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Matthew Sherman (1827-1898)

matthewshermanIf Alonzo Horton was the “father” of New San Diego, Captain Matthew Sherman was certainly one of its uncles. When Horton came to San Diego in April, 1867, Sherman had already been a resident for nearly two years. Serving as Customs Collector, Sherman lived and worked in the former Army barracks in New Town.

Sherman, who was one of the pioneer land developers and civic leaders in the San Diego of a hundred years ago, is not nearly as well known as men like Alonzo Horton and Frank Kimball. They were men of more ambitious vision and achievements. Sherman, however, did not attempt to be a great city-builder, but just a moderate subdivision developer. Horton and Kimball declined from riches to rags, both dying poor, while Sherman lived out his days in comfortable

circumstances. Sherman seems to have been a modest man, characterized by a sense of balance and restraint that was reflected in his civic life, his financial activities and his handsome home.

Born in Charleston, Massachusetts, October 11, 1827, Sherman as a lad of only 13 enlisted in the Navy and served on the U.S.S. Columbus and later on the U.S.S. Independence. Sherman first came to California in 1847, when the Independence landed briefly at Monterey during the Mexican War; and sometime in the following decade he returned to California as a civilian.

During the Civil War, Sherman served as Lieutenant and later Captain of the 4th Infantry Regiment of the California Volunteers. In 1862 he was stationed in San Diego, and liked it so well that he came back to settle permanently after his discharge from the Army in 1865. Captain Sherman became Customs Collector, a position he held for the next four years.

On May 10, 1867, the same historic day on which Alonzo Horton purchased his bonanza of 960 acres from the City Trustees, Matthew Sherman married the beautiful Augusta Jane Barrett, another transplanted New Englander who had been the school teacher in Old Town the previous year. In June, 1867, Sherman bought from the City Trustees Pueblo Lot 1155 — a 160 acre tract adjoining Horton’s property on the west — for 50 cents an acre. Sherman’s Addition (or Sherman Heights as it was called because of its elevation), overlooked the, flat lands of what is now downtown San Diego, stretching west to the harbor. Sherman Heights is bounded by 15th and 24th streets, between Market and Commercial Streets, and is one of the oldest subdivisions in New San Diego. A contemporary news account said of Sherman Heights: “The location is salubrious and commands a magnificent view.”

Sherman was regarded by some as “a crazy darned fool” because he wanted to sink a well, put up a windmill, and raise vegetables on his land. But within a few years, others had followed his example, sinking deep wells from which they obtained good water for their gardens. Sherman also kept a herd of sheep which grazed contemplatively above the growing city. The first residence in the southeastern section of New San Diego was the Sherman’s home, a small cottage near the northwest corner of 19th and J streets, constructed in 1868.

Sherman subdivided his land in 1869 and soon recouped his original investment as he sold off lots.” In fact, land was selling so briskly in San Diego that the City Trustees (of which Sherman was by this time a member) decided that it was imperative to set aside some land for public purposes before it was too late. In October, 1869, the Trustees arranged for the dedication of the 1400 acre City Park, and the 200 acre cemetery tract. It was Mrs. Sherman who selected the name, Mount Hope, for the cemetery.

New San Diego’s first schools were established in 1870 on land donated by Horton at 6th and B, and by Sherman at 21st and Commercial street. The latter building, known affectionately by oldtimers as “the little Sherman school,” was replaced by a larger, more substantial building in 1889 on land also donated by Sherman at 22nd and J streets. The present Sherman School, though of more recent vintage, still occupies the same site.

One of Sherman’s greatest hopes, one he shared with many of San Diego’s leading citizens, was to bring a direct transcontinental rail link to San Diego.” As early as 1869 Sherman began his efforts in this direction, establishing a committee to solicit gifts of land to induce the Memphis and El Paso railroad to locate its terminus in San Diego. That project did not materialize however. The following year, Sherman, along with Alonzo Horton, E. W. Morse and others, organized the San Diego and Los Angeles railroad, a paper corporation with a land grant from the City Trustees with which they hoped to lure a transcontinental railroad to San Diego.

In 1871 Sherman went to Washington to lobby for passage of the legislation chartering the Texas and Pacific to build a rail line from Texas to California. While Sherman was in Washington, Congressman John A. Logan worked out the final details of the bill, which provided Federal government land grants and subsidies.” It was Logan, incidentally, from whose name San Diego’s “Logan Heights” was derived: one of the major streets in a subdivision laid out in 1886 on railroad lands was named for him, and gradually the entire area in southeast San Diego came to be called “Logan Heights.”

After passage of the Texas and Pacific bill in 1871, Tom Scott, president of the railroad, came to California where he was entertained royally by officials and business leaders in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. He finally agreed to establish the terminus of the Texas and Pacific in San Diego in exchange for title to lands previously granted by the City Trustees to other railroad corporations such as the San Diego and Los Angeles, and the San Diego and Gila railroad. Among the lands included in this arrangement were four Pueblo Lots (1158, 1159, 1162 and 1163) immediately southeast of Sherman Heights, covering the area from Commercial Street to the waterfront, between 24th and 32nd Streets.

The Texas and Pacific never completed the rail line, for the company was ruined by the stock market crash of 1873. San Diego went into hibernation for a decade. Matthew Sherman retired to his farm in El Cajon valley, raising zinfandel grapes. He also served on the County Board of Supervisors in the early 1880s.

In 1885 the recently-organized California Southern railroad made connections with the Santa Fe, running a line from San Diego to San Bernardino; at last, San Diego had its transcontinental connection. The population tripled and land sales boomed! Sherman came out of his semi-retirement, sold his El Cajon farm and vineyard, and had plans drawn up for a large new home in Sherman Heights. It was a two-story, 11 room structure, described as “finely furnished,” and costing $15,000. Since this was several times what the average residence cost in those days, Sherman and his family (including daughter Fannie and son Matthew) must have had a handsome and comfortable home. The structure has been remodeled as the Sherman Apartments, 563 22nd Street.

Other noteworthy Victorian landmarks built during the boom of the 1880’s in Sherman Heights and still to be seen, include the Shepard House (Villa Montezuma) at 1925 K Street, and the charming home originally built for Mrs. H. M. Livingston at 2412 J Street, now restored by Reverend Robert L. Stevens. In contrast to the exotic excesses of so many Victorian houses, Matthew Sherman’s home was characterized by an air of dignified simplicity and classical balance.

After the collapse of the great building boom of the 1880’s, San Diego settled down for another period of slumber. Sherman, however, continued to play an active role in San Diego’s civic life, serving as Mayor, 1891-92.

One of the most colorful events during his term of office was the first celebration in honor of Cabrillo’s landing at San Diego. The 350th anniversary of that occasion was marked by a dramatic re-enactment of the event. Manual Cabral, a fisherman from La Playa who portrayed Cabrillo, was attired in a costume which included velvet kneebreaches and an ostrich-feather hat. His ship was to land at the Broadway pier, but because of delays, it did not arrive until the tide had gone out and the ship became stuck on a shoal some distance away. Meantime, the excited crowd surged onto the wharf, and in the crush the handrail broke — precipitating many of the frock-coated officials, including Mayor Sherman, into the mud! The remainder of the celebration was more successful, however. “Cabrillo” was greeted, onshore, by “Indian Chiefs,” and the party paraded up Broadway to Horton Plaza, accompanied by marching bands.

Matthew Sherman died July 5, 1898. Praised as one of San Diego’s earliest residents, he was described as a man of strong character, yet “gentle in manner and approachable … He was a man who had many friends and few enemies.” His wife, Augusta, died in 1913, and was buried beside him in Mount Hope cemetery, whose name and location owed so much to the Shermans.

[from Crane, Clare. “Matthew Sherman: Pioneer San Diegan.” The Journal of San Diego History 18.4 (Fall 1972): 22-27.]

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