The Glory Years, 1865-1899

BACKGROUND: Introducing a Story Without an Ending

In Southern California the past is so close that monuments and graves do not belong to history. In an old graveyard, where are buried so many of the pioneers who helped to found and build San Diego, many headstones are broken or lying on their side, names eroded by weather. Others are well-marked, if seldom visited.

There is the grave of Father Antonio Ubach, with a stately monument. He was the last of the padres; a native of Spain, born 1835, died 1907. Nearby is the grave of Cave Johnson Couts, born in Tennessee, 1821, a graduate of West Point. Lying beside him is his wife, Ysidora Bandini de Couts, the daughter of a Spanish Don. The names tell of the melting together of two peoples. There lies Maria Guadalupe de Smith and over there, Serafino, Stewart Serrano.

This melting had come to an end when a new generation of pioneers reached the mountain passes. They came from New England and Ohio, from Ireland and Germany, and even Austria and Poland, in the great tides of humanity that flooded across a continent in the later 1800’s, to find their resting places under eucalyptus trees on a barren hill overlooking a harbor that few people in the world had ever heard of.

We find the names of Ames, of O’Brien, of Lyons, of McCoy, of Clark, of Hinton, and of Warnock. In another cemetery are the names of Sherman, of Wildy, of Cleveland, of Pauly, of Jorres and Babcock. There is a thin spire-like monument for Alonzo Erastus Horton, who founded a city, with the wrong date, and elsewhere a belated plaque. Not far away is the grave of Ephraim W. Morse, who is deserving of almost as much from history as Horton, as our story will show, and the headstone merely notes that he rendered “faithful service to city and neighbor.”

There are a few wood slats with numbers instead of names, but even these people cannot yet be erased from a story that is still unfolding, the astonishing growth of Southern California.

From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Twentieth Century it was one boom after another. They were glorious years, of success and failure, and always the opportunity to try again. There was wealth to be won in land, in railroads, in industry, in agriculture, in mining, and in oil, and cities to be built, if you could do it.

These things happened so recently, and events in Southern California are still moving so swiftly, that few have had time to look back and wonder how it all came about and who were the people who started it all in the first place.

This book brings together the stories of many of these builders and of a city commanded to rise from nothing. The story of San Diego is typically the story of Southern California and much of the Southwest. This book is the fourth in a series on the history of the region from the vantage point of the first white settlement on the Pacific Coast. The others have been The Explorers, The Time of the Bells and The Silver Dons.

The records of the men who built Southern California, in the “boom and bust” years between 1865 and 1900, even of those who are not entitled to a name over their graves, are as fresh as letters from home. Newspaper files and libraries and museums abound with their words and deeds. The San Diego History Center, San Diego State College Library, Henry E. Huntington Library, Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley, the library of the University of California at Los Angeles, California Historical Society, California Society of Pioneers, California State Library, Los Angeles County Museum, San Diego Public Library, and Title Insurance and Trust Company are rich sources of research.

This is a looking back into an era that perhaps has had no parallel. They were exciting years, but even more, they were meaningful years we need to know more about. For, as an Indian chief once said, a people without a history is like the wind on the buffalo grass.

Richard F. Pourade