History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART TWO: CHAPTER 11: Annals of the Close of Old San Diego

In 1850, the first steamship line between San Francisco and San Diego was established, touching at San Pedro, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey. The first line was owned by a San Franciscan named Wright. In 1856 he transferred it to the California Steam Navigation Company, and they soon sold to the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. The first steamers were the Ohio, Goliah, and Fremont, while the Southerner, Senator, and Thomas Hunt also ran at times. In later years the Ancon and Orizaba were the regular coastwise steamers. They were all side-wheelers of small tonnage. As they approached the wharf at San Diego, it was the custom to fire a cannon-shot from the bow, to give notice of their arrival.

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s steamers from Pan­ama also called twice a month. Among those calling in 1851 were the Northerner, Tennessee, Antelope, and others. The fare from New York to San Francisco was, first class, $330; second class, $290; and steerage, $165.

The coastwise trade opened briskly under American rule. In the first number of the Herald, May 29, 1851, the marine list for ten days shows eleven vessels of all classes arrived and ten cleared, and the following week four arrived and three cleared. In December, traffic was so brisk that the steamer Sea Bird was chartered from the Pacific Mail Company, and put on the route between San Diego and San Francisco by Captain Haley.

In 1857 two packets ran regularly to the Sandwich Islands. The fare for passengers was $80, and the trip was made in about twelve days.

The first boat of American build regularly used on San Diego Bay is believed to have been the one brought here in 1850 by Lieutenant Cave J. Couts. It was built for the use of the boundary survey expedition under Lieutenant A. W. Whipple, and first launched in Lake Michigan. This boat was 16 feet long and 5 feet 6 inches wide. It was equipped with wheels on which it traveled overland, and was used for crossing rivers on the way. At Camp Calhoun, on the California side of the Colorado River, late in the year of 1849, Couts purchased this boat and used it for a ferry. On his return to San Diego, he brought it with him and used it to navigate the waters of San Diego Bay.

On August 13, 1857, occurred one of those historically import­ant “first events.” The schooner Loma, the first vessel ever built on the San Diego Bay, was launched. She was built at the shipyard of Captain James Keating, and was christened, as the Herald informs us, “in due and ancient form.”


As traffic increased, and as there were neither lighthouse nor buoys, it was inevitable that wrecks should occur, although a storm seldom ruffled the surface of the bay. The first wreck at San Diego was that of the pilot boat Fanny, on the night of December 24, 1851. She had been out cruising for the Northerner, was anchored just outside Ballast Point, and, a gale ris­ing, was driven ashore and lost.

The only other wreck during this period of which there is any record was that of the Golden Gate, Captain Isham, in January, 1854. This steamer came up from Panama with a large number of passengers. She broke a shaft, below San Diego, and came in with only one wheel working, arriving on Wednesday the 18th. Her provisions were nearly exhausted and the passengers very hungry. After securing supplies, she put to sea again on the evening of the same day, in a storm. Her engine gave out, and, in spite of attempts to anchor, she was driven ashore on Zuñinga shoal. The Goliah was in the harbor and went to her assistance, but could do nothing. The next morning the passengers, after a night of terror, were taken off in safety with the exception of one man, I. M. Gibson, who was killed by falling down the steam­er’s hold in the night. The passengers were distributed among the houses of the town, and considerable difficulty was experienced in providing accommodations for them all. One of their number was the Very Reverend Wm. I. Kip, then on his way to take charge of the new Episcopal bishopric of California. The use of the court-house was secured for him and he preached one sermon while here. The Southerner arrived the next day, and with the Goliah carried the passengers away soon after.


The steamer Columbia arrived on the 20th and, the storm abating, succeeded after hard work in pulling the Golden Gate safely off the sand-bar, just a week from the day of her arrival. She had three feet of water in her hold, but was not badly damaged, and soon left for San Francisco and arrived there safely.

In the days of Mexican rule, the mails were carried twice a week between San Diego and San Francisco, on horseback, by way of the old “Camino Real,” from mission to mission. The service was fairly well performed, in a leisurely way; or, if it was not, little complaint was made. In March, 1847, General Kearny established, for military purposes, a semi-weekly horse­ mail between the same points. The alcaldes acted as postmasters, and as there were no other postal facilities, it was ordered that the citizens “be accommodated by having their letters and papers sent free of expense.”


The beginnings of regular mail service were slow and unsat­isfactory. The semi-monthly Panama steamer carried the mails from 1849. The local service was such as to cause the Herald to complain bitterly. On September 11, 1851, it declared that “during a period of more than two years there has been no reg­ularly appointed postmaster at San Diego, nor to those who have acted has there been more than a pittance allowed for the performance of their duty. Sometimes the mails go, and when this happens, they are taken to the landing by some transient con­veyance, which admits of no certainty or security in their deliv­ery to the proper agent for receiving them. We advise the cit­izens of San Diego to place no dependence upon the mails, but to send their letters through by any other channel.” This last sentence doubtless referred to the express companies, between whom and the post office department there was considerable riv­alry at the time. The same complaints as to insufficient pay and poor service came from all parts of the Pacific coast.

In June, 1851, the rate of postage on letters was reduced from forty cents to six cents. Complaints about poor service contin­ued and Editor Ames made a practice of getting his exchanges from the pursers of the steamers, instead of depending upon the mails.

Soon after the United States took possession of the Gadsden Purchase, a semi-weekly mail service was put on between San Antonio and San Diego, by G. H. Giddings and J. C. Woods. The first mail by this line left San Diego on August 9, 1857, carried on pack animals under the care of R. W. Laine, a young man of San Diego County. The first overland mail to arrive was on the 31st of the same month, under the care of James E. Mason, and was the occasion of great rejoicing. It had made the unprecedented time of 34 days from San Antonio.

JOHN G. CAPRON. Who owned the stage line and mail contract from Los Angeles to El Paso, 913 miles, between 1867 and 1884. Closely identified with the movement which brought the Santa Fe railroad.

In September, 1857, the government entered into a contract with John Butterfield and his associates for carrying the mails between St. Louis and the Pacific Coast, at a cost of $600,000 a year. The preparations were very elaborate, and the regulations read curiously at this day. Each passenger on the mail coach was required to provide himself with a Sharp’s rifle, 100 cartridges, a Colt’s revolver, belt and holster, knife and sheath, a pair of thick boots and woolen pants, underclothing, a soldier’s overcoat, one pair of woolen blankets, an India rubber blanket, and a bag with needles, thread, sponge, brush, comb, soap, and towels. The coaches were drawn most of the way by six horses. The sub-contractors were Jennings and Doyle, and in 1859 Dana speaks of Doyle as living in San Diego. When the Civil War came on, the military posts in Arizona and New Mexico were withdrawn and the Southern mail route abandoned. There had been much trouble with Indians, especially in Arizona with the Apaches, and the protection was never adequate.

In 1865, the overland mail by the Southern route was resumed, but it went to Los Angeles by way of Warner’s Pass, and thence to San Francisco, missing San Diego. In 1867, Major Ben. C. Truman was appointed postal agent for California and used his influence to have the route changed to ran by way of San Diego. The contractors, Thompson & Griffith, had been losing money, and took advantage of this change to abandon their contract. Mr. John G. Capron, who was then living in Tucson and had been engaged in the mail route business for some years, driving for Jennings & Doyle and others, thereupon went to Washing­ton and secured the contract between Los Angeles and El Paso, 913 miles. He then moved to San Diego, and continued to oper­ate this line for seven years, from 1867 to 1874. The portions of the route between El Paso and Tucson, and from San Diego to Los Angeles, were sublet. Mr. Capron tells many interesting stories of his troubles with the Apache Indians in Arizona, but the California Indians never gave him much trouble.

In 1847, a census of San Diego County was taken by Captain Davis of the Mormon Company, by order of Colonel Stevenson. It showed the following:

Population of whites . . . 248
Tame Indians or neophyte . . . 483
Wild Indians or gentiles . . . 1550
Sandwich Islanders . . . 3
Negroes . . . 3
Total population of county. . . 2287

The seventh national census, taken in 1850, gave San Diego County a population of 798 and the town (including La Playa) 650,—this, of course, not including Indians. In 1860 the county had 4,324 and in 1870, 4,951.

The first county assessment roll, in 1850, shows the value of taxable property to have been:

Ranch lands . . . $255,281
10 stores with capital of . . . 65,395
6 vineyards, value not stated
87 houses . . . 104,302
6789 head of cattle. . . 92,280
Total . . . $517,258

The assessment roll for the city of San Diego gave the following valuations:

San Diego (Old Town) . . $264,210
New Town (Graytown, or Davis’s Folly) . . . 80,050
Middletown . . . 30,000
Total . . . $375,260

In January, 1852, the Herald said there was not a vacant house in the town, and that over 200 people had recently arrived. In 1853, flour sold at $22 per barrel, pork from 32 to 35 cents, barley at 4 cents, rice at 10 cents, sugar from 14 to 20 cents, and potatoes from 5 to 5 ½ cents, per pound.


By the next year (1854) the town was not so prosperous, and a public meeting was held to consider the state of the country, at which a proposal to construct a good road to Temecula, for the purpose of securing the Mormon trade, was considered. In May, 1855, eggs sold for 50 cents per dozen and butter at 50 cents per pound. The best flour came from San Bernardino and was preferred to that from Chile. The Herald complains of a want of enterprise and says the town is going down hill.

In 1856, flour was worth $6 per cwt. at the mill, wheat 22½ cents per pound, barley 4 cents per pound, and hay $35 per ton.

In 1859, times were hard and the town dull. The Herald says a tailor, shoemaker, watchmaker, and gunsmith are needed, but is gratified to learn that “several of our merchants and mechan­ics, who intended to leave this place on account of dull times, have come to the conclusion to remain a little while longer.”

On May 29, 1851, the following Old Town advertisements appeared in the first number of the Herald:

“Marks and Fletcher, general merchandise, west side of the plaza;
Exchange Hotel and Billiard Saloon, G. P. Tebbetts & Co., plaza;
Pantoja House, Chas. J. Laning, east side of plaza;
Colorado House, H. J. Couts, plaza;
Frederick J. Painter, M.D., plaza.”

Nearly all the flour and grain used in the country at this period was imported, although most ranches had small patches of corn, beans, and wheat for home consumption. In 1853, more grain, principally barley, was raised in the little valley of Viejas than in all the rest of the country. It was hauled in to Old Town, in Mexican carts, over a wild, broken country, without roads a great part of the way, Captain Bogart was not dis­couraged by the destruction of his crop of barley by antelope and rabbits on North Island in 1852, but persevered and raised good crops at that place, in 1855 and 1856.


Among the first to practice agriculture successfully were Colonel Eddy and Robert Kelly, owners of the Jamacha Rancho, who planted 300 acres to rye, wheat, oats, barley, and potatoes in 1852, and made a success of it.

One of the most interesting ventures of the time was the tan­nery of Louis Rose, established in 1853. It was situated in Rose’s Canyon, about six miles from town and was quite com­pletely fitted up. There were 20 bark vats, 2 cisterns with a capacity of 500 gallons each, 6 lime and water vats, a bark mill, an adobe house for currying leather, and several force pumps. The vats had a capacity of from 80 to 100 hides. The head tanner was Mr. Rose’s nephew, N. J. Alexander. Bark was hauled a distance of ten miles and cost $12 to $15 per ton. Hides, of course, were plentiful, and were obtained in exchange for leather products. He employed a Mexican workman who made up the leather into shoes, botas, and saddles. He used in one year 3,500 hides and 1,500 skins of deer, goat, sheep, and sea-lion, and sold $8,000 worth of products. It is not easy to determine whether the business paid, but Alexander died in 1854, and it was abandoned soon after.

LOUIS ROSE. A very notable business man of the early days, whose name is perpetuated by Rose Canyon and Roseville.

Mr. Rose was an unusually enterprising man and engaged in many undertakings. At one time, he undertook the manufacture of mattresses from sea-weed; he prospected for coal at the mouth of Rose’s Canyon, and thought he had a deposit of valuable clay. He gave considerable attention to copper and silver mines in San Diego County, and in January, 1858, it was stated that he had sold a half interest in these mines for $30,000. At that time, there were about 1,000 tons of ore ready to ship. Mr. Rose is also remembered as the founder of Roseville.

One of the most interesting episodes of the early days was the work of some Mormons, bent upon the enterprise of mining coal on the north shore of Point Loma, late in 1855, in response to a “revelation.” Obtaining a lease of land from the city trustees, they proceeded to make borings which penetrated several strata of coal, ranging from three inches to a foot in thickness. In April, 1856, they announced that they had discovered a vein of good coal four and a half feet thick near the old light-house on Point Loma, and began to sink a shaft. Considerable machinery was installed and a few experienced miners, as well as engineers, employed, but nothing came of the enterprise. Naturally, it excited high hopes while it lasted.



A curious aftermath of the Garra uprising in 1851 was the belated arrival of a party of rough characters from San Fran­cisco in the role of volunteers for the protection of the country against the Indians. At the beginning of the outbreak, the governor had been asked for assistance and had enlisted a large company to go to San Diego in response to this appeal. Just as they were about to sail, the governor was notified that the trouble was over, but about fifty of the volunteers refused to be deprived of their adventure. They arrived in San Diego in December and went into camp in Mission Valley. A variety of trouble ensued, until the San Diegans began to fear that their deliverers from San Francisco constituted a worse menace to the public peace than the Indians themselves. Horses were forcibly taken from the settlers and rows occurred in the plaza. Philip Crosthwaite received an ugly wound, but responded by shooting one of the volunteers named Watkins, who lost a leg in the encounter. At last, the roughs chartered a vessel and returned to San Francisco, to the great relief of the community.

A VIEW OF OLD TOWN IN 1906. Hut of Rafael Mamudes and old jail in foreground.

Thieving became so common and so annoying in the early days of American rule that in 1851 a law was enacted fixing a penalty of imprisonment from one to ten years, “or by death, in the discretion of the jury,” for taking property to the value of fifty dollars or more. A hard character named James Robinson, familiarly known as “Yankee Jim,” suffered the extreme pen­alty for stealing the only row-boat in the bay. The verdict of the jury was as follows:

“Your jurors in the within case of James Robinson have the honor to return a verdict of ‘guilty’ and do therefore sentence him, James Robinson, to be hanged by the neck until dead. Cave J. Couts, foreman of the jury.”

The poor fellow could not believe that he was to be hanged until the very last moment. He appeared to think it all a grim joke or, at the worst, a serious effort to impress him with the enormity of his evil ways. He was still talking when Deputy Sheriff Crosthwaite gave the signal. Then the cart was driven from, beneath him and he was left dangling in the air. Surely, the punishment was far more wicked than the crime, yet the example must have proved very effective in discouraging theft. There are other instances of frontier justice which, when com­pared with the methods of today, show that society has grown much kinder with the passing of time. Such testimony as the following item from the Herald indicates that there was much excuse for rough justice:

A lot of greasers had a baile the other evening, and as that was not enough for one night, they turned to and stoned a poor Indian, belonging to Mrs. Marron, until he quietly laid down and died. This is considered fine sport, and as our magistrates don’t trouble about such little matters, it will probably be re­peated on the next occasion, with perhaps slight variation.

JOSE ANTONIO SERRANO. Member of prominent Spanish family. He served under Pico in the Mexican War participating in the Battle of San Pascual.

And here is a gruesome memory of the fierce old times related by Mrs. Carson:

“One day I stood at the corner of the old Franklin House and saw one man shoot another, and I was the only witness. Just as I was going to tell about it, Mr. Pendleton, who came up and saw that I had seen what had occurred, gave me a wink and I stopped myself in time. I did not know, then, why he wanted me to keep quiet, but I did so. He explained after­wards that he thought it would be unpleasant for me to have to be a witness. This was in January or February, 1865, and before we were married.”

The story of the building of the cobblestone jail at Old Town is one of the most interesting in the annals of San Diego. It was one of the first things undertaken when the Americans came into possession of the city government. The contract was let for $5,000 to Agostin Haraszthy, who was city marshal and sher­iff at the time and whose father was president of the city coun­cil. The bid of Israel Brothers, $2,000 lower, was rejected. The cobbles were laid in ordinary mortar, without cement, and the building was seriously damaged by a heavy rain while in the course of construction. The contractor demanded a further allowance or relief from his contract, and they allowed him $2,000 more, making $7,000 in all. It soon appeared that there was not enough money in the treasury to complete the payment, whereupon city scrip was issued for the balance, in denomina­tions of $100. It read as follows:

“No. 45, $100.
San Diego, March 28, 1851.

“To the treasurer of the City of San Diego: Please pay to Agostin Haraszthy or bearer, the sum of one hundred dollars out of the General Fund, with interest at 8 per cent. per month, until advertised for payment—on account of contract for build­ing jail.
By authority of an Ordinance of the Common Council ap­proved March 28, 1851.

Treasurer of the Common Council.
Clerk of the Common Council.”

But little of this scrip was ever paid, though some of it was exchanged for city lands. In 1853, the town trustees resigned in a body in order to defeat a suit which had been begun to enforce payment of this and other scrip. This unusual course seems to have been justified by the wretched job which had been foisted upon the town. The jail was practically worthless, and the very first prisoner sent there promptly dug his way out. It still stands as a picturesque reminder of old times. It is within the enclosure of an old Indian, Rafael Mamudes, and is often visited by a class of people who do not ordinarily hunger to see the inside of a jail, and would not in this case save for his­toric interest and the easy exit afforded. The only prisoner ever successfully confined within the walls is a fine pepper tree, cheerfully growing in one of the cells.

REMAINS OF JAIL AT OLD TOWN. Possibly the first instance of graft in California.

The cobblestone jail was succeeded by an iron cage, 5’7″x8’6″, with a height of 7′. It had a wood roof and floor and was lined with sheet iron. It is now in use as a city jail, at Coronado Tent City. While not imposing in appearance, it has the merit of holding the bad men consigned to it.

The end of Old Town as a community of any importance was the great fire of April 20, 1872. It began in Mrs. Schiller’s kitchen, spread to the Gila, Franklin and Colorado houses and consumed all the business places on the plaza. This disastrous event turned the scale in favor of the vigorous young commu­nity which was growing up on Horton’s addition.

The most eloquent reminders of the time that is gone are the two old cannon, one lying on the plaza at Old Town, the other treasured by the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. Both belonged to the Spanish fort on Ballast Point and were removed to Old Town in 1838. The one which lies in the plaza long stood upright in the earth and was irreverently used as a hitching post for horses and a whipping-post for naughty Indians. The bronze gun, “El Jupiter,” now in the Chamber of Commerce, was cast at Manila in 1783. These ancient cannon did duty under three flags and typify the history of San Diego. If their iron lips could speak the language of human tongues, they could tell the whole story of the Plymouth of the West, with its vary­ing fortunes under the dominion of Spaniard, Mexican and American.

Return to Books.


Main Page
Author’s Foreword
Introduction: The Historical Pre-Eminence of San Diego

PART ONE:   Period of Discovery and Mission Rule

  1. The Spanish Explorers
  2. Beginning of the Mission Epoch
  3. The Taming of the Indian
  4. The Day of Mission Greatness
  5. The End of Franciscan Rule
    Priests of San Diego Mission

PART TWO:   When Old Town Was San Diego

  1. Life on Presidio Hill Under the Spanish Flag
    List of Spanish and Mexican commandants
  2. Beginnings of Agriculture and Commerce
    List of Ranchos in San Diego County
  3. Political Life in Mexican Days
  4. Early Homes, Visitors and Families
  5. Pleasant Memories of Social Life
  6. Prominent Spanish Families
  7. The Indians’ Relations With the Settlers
    List of Mission Indian Lands
  8. San Diego in the Mexican War
  9. Public Affairs After the War
  10. Accounts of Early Visitors and Settlers
  11. Annals of the Close of Old San Diego
  12. American Families of the Early Time
  13. The Journalism of Old San Diego
  14. Abortive Attempt to Establish New San Diego

PART THREE:   The Horton Period

  1. The Founder of the Modern City
  2. Horton’s Own Story
  3. Early Railroad Efforts, Including the Texas and Pacific
  4. San Diego’s First Boom
  5. Some Aspects of Social Life

PART FOUR:   Period of “The Great Boom”

  1. Coming of the Santa Fe
  2. Phenomena of the The Great Boom
  3. Growth of Public Utilities
  4. Water Development

PART FIVE:   The Last Two Decades

  1. Local Annals, After the Boom
  2. Political Affairs and Municipal Campaigns
  3. Later Journalism and Literature [new material in second edition]
  4. The Disaster to the Bennington
  5. The Twentieth Century Days
  6. John D. Spreckels Solves the Railroad Problem

PART SIX:   Institutions of Civic Life

  1. Churches and Religious Life
  2. Schools and Education
  3. Records of the Bench and Bar
  4. Growth of the Medical Profession
  5. The Public Library
  6. Story of the City Parks
  7. The Chamber of Commerce
  8. Banks and Banking
  9. Secret, Fraternal and Other Societies
  10. Account of the Fire Department

PART SEVEN:   Miscellaneous Topics

  1. History of the San Diego Climate
  2. San Diego Bay, Harbor and River
  3. Governmental Activities
  4. The Suburbs of San Diego

Political Roster, City of San Diego
Political Roster, San Diego County