Baldwin Academy. It must be about 90 years old; it was already tall in an aerial photo of Brown Military Academy taken in 1938. I seem to recall that it had a lighted star on top during the holiday season, although I can’t imagine how anyone could have placed it there.

83:14603-1 Pacific Beach - Aerial - 1938
1938 aerial photo of Pacific Beach showing Norfolk Island Pine (foreground), also palm trees at the ranch house on Missouri (left) and Moreton Bay Fig on Law (right), beyond Brown Military Academy (center). (San Diego History Center #83:14603-1)

After last week’s fatal accident in Pacific Beach city crews went to Ocean Beach to cut down a pair of Torrey Pines that the city had deemed unstable and a threat to public safety. According to the Union-Tribune, a local resident stopped to see what was going on and became infuriated when he was told that two historic trees planted in the 1930s were going to have to come down. He placed himself in front of one of the trees, defending it from the city workers, presumably brandishing chainsaws, until they were able to convince him that the trees had been condemned. He then walked away, unable to watch the destruction. Other residents also joined in the complaints, saying that the trees were some of the most historic in that coastal community. The Torrey Pines were eventually cut down, but this incident again showed the fondness that a community can express for their historic trees.

Army and Navy Academy

Army Navy Academy

Army and Navy Academy, a private military school for seventh to twelfth grade boys in Carlsbad, traces its history back over 100 years. According to a historical timeline provided on the academy’s website, that history began when Captain Thomas A. Davis founded the San Diego Army and Navy Academy with thirteen students in 1910. The timeline also notes that Capt. Davis founded his school not in Carlsbad but in Pacific Beach, at the old Balboa Hotel. So, what historical threads tie a modern school in Carlsbad to an old hotel in Pacific Beach?

In 1910 the Hotel Balboa (not Balboa Hotel) was the latest occupant of the former campus of the San Diego College of Letters, built to be the primary attraction of the new Pacific Beach subdivision established in 1887. The cornerstone of the college had been laid with great ceremony in January 1888, just weeks after lots in Pacific Beach were first put on sale, and the college opened with 37 students in September 1888. The college building was a large wooden structure designed and built by James W. Reid, architect of the recently completed Hotel del Coronado. However, the college was unable to repay construction costs and when Reid sued, and won, it was closed and the property, including the college building, was sold at auction at the courthouse door in 1891.

Over the next decade the college campus in Pacific Beach changed hands several more times and was used for such purposes as a Y. M. C. A. camp and summer school and, in 1901, as a hotel, the College Inn. In 1904, Folsom Bros. Co. first leased then bought the college campus intending to convert it into a first-class resort. Folsom Bros. renovated the buildings, improved the landscaping and sponsored a contest to name their new property. The winner received a $100 lot in PB or $100 in gold for suggesting Hotel Balboa. However, the Hotel Balboa also did not live up to expectations and Folsom Bros. sought other uses for the property. In 1909 a portion was subleased to the Pacific Beach Country Club.

Captain Thomas Alderson Davis had served in Puerto Rico as an officer in the 6th Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War of 1898. In 1907 he had established a military school in El Paso but in 1910 he visited San Diego, liked what he saw, and decided to stay. He leased the Hotel Balboa and on November 23, 1910, the San Diego Army and Navy Academy began classes there with a group of 13 cadets and with Capt. Davis as the only instructor. The academy grew rapidly; by the end of its second year it had added courses and faculty and claimed to have 73 students. Growth in attendance was accompanied by increased status; in 1914 the academy was recognized by the war department as a Class A school, which entitled it to the detail of a retired army officer to serve on the faculty at the army’s expense.

In 1921, after ten years in its rented quarters in Pacific Beach, the San Diego Army and Navy Academy announced that it was purchasing the Point Loma Golf and Country Club next to the new Navy and Marine Corps training centers on San Diego Bay. Capt. Davis explained that he expected proximity to these military training facilities would be of benefit to his cadets, particularly those interested in naval training. However, the move to Point Loma never happened; Capt. Davis was unable to obtain the terms he wanted for the Point Loma property and instead purchased the property the academy had been leasing in Pacific Beach. In 1923 Capt. Davis also purchased two blocks on the north side of the campus and in 1925 two more blocks on the west side.

Most of the cadets attending the San Diego Army and Navy Academy were residential students who lived on campus during the academic year. They had been accommodated in the original college buildings and then, as enrollment increased, in wooden cottages built elsewhere on the grounds. When enrollment continued to increase during the 1920s, passing 200 in 1924, these accommodations also became insufficient and the academy initiated a more ambitious building program. A mess hall capable of seating 300 was built in 1924, an auditorium and infirmary in 1927, and a three-story reinforced concrete dormitory in 1928. A swimming pool and four-story concrete dormitory were added in early 1930 as attendance grew to more than 400. In anticipation of continued growth, another pair of four-story dormitories were completed by the end of 1930. These rows of large concrete dormitories and the other new structures on the college campus site dwarfed the original college buildings and dominated the skyline of Pacific Beach for decades.

However, the San Diego Army and Navy Academy suffered along with the rest of the country as the Great Depression took hold in the early 1930s. Enrollment of cadets declined to under 200 and the academy found itself unable to repay the costs of its building program. In 1930 the academy received the first of a series of loans from the Security Trust & Savings Bank of San Diego, secured by a deed of trust to the college campus property, and in 1932 all the ‘furniture, furnishings and equipment of every kind and character’ belonging to the academy were mortgaged to the bank (including the knives, forks and spoons in the dining room and the band drum major’s baton). When the academy fell behind in repayment of these obligations, and was even unable to pay taxes on the property, the bank declared it in default and in 1936 announced its intention to sell the property.

In August 1936, the San Diego Union carried a special announcement from Col. Davis (he had received an honorary ‘Kentucky Colonel’ commission from the governor of Kentucky in the 1920s), founder and for 25 years president of the San Diego Army and Navy Academy, that he and his brother, Maj. John L. Davis, Jr., vice president and commandant, had resigned their positions and would no longer be associated with the academy in any way. He could be contacted care of Davis Military Academy in Carlsbad. An article in the same paper added that the Davis Military Academy had leased the Red Apple Inn in Carlsbad and that school would open in September, 1936.


The Davises were joined in Carlsbad by several other members of the administration and faculty from the Pacific Beach academy, including Charles Bain, Raymond Ede, Samuel Peterson and Maj. William Atkinson and his wife Virginia. Many of these original staff members later rose to high positions at the new school, including two future presidents, and several buildings on the campus are named in their honor.

At the San Diego Army and Navy Academy in Pacific Beach, an active-duty army officer who had been professor of military science and tactics took over as commandant. The academy retained its high rating and recognition by the war and navy departments, meaning that graduates were entitled to admission to the military academies at West Point and Annapolis. 150 students had enrolled for the academic year beginning in September 1936 and 20 of the original 30 faculty members would return.

The academy did begin classes in September 1936 but in March 1937 the property in Pacific Beach was sold to the John E. Brown College Company, which announced that it would be renamed Brown Military Academy. The change in name and ownership was apparently popular on the Pacific Beach campus; the 1937 graduating class voted unanimously to be graduated from Brown Military Academy and to have its insignia on their rings. Col. and Maj. Davis consented to the sale with the stipulation that they would be allowed to transfer the name, San Diego Army and Navy Academy, to their new school in Carlsbad.

In December 1938, a little over two years after founding the Davis Military Academy in Carlsbad and a year after it had reacquired the San Diego Army and Navy Academy brand, Col. Davis resigned and returned to his former school in Pacific Beach as assistant to the president of John Brown Schools. He was named president of Brown Military Academy in February 1940, resuming his role, after a brief interruption, as head of the first military academy he had established in San Diego. Maj. Davis took his place as president of the San Diego Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad.

Col. Davis retired from Brown Military Academy in 1954 and in February 1958 John Brown Schools announced that the academy would relocate to Glendora to make way for commercial development of its Pacific Beach campus. Most of the 475 cadets and 90 faculty were expected to make the move, although some faculty joined former headmaster Louis Bitterlin in opening San Diego Military Academy in Solana Beach (San Diego Military Academy closed in 1977 and the site, on Academy Drive, is now Santa Fe Christian Schools).

In June 1958 Col. Davis, then 84 years old, was honorary reviewing officer at the final commencement exercise at Brown Military Academy in Pacific Beach, where he had founded San Diego Army and Navy Academy 48 years earlier. Shortly thereafter, many of the academy buildings, including the former Hotel Balboa, were demolished and replaced with a shopping center, Pacific Plaza, which opened in 1960. A plaque outside the Great Buffet restaurant in Pacific Plaza commemorates the ‘West Point of the West’ which formerly occupied the site.


The large concrete dormitories remained standing until 1965 when they too were demolished and replaced with an apartment complex, now the Plaza condominiums, in 1970. The Brown Military Academy campus in Glendora was itself was closed in 1968.

End of Browns

Today the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad is still located on the site where Col. Thomas A. Davis established Davis Military Academy in 1936 in the former Red Apple Inn. In 1937 it assumed the name of the academy Col. Davis had first founded in 1910 in Pacific Beach but dropped the ‘San Diego’ from its name in 1943, the same year that Maj. Atkinson, the former bandleader at the Pacific Beach academy, began a 30-year tenure as president. In 1948 Army and Navy Academy also began a building program which has never really stopped. The latest addition to the campus is a new sports center, opened in 2013, where a sign reminds passers-by that it all began over a century ago.


Original 1887 PB Map

The San Diego History Center library in Balboa Park is a rich source of historical information, not only original documents from the early days of San Diego and a huge collection of historical photographs but also a knowledgeable staff. One day I asked their map expert if she knew about a map of the Cloverdale subdivision by H. K. Wheeler from the 1880s. She didn’t, but a few minutes later she returned and said that H. K. Wheeler had ‘rung a bell’ and would I be interested in another map by H. K. Wheeler, this one of the Pacific Beach subdivision from 1887. What she showed me was a large (18 X 20-inch) photocopy of a much larger (9 X 10-foot) map which she said was rolled up and stored on top of a shelf in the storage area behind her desk. I had seen early maps of the Pacific Beach subdivision, including the map that was generally considered the original PB subdivision map (Map 697, recorded in January, 1892), but this map was significantly different and seemed like it could be a kind of ‘missing link’ in Pacific Beach history.

Wheeler PB Map 5
Central portion of 1887 subdivision map of Pacific Beach by H. K. Wheeler. (SDHC #1669)

The most striking feature of the 1887 Wheeler map is how similar it is to what Pacific Beach has become in the intervening century. The entire area from the ocean to about Rose Creek and from the tips of Mission Beach and Crown Point to the Mt. Soledad foothills was divided into a grid of city blocks by north-south ‘streets’ and east-west ‘avenues’, most of which exist today and some of which have even kept their original names (Grand, Thomas and Reed Avenues). There was even a four-block area in the center of the community that was then set aside for a College Campus and which today is the Pacific Plaza shopping center. There were over 400 city blocks, most of them in the same location as they are today and many with the same block numbers.

In the 1887 Wheeler map the north-south streets were numbered, from First Street (nearest the ocean) to Seventeenth Street (near Rose Creek), with a somewhat wider street named Broadway (now Ingraham) between Eighth and Ninth. The east-west avenues included the much wider Grand Avenue, which was also to be the right-of-way for a railway to San Diego. Avenues north of Grand were named for states, except for College (now Garnet) Avenue, which ran by the College Campus. South of Grand the avenues were named for officials of the Pacific Beach Company and other local real estate operators; Thomas, Reed, Gassen, Hubbell, Hensley, Platt, Metcalf, Hale, Collins and Poiser.

In the 1892 map, however, the grid of city blocks was limited to a central slice of Pacific Beach, between Reed Avenue and Alabama Avenue (now Diamond Street). The streets and avenues in this area were the same as on the original 1887 map, and with the same names, but the newer map reclassified most of the area between today’s Diamond and Loring Streets, and between Reed Avenue and what became Pacific Beach Drive, as rural ‘acre lots’ of about 10 acres. Most of the streets did not continue into these rural areas and many of avenues that had appeared on the original map in these areas had been eliminated. Most of the area north of Loring and south of PB Drive was no longer included on the map at all. The 1892 map retained about 125 of the original 400-plus city blocks platted in the 1887 map, while adding about 75 new acre lots.

Map 697, Recorded January 1892
Map 697, Recorded January 1892

The Spring 1976 issue of the Journal of San Diego History contained a paper by Zelma Bays Locker titled Whatever Happened to Izard Street? Pacific Beach and its Street Names. From 1954 to 1967 Mrs. Locker had been the librarian in charge of the downtown San Diego Library’s California Room, a repository of local and regional historical archives, and after her retirement from the library she served as a director of the San Diego Historical Society, which became the San Diego History Center. She also lived on Yarmouth Court in Mission Beach, on the ‘outskirts’ of Pacific Beach, so she was well qualified to write an academic article on Pacific Beach history.

Mrs. Locker’s article was primarily about the street names that exist in Pacific Beach today, particularly the alphabetical series of north-south streets (Bayard, Cass, Dawes, etc.; Allison Street, the first in the series, has since been renamed Mission Boulevard). In 1900 the city of San Diego decided that all street names had to be unique, and since there were many other communities of San Diego with numbered streets or streets named for states, those in Pacific Beach would have to be renamed. She was unable to find any historical record of how the streets were renamed and her own research led her to conclude that the only underlying theme for these names was that they were all statesmen who would have been familiar to the public in 1900 (even though some of the names were misspelled, e.g., Everts Street was apparently named for William Evarts and Fanuel for Peter Fanueil). The street between Haines and Jewell, originally Broadway, was renamed Izard Street in 1900 after a revolutionary war patriot, but the phonetics of this name did not ‘set well’ with residents and eventually it was changed to Ingraham.

Grand Avenue and the avenues named for Thomas and Reed were apparently unique within the city in 1900 and were not renamed, but the avenues on the 1892 map north of Grand were renamed, again in an alphabetical sequence, for gemstones or minerals, from Agate to Hornblend (again with misspellings; Felspar Street for Feldspar and Hornblend for Hornblende). When the ‘acreage country’ north of Diamond was re-subdivided again in the early 1900s, restoring the avenues that had existed on the original 1887 map between what had become Agate, Beryl, Chalcedony and Diamond, these ‘new’ avenues could not be incorporated into the alphabetical gemstone sequence. Some, like Turquoise, Tourmaline and Sapphire were named for gemstones anyway, but out of sequence. Mrs. Locker could not account for the names of others, such as Law, Wilbur and Loring, or for Missouri Street, which she called a ‘real puzzler’. She wrote that it was not on the ‘original 1887 map’ and was first named in Hauser’s Subdivision in 1904 (actually it had been named in F. T. Scripps’ Ocean Front subdivision in 1903). She added that there had been a Missouri Street in University Heights since 1888 but that it was now 32nd Street.

Missouri Street was a puzzler for Mrs. Locker because she was unaware of the actual original 1887 subdivision map by H. K. Wheeler, the ‘missing link’ in PB’s historical record. She wrote in her article that the first subdivision map of Pacific Beach was platted and the land put on the market in October 1887 by the Pacific Beach Company, but curiously enough, the original map was not filed with the County Recorder until January 2, 1892, a fact which would have a later bearing on some street names. Actually, the first subdivision map was platted in October 1887 (although lots were not put on the market until December) but the map that was filed on January 2, 1892, Map 697, was not the original but an amended map of a smaller and more rural subdivision. The original 1887 map did include a Missouri Avenue, between Alabama and Idaho Avenue (now Chalcedony Street). Missouri Avenue was deleted from the 1892 map to make way for a row of acre lots, including Acre Lot 49, between Alabama and Idaho. John and Julia Hauser purchased Acre Lot 49 in 1903 and in 1904 they filed a plat of Hauser’s Subdivision of Acre Lot 49 which basically returned it to the configuration on the original 1887 map; two city blocks separated by a street named Missouri (apparently, the Missouri Street in University Heights had already been renamed and no longer represented a conflict at that point).

Map of Hauser's Subdivision
Map of Hauser’s Subdivision

Although it may be true that the 1887 Wheeler map itself was never recorded, over a hundred deeds to Pacific Beach property were recorded prior to 1892 and some of these deeds include legal descriptions which could only have been derived from the original Wheeler map. For example, Matilda O’Neil was granted a deed in April 1888 for Block 295, between Gassen and Hubbell Avenues. Gassen and Hubbell Avenues appeared on the original Wheeler map but neither were still listed on the 1892 map. F. W. Barnes bought lots 21-28 of Block 166 in March 1889; Block 166 was shown on the original Wheeler map but not on the 1892 revision where it had been incorporated into Acre Lot 64 (Barnes then bought all of Acre Lot 64 in 1892). Other deeds from this period include specific references to the ‘official map of Pacific Beach, made by H. K. Wheeler, 1887’, or similar terms. On the other hand, no acre lots were sold prior to 1892. Acre lots did not exist on the original subdivision map and first appeared on the revised Map 697. Thirteen acre lots were sold in just a few months after Map 697 was recorded.

The 18 X 20-inch black-and-white copy of the original 1887 Pacific Beach subdivision map by H. K. Wheeler at the History Center had markings on it which suggested that the original had been used to keep track of or to display the extent of lot sales. The map was extremely detailed; each of the city blocks showed the individual lots on that block and some of these lots were ‘marked out’, presumably indicating that they had been sold and were no longer available (some of the ‘marked-out’ lots were also apparently pasted over, perhaps indicating that the sale had fallen through and they were again available). The marked-out lots generally corresponded to lots for which deeds had been recorded in the County Recorder’s office.

Eventually, the History Center library staff let me see the original map; they lifted it down from its shelf and laid it out on one of tables in the library. The map was in two halves, each of them five feet wide and nine feet long and rolled up together. When unrolled each completely covered one of the large library tables. At this scale each city block was over 1 ½ inch wide and nearly 3 ½ inches long. Within the blocks, what had appeared to be black markings on the black-and-white copy turned out to be either red or blue, with red predominating in the west half and blue in the east half. According to library protocol I wasn’t allowed to photograph the map, but I was able to write down most of the block numbers with red or blue marks and later found that the blue lots generally matched lots endowed by the Pacific Beach Company to the San Diego College Company, to be sold by the college to raise funds for operations (these lots didn’t sell well and the college closed after a few years). The red lots matched lots purchased by private buyers. There actually were small pieces of paper pasted over a few of the lots, apparently to ‘erase’ the markings beneath them if a sale fell through.

The History Center card catalog entry for the photocopy (M1669) indicates that the original map was stored in the archives but not cataloged because of its ‘unmanageable’ size, and that the photocopy was supplied in 1987 by Mr. John Fry of Pacific Beach, who obtained permission to make the copy (John Fry is the long-time president of the Pacific Beach Historical Society). When I asked John about the map he could only recall trucking something up to Kearny Mesa where they put it on a wall and took a picture of it, so the provenance of the map and its accession to the History Center in Balboa Park remains a mystery. A photo in the center’s photo collection of the Pacific Beach Company’s downtown office in 1888 includes a large map of Pacific Beach, but the details of that map do not match the 1887 Wheeler map.

Outside the Pacific Beach Company office, 1888.
Outside the Pacific Beach Company office, 1888. (SDHC #3797)

One thing that does seem certain is that Zelma Bays Locker, despite her years at the California Room and the Historical Society, never saw the actual original 1887 Pacific Beach subdivision map by H. K. Wheeler.

The Collins and the Petrel

The Collins - Wallace monument at Mount Hope.
The Collins – Wallace monument at Mount Hope.

Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego contains the graves of many early residents of the city, some marked by notable monuments. One monument is particularly notable for its intimations of tragedy; a young mother, her two children and another young lady share the same death date. Carved in a side panel is an explanation; Frances J., Mary E., and John C. Collins, and Margaret G. Wallace ‘drowned by capsizing of yacht Petrel, near Roseville, Sept. 1, 1890’. The name of the husband and father, John W. Collins, with a death date a year and a half later, is also carved in the monument.

Epitaph on Collins - Wallace monument
Epitaph on Collins – Wallace monument

The Collins family had come to San Diego from Wyoming in 1887 where J. W. Collins and D. D. Dare had been in the banking business. In January 1888 they opened the California National Bank with prominent local citizen William Collier as president, Dare as vice-president and Collins as cashier. In early 1890 a subsidiary, the California Savings Bank, was also opened, with J. W. Collins as president. The Collins family lived, appropriately, on Bankers Hill, in the magnificent Victorian home at the corner of First and Kalmia streets now known as the Long – Waterman Residence. J. W. Collins had purchased the house from John Long in June 1890 and sold it to Jane Waterman in November (Jane Waterman’s husband, Robert Waterman, was then governor of California and owner of the most profitable gold mine in San Diego County; his term as governor expired two months later and three months after that he himself expired at his new home and was also buried in Mount Hope Cemetery).

The Long - Waterman Residence
The Long – Waterman (and Collins) Residence

The Petrel was built in Boston and had reportedly won five races there before being brought to San Diego on the bark Wildwood in July 1888. That fall she competed in a series of races on San Diego Bay which apparently captivated the public, receiving front-page coverage in the San Diego Union. The Petrel, a sloop, and the Volunteer, a catboat, winners of their respective classes in a San Diego Yacht Club race, then raced each other in what the Union called one of the most exciting races ever sailed on the bay. The Volunteer won, but the winning margin of 14 seconds over a fifteen mile course was considered so trifling that the honors were said to be even.

The Petrel then faced off against the catboat Teaser in what was to be a series of three races. The Petrel was a sloop, ‘built for speed’, and could carry, in addition to a mainsail and jib, a club gaff topsail and jib topsail and a spinnaker for running before the wind. To balance all this canvas the Petrel also carried five tons of lead ballast. She was 25 feet long overall with a beam of 9 feet. A catboat like the Teaser had only a single mainsail and a wider beam. To compensate for these differences in class the Teaser was granted a time allowance 5 ½ minutes for the first race; conditions for the second race would be based on the results of the first. There would be no other restrictions on sail or ballast.

In their first race the Petrel crossed the finish line nearly 7 minutes ahead of the Teaser, winning even after taking the 5 ½ minute allowance into account. In the second race, held a month later, the Petrel won easily but it was not considered a fair race owing in part to light winds. The third race was apparently never held; in August 1889 the Union complained ‘What is the matter with a race between the Teaser and the Petrel? These crack little yachts should make a gallant race and all San Diego would turn out and watch the struggle for supremacy’.

By 1890 the racing frenzy had apparently cooled, or at least was no longer front page news in the San Diego Union, but the Petrel remained at Hunt’s boatyard on the bay where her owner, John Young, took her out sailing most Saturdays. On the last Sunday in August Captain William P. Hay, a local shipping agent, approached Mrs. Collins at the United Presbyterian Church and remarked that he intended to take Mrs. Hay for a sail on the bay Monday if he could get a suitable yacht. He asked Mrs. Collins if she would like to join them and when she replied that she would Capt. Hay told her to meet him at Hunt’s boatyard at 10 o’clock in the morning and to bring her children Mary and Johnny and a picnic lunch. Capt. Hay also invited Miss Maggie Wallace, the pastor’s daughter, and she also accepted. Mr. Collins was away at the time, on a business trip to San Francisco.

At about 8 o’clock Monday morning, September 1, 1890, Capt. Hay telephoned Mrs. Collins to tell her that he had secured the Petrel, ‘a yacht well known in San Diego waters’, and that everything was in readiness for a delightful sail on the bay. Mr. Hunt brought the Petrel in from her mooring and the party sailed away about 10 o’clock. Conditions on the bay were not ideal; according to the Union there was a pretty stiff breeze blowing and ‘white caps flashed like puffs of steam from a million factories’. Hunt was concerned enough to suggest to Capt. Hay that he take in some of the sail but Capt. Hay replied ‘Oh, I guess not. I’m a pretty good hand at sailing anyway. I guess she’ll go all right’.

About noon a group of Portuguese fishermen at Roseville, on the west side of the bay near Ballast Point, saw a yacht sailing down the channel. Suddenly they saw that ‘a gale had struck the cloud of canvas’ and the yacht suddenly careened, tipped her nose and went straight down. The fishermen jumped into boats and pulled out to where the yacht had gone down but found no trace of the yacht or her occupants so they returned. A German fisherman returning to the bay later reported that he was startled to see a woman’s body floating in the water and he began to retrieve it when another body came to the surface nearby. This shocked him enough that he released the woman’s body and departed, ‘abandoning the drowned persons to the mercy of the sharks and fishes’ and ‘incurring much public censure’. Rumors of a disaster reached San Diego about 3 o’clock and search parties converged on the scene but found nothing that evening except for a coat which was identified as belonging to Capt. Hay and a fruit jar and other items which may have been part of a picnic lunch. The Union reported the following morning that all that was certain was that the party of six had drowned and no bodies had been recovered.

In the immediate aftermath and in the absence of any real evidence of what had occurred, the Union reported the speculation of other members of the waterfront community (all of whom were also apparently called ‘Captain’). A Captain Kehoe said he had seen the party depart from Hunt’s boatyard and that he would not have gone out in that yacht with such a sail in so strong a gale. She was not safe under so much canvas and only the most experienced sailor should have attempted it. ‘A boat built as she was will tip very easily, and she had so much lead in her that once full of water she was bound to go down like a stone’. The Petrel’s owner, Captain Young, said that he had only agreed to allow Capt. Hay to use the boat because he understood that another experienced Captain would also be aboard, and that it would not be safe for one man to take out a party of women and children.

The next day searchers hired the tugboat Santa Fe and returned to the site of the sinking. A weighted line was dragged along the bottom and soon snagged an obstacle which was raised far enough to identify as the sunken yacht. When it had emerged far enough for its mast to be lashed to the tug it was brought back to the docks where a crane would be used to raise it out of the water the following morning. Meanwhile, the body of Mrs. Collins had been found floating in the channel. A message was dispatched to friends of Mr. Collins in San Francisco conveying as many particulars of the calamity as necessary and requesting them to break the intelligence to Mr. Collins so that he might receive it as gently as possible. Apparently this was done and word was received that he would be in San Diego on Wednesday evening.

The Union also began a campaign to place some of the blame on what it perceived to be the inadequate efforts of the first responders, who were conspicuously identified as foreigners. The Portuguese, who had actually witnessed the accident and responded immediately but found no survivors or wreckage, were now said to have made no effort whatever to rescue the drowning and drowned, nor to locate the sunken yacht. ‘They are a churlish and unsentimental lot, to be sure, but even the most superlative boorishness is not accepted by the people as sufficient reason why they should have manifested such supreme and inhuman indifference to the fate of the party’. The German fisherman who had attempted to recover the body of a women but then released her upon the appearance of another corpse was ‘not a popular individual at present’. The Union inferred from his description that it was probably Mrs. Collins that he had begun to recover and that the second body was one of her children, based on the fact that ‘he intimates as clearly as his incomprehensible stupidity will permit that it was the body of a child’. ‘Who knows? Perhaps there might still have been a spark of life in that mother or her child; perhaps they had not been long in the water; perhaps had they been towed at once to shore resuscitation would not have been impossible’.

At the dock the Petrel was raised and although it had been expected that one or more of the bodies would be found on board the only vestiges of the picnic party were three parasols, those of the women on board, a small jar of jelly and a few other articles. The yacht itself had received comparatively little damage and could soon be repaired, although the Union speculated that her owners would probably ‘not be compelled to refuse many requests for her service hereafter’. Also, an accident like this would revive her past record; ‘before she came to this coast she carried a party of four to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean and at another time a party of eight and that in a race in Pacific waters a year or more ago she dipped enough to create consternation among her occupants and compel them to bail her out with hats’. The search for the other bodies continued; the bay in the vicinity of the sinking was dragged, and cannon were fired over the water and dynamite dropped into the bay in the belief that this would raise drowned bodies.

Although it was at first intended for Mrs. Collins’ funeral to be held at her late home, at the corner of First and Kalmia, it was deemed more appropriate to hold it at the Presbyterian Church, where friends and relatives gathered to pay their respects to the only recovered victim of ‘the most horrifying calamity that ever happened in the bay of San Diego’. After the service Mr. Collins and Rev. Wallace entered a closed carriage and the cortege moved away to Mount Hope Cemetery.

The bodies of the other victims turned up over the next few weeks. Mrs. Hay’s body was found floating in the surf about three miles south of the Hotel del Coronado on September 5. Her beautifully engraved gold watch had stopped at 11:39, presumably the very instant the capsizing had occurred. Also found nearby were two straw hats, one black, evidently the headgear of an elderly woman, and one white with a black-headed shawl pin thrust through it ‘in the fashion that ladies usually pin their hats to their hair’. The one was thought to have belonged to Mrs. Hay and the other to Miss Wallace. These findings were cited as evidence that the bodies would probably be found south of the bay, but on September 9 searchers dragging the channel found the body of William Hay almost on the spot where the yacht had disappeared.

On September 17 fishermen recovered a body of a child about two miles south of the head of Point Loma and returned it to San Diego. This turned out to be the body of Mary Collins, which was soon conveyed to Mount Hope. Miss Wallace’s body was found by a fisherman inside the bay on September 25 and a graveside funeral was held at Mount Hope. Finally, on October 6, the body of 9-year-old Johnnie Collins was found off Ensenada and after the necessary permits had been obtained from the Mexican consul and the Collector of Customs the body was returned and also interred at Mount Hope.

A few weeks later the news was that Dr. Bowditch Morton had bought the ‘famous yacht Petrel’ and proposed to have her put in first class order. He claimed to not have the least fear in using her when she is in proper repair. He would cut down her sails, put in airtight compartments and reduce the ballast.

Three years later, on October 26, 1893, a Captain Maitland of the British ship Valkyrie took two friends for a little cruise in the Petrel. In the stream, abreast the Santa Fe wharf, in a choppy sea caused by an ebbing tide and west wind, a sudden squall struck the sail and almost capsized the sloop. Capt. Maitland slacked the line and righted her but the boom swung around and struck the water and ‘in a twinkling the treacherous old craft was lying on her side, with Capt. Maitland and his friends in the bay’. The Union noted that there had been doubts expressed about Capt. Hay’s seamanship in the Collins tragedy but since Capt. Maitland’s seamanship could certainly not be called into question this accident demonstrated that the craft herself was unseaworthy and luckless. ‘The Petrel is regarded as a hoodoo along the waterfront. She has been remodeled and trimmed since the Collins tragedy, but she is built upon the wrong plan and won’t stand up if she has half a chance to lie down’.

John W. Collins had been out of town on September 1, 1890, and had not been directly involved in the Petrel disaster, but he was soon to be involved in a tragedy of his own making. In January 1891 he had become president of the California National Bank (and relinquished the presidency of the California Savings Bank). On November 12, 1891, customers were surprised to find the bank closed, with a note on the door explaining that ‘owing to continued shrinkage in deposits and our inability to promptly realize on our notes and accounts, the bank is temporarily closed’. The next day the subsidiary California Savings Bank also closed. A day later a national bank examiner assumed charge of the California National Bank and announced that the results of his examination would be forwarded to the comptroller of the currency and any further information would have to come from Washington. A few weeks later, based on his report, the comptroller of the currency appointed a receiver to oversee operations of the bank with a view to resumption of business within three months.

The resumption of business never occurred. On February 25, 1892, J. W. Collins was arrested at his rooms at the Brewster Hotel on a charge of embezzling and appropriating to his own use $200,000 of the funds of the bank. Bail was set at $50,000 and ‘in order to not create any excitement by Mr. Collins appearing on the street in charge of an officer’, he was confined to his rooms at the Brewster in custody of an officer while his friends attempted to secure the bond. On March 3, when the bond had still not been raised, a United States Marshal was sent to bring him to Los Angeles until his preliminary hearing. While the authorities waited outside Collins went into his bedroom as though to pack his valise. A shot rang out, officers burst into his bedroom, which was empty, then into the bathroom, where they found him stretched on the floor alongside the bathtub, blood pouring from his mouth and a smoking revolver in his hand. A doctor was summoned and pronounced him dead.

The Union accompanied the front-page news of Collins’ suicide with an editorial recalling the Petrel disaster; ‘The crash of the bullet that closed the chapter of the life of J. W. Collins yesterday afternoon was the last act in the tragedy that wiped the unhappy man’s wife and children out of existence two years ago on the bay. Even the most implacable enemy of Mr. Collins must admit that, embezzler of other people’s money though he may have been, the memory of his drowned babes and his wifeless home must have been strong upon him in that desperate extremity when he determined to escape further misery by the avenue of the suicide. The capsizing of the Petrel, the failure of the bank, the suicide of Mr. Collins – they make up the most tragic story ever chronicled in the history of San Diego county’.

On March 5 the body of John W. Collins was buried alongside his wife and children at Mount Hope. On April 4 the report of the receiver of the California Savings Bank revealed that it had been a front, operated as a ‘mere receiving depository’ of the California National Bank. Cash had been transferred from the California National Bank or simply entered in the books when necessary to make a good showing on reports. The July 1892 report of the receiver for the California National Bank was even more shocking, revealing that Mr. Collins had embezzled nearly $800,000 from the bank. ‘Although there have been published from time to time the most sensational statements regarding his methods of doing business and conducting the affairs of the bank, nothing has caused such undisguised astonishment as the facts brought to light yesterday’, the Union reported. ‘Just what methods Mr. Collins employed to bring about such a condition of affairs it is impossible to even conjecture. It will be apparent, however, to everybody in the least conversant with banking rules or business customs that they must have been decidedly irregular, if not actually criminal’. D. D. Dare had also looted about $400,000, making the total amount chargeable to them nearly $1,200,000, a staggering sum in the 1890s (Collins’ mansion at First and Kalmia had cost him $17,000). The Union concluded that ‘What has become of this vast sum of money is not known and probably never will be. Mr. Collins is dead and Mr. Dare is enjoying a secluded life in some obscure spot in Italy. Neither are in a position to explain, and probably would not if they could’.

The affairs of the defunct bank were unwound in dozens of legal actions over the next decade. A final auction of the bank’s assets was held in 1899; notes and other securities with a face value of over a million dollars were sold for $3350. San Diegans were occasionally reminded of the California National Bank fiasco when news of D. D. Dare filtered back from Europe; in 1894 he was said to be a portrait painter in Athens, Greece; in 1914 he applied to have his indictments withdrawn so that he could return to his beloved California, but his request was denied; in 1922 he was reported to be in Constantinople, Turkey, supporting himself selling prayer rugs. His indictments finally were dismissed in 1926, but by then he was thought to have died in Greece.

According to the San Diego Union, these reports called to mind a remarkable theory which was current in San Diego at that excited time and which received some credence; that President Collins, who was supposed to have killed himself after his arrest at the Brewster Hotel had actually escaped and joined Dare in Europe. A plaster cast was said to have been given to an undertaker who was ‘in on the deal’ and that this was buried as Collins’ body.  Whatever lies in his grave, John W. Collins’ memory is preserved along with the Petrel victims on their monument at Mount Hope.