History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART TWO: CHAPTER 14: Abortive Attempt to Establish New San Diego

The site of old San Diego was by no means favorable for a seaport town. The presidio was located on the hill above the river, at the outlet of Mission Valley, merely because the place could be easily fortified and defended against the savages. Old Town grew up upon the flat below Presidio Hill because it was originally only an overflow from the garrison itself. La Playa took on some size and importance and flourished for a time because it lay close to deep water, but its topography was such as to offer no encouragement to the growth of a large city. San Diego simply could not have come into being with anything like its present consequence and future promise where the Spanish planted the seed of the city in 1769, nor where the seed was wafted and took root, on Point Loma, in the brief day of Mexican dominion.

These conditions were sure to become manifest when men of energy and ambition should arrive and begin to study the pos­sibilities of the region. Such men came with the American flag and but little time elapsed before they were planning a new San Diego at a far more eligible point on the shores of the beautiful bay. And yet, though these men had the judgment to choose the best spot for the city and the imagination to behold its possibilities, they lacked the constructive capacity required for its building. Hence, their effort goes into history as an unsuccessful effort to take advantage of a genuine opportunity.

Andrew B. Gray, who served as surveyor with the boundary commission, and who was afterward a major-general in the Confederate Army, is entitled to the distinction of having first selected the present site of San Diego. In June, 1849, the offi­cials of the survey camped near the spot where the army bar­racks are now located, on what is now H Street. It occurred to Gray at that time that this was the true location for such a city as would inevitably develop in connection with this great natural seaport. He discussed the matter freely and found several San Diegans who indorsed his conception, but the enter­prise required capital.

In February, 1850, William Heath Davis came to town and Gray promptly laid his scheme before him. Davis thought well of it and agreed to co-operate. On March 16, an agreement was made by which Gray, Davis, José Antonio Aguirre, Miguel de Pedrorena, and William C. Ferrell entered into a partnership for the purpose of developing a new townsite. Before the papers were signed, however, a vessel arrived at La Playa with materials for the new government building, in charge of quar­termaster and commissary for the Southern Department, Lieu­tenant Thomas D. Johns. Gray and his associates saw that the location of the government buildings at La Playa would make it very difficult to attract population to their townsite. Hence, they lost no time in waiting upon Lieutenant Johns and urging the advantages of the new location upon him. They argued so convincingly that Johns reshipped the materials which had been landed at La Playa and brought the vessel across the bay, anchoring off the new townsite. Johns evidently joined the syndicate, for he received one of the eighteen shares. The oth­ers were distributed four each to Gray, Davis, Aguirre and Pedrorena, and one to Ferrell, the attorney. Under the agree­ment, Davis undertook to build a wharf and warehouse, retain­ing the ownership of the land and improvements. The scheme seems to have been very well “put up,” combining capital, influence, and the necessary expert knowledge in engineering.

On March 18, 1850, the associates were granted the land for which they applied to the city, the deed being signed by Alcalde Thomas W. Sutherland. The tract contained 160 acres, was bounded on the east by what is now Front and on the north by what is now D Streets and cost $2,304—a nice little townsite which is now worth considerably more than it was 56 years ago. It was long supposed that it included the adjacent tide lands, lying on the bay shore between the lines of high and low water, but this construction proved to be incorrect. The terms of the grant called for “a new port,” and stipulated that a wharf and warehouse should be built within 18 months.

New San Diego certainly started with bright prospects. The country was prosperous, had recently become a part of the United States, and was receiving constant recruits in the way of American settlers. The gold boom in the north was at full tide and people were rushing to California from all parts of the world. It would seem the new town should have depop­ulated Old Town and La Playa, attracted a reasonable share of the newcomers, and quickly established itself on a sure foundation.

Toward the end of the summer, the brig Cybell arrived at San Francisco from Portland, Maine, loaded with lumber and carried also eight or ten houses already framed and a quantity of bricks. Davis bought this cargo and sent the ship at once to San Diego, where all but 80,000 feet of the lumber was used. The wharf and warehouse were begun in September, 1850, and finished in August of the following year. The wharf extended from the foot of Atlantic Street for some distance, then turned and extended at a right angle to the stream. Its total length was 600 feet, and with the warehouse it cost about $60,000. The barracks were built in 1851, on a block given for the purpose. and two companies of troops from the mission moved in.

House known as ‘The Hermitage’ built by Lieutenant Gray.

The first house was built by Mr. Davis—one of the framed houses sent on the Cybell. It was on State Street, between G and H. About 1855, this house was purchased by Captain Knowles and removed to its present location on 11th Street, between K and L. Davis also put up a number of other build­ings, among them one at the corner of State and F Streets known for years as the “San Diego Hotel.” Gray also put up a house, which is still standing, on State Street between H and I and was known as the “Hermitage.” Some army officers also bought lots and built houses, among them Captain Nathan­iel Lyon. A short time before the Civil War, a number of these houses were removed to Old Town, being either moved bodily, or taken down and re-erected.

The coming of the Herald in May, 1851, was an important event. At that time, the following were in business at new San Diego, as shown by the advertisements in the Herald:

George F. Cooper, general merchandise, corner 4th and Cali­fornia Streets. The office of the Herald was upstairs over this store.

Ames and Pendleton, lumber and merchandise, California Street.

Slack & Morse, general merchandise.

The Boston House, Slack & Morse.

J. Judson Ames was the notary public.

On July 31, 1851, the Herald states that Davis’s new wharf would be completed in about a week. This wharf was used by the government for several years, and was for a time a profit­able investment. The government buildings were designed as a military storehouse and depot, and formed the government depot of supplies for several posts. The supplies were sent out by ship, unloaded at Davis’s wharf, and sent out by wagon trains to Tejon, Yuma, Mojave, San Luis Rey, Chino, Santa Ysabel, and other places.

One of the difficulties with which the new town had to con­tend from the start, was the absence of fresh water. The offi­cers sent a water-train to the San Diego River, near Old Town, every day. Major McKinstry contracted with a Mr. Goens, who had sunk a well at La Playa, to do the same at the new town. He sunk about 300 feet on the government’s land, and then, for some unknown reason, suddenly abandoned the job and quit the country. However, it was not long until a good supply of fresh water was struck near the location of the pres­ent courthouse, Front and B Streets, and soon after at State and F, where Mr. Morse had sunk a well, and by Captain Sherma­n on his new addition. The future of the new town now seemed assured.

That this opinion did not prevail in every quarter, however, is clear. The people of La Playa were naturally disappointed at los­ing the wharf and government buildings and the access of busi­ness and population going with them. Old Town was the county seat and the largest center of wealth and population, but began to fear the loss of that distinction. This three-cornered fight continued for some years, and it was difficult to prophesy which would win out. People in other places also had opinions. Thus, the San Francisco Alta California said in September. 1851: “The establishment of the new town at the head of the bay was certainly a most disastrous speculation, an immense amount having been sunk in the operation.”

But the “most unkindest cut of all” was that of Bartlett, who saw the place in February, 1852, and wrote thus: “Three miles south of San Diego is another town near the shore of the bay, which was surveyed and plotted by Mr. Gray, U. S. surveyor to the boundary commission, while on duty here. . . .There is no business to bring vessels here, except an occasional one with government stores. There is no water nearer than the San Diego River, three miles distant. Efforts indeed are being made to find it with an artesian well; but with what success remains to be seen. There is no timber near, and wood has to be brought some eight or ten miles. Without wood, water, or arable land, this place can never rise to importance.”

At the time of the Indian uprising, late in 1851 and early in 1852, considerable anxiety was felt for the safety of the gov­ernment stores at new San Diego, it being suggested that the depot would be a natural point of attack for the loot-loving sav­ages, and the number of regular troops being small. Levi M. Slack was one of the victims of the massacre at Warner’s ranch. Mr. Morse was absent in Massachusetts at the time and their store remained closed until his return, in May, 1852. It does not appear that the uprising had any lasting effect upon the new settlement.

About this time there was a considerable settlement at new San Diego of immigrants who came by the Southern route, by way of El Paso and Yuma. At Warner’s ranch they divided, part going to Los Angeles and part coming here. In October, 1887, while some laborers were digging a culvert on B Street between 7th and 8th they found an old, forgotten graveyard and removed five coffins which were reinterred in the cemetery. E. W. Morse was of the opinion that these were graves of mem­bers of this party of immigrants, eight of whom died while they were here. He appeared not to know what had become of these people, and it has been found impossible to ascertain who they were or what became of them. The best opinion appears to be that they were a party of gold hunters who, after remaining long enough to recruit, went on to the northern diggings over­land or by ship.

Strange as it may seem to us in view of what has since hap­pened, the new San Diego of Gray and Davis, in spite of the natural advantage of its site and the improvements which gave it the benefit of shipping facilities and government headquar­ters, could not hold its own in the struggle for supremacy with old San Diego. Early in 1853, less than two years after the completion of the wharf, E. W. Morse and the Herald establishment had removed to the Old Town of the Spanish fathers. There is no doubt that this marks the date when the tide turned definitely away from the new undertaking, though there was a slight revival in 1859, on account of army activities. Soon, however, the Civil War came on and the troops went East, leav­ing new San Diego to fall into decay. The wharf and ware­house ended ignominiously as fuel for the volunteers assembled there in the cold winter of 1861-2, and the toredos cleaned up the piles. Many years later (1886) Mr. Davis obtained $6,000 for the loss of his wharf. The site is now occupied by the Santa Fe wharf.

CHARLES P. NOELL. One of the original owners of Middletown.

The “Middletown” tract of 687 acres was the scene of an enterprise inaugurated by the prospects of new San Diego. It was granted by Alcalde Joshua H. Bean to Oliver S. Witherby, Wm. H. Emory, Cave J. Couts, Thomas W. Sutherland, Atkins S. Wriglit, Agostin Haraszthy, José María Estudillo, Juan Bandini, Charles P. Noell, and Henry Clayton, on May 27, 1850. It became dormant with the new town, but in later years revived and became valuable property, and there was a suit for its par­tition. It is now one of the most important additions in the new city.

The true and enduring San Diego—the city of today and tomorrow—does not date from 1850, nor is Andrew R. Gray its father. When Gray and his associates had gone, and counted their labor lost, the sunny slope and the blue waters had yet many years to wait before the real founder and builder should arrive.

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