History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART THREE: CHAPTER 1: The Founder of the Modern City

On the 15th of April, 1867, something hap­pened which radically changed the course of San Diego history. This was the arrival of a man from San Francisco on the steamer Pacific. He was not possessed of large means, represented no organization, and had no personal following, yet was destined to inaugurate a movement which should change the location of the city and start it on the road to real and enduring greatness. In the next chapter we shall have “Father” Horton’s own account of the circumstances which led to his coming and of how he proceeded after his arrival. At this point it is important to net a glimpse of his previous career and to make some characterization of his work in founding the modern city.

Alonzo Erastus Horton was born at Union, Connecticut. Octo­ber 24, 1813. He was thus in his fifty-fourth year when he began his work in San Diego, an age at which very few men undertake a new task of such importance. He came of old New England stock and the story of his life is really a picture of his times. It begins with the clean, sweet poverty which went with the migration of the old stock into new countries in the early days of the Republic. The family began their westward march while the future founder of San Diego was two years old, moving from Connecticut to Madison County, New York. They next moved to Oswego County and, in 1824, they had reached the shore of Lake Ontario at the town of Scriba, and were living in a log house. Young Horton’s father had become blind and the boy began to earn money by basket-making. while still going to school. Later, he contributed to the family sup­port by hewing timber, which was sold in the local market. By the time he reached his majority he had gained experience as a grocery clerk, as a lake sailor before the mast, and as cap­tain and owner of a small vessel engaged in the wheat trade between Oswego and Canada. He retired from the lake with several hundred dollars in his pocket and learned the trade of a cooper. In spite of his strength, and his local note as a wrestler, a physician told him he had consumption and could not live a year unless he went West.

Acting upon the advice, he proceeded to Milwaukee in May, 1836. The next fifteen years he spent mostly in Wisconsin, with one or two trips to New York. He availed himself of the opportunity of the frontier to make money in various ventures, principally by trading in land and cattle.

After the Mexican War, when he had accumulated about $4,000, he went to St. Louis and bought land warrants from the soldiers at less than their face value. With these be returned to Wisconsin and located ten sections of land in the pinery on Wolf River, about twenty miles from Oshkosh, in what is now Ontagamie County. The land cast him 70 cents an acre and contained a good millsite and steamer landing. Here he laid out the town of Hortonville, which still flourishes. He encour­aged settlement by furnishing work, giving free lots, and sell­ing lumber at half-price, to those who would build houses. In less than three years he sold the mill and town for $7,000 and later the balance of the land at $15 an acre, so that his first important enterprise netted him a comfortable fortune. Then he joined the tide and went to California, arriving in 1851 and settling in the mining region. He opened a store at Pilot Hill and constructed a ditch over six miles in length to supply min­ers with water. At the end of his first year he disposed of his property for $6,500, which represented but a slight profit on his original investment, and began trading in gold-dust, first, acting on commission for the Adams Express Company, and later, on his own account.

The business of buying gold-dust in pioneer times, when the country swarmed with rough characters, involved considerable danger and Horton had his full share of adventure. The fol­lowing,, incident, related in the Horton Genealogy, published at Philadelphia in 1876, shows us how he drew upon his fund of Yankee shrewdness to avert trouble on one occasion:

He arrived one evening at one of the rough taverns of those times, with treasure enough about him to incite the gamblers about him to worse crimes for its possession. His good clothes were covered with very dirty overalls and cotton shirt. In calculating Yankee phrase, he interrogated the proprietor as to his accommodations for man and beast, and the reasonableness of his charges. Card-playing ceased for a time in the general astonishnent, then the party shouted with laughter at the green chap from Connecticut. They bantered him to play off a Yankee trick. He showed them how to eat the mush and milk, which he had stipulated for as his supper, and with a yawn of indifference at the jests made at his expense, he sig­nified his desire to sleep. The door of his room was without lock or bolt, but the landlord laughingly assured his guest that he would be the last man anyone would think of robbing. He awoke next morning from an undisturbed sleep, and at breakfast time was up and dressed. He passed over a small package of dust in settlement, which was accepted and pro­nounced all right. Word was sent to the stable, his horse could now be brought out—his bill was paid.


“Mister, want to buy some more of that stuff?”


“Yes”; replying with a surprised look.


“How much?”


“Suppose I can buy all you have to sell.”


“Will you treat this ‘ere crowd if you can’t”


“Yes, I will, and you, too.”


Diminutive sacks of dust were handed to the wondering host, and the coin counted out in return. By the time $2,500 had changed hands the landlord’s $20 pieces were exhausted, and our Yankee had played the “trick” with a $250 pile still in reserve. The laugh came in then louder than the night before; and as the glasses were being filled the buyer of the gold-dust remarked, irreligiously, that be would have robbed the fellow himself if he had known how he was playing him.

The gold-dust speculation turned out profitably, sometimes paying as mach as $1,000 a month. Horton was also highly fortunate in an ice speculation in El Dorado County, from which he realized $8,000 in a few months. In March, 1856, he was a passenger on the steamer Cortez for Panama, and found himself involved in the fight between the Americans and the natives, which occurred on the Isthmus. He took a conspic­uous part in protecting the passengers during their flight from the hotel to the ship, but lost $10,000 in gold as the result of the riot. On arriving in New York, he was sent to Washington to represent the passengers in reporting to the government. From that time until 1861, he repeatedly journeyed to Washington in connection with the affair, making a strenuous fight for the recovery of heavy losses sustained by the passengers. A settlement was reached at last, but Horton had made himself so obnoxious to the commissioner from New Granada that his own name was stricken from the list of creditors.

Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, Horton returned to the Pacific Coast. He extended his wanderings as far north as British Columbia, where he engaged in mining and trading without success. He then went to San Francisco to begin life over again. He first tried a stall in the market, then real estate, and finally went into the furniture business, where he was doing fairly well when the San Diego idea took possession of him.

The man who came in 1867 to lay the foundations of a new San Diego had had a rough, adventurous career and was a true product of frontier conditions. By instinct and training, he was a trader and a bold, shrewd speculator, but he was also a man endowed with the creative cast of mind who pre­ferred to trade and speculate where he could also build and have the satisfaction of looking upon important things which had come from his labors. In estimating the work of such a man it is important to avoid extremes of praise or blame. Thus it would be unjust to say that he was actuated solely by avarice and took no pride in what he did beyond the amount of money it paid him. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to treat him as a philanthropist who thought only of social gains and the good of others. His predominant motive in coming to San Diego was to engage in what he rightly conceived to be a good real estate speculation. In carrying the scheme into effect he adopted a policy of liberality not always tempered with wisdom, but consistently designed to foster his own interests while ben­efitting the community as a whole. He was shrewd enough to see that whatever made San Diego larger or more prosperous must make him richer, and he was broad enough to pursue this object in a way that gave everyone a share of the results. He entered upon his work without any comprehensive training for the laying out of a modern city, and made some mistakes in consequence which have often been criticised. Such mistakes were never due to petty motives, for pettiness had no place in his character. His methods were always marked by boldness and generosity, springing from boundless faith in the future of the city.

Although Horton does not belong to the class of men who have founded communities in order to illustrate some great idea, or to facilitate human progress in some important direction, he nevertheless displayed high qualities in his work at San Diego. He exercised the soundest judgment in selecting the site upon which a city could be built. He was not the first to appreciate the importance of the location—that credit belongs to Lieutenant Gray, as we saw in a previous chapter—but he was the first to create a successful secttlement here. The abortive attempt which preceded his undertaking certainly made his work no easier. In the opinion of many, it stamped it with failure in advance. He had a large measure of imagination, that gift of the gods which enables men to foresee what is to happen and to discern the practical steps by which events may be brought to pass. Undoubtedly the opportunity was much riper in 1867, when Horton began, than in 1850, when Gray had his inspira­tion in the same direction; but the ability to know when oppor­tunities are ripe is an important quality in itself. There were able men in San Diego when Horton came, and able men else­where in California, but they did not know that the time had come to make a new San Diego where the city now stands. Hor­ton not only saw his chance, but he had the courage to take his chance at a time when his pecuniary capital was so small that it would have appalled most men to think of such an undertak­ing, much less to set their hands to it. Not only did he have discernment, imagination, and courage,­—the pioneer of modern San Diego had boundless confidence in himself and a tremendous amount of personal force. Had it been otherwise, he would have been no richer after buying his land for twenty-six cents an acre than before. The value of the land for townsite purposes was potential, not actual. To convert the potentiality into a reality, and to do it with no capital except his wits, required genuine ability, sustained by faith and backed by tireless energy. Horton was equal to the occasion—­in three years new San Diego had three thousand people. It is easy enough to criticise the man who did it; it is not so easy to duplicate the achievement, nor was it ever done before by the will of a single individual, without capital, without the support of some religious, social, or commercial organization.

The founding of modern San Diego, under the circumstances, was a big thing, and the credit for the achievement belongs abso­lutely and indisputably to A. E. Horton. His title to the distinction is as clear as that of Cabrillo to the discovery of the Bay, or that of Serra to the founding of the mission. It would be palpably absurd to pretend that Horton, alone, made San Diego what it is today. Thousands of people had a part in its making, and among these thousands were a few individuals who doubtless contributed more to the development of the city than Horton did. But they did not land in San Diego on April 15, 1867, purchase the vacant land, decree that the community (already a century old) should be moved three miles south, and initiate the era of true and enduring greatness. “Father” Horton did that, and did it exceedingly well, as the result testifies.


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