From the 124th Annual Meeting column of the October 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

An Overview of San Diego

Iris Engstrand, October 2009

San Diego, no longer the “sleepy pueblo” of yesteryear, is today a modern metropolis (the second largest in California) with a county population exceeding three million. A popular year-round destination, San Diego spreads from coast to desert, and includes ocean cliffs, mesas, hills, canyons, valleys, and mountains reaching 6,000 feet. It is graced by a natural harbor that has been a dominant factor in shaping the city’s history, economy, and development since Spaniards first sailed into the bay in 1542. San Diego’s nearly ideal climate averages a daytime temperature of 70 degrees with an annual rainfall averaging fewer than 10 inches. Most days are sunny with humidity generally low, even in the summer. Ample recreational facilities, including spectacular surf, add to the city’s attraction.

The native Kumeyaay, who reached the area some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, were the first humans to occupy the San Diego area. Basically hunters and gatherers, they subsisted on local plants, small animals, and the abundant fish in the rivers and bay. They numbered about 500 and lived in scattered villages. Their life was disrupted by the arrival of the Spanish military and Franciscan missionaries under Father Junípero Serra in July 1769. Traveling north from Baja California, the Spanish founded a military presidio and San Diego de Alcalá, California’s first mission. The friars set about to convert the Indians to Christianity and teach them European techniques of agriculture, construction, and animal husbandry. Many of the natives died of disease, but a substantial population survived through the mission’s secularization in 1835.

Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona, about a wealthy Spanish family who takes in a beautiful young girl of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage, described American mistreatment of Native Americans while romanticizing the Spanish heritage of Southern California—vestiges of which can still be found in San Diego’s Casa de Estudillo in Old Town, formerly billed as “Ramona’s Marriage Place.” Jackson’s sad story of the natives eventually went into 300 printings and was turned into a colorful pageant held yearly in nearby Hemet. Today, Jackson’s hopes for reform have seen fruition. San Diego County has nine Indian reservations, several of which operate casinos, own substantial property, support the arts, and contribute to the local economy.

Mexico took over from Spain in 1822 as a result of its war for independence and began a civilian settlement below the military presidio at today’s Old Town. Large ranchos were established under Mexico and the area remained essentially agricultural long after the American conquest in 1846. The pastoral “Days of the Dons” lingered on in reality and literature as little manufacturing development took place well into the 20th century. Even today, lacking such resources as oil, coal, iron, or hydroelectric power, San Diego is the home primarily of research firms and biotech industries, and imports most of its water and energy. Early in the 20th century San Diego attempted to solve its water shortage by hiring Charley Hatfield, “the Rainmaker.” Hatfield’s efforts over the course of one month caused a major flood that resulted in at least 20 deaths in January 1916, destroyed $3.5 million dollars worth of property, and left landslide scars on hills and mountains for years to come. When city officials complained, Hatfield said that he “only made rain”; he could not stop it. Serious construction for water importation took place only after that.

Relatively isolated by mountains, the Mexican border, and the Pacific Ocean, San Diego lost out to Los Angeles as a railroad terminus. It became known, instead, as a “navy town.” Since 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt sent his Great White Fleet to impress San Diegans, military development has been ongoing. By 1918 the U.S. Navy had built a hospital in Balboa Park and established North Island Naval Air Station on Coronado Island in the middle of the bay. In 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States selected San Diego as headquarters of the Pacific Fleet—the Eleventh Naval District—and established army and marine bases throughout the area. The Marine Corps Recruit Depot is near downtown and Camp Pendleton is located at the northern edge of the county, creating a natural buffer of undeveloped land against the loom of Los Angeles.

During the past several decades, San Diego has revitalized its downtown district with its historic Gaslamp Quarter consisting of restored Victorian-era buildings that are home to a variety of restaurants, pubs, retail shops, galleries, offices, and residential lofts. Originally developed during the 1870s and 1880s as “New Town,” the Gaslamp Quarter is within walking distance of the AHA’s annual meeting headquarters at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. Also close by is the embarcadero, featuring the aircraft carrier Midway and the San Diego Maritime Museum, which combines tall ships with historic exhibits and archives of historic documents and photos pertaining to boating and fishing. Little Italy, once home to a flourishing tuna industry, is still the residence of many Italian families who have filled the neighborhood with stylish cafes, restaurants, and galleries.

Another part of San Diego’s history is reflected in nearby Balboa Park, which features Spanish Colonial buildings remaining from the city’s 1915 and 1935 Expositions. These striking structures house a complex of museums including art, natural history, decorative arts, anthropology, air and space, sports, and historic automobiles. The research archives of the San Diego Historical Society are located in the Museum of San Diego History. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, a few miles away, honors the Mexican and early American periods. One can see the original Casa de Estudillo, tour the Wells Fargo Museum, and enjoy Mexican restaurants (for a detailed description of the park and its environs, see the article by Matt Bokovoy). The transfer of power from Mexico to the United States took place in this plaza and Mexican fiestas are held year round.

San Diego’s airport, Lindbergh Field, is named for Charles Lindbergh, who picked local Ryan Airlines to build his Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. The airport, created out of soil dredged from the harbor, served the dual purpose of deepening the harbor for the Navy and facilitating transport near the city center. Visitors to San Diego can travel across the bay via ferry to Coronado and tour the luxurious Hotel del Coronado, a wooden wedding-cake built as a beach resort in 1887 and now on the register of National Historical Landmarks. Coronado has primarily been a residential area providing homes through the years for retired navy personnel, although in more recent times it has also become an oceanfront enclave for the wealthy. Mission Bay Park is a 4,600-acre playground for sailing, swimming, water skiing, kite flying, bicycling, and other sports. It is the home of Sea World, nationally recognized for its aquatic shows.

Major universities include the University of California at San Diego, a well-recognized research institution; San Diego State University, founded as a normal school in 1897 and now a major university of some 35,000 students; the recently established California State University at San Marcos, in North County; and the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University, both institutions with religious affiliations and a heavy emphasis on the liberal arts. The University of San Diego has architecturally significant Spanish Renaissance buildings, while Point Loma Nazarene occupies a spectacular site on the peninsula first occupied by Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical Society in 1897. All of these universities have archives pertaining to the history of San Diego and Southern California.

The downtown trolley has lines to Old Town, the Mexican border, San Diego State University, and points east. Farther from San Diego but within driving distance are the Huntington Library, the National Archives at Laguna Niguel, and, of course, Disneyland. Long promoted as “America’s Finest City,” San Diego lives up to its reputation as one of the loveliest places in the country to visit.

—Iris Engstrand is co-editor of the Journal of San Diego History, professor of history at the University of San Diego,and author of San Diego: California’s Cornerstone, among other works.