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The Glory Years, 1865-1899

CHAPTER ONE: It All Began With Father Horton

The Civil War had come to a close. The wagons of thousands of immigrants again were on the trails to California. From San Francisco, the Central Pacific Railroad was being pushed eastward across the High Sierra to meet the Union Pacific driving westward from Omaha.

Though the Gold Rush had long been over, the lure of California had kept growing with the years. To those seeking adventure and opportunity, it was a land of promise; to the disheartened and the ailing it was a land of sunshine and curative powers. New Englanders left their grim soil and pioneers the cold marsh lands of Wisconsin. Along the old Southern Trail from Texas to California came ruined plantation owners and merchants with their women and children, abandoning a ravaged South. They were joined by discharged soldiers and deserters of the Union and Confederate Armies, and by frontier people who were ever moving farther West. Behind them, a relentless wave of immigration from Europe washed up on the Eastern seaboard, poured into the cities, and trickled out across the prairies and lapped at the foot of the Rockies.

At one end of the Southern Trail was San Diego, at the southwest corner of the United States where Gaspar de Portolá of the Spanish Army and Fr. Junipero Serra had founded the first white settlement and Franciscan mission in California in 1769. Almost geographically isolated by high mountains, deserts and the arid lands of northwestern Mexico, although open to the sea, San Diego had not prospered as had San Francisco, or even Los Angeles, and the Civil War and a prolonged drought had reduced its population to less than two-hundred persons.

It was a land that almost overwhelmed the traveler with its variety, beauty and surprises. Its rivers mostly ran underground. The coastal climate was semi-arid, but floods could alternate with droughts. Theodore S. Van Dyke, in his book, Southern California, published in 1886, described how the land rises to a height of a mile at about sixty miles from the coast, and by looking back from high Cuyamaca Peak, it can be seen “tumbling, tumbling, on the north and on the south and on the west, tumbling in long alternations of hills and slopes and valleys away to a distant coast.” Continuing, he wrote:

“It is easy to understand how a land thus rising a mile in fifty or sixty miles, rising away from the coast and falling off abruptly a mile deep into the driest and hottest of American deserts, could have a great variety of climates. And such is the County of San Diego . . . a land of climates within another land of climates. Only ten miles away on the east the summers are the hottest, and only sixty miles on the west the coolest known in the United States . . . and between these is every combination that mountains and valleys can produce.”

The county extended at its longest point about 75 miles northward and at its widest nearly 200 miles eastward to the Colorado River, an empire of 14,969 square miles. There were more than 6,000,000 acres subject to settlement or purchase, though most of it was in the mountainous interior. Another 2,500,000 acres lay in a merciless desert. Old San Diego, or Old Town, occupied but a few blocks of 48,557 acres of pueblo lands that had been originally granted to the community by the King of Spain. There were not more than sixty-five structures, perhaps half of them of the adobe that characterized a Spanish tradition. The population was about evenly divided between Americans and those of Spanish and Mexican descent. There wasn’t even a newspaper. The original Royal Presidio of the great days of Spain was marked by heaps of mud on the hill above the town. At one time it had contained more people than were then residing in Old Town.

In the East, however, there was considerable discussion about a second transcontinental railroad to begin at the Mississippi River and run along the 32nd parallel and terminate at San Diego. In San Francisco, the Southern Pacific Company, with a charter from the state to build a railroad down the coast to San Diego, held out the possibility of connecting there with the Memphis and El Paso transcontinental line proposed by Gen. John C. Frémont, who had played a dramatic role in the early American Army explorations of California and its conquest in the war with Mexico in 1846.

Change was in the air. The immigrant wagons coming to the Colorado River at Yuma were struggling over the desert and up and into the mountains through San Felipe Pass to Warner’s Ranch, and then down the hilly rock-strewn trails to San Diego. Land, not gold, was the primary desire of the newcomers who had responded to the exciting stories of the vast and fertile homestead lands awaiting everyone in California. The immigrants at first brought but little increase in prosperity for merchants and ranchers who had remained through the trying years of war and drought. Ephraim W. Morse, for one, had come to San Diego from San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and now was a merchant and a deputy sheriff and heavily in debt to his San Francisco suppliers. He had resisted the appeals of his father to return to Amesbury, Massachusetts, where he had been a teacher and farmer.

He believed in the future of San Diego. He was intrigued by the prospects of gold in the county, and knew that if a shorter road could be found between Yuma and San Diego, and if eventually the mountain barrier also could be conquered by a railroad, the stream of immigrants would become a river.

He did not agree with those who said that San Diego had no backcountry, that its mountains and deserts precluded its becoming a heavily populated area and a center of production and wealth. He had driven by wagon to the rim of the mountains, at Jacumba Pass, near the international border, and had looked out over what is now Imperial Valley, a part of the vast Colorado Desert, and it was an inspiring sight. He felt that if water could be diverted onto this basin of silt deposited over the ages by the Colorado River, it could be turned into a rich and productive land that would bring business and wealth to San Diego as well. But, as he wrote to his father:

“I’m still keeping store here but not making money. There is but little business here, the place not being so large as it was ten years ago . . . there are only two men in San Diego that don’t occasionally get drunk and they are McCoy, the sheriff, and myself.”

The land the immigrants had crossed a continent to reach was yet a frontier. The military rule of the Civil War had come to an end and the soldiers had withdrawn from San Diego. Military deserters and adventurers of many breeds lived by the gun and bandits from Sonora and Lower California raided across the border. The pages of the newspaper Alta California, published in San Francisco, reflected the harshness of the times. For crimes unmentioned, three Indians were taken from the San Diego jail and “lynched or killed.” At Yuma, four men were hanged by vigilantes. A San Diego attorney, identified only as Smart, and described as young and dissolute but of good family, shot a youth named Gilbert, stole a horse and fled. He was captured by a posse at Las Flores, near Oceanside, and when he attempted to escape, or so it was reported, was himself killed. Joseph Smith, who had gone into partnership with Ephraim Morse on a sheep ranch on what was known as Smith Mountain and later Palomar Mountain, was found murdered. A hired hand, a deserter from a British ship, who some say coveted Smith’s Indian wife, was captured by ranchers and hanged from a tree.

A solution was offered to the murder of William James, the justice of the peace at Warner’s and a clerk in Cyrus Kimble’s store on the immigrant trail up from San Felipe Valley, which had so stirred San Diego in 1865. It had been feared that James had been murdered by mistake by Southern sympathizers who had been after Kimble, an outspoken Republican, and this suspicion had been strengthened by the subsequent slaying of Kimble and a companion along the Santa Ana River on the road to Los Angeles. The governor of Lower California, however, according to the Alta California, captured a band of guerrillas, and among other crimes, they acknowledged the murder and the robbery at Kimble’s store. Six of the band were executed and the rest banished from the territory.

The situation began to improve with the arrival of new settlers and the assignment of United States Cavalry to patrols in the mountain and desert areas. The San Diego correspondent for the Alta California reported:

“People have got quieted down so that they can get along without “bagging a man before breakfast” every day, as was the case not long ago.”

The ranchos of the Spanish and Mexican days were being diverted to raising sheep as well as cattle, and some already were being broken up into smaller farms for sale to the new settlers. Gold flakes were being found in the washes and gold ore was being taken out of the ground on El Rincón del Diablo Rancho owned by O. S. Witherby. The mine was two miles southeast of the present city of Escondido. Four miles north of Rancho San Dieguito, now known as Rancho Santa Fe, a copper strike was reported along Escondido Creek.

San Diego had great hopes for its port and foresaw a rapidly rising trade with Boston and a large wharf and warehouse were being considered to accommodate a line of clipper ships. San Diego was alert to point out that it was 500 miles closer to New England than was San Francisco. Steamers and sailing ships were bringing merchandise for the local market and for Fort Yuma on the Colorado River, and supplies and machinery to be transshipped to the gold mines of the river region around La Paz north of Yuma and the new copper mining developments in Lower California. In return, large quantities of copper ore were being brought to San Diego from Lower California, and application was being made to have San Diego declared a port of entry and a United States Naval Station. The California Steamship Navigation Company was operating three steamers and barges up the Colorado delta to Fort Yuma, La Paz and the Colorado River mines. Two of its steamers, the Senator and Pacific, the brig J. D. Ford and the schooner Alert were calling at San Diego.

There was a rising excitement over the prospects for the future. San Diego received word that Gen. William S. Rosecrans, one of the incorporators of the Southern Pacific Railroad that was to run down the Pacific Coast to San Diego, would arrive on the next steamer and that the company president himself might arrive at any time to make final arrangements for the construction of buildings, shops and a depot. On April 14,1866, Gen. Rosecrans arrived and was greeted by a 100-gun salute. The Alta California reported that the whole town turned out to see him, and he made a short speech of thanks. However, he left almost immediately with Capt. W. A. Winder to inspect copper mines in Lower California.

Regardless of the fate of the railroad, San Diego knew that it must have an improved road over the mountains. Up until shortly after the end of the Civil War, the main 220-mile wagon route had followed the old Butterfield Stage line from Yuma on the Colorado River and turned northwest up the gently sloping San Felipe Valley to Warner’s Ranch and then back down to San Diego. By 1865 there was a 195-mile wagon road open to Fort Yuma which went up the Tia Juana River Valley, though below the international border, to Tecate, Mexico, and descended the mountains along the border on the Mexican side of the line. This saved twenty-five miles between Yuma and San Diego and was known as the Kern route. It had been used occasionally during the Gold Rush period.

In 1866, Ephraim Morse, on his wagon trip through the backcountry and mountains, had used an odometer in measuring another route which went up the Tia Juana River Valley to Las Juntas, twenty miles west of Mountain Springs, then passed Cottontree Springs, crossed back into the United States near Jacumba, and descended the steep Jacum, or grade, in the Mountain Springs area, which, at some places, fell off thirty percent. The rain-starved hills as they slid off eastward toward the desert floor were steep and slashed by grim canyons choked by reddish rock heaved up in some angry outburst of nature. That anyone was confident that an adequate road could be hacked out of such a starved wilderness, and a railroad built, was a tribute to pioneering zeal. But, to the Army, it was the most practical route, being the shortest, and they foresaw San Diego as the main point of supply for posts all over the Southwest.

As the Army was without funds for such purposes, a campaign in the community led by Col. E. B. Williston raised $500 to improve the Jacumba Pass, and a short time later he reported he had driven a train of heavily-loaded wagons pulled by six-mule teams over the route and had encountered no trouble whatsoever. By fall, with the arrival of the steamer Orizaba on the first trip of a regular schedule, with forty-three passengers and 140 tons of freight, J. J. Tomlinson & Company had its stages on the San Diego-Yuma run, carrying passengers and light freight and making the journey in forty-eight hours.

In a letter to the San Francisco Bulletin, for which he was San Diego correspondent, Rufus K. Porter gave this picture of a new era slowly getting under way:

“Things are beginning to look up in this long-decaying town . . . the town is full of life and bustle and reminding one of our palmy days . . . the new road to Yuma . . . will be the great highway of traffic between this coast and Fort Yuma, Arizona, New Mexico, etc.”

Six months later, after San Diego had dug itself out of the mud of a March storm that had dropped five and a half inches of rain and wiped out roads and bridges, the town was aroused once again by fresh reports that the Southern Pacific at last was about to break ground in San Diego. The next turn of fortune for San Diego, however, would not be the decision of a railroad corporation but that of an obscure individual who had never seen the town and wasn’t too sure just where it was. In San Francisco, Alonzo Erastus Horton, who owned and operated a furniture store, was informed of a lecture on the subject of the ports of the Pacific Coast and was persuaded to attend. Years later he told what happened.

“So I went, and the speaker commenced at Seattle and said it was going to be a big city; and then he came down to San Francisco, which he said would be one of the biggest cities in California. Then he kept going down along the coast to San Diego, and he said that San Diego was one of the healthiest places in the world; that it had one of the best harbors in the world; that there was no better harbor.”

Horton could not sleep that night for thinking about San Diego. He was fifty-four years of age. His thoughts drifted back over an already full life that had brought him alternate periods of plenty and poverty. But the big prizes so far had escaped him. He was a descendant of an impoverished family of English ancestry that first arrived in this country with the Puritans in about 1630. His grandfather, the Rev. Ezra Horton, went to Union, Connecticut, from New York, as a pastor in 1759. This was ten years before Fr. Serra arrived in California to found the first of the twenty-one Franciscan missions in the area where Alonzo Horton would leave a city.

Alonzo Horton was born in Union, on October 24, 1813, one of seven children of Erastus Horton and Tryphena Burleigh. Within two years the family had removed to Madison County, New York, and then, after four years, to the cold and damp shores of Lake Ontario, near Oswego, which had seen its first white settlers only eighteen years before. The family lived in a log cabin as did their neighbors. The people along Lake Ontario were known as the “hunters” who organized into secret lodges and took part in the “patriot war” in the Canadian rebellion against British power.

When his father became temporarily blind, Alonzo, though a frail boy, worked as basketmaker at night while going to school in the day. Evidently his father in time recovered his sight, as Alonzo as a young man was able to purchase the remainder of his minority, a period of six months, from his father for $50, as was the custom, and went to work as a lumberjack and grocer. He saved enough money to purchase a small lake boat with which he traded in wheat between Oswego and Canada. He gave this up to become a cooper, or a manufacturer of flour barrels, served a short while as constable at Scriba, and then turned to dealing in land.

In this raw pioneering land he became familiar with the plank roads which connected the towns of eastern and upper New York. Many years later, residents of San Diego were to make a desperate effort to break their isolation by laying a similar plank roadway across a desert.

In 1836, he was warned that he had developed consumption and was advised to go West. “West” was the newly-opened and primitive country of Wisconsin, and for the next fifteen years, with the exception of a period of several years in the East, Horton engaged in speculating in land and trading in cattle, mostly in the booming area of Milwaukee.

He married Sally Millington Wright in 1841, but she died five years later. In 1847, at the close of the war with Mexico, Horton, the speculator, went to St. Louis and purchased land warrants from discharged soldiers and came into possession of 1500 acres of land in east central Wisconsin in the Rock River country. They had cost him 70 cents an acre. He established a steamer landing, a saw mill for lumber for sleds and ox carts, and then a year later founded his own town, which he named Hortonville, a few miles north of Lake Winnebago and south of Green Bay. He gave away lots to attract settlers, helped to finance the homes they built with his lumber, and in many cases provided them with jobs.

In 1964, Hortonville still was mostly a one-street, red-brick town and the memory of Alonzo Horton was as alive there as it was in Southern California. Fields are wrapped in mist on a damp and cloudy day. It is a land rich in water and woods, but locked up in snow in winter. While immigrants were settling in his own little town and buying his land, Horton was receiving exciting letters from two brothers who had joined the Gold Rush to California, and finally after two years he succumbed to the temptation of easy riches, sold his holdings for about $7000, and made the long sea journey to a new frontier.

The gold fields were a disappointment. He invested his money in shares in a mining company which failed, and went into the fields himself. But the easily accessible gold had been taken out and mining was becoming big business. Horton turned back to what he knew best, and opened a store in the little mining town of Pilot Hill in El Dorado County, subsequently constructing a ditch to bring a supply of water to the settlement, cutting and selling mountain lake ice, and buying gold dust at the mines and selling it in the larger towns. By 1854 his profits sometimes were as high as $1000 a month. By the standards of the times, he accumulated a comfortable stake. It was time to go home, to the Wisconsin where he had established his parents.

In March of the next year he boarded the steamer Cortez for Panama from where he expected to cross the Isthmus to the Atlantic seaboard as had hundreds of thousands of persons going and coming from the mines of California. A native riot, however, engulfed most of the passengers who had come on the Cortez, and Horton took command of a resistance in which several of the natives were slain, and led the passengers back on board the ship. But the bag in which he had carried $10,000 in gold dust was lost. All he had left was the $5000 which he carried in a money belt. Many other passengers also lost their possessions and Horton was delegated to represent them in Washington in pressing claims through the government of the United States. All had their money returned, except Horton. He was held responsible for the deaths of several natives and the government of New Granada, now known as Colombia, of which Panama then was a province, insisted that if Horton’s claim had to be paid, no claim would be settled. Horton said he voluntarily waived his rights.

In Wisconsin, with the Civil War rushing upon the nation, and fortune still eluding him, and with the attractions of California still in his memory, he married Sarah Wilson Babe in 1861 and soon departed for San Francisco, arriving in the autumn of 1862. Another venture into mining in British Columbia ended in failure. He returned to San Francisco, penniless and discouraged. All the dreams faded.

He opened a furniture store and settled down. That is, until he listened to the lecture on the ports of California and the prospects of San Diego. The newspapers were filled with the news of immigrant trains a hundred wagons long crossing the mountains into California, and of the transcontinental trains which soon would be bringing hundreds of thousands of settlers for the millions of acres of land waiting for them in the public domain. Then it all came back, the high moments of success and the bitter hours of defeat, of a town founded and now almost forgotten, and of the emotional and mental stimulus of creating and building.

At 2 o’clock in the morning of that same night, unable to sleep, he got out of bed and studied a map showing the location of San Diego.

“In the morning I said to my wife: “I am going to sell my goods and go to San Diego and build a city.” She said I talked like a wild man, that I could not dispose of my goods in six months. But I commenced that morning and made a large sale that day. The second day it was the same and I had to hire two more helpers. By the third day I had five men hired and in these three days I had sold out all my stock. It was not an auction sale but just a run of business which seemed providential. Then my wife said she would not oppose me any longer, for she had always noticed when it was right for me to do anything, it always went right in my favor, and as this had gone that way, she believed it was right for me to do so.”

On April 15, 1867, Alonzo Erastus Horton clambered out of a small boat from the paddle-wheel steamer Pacific and stepped ashore at San Diego. He was rather stocky of build, his health having improved over the years, and was about five feet, ten inches tall. Stately in appearance, he had a flowing beard typical of the times and liked to wear a frock coat and a high silk hat. He neither smoked nor drank.

The place of landing was at about the foot of Market Street. The town of San Diego was three miles away to the north, at the mouth of Mission Valley and on the edge of a sandy plain through which the San Diego River in the wet seasons spread out into the bay, pushing its silt in front of it and slowly leaving the town farther and farther away from deep water.

With several hours to wait for the arrival of a wagon to take him into what is now known as Old Town, he strolled across the broad flattish land that slowly rises back from the bay onto a wide mesa that stretches out to the foothills of the coastal mountains. There were only a few buildings in sight. They were all that remained of a town that had been laid out at the height of the Gold Rush, and had died with its end. Originally established as New San Diego, it had become known as Graytown or as Davis’ Folly, after two of its principal promoters, Andrew B. Gray, who had come to San Diego as an engineer with the United States Boundary Commission, and William Heath Davis, an enterprising sea captain, trader and merchant. The wharf they had built out into the bay had been torn up to provide fuel for soldiers stationed at the now deserted Army barracks. The only residents were Matthew Sherman and his bride, Augusta Jane Barrett, who had come to Old Town from San Francisco in 1866 to become a teacher. La Playa, across the bay on the shore of Point Loma, once the center of the hide trade with Boston in the Spanish and Mexican periods, also had boomed during the Gold Rush, when it was the stopping place for San Francisco-bound vessels, and then too had dwindled away.

Horton walked through the brush-covered area, which in time became the business heart of San Diego, and from a high point where the land begins to lift into the Hillcrest district, he could look back upon the long curving bay, one of the world’s finest natural harbors. To the west was the long protecting arm of Point Loma, a familiar landmark for navigators for three centuries. Below were the two bare sandy islands which were tied together and then to the mainland by the narrow Silver Strand, to close the port from the south. His eye could follow the coastline into Mexico, where Table Mountain was etched against the sky. On the horizon, off the Mexican coast, arose the majestic Coronado Islands. To the east the blue mountains loomed as sentinels watching over a land still awaiting the arrival of those who would see its beauty and appreciate its softness.

This was a land different from the hardness of the shores of Lake Ontario and the marshy countryside of Wisconsin. There wasn’t a tree or a stream, but the air of spring was fresh, the grass and brush were green, and as the morning overcast rolled away, the sea and the bay sparkled under a warming sun. It was a land of pastel distances and vivid foregrounds. Carpets of wild yellow poppies and blue lupine were scattered across the mesas to the edge of the pink and blue hills. In size it dwarfed the state in which he had been born. San Diego County then was three times as large as Connecticut. Though nostalgia may have sweetened the memory over the years, he later said:

“I thought San Diego must be heaven-on-earth, if it was all as fine as that. It seemed to be the best spot for building a city I ever saw.”

Old Town itself must have been a disappointment to Horton, for he realized that its location precluded its growth into a major city. On the trip down the coast with him had been an agent of Wells, Fargo & Company, who continually extolled the advantages of San Diego. He now asked Horton what he thought of the town. Horton replied:

“I would not give you five dollars for a deed to the whole of it. I would not take it as a gift. It doesn’t lie right. Never in the world can you have a city here.”

Listening to the conversation was Ephraim Morse, the merchant, and he asked Horton where he thought the city should be situated, and was told it must be in the same area where so many had failed.

How to get possession of the land was the problem. The pueblo of San Diego was governed by a Board of Trustees with limited powers and responsible to the State Legislature. Nobody had thought to call an election for two years, and there was a question as to the legal authority of the holdover trustees to dispose of any more land. But the town decided it was in need of tax revenue, and with an eager and most certainly misguided customer waiting to purchase a lot of wasteland, an election was quickly arranged when Horton gave the county clerk, George A. Pendleton, $10 to cover the costs. All this had happened on his first day in San Diego.

A ten-day notice had to be given for an election, and in the meantime, Horton and Morse, who had become imbued with Horton’s enthusiasm, spent long hours driving over the site of the present city of San Diego. Where Horton, upon leaving San Francisco, had hoped to be able to acquire perhaps forty acres, enough to begin a town, he now realized the little value that San Diegans placed on the area, and became aware of the possibility of a much greater gamble than any he had yet experienced in his life. In their minds they laid out streets and planned buildings, and in the evening the western sky turned to a molten gold that seemed an omen of things to come.

Five dollars in silver in the collection plate of the town’s only Catholic Church aroused the interest of Fr. Antonio Ubach and he promised to assist in making sure of the election of such cooperative residents as Joseph S. Mannasse, a merchant and money-lender who had come into possession of ranch lands formerly held by the languid and improvident natives, and Thomas H. Bush, a Pennsylvania bookbinder who had tried his luck in gold exploration in Lower California, Mexico, and now kept a store in Old Town.

The election was held on April 27, with Morse and the other two candidates chosen unanimously with thirty-two votes being cast. The new board was organized on April 30, with Mannasse elected as president, Bush as secretary and Morse as treasurer, and they adopted a resolution for the sale “of certain farming lands.”

The sale was conducted on May 10, with Morse, in the absence of Sheriff James McCoy, as the auctioneer. With the help of $123 advanced by Morse, Horton acquired 960 acres in 160-acre lots and some fractional parcels, to the amusement of the citizens, for which he paid $265 or an average price of 27 1/2 cents an acre. He had paid 70 cents an acre for land that had to be cleared of timber in the wilderness of central Wisconsin.

On one parcel he was outbid $5 by D. A. Hollister, a district judge, and told him he could have it. The alarmed and penniless judge, who had merely tried to run up the price on behalf of the taxpayers, pleaded with Horton to come to his rescue, which he did, by raising the bid 25 cents. Two other persons also acquired some acreage.

Horton’s purchases lay to the east of Davis’ Folly and the Middletown subdivision. Middletown had been laid out on former pueblo lands along the upper bay between New San Diego and Old Town, during the same Gold Rush boom, but had never materialized. The southern portion of Horton’s land included most of what is now all of the commercial center of San Diego lying between Front Street and Fifteenth Street, and from A Street south to Commercial Street. This took in all of the bay front from Eighth Avenue to Front Street. The northern portion was a long stretch beginning above A Street and including all the land now lying between Balboa Park and Union Street.

Horton had the land and the problem now was to find buyers. His name had received only casual mention in news reports from San Diego published in San Francisco newspapers, and the contemporary correspondence of San Diegans contains only a few references to him. As the principal immigrant trails still led to San Francisco, Horton returned there, wound up his business affairs, and opened a land sales office on Montgomery Street. San Diego, he proclaimed, was sure to be the city of the future.