Our museums and archives are temporarily closed to support the effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Gold in the Sun, 1900-1919

CHAPTER ONE: The Town That Wanted to Grow Up and Be Something

In the late afternoon of September 6, 1901, in Buffalo, New York, an anarchist by the name of Leon Czolgosz shot and fatally wounded William McKinley, the twenty-fifth President of the United States. The assassin said he had been incited by the speeches and writings of the radical Emma Goldman.

The death of President McKinley eight days later brought to an end an era of placid transition characterized by general prosperity, stability and public trust, and through which the United States had emerged as a world power. Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency and the Twentieth Century opened. Great physical and economic expansion and a flood of immigration were followed by social and political upheavals.

In the East cities reached skyward and there was a surge of enthusiasm for new forms of architecture, for beautification and parks and for civic planning. In the West empires of arid lands were opened to irrigation and settlement by a new generation of pioneers. On the Pacific slope rough towns became cities and the manner in which they were to grow presented exciting challenges to break with the mistakes of a congested East.

Within a short time after he assumed the presidency, Roosevelt encouraged a revolution in Central America by which Panama became an independent state and granted to the United States in perpetuity a right to finally construct and operate the long-sought canal across the isthmus to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and shorten the sea route to California by 8000 miles.

The promise of the canal was to have a profound influence on events in California. The booms and busts of the period of the building of the transcontinental railroads had left San Diego at the end of a branch line, a small town at the southwestern-most tip of the United States, while its rival, Los Angeles, 125 miles to the north, with its two great rail terminals, was reaching the proportions of a major city with a population of more than 100,000.

At the turn of the century the population of San Diego County was only about 37,000, almost equally divided between the city and county. For an area of more than 8500 square miles, or 5,440,000 acres, stretching seventy miles along the coast and 150 miles eastward to the Colorado River, it was thinly settled and its resources barely touched. To the south was the Mexican border, to the east the high, steep mountains and the Colorado Desert. To the north, Los Angeles was moving swiftly to consolidate its position as the metropolis of Southern California and to acquire a harbor for the commerce that everyone expected would develop with the building of a canal across the isthmus and the opening to trade of the ports of the Far East.

In its annual review edition of January 1, 1901, The San Diego Union optimistically stated that, standing on the threshold of the Twentieth Century, San Diego could look backward with pride at her growth and achievements and forward to an unusually promising future. But, in an editorial, The San Diego Union commented:

“The Los Angeles Times has just issued a special edition designed to show the resources and development of the county in which it is published. The work as a whole is commendable. Unfortunately, the proprietor of that paper was unable to restrain his chronic hatred of San Diego. So in the map which he publishes, showing the field of Pacific commerce, San Diego is carefully eliminated, and Los Angeles, a city twenty miles in the interior, is moved down to the coast and made to appear a port of Southern California, the deception being heightened by various devices representing purely imaginary steamer lines from that fictitious entrepot of commerce.”

Not to be outdone, San Diego’s State Board of Harbor Commissioners, in a report on proposed improvements prepared in cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce, sketched a bay containing 174 imaginary piers of varying lengths and all connected to marginal rail lines, and a map of sea lanes of the Pacific Ocean converging at the port of San Diego.

Another map showed the mountain passes through which San Diegans still hoped would come a direct transcontinental railroad line to supply the out-going cargoes to move across the piers and into the holds of the ships of the world. This dream had never died, and San Diegans who had been buffeted by disappointment after disappointment now vowed again that if they had to do so they would see to it themselves that the road was built.

The town’s only link with the rest of the country was by the Santa Fe’s “Surf Line” running south from Los Angeles, and it was all that remained of the high promises that San Diego was to become its principal western terminus.

The San Diego-Eastern Railway Committee was not without influence, including among its incorporators George W. Marston, the pioneer merchant; U. S. Grant Jr., son of the former President of the United States; and E.S. Babcock, one of the original partners in the erection of the famed Hotel del Coronado who was associated in other local enterprises with John D. and Adolph B. Spreckels of the wealthy sugar family of San Francisco.

By public subscription a sum of $40,000 was raised to finance engineering studies for a line running from San Diego to Yuma on the Colorado River and then eastward through southern Arizona to connect with the terminus of the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, a total distance of 500 miles.

An elaborate prospectus describing “the neglected opportunity of railroad builders” contended that despite adverse United States government reports a railroad could be built up through the mountains roughly paralleling the international border, with easy curves and a maximum grade of 2.8 percent, and descending through rugged Carrizo Gorge, either at a grade of 3.4 or 1.4 percent, depending on the choice of routes and costs.

These grades were compared favorably with those of the transcontinental lines of the Santa Fe, with a maximum grade listed as 3.5 percent, and the Southern Pacific, as 2.2 percent, both of which went directly into Los Angeles. It was optimistically estimated that by using the least expensive descent to the desert the line from San Diego Bay to Yuma could be constructed at an average cost of $21,780 per mile, or for a total cost of $4,573,850. The prospectus stated:

“This magnificent port is located upon the shortest route between our great manufacturing and mercantile centers and the Orient. And when the San Diego-Eastern Railway is completed, with proper connection between Yuma and El Paso, the all-rail distance by the new route to the Pacific and the Orient will be shorter by from 200 to 600 miles than by existing routes.”

As far as the local newspapers were concerned, San Diego was “the capital of the Southwest”:

“It claims as its true backcountry the entire Southwestern region, from the summit of the Rocky Mountains to the shore of the Pacific Ocean. In this vast district there is not a railroad or a mine, there is not a community, an irrigated farm or a lonely stock ranch which must not, in time, pay tribute to San Diego. This must be so in response to natural economic laws which are operative elsewhere in the United States and throughout the world…exactly the same forces which made Boston the commercial capital of New England; New York and Philadelphia of the Atlantic seaboard; Savannah and New Orleans, the South; Chicago, the Middlewest; Seattle and Tacoma, the Pacific Northwest; and San Francisco, northern and middle California, will decree that San Diego shall be the commercial capital of the Southwest.”

It was no minor skirmish that San Diego chose to fight. The political power in California was held by the Southern Pacific Railroad and it was Charles Crocker, one of the original “Big Four” of the California railroad empire, who had stated that they had “their foot on the neck of San Diego and intended to keep it there.”

But all of the “Big Four” were now dead, Collis P. Huntington being the last to die, in 1900. And in the East, Edward Henry Harriman, a stock broker who had rescued the Union Pacific from bankruptcy, was acquiring control of the mighty Southern Pacific with its 8000 miles of rails on the Pacific Coast and east to Ogden, Utah, and to New Orleans in the South, an act that soon would bring down upon him and other industrial giants the wrath of President Roosevelt and the “Trust Busters.”

San Diego went ahead with its plans. In Los Angeles another group challenged both the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe and proposed the construction of a rail line from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. Then, in Salt Lake City, Harriman allowed information to be made public that the Union Pacific would construct its own line from Utah to San Diego and thus place his tracks into the three major points of California-San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The Daily Statesman of Boise, Idaho, commented:

“It is apparent that the latest development in this field is the plan of the Harriman road to open up closer communication with San Diego and establish a fleet of steamers plying from that port to all Pacific points…these steamers will equal those on the Atlantic in their arrangement for the comfort of passengers and they will be equally swift.”

San Diegans were unimpressed. They had heard it all before, for almost a half century, on and off, and they had become skeptical of beguiling railroad promises. Merchants and land owners wanted a direct line east, not to anywhere else. Marston and other members of the committee visited Tucson and other sympathetic Arizona towns, El Paso in Texas and the financial centers of the East. Financiers listened but were noncommittal.

Whatever the future might or might not bring to San Diego’s growth and prosperity, in the number of the smokestacks of industrial expansion, and in the transshipment of the products of the Midwest and the South, developments closer to home held a promise unmatched in American agriculture.

The coastal range divided San Diego County of 1900 into two starkly contrasting regions. The western slopes of the mountains slide off rather gently toward the sea coast, and are often green and in some places wooded; the eastern side of the range drops steeply, and grimly, to the floor of the hot Colorado Desert and the Salton Sink.

For more than a half century it had been known that the sink could be irrigated by a gravity flow of water from the Colorado River. The sink lies somewhat east of the base of the coastal mountains and west of a higher East Mesa and the Chocolate Mountains and reaches a low point of 273.5 feet below sea level. In some places silt more than 12,000 feet thick, deposited over the ages by the floods of the Colorado, overlies the bed of an ancient sea.

A Spanish trail from Mexico to California had crossed this lonely desert and in later years gold seekers and immigrants following the Southern Trail traversed it to reach the coast at San Diego or Los Angeles, sometimes with terrible suffering.

In the closing years of the Nineteenth Century, there were few persons to appreciate the desert’s beauty and brave its terror. The Southern Pacific had breached the desert when it laid its tracks from Los Angeles down San Gorgonio Pass and through the deepest part of the basin and up and across a Colorado River bridge to Yuma, on the route to New Orleans. Cattlemen ventured into the sink, to winter their herds on the pepper grass around the seven lakes formed by occasional overflows of the river.

One of them was Anderson B. Derrick, who drove lean stock down the mountains for fattening through the winter and then back up the mountain trails to market in the Spring. There were endless vigils without communication of any kind except for occasional horsemen or an immigrant wagon. When he married, he took his bride into the desert with him, for their honeymoon, and they knew that a life could be made in the land which the Spanish called “The Hollow of God’s Hand.” As the lakes dried there was salt to be mined in the deepest basin of the sea bed.

Others had come to die. Hall Hanlon was ill with tuberculosis when he went into the desert but lived to raise cattle on a large section of land at the point where a rocky escarpment diverted the Colorado River to the south and into Mexico. It was known as Pilot Knob and was a landmark for the old river steamboats. It was Hanlon who showed how the Colorado’s water could be sent into the Salton basin.

There was rich soil and perpetual sunshine, and now man would create his own rainfall, to be turned on and off as desired, and in just the proper amounts, through a series of canals fed from the waters of the Colorado.

In May of 1901 the California Development Company succeeded in bringing water into the valley by way of Mexico, which was necessary to avoid the seemingly impenetrable sand dunes which stretched thirty miles in length along the edge of the East Mesa, from a point within the United States to just below the border.

Water was diverted from the river by a head-gate a mile above the border at Hanlon’s ranch, and sent through a deep, man-made trench named the Imperial Canal for four miles paralleling the river southward and then cut into an old overflow channel known as the Alamo.

The channel meanders for forty miles through the arid delta of the Colorado in Baja California, and eventually crosses into the United States. For centuries the Alamo and another channel known as the New River had carried overflow water from Colorado River floods and wasted it into the Salton Sink, leaving small lakes that appeared and disappeared with the passing seasons. To earlier immigrants the unexpected appearance of a flowing river had been a “miracle of the desert.”

The development company, under the driving enthusiasm of George M. Chaffey, an engineer of wide experience, cleaned the Alamo channel of its undergrowth and at Sharp’s Heading on the border regulated the flow of water into distribution canals to serve the farms of homesteaders and the ambitions of land promoters.

For the privilege and necessity of using a canal running through Baja California the company agreed to share the water with a Mexican company for development of delta lands below the border.

Chaffey and L.M. Holt, editor of a Riverside newspaper, prepared a promotional campaign for the sale of land and changed the name of the Salton Sink to the Imperial Valley. Stock of the California Development Company was sold all over the United States, and settlers flocked into the desert and joined in organizing mutual companies to purchase and reallocate the water. By the next Spring 400 miles of irrigating ditches had been dug and water was available for more than 100,000 acres.

The pioneers who were staking out homestead claims in the flat treeless land where the temperature is above 100 degrees for almost a third of the year, had little concern over the fact that the Colorado River flowed high above the floor of the basin which they were farming, in a bed it had built 150 feet above sea level with its own silt long before any human eye, that of the Indian or anyone else, had seen the power of its springtime rages.

Towns rose out of the sand, first Imperial City, and then the settlements of Calexico and Mexicali, one on each side of the border near where the water entered the valley; and then Brawley and Holtville and finally El Centro. Some of the settlers came only with loaded wagons and with little or no money, to stake out homesteading claims. Many of them managed to survive through help that came from developers such as W.F. Holt and his brother Leroy Holt, who bought up state and railroad tracts and staked them to their start in a new land.

Others gave up when their women-folk could not adjust to a country with colors that were so pale compared with the dark greens and the golds and reds of changing seasons of their homelands. Here the land was flat and sandy, and faded pink and blue hills often seemed to vanish in a haze that magnified the distances and the loneliness.

The epic struggle of the settlers was related a few years later by Harold Bell Wright in the novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth, which in its time had as great an impact on the country as had Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona of the 1880’s. He wrote:

“In the fierce winds that rushed through the mountain passes and swept across the hot plains like a torrid furnace blast; in the blinding, stinging, choking, smothering dust that moved in golden clouds from rim to rim of the Basin; in the blazing, scorching strength of the sun; in the hard, hot sky, without shred or raveling of cloud; in the creeping, silent, poison life of insect and reptile; in the maddening dryness of the thirsty vegetation; in the weird, beautiful falseness of the ever-changing mirage, the spirit of the Desert issued its silent challenge.”

Agitators soon were to follow to tell the settlers they shouldn’t have to pay for what had been government land or reward a private company for water that nature itself had so thoughtfully provided in the Colorado River.

But nature was not always bountiful, as so many had learned on the other side of the mountains, where rainfall was more frequent but could alternate floods with droughts to erase the efforts of years.

Though the rain had been light in the past season, as it had been for several years, 10,189,213 pounds of lemons and 2,535,119 pounds of oranges had been handled by cars of the National City & Otay Railroad serving settlements and agricultural areas along the southerly end of the bay, National City, Chula Vista, Otay, Sweetwater River Valley, Nestor and Tia Juana River Valley. The San Diego, Cuyamaca and Eastern line running to Fosters Station at the northeast corner of El Cajon Valley at the foot of the mountains, had carried 5,516,000 pounds of fruit, much of it in raisins; 6,720,000 pounds of hay; and 155,000 pounds of honey.

In four years the shipments of San Diego County lemons to the ever-widening markets of the country had increased from 228 cars, by rail and water, to 592, and the growers were proud to learn that their fruit was being compared most favorably with the lemons imported from Sicily in the Mediterranean.

There was not, of course, any immediate need for the 174 piers suggested in the San Diego Board of Harbor Commissioners’ projection for the bay, but the Rivers and Harbors Committee of the House of Representatives agreed with the Corps of Engineers on a $268,000 project to dredge and eliminate shoaling. Jetties at the bay entrance were under construction. San Diegans also felt that the Navy should complete the coaling station, started in 1898 on the lee shore of Point Loma but never finished, because of the frequent fleet exercises off’ the Southern California coast and the new obligations of the United States in the Pacific as a result of the war with Spain. The fort on Point Loma, so hurriedly started during war with Spain, had been allowed to languish, with only a few guns guarding the seaway into the harbor.

With the turn of the Century, though, the fourth emplacement for the ten-inch gun batteries was completed on Ballast Point, as well as emplacements for two- and three-inch guns, the construction of frame barracks undertaken, and, a year later, the 115th Company of Coast Artillery was organized at the old San Diego barracks and transferred to the fort which in 1899 had been named in honor of Gen. William S. Rosecrans. A Civil War general, Rosecrans had resigned to interest himself in various railroad promotional schemes and eventually had been elected to Congress from California.

As for the town, for more than a decade time had stood still. However, John D. Spreckels, who resided in San Francisco, remained firm in his belief that San Diego someday would be a second San Francisco, and the money earned by the family in sugar and shipping was to be poured by the millions of dollars into a town the Spreckels name would dominate for more than twenty years.

He already owned the street car system, two of the town’s three newspapers, most of Coronado and North Island which comprised the wide sandy peninsula enclosing the bay to the south, and Hotel del Coronado, already known around the world as a resort hotel. With E.S. Babcock, he controlled the Southern California Mountain Water Company, which was supplying a large area, but not as yet the city of San Diego, with water, and was engaged in mercantile operations.

San Diego had seven miles of paved and forty-five miles of graded streets; fifteen miles of electric railway and twenty-two miles of motor railway; sixteen miles of cement sidewalks; twenty-five churches; fourteen schools; a $100,000 opera house; and, above all, a 1400-acre park as yet mostly undeveloped and unused. Home owners grew geraniums and were content. The climate was a lure to those who could afford to escape both the cold and heat of the East and the Midwest. When he was Chief Signal Officer of the Army, and thus head of the United States Weather Service, Gen. A.E. Greeley wrote:

“The American public is familiar on all sides with elaborate and detailed statements of the weather at a thousand and one resorts. If we may believe all we read in such reports, the temperature never reaches the eighties, the sky is flecked with just enough of cloud to perfect the landscape, the breezes are always balmy, and the nights ever cool.

“There is possibly one place in the United States where such conditions obtain–a bit of country about forty miles square, at the extreme southwestern part of the United States, in which San Diego, California, is located.”

That it should capitalize on its climate was advice offered to San Diego back in the 1870’s by a Swiss professor named Louis Agassiz, who visited the harbor as a member of a scientific expedition. San Diego, he told a meeting of its citizens, was situated on the 32nd parallel and was thus beyond the reach of severe winters, and “this is your capital, and it is worth millions to you.”

But railroads and smokestacks were still very much in the people’s minds, even though Mayor Edwin M. Capps in his report to the Common Council in 1901 suggested that San Diego concentrate on promoting the tourist business. He stated:

“One of the greatest natural resources that this city is possessed of is her matchless climate. This one factor alone, coupled with a slight effort on the part of her citizens, is sufficient to place San Diego in the foremost rank as a tourist resort.

“We should cater to the entertainment of the tourist, make it pleasant and congenial, have public places of resort in the nature of beautiful parks, fine boulevards, roads and drives…I do not think it at all visionary to say, with the proper development of attractive resorts…that this city would become the winter residence of no less than five or six thousand of these most desirable citizens, each of them spending from $200 to $1000 for the season.”

The Chamber of Commerce did some promotional advertising, though it largely was confined to advertisements in the local newspapers and directed to visitors already in San Diego or in adjoining areas:

“In looking for a new home, either temporary or permanent, your first thought is, what are the health conditions. San Diego, California, is the healthiest city in the United States…There are no marshes or pools in the vicinity to breed mosquitoes and malaria; the diseases prevalent among children elsewhere are practically unknown, while youth and middle age can enjoy life to the full, and those who have grown old and rheumatic in other less favored climes here regain their strength and vigor. The span of life is no longer complete at three score and ten. Men of eighty and ninety walk the streets with vigorous step, and why should it be otherwise amid such perfect surroundings, in a climate where you may be out-of-doors every day and at every hour of the day during the entire year?”

San Diego was known for its beautiful and unusual cloud formations but a French-born engineer by the name of Octave Chanute was attracted to the area by the low wind velocities, in order to carry out his studies in the science of flight. He and his assistants photographed the flight of pelicans and remarked that he believed they held the secret of air navigation.

A dozen years before John Montgomery, a student with a scientific turn of mind who had studied the flight characteristics of seagulls, had successfully flown a glider, in man’s first controlled flight, on the Otay Mesa. The future not only of aviation but of San Diego rose with the constant breezes that flecked across a sunlit bay.

The winter and summer tourists filled the hotels and at Hotel del Coronado Spreckels in 1900 erected tents below the hotel on the Silver Strand. Here the early settlers of the interior and particularly of Imperial Valley found relief from the heat in the temperate air and the inviting surf. “Tent cities” were common vacation resorts in those days. To the striped canvas tents were added palm-thatched huts. There was rowing on the bay and band concerts in the evening.

The religious groups and cults which were to give Southern California a unique and sometimes bizarre flavor were organizing and building, and the most ambitious of them all were the Theosophists, who had selected Point Loma for their version of the Acropolis of America.

A three-story hotel and sanitarium had been erected by one of the Theosophists, Dr. Lorin Wood, and when their first international convention rolled around, the hotel as well as an adjoining tent city were filled with hundreds of delegates who arrived by train and a special steamship bearing the Universal Brotherhood’s flag of purple and gold. Seven trumpet blasts heralded the opening of the pageant, with delegates chanting “Truth, light and liberation,” and fifty miles away atop towering Mount Palomar, a fire was lighted that was visible in the night to the faithful on the windy ridge of the southwestern-most point in the United States.

Subsequently, Madame Katherine Tingley, the Purple Mother of the Theosophists, took over the hotel-sanitarium; over its inner patio was erected a huge dome of aquamarine glass, and next to this structure there arose a temple, round and topped with another dome of glass of amethyst color. The domes in turn were surmounted by spires representing flaming hearts and their burning lights could be seen far at sea.

All in all, it promised to be quite a century.