Timeline of San Diego History: 1880-1899

City of San Diego population is 2,637. San Diego County population is 4951.

Frank Kimball of National City founds the San Diego County Fair. Kimball had been testing fruit trees here since 1869. He later serves as the State Commissioner of Horticulture from 1888 to 1898. begins operation.

May, 1882
San Diego Telephone Company begins operation.

The San Diego Free Reading Room Association opens San Diego’s first public library.

August 15, 1882
Russ School opens, an eight room, two-story building built with lumber donated by Hon. Joseph Russ. It is replaced in 1907 by the “Gray Castle” which remains until 1976. A new San Diego High School now stands on the same site. See Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 28, Spring 1982.

John Montgomery makes world’s first “controlled flight” in a “heavier than air” craft, flying 600 feet in a glider at Otay Mesa. Montgomery is later killed in a 1911 glider crash.

Leach’s Opera House opens on July 17, 1884, with a performance by a local group calling itself The San Diego Minstrels.

Helen Hunt Jackson’s romanticized novel Ramona is published, describing the tragic fate of a half-breed senorita and her Indian husband at the hands of prejudiced whites in northern San Diego County. The romantic work sells 600,000 copies in 60 years as the first novel about Southern California. Jackson may have been influenced by her visit to Ysidora Couts at Rancho Guajome (near present-day Vista) in the early 1880s, where the two had a falling out.

Kate Sessions arrives from San Francisco bay area to teach at Russ School. She founds her nursery business in 1885.

Transcontinental railroad reaches San Diego. The first train of the California Southern departs from San Diego on November 15 and on November 21 the first train arrives from the east.

Indiana railroad promoter Elisha S. Babcock and Chicago piano manufacturer H.L. Story buy the peninsula of Coronado for $110,000. Construction of Hotel del Coronado begins in 1886. At an auction on November 13, 1886, they sell a million dollars worth of Coronado lots to some of the 6,000 buyers on hand. With the proceeds, they establish a ferry system, water service and the Coronado Gas & Electric Co.

First electric street lights installed in San Diego.

May, 1886
Construction begins on Cuyamaca Dam and a wooden flume 35 miles long to bring water to San Diego, completed in 1888.

July 4, 1886
San Diego’s first transit system, the San Diego Street Car Company is organized by a group led by Babcock and Story. First streetcars begin operating over two-mile track on Broadway.

San Diego population hits estimated 35,000-40,000 at its peak in 1887.

Railroad rate war leads to population boom and land stampede. San Diego’s Victorian Santa Fe railway station opens downtown, built by the California Southern Railroad.

John D. Spreckels visits San Diego on his yacht Lurline and begins investing in San Diego; he lives in San Francisco for several more years before moving to San Diego permanently just after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Nov 19, 1887
San Diego’s Electric Rapid Transit Company introduces the first electric street railway system in the western U.S., running from D Street downtown to Old Town along Arctic Street (now Kettner).

Jesse Shepard, local spiritualist, musician and author, builds his grand Victorian home known as the Villa Montezuma, now open to the public at 1925 K Street.

Harr Wagner moves his Golden Era literary magazine to San Diego from San Francisco, convinced that Southern California was the wave of the future and that San Diego soon would replace San Francisco as the new cultural center of the West.

March, 1888
Sweetwater Dam, a major engineering feat and San Diego County’s first major dam, is completed by the Kimball Brothers Water Company, supplying water for National City and Chula Vista. Speeches and music mark the celebration on April 19. The dam measures 396 feet in length and 12 feet wide at the top, 75 feet in length and 46 feet wide at the base. Original plans for building the dam 60 feet in height were changed to 98 feet, increasing capacity of the reservoir fivefold.

San Diego’s 1880s real estate boom ends. By the end of the decade the population has dropped from 40,000 to 16,000.

Entrepreneurs Elisha Babcock and H.L. Story open the world-famous Hotel del Coronado, although construction continues on much of the building.

January 18, 1888
Moosa Canyon gunfight takes place 18 miles inland from Oceanside, leaving four people dead in a squabble over land none of them owned.

February 22, 1889
San Diego celebrates opening of the San Diego Flume. In honor of the event the Governor, R. W. Waterman, and other dignitaries ride down the flume in a flat-bottomed boat. A reservoir created at Bear Creek with the Cuyamaca Dam, completed in 1887, provides the water source. The flume is an open wooden ditch which crossed ravines and canyons by means of high wooden trestles.

City of San Diego’s population drops to 16,159. San Diego County population is 34,987.

June 7, 1890
Cable cars begin operating in San Diego. The San Diego Cable Railway, which had been incorporated on July 22, 1889, took over the franchise of an unsuccessful electric line. Mission Cliffs Gardens line opens September 7, 1890. Cable company goes into receivership and the last cable cars run on October 15, 1892.

A new lighthouse is built on Point Loma at sea level, where it remains, along with a set of lights at Ballast Point to guide incoming boats.

Coronado secedes from San Diego and incorporates.

John D. Spreckels buys city transit system, local streetcar lines, through the San Diego Electric Railroad. Spreckels installs motors and converts the horse cars to electric cars.

Fisher Opera House opens on Fourth Street between B and C, an opulent but practical house seating 1400 in the best theater on the West Coast. John C. Fisher was president of the Chamber of Commerce, owner of the Florence Hotel and active in the cable-car company.

Kate Sessions, now known as the “Mother of Balboa Park”, leases thirty-six acres in the northwest corner of what is then called “City Park”, on which she puts a 10-acre nursery. For this privilege, she is to plant one hundred trees a year in the park and furnish three hundred more trees and plants yearly for planting throughout the city. She moves her nursery to Mission Hills in 1903.

Wall Street panic leads to lengthy depression.

Irving Gill arrives in San Diego.

October 23, 1894
Earthquake of 5.75 magnitude hits East of San Diego

Bad times encourage Alonzo Horton to sell his half-block Horton Plaza park to the city for $10,000, stipulating that it must remain a park forever. Under the agreement, the city agrees to pay Horton $100 a month with no interest and no down payment. In the event of Horton’s death, the city would acquire the property outright. The city fathers underestimate Horton’s endurance. In April 1903, 89-year-old Horton cashes the final payment for a total of $16,000. Today Horton’s park fronts Horton Plaza and has been renamed Horton Plaza Park.

Bear Valley (now Wohlford) Dam is constructed to provide Escondido with a reliable source of water. The Southern California Mountain Water Company is organized, to build dams in the watersheds of the Otay-Hauser Mountain area. The Upper and Lower Otay, Morena and Barrett dams are completed in the late 1890s and early in the twentieth century.

March 13, 1897
State Normal School, the beginning of what is now San Diego State University, is founded for the training of elementary school teachers. The seven faculty and ninety-one students of the first “Normal School” class meets on November 1, 1898 in temporary quarters downtown while the first unit of the main building of the campus is under construction at Park Boulevard and El Cajon Boulevard.

May 9, 1897
The Woman’s Home for single mothers in City Park burns down. The three-story Children’s (or Orphan’s) Home and nearby Woman’s Home were both built in the turreted, Victorian, “Queen Anne modern Style” and located on the site where the U.S. Naval Hospital would be built in Balboa Park in 1922.

The Hotel Robinson in Julian was built by former slave Albert Robinson and his wife Margaret Tull. It is now the Julian Hotel. Robinson had come to San Diego in the 1870s as a cook for his former master.

Andrew Carnegie donates $60,000 to build San Diego Public Library, first of his libraries west of Mississippi, opens in 1902 at Eighth and E.

State Normal School, a two-year teaching training college, opens in Normal Heights. Later becomes San Diego State College, then SDSU.

Army establishes Fort Rosecrans, named after General Rosecrans, an 1842 graduate of the US Military Academy. It remains an Army base until transfer to the Navy in 1959 for the purpose of building a submarine base on Ballast Point.