The Glory Years, 1865-1899

CHAPTER SIX: The Great Tidelands Robbery

It was in March of 1871 that the great news came to San Diego. The sky was again tinted with the promise of a future unmatched on the Pacific Coast. On March 3 the Congress chartered the Texas and Pacific Railroad Company, with former Sen. John S. Harris of Louisiana as director and Thomas A. Scott as president. It was backed by the power and resources of the Pennsylvania Railroad, of which Scott was president. Five days before the railroad bill was actually passed, The San Diego Union printed a free extra on a dispatch that the bill was moving and would be passed. In its regular edition next day it said:

“There was a sensation in town when the Union extras came out yesterday morning. The news was almost too good to be true; but in a few minutes the boom of anvil salutes in various parts of town, the scream of steam whistles, and the rattle of Chinese bombs showed that in spite of the driving storm the enthusiasm of the people must have vent.”

On March 3 there was a crowd of 300 persons jammed in front of the telegraph office all day waiting for the final news. They waited in suspense until 7:30 that night before the telegraph began clicking out the dispatches. The San Diego Union was printing and giving away free extras as the news came in, a total of 4900 from Friday night to Monday night. A jubilee committee declared the next Friday, March 10, a local holiday. The jubilee started at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with speeches in front of the Horton House. The cannon from the steamer California was moved up to the Plaza to fire a 100-gun salute as fireworks were shot from the Horton House balcony. Martin’s Brass Band led a torchlight parade of 400 persons through a city with every lamp lit and the marchers firing rockets as they went along. The parade paused in front of The San Diego Union office to give three cheers for the extras it had furnished, and finished the evening with a grand ball in Horton’s Hall. On March 20 the weekly San Diego Union was converted into a daily newspaper with 400 subscribers.

Though their own town had only about 250 residents, Frank and Warren Kimball were not to be outsmarted by developments and made a trip to New York in early April to participate in an organizational meeting of the Texas and Pacific Railroad Company, to which they had been invited by their powerful friend, Sen. Harris. At the meeting, they were assured by Col. T.S. Sedgwick, who formerly had been associated with the Frémont enterprise, that the new company would carry out all the commitments that had been made to the Kimballs and that the railroad would come to National City. San Diego as yet had no assurance that the line would even reach to this area. However, a rivalry would once again pit Frank Kimball against Horton and National City against San Diego.

Horton began moving tenantless houses in his addition closer to the Horton House, as he was determined to build up that section, and Morse wrote that it “looks rather ridiculous to see those old houses travelling through the streets to locate around the hotel, but Horton is a strange genius…”

In two months land sales had reached $100,000, and Morse wrote:

“Horton has sold about $80,000. He is erecting several buildings near his hotel. Buildings are going up all over town, but business is not as brisk as we all had expected, and I think I was very moderate in my expectations too… Old Rose (Louis Rose) is being cursed by the Old Town folks for not showing a little of Horton’s energy in building up Roseville and La Playa. Old Town is nearly deserted.”

The remaining pueblo lands and the tidelands were coveted by those who expected to grow rich with a new tide of immigrants, and they sought ways by which they could seize unappropriated lands or challenge the titles of lands already granted.

San Diego had never received a final patent to its pueblo lands from the United States government, and even the original Spanish grant and its boundaries, particularly as to shore lines and as to whether the town’s political jurisdiction extended across the bay to include Coronado and North Island, were in dispute. The first map of the pueblo made by Capt. Henry Fitch after the American conquest had included North Island, Coronado, Point Loma and the waters of both San Diego and Mission bays, but a survey made by J.C. Hays, a surveyor for the United States in 1858, who evidently worked along the generally accepted line that tidelands belonged to the states, left out the bays as well as Coronado and North Island, but included all of Point Loma.

A suit was filed which challenged the concept of the pueblo grant as being composed of eleven leagues of land, on the grounds that Spanish law had stipulated that all pueblos in the New World were to be four square leagues, as was the case with San Francisco. This suit was brought by the same parties who had purchased the Cuyamaca grant and had tried to inflate the boundaries to include the Julian gold fields.

There had been considerable dispute in California as to whether the original Spanish ordinance establishing pueblos in the new territories called for four square leagues or four common leagues from the center of the presidio square, or two leagues in each direction. In the case of San Diego, the suit contended that anything above four square leagues had been the property of the San Diego Mission and therefore now was private land by right of the grant of the mission properties to the Arguello family by the last of the Mexican governors, Pio Pico, and the trustees had had no legal authority to sell any of it. The Fitch map, however, which was based on the testimony of Don Santiago Arguello, a former alcalde, and other witnesses from the Spanish and Mexican periods, had been accepted by the United States Land Commission as showing the true and accepted boundaries.

In 1868 the State Legislature passed an act which permitted the sale of certain “swamp and tidelands” and Horton and Morse had moved quickly to locate under state law all of the remaining tidelands within the pueblo limits, or eighteen miles of waterfront, and they contended they were acting in the public interest to prevent their falling into the hands of speculators who might try to blackmail any railroad company entering San Diego.

The City Board of Trustees, however, challenged the state’s title to the tidelands, insisting they always had been the property of the pueblo, regardless of what the Hays’ survey showed, and voted to convey to the city attorney, C.P. Taggart, and a Los Angeles attorney and railroad promoter, Volney E. Howard, five miles of tidelands lying between National City and New San Diego, if they were successful in defending the suit brought to reduce the pueblo to four square leagues and in pressing the city’s claims to the tidelands.

The trustees proceeded to hand out large tracts of dry lands as well, to their friends at low prices and without public auctions as required by law. At a public meeting called by the trustees it was resolved by those attending that the city should proceed with the disposition of tidelands in small lots of equal size and at a uniform price to all citizens who should apply. In retaliation Horton and Morse hurried to perfect a vested interest in the eighteen miles of tidelands by filing their locators fees with the state, and they were accepted by the Surveyor General upon the advice of the Attorney General.

Horton set out to destroy what was known as the “Taggart clique” and he and Morse were successful in unseating Taggart as Republican “boss.” When The San Diego Union abandoned Horton and sided with Taggart, on the contention that local citizens and not the state should decide the fate of tidelands fronting the town, Morse and other citizens purchased the Bulletin and eventually converted it into a daily and the two newspapers launched into an editorial war by lambasting each other with the bombast typical of the times.

The San Diego Union and the Taggart group accused Morse, Horton and their friends of having privately acquired large sections of waterfront and tidelands through old grants, Horton alone holding more than 400 acres, and now were attempting to “grab” the remainder and this might force the railroad to go around the Silver Strand or bridge the lower bay to terminate at Coronado where it also owned land.

Horton became Republican candidate for the State Senate to carry the tidelands issue into the State Legislature. His opponent was Democrat James McCoy, the former sheriff and a member of the Board of Trustees. In the voting of September 1871 Horton won in San Diego, but only by fifty votes, and lost out in San Bernardino which then was included in the one senatorial district. There was a total of 1110 votes for McCoy and 965 for Horton. McCoy went to the Legislature determined to see that the tidelands were declared within the jurisdiction of the city and that their granting had been legal. He did submit a measure to formally convey to San Diego all tidelands lying within the boundaries of the city, and all land covered by water in the bay of San Diego from the high water mark to a depth of twelve feet at low tide.

The Legislature approved the sales of pueblo lands without the requirement of public auctions but refused to act on confirming any grants of tidelands. The fight gathered intensity and Morse wrote to Sherman, who was in Washington, on February 25, 1872, regarding the approaching election of a new Board of Trustees which would have the power to review the tidelands issue as well as the disposition of other lands that might or might not be held to be outside the pueblo boundaries:

“I hope you will get here before the city election comes off. We shall need every vote and I fear defeat. McCoy-Taggart & Company are buying up a great many votes with promises of land by often unflinching bribery. At a plaza public meeting last Thursday night, they actually said in their speeches, now is your time to get cheap lands, the last chance to make a fortune, elect these old trustees and you can get your piece of land free.

“Truman (B.C. Truman, editor of the Bulletin) gives them some hard knocks in today’sBulletin. He has canvassed the town and taken down names and says we will beat them yet. Taggart walked into the Horton House this morning when G.A. Johnson sat reading a paper, and securing him by the throat, called him everything bad till they were parted.

“A stranger at the Horton House said he would not settle or buy land in a place where such profane and obscene vulgar speeches could be made at a public meeting as Taggart … made last Thursday night.”

In defense of the “tidelanders,” and also claiming virtue as its cause, The San Diego Union stated editorially:

“Harpies and tricksters have within the last three years squandered away 40,000 acres of pueblo land and 2000 acres of tidelands, and brought our city to the verge of bankruptcy … we believe there is more honest manhood in the little finger of C.P. Taggart than in the aggregated bodies of the hypocritical pack of lying land thieves that bark at his heels … he has detected and exposed their frauds and therefore they hate him.

“We don’t advocate Taggart & Company’s claim to the tidelands because we don’t want to see the water front go into the hands of any private individual. We think it should be held by the city for the use and benefit of the city. But when the State Tide Landers abuse the trustees for making that bargain with Taggart and denounce Taggart for making as good a bargain as he could with the trustees, we can’t help expressing our disgust at the contemptible hypocrisy of the creatures. Why, these very fellows deeded away half of their interest to non-resident lobby agents and other parties to help them to get away with their grab. It is all right according to these men, to give away half the city water front in order to secure the other half for themselves; but it is all wrong for the trustees to deed a small part of the water front to attorneys to save all the rest, and thirty thousand acres of dry lands besides, for the city.”

The election of a new Board of Trustees took place on May 9 under a reorganization act passed by the Legislature which had reincorporated the city of San Diego and provided for five instead of three trustees. The candidates backed by Taggart won. It was another severe political defeat for Horton as well as Morse. Taggart and Howard offered to return their lands to the city, for a fair cash settlement, if Horton and Morse would do likewise, but things had gone too far for compromise and a long series of court actions followed.

The sincerity of Taggart and Howard might be questioned as they immediately attempted another “grab,” this time of the lands set aside for a public park at the urging of Morse and Norton. Senator McCoy introduced a bill in the State Legislature to repeal the grant of 1400 acres and return the land to disposition by the trustees. It was met with a storm of protest, and a petition opposing repeal was signed by more than 400 persons. In his correspondence Morse said that the trustees had already given to their friends deeds to portions of the park and to the 200-acre public cemetery, Mount Hope, which had been laid aside in 1871, and that if they won out a vigilante committee surely would hang all concerned:

“McCoy and Taggart are at work for themselves at Sacramento in the most scandalous manner trying to induce the state to pass a law to put fortunes (in land) in their pockets by swindling the city. Two years ago the state passed a law setting aside 1400 acres of land as a public park forever. McCoy has just introduced a bill to cede back this park to the city, probably because they have already divided it up among their ring. They have stolen and given away all the other city lands dry and wet, even to ships channel, and one-half the Island (given to Taggart) which belongs to Peachy, Billings & Aspinwall … Some 15 or 20 of us … decided to circulate petitions against cutting down the park or cemetery or distributing them in any way. We districted the town and got started with about 10 or 12 canvassers who in about an hour got about 400 signers.”

The “island” to which Morse referred was composed of North Island and Coronado which in 1869 had been obtained from the family of Pedro C. Carrillo by Archibald C. Peachey, Frederick Billings and William H. Aspinwall. The effort to repeal the park grant was defeated. Though the land would remain unused for two more decades, it was the richest heritage left by the settlers of New San Diego.

After lengthy litigation and numerous court actions, the State Supreme Court ruled that the act which had authorized the sale of marsh lands did not apply to the ocean shore, that the tidelands belonged to the State, and that the City Trustees had no authority to grant them to individuals. Thus the tidelands were left for public use and development.

As the size of the pueblo also had been questioned, Morse warned that most of the property titles in San Diego would be worthless, and there was a possibility of violence and bloodshed, should the pueblo grant be reduced from eleven to four leagues. The disputes over the titles of lands even within the pueblo, and of the legality of sales made by the trustees, set off’ another wave of landjumping, and Morse wrote regarding “landjumpers:”

“Of course they have no money and have only built little “shanties” just to hold the lot or block that they have jumped, and no capitalist or person with money would buy from them in order to put up a good building, and then to get them off by the rightful owner takes a long time, perhaps 3 or 4 years, by law…”

A group laying out a new addition or subdivision evidently included some of the land owned by Morse and J.R. Bleeker, and they were erecting fences, and making repossession difficult without repayment of costs, and Morse wrote:

“My wagon load of fighting men and fire arms did you a good service in saving your two blocks. The second lot east of yours was mine and the same parties who were fencing up a portion of yours were also taking mine into a large tract … I went to them and they said they did not claim my lot, I could have possession whenever I wished … but a few months afterward, when I proposed to take possession, they ignored all their promises and I only got possession … by a compromise, paying them … some $400.

“The names of the scamps are John Treat, S.S. Culverwell and H.W. Whitcomb. These parties have some money and are well practiced in this kind of land stealing, having made money at it in San Francisco.”

Morse went to Washington and received assurances from the Secretary of Interior that the government would recognize the eleven leagues. Even though the federal survey of 1858 had indicated that Point Loma was within the pueblo’s boundaries, the War Department had claimed possession of the southern portion on the contention that as it had been used for military purposes by both the Spanish and Mexican governments it therefore was not city land but properly the property of the United States government. The city, which once had offered Point Loma land for fortifications, challenged the contention and went as far as to sell two lots within the jurisdiction claimed by the Army. But it was to no avail. A new federal survey in 1872 eliminated the southern portion of Point Loma, or 1233 acres. Point Loma was destined to form the base for the future of San Diego as a military center.

San Diego, however, did not receive the final patent to its pueblo lands until April 10, 1874.

Meanwhile it had been discovered that the lands which Horton had donated for influencing the passing of the railroad bill, and to assure the building of the line, were of questionable value, and Morse wrote to Gen. Rosecrans, who was still involved in railroad promotions and had helped in organizing the campaign for the bill:

“I greatly regret this for it was the intention of the Committee and I think of Mr. Horton also that three of the best blocks of all the land donated should be deeded to you. We have urged Mr. Horton, who still has an immense amount of property, to exchange these blocks for some as good as he then represented these to be, but he positively refuses. They are situated on the sides of a deep ravine, and I am ashamed to write to you of what little value they are…”

The speculations and expectations did not, however, sustain the rate of business growth that had been foreseen. A large party of excursionists organized by Eastern real estate promoters arrived in San Diego, but all of them refused to buy any land, and they said they would wait for the railroad. Employment once again began to level off and public tax revenues fell to a point where the school had to be temporarily closed. A roller skating craze was sweeping the country and San Diego acquired two skating rinks, one on the lower floor of Horton’s Hall and the other in a building on Second Street, between D, or Broadway, and E Streets. By the end of 1871 a total of fifty-one new buildings had been erected and the number of business structures had risen to sixty-nine. There were twenty-five citizens whose property assessments were $10,000 or higher. Horton’s property was assessed at $124,971, that of the Kimball brothers $52,849, and that of Juan Forster, who owned the huge Santa Margarita Rancho, the largest grant in San Diego County, $87,681.