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The Glory Years, 1865-1899

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Day the Town Went Wild

The southern counties of California had long been known as the “cow counties.” From the days of the Silver Dons they had been mostly vast cattle ranges, as the light rainfall had discouraged extensive development of agriculture. Settlements generally were along the coastal plateau in the same pattern that had characterized the mission period. Money as well as water was lacking, and both were needed in large quantities.

A traveler through Southern California and the other semi-arid portions of the Southwest, Stephen Powers, wrote:

“California is not now a good home for small men. More than any other State I know of, it is a theatre for pioneer operations in the large, and is no place for patches. Rich men must occupy the dry lands, and dig costly wells, and cut long trenches, and then give liberal terms to tenants, or small purchasers…

“Nature is obstinate here and must be broken with steam and with steel. Until strong men take hold of the State this way and break it in — I speak of Southern California which I have seen — its agriculture will be the merest clod whacking…”

The climate was attractive but the state gained a poor reputation for agriculture as it overturned all the habits and ideas of Eastern farmers. Charles Nordhoff wrote in his famed book, California: A Book for Travellers and Settlers, that:

“Our people came to the State, and attempted to plant and sow in May or June, when the rains were over, and, of course, they got no more return than if they had planted corn in Illinois in August. Then, getting no crop from their planting, they beheld the whole great plain in June turn brown and sere, the grass dry up, the clover utterly disappear, and of course they were ready to give up the country as a desert. They did not then know that the grass lies on the plain fine naturally cured hay; that the clover-seed, by a curious provision of nature, is preserved in a little bur, on which the cattle and sheep actually fatten, when to the careless eye the ground seems to be bare; and that the wild oat also holds a nutritious seed all the season; so that these brown pastures are perhaps the sweetest and best support for cattle and sheep in the world.”

Even in the mission days agriculture had been secondary to cattle raising and crop growing had been restricted to the usually narrow valleys of the rivers which normally ran above ground only in the wet seasons. The mission lands and the ranchos — and most of the ranchos were carved out of mission property when the missions were secularized — straddled the rivers and creeks or lay in the high pastures of the hill and mountain country. Of the thirty original Spanish and Mexican ranchos comprising more than a half million acres, only El Cajon and Rancho de la Nación, or National City, had been opened to settlement, with the exception of the lands which had comprised the Milíjo grant from the southern borders of the bay to the Mexican border and which had been rejected by the United States Land Commission. Beyond the old pueblo boundaries of the town of San Diego usable available land was scarce.

Settlers and ranchers fought each other over water rights and the wet belts along the flow of rivers and creeks. For a century cattle had roamed at will, and after the American conquest a “trespass” law was placed on the books to protect the cattle owners. Barbed wire had not been invented and it was impossible to enclose the great ranges. Then, with settlers trying to put in crops or grow feed for their own animals, and with newcomers in political ascendancy, cultivated lands in and near the pueblo were placed “out of bounds” to cattle. Finally, an act was pushed through the State Legislature, on February 14, 1872, “to protect agriculture, and to prevent trespassing of animals upon private property in the County of Los Angeles, and the County of San Diego, and parts of Monterey County.”

It was called the “no-fence” law. The burden of protecting agriculture from grazing cattle was placed on the rancher, not on the farmer. The day of the cattle baron was drawing to an end.

Porter reported on the working of the law as it applied to the settled areas of San Diego, to his newspaper, the San Francisco Bulletin:

“The new no-fence law is working beautifully in this agricultural part of San Diego county. What little stock there is within thirty miles of the coast is getting a precarious living on last year’s grass; but would even do that, and live along till winter, if allowed to by the squatters who are scattered all over the country. Nearly all of the latter have something green, if only a few potato vines, and now that the law protects his potato patch without any fence, owners of stock must look out lest their hungry animals covet a mouthful of green stuff owned by a squatter. The recent Act of the Legislature, though well understood here does not prevent unprincipled men from killing and maiming stock. Instead of shutting the offending animals in a corral and letting the owner know where he can find his property and redeem it, shooting is the order of the day, or rather night, for the shooters are too mean and cowardly to shoot cattle or other stock in daytime. In the famous “Cajon Valley” where there are only two farms out of more than fifty which will even raise hay, shooting is resorted to all the time, and the wretches who do it, shoot with rifles and pistols, on purpose to kill, and are no respecters of persons.”

Even at that the cattle were better off than the Indians. The Indians, now generally referred to as the Mission Indians though they represented a number of large groupings, long ago had been driven from their lands, and, released from the protection and guardianship of the Franciscan missionaries, had declined morally and physically. Enough of them were allowed in the immediate area of the town to undertake labor nobody else wanted to do. There was an encampment in Switzer Canyon, in the southern portion of what is now Balboa Park. The others were removed to the Pala area on the San Luis Rey River and to San Pasqual Valley, on the San Dieguito River system, but they were unable to hold their lands from the pressure of white settlers who found it easier to dislodge the helpless and dispirited Indian than to challenge the big land holders. The records of the times are filled with the cruel and cynical actions taken against the Indians. In 1873 the chief of the Capitan tribe was ordered to keep his thieving Indians out of town and he in turn protested that the citizens had been putting out poisoned meat for stray dogs and killing his men.

They were not without their friends and protectors, however, and Fr. Ubach, of the Catholic Church in Old Town, the “last of the padres,” took to the missionary trails as much as possible, visiting their rancherias from San Diego to the Colorado Desert, baptizing the children born of Christianized Indians and administering the last sacraments to those who once had owned lands as far as their eyes could see. White settlers would find him living off the country, or sleeping on the ground beside a campfire, even as had Fr. Junípero Serra in his pilgrimages from mission to mission along California’s El Camino Real.

The Indians and their problems were of small concern in the struggles for land among those who had inherited the West. All of the land lying immediately east of the pueblo of San Diego, from Miramar to the National Ranch and east to El Cajon Valley, was still unavailable to settlers. This was the principal land of the San Diego Mission and consisted of more than 58,000 acres. Here Indians had raised corn and wheat and tended and watered cattle to support the mission population. It had been hurriedly granted to Don Santiago Arguello for unspecified services to the government at the close of the Mexican period, and upon his death descendants had been selling out their interest from time to time for paltry sums. The grant was not confirmed by the United States government until 1876. Included in this large tract were parts of the Kearny and Miramar Mesas, the modern districts of East San Diego, Normal Heights, Kensington Heights, Talmadge Park, the San Diego State College, La Mesa, Encanto, and Lemon Grove.

There were continuing challenges to the size and boundaries of the grant, and even to its validity. There were many envious eyes to see that when New Town had been developed, the future lay to the east, on the broad dry mesas and intervening valleys which reached back to the low foothills. As Porter wrote to the San Francisco Bulletin:

“People are still flocking hither by water and by land, and branching out into the country in search of farms, chance to work etc. I am sorry to say that farms on Government land anywhere near this town are very scarce; in fact there are none. The famous “Mission grant” has just been surveyed and swallowed up about a dozen leagues of land. It does not seem possible that they can ever get the survey confirmed, for it seems too huge a grab, particularly at this time, when so many poor men are hunting homes in this vicinity. The Surveyors only did their duty, and as far as I know, the administrator of the estate of the deceased has done nothing contrary to law through his attorney. The great trouble, or swindle, or mistake, was when the grant was confirmed…in 1858. The testimony of the witnesses was very vague, and it seems to me, contradictory. J.J. Warner believed the Mission Lands commenced at Jamacha, thence north to the Cajon, thence west to a certain cañada, thence south to a pool of water thence back to the starting point. The Surveyors have followed his belief and taken in thirteen, instead of three leagues…”

Porter commented that San Diego could never go ahead as long as speculators owned all the land within the vicinity and kept up the prices. He wrote:

“Many a man has gone away disgusted from this place on ascertaining the prices of land near the town. The City Trustees have seemed disposed to be liberal, but their favorites come in for the tit-bits generally, and a poor fellow had to be thankful for almost anything. In order to obtain deeds for lands ceded to them by the Board of Trustees whose term of office expired March 1st, many persons hurriedly put up a shanty costing from $75 to $100, made it appear to the old Board that they had complied with the ordinance which compelled every owner of 40 acres to put up $250 of improvements, got their deeds of the old Board before March 2nd, and are now all hunk. With about half a dozen exceptions not a man has put up a house worth a $150, on any of the ceded lands, though most of them have deeds of the land. How these things are managed I don’t know, as I don’t reside in the heart of the city, and am not posted.”

The real rush to California had not yet begun and Charles Nordhoff in 1872 in his book, California: A Book for Travellers and Settlers, commented that California to Eastern people was still a land of big beets and pumpkins, of rough miners, of pistols, bowie knives, abundant fruit, queer wines, high prices — full of discomforts and abounding in dangers to the peaceful traveler:

“A New Yorker, inefficient except in his own business, looking to the government, municipal, State, or Federal, for almost every thing except his daily dollars; overridden by a semi-barbarous foreign population; troubled with incapable servants, private as well as public; subject to daily rudeness from cab-drivers and others who ought to be civil; rolled helplessly and tediously down town to his business in a lumbering omnibus; exposed to inconveniences, to dirty streets, bad gas, beggars, loss of time through improper conveyances; to high taxes, theft, and all kinds of public wrong, year in and year out — this New Yorker fondly imagines himself to be living at the centre of civilization, and pities the unlucky friend who is “going to California.” “

But, Nordhoff wrote, the New Yorker was mistaken. There were no dangers to travelers on the beaten track in California, there were no inconveniences which a child or a tenderly-reared woman would not laugh at and they dined in San Francisco rather better, and with quite as much form and more elegant service than in New York; the San Francisco hotels were the best and cheapest in the world; the noble art of cooking was better understood in California than anywhere else, and the cost of living was less. As a matter of fact, he considered New York more of a frontier than California.

As for San Diego, Nordhoff found:

“San Diego seems to me to possess the mildest and sunniest climate on the coast. It has the advantage of a large and excellent hotel, and very good shops, and the disadvantage of an almost entire absence of shade and trees. It has pleasant society, and within thirty miles very fine and varied scenery. If I were spending a winter in California for my health, I think I should go first to San Diego, and stay there the months of December and January. It is the most southern town in the state, and presumably warmer than either Santa Barbara or San Bernardino, though the difference is but slight. It affords some simple amusements, in fishing, shell-hunting, and boat-sailing; and here, as all over Southern California, horses are cheap; and to those who are fond of driving or riding, very fair roads are open. There is less rain here than in any other part of the State; and as the so-called winter in this State is a rainy season, San Diego has the advantage over other places of less mud in December and January. In fact, I doubt if it is ever muddy there.”

People made land valuable, and all of San Diego waited upon the railroad. While many poor settlers had arrived to seek new homes and a piece of friendly earth, and hundreds of others had come in the search for health, all were certain that capital, industry and commerce would follow a railroad, and with them, people in numbers perhaps undreamed of. Water could be brought to the dry mesas, the fear of drought lifted forever, and the baked ground broken to the plow and made to yield the riches that seemed to escape so many.

San Diego did not intend to take any chances of being outsmarted in the struggle for the railroad, and in late March appointed a Committee of Forty, with Thomas L. Nesmith as chairman, and Horton was sent to Washington to cooperate with Congressman S.O. Houghton and Col. Sedgwick. San Diego insisted the charter granted by Congress should be amended to specify that the line should be started from both ends simultaneously, that work should commence within a year, and that a minimum mileage should be constructed each year.

Ephraim Morse, in a letter to his father wrote:

“People are in a state of suspense in respect to the railroad matter. Scott, the president of the Texas and Pacific Railroad, applied to Congress to be allowed to build the road…from the eastern end, but we made such a fight against him, getting the whole Pacific delegation in Congress to oppose him, that he has agreed to compromise by making a commitment of work on this end within the year and building not less than ten miles next year — and he promises to have the whole road done in three years. Expect to sell 20 or 30 acres of land, but times very dull…no sale of real estate at any price…a lot of gold bars came in from the mines yesterday valued at $10,000.”

The people went about their business, and waited. Seeley & Wright were operating stages daily to Los Angeles, except on Sunday. William Tweed’s stages left the Horton House three times a week for Julian City, and John Capron was running his stages to Yuma also three times a week. The whaling industry continued on Ballast Point, and 55,000 gallons of whale oil were taken in the 1871-72 season. The Bulletin, which had been converted into a daily by Morse and others during the tidelands fight, was sold to W. Jeff Gatewood, the lawyer who had helped to found The San Diego Union. He changed the name to the Daily World and made it Democratic in policy. The population of San Diego County was estimated to be 7359.

On April 20, 1872, a large section of Old Town burned. It was the final humiliation in the decline of California’s first settlement. The fire started in the old courthouse, or office of the mayor, on San Diego Avenue near the intersection of Mason Street. It had been built by members of the Mormon Battalion during the military occupation of California, and at the time was being used as a store by Marcus Schiller. The fire spread to the adjoining buildings, the Colorado House, the Franklin House, and other structures. The buildings were on the west side of the Plaza. The sparks fell on the tile roof of the Estudillo House, or Ramona’s Marriage Place, across the street on the south side of the Plaza, and the tiles alone saved it from catching fire and threatening the Seeley House, the former home of Juan Bandini which had been converted into a hotel. Losses approached $20,000. Old Town slipped into history and was virtually forgotten.

On May 2 against powerful opposition from Northern California, Congress authorized the Texas and Pacific Railroad Company to build and equip a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. Scott acquired the rights of the ill-fated Memphis and E1 Paso and with federal land grants calculated to be worth $68,000,000, he announced he was ready to begin building the long-desired railroad along the 32nd parallel, from Marshall, Texas, to San Diego. Engineers arrived to begin making the necessary surveys along three possible routes, by way of Campo and Jacumba, by way of San Felipe Pass and Warner’s Ranch, and by way of the San Gorgonio Pass and then southwest to San Diego. This last should have raised a flag of warning, but San Diego was too happy and too enthused over the prospective visit of Tom Scott himself.

As Morse wrote to his father on August 21:

“This is the critical period in the history of San Diego. A few days will decide whether we are to be one of the great cities of the United States within the next ten years, or whether that time is still in the distant future…Tom Scott, the greatest railroad man in the world, president of half a dozen great railroads, and director of a dozen more, will be here in San Diego if no accident happens next Monday, and he says for the purpose of fixing the terminus of the Texas and Pacific Railway, locating sites for shops. He is now in San Francisco with a party of 20 capitalists and financiers of the road…our enemies still say he does not intend to build the road to San Diego and they give a thousand reasons for this say-so…But the great influence of San Francisco and the Central Pacific Railroad, and in fact the whole of California, will be brought to bear on Tom Scott, to induce him to deflect at Fort Yuma on the Colorado River and run to Los Angeles and San Francisco, so leaving San Diego out in the cold…fortunately for us, Tom Scott is immensely wealthy, money can’t tempt him…he wants the honor of building and controlling a through line from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and to carry the Asiatic commerce from Asia to Europe in his own steamers and on his own railway…so I think we are safe, but the crisis is so tremendous I dare not leave.”

The day came. A long procession of buggies was lined up at Horton’s wharf as the steamer California warped up to the dock at 10 o’clock in the morning of August 26, 1872, bringing Tom Scott, the railroad king, and his party of seventeen officials and aides. Waiting on the pier was a huge crowd of San Diegans cheering and applauding Scott’s party which waved back at them from the steamer’s upper deck.

Thomas L. Nesmith, chairman of San Diego’s Committee of Forty, made the introductions at the gangway for San Diego’s civic leadership. Among those with Scott were Gen. G.M. Dodge, chief engineer for the Texas and Pacific; W. T. Walters, a Baltimore capitalist; Col. John W. Forney, a Texas and Pacific director and former secretary of the United States Senate; John McManus, a Pennsylvania manufacturer; John S. Harris, the former United States Senator; Gov. J.W. Throckmorton, of Texas; Col. George Williamson, a Louisiana capitalist; Sen. John Sherman, of Ohio, brother of Gen. Tecumseh Sherman; and Gov. Richard C. McCormick, congressional delegate from Arizona. They were quartered at the Horton House.

On the first afternoon the party took a buggy trip through the railroad lands of San Diego, rode out to view the Old Mission and returned for a reception at the Horton House. By 7 o’clock, an hour before a mass meeting was scheduled to begin, more than a thousand San Diegans were waiting in a slow drizzle outside the Horton House. Because of the rain, the meeting was moved to the skating rink across the Plaza, where Scott’s party was greeted with more cheers as it entered. Scott’s speech was short and to the point:

“I say to you now, that we are ready to commence work here at your town, but we expect you to do your share in the enterprise and help us all you can.”

He told the happy though rain-spattered San Diegans that arrangements already were completed for laying 500 miles of track through Texas, and that more engineers would be sent to San Diego at once so construction could begin at the western end within four months. He said he saw no reason why the entire project could not be finished within five years:

“Your harbor…is more than capacious enough to accommodate the immense amount of trade that will gather at the gateway for the East to be distributed throughout the United States by the trains of the Texas and Pacific Railroad. You have neighbors who will expect to divide this work with you. Among these is San Francisco.”

Then, Col. Williamson, Sen. Sherman, Gov. McCormick, Sen. Harris and Col. Forney added promises that painted a golden future for San Diego. They said the Texas and Pacific would result in a San Diego of churches, temples, factories, hotels, schools and thousands of dwelling residences even before the railroad was finished — or at the latest, a few years afterward. Arizona would open up and support hundreds of thousands of head of cattle, and her mines would ship fortunes to the world through San Diego. Texas alone would produce 15,000,000 bales of cotton for export.

The San Diego Union said in its editorial column the next day:

“The people of San Diego, every man, woman and child, welcome to the city the distinguished men whose coming is the signal for the commencement of that great railroad for which we have so long hoped and waited…Hard times come again no more. In San Diego henceforth, our course is onward without check or hindrance.”

That morning Scott, Throckmorton and McManus took a buggy trip with their hosts to the Border Monument, from where The San Diego Union’s reporter commented:

“The unanimous opinion of the different members of the party was that it was a mere question of time, not only concerning the cession of Lower California to the United States, but also the entire northern portion of Old Mexico.”

Returning, the party had lunch at National City as guests of Warren and Frank Kimball, then moved on to the ranch of Col. George Stone and Chalmers Scott where they were toasted with champagne punch by another group of San Diegans, then returned to town in a long procession of buggies. That afternoon Scott’s group and the city trustees met in the San Diego Bank. C. P. Taggart spoke for the San Diegans and told Scott that, “We have willing hearts and strong shoulders, but our pockets are empty.” San Diego’s conditions were that the terminus and depot were to be placed so as to best serve the public, though within the city, and that the line was to be built due east from San Diego.

Scott agreed to the location of the terminus and depot, but reserved judgment on whether the line would run directly east, pending the opinion of his engineers. Scott then presented his conditions. They were that while he would not ask San Diego for bonds or cash subsidies, they wanted title to all the lands of the San Diego & Gila Railroad which the company valued at $1,000,000 but Scott at $5,000,000, and a right of way through the city and county 100 feet wide; a lot 1500 feet in length and 600 feet wide adjoining the waterfront; and 100 acres of tidelands acceptable to the company. To the relief of the San Diegans, the conditions seemed reasonable. They adjourned the meeting to discuss them. At 4 o’clock they met again in the Horton House parlor and agreed on all of the conditions. Announcement of the news was met with applause from a crowd outside the Horton House.

San Diegans were satisfied that the line would enter San Diego County through the Jacumba Pass, or, at the worst, by way of Warner’s Ranch.

That night, while the railroad king and his party feasted at a lavish banquet with the San Diegans at the Horton House, other San Diegans celebrated outside in the Plaza by firing off explosions in salute to Scott and the railroad. After dinner, a procession of San Diegans, light-headed with golden promises, followed Scott and his party back to the California, where they gave three rousing cheers as the steamer put out into the stream.

When the California sailed at midnight, one of the passengers was Frank Kimball. He had conferred privately with Scott and noted in his diary that they had come to a general understanding. At San Francisco, Kimball agreed to convey half of the National Ranch, or 11,000 acres in alternate portions, including all of the town site not yet deeded to others, and the wharf and franchise, in exchange for $40,000 in gold, and on condition that the railroad line cross the ranch eastward. The agreement of sale was made out in the name of John P. Green, private secretary to Scott. The Kimballs were certain they had slipped the depot away from San Diego.

The land and home building boom began all over again. In September Frank Kimball met with James A. Evans, chief engineer of the California division for the Texas and Pacific, and privately received the disturbing information that engineering studies made it advisable to select the northernmost route through San Gorgonio Pass. He assured Kimball, however, that from there the line would turn southwest to San Diego and that the commitments to him on National City would be fulfilled.

In the early months of 1873, San Diegans began to get restless. The route had not been formally announced and no construction had been undertaken. On February 12 The San Diego Union commented that the people were manifesting some anxiety lest the railroad should reach San Diego from the north instead of the east:

“We have heard a lot of foolish talk about the consequences of such an event…it is a matter of little moment whether the road comes directly from Fort Yuma directly west, along the boundary line, or by way of San Gorgonio Pass. Indeed by the latter route the immediate interests of the city would be advantaged because it would open up at an early day connections with the rich San Bernardino Valley.”

But the fears were not calmed. The congressional deadline for starting work was May 2, 1873. A letter from Scott gave assurance that the delay was due only to the necessity of a thorough survey through San Diego County. At last, in April, and with only a few days advance notice, Texas and Pacific officials arrived to begin the long-promised work.

On April 21 a ground-breaking ceremony was held at a point on the bay near the southeast corner of Horton’s Addition and near the railroad lands originally granted by the people to the San Diego and Gila company. These lands lay to the east of Horton’s Addition along the waterfront from New San Diego to National City. These were the tidelands which Taggart and Howard had sought to appropriate for themselves.

Horton turned over the first spadeful of earth. It was an emotional moment for him and “the greatest honor that the Pacific Coast could possibly confer on me.” Forgiveness was the spirit of the occasion. Taggart reminded San Diegans that Horton had commenced the city and that it had gone ahead more rapidly than any other on the coast. As for Horton’s turning the first spadeful of dirt, Taggart said:

“I do not say this to flatter Mr. Horton, because he don’t like me and I don’t like him…but…I conceive his selection as the most appropriate thing.”

Confident that he had secured the terminus for his land, Frank Kimball dismissed the proceedings as “disgraceful.”

Several weeks later, on May 7, San Diego received a telegram from Scott confirming the selection of the San Gorgonio Pass as the best and cheapest route to San Diego. The line was to run from San Diego up the coast to the entrance to the San Luis Rey River Valley, up the valley and then across the Santa Margarita Ranch through Temecula Canyon and then to San Gorgonio and from there to the Yuma gateway. The terminal and depot and shops would be located in San Diego. It was a blow to Frank Kimball. Most of his hopes for National City died with that telegram. Hundreds of persons who had invested in his lands saw the fortunes they had anticipated vanish overnight. But San Diego spun gaily on.

  1. M. Berry, who represented a colonization scheme that later established the city of Pasadena, looked over El Cajon Valley and said it was the most beautiful place he had seen in California but doubted any colonists would bore through granite to reach water. He commented in a letter:

“The people are all in the real estate business, and will not dig wells and irrigate the land and develop the country…even the ice they use is made in a factory in Los Angeles, and the hay and fruit come from here…The “meanest” place of 20 acres you would think was in paradise from the newspapers. But the thing will ruin the owners…the lying of the San Diego papers is something awful to think of…Horton asked $5000 for a bare city lot in the center of San Diego.”

It was a glorious year. The town outgrew its 150 wells and twenty-six windmills, many of which supplied groups of houses by systems of pipes, though, unfortunately, most of them tapped a streak of salt water that coursed diagonally under the town. The San Diego Water Company was formed and drilled in Pound Canyon, where stray horses and cattle were being impounded under the no-fence law. This was in the canyon in the southwest part of Balboa Park where the Cabrillo Freeway was later constructed. A strong subterranean stream and cavern were tapped at 300 feet, with a capacity of 54,000 gallons per hour. Two concrete tank reservoirs of 70,000 and 100,000 gallon capacities were constructed on opposite mesas above the canyon. Plans were developed to lay mains and deliver water by gravity flow to the new homes rising so fast on the waterfront mesas. A second bank, the Commercial Bank, opened for business. The assessor listed 825,263 acres of agricultural land — though a half million of that was still tied up in the large ranchos and mostly devoted to cattle and sheep raising — valued at $1,263,542, or about $1.50 an acre. Horton himself had built a wharf and ten major structures. The city had a population of 4000 and 1000 homes, but Horton urged everybody to build still more houses.