The Rising Tide, 1920-1941
CHAPTER SEVEN: The Quiet Years
The Great Depression settled swiftly and sadly over Southern California. With it came the end of the first great internal migration of the auto age. In ten years 2,000,000 new settlers had moved into the state, nearly three-fourths of them into Southern California.
The rate of bankruptcies was the highest in the nation and reflected the collapse of many speculative land promotions and oil and other wildcat stock schemes. In San Diego in one year the value of building permits abruptly dropped by half and bank debits sank a hundred million dollars.
It was difficult for the people of Southern California, who had prospered for a decade from the tide of new settlers and investors, to accept the prospect of a long period of economic and population stagnation. They were convinced that it all must start up again, and soon. San Diegans drew comfort from the newspaper oracle of the day, Arthur Brisbane, an editor and columnist for the Hearst newspapers whose writings also appeared in scores of other publications, generally on the front page. He visited San Diego on March 19, 1930, and then wrote:
“Everything you have ever thought about or wanted is here, and many things that you never imagined…every man, woman and child says: “Why anybody able to come here should live anywhere else, is a mystery.” They are right, it is a mystery.
“By way of prediction, which please write down on your cuff, this writer wishes to say that fully developed air travel, with 24-hour round trip, from ocean to ocean, will build up a permanent and transient population in this city and territory surrounding it as no place on earth has ever been built before.”
As far as San Diegans were concerned, it was still a mystery why more settlers preferred Los Angeles to San Diego. The census of 1930 showed that over a million more persons resided in Los Angeles. The population of Los Angeles was 1,238,048 and that of San Diego 147,897. During the past decade San Francisco’s had risen only 128,000, to 634,394. Though San Diego’s population had doubled in ten years, the county as a whole had grown less rapidly, from 112,248, to 209,659. More than half of the state’s population now lived in the eleven counties generally assigned to Southern California.
The depression had not touched bottom and George W. Marston was able to write that San Diego was not as yet in a precarious situation, though he informed the city planner, John Nolen:
“San Diego is not only suffering from the general depression in business, but it is in the end of the first year of a reaction from the boom of the preceding five years. More than this we have had through the operation of the Mattoon Act an iniquitous tax bill levied upon many of our undeveloped properties. This has resulted in many people losing their holdings. This and the general high rate of taxation has produced a very irritable feeling among the people and I have never known such a difficult period for voting upon improvement bonds.”
Large areas of land within the city were unsalable even if the realty market did improve, because of the pyramiding of special assessments. A dead hand had been laid upon growth, and it would take years to lift it. The list of tax delinquencies published in The San Diego Union grew to sixty-four pages.
A way to cut the tax burden was suggested to the City Council in 1930 by the treasurer, Jack Millan. He proposed a revision of the new City Charter to permit the sale of remaining pueblo lands. The 7000 acres north of the San Diego River represented all that was left of the 48,000 acres that had been conveyed to the city with United States recognition of the Spanish boundaries of the original pueblo. In 1889 the voters had prohibited further sale of these lands until 1930, and in 1929 this had been extended until 1940.
Millan argued that San Diego taxpayers were carrying a burden of $23,000,000 worth of vacant and dead lands, for parks, playgrounds, churches and schools, and that the sale of only half of the pueblo lands would relieve taxes by about $2,000,000. However, it was feared that the dumping of such a large amount of land on the market, at sacrifice prices, would further depress real estate values on which the community rested so much of its hopes for recovery.
Federal and state public works projects were instituted or undertaken before scheduled to provide jobs and bolster the economy. President Hoover signed a deficiency bill appropriating $10,000,000 for the preliminary construction work on Boulder Dam.
Improvements in the city’s water distribution and storage system were being carried out with funds from a successful bond issue in 1929. A new gateway into San Diego from the north was provided through city-state cooperation. A new highway was constructed through Rose Canyon, removing La Jolla from the main route into the city, and work was in progress on a substitute Torrey Pines grade to eliminate the narrow curving road that led from Sorrento Valley up to the mesa. The Broadway pier was lengthened 200 feet and a two-story transit shed erected. However, a proposal that both the city and county approve bonds to construct a combined Civic Center building on the waterfront was defeated.
The federal government authorized additional funds for dredging the harbor and the material would add 122 acres to Lindbergh Field. By the summer of 1930 airlines began operating from Lindbergh Field, though companies were constantly entering or going out of business or merging with other lines. The Maddux line became Transcontinental Air Transportation-Maddux and was offering connections at Phoenix to El Paso and eastward all the way to New York. Western Air Express and Pickwick Airways were still in business.
Pacific Air Transport received permission to extend its original Seattle-Los Angeles service to San Diego as the southern terminus. The first flight was scheduled from Lindbergh Field on July 1. A celebrating crowd of several thousand blocked the runway and the takeoff had to be delayed. Pilot R. L. Remlin finally lifted off a single-engine Boeing 40-B, with space for four passengers and a quantity of airmail, at 10 o’clock at night. Searchlights from Navy ships in the harbor outlined the plane in the sky and an escort of nine Navy planes, authorized by Admiral Reeves, accompanied the plane northward.
Pacific Air Transport soon became a part of United Air Lines and the others serving San Diego disappeared or were replaced by new companies, and the shuffling went on. For one brief year San Diego had a direct flight eastward as far as Phoenix. In response to pleas from San Diego, American Airways, predecessor of American Air Lines, added a conditional San Diego-Phoenix shuttle connecting with its Atlanta-Los Angeles airmail route. Fifty pounds of airmail a day were required to maintain the service. Even though Thomas Bomar, manager of the aviation department of the Chamber of Commerce, airmailed packaged bricks, the weight requirement could not be maintained and the service was discontinued.
Flying was still a challenge to the brave. A local girl named Ruth Alexander, who had been flying for only a year and held a woman’s altitude record, was to attempt a one-stop flight across country, from San Diego to Newark, New Jersey. She lifted her heavily loaded monoplane from Lindbergh Field. It staggered toward Point Loma in the fog and failed to clear the summit. She died in the wreckage.
In San Diego the aviation industry which had been started so audaciously virtually vanished. Edmund T. Price had assumed the presidency of the Solar Aircraft Company but the third all-metal plane which the company produced, and on which so much had been depended, found no immediate buyers. Aviation companies elsewhere also were disappearing. The depression began with 300 and when it ended, there were only about fifty. But interest in flying did not abate.
In the summer of 1931 Price took his wife, three children, a pilot and a mechanic and with the Solar plane flew 7000 miles across country, from San Diego to New Bedford, Massachusetts, touching down on fifty airports in twenty-five states. Newspapers dubbed the plane the “Flying Nursery.” It was great publicity but sold no airplanes. The third and last plane produced by Solar Aircraft eventually was sold to a Mexican firm for use in the coffee trade.
Solar turned to producing pots and pans for the Navy. Claude Ryan moved onto Lindbergh Field and was conducting a flying school.
The distress in the United States, limited perhaps to certain classes as it might have been, had no effect on the Mediterranean-style playground below the border. On July 27, 1930, the latest addition to the Agua Caliente resort, a spa with its pools and mineralized waters, was opened with dedication ceremonies and a water festival. Sixty miles farther south a hotel and gambling casino were opened at Ensenada, with the former heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey, as a heavy investor.
The Agua Caliente complex then consisted of a hotel, casino, a bungalow court, so popular in those days, a bathhouse, golf course and cafe, and the spa, representing a total investment of $6,000,000. A greyhound racing track was added later. Money flung across the gambling tables repaid the investment almost as fast as it was spent. As a writer familiar with the scene wrote:
“Diplomats from the East and West, potentates from the Orient, American business tycoons and political leaders, famous names in sports and show business, even gangsters spawned by the prohibition era, all felt the spell of Agua Caliente.”
That San Diego seemed to have escaped the worst of the consequences of the depression was expressed editorially by The San Diego Union on January 1, 1931:
“The contrast between our sun-warmed spot of earth and the snow-bound streets of the average eastern city, is no greater than the contrast between the tone of business here and that reported from the East. It would be silly to pretend that San Diego, alone in all the United States, was free from any effects of the general business depression. But it is perfectly accurate to say that the effects here are nothing like as severe as those reported from industrial and agricultural centers in other parts of the country.”
For the first time, perhaps, there was a general relief that San Diego had not become, as so many had hoped, an industrial city. The thought was stated openly in the editorial that the city’s chief asset was a way of life which no shift or change in economic conditions could impair.
By Spring conditions had worsened and there were 4835 persons actively looking for work in San Diego and nearly 900 others had been laid off but were hopefully waiting to be recalled to their old jobs.
The mild climate alleviated the suffering experienced in the East, though contrary to post-depression reports, there were “breadlines.” Food was dispensed to the hungry from four depots. A city bond issue provided $300,000 for numerous recreational projects, including a golf course and tennis courts in Balboa Park, which helped to provide jobs for the most needy of the unemployed.
The flush of the boom years had all gone by now, and there was a turning inward. San Diego in a way settled into the routine of a town in the shadow of the new giant of the Pacific Coast, Los Angeles. Times were hard and they were to get worse.
The necessity of reform in city government, so obvious for years in the politics surrounding water development and in the administration of the police department, produced a new City Charter submitted by a board of freeholders. It was a compromise of the 1929 plan which had proposed unacceptable powers for the city manager.
The compromise, however, did initiate a clear-cut city manager system. The city manager was to be appointed by the Council and vested with broad administrative authority over the fire, police, health and other city departments, but not over the harbor, city attorney, city clerk, auditor and controller, and civil service. City commissions were continued for supervision of the harbor, parks and planning, and for civil service.
It provided for a Council of six members to be nominated by districts and elected at large. The mayor was to be nominated and elected at large and become the seventh member of the Council, as presiding officer and ceremonial chief of the city. It also provided for a hydraulic engineer, a water department, and an accounting system to determine how much water cost and who paid for it.
A new method of financing development of the harbor also was provided. Since 1912 San Diegans had never refused money for a port which carried so many of their hopes for the future. There had been seven bond issues between 1912 and 1928. In 1929, however, the citizens had decided that ten cents of each tax dollar collected was to be allocated for harbor work. The new Charter provided a fixed sum of $150,000 a year. Under a commission with a large measure of independence, development of the harbor on a long range program proceeded free of most of the troubles which continually beset the development of water resources.
The Charter was approved at a city election on April 7, 1931. The same election saw the defeat of Mayor Clark and the election of a businessman, Walter W. Austin, as his successor. In the campaign it was charged that since 1924 the people had voted $8,650,000 for water with little results to show for it. Two new city councilmen also were elected and they pledged to support the program of the city’s hydraulic engineer, Hiram Savage.
Once again Savage was recommending that the next dam should be built in Mission Gorge on the lower San Diego River, in preference to one at the El Capitan site which figured so prominently in the years of legal struggle with the Fletcher interests.
The site recommended by Savage was about a half mile below the old Padre Dam. A second site in the gorge a mile below the one favored by Savage, and two miles above the San Diego Mission, was owned by Fletcher. Fletcher pressed the city to acquire his site and contended that a dam farther upstream would flood a large section of El Cajon Valley. The site urged by Savage was rejected at the polls, and San Diego was warned that it possibly was facing a water emergency, with its five reservoirs only half full. All factions were brought together and it was agreed to proceed with El Capitan Dam. It was estimated that in forty-eight years 20,000,000 gallons daily had flowed past the site and been lost to the people. The voters in December of 1931 approved the transfer of $3,600,000 in bond money to construct a rock-fill dam. The largest share of the bonds represented money which seven years before had been voted for another type of dam at the same site.
The question whether the city manager system instituted by the voters was to survive, let alone govern, remained in doubt during much of the depression. Underlining the struggle, too, was whether San Diego would be an open or closed town. City councilmen, long accustomed to personal powers and the manipulation of the police department, were wary of the city manager system approved by the people.
Some time elapsed, and a new mayor, John F. Forward Jr., had been elected in April of 1932, before the first city manager was hired in May. He was a former public works commissioner from Detroit, Horace H. Esselstyn. Councilmen found themselves stripped of daily responsibilities. Esselstyn lasted three months. The city purchasing agent, A. V. Goedell, was named acting manager, but he was to remain in the office only about ten months. He was succeeded by Fred Lockwood, who had been a manager of city operations under the former system of government, and he held the office for about fifteen months. Police chiefs came and went, amid continuing and often conflicting charges of political interference with the police department and corruption within the department.
Another effort for a Civic Center came to nothing in 1933. When a bond issue was proposed once again to build a city-county administration building, opponents of the waterfront site forced two other possible sites onto the ballot. Voters were given a choice of the tidelands, the southwest corner of Balboa Park, or the Broadway site of the existing Courthouse in the heart of the city. The tidelands site won, but city voters at the same time failed to deliver the necessary two-thirds majority for a participating bond issue.
The general national discontent brought the end of the Progressive movement in California that had taken Hiram Johnson to political power. Governor C. C. Young was defeated for renomination in the Republican primary by the conservative and “wet” mayor of San Francisco, James “Sunny Jim” Rolph Jr. In San Diego, however, a Republican majority stayed with Young. Rolph took office in January of 1931 and talked of the “bright days which I see just ahead,” and promised no new taxes and that the $30,000,000 surplus in the state treasury would be used to help alleviate depression suffering.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrat governor of New York, was elected President in November of 1932 and assumed office on March 4, 1933. In San Diego County Roosevelt had led Herbert Hoover by 10,000 votes, but Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate, received more than 3000 votes. At the local level the Republicanism that had so long dominated San Diego persisted and sent George Burnham to Congress to replace Phil Swing, a Democrat.
Swing, with ten years of his life spent on the fight for Boulder Dam, had decided to return to the practice of law. His work was not done, however. As representative of the Imperial Valley Irrigation District he went to Washington and with several other western delegates was able to obtain a fifteen-minute appointment with President Roosevelt, to plead the case for an immediate beginning on the All-American Canal. The President listened but was noncommittal. In his memoirs Swing wrote:
“I did not know it then, but learned later that after I left, Mr. Roosevelt put in a long distance call to Senator Johnson, then in San Francisco. The President said to him, “Hiram, do you want me to grant an allocation to start the All-American Canal?” Senator Johnson had never asked any favor of anyone and I had not asked him to endorse my P.W.A. application, but when asked by the President for his opinion of the merits of the All-American Canal, for which we had both worked so hard, he did not hesitate to say that it was worthy of an allotment. That settled it.”
The next day, October 24, 1933, Swing was notified by an official of the new Public Works Administration that the canal had been approved as an emergency project and $6,000,000 allocated to start the work.
While the nation was awaiting the change in the administration in Washington, the financial situation reached a crisis because of heavy withdrawals of funds from banks. Bank shareholders as well as depositors were nervous and distressed.
Governor Rolph declared legal holidays in California which forced the closing of San Diego banks for four days early in March of 1933. They re-opened March 7 under the authority of the Secretary of Treasury, for limited transactions, and remained in this condition, and during the national bank holiday declared by President Roosevelt, until March 14.
Since the beginning of the Twenties only two banks had failed in San Diego County. A third one, in Oceanside, failed just before the bank holiday. A fourth bank, in East San Diego, did not re-open after the emergency. No signs of panic were noticeable in San Diego, however, and $5,000,000 in script, which had been printed to be used if the bank closing were extended indefinitely, was never issued.
Upon the re-opening, the number of new deposits exceeded cash withdrawals. San Diego County emerged from the bank holiday with eleven institutions in operation. A merger reduced the total to ten by the end of 1933, of which four were national banks and six state banks.
Two other financial institutions, savings and loan companies which had flourished almost unregulated with the boom, were affected. One liquidated voluntarily and the other was declared bankrupt. Others remained open under restrictions.
Control of one of San Diego’s major banks, however, changed hands in the Spring preceding the bank holiday. A group led by C. Arnholt Smith, an officer of the Bank of America in Los Angeles, acquired control of the United States National Bank. Smith had begun his banking career in San Diego as a messenger.
The largest downtown business to close its doors was Holzwasser’s department store at Fifth Street and Broadway. The San Diego Athletic Club, which had been enlarged even during construction to include residence quarters, was bankrupt, and continuing losses had to be absorbed by a few individuals who had personally guaranteed loans. The La Jolla Beach and Yacht Club was opened in the summer of 1927 in a La Jolla Shores area then known as Long Beach, but plans to dredge a slough and create a yacht harbor had to be abandoned. Eventually the property and beach rights were sold to a retired newspaper publisher and regular summer resident of La Jolla, Frederick William Kellogg.
The statistics of the times tell the story of San Diego’s continuing economic decline. Hearings before the California Unemployment Commission in November of 1932 indicated that in the county there were 16,000 persons unemployed and 4000 families on direct relief, out of a population of a little more than 223,000. By 1933 the unemployed totaled 23,000.
The value of manufactured products decreased from almost $38,000,000 in 1929 to about $16,000,000 in 1933. Industry was represented by food processing, packing and canning of various kinds, all exported; boat building, some furniture manufacturing, metal working, lumber milling and wood products related to building; and scores of other pursuits normally associated with community existence.
Throughout the state the total of unemployed had risen to more than 700,000 persons, half of whom lived in Los Angeles County. The value of farm products had declined from $750,000,000 to $372,000,000.
A certain stability was effected in the economy of San Diego by military spending, which continued to rise during the depression. Military payrolls rose from $16,000,000 in 1929 to $20,000,000 in 1934. However, the regular comings and goings of Navy ships, and their occasional long absences on fleet exercises, caused sharp fluctuations in business. It always was a big event when the ships returned from distant waters. Income from agriculture was the county’s second greatest source of income, and it remained so during the depression. The low decrease in income from sales, from $10,695,300 in 1930 to $8,168,021 in 1933, indicated that farmers were kept busy. The annual value of crops in the Imperial Valley, however, dropped from $40,000,000 to $19,000,000.
The value of canned fish products dropped from $7,351,781 in 1930 to $3,188,661 in 1932, but the demand continued strong and the number of persons employed in fishing and canning increased slightly during the same period. Cannery workers rose from 1415 to 1555. Tuna fishermen, however, were hard hit, not only by the depression but by Japanese imports. The tuna catch of California fishing boats had exceeded 100 million pounds in 1930 for the first time. The next year it fell to sixty million pounds. Recovery was slow until 1934 when the import duty on tuna canned in oil was raised. In one year the catch jumped to more than 125 million pounds.
The value of yearly city building permits, once more than $20,000,000, had sunk to a little more than $2,000,000 by 1932. Most of this represented repairs or alterations. In another year they would dip to $1,800,000. A special federal census in 1934 reported that of more than 39,000 single family dwellings, 2842 were vacant.
The percent of tax delinquencies reflected the collapse of the real estate market and the effects of the Mattoon Act. Property tax delinquencies in 1928-1929 were only 2.76 percent. Four years later in 1933 they were 17.1 percent.
The highest rates of tax delinquencies were in the road improvement districts. The value of the land and improvements in the fifty-six districts was nearly fourteen million dollars, and the total bond and tax liabilities were more than sixteen million dollars. City and county taxes were not being paid on half the properties and in 1935 in eleven of the improvement districts no payments on bonds were made. Under the law property owners could not pay their city and county taxes without at the same time paying the district assessments. Most of the other 32,000 owners soon abandoned payment of taxes and improvement levies and some of the bonds dropped in value to as low as fifteen cents on the dollar. As a result more than $2,500,000 in tax revenue was being lost, or added to the general tax burden of other property owners in the county.
Most of the land had been improved for speculative purposes, and the prospective buyers had never come. The assessed values in land and improvements in the Rolando No. 1 development had dropped to $31,651, but the bond and tax liability was $330,794. The land and improvements in Fletcher Hills were assessed at only $58,760, but the total of bonds, coupons and taxes against the property was $978,562. The Paradise Hills development had assessed values of $13,013 and a bond liability of $592,442. One owner whose property was assessed at $100 received a 1935 tax assessment of $43,816.
The Causeway project, the most costly improvement which obligated property with an assessed valuation of more than seven million dollars, was in relatively good shape, with a total liability of only $1,710,615. However, the delinquency rate was fifty-eight percent in 1934. In Rancho Santa Fe, one of the more prosperous developments, the bond liabilities were about three-fourths the value of all land and improvements, and the delinquency rate was only thirty percent.
Oscar Cotton, the real estate broker and co-founder of the San Diego-California Club, in his memoirs wrote:
“Those were the days when building managers asked prospective tenants how much rent they could afford to pay, and that was it…Sale prices were so low it was actually sickening. Level, half-acre lots in Bostonia, with water pipes, sold for $99. Good, five-room houses right in town went for $3000 to $4500 with 10 percent down, and others not so good, for $2500. Occasionally a smaller house would bring as little as $1500. Business properties were just as low in proportion. It was all most depressing, but the town had been much overbuilt and overexpanded during the lush Twenties, and here we were again, absolutely stranded with thousands of properties for sale, and only an occasional buyer.”
The most spectacular real estate collapse involved Sunset Cliffs where more than $3,000,000 worth of lots had been sold on contract. The high building restrictions written into the deeds made the land unsalable and unusable in a time of depression. Contracts to purchase were simply allowed to lapse. John P. Mills and his partners also suffered experiences with the law, growing out of wild boom-time parties. Mills lost many thousands of dollars across the gambling tables at Agua Caliente and his home and yacht were attached. The fortune of $6,000,000 with which he came to San Diego disappeared.
The Spreckels interests still represented a large area of San Diego’s economy and the depression had made it more difficult to liquidate properties. In 1932 Frank J. Belcher Jr., who had headed a local syndicate which purchased control of the First National Bank from the estate, became president of the J.D. & A.B. Spreckels companies at San Francisco. A year later the Spreckels companies sold their remaining interest in the San Diego & Arizona Railway to the Southern Pacific. This railroad, of all his achievements, had been John D. Spreckels’ greatest pride.
For a period the City Council and the Board of Supervisors had tried to stem the economic slide by providing relief at the rate of $40,000 a month. When they came to the end of their resources, the burden was shifted to the state, and there followed one relief or public works agency after another, and they in turn were followed or supplemented by federal agencies.
Though the San Diego-California Club had agreed to reduce its appeals to new settlers, so as not to attract persons looking for work or for easy relief, the inflow of tourists and visitors continued fairly strong during the depression. The climate also proved to be a lure to the unemployed in other sections of California, particularly in the Central Valleys, and anyone who could provide some scrap of medical advice fled the interior for the cooler coast. They represented a goodly proportion of those on relief in San Diego County.
This experience was quite different from the sudden and devastating collapse of the Boom of the Eighties. In six months, in late 1888 and early 1889, San Diego’s population dropped from 35,000 to 16,000.
The California Department of Agriculture checked 281,120 autos into Southern California in 1930, and they brought 759,923 visitors. Eighty percent of the cars were late models. Two years later, 80,000 out-of-state cars entered through Yuma on the Broadway of America. Many tourists always had been persons of moderate or high incomes who could afford to vacation or winter in Southern California. The tourist income in 1929 was calculated at about $15,000,000. No figures are available for the following three years, but in 1933 the income from tourists was estimated at about $13,000,000.
In a study of why tourists who visited San Diego decided to remain, the San Diego-California Club found that the beaches attracted twenty-six percent; gardening, seventeen percent; schools and other facilities for the proper training of children, seventeen percent; outdoor sports such as golf, yachting, tennis, rowing and swimming, seven percent; and business opportunities due to the city’s prospects for growth, sixteen percent. By questionnaires the comprehensive campaign concluded that approximately two-thirds of San Diego tourists and visitors chose to make the city their permanent home.
In the early reactions to the depression the voters had repeatedly rejected various civic projects but the city was being shaped advantageously nevertheless. In retrospect, it was a period of significant achievement as well as defeats.
On November 7, 1931, the aircraft carrier Saratoga, after waiting out a fog, steamed into San Diego Harbor with Captain Frank B. McCrary in command. The carrier had been built on the hull of a battle cruiser eliminated by a disarmament conference, and was 888 feet long and had a crew of 2000 men. She dropped anchor 1500 feet off the Broadway Pier in a turning basin that had been dredged while the city was obtaining material for the tidelands fill for Lindbergh Field.
The Saratoga fired a thirteen-gun salute for Rear Admiral Thomas J. Senn, commandant of the 11th Naval District, and it was answered by the guns of the Naval Air Station. The historic bay of the Spanish explorers had been opened to the mightiest ships of the United States Navy and from then on it would be “home port” for the Navy’s air force in the Pacific. Ten years and one month later Pearl Harbor would be attacked and the bay would be a principal port for the greatest war in history.
Nine months later Navy and Marine fliers joined with the Army in putting 420 airplanes in the air over San Diego. It was the greatest mass aerial flight in the world’s history and was in honor of visiting members of the National Editorial Association and other news reporters on the West Coast to attend the opening of the 10th Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The date was July 28, 1932.
Captain John A. Towers, who led the first Navy flight across the Atlantic Ocean, was in command of 300 Navy planes in the mass flight, as chief of staff to Rear Admiral Harry E. Yarnell, commanding aircraft, Battle Force. There were twenty-eight “giant flying boats” capable of carrying a ton of bombs each and a dozen new torpedo-carrying bombers. Major Carl Spatz led the Army’s 17th pursuit group of fifty-seven planes through intricate aerial “snake-dance” maneuvers.
Following the air review, Amelia Earhart, the only woman to twice fly the Atlantic Ocean, participated in dedicating the new terminal and administration building at Lindbergh Field, which was being built privately by Claude Ryan, and in unveiling a plaque to Charles Lindbergh in whose honor the field had been named.
Several years before, the arrival of the Saratoga and the great air display would have brought an outpouring of predictions of San Diego’s future. In the depth of a depression the mood of the public was more on the moment than on a visionary tomorrow.
The first buildings of the new San Diego State College were dedicated in a three-day ceremony, May 1, 2 and 3, 1931, and a visiting Spanish official pronounced them the finest and purest Spanish style of architecture he had found in any group of buildings outside of Spain. Classes already had begun and 2000 students enrolled. Though still technically a teachers’ college, its curriculum had been expanded to 200 courses and the granting of bachelor degrees. Dr. Edward L. Hardy, college president, said that while teacher colleges should provide the same educational facilities available in other major population centers, there was no thought of attempting to have them become graduate or professional schools.
Three months later, through public subscription, a partial restoration of the San Diego Mission, the “mother mission” of the Spanish period, was completed under the direction of Albert S. Mayrhofer.
The San Diego Zoo grew from a meager exhibit of wild animals to an institution. Seamen from all parts of the world had brought contributions. Native animals, birds and reptiles were traded on all continents. Wealthy men from all over the Pacific Coast made long voyages in their yachts for specimens. San Diegans from all walks of life contributed for the purchase of particular exhibits and facilities. The zoo also got its first full-time director. Mrs. Belle J. Benchley, who had been bookkeeper and then executive secretary, became the only woman zoo director in the country.
Until the Thirties the San Diego Zoological Society, under the leadership of Dr. Harry Wegeforth, had never quite achieved an independence that would remove an ever-present threat of being forced out of Balboa Park or subjected to the direction of other political or civic groups. The society had been defeated in its efforts to acquire permanent possession of park lands. It had won, however, a share of the tax revenues and then had lost them with the adoption of a new Charter.
In 1932 the county assessor, James Hervey Johnson, insisted that the San Diego Zoological Society was a private organization and thus owed the city $100,000 in back taxes on the animals and other collections in its possession. When the society refused to pay, Johnson set up a stand at the zoo and attempted to auction them off. No bids were received, so Johnson declared them all sold to the state.
It finally was ruled that the sale had been held on a holiday and therefore was not legal. To settle the doubts that had arisen, the zoo collections were deeded to the city and then in 1934 the people voted a permanent special tax of two cents on each $100 of assessed valuation for the zoo’s support.
During the depression, in the later phases of the Works Progress Administration, new structures and cages were added and an amphitheater built.
The passage of the years had brought the exposition buildings, with the exception of the permanent California quadrangle, into decay. An architect, Richard S. Requa, later recorded their appearance in the Spring of 1933:
“Foundations of buildings and arcades were almost entirely decomposed; towers and facades were tilting forward drunkenly; and whole sections of cornices and parapets had broken away and dropped into the shrubbery at their base.
“Large areas of the stuccoed walls had fallen, exposing the skeletons of temporary construction behind. The danger to the public had become so apparent that spaces were roped off around the crumbling sections and the City Council ordered an investigation to be made by the Building Department.”
The buildings were promptly condemned and their removal recommended. The proposed casting down of the buildings which had made Balboa Park the showplace of the West aroused a storm of indignation. A group of citizens led by Miss Gertrude Gilbert, who had been in charge of music at the exposition, suggested a campaign for funds to restore the buildings and was given one week to prove that they could be saved. A contractor, Walter P. Trepte, volunteered to determine the amount of money that would be needed, and it proved to be a third of that estimated by the city.
Newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce and hundreds of volunteers joined in a campaign. Within a month enough money had been raised to assure federal emergency financial contributions. Restoration was completed in about a year.
The San Diego Society of Natural History, oldest scientific organization in Southern California, had found a home in the exposition buildings, first in the Nevada Building and then in one of the large park structures, the Canadian Building at the east end of the Prado, on the south side. A desire for a permanent home led to a fund drive in 1931, just before the deepening of the depression. Ellen Browning Scripps assured its success with a donation of $125,000. The site selected was that of the original Southern California Counties Building, which had stood on the north side of the Prado at the east gateway to the exposition grounds and which had burned down in 1925. The stated purpose of the society was to explore and interpret the natural sciences in San Diego County and adjacent regions.
The new museum was dedicated on January 13, 1933. Miss Scripps, however, did not live to see it completed, though continuing support came from a foundation she had established. She died on August 3,1932. An editorial of the time said:
“The daughter of a London bookbinder, who became a prairie farmer, gave a new glory to American womanhood by a life that added the best of the new to the best of the old.”
The San Diego Museum, which began with the “Science of Man” and Mayan exhibits from the first exposition, for years was a depository for other random collections of no particular anthropological, archaeological or ethnological significance. In time, however, and quartered in the permanent buildings of the California quadrangle, the San Diego Museum Association changed the institution’s name to the San Diego Museum of Man and later it was decided to specialize in the native cultures of the three Americas. Meanwhile, one of its staff, Malcolm J. Rogers, was roaming the deserts of the Southwest and slowly putting together a story of ancient hunters who had lived in the area 10,000 or more years ago.
When the Fine Arts Gallery was opened in the park in 1926, the only works of art it possessed were gifts of sculpture, tapestries and a few paintings contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Appleton Bridges, Mr. and Mrs. Archer M. Huntington, and Mrs. Alma de Bretteville-Spreckels and her children. The collections increased rapidly, with gifts, and then through purchases made possible by the Helen M. Towle Fund created from a bequest by her in 1935.
A survey of the possibilities for more parks in California was made in 1928 by Frederick Law Olmstead, an internationally known landscape architect whose firm had been involved in some of the early planning for the 1915-1916 exposition. His report to the state described the fragile nature of deserts and how any manmade disturbances could affect changes that nature might require a hundred years to repair, if it ever could be done:
“As in the case of ancient redwood forests, only such public action by the present generation on an adequate scale can preserve this heritage for the people of the centuries to come.”
The first plans for a park in the Anza-Borrego Desert, an arm of the vast Sonoran Desert extending deep into Mexico, and lying just east of the coastal mountain ranges, were submitted by Clinton G. Abbott, director of the Museum of Natural History in San Diego, and Guy L. Fleming of La Jolla, who had been instrumental in the effort to preserve the rare Torrey Pines on the coast between La Jolla and Del Mar.
Soon after the depression had begun, voters had rejected a bond issue to match state funds to acquire land for a park in Borrego Canyon; for a 1500-acre park on Palomar Mountain; a park on the Silver Strand which connected Coronado with the mainland; and for an estuary park between Del Mar and Oceanside.
George Marston, however, on his own initiative purchased 2320 acres in the desert, mostly in Borrego Palm Canyon, deeded them to the state, and induced other owners to sell 5500 more acres which were placed in trust for acquisition by the state. Then in cooperation with Marston and the State Park Commission, Representative Swing and Senator Johnson introduced a second Swing-Johnson bill in Congress that successfully transferred almost 200,000 acres of federal land to Borrego State Park in March 1933.
In 1929 the State Legislature also had designated Mission Bay as a state park and the city had prepared a suggested plan of development. This had been talked about for thirty years. The plan was modified from time to time but the project could not surmount the depression.
The years were quiet and life had a rhythm different from that of the boom years. Even those who had come to speculate in land settled into a way of life that was to persist until World War II. The parks, beaches, bays and climate were free and there was room enough for everybody. For excitement there were always accidents of man and the occasional lash of nature.
Shortly after 3 o’clock on the morning of May 30, 1931, in heavy fog, the coastal steamer Harvard, with 500 passengers, ran on the rocks of Point Arguello, north of Santa Barbara, near where seven United States destroyers had gone aground in 1923. The passengers were removed in lifeboats and taken to San Pedro aboard the cruiser Louisville, where those originally bound for San Diego were put aboard buses. The Harvard and its sister ship, the Yale, had been familiar sights of the San Diego waterfront.
San Diego had the highest of hopes of becoming the West Coast base for the Navy’s giant dirigibles. The U.S.S. Akron was brought to San Diego in May of 1932 on its trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and was to be moored at Camp Kearny on the Linda Vista mesa.
Thousands of persons were on hand to greet the silver ship of the air. Just when it seemed that the mooring was to be completed, the ship lunged upward in a wind and veered away. Three young sailors were carried aloft, still clinging to the mooring ropes. At 300 feet, two of them slipped and fell to their deaths. The third clung to the rope for an hour and a half before being pulled into the dirigible’s cabin.
San Diego was never selected as a site for a dirigible base and the giant ships were to have but a short life with the Navy. Less than a year later the Akron dropped into the sea with a loss of seventy-three lives. In 1935 the Macon was lost off Point Sur in California.
A tremendous earthquake rocked Southern California the evening of March 10, 1933. Long Beach, less than a hundred miles north of San Diego, was the hardest hit, with fifty-six deaths and $25,000,000 in damage. In all, 121 persons died. While the shock was felt sharply in San Diego, there was no damage nor panic.
With the passions of war rising in Europe and Asia the Communists chose San Diego, as a military center, for a demonstration on Memorial Day, May 30, 1933. Representatives of the Young Communist League of Los Angeles had applied for a parade permit but it was denied when they refused to give assurances that the Red flag would not be shown.
Trucks carrying an estimated 300 Communists converged on San Diego on Memorial Day and unloaded them at New Town Park. Speakers described Franklin D. Roosevelt as a “Wall Street President” and placards protested “imperialistic war,” the “boss class” and the capitalistic system, and insisted that the military air maneuvers conducted over San Diego were helping to get the country involved in an international war.
When they attempted to form a parade line and march into the street, while singing the Internationale, they were met by a solid phalanx of police officers. A riot ensued in which two officers received broken bones, a number of others were injured, and an estimated thirty demonstrators hurt. It ended with the discharge of one tear gas shell.
Eight demonstrators were jailed and the rest climbed back into their trucks, taking their wounded with them, and were escorted to the city limits. It had been the first radical riot in San Diego since the I.W.W. troubles of 1912.
While the number of persons on relief in the state had jumped to more than 1,250,000, seventy percent of whom lived in Southern California, the depression seemed to touch bottom in San Diego County in 1934 and level out. The Navy was spending $1,400,000 on construction projects, the Army $1,800,000, most of it at Rockwell Field, and the Post Office Department $755,000 for a new building. However, 13,671 men and 3132 women were still listed as unemployed. The Civil Works Administration found jobs for 6621 of them and was succeeded by the State Emergency Relief Administration. The SERA provided work for 5200 persons and at Christmas time in 1934 distributed food to 7600 families.
The depression had not defeated Edmund Price and his struggling little Solar Aircraft Company in the converted fish cannery. A tie vote on the board of directors, as to whether the company should die or live, had been broken by Price.
Price was aware of the danger to airplanes and pilots by the failure of engine exhaust manifolds, and began to experiment with new types. He was assisted by Fred Rohr, his plant manager who had helped to build Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and had remained in San Diego when the Mahoney plant was removed to St. Louis. From the use of regular steel Price turned to heat resistant alloys and produced a series of stainless steel manifolds for the U.S. Navy. For one period employees went six weeks without pay. At the end of 1933 the company had orders which would take them a month to fill and had increased the payroll from a low of four to twenty-seven.
In his new location on Lindbergh Field, where he was operating a successful flying school and aircraft service, Claude Ryan returned to the production of airplanes. Though company after company had disappeared before the winds of adversity, Ryan knew that aviation was just emerging. He designed the Ryan S-T monoplane, America’s first small airplane of all-metal construction.
Confidence was returning. There were indications that the worst was over in San Diego. There was talk of a county-wide movement for a bond issue to buy up Mattoon district improvement bonds and return $14,000,000 in property to the tax rolls and to the realty market. The value of building permits rose in 1934 by more than $700,000 above the depression’s low point. Revenue from the tourist trade was up perhaps by $1,500,000. Vacant dwellings were being taken up. The city was continuing to grow in population. In four years it was estimated that the city had increased by 17,000 and the county as a whole by 32,000. Agricultural revenues rose $500,000 for the year, and the value of canned sea products went up $300,000.
In the Imperial Valley, after a struggle of a generation, 300 settlers assembled in the heat of midsummer of 1934 near Pilot Knob to watch a huge power shovel make the first excavation for the All-American Canal. At Pilot Knob the water of the Colorado would be turned away from its old route into Mexico and taken along the international border and then up into the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. At the levers of the power shovel was Mark Rose, who twenty-two years before had begun the agitation to control the Colorado River.
The restoration of the temporary exposition buildings in Balboa Park was proceeding, when a suggestion was made that San Diego should hold another exposition. The idea came from Frank Drugan, a former salesman and promoter of newspaper features who had lost his home and office in the Long Beach earthquake and had moved to San Diego. Baron Long, operator of the U.S. Grant Hotel, and his partners in Agua Caliente, were ready to listen, as were representatives of the Spreckels interests and the San Diego Consolidated Gas & Electric Company.
Though San Diego already had an exposition plant that had been kept almost intact, his idea at first was received with little enthusiasm from the rest of the community. It was in the summer of 1933. San Diegans had heard it before, and a few persons once even had tried to arouse interest in it, without success. But Drugan was not easily turned aside. He decided to visit the Century of Progress exposition then being presented in Chicago and go on to New York and Washington to sound out the possibilities of industrial and government participation.
Across the continent in Buffalo, New York, a decision was being reached that would forever alter the course of the growth of San Diego. Consolidated Aircraft Corporation had begun producing flying boats for the Navy, but ice-choked water and freezing flying conditions had hampered testing and demonstration flights.
Nearly a hundred years before another resident of the cold lands of eastern New York state had turned his face westward in the search of a better climate. After a number of years in Wisconsin, he had gone to California. In 1867 he stepped ashore at San Diego and changed it forever. He was Alonzo E. Horton, founder of the modern city.
For more than five years Major Reuben H. Fleet, Consolidated’s president, had carefully surveyed all cities in the United States having more than 100,000 population and finally decided on a location somewhere in Southern California. In his own summary Fleet later stated:
“Twice each year I flew around the country examining localities and municipal airports. We wanted a site on a publicly owned and operated airport having a publicly owned waterfront on a good but not congested harbor, with a seaplane base and ramp on adjacent water, in a city large enough to furnish a reasonable supply of labor and materials, in a southern clime unhampered by snow and ice and yet not unbearably hot, with all-year-round flying weather for test flying and flight deliveries.”
A strong effort to lure Consolidated to Long Beach was made by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. But, San Diego, with its Lindbergh Field on the edge of the bay, met every physical requirement for seaplane as well as land plane operations, as the planner John Nolen had foreseen. And it was in this area where Fleet had learned to fly with the Army’s Signal Corps at Rockwell Field. And here were friends of his former military flying days, Major T.C. Macaulay, who had been an instructor at Rockwell Field and now was manager of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, and Thomas Bomar, who headed the Chamber’s aviation department.
Consolidated signed a qualified agreement to come to San Diego, if a decision to move was made. The company had more than 800 employees and $9,000,000 in unfilled orders for airplanes. In one stroke San Diego could enter the realm of industry that had so tantalized its more energetic promoters for generations.
Just two years before, as the depression settled over the country, there had been expressions of thankfulness that San Diego had not become an industrial city. But now the Harbor Commission sent one of its members, Emil Klicka, to Buffalo to argue for a move to San Diego before the company’s directors who were seriously questioning its advisability. San Diego won. Consolidated Aircraft would relocate on Lindbergh Field.
Return to Books.
THE RISING TIDE
Ch. 1 Envy of Cities
Ch. 2 Charting a Way
Ch. 3 Water is King
Ch. 4 The Flush Years
Ch. 5 The Long Chase
Ch. 6 The Boom Fades
Ch. 7 The Quiet Years
Ch. 8 Creating a Fair
Ch. 9 Making a River
Ch. 10 Changes of War