History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART TWO: CHAPTER 2: Beginnings of Agriculture and Commerce

The range steer was the first historical char­acter in the commercial life of San Diego. He it was who drew the ships from far-off New England; furnished material for an export trade with the United States, Mexico, South America, and the Sandwich Islands; and even laid the foundations of social life at Old Town by supplying an interest to attract and support a population, including some families of large means, when the military society began to pass away. Every early visitor to San Diego refers to the hide-houses which stood out conspicuously near La Playa and which, for many years, served as the emblem of its commercial importance. The trade in hides and tallow was the significant thing during that quarter of a century—1821 to 1846—in which San Diego rested under the Mexican flag. The cultivation of the soil was a different story, and one full of human interest.

The members of the first expedition, of Spanish settlers brought seed with them from Mexico and it was planted in the fall of 1769 on the river bottom, directly opposite Presidio Hill, probably at a place now known as Serrano’s field. This first crop was a total failure—the ground was too low and the winter rise of the stream in 1770 destroyed the grain. The second crop was also a disappointment. It was planted too far away from the stream to be irrigated and, as it was a season of light rainfall, only a small quantity of maize and of beans was harvested. The third year the scene of operations was moved up the valley to a place called Nuestra Señora del Pilar, near the site subsequently occupied by the Mission. The result was not immediately satisfactory, as only about twenty bushels of wheat were harvested, but the priests now bent their minds to the task in earnest, worked out crude methods of irrigation, and finally established their agriculture successfully. By 1790 they were raising fifteen hundred bushels of grain annually, and the production rapidly increased.

There is no record of any further attempts at agriculture in the Eighteenth Century. If any of the soldiers tried it, they probably had a varied experience.

It was the Spanish soldiers who made the first gardens at Old Town. Doubtless as they looked down from Presidio Hill they had an eye for choice spots of land where they would one day make a comfortable home for their old age and live under their own vine and fig-tree, in the literal sense of the term. The very first house in Old Town was doubtless the tule hut of a retired soldier. And the pioneer of successful gardeners was Captain Francisco María Ruiz. He planted the spot which afterwards came to be known as Rose’s Garden, and his pears, olives, and pomegranates bore goodly crops for seventy-five or eighty years. These trees were planted early in the last century and it is only a few years since the last survivors of them, which happened to be pear trees, were removed. This pioneer garden was in the same block as the residence of George Lyons. The olive trees at the Mission, and the famous old palms at the foot of Presidio Hill, were the only plantings which antedated the orchard of Captain Ruiz.

There is no possible doubt that the two old palms were the first ever planted in California, and as such they constitute a most valuable and interesting historical exhibit. The seeds from which they sprang were a part of that remarkable outfit with which Galvez had thoughtfully supplied his expedition for the conquest of the new empire. They were planted in 1769, and there is good evidence that they bore a crop of dates in 1869, in honor of their one-hundredth birthday. There is a tradition that they never bore a crop earlier than that—a freak of na­ture, if true. The historic trees were shamefully neglected and abused for many years. They were gnawed by disrespectful horses, and fell victims to those thoughtless vandals who, for some inscrutable reason, never miss an opportunity to carve their own unimportant initials upon everything which the public is interested in having preserved unscarred. In April, 1887, a very modest fence was placed about the trees and now they bid fair to survive for many a generation.

By the year 1821 the little patches of cultivated land had multiplied at the base of Presidio Hill and even spread up and across Mission Valley. Don Blas Aguilar, who was born at San Diego, in 1811, recalled fifteen such rancherías, as they were called, which were occupied prior to the great flood of that year. At two places in the valley there were vineyards. Most of the rancherías were washed away or greatly damaged by the flood, which occurred in September or October and in a single night filled the valley and changed the course of the river. Large numbers of ripe pumpkins were brought down from the fields in the El Cajon country. Dana was able to buy, in July, 1836, a bag of onions, some pears, beans, watermelons, and other fruits.

The fine upper valley of the San Diego, including the El Cajon, was monopolized by the Mission Fathers; hence, the military were compelled to look elsewhere for their grazing and farming lands. For grazing purposes, they took possession of that fine district known in later times as the National Ranch, but called by the Spanish the Rancho del Rey, or Ranch of the King. Their grain-fields were located at the Soledad, twelve miles up the coast. This latter valley was treated as the com­mons of the San Diego military establishment, and, later, of the Pueblo. The land was not divided into individual holdings, but farmed in common. A man cultivating a plot one year had the option of doing so the next season, an arrangement which continued until a short time before the Mexican War.

Agriculture never acquired any great importance in all the years of Spanish and Mexican dominion. True, there is a record of grain exports in 1817, as already noted, and this is evidence of progress when it is remembered that it had for­merly been necessary to import this staple from Mexico; but the exports never reached an important stage. The easy-going inhabitants were well content if they produced enough to meet their own needs, and their methods and implements were ridiculously crude. Until the Americans came, there were no plows in the country except those made of the fork of a tree shod with a flat piece of iron. Grain was cut with a short sickle, and horses threshed it with their hoofs.

But while the agricultural experience was a hard struggle from the beginning, the livestock industry was rapidly devel­oped without encountering any difficulties worth mentioning. It involved but little labor, and that little was of a kind ad­mirably suited to the Spanish disposition, for it could be done mostly on horseback with long intervals of rest between the periods of activity. The pasturage was usually excellent and the cattle took care of themselves and multiplied prodigiously. The Mission Fathers were, of course, also the fathers of the cattle business. It was not until the community acquired a population apart from that sheltered by the Presidio and the Mission that private herds began to appear, but the success of the Fathers inevitably attracted others into the profitable business of raising cattle on free pastures.

The Spaniards were lovers of horses and had them in such plenty that it was frequently necessary to slaughter them in order to prevent serious interference with the cattle industry. The Californians—a term which described the whole resident population of Spanish or Mexican blood—were noted for their horsemanship, yet they seem to have taken no pains to breed good stock. This they might easily have done, for they had good Arabian stock to start with, and doubtless the horse might have become an important item for export. With the exception of a few shiploads sent to the Sandwich Islands in early days, this opportunity seems to have been neglected. There were a few sheep in early times, but they never grew into large flocks—perhaps because they required more care than the Californians were willing to give them, or because the Californians were not fond of mutton.

The pioneer ship in the hide trade between New England and California was the Sachem of Boston, which first came to the coast in 1822. Her Captain was Henry Gyzelaar, while the supercargo was William A. Gale, a man of considerable note. He had been engaged in the California fur trade, and his glowing report of the resources and possibilities of the country was very influential in developing a fleet of trading ships and giving California its first boom. The Boston merchants who became interested included Bryant & Sturgis, Trot, Bumstead & Son, and W. B. Sweet. The important San Francisco firms engaged in this trade at the time were J. C. Jones, and Paty, McKinlay & Co. Captain Henry D. Pitch, the first great mer­chant of San Diego, was a member of the latter firm. The Sachemdid not call at San Diego, securing a cargo elsewhere, but she was soon followed by other ships and a thriving trade in hides was established, which flourished until the Mexican War was well under way.

It was the custom of the hide ships to remain some time on the coast, going from port to port and bringing the hides which they collected to the large warehouses at San Diego, there to be prepared for shipment and stored until ready for the home­ward voyage. These trips up and down the coast occupied three or four months and seven or eight trips were required for the collection of a cargo, so that two years or more were often spent on a voyage. The best account of this trade is that contained in Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.

RICHARD HENRY DANA. Author of Two Years Before the Mast. The portrait shows him as he appeared at the height of his fame as jurist, politician and author. He died at Rome, January 6, 1882.

The cattle were slaughtered from July 1st to October 1st. The methods used were wasteful. About two hundred pounds of the best part of the beef were dried and put aside for future use, and the remainder thrown away, greatly to the satisfaction of the buzzards and wild beasts. The hides were prepared for shipment by immersing them from two to four days in large vats of brine in order to make them immune against the attacks of insects. They were then spread out on the beach and dried, then hung on ropes and beaten with a flail until all the dust and sand were removed, and, finally, stored in the warehouses to await the sailing of the ships. A ship-load ranged from 25,000 to 50,000 hides.

The tallow was tried out in large pots and poured into bags made of hides, to cool, each bag containing from five hundred to a thousand pounds. In securing the tallow, the part lying nearest the hide was carefully removed and prepared for domestic use. A great deal of this grade of tallow went to Lima and Callao, to be used in making candles. The interior fat, weighing from seventy-five to one hundred pounds per animal, furnished the principal staple for export trade and was worth six cents per pound. This now seems very low, but of course, was due to the exceedingly small cost of producing cattle on the open range and to the heavy expense of shipping; otherwise the business could not have prospered with such enormous waste and such low prices for products.

For the purpose of storing the hides, a number of large warehouses were erected by the Boston firms at a point on the shore nearest the anchorage, known as La Playa (the beach), near the site of the present government quarantine station. These houses were framed in Boston, sent out in the ships and set up here. They were named after the ships, and the names of four of them are recalled by old settlers as the Admittance, the California, the Sterling, and the Tasso. There do not appear to have been more than four in existence at one time. For instance, Dana says there were four in 1836. They stood until some time in the fifties. E. W. Morse says he spent his first night on shore, in April, 1850, in one of these old buildings, which was then used as a warehouse. Andrew Cassidy says there was only one of them standing when he ar­rived, three years later, and that it stood for several years after. Lieutenant Derby, who came in August, 1853, says there were then left the ruins of two of the old hide houses, one being the Tasso. Bartlett, in his Personal Narrative, states that when he was here in 1852, these houses were still standing “exactly as described by Dana in 1836,” but this is clearly somewhat inexact. There were also warehouses in San Diego for the storage of the tallow which was to be sent to Peru or Mexico. No hides were exported to Peru or Mexico and no tallow to Boston.

The first hide house was built by the carpenter of the Brookline and occupied by James P. Arthur, mate of that ship, with a small party, while curing hides, in 1829. The Boston Advertiser says on his authority:

“They had a barn-like structure of wood, . . which answered the purpose of storehouse, curing-shop, and residence. The life was lonesome enough. Upon the wide expanse of the Pacific they occasionally discerned a distant ship. Sometimes a vessel sailed near the lower offing. It was thus that the idea of preparing and raising a flag, for the purpose of attracting attention, occurred to them. The flag was manufactured from some shirts, and Captain Arthur writes, with the just accuracy of a historian, that Mr. Greene’s calico shirt furnished the blue, while he furnished the red and white. “It was completed and raised on a Sunday, on the occasion of the arrival of the schooner Washington, Captain Thompson, of the Sandwich Islands, but sailing under the American flag.” So writes honest Captain Arthur. He further states that the same flag was afterward frequently raised at Santa Barbara, whenever in fact there was a vessel coming into port. These men raised our national ensign, not in bravado, nor for war and conquest, but as honest men, to show that they were American citizens and wanted company. And while the act cannot be regarded as in the light of a claim to sovereignty, it is still interesting as a fact, and as an unconscious indication of manifest destiny.”

The following is a list of all the American trading ships which have been found, known to have called at San Diego during the life of the hide trade. A few of these were doubtless whalers, and there were probably others of which no record has been found; but it is believed this list contains the names of substantially all the hide ships.

In 1824, Arab, Mentor 1836, Lagoda, Loriotte, Catalina.
1825, Sachem. 1836-7, Kent.
1825-6, Rover. 1837, Rasselas, Sophia.
1828, Andes, Courier, Franklin, General Sucre.
1829-31, Brookline, Louisa. 1839, Morse.
1829-32-34, Volunteer. 1840, Alciope.
1831, Harriet. 1840-1, Monsoon.
1831-3-6-8-9-40-2-3-4, Alert. 1841, Thomas Perkins.
1831-2-3-7-8-9-40-1-2-3-4, California. 1841-2-3-5-7, Tasso.
1832-3, Plant. 1842-4-6-7, Barnstable.
1833, Newcastle. 1839-43-4, Fama.
1833-38-45, Don Quixote. 1844, Menakar.
1833-36-43, Bolivar Liberator. 1844-5, Sterling.
1833, Harriet Blanchard. 1845, Martha, Admittance.
1834, Roxana. 1846, Vandalia.
1835, Pilgrim. 1847-8, Olga.

The hide and tallow trade practically ended with the trans­fer of California to the United States. This was a mere coin­cidence, due to economic rather than to political causes. New England found that she could get her hides cheaper somewhere else. The trade had marked the high tide of prosperity in old California days, and supplied an interesting and romantic epi­sode in the history of the country. Excellent accounts of this period may be found in the writings of Bancroft, Dana, Rob­inson, and Davis. The latter, perhaps the most competent authority, estimates the total number of hides exported from California at about 5,000,000 and the tallow at 250,000,000 pounds.

Even after the cattle business passed mostly into private hands, the missions profited largely from it, by means of tithes, a form of ecclesiastical tax scrupulously paid by the rancheros and diligently collected by the missionaries. This tax was col­lected, in some instances, as late as 1850 or 1851. The missions were also the principal customers of the American ships. Their cargoes consisted of sugar, tea, coffee, rum, silk, furniture, calico, clothing, and blankets for the Indians, which they sold to the friars for cash and exchanged for hides. William A. Gale, Alfred Robinson, and William Heath Davis did a large business with the missions for many years.

In Robinson’s Life in California is an interesting account of the pains which were taken, upon his first visit to San Diego, in 1829, to entertain the good Father Antonio Peyri, founder of the San Luis Rey Mission, and especially to impress him with the excellence of the stores brought in the Brookline, from Bos­ton. This entertainment seems to have proven quite profitable, in the end. The missionaries kept the first, and for many years the only, stores, from which they supplied the wants of their neophytes and sold goods to such as desired them. Their suc­cess soon stimulated emulation in this, as in other, lines and private fortunes began to grow. The first storekeeper at San Diego, and the only one for some years, was Captain Henry D. Fitch, who dealt in furs, hides, and general merchandise. After the cattle business began to assume importance and private resi­dences were established in the country, at every important rancho was maintained a general store and depot of supply for the surrounding country.

With the growth of the hide and tallow trade, land began to assume more value and private holdings increased. Under the Spanish administration, only the king could make grants of land, and it was many years before the right was exercised toward any except the missionaries. The general laws of Spain provided for the granting of four square leagues of land to newly-formed settlements, or pueblos as they were called, upon certain condi­tions. As early as 1784, application was made to the Governor by private individuals for grants of land, and he issued a few written permits for temporary occupation. Two years later he received authority to make grants of tracts not exceeding three leagues, not to conflict with the boundaries of existing pueblos, and on certain conditions which included the building of a stone house and the keeping of not less than two thousand head of live­stock on each rancho.

It was considered that vacant lands outside the pueblos and missions belonged to the Indians, to be utilized by them when­ever they should become sufficiently civilized. In 1793 it was reported that no private grants had been made, but a few years later a number were made near the presidios, subject to con­firmation later on. Several governors in succession preferred to make these conditional grants, and at the close of the 18th cen­tury the situation was this: The Presidio was without settlers, but expected ultimately to become a pueblo, and was entitled to four square leagues of land whenever proper organization should appear; and there were in the whole department twenty or thirty men engaged in raising cattle on lands to which they had only such possessory permits, but none of these appear to have been at San Diego. In 1813 the Spanish cortes passed a decree relative to the reduction of public lands to private own­ership, designed to improve agricultural conditions and reward the country’s defenders. Lands might be granted to veterans and invalid soldiers.

This decree was unknown in California before 1820. One of the earliest of the grants made under this law was that of the Penasquitos Rancho, of nearly nine thousand acres, to the vet­eran Captain Ruiz and Francisco M. Alvarado, On June 15, 1823. This grant was made against the earnest protests of the missionaries, as conflicting with their boundaries. In a report made in 1828 are named the Rancho del Rey, now known as the National Ranch, where the Presidio had 250 cattle and 25 horses; the San Antonio Abad, which had 300 cattle, 80 horses and 25 mules, besides producing some grain; the Penasquitos Rancho, with 50 cattle, 20 horses, and 8 mules; El Rosario, or Barracas, which had 25 head of live-stock and some grain; and the San Ysidro stock range. It also appears from a statement of the missionaries in this year that the Temescal Rancho had been occupied by Leandro Serrano, majordomo at San Juan. In January or March, 1829, Governor Echeandía granted one league at Otay to José Antonio Estudillo, and another to María Magdalena Estudillo.

From about 1832 grants were rapidly made of the public or unoccupied lands of California; and subsequent to the acts of secularization of 1833-4, it was the practice of the government to grant to individuals tracts of land belonging to the missions, but which were no longer used or occupied by them. In spite of the opposition of the priests, grants were constantly made by the government within the limits of the so-called mission domain, and this continued up to 1846, when the dominion of Upper California passed to the American Government. And so it went on, until the country, except the mission and pueblo lands, had passed into private hands. A table showing these early land grants is given at the end of this chapter.

Mr. Theodore S. Van Dyke has written very instructively about these land grants in his City and County of San Diego. He says:

“Soon after the establishment of other missions in California, and the quieting and gathering in of the greater part of the Indians around the missions, settlers from Spain and Mexico began to come in, and later on a few from the United States, England, and elsewhere. Nearly all these settlers obtained grants of large tracts of land from the Mexican Government, which have since been the cause of much litigation, envy, and quarrelling. These grants were simply Mexican home­steads, given to settle the country just as the United States homesteads are given, for practically nothing.”

Instead of selling a man, as the United States then did, all the land he wanted for $1.25 an acre, the Mexican Gov­ernment gave it to him by the square league. The grants were made large partly as an inducement to the settler to go into such a wild and remote country, but mainly because the raising of cattle for the hides and tallow being the only industry, a large range was absolutely necessary for profit as well as the support of the band of retainers necessary for profit and safety.

The first effect of these large grants was to retard settlement. The County of San Diego, in common with the rest of South­ern California, was then believed to be a veritable desert of sand, cactus, and horned toads, fit only for stock range at the rate of about one hundred acres to each animal.

Dairying was practically unknown among the ranchos, and often there was no effort even to keep the tables supplied with milk. Davis says that he has frequently drank his coffee or tea without milk, on a ranch containing from 3600 to 8000 head of cattle. Other methods were equally wasteful. The horns were not thought worth saving, and the Americans who chose were allowed to gather and ship all they cared to, without moneyand without price. These lax methods may be further illus­trated by the fact that in 1840 the Mission of San José ordered the slaughter of two thousand bulls, which were killed simply for their hides, none of the meat, and little of the tallow, being saved.

Next to the cattle industry, and the trade in hides and tallow, the fisheries made the most important contribution to the early commerce of San Diego. And the fisheries included the exciting chase for the sea otter, which was very valuable for its fur. The otters were far more plentiful in the north, yet were frequent visitors to the San Diego coast, especially to the kelp beds off Point Loma and La Jolla. The Indians were acquainted with the use of their furs when the Spaniards came, and one of the early cares of the missionaries was to train their converts to improved methods of catching them. The Indians do not appear to have been remarkably energetic hunters, but enough skins were brought in to form an important item of export and a subject of contention between the cam­mandants and the missionaries, both of whom thought themselves entitled to a monopoly of the traffic. The heyday of the Spanish trade was about the time of the Lelia Byrd affair, when virtually the whole population had skins to sell, openly or covertly, and the commandant had a collection of about a thousand confiscated skins.

By the time the Americans began to settle at San Diego otters were not so common in the bay, but along the coast of Lower California and its adjacent islands there was still good hunting. Philip Crosthwaite was one of the earliest and best known otter hunters. He stated that there were two companies of hunters at San Diego, in 1845, which were fitted out each season by Captain Fitch. The hunting season was during the spring and summer months, when the otters could be found among the kelp, often asleep, and shot with rifles from boats. This work required a peculiar equipment of patience, keen sight, steady nerves, and marksmanship. Each company sent out three canoes together which hunted in the day and lay up on the beach at night. There were places on the shore known to the hunters, where wood and water could be found, and at night they landed at such spots through the surf and made their camp. As late as 1857, two otter hunters were drowned in the surf on the beach near Point Loma, while trying to land in a small boat. Otters are, of course, now extinct in this vicinity. In 1845 the skins were worth $40 each at Fitch’s store. There are no statistics of the extent and value of the otter catch, but it was very considerable.

WILLIAM HEATH DAVIS. Noted author, associated with Lieutenant Gray in abortive effort to found new town, frequently called Davis’ Folly.

That strange animal, the sea-elephant, was also a native to this coast, and for a short time was a victim of the chase. Very early settlers tell how, on stormy days, the yelps of the elephants lying on the sand at what is now Coronado Beach could be heard in San Diego above the roar of the breakers. They were also plentiful in the haunts of the otter, along the coasts and islands of Lower California. They seem never to have formed an ex­tensive object of the chase by the population. The story of their destruction is short and sad. Some of the Yankee whalers heard of them and conceived the idea that there might be money in elephant oil. There was a rush for them; they were slaughtered by thousands, and soon exterminated. It is said that some of these ships secured an entire cargo of elephant oil in a single season’s chase. At any rate, these curious animals are gone, forever, from these parts. And does the reader ask, “What is a sea-elephant?” Merely a big seal—the biggest of his family—with a snout so prolonged as to be suggestive of an elephant.

The Spanish population never pursued the chase, either by land or sea, with noteworthy daring and vigor. It was great sport for the expert vaqueros to lasso a bear now and then and lead him home, to be baited to death by dogs and bulls; it never occurred to their uncommercial souls that this sort of thing could be turned into a money-making enterprise. Cattle were plentiful and cheap; why should a man incur fatigue and dan­ger in the pursuit of articles of luxury which the state of society did not require? Such things were left to the restless and incomprehensible Americans. Cattle were something the Spanish could understand, and it was all very well to shoot an otter now and then as it lay asleep in the sun on beach or kelp; but to spend one’s days amidst the toil and danger of the ocean chase, was much too strenuous. The finest of otter skins were worth no more than the hides of four or five bullocks, and there was neither use nor sale for whale oil, until the American ships came.

The story of the American whaling trade in the Pacific is one of the most picturesque and romantic in our history, and the half has never been told. The enterprise, hardihood, dar­ing, and skill which made it possible, form a worthy sequel to the wonder-tales of England’s Elizabethan age. This chase began long before the Mexican War and still continues to a limited extent. The chief rendezvous of the whale ships was first at the Sandwich Islands and later at San Francisco. In 1855 their number had reached five hundred, but it was not until ten years later that San Francisco became the head­quarters. Whales were known to exist on the coast from the time of the earliest settlements. Father Crespí has left it on record that upon his arrival at San Pablo Bay, in March, 1772, he saw whales spouting, and there is no doubt the same phenomenon had been observed here, where whales were no less plentiful.

As late as the early forties, San Diego Bay was a favorite resort for female whales in their calving season, and at such times, on any bright day, scores of them could be seen spouting and basking in the sunlight. On North Island there was a spring which the inhabitants of La Playa were in the habit of visiting in canoes to get a supply of fresh water. Often when these whales were passing in or out, it was deemed unsafe to cross, and the boatmen had to wait for hours. But when the chase began in earnest and steamers began to visit the harbor, the whales abandoned the place and went farther down the coast. They still passed by near the shore, however, in the winter and spring months, and came in near Ballast Point in great numbers. Andrew Cassidy says he has often counted as many as eleven whales inside Ballast Point, all spouting at one time, and in January, 1872, it is on record that fifteen were seen at one time. Dana tells this story regarding an adventure with a whale at San Pedro:

This being the spring season, San Pedro, as well as all the other open ports upon the coast, was filled with whales that had come in to make their annual visit upon soundings. For the first few days that we were here and at Santa Barbara we watched them with great interest, calling out “There she blows,” every time we saw the spout of one breaking the sur­face of the water; but they soon became so common that we took little notice of them. We once very nearly ran one down in the gig, and should probably have been knocked to pieces or blown sky-high. We had been on board the little Spanish brig, and were returning, stretching out well at our oars, the little boat going like a swallow; our backs were forward, and the captain, who was steering, was not looking out, when all at once we heard the spout of a whale directly ahead. “Back water! back water, for your lives!” shouted the captain, and we backed our blades in the water and brought the boat to in a smother of foam. Turning our heads, we saw a great, rough, hump-backed whale slowly crossing our forefoot, within three or four yards of the boat’s stem. Had we not backed water just as we did we should inevitably have gone smash upon him. He took no notice of us, but passed slowly on, and dived a few yards beyond us, throwing his tail high in the air.

The whales passed south from December to February, and on their return trip north in March and April. The local whale companies were formed early in the fifties, at San Dieao and other places, notably at Monterey, and they continued in business for many years and were very successful. The business began to assume importance here in 1853. In February, 1858, the company of whalemen at La Playa had killed “about a dozen” whales since they commenced operations, “only five of which they have been able to get into the port.” These five yielded 150 barrels of oil, worth about $2,000. Editor Ames expressed the opinion that if some means could be devised to prevent the whales from sinking, a good business could be done in catching them within ten miles of the harbor. A little later, they cap­tured five in as many days, each of which produced from thirty-­five to forty barrels of oil. By 1868 the business had grown so that there were two companies with twenty men at work in the boats and a dozen rendering the oil, and it had become a favorite diversion of San Diegans to go out to the lighthouse and watch the chase.

In the season of 1870-1, the yield of oil was 21,888 gallons, and in 1871-2 it was estimated at 55,000 gallons and two huu­dred pounds of whalebone were collected. In 1873-4, 21,600 gallons, and in 1874-5 four hundred barrels of oil were produced. As late as 1886, three hundred barrels of oil were made and about a thousand pounds of whalebone gathered. In the eighties the business was declining, however, and soon became unprofit­able and was abandoned.

The trying-works were on Ballast Point. The captured whales were towed in and cut up and the flesh thrown into two large iron pots, having a capacity of 150 gallons each: At each pot was stationed a man with a large strainer, whose business it was to fish out the pieces of blubber as fast as they became suffi­ciently browned. These pieces were then pressed to extract the oil, after which the refuse was used for fuel. It seems to have burned very well, but made “a villainous stench.” The oil was ladled into casks and when cool was stored awaiting shipment.

The method of killing the whales was by a bomb lance from small boats. At first the work seems to have been unskillfully done, but in later years it was carried to great perfection. The whales were of the gray species. No reliable statistics can be given as to the total output, but it ran well into the thousands of barrels and was an important article of export. Among the older citizens of San Diego are several who came here to engage in this chase, and followed it for many years. The only remains now left of this interesting period are the vertebrae of whales which are used as ornaments and may still be seen in many San Diego dooryards. The Society of Natural History has also col­lected some valuable relics, which are preserved in the public library building.

Such were some of the principal commercial features affect­ing the early life of the place.


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