The Rising Tide, 1920-1941

CHAPTER SIX: The Boom Fades

The fight for Boulder Dam and the All-American Canal was coming to an end. After eight long years of frustration and defeat, Representative Phil Swing finally maneuvered the Swing-Johnson Bill to the floor of the House of Representatives.

A last-minute effort to send it back to committee, and thus doom it for at least another year, was defeated 219 to 137. Within a few hours the bill was overwhelmingly approved by a roll call vote on May 25, 1928. The next day Swing took the floor to thank his colleagues:

“The future will justify every assertion that has been made in behalf of the Boulder Dam project, and on a roll of honor will be spread the names of those men who had the vision and the courage to make its construction possible. Time will dispel all doubts and fears which the opposition has sought to throw around it, and leave it standing in magnificent grandeur clear cut against the sky, the greatest accomplishment of our generation in this or any other country in the world.”

The news was received with great excitement in San Diego and Imperial Valley. But the battle was not over. Now it was up to Senator Hiram Johnson. He forced the Senate into continuous session, in an effort to force the bill to vote before adjournment, despite a fillibuster conducted by senators from Arizona and Utah.

Debate was prolonged and acrimonious. At one point Senator Henry Ashurst cried out that Arizona was being strangled and Johnson was a “bifurcated, peripatetic volcano, in perpetual eruption, belching fire and smoke…” Despite Herculean efforts Johnson was unable to break the fillibuster, and an impatient Senate adjourned. Johnson warned his fellow senators: “Yes, I am whipped, but, by heaven, another day is coming and then someone else will be whipped.”

In December the bill came up again, and by this time it had captured and fired the imagination of the entire country. It had a clear majority of support in the Senate. Upon Johnson’s acceptance of an amendment limiting California’s share of water from the Colorado, a clause that would lead to decades more of misunderstanding and dispute, the battle came to a quiet end by a vote of sixty-three to eleven, on December 14. A week later while Swing and Johnson watched, the Boulder Dam Project Act was signed into law by President Coolidge. The California Legislature accepted the limitation and ratified a six-state compact. Arizona, however, was to hold out for fifteen years.

To San Diego the signing of the bill meant it had a future source of water on which to rely when its own resources were exhausted. To the farmers of Imperial Valley it meant that at last they would have their own canal and that it would run entirely within the United States, and their supply would no longer be subject, or so they thought, to the demands of Mexican lands.

The size of the threat posed to their available supply of Colorado water was evident in an article written in 1929 by the manager of the 800,000 acres of the delta owned by the Chandler syndicate in Lower California. Though only a portion of the land was being irrigated, H. H. Clark wrote:

“During the past year we have employed from 4000 to 8000 laborers constantly. In addition to man power, we use 8000 head of mules, 20 big tractors and 11 dredges for cleaning of irrigation canals. There are 3000 miles of ditches on the ranch.”

Mexican ranchers had their own irrigation systems. Chandler paid the Imperial Irrigation District from $550,000 to $650,000 a year for the delivery of water under Mexico’s share written into the agreement by which water was delivered to the valley through Mexican territory. This one ranch was larger by 200,000 acres than the Imperial Irrigation District. Of the nearly one million acres of potential farm land in the area, only 156,000 acres were under irrigation in 1927. The figure in 1928 was 191,000. The next year, the acreage declined to 165,000.

The election of Herbert Hoover as President only seemed to assure the progress so happily envisioned with the prospect of Boulder Dam. A title company advertisement, signed by John F. Forward Jr., caught the spirit of San Diego:

“Life’s need of drama created the pyramids; it will build Boulder Dam. The mighty army of visitors and landseekers attracted by Boulder Dam should naturally come over the Broadway of America, the new national all-year highway, from Broadway, New York, to Broadway, San Diego. With Mr. Hoover in office, with farm relief assured, with Boulder Dam to be built, attracting national attention and travel to the Great Southwest — San Diego, during the decade of 1930 to 1940, will undoubtedly enjoy the greatest prosperity in history.”

While the Swing-Johnson bill was riding to its final triumph, 1927 was a year of substantial building and development in San Diego. A large new hotel, El Cortez, was being erected high on Seventh Street by a company headed by Richard T. Robinson, and its tower would be a welcoming beacon for ships at sea. A second hotel, the Pickwick, was opened on Broadway. Under construction on Broadway was another bank building, for the San Diego Trust & Savings Bank. In September the Spreckels companies announced the sale of the John D. Spreckels Building and all stock in the First National Bank to a local syndicate headed by the bank’s president, F. J. Belcher Jr.

Within six months the J.D. & A.B. Spreckels Companies had disposed of their most influential properties, The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune. They were purchased early in 1928 by Colonel Ira C. Copley, of Aurora, Illinois, who had become well acquainted with San Diego as a frequent visitor. He was a former owner of Midwest utility companies and a congressman from Illinois, who had entered the newspaper publishing business in both California and Illinois. At a dinner in his honor at Hotel del Coronado, Copley outlined the policies for the two newspapers:

“These papers are not to be personal organs of myself or anyone else. I have no political ambitions. I have no connection with any public utility anywhere and no connection with any other business than the newspaper business anywhere…it shall be the purpose of these papers to present the news on the basis of its honest news value. They will have neither enemies nor friends in that respect. No newspaper has ever been really successful that has not delivered the goods in an honest and constructive way.”

Soon afterward Copley purchased and eliminated the Independent, the newspaper that had been started by George Marston, Ed Fletcher and others, as a locally owned voice of civic opposition to the plans and domination of Spreckels. It had lost money heavily and its owners were glad to be rid of it. He also purchased the twenty-room Spreckels home in Coronado. While the Spreckels interests would continue to exert an influence on the affairs of San Diego, it would not be as personal nor as persuasive. As in so many other cities, an era of personal journalism also was disappearing and newspapers were becoming more institutional and more representative of the interests of their communities and regions.

The trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh had greatly stimulated interest in commercial aviation. In July of 1927 W. B. Mayo, chief engineer for the Ford Motor Company, flew into San Diego with Jack Maddux aboard Ford’s new trimotor, all-metal transport, a “Leviathan of the Air.” Maddux announced his plans to establish a passenger, freight and airmail line from San Francisco to Texas, by way of Los Angeles, San Diego, El Centro, Phoenix and El Paso. He said:

“Of course, the service will depend upon the cooperation we receive in locating suitable landing fields, and the patronage of the traveling public.”

Lindbergh himself returned to San Diego for a visit on September 21, to receive the tribute of a record crowd of 60,000 packed in the stands and on the floor of the City Stadium. He also visited with the men who had worked on his plane at the Mahoney plant and told them:

“At this time I want to thank all, especially the older employees, for the work you did in constructing the plane. It is this organization which can do so much to keep San Diego and California in the forefront of aviation.”

On the strength of the performance of the Ryan airplane, and the added publicity arising from the flight of Lindbergh, the Mahoney plant was turning out airplanes that were being sold even in foreign countries. In another section of the same plant, a converted fish cannery, another company was beginning the manufacture of still another, and much larger, airplane.

George H. Prudden, who had assisted in the design and manufacture of the prototype of the Ford all-metal airplane, had moved to San Diego, because of its exceptional flying weather and the promise of a major airport, and designed a new six-passenger tri-motor, all-metal monoplane.

A San Diego syndicate was formed to finance the Prudden-San Diego Airplane Company, with a capitalization of $60,000. Its engines were to be supplied by Claude Ryan, who had organized the Ryan Aeronautical Corporation after obtaining the rights to a German-designed engine and again was in business on Dutch Flats. He told San Diego:

“There are thirty aircraft manufacturing plants in the United States today, virtually all of them operating at capacity…the all-metal plane being built at the Prudden factory here will be equipped with three of our motors.”

Prudden’s first airplane, with Ryan-furnished engines, made its maiden flight, a successful one, in October of 1927, attaining a speed of 135 miles an hour. The airport that Prudden desired, and which Maddux had said would be necessary for improved commercial air service, was approved by the voters in November of 1927. A bond issue of $650,000 was passed to deepen submerged areas of the bay and to use the fill to reclaim land lying between high and low tides at the waterfront site for an airport suggested in the Nolen Plan. At the same time the Navy requested that areas to be dredged be made sufficiently deep to provide a future turning basin for the new giant aircraft carriers, the U.S.S. Lexington and the U.S.S. Saratoga. The Navy’s first experimental aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Langley, had been a familiar sight in the harbor. It was a converted collier and because of her silhouette she was affectionately known as the “covered wagon.” San Diegans began referring to their city as the “Air Capital of the West.”

Over a period of half a century San Diego had lost the railroad connections by which it had hoped to match the growth and influence of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Its commercial shipping had lagged behind that of an ambitious Los Angeles. The competition for transcontinental auto traffic had found San Diego at a disadvantage compared to the more politically astute northern cities.

Aviation in 1928 represented a new chance and a new way to metropolitan importance. But the inauguration of promised commercial air service, which could make San Diego an important transportation center, agonizingly was delayed time and again. The Chamber of Commerce acknowledged that in some respects San Diego seemed to be losing ground, but expressed confidence that the bay would be made the home port for the Navy’s aircraft carriers.

In spite of the concern over the lack of air transportation service, the aircraft manufacturing industry in San Diego seemed to be struggling toward permanence. An average of twenty-seven airplanes were being manufactured daily in the United States. The Mahoney company alone in March produced fourteen airplanes and expected to produce seventeen in April. The Prudden company set a goal of thirty-two for the year. Ryan was supplying engines to twenty American aircraft companies.

Meanwhile, interest in aviation continued to develop. The Army refueled the Question Mark at night over San Diego in a record endurance flight over Southern California. Amelia Earhart, with two co-pilots, became the first woman to fly the Atlantic. At Rockwell Field on North Island, the Army Air Service established permanent pursuit units which brought the operations there up to the level of World War I. In June the Navy began assembling more than 200 airplanes of various types, with supporting units of the Battle Fleet, at San Diego for joint air maneuvers with the Army.

The airport for which San Diegans had voted and which, it was hoped, would launch San Diego as an important transportation center, was dedicated on August 16, 1928, and officially named Lindbergh Field. The 142 acres comprised only one unit of a projected development that would embrace land held by the Marine Corps. In the dedicatory address, Lieutenant Governor Buron Fitts stated:

“An air force cannot be created overnight…San Diego leads California in aviation — it is the home of the industry — and California leads the world. I do not believe, nor does any other thinking man, that government subsidies should be provided for aircraft building, but I do believe that it is the duty of governments, national, state and municipal, to provide air routes. We do not give money for building automobiles — but we do for roads. And I believe that it is the obligation of the government to provide airways, fields, aerial beacons and the rest, just as it builds roads.”

A mass flight of 400 airplanes had been planned to bring together in one formation the Navy air units which had been assembled at San Diego, and all Army Air Service units on the Pacific Coast. All hotels were filled with visitors, and the coastal steamer Harvard had arrived from San Francisco with every stateroom reserved. Because of low clouds all along the coast, however, the mass flight was reduced to 222 planes, 140 from the Navy and eighty-two from the Army.

The flight was described in detail over a public address system by Rear Admiral Joseph M. Reeves, commander of aircraft squadrons of the Battle Fleet, who, in a previous talk to San Diego businessmen had pointed out that naval aviation maneuvers being conducted at San Diego were creative in the sense that there were no traditions to guide them in pioneering for air war at sea. Anchored off the Coronado Roads were the Navy’s two carriers, the Lexington and the Saratoga. The first landing on the soft ground of the new field, as yet unoperational, was made the day before by Frank Seifert, a city councilman and pioneer Army reserve flier.

With all of the interest concentrated on aviation and its promise for the future of transportation, there was little concern over the efforts of Los Angeles and San Francisco to bring about improvement of highways benefiting their respective communities. The San Diego Chamber of Commerce, according to Ed Fletcher’s memoirs, refused to finance a caravan, but did send a representative to a highway convention in Memphis, Tennessee, to publicize the new route called the “Broadway of America.”

The “Broadway of America” ran from New York and proceeded to Memphis, and in Texas joined Highway 80 to San Diego. Fletcher invited Mayor Clark and Rear Admiral J. S. McKean, commandant of the 11th Naval District, to go as his guests, and 108 San Diegans in twenty-eight autos left San Diego in April of 1928. By the time the caravan reached El Paso, it had grown to 150 autos and 654 delegates. All along the route the caravan was welcomed and feted, and at each stop Mayor Clark and Admiral McKean explained the economic virtues and military necessity of national highways, and the beauties and advantages of San Diego. It arrived at Memphis with 1564 delegates. Upon returning to San Diego, Fletcher wrote:

“Substantial gains in tourist travel to San Diego have been made during the last two years by reason of the replacement of the old plank road over the sand dunes (in Imperial County) by a hard surface pavement, and still more recently by completion of the Mountain Springs paving, formerly a terror for timid motorists.”

However, he was not satisfied all was being done that should be done to attract highway traffic to San Diego. Instead of using most of its funds to advertise San Diego in eastern newspapers for new settlers, and in Los Angeles newspapers for tourist business, the San Diego-California Club, he thought, should cooperate with all cities along the Broadway of America, Highway 80, the Old Spanish Trail and the Dixie Overland Highway, in distributing literature and placing billboards.

Autos were bringing more people into Southern California through Yuma than Southern Pacific trains. But seventy percent of the autos were being diverted at Yuma to Los Angeles, by way of the Salton Sea and the San Gorgonio Pass. In one year, 1927, a total of 61,699 cars entered California at Yuma; in 1928 travel traffic was reflecting an increase of thirty to forty percent, averaging 135 to 140 cars a day.

Even at that, the tourist business was San Diego’s second largest industry, behind that of the military and ahead of agriculture. Much had been expected of the aviation industry. However, late in 1928, after the dedication of Lindbergh Field, which was expected to provide sites for additional aircraft production, the Mahoney plant was purchased by a group of St. Louis investors and relocated in Missouri. Perhaps fifty of the M-1 and M-2 Ryan planes had been produced in San Diego. The Prudden company produced two airplanes, the second being converted from a tri-motor to a single motor ship, though sixteen were on order, and then encountered financial and technical difficulties. T. Claude Ryan now was principally concerned with a flying school, one of three in the area.

Arriving in San Diego at about this time was Edmund T. Price, age thirty-three, who had been in the investment business in the East and Michigan. In 1915 he had visited the Panama-California Exposition with his family and promised himself that someday he would return to San Diego and make it his home. He stepped into the Prudden organization, at first without pay, and by October had been placed in charge of a reorganized company, the Prudden Aircraft Corporation. In April 1929, it became the Solar Aircraft Company.

With the development of larger airplanes and the lighting of airways, new companies rushed into competition for routes and government airmail contracts. In 1929 San Diego was being served by four airlines: Maddux Air Lines, Western Air Express, Pickwick Airways and Continental Air Express. While the air lane between San Diego and Los Angeles became the busiest in the nation, according to a Bureau of Aeronautics Report, with eight scheduled round trip flights a day, San Diego was not a major terminal but a “feeder” point.

The airlines were still using Ryan Field on Dutch Flats. Lindbergh Field did not go into full operation until 1930, though it was used by private fliers and for unscheduled flights. The Ryan Field recorded 390 tri-motor landings and takeoffs a month.

The hope that the Maddux line would make San Diego the main terminal for service north to San Francisco and east to El Paso for direct connections with New York had not materialized. Its planes were shuttling eastward only as far as Phoenix, Arizona. On the plea of San Diego businessmen, Maddux began operation on a loop that included Agua Caliente in Lower California and the Imperial Valley. One of these flights ended in San Diego’s first major commercial air crash. A stunting Army plane collided with a Maddux air liner and the tri-motor plane crashed near Thirty-ninth and Spruce streets, with a loss of six lives. San Diego’s claim to be the “Air Capital of the West” rested with military flying. When Army and Navy flights were included, the weekly average of flights over the city was 540.

With east-bound air service stopping far short of the transportation center of El Paso, San Diego feared that the gate to the East had been almost shut once again. Even the San Diego & Arizona Railway, which Spreckels had forced over the mountains at such great cost, had never fully opened the gate to rail traffic. And west-bound national highway traffic gradually was being diverted into arteries leading into Los Angeles.

Disappointments were nothing new to San Diego, but the boom now made them seem less crucial than in the past. There was too much money to be made in real estate to worry about what might have happened, or over what was happening within their own community. The city ran out of bond money in 1928 and was forced to halt construction work on Sutherland Dam on the San Dieguito River system. Hiram Savage had been rehired as the city hydraulic engineer, and with his dislike of the multiple-arch type dams, the unfinished structure was neglected and passed from public attention. It was to stand uncompleted for twenty-five years.

The loss of 385 lives in the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in Los Angeles County in 1928 aroused the fears of residents of San Dieguito Valley below the high Hodges Dam with its twenty-three graceful arches, so disliked by Savage. Cracks had been reported in the structure.

An examination by a board of consulting engineers appointed by the State at the request of the Board of Supervisors, disclosed a number of cracks due to shrinkage and temperature stresses which were slowly but steadily widening. The board held there was no immediate danger except in event of a major earthquake or a very heavy overflow going over the top of the dam. Strengthening was recommended. But it was 1936 before anything was done about it.

While federal statistics could be summoned to prove that industry was expanding faster in San Diego than in the other large cities of the Pacific Coast, the percentage figures were misleading, in that the town had little industry to start with and no new large industrial capacity was represented. The industrial payroll was only about $7,000,000 in 1928 compared with the $18,000,000 annual payroll of local military establishments.

The more realistic members of the business community began to realize that at least in their lifetime they might not see a significant expansion of industry. The 650 acres of waterfront property in the National City and Chula Vista areas, which had been purchased through the Chamber of Commerce, as sites for new plants, were sold to the Santa Fe Railroad Company to pay taxes that were due and to finance a new Chamber building.

Selling land still was the major concern of the moment. With no real expansion of industry, and thus with few jobs to offer, a change was necessary in the type of advertising being placed by the San Diego-California Club. Jobless as well as people with incomes barely adequate to sustain them had been drawn to the city by the lure of the ease of life in Southern California. The City Council appropriated $10,000 to try and build more commercial interest in its port and Lindbergh Field, while the San Diego-California Club concentrated its appeals for new residents in class magazines with the highest income readership. Civic “gold” was to be found in the sun but those who wanted to enjoy it were expected to pay their way.

Even across the international border the speculative fever had taken hold, and American money was greatly influencing economic and social conditions. In Tijuana the number of American visitors exceeded 1,000,000 annually. Under the leadership of Governor Abelardo Rodriguez, the northern district of Baja California was put on a self-sustaining basis. At the hot springs on land once the Spanish rancho of the famed Arguello family of Upper and Lower California, a new resort was being built that would become known as the playground of Hollywood.

The Agua Caliente resort, race track and golf course were built by a syndicate whose principals were Wirt G. Bowman who had owned the Foreign Club, a gambling establishment in Tijuana; Baron Long, a California night club and hotel operator; and James N. Crofton, who once rode a horse through the streets of San Diego advertising horse racing at the old Tijuana track of James W. Coffroth.

The first unit, the hotel and casino, built at a cost of $1,500,000, was opened formally the night of June 23, 1928. Crowded around its gambling tables were the current elite of the movie colony, with the ready money of the days before heavy income taxes, among them Al Jolson, Charles Chaplin, Dolores del Rio, Sid Grauman, Joe Schenck, Mabel Normand, Lupe Velez, Jackie Coogan, and the boxing champion Jack Dempsey.

In the language of the day, it was “America’s Deauville,” and its advertisements read:

“In a quaint setting under the great oaks in the valley of the Tia Juana River, flanked by the purple hills of two nations, has risen this new play spot of the Southland…Nothing has been left undone which will add to the comfort and pleasure of the guest at Agua Caliente. Although the achievements of the past year in transforming the brush-covered hills into a place of infinite charm and beauty seem nearly a miracle, they are matched by even a more ambitious program for 1929 — greatly furthering the work of creating, in Agua Caliente, a place which will attract travelers from all the world to the Southland.”

While in the United States as a whole speculative gains had increased 312 percent in five years, wages had risen only twelve percent, and there were signs that the tides of migration were beginning to ebb. In Florida the total value of building permits for all its cities dropped from $171,000,000 in 1926 to less than $30,000,000 in 1928. That the westward tide also was slowing was becoming evident in San Diego, even if there was no one to believe it. The value of building permits dropped $2,000,000 in 1928, from $14,000,000 the year before. At that the value of permits issued in San Diego in January were equal to that of Miami’s for all of 1928.

A year-end review disclosed that twenty-four office buildings had been erected, and fifteen schools, nine churches, forty apartments and 107 stores. The valuation in building permits reflected continuing business and commercial expansion. The number of homes being built told a different story.

Though more than 20,000 lots had been sold in less than a decade, the demand for houses was lessening dramatically. In 1924, 3500 homes had been built and it was estimated that there was a need for 4000. In 1925, more than 4000 had been built but the need was estimated at only 3500. The situation was about the same in 1926. In 1927, however, only 2500 homes were built and there was an apparent need for just 500.

The high tide of the population growth of the 1920’s was reached in 1928 when San Diego added more than 10,000 new residents. In 1929 the population increase was only a little more than 2000 persons. In two years the number of lots sold and the filing of new subdivision maps dropped fifty percent. The ups and downs of the real estate market, and the ebb and flow of population migrations, however, were considered merely temporary phenomena in an ever-unfolding pageant of Western expansion. Tomorrow was another day.

In a full-page advertisement at the beginning of the New Year of 1929, the Board of Supervisors proclaimed San Diego County “an empire complete.” In an article for the Chamber of Commerce magazine, the editor of the San Diego Sun, Paul C. Edwards, reassured San Diegans that commerce, industry, transportation, new buildings, bank deposits and post office receipts were not all the elements that make a great city:

“No city in America of similar size has as much in culture as San Diego. Perhaps no city has so much to build its culture on…First attracted by her natural beauties, many new residents come to San Diego. Obviously those who choose a new home because of its beauty are persons who value all the higher qualities of life. So the development of these qualities has had unusual encouragement. And as the old develop, new are added, bred by a genuine civic ambition to make San Diego in fact a modern Athens in a new Western World.”

“Athens” had its price. As new residents were still arriving, though perhaps not in the numbers of prior months, San Diegans were placed on the alert that “there should be a barrel of money for you in Point Loma investments.”

The John P. Mills Organization, sales agent for Pantages, Mills and Shreve Company, described Point Loma as taking on a “setting such as only to be found, perhaps, on the Riviera coast of the Mediterranean Sea.” It was decreed that all houses on Sunset Cliffs had to be of light color and with red tile roofs, and cost from $5000 to $25,000, depending on relationship to the ocean front. In his unpublished memoirs, John P. Mills recalled:

“We put in all the improvements, paved the streets, paved the curbs…underground utilities, everything you could think of. We gave all the waterfront to the city of San Diego for a park. When I opened it for sale the first day we did over one million dollars. I sold between three and four million dollars worth of land. I chartered trains four days a week and brought hundreds of people into San Diego, where buses met them and they were escorted out to the property by the police. They were given luncheon and a lecture afterward.”

Developers of La Jolla Hermosa hurried to advise investors that “more cash profits have been collected on this tract than from any similar property.”

An original Spanish land grant twenty-five miles north of San Diego that had been planted to eucalyptus trees by the Santa Fe Railroad, in a disappointing experiment for producing railroad ties, was converted into productive citrus groves and homesites and became known as Rancho Santa Fe. An advertisement of 1927 claimed that almost eighty percent of the land had been sold in estates ranging from five to fifty acres, and that residents included motion picture stars, the owner of the Algonquin Hotel in New York, a member of the New York Stock Exchange, the scion of one of Boston’s oldest families, a former South American representative for the Dupont interests, and many other wealthy and important executives from around the country.

Farther up the coast a former mayor of Seattle named Ole Hanson formed a syndicate and laid out an entirely new town on the ocean, halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles. It was named San Clemente and it was decreed that every building had to be in the style of “Old Spain.”

When the voters rejected a site in Balboa Park for the new State College, another area overlooking Mission Valley and the crumbling ruins of the San Diego Mission was chosen. Dr. Edward L. Hardy, its president, said the college would arise as a new expression of the architecture of Spain with its Moorish and Arabian influences. The selected site also caused a new round of speculation in nearby land. The promoters of Talmadge Park Estates pointed out that when it was announced that a branch of the University of California would be located at Westwood, Los Angeles, lots which had been purchased for nearly $4,000,000 were quickly sold for $6,000,000.

Communities in the county vied with each other in describing their advantages and the possibilities for gain. In the north county Carlsbad, with a population of 2500, was the “Avocado Capital of the World.” It had 40,000 bearing avocado trees and 15,000 more were planted in 1928. Encinitas was the “Home of the Mid-Winter Flower Show.”

Inland, La Mesa was the “City of Beautiful Homes,” and its 3000 population “invites the world to share in her manifold blessings.” Escondido was the “Sunkist Vale” and Ramona the “Turkey Capital.”

To the south of San Diego, National City was “Where Rail and Water Meet,” with industrial sites waiting the certain coming of industry. “Truly California at its Best” was the boast of Chula Vista, the most southerly community, with a population of 5543, and for investors it was the “Harbor of Opportunity.” With the formation of the Chula Vista Mutual Lemon Association, Chula Vista advertised itself as the “Lemon Capital of the World.”

The population of Imperial Valley in 1928 reached 65,000 and its farms shipped 65,000 carloads of produce, a carload for each man, woman and child.

New tracts of land and new subdivisions were being opened, with paved streets and lighting, under special assessment districts, one of which was known as the Mattoon Act, which permitted pyramiding of assessments, taxes and interest. This act originated in Los Angeles and was widely applied over Southern California. Its original intent was to provide the means by which necessary roads could be constructed across various and often jealous taxing jurisdictions by employing the county tax structure. It was never intended to apply to the opening and selling of vacant land. As with the general county taxes, those who paid had to carry the burden of those who did not.

The inherent possibilities of abuse were not realized while land was being sold and resold at speculative prices. Among the roads built and improved under these acts, and which reached from the central area to surrounding developments, were the Causeway to Crown Point; the Market, Broadway, Fairmount and Euclid street extensions; and National and El Cajon avenues. A tenth of all taxable property in the county fell under these acts. Each piece of property benefited was made liable for all assessments of all property in the district. This was satisfactory as long as all owners were paying their levies. No thought was given to what would happen when they didn’t.

Though building of homes was slowing down, business expansion continued. Among the new business buildings completed or being planned in 1929 were one for a nation-wide department store at Twelfth and Broadway, the Samuel I. Fox Building at Sixth Street and Broadway, and the Guilford H. Whitney building which replaced the old Isis Theater on Fifth Street between B and C streets. The Isis Theater had been a landmark for thirty-five years. The Bank of Italy, which was to become the Bank of America, purchased the former John D. Spreckels Building from the local syndicate which had acquired it from the Spreckels estate. The price was $3,000,000.

There was no lack of confidence in business, and San Diego was a long way from the financial centers of the East. In June of 1929 national industrial and factory production indexes turned downward, and freight car loadings declined. This was not particularly worrisome news to the average person though the stock market reacted nervously.

The growth of the city for the next decade or so seemed assured when the long fight over rights to the water of the San Diego River came to a sudden end. On June 20, 1929, the State Supreme Court handed down a decision after nineteen years of controversy and ruled that San Diego City was entitled to all of the water that coursed through the boundaries of the original Spanish pueblo. The decision stated, in part:

“…San Diego…is the owner in fee simple of the prior and paramount right to the use of all the water (surface and underground), of the San Diego River, including its tributaries, from its source to its mouth, for use of the said City of San Diego and of its inhabitants, for all purposes.”

In the next year the Supreme Court reaffirmed its decision and granted the city the right to proceed with the construction of El Capitan Dam. The decision was a difficult one for Fletcher to accept. He always believed that the rights he acquired on the upper river, and which had passed to the La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley Irrigation District, and the riparian rights he had claimed on the lower river, were valid and that the protracted legal action had been unnecessary.

The decision reversed the finding of the Superior Court in San Diego that while the city did own the paramount rights it had allowed the Cuyamaca Water Company to use water which now could not be taken away. However, it was agreed that the irrigation district could continue to take water from the river as long as it was not needed by San Diego. In the end, in the best interests of the city and the county, an agreement was reached granting the district the right to appropriate 2,000,000 gallons daily.

The 160th anniversary of the founding of the first Franciscan mission in California, on Presidio Hill in 1769, was celebrated in 1929 with the dedication of Presidio Park and Museum on July 16. The park and museum, created by George W. Marston, were transferred to the city. The museum building was designed by William Templeton Johnson, the architect who had conceived the Fine Arts Gallery in Balboa Park.

The same month recorded the death in Europe of Katherine Tingley, the “Purple Mother” who had established the Theosophical Society headquarters on Point Loma. Even before her death the society had been falling into hard times and blocks of land were sold to meet debts and operating expenses.

Until September, declines in the New York stock market had been relatively modest. On Saturday, October 12, stock market trading was the heaviest of any Saturday in the exchange’s history. On Monday, heavy selling continued, until on Thursday, the worry turned into panic and nearly 13,000,000 shares changed hands. Marginal investors were shaken out and many ruined. The heavy slide continued into the following week and Tuesday, October 29, probably was the most devastating day in the history of markets. Secondary headlines in the newspapers in San Diego announced the loss of billions of dollars in listed values, but there were editorial inclinations to dismiss them merely as “paper values.” But in the East and in other financial centers, it was now the turn of the well-to-do to be shaken out, and many of them were seeing fortunes vanish.

It was in that same month that the Chamber of Commerce magazine stated that probably there was no better evidence of the business opportunities in San Diego than the quick success recorded by the Gildred brothers in a large building and leasing project undertaken virtually at their first sight of the city. The Gildred Building covered a full block bounded by A, B, Seventh and Eighth streets. One portion housed a ten-floor garage, another a four-story department store, and another portion, the third largest theater on the Pacific Coast. With this structure, the skyline of San Diego assumed an appearance it would hold almost unchanged for the next three decades.

The Gildred brothers, Philip L. and Theodore Gildred, had recently come up from Ecuador in South America. Philip Gildred was quoted as saying:

“Although I had traveled for many years, I made my first trip to the West Coast of the United States in 1927 — and stayed. I was amazed at the beauty, and visualized the enormous possibilities of the city of San Diego, situated in a temperate zone which makes its climate ideal. The greatest possibilities yet to come to San Diego will be from its port — one of the finest in the world…This city, whilst a metropolis, had not yet the hustle and bustle of other cities, and I know that in that respect, in our lifetime, this feature will attract many people to come and live and enjoy the beauty of our city and surroundings.”

Though an expected stock market recovery in November failed to materialize, thousands of San Diegans turned out to see a parade for the formal opening on November 8 of the new theater in the Gildred brothers’ building, which became part of the Fox Theater circuit. A special train brought Hollywood film stars to San Diego, now suddenly being described in advertising literature as “the playground of America” and “the capital of the Southland’s empire of amusement.” The inaugural presentation was a specially created stage performance of the Fanchon and Marco company and Will Rogers’ first talking picture.

The population of San Diego was being estimated at 170,000 and there was a significant effort to modernize the city administration and to institute civic reforms that had had their beginning across the country with Theodore Roosevelt and in California with Hiram Johnson.

Over the years there had been repeated revelations of laxity in the enforcement of laws against gambling and vice, and of cases of actual corruption in city and county governments. A board of freeholders was elected and presented a proposed charter for an election on December 19, 1929. It would have placed all city authority and departments with a city manager, including the harbor department which had been governed by a commission, and would even have made the city attorney an appointive instead of an elective official. The grant of such powers met strong opposition and the proposed charter was rejected by the voters.

Opposition to any civic changes was easily aroused. Two years before the proposal to locate the Civic Center on the tidelands, on land already held by the city, had barely won approval. The “little people” who had come for the climate were not particularly concerned about what was happening beyond their immediate neighborhood. But the city manager form of government was taking root everywhere and a new board of freeholders would submit another and less sweeping charter.

The year ended with public optimism, though building permits had dropped another million dollars. The Agua Caliente Jockey Club inaugurated the new race track on December 28 and announced a $100,000 added handicap to be run in March. A $25,000 golf tournament, the richest on record, was scheduled for the opening of the new Agua Caliente golf course.

Meanwhile, the State of California was releasing funds for road construction to relieve growing unemployment. Bank clearings, the indicators of the flow of business, were dropping sharply. The number of homes for rent and sale lengthened in the columns of San Diego newspapers. There were long comforting lists of building projects still planned by local companies and out-of-town investors for 1930. The San Diego Union assured its readers that they could cheerfully undertake the responsibilities of the new year.