History of San Diego, 1542-1908
PART FOUR: CHAPTER 2: Phenomena of the Great Boom
Like all western cities of consequence, San Diego has experienced a series of booms and boomlets, interspersed by periods of depression and temporary decline; but when “The Great Boom” is spoken of it is the phenomenal and sensational boom of 1886-88, which is referred to. This was epochal and serves to divide the past from the present, just as the Civil War does with the people of the South. As Southerners refer to events which happened “before the war,” or “after the war,” so San Diegans speak of things “before the boom,” and “after the boom.”
As we have seen in previous chapters, many things conspired to increase the growth of San Diego during the eighties. The completion of the Santa Fé Railroad system was doubtless the largest factor, but this was contemporaneous with the development of water systems and other public utilities, and with the inauguration of the most aggressive enterprise in connection with Coronado. There were many lesser factors working to the same end, and it would have been strange indeed if San Diego real estate had not responded to these influences. Furthermore, there were national and even world-wide conditions which fostered the movement. This decade witnessed an enormous expansion on the part of western railways and was marked by daring speculation in many different parts of the globe.
But when all these material influences have been mentioned there remains another which was far more powerful and which supplies the only explanation of the extraordinary lengths to which the boom was carried. This latter influence was psychological rather than material, but it was none the less effective on that account. The people were hypnotized, intoxicated, plunged into emotional insanity by the fact that they had unanimously and simultaneously discovered the ineffable charm of the San Diego climate. Climate was not all—there was the bay, the ocean, the rugged shores, the mountains—but the irresistible attractions were the climate and the joy of life which it implied.
If someone should suddenly discover the kingdom of heaven, of which the race has dreamed these thousands of years, and should then proceed to offer corner lots at the intersection of golden streets, there would naturally be a rush for eligible locations, and this sudden and enormous demand would create a tremendous boom. It happens that San Diego is the nearest thing on earth to the kingdom of heaven, so far as climate is concerned. This fact was suddenly discovered and men acted accordingly. The economy of heaven is a factor which has never been much dwelt upon, and economic considerations were sadly neglected by those who went wild over real estate in the height of the boom. It was forgotten, for the moment, that men cannot eat climate, nor weave it into cloth to cover their nakedness, nor erect it as a shelter against the storm and the night. Such a reminder would have seemed puerile at the time. The only vital question was: Can we find land enough between Los Angeles and Mexico to accommodate the people who are coming, and can we get it platted into additions fast enough to meet the demand? If this question could be answered affirmatively, it was enough. Obviously, the people would continue to come, prices would continue to soar, and everybody would get rich at the expense of his neighbor, living happy forever after.
Now, there was reason in this logic, if it had only been tempered with common sense. It is absolutely true that the climate of San Diego is a commodity of commercial value. Almost everybody would prefer to live here if they could afford the luxury. The mistake was in failing to create conditions which would make it possible for them to do so. This involved the prosaic matter of making a livelihood by some other means than exchanging real estate every few days at a profit. That process did not create wealth, but only exhausted it. What San Diego wanted in boom days, and wants now, is a means of producing new wealth to sustain that large element of its population which is not yet able to retire upon a competency, together with new population of the same kind that would like to come.
Probably no one could draw a true picture of the boom unless he lived through those joyous days and had a part in what went on. Fortunately, San Diego possessed a citizen peculiarly equipped for the work of observing and recording the phenomena of the times—a man who could see both the strength and the weakness of the situation, who united shrewdness with a sense of humor, and was also gifted as a writer. This citizen was Theodore S. Van Dyke, author, hunter, engineer, farmer, lawyer, and various other things. Above all he was—Theodore S. Van Dyke. Speaking of the class of people who came, saw, and bought, thereby making the boom, he says:
“It was plain that they were in fact buying comfort, immunity from snow and slush, from piercing winds and sleet-clad streets, from sultry days and sleepless nights, from thunderstorms, cyclones, malaria, mosquitoes and bed-bugs. All of which, in plain language, means that they were buying climate, a business that has been going on now for fifteen years and reached a stage of progress which the world has never seen before and of which no wisdom can foresee the end. The proportion of invalids among these settlers was very great, at first; but the numbers of those in no sense invalids but merely sick of bad weather, determined to endure no more of it, and able to pay for good weather, increased so fast that by 1880 not one in twenty of the new settlers could be called an invalid. They were simply rich refugees.
“In 1880 the rich refugee had become such a feature in the land and increasing so fast in numbers that Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties began to feel a decided “boom.” From 1880 to 1885 Los Angeles City grew from about twelve thousand to thirty thousand, and both counties more than doubled their population. But all this time San Diego was about as completely fenced out by a system of misrepresentation as it was by its isolation before the building of the rail-road. Much of this misrepresentation was simply well-meaning ignorance; but the most of it was pure straight lying so universal from the editor to the brakeman on the cars and the bootblack on the street that it seemed to be a regularly organized plan. So thorough was its effect that at the opening of 1885 San Diego had scarcely felt any of the great prosperity under full headway only a few hundred miles north.
“But when the extension of the railroad to Barstow was begun and recognized as a movement of the Santa Fe railway system to make its terminus on San Diego Bay, the rich refugee determined to come down and see whether a great railroad was foolish enough to cross hundreds of miles of desert for the sake of making a terminus in another desert. He came and found that though the country along the coast in its unirrigated state was not as inviting as the irrigated lands of Los Angeles and San Bernardino, there was yet plenty of water in the interior that could be brought upon it. He found there was plenty of “back country” as rich as any around Los Angeles, only it was more out of sight behind hills and table-lands, and less concentrated than in the two counties above. He found a large and beautiful bay surrounded by thousands and thousands of acres of fine rich slopes and table lands abounding in the most picturesque building sites on earth. He found a climate made, by its more southern latitude and inward sweep of the coast, far superior to that of a hundred miles north, and far better adapted to the lemon, orange, and other fine fruits. He found the only harbor on the Pacific coast south of San Francisco; a harbor to which the proud Los Angeles herself would soon look for most of her supplies by sea; one which shortens by several hundred miles the distance from the lands of the setting sun to New York; a harbor which the largest merchant vessels can enter in the heaviest storm and lie at rest without dragging an anchor or chafing paint on a wharf.
“The growth of San Diego now began in earnest, and by the end of 1885 its future was plainly assured. A very few who predicted a population of fifty thousand in five years were looked upon as wild, even by those who believed most firmly in its future. Even those who best knew the amount of land behind it and the great water resources of its high mountains in the interior believed that twenty-five thousand in five years would be doing well enough. Its growth since that time has exceeded fondest hopes. It is in truth a surprise to all and no one can truthfully pride himself upon superior sagacity, how ever well founded his expectations for the future may be. At the close of 1885 it had probably about five thousand people. At the close of 1887, the time of writing this sketch, it has fully thirty thousand with a more rapid rate of increase than ever. New stores, hotels, and dwellings are arising on every hand from the center to the farthest outskirts in more be wildering numbers than before, and people are pouring in at double the rate they did but six months ago. It is now impossible to keep track of its progress. No one seems any longer to know or care who is putting up the big buildings, and it is becoming difficult to find a familiar face in the crowd or at the hotels.”
This was written at the height of the boom. A more conservative note was sounded by Mr. Harrison Gray Otis, who was here in May, 1886, for the purpose of “writing up” Coronado Beach, and incidentally expressed some opinions upon San Diego and its new boom:
“She has got it and is holding on to it with the tenacity of death and the tax collector. Valves are “away up” and movements in real estate active. I hear of a score of men who have made their “pile” within a twelvemonth, and I know that a score more are pursuing the eagle on Uncle Sam’s twenties with a fierceness of energy that causes the bird o’ freedom to scream a wild and despairing scream, that may be heard far across the border of the cactus Republic. This is peculiarly a San Diego pursuit; you never see anything of the sort in Los Angeles, where the populace take care of the noble bird and encourage him to increase and multiply greatly. The Angelenos understand the national chicken business, you see.
“The boom in lots and blocks is by no means confined to the business center, but has spread far up the sage-shrouded hills where the view is magnificent, but water scarce. While there are not lacking evidences of solidity in the movement of real estate in the more central portions of the town, I cannot avoid the conviction that the excessive inflation of outside lands is unhealthy, unsound, and destined to bring disappointment to the inflaters, if I may coin a word. When unimproved blocks on the highlands, far from the center, and even from the outer edges of business, that a short time ago could be bought for $600, have been boosted in price to as many thousands there is afforded an excellent opportunity for the cautious investor to stand from under, lest the mushroomlike structure fall down and “squash” itself right before his face.
“But San Diego is going ahead, and is bound to be an important place one of these good days. She is partaking of the general and splendid prosperity of the whole southern coast, and will continue to prosper according to her deserts. (No reference to sand.) Only it is regretful to see men who have already had more than their share of disappointment and weary waiting for the “good time coming”—to see these men, some of whom still live here, planting financial seed that cannot sprout and spring until another long decade. What I mean specifically, is that unproductive outside lands at fancy prices are not a safe investment in San Diego. So, at least, it seems to a man up a sagebrush.”
Mr. Van Dyke wrote a Story of the Boom, in January, 1889, in which he said:
“The great boom has had probably no sequel on earth. Cities had indeed grown faster and prices had advanced more rapidly than here. Greater crowds of people may have rushed here and there, and far wilder excitement over lots and lands has been seen a thousand times. But the California boom lasted nearly three years, although the wild part of it lasted only about two years. It covered an area of many thousand miles and raged in both town and country. And above all it was started and kept up by a class of immigrants such as has never before been seen in any part of the world, immigrants in palace cars with heavy drafts or certified checks in their pockets, a fat balance in bank behind them, and plenty of property left to convert into cash. Nearly $100,000,000 were by this class invested in Southern California, and the permanent increase of population has been nearly 200,000 in the last four years.
“Some of the facts: First: There is scarcely an instance of anyone building for his own use a house costing $5000 or more in which the owner is not living today, or if he has sold it is living in another one. In other words, the people of means who settled here are almost to a man here today.
“Second: That whenever a man, whether rich or poor, has bought a piece of land and settled down to make it produce something, he is there today contented and doing well. In some places too many good houses have been built for sale only—a foolish thing generally, because the man who wants to pay over $2000 for a house usually wants to follow his own tastes about it—its style and location. The good houses that stand empty after being once occupied by the owner, you may almost count on your fingers, while a piece of land abandoned after occupancy it is next to impossible to find.
“Third: That the country outside the cities and towns is settling today faster than three years ago, and that even the towns are growing, the floating population being steadily replaced by a permanent one. The new register, the school enrollment and average attendance list, the postoffice receipts, and all other means of comparison show a larger population today in every city of Southern California than there was a year ago, when every building was overflowing with strangers.
“The true “boom” period extends from the summer of 1886 to about February, 1888—about eighteen months in all—and this was precipitated by the repetition of what in 1885 had surprised everyone—the increase of travel in summer, instead of its diminution, as has always been the case. In the summer of 1886 people came faster than ever, and it became very natural to ask where is all this going to end? Nearly every one of them bought something, nearly one-half of them became immediate settlers, and the majority of the remainder declared their intention of returning in the winter to build and remain. Such a state of affairs would have turned the heads of almost any people, but still the Californians kept quite cool. It required the professional boomer to touch off the magazine.
“In the summer of 1886 the professional boomer came. The business of this class is to follow up all lines of rapid settlement, chop up good farming land into town lots 25 or 30 years ahead of the time they are needed, and sell off in the excitement enough to pay for the land and have a handsome profit left over. The boomer came from Kansas City, Wichita, Chicago, Minnesota, New York, Seattle and everywhere, and with the aid of a brass band and free lunch (which had a marvelous influence on the human pocket) he began his work. Most of them were in Los Angeles county, but a few found their way to San Diego, enough to leaven the whole lump. By the Californians generally the boomer was pronounced a fool, and his 25-foot lots, brass band, free lunch, clown exhibitions, etc., laughed at. But it soon became the boomer’s turn to laugh.
“A boom is a boom the world over, he said. In such times a lot is a lot. You can sell a 25-foot lot for $100 a great deal more easily than you can sell a 50-foot lot for $150. When the world gets a crazy fit, work it while it lasts for all there is in it.
“His reasoning quickly proved itself correct. He captured the tourist and the tenderfoot by the thousand, took in scores of old conservative capitalists from the East, who could talk as sensibly as anyone about “intrinsic value” and “business basis,” etc., but who lost their heads as surely as they listened to the dulcet strains of the brass band and the silver tongue of the auctioneer. Rich old bankers, successful stock and grain operators, and smart folks of all kinds, who thought that they were the shrewdest of the shrewd, fell easy victims to the arts of the boomer. Few things were more amusing than to see the price of a lot doubled and quadrupled upon these wise old chaps by a few cappers acting in well-trained concert with the auctioneer. The most of the old boys thus taken in were exactly of the same class as those that have been lying around San Diego anxious to buy something, but afraid to examine it. Then they were fighting for a chance to pay $2.00 apiece for brass dollars. Now when offered a sack of gold dollars for 50 cents apiece, they dare not open the sack to look at them.
“The natives could not look on such scenes as these without being infected, and it was not long before they became entangled in the whirl. They not only laid out additions and townsites, but bought lots of others; not with any expectation of using them, but with the same idea that all the others had—to turn them over to someone else in sixty days at an advance of at least double or triple the amount of the first payment.
“A necessary result of the folly was to raise the price of good business property beyond what business could afford to pay. Farming property, in too many instances, was raised too high in price, though nothing in comparison with city property.
“It would be idle to recount the many fools that met the in credible prices offered and refused, the monstrous prices paid by the lot for land that was worth only $50 or $100 per acre, and could not in any event be worth more than $100 a lot in ten years. The enormous supply was forgotten, and folks acted as if there were but a few hundred lots left upon this favored corner of creation, toward which all were so eagerly rushing. The fact was, that if every train for the next ten years were loaded down with actual settlers, not more than half the lots laid out could be settled.
“So it went on for 13 months with prices constantly rising; people coming faster than ever, and acting more crazy than ever. It soon became quite unnecessary to show property. It was greedily bought from the map in town by people with no idea of even the points of the compass. . . . Most of the speculators had no need to resort to the banks. Coin was abundant everywhere. A man offering to loan money on mortgage would have been laughed at as a fool. As a matter of course, too many people bought diamonds and squandered the money in various forms of extravagance, instead of paying up and keeping even as they went along. But thousands more kept out of debt, and though disposed to take a hand in the game, played it cautiously.
“The hammer and saw rang all day long on every hand and improvements of every kind went on rapidly under the influence of abundance of money. The worst feature of this, however, was that in Los Angeles, and especially in San Diego county, little of it went into true development of resources. In San Bernardino county, most of it went into new waterworks and other things to develop productive power. But in other counties, especially our county, conveniences for tourists and people yet to come absorbed the most of it…. A very few aided such things, but fully ninety per cent of San Diego thought that bay and climate alone would build a great city, and many declared upon the street that they “didn’t care if you could not raise a bean within forty miles of San Diego.” The beautiful and fertile country back of it was of no moment whatever, and a railroad into it, such as is now building, wasn’t worth talking of for an instant. The great flume went ahead, notwithstanding, and the country settled up without their knowing it. The necessity for a railroad to Warner’s Ranch, at least, became so apparent that Governor Waterman and a few others got it started. Once started, its extension to the East would follow as a matter of course. The great majority of San Diego people had never been two miles east of town and didn’t know that they had any back country and didn’t care, thinking bay and climate all sufficient.”
Of the literature of the boom, it would be embarrassing to even attempt to describe it in all its richness and variety. The best writers in the land were brought to San Diego and gave their talents to the service of the real estate dealers. One of the ablest of these writers was Thomas L. Fitch, known as “the silver-tongued orator.” Mr. Fitch easily outdid and outdistanced his fellow scribes in the glowing fervor of his panegyrics upon bay and climate. To this day, the old San Diegans break into sunny smiles when yon speak of Fitch and his boom literature. Let us take a single sample, and allow the reader to judge for himself. This was an advertisement written for the firm of Howard & Lyons, and was No. 12 (there were many more):
“Special No. 72.
“We knew it would rain, for all day long
A spirit with slender ropes of mist,
Was dipping the silvery buckets down
Into the vapory amethyst.
“We also knew it, because the wound which our uncle received in his back at the first battle of Bull Run (he was in Canada when the second battle of Bull Run was fought), throbbed all day Saturday. Now, if Saturday night’s and Sunday night’s rain shall be followed by one or more showers of equal volume, we will see our blear mesas covered with the vernal and succulent alfileria and all the streams will he running bank-full. Then there will be—
“Sweet fields arrayed in living green
And rivers of delight.
“Then the slopes of the arroyos will be flecked with the purple violets and pink anemones and white star flowers, and over all the wind-blown heights the scarlet poppies and the big yellow buttercups will wave in the breeze like the plumes and banners of an elfin army. And when you behold the earth covered with fragrant children, born of her marriage to the clouds, and when you know that this charming effect of a few showers can be increased and perpetuated the year round with a little water from the mains and a little labor with hoe and rake, you will be thankful to us for having called your attention in time to the Middletown Heights’ lots.
“A NON-RESIDENT who invested during the Tom Scott boom, and who has failed to sell since, for the same reason that induced the teamster not to jump off the wagon tongue, astride which he fell when the runaway horses started—because it was all he could do to hold on—a non-resident has sent us the title deeds for several blocks of the Middletown Heights’ lots, with directions to close them out. Our motto is: Obey orders if you break owners, and the lots are therefore for sale at one-fourth their present and one-twentieth their future value.
“Call at our office, and our assistant will take you in the buggy and show you these lots. Two blocks of them are situated not more than three hundreds yards from the track of the California Southern Railroad Company, and a hundred yards further from the shore of the bay, and within a mile of the passenger depot. These blocks front India avenue and are in the slope at the base of the hill, just high enough to give you a good view of the bay and the sea. The Electric Motor Road will go up India avenue, and will pass in front of these lots. They will be worth $1000 each within a year. You can buy them this week for $125 each. It is a great chance—don’t lose it.
“Marcellus—Who comes here?
Horatio—friends to this ground.
“What matters it, dear friends, who it is that writes these Specials. Howard says it is Lyons, and Lyons says damfino. Whichever of the firm it is, or whoever else it may be, the writer is doing a good work for San Diego, for these Specials are being copied in the Eastern press and are possibly inducing both people and capital to come here. We append here a copy of a specimen letter received by us yesterday from a flourishing New England city:
……………………………Jan. 26, 1887.
“Messrs. Howard & Lyons, Gentlemen: I am well acquainted with the wonderful growth of your beautiful section of country, receiving as I do papers, pamphlets and letters from widely separated portions. In the San Diego Union I read your Specials concerning Oceanside and San Diego. I enclose check for $100, which please invest for me to the best of your judgment in a lot, as I have full faith that you will make good use of the money. Please give me a location with good view of the ocean. Very truly,
“We shall reward this gentleman’s confidence and good judgment by sending him a deed for a lot that will grow rapidly in value before next Christmas.
Our efforts, at considerable labor and some cash, to direct the attention of immigrants and investors this way, must benefit all San Diegans—even the other real estate men. Wherefore, beloved, begrudge not the writer of these Specials his incognito, nor seek to strip his mask from him lest you force him to seek security from curiosity in silence. Don’t quote scraps from these writings to the individual you suspect of being their author, and then wink at him. If the song of the nightingale please you, listen, and don’t throw stones into the canebrake in order to get a glimpse of the beak of the singer. If the dish is palatable, eat, and be content not to know the completion and genealogy of the cook.
“Still, if you must know who we really are, we will tell you in strict confidence, only don’t give it away. We are author of the Bread Winners and The Beautiful Snow. We composed the music of the great grasshopper song, There’s Wheat By and By, and the hieroglyphs of our being, “S. T. 1860, X,” are painted in white and black letters on the summits of the eternal hills.
“We came to this earthly Paradise for our health; we concluded to go into the real estate business, and then we determined to lift advertising out of its dull grooves and start it in new directions. In the latter determination we have succeeded, for people read these Specials who usually skip the advertisements, and some have been known to peruse them who do not always read all the editorials.
“If you would know more, come with us at nightfall upon the summit of yonder hill. The way is not long, though for a few dozen rods it is a little steep. Here we will halt. Here upon block 42, Middletown Addition, we are surrounded by a grander view than can be seen anywhere else, even in this favored land. Loma to our right, with brow of purple and feet of foam outlined against a sky of crimson. Far down the southern horizon towers Table mountain, outlined against the gathering dusk. The electric lights glint across the bay to sleeping Coronado, and San Diego buzzes and hums at our feet. Would you know our secret? Gold alone will cause its revealment. Buy these four lots on one of which we stand, pay us five hundred dollars in money for them—it will be an enchanting site for a home, and an investment which will return you thousands. We are—lend your ear—we are either Howard or Lyons. You pays your money and you takes your choice.”
Walter Gifford Smith, in his Story of San Diego, draws the following picture of the boom at its height:
“San Diego’s growth was a phenomenon. The newly-built houses following the curves of the bay in their onward march of construction, occupied four linear miles and spread a mile from shore, covering the lower levels and climbing the barren hills. The business district traversed three miles of streets, and the population, at the close of 1887, numbered 35,000. At one time 50,000 people, from every State and Territory of the Union and from many foreign lands, were in the bay country, trying to get rich in a week.
“Land advanced daily in selling price, and fortunes were made on margins. A $5000 sale was quickly followed by a $10,000 transfer of the same property, and in three months a price of $50,000 was reached. Excitement became a kind of lunacy, and business men persuaded themselves that San Diego would soon cover an area which, soberly measured, was seen to be larger than that of London. Business property that had been selling by the lot at $500, passed through the market at from $1000 to $2500 per front foot. Small corners, on the rim of the commercial center, sold for $40,000, and for the choicest holdings the price was prohibitive. Rents correspondingly swelled. An Italian fruit vender, who used a few feet of space on the walk beside a corner store, paid $150 per month for the privilege. The store itself, 25 by 50 in size, rented for $400 per month. A small cottage, shabbily built, with “cloth and paper” partitions, was competed for in the market at $60 per month. So general was the demand for homes and business quarters that the appearance of a load of lumber on vacant ground drew a knot of people who wanted to lease the structure in advance. Then the lessees camped out near by, waiting a chance to move in.
“Labor shared the common prosperity. A dirt-shoveler got from $2 to $3 per day, according to the demand. The per diem of carpenters and brick-layers was $5 and $6. Compositors on the morning press earned from $50 to $60 per week. A barber asked 25 cents for a shave and 40 cents for a bath. Liverymen demanded $2.50 per hour for the use of a horse and buggy. The time of real estate agents was measured by dollars instead of minutes. In the common phrase of the Rialto, “everything went,” and he who had aught to sell, whether of labor, commodity, skill, or time, could dispose of it for cash at thrice its value.
“Naturally a population drawn together from the adventurous classes of the world, imbued as it was with excitement and far from conventional trammels, contained and developed a store of profligacy and vice, much of which found its way into official, business, and social life. Gambling was open and flagrant; games of chance were carried on at the curb-stones; painted women paraded the town in carriages and sent out engraved cards summoning men to their receptions and “high teas;” the desecration of Sunday was complete, with all drinking and gambling houses open, and with picnics, excursions, fiestas and bullfights, the latter at the Mexican line, to attract men, women, and boys from religions influence. Theft, murder, incendiarism, carousals, fights, highway robbery, and licentiousness gave to the passing show in boomtide San Diego many of the characteristics of the frontier camp. Society retired to cover before the invasion of questionable people, and what came to be known as “society” in the newspapers, was, with honorable exceptions here and there, a spectacle of vulgar display and the arrogant parade of reputations which, in Eastern States, had secured for their owners the opportunity and the need of “going West.”
“Speculation in city lots, which soon went beyond the scope of moderate resources in money and skill, found avenues to the country; and for twenty miles about the town the mesas and valleys were checkered with this or that man’s “Addition to San Diego.” Numberless new townsites were nearly inacecssible; one was at the bottom of a river; two extended into the bay. Some of the best had graded streets and young trees. All were sustained in the market by the promise of future hotels, sanitariums, operahouses, soldiers’ homes, or motor lines to be built at specified dates. Few people visited these additions to see what they were asked to invest in, but under the stimulus of band music and a free lunch, they bought from the auctioneer’s map and made large payments down. In this way at least a quarter of a million dollars were thrown away upon alkali wastes, cobble-stone tracts, sand overflowed lands and cactus, the poorest land being usually put down on the townsite market.”
It should be added that the Chamber of Commerce exerted itself to expose and defeat these fraudulent schemes, generally with success. Most of the frauds were hatched in places other than San Diego.
Those who participated in these events and still live here, look be back upon them with varying emotions. To some the memory is painful. “The boom,” says one; “Well, that was the strangest thing you can imagine. There seems no way to account for it now, except as a sort of insanity. All you had to do was to put up some kind of a scheme and the people who came here would put their money into it by the barrel.” Another tells with glee of a sea-captain whom he drove about the city on his first visit, about the year 1875; and after seeing it all, said “A very pretty little town, and the houses, they look just like toy houses!” “Near the same time,” says Captain J. H. Simpson, “General Crittenden, who had been instrumental in getting a one-inch plank sidewalk laid on the east side of Fourth Street to the Florence Hotel, then recently built, stopped Mr. Edwin Goodall, of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, on this notable walk, one day, and said to him: ‘This is going to he a great city. We are going to have electric street railways, motor roads to National City and Pacific Beach, a ferry across the bay, a big hotel on the peninsula, and many other things.’ And then, pointing with pride to the sidewalk, he exclaimed: ‘And we have this sidewalk!'”
“It must be admitted,” says Captain Simpson, “that the boom was not an unmixed blessing. Evil as well as good resulted, and too many remember it with sorrow and anguish; yet the net gain to the city can scarcely be realized. I think it is twenty years in advance of what it would have been without it…. The progress made in these two years (1886-88) was wonderful. The two great water systems were started and the bonds for the sewer system voted. Streets were graded and miles of sidewalks laid, wharf facilities increased, work commenced and nearly two million dollars worth of property sold on Coronado Beach and the great hotel planned, motor roads built, streets graded, and substantial improvements started in every direction.”
Within this time, too, the city schools were systematized and several good schoolhouses built. The fire department grew in size and efficiency. And in brief the foundations of the present city were laid broad and deep.
One steamer in October, 1885, brought 80 new residents. Up to August, 306 buildings were completed in Horton’s Addition in 1886, and the following month 200 new houses in course of construction in the city were counted. During this year there arrived 26,281, and departed 13,938 people, net gain in population 12,343. The total cost of the buildings constructed in the year was $2,000,000. The aggregate of real estate transactions was over $7,000,000. In the first six months of 1887, the lumber imported by sea measured 14,780,000 feet. In August, 1887, the transfers of property in Horton’s Addition for one week amounted to $223,513, and for the other additions, $53,735. The week prior, the total transfers amounted to $500,951. In 1886 the number of business firms, professional men, etc., was 340; in 1887 they numbered 957. The population increased in the same period from 8,000 to 21,000.
In the assessment roll for the year 1887, it appeared that 217 citizens were worth over $10,000. The total valuation of city property jumped from $4,582,213, to $13,182,171. In February, 1888, the total value of buildings under construction was $2,000,000. In the next month, 19,667,000 feet of lumber were imported by sea, and in April the total was 18,00O,OO0 feet. A review of five months’ property sales made in June, 1888, showed an aggregate of $9,713,742.
The custom house collections rose from $5,739, in 1885, to $10,717 in 1886; to $29,845 in 1887, and to $311,935 in 1888. The exports in 1887 were $165,909, in 1888 $371,360, and in 1889 $376,799. The vessels arriving and clearing showed a similar record.
The great register of voters of San Diego County, dated September, 1888, contained 9,921 names. Directories and newspapers of the time show that there were 7 places of amusement: 20 architects; 3 expert accountants; 4 abstractors of title; 4 dealers in agricultural implements; 2 dealers in artists’ materials; 3 teachers of art; 2 exhibitions of works of art; 1 assayer: 9 artists; 63 attorneys-at-law; 6 awning, tent, and sail makers: 6 auctioneers; 5 manufacturers of artificial stone; 20 shoemakers; 11 shoe dealers; 9 banks; 2 bands; 37 barbers; 15 blacksmiths; 12 bakers; 2 boat houses; 6 booksellers; 9 bath houses; 5 wholesale butchers; 2 bookbinders; 3 beer bottlers; 6 brewers’ agents; 7 brick companies; 5 billiard halls; 2 building and loan associations; 6 carriage and wagon dealers; 10 carriage and wagon makers; 1 carriage trimmer; 11 country produce dealers; 17 commission merchants; 10 civil engineers and surveyors; 9 capitalists; 5 cabinet makers; 3 foreign consuls; 5 collecting agencies; 3 cornice works; 11 clothiers; 3 custom house brokers; 18 confectioners; 3 carpet dealers; 2 carpet cleaners; 4 dealers in Chinese and Japanese goods; 4 dealers in curiosities; 11 dealers in crockery and glassware; 5 coal and wood dealers; 87 carpenters; 13 wholesale dealers in cigars and tobacco; 4 cigar manufacturers; 46 cigar dealers; 5 general contractors; 14 contractors and builders; 20 members of the builder’s exchange; 37 dressmakers; 11 dentists; 8 dyers and cleaners; 4 sash, door, and blind factories; 13 druggists; 15 dealers in dry goods; 1 firm of wood engravers; 6 employment agencies; 9 express, truck and transfer companies; 5 dealers in fish, game, and poultry; 73 dealers in men’s furnishing goods; 3 dealers in firearms; 9 dealers in furniture; 3 wholesale grocers; 64 retail grocers; 39 hotels; 2 hair stores ; 4 dealers in gas and lamp fixtures; 1 manufacturer of gas and electric light; 7 dealers in hardware; 7 dealers in hay, grain and feed; 1 housemover; 4 dealers in harness and saddler; 3 ice and cold storage companies; 2 iron works; 1 dealer in iron and steel; 18 insurance agents; 20 jewelers; 1 junk store; 4 lumber dealers; 3 libraries; 24 livery, feed, and sales stables; 75 lodging houses; 12 wholesale liquor dealers; 2 dealers in lime, hair, and cement; 3 lawndries; 2 locksmiths and bell-hangers; 6 dealers in musical merchandise; 3 mortgage and loan brokers; 5 music teachers; 17 meat markets; 2 grain mills; 1 marble and granite works; 3 manufacturers of mantels; 15 newspapers and periodicals; 2 dealers in mineral water; 10 milliners; 2 midwives; 3 nurseries; 16 notaries public; 5 news dealers; 3 oculists and aurists; 7 photographers; 4 planing mills; 10 plumbers and gasfitters; 4 pilots; 3 pawnbrokers; 1 manufacturer of pottery; 1 firm of plasterers; 3 dealers in pianos and organs; 73 physicians and surgeons; 14 book and job printers; 6 dealers in paints and oils; 18 house painters; 238 dealers in real estate; 57 restaurants; 2 railroad ticket brokers; 1 rubber stamp factory; 1 stereotyper; 2 shirt makers; 2 ship chandlers; 2 agencies for safe companies; 2 soap factories; 3 stair builders; 9 stationers; 5 second-hand stores; 3 sewing machine agencies; 8 stenographers; 71 saloons; 5 dealers in stoves and tinware; 5 tinners; 2 typewriters; 16 merchant tailors; 3 undertakers; 3 veterinarians; 4 water companies; 7 dealers in wall paper; 5 wharves; 19 miscellaneous enterprises; 12 public buildings and offices; 2 public parks; 3 cemeteries; 13 schools and colleges; 17 churches and 36 societies.
The increase in the number of business firms, professional men, etc., in 1887 over 1886 was about 600.
These figures represent high water mark of the boom period, and in many respects have never been equaled since.
The great boom collapsed in 1888, the first symptom of stringency in the money market coming early in that year. Those who were speculating in margins threw their, holdings upon the market, first at a small discount, then at any price, and before the close of the month of January, there was a wild scramble and confidence was gone. The establishment of a new bank in March did not have any immediate effect in restoring confidence. “Save yourself” was the sole thought of those who had been foremost in the gamble for the “unearned increment.” During the spring and summer, all the floating population and much that ought to have been permanent, had faded away—some 10,000 of them. Not less than $2,000,000 of deposits were withdrawn from the banks, which were no longer able to make loans on real estate, and were struggling to keep themselves from enforced liquidation. All works of public and private improvement were stopped, and there was much distress among working people. Thus the spring and summer passed in deepest gloom and foreboding, and actual suffering among those who had lost all. In the fall, a better feeling began to prevail. The banks weathered the storm, for the time being, and the citizens began to hope for a steady and healthful growth for the future.
What were the net results of the great boom? To a few individuals, pecuniary profit; to many more individuals, loss and disappointment; to the real estate market, years of stagnation; but to San Diego as a community, a large gain in permanent population and the most valuable permanent improvements—such a gain as certainly could not have been had in the same space of time by any other means.
It is a common saying that what a town needs is not a boom, but steady growth. Undoubtedly, steady growth is the healthful condition and the one which ministers most to the comfort and prosperity of individuals. On the other hand, one of the most striking lessons in all human history is found in the fact that individuals are often sacrificed to the good of the community, or, as the philosophers put it, “to the welfare of the social organism.” This was true of San Diego in the period of the great boom. It is probably no exaggeration to say, as Captain Simpson did, that the city “is twenty years in advance of what it would have been without it.” It is due to the truth of history that this should be said, yet it is also true that those who have the best interests of San Diego at heart—those who regard its best progress and highest welfare as something not necessarily synonymous with rapid advances in real estate values—pray that there may never be a repetition of the wild orgy of speculation, and that never again may the future be discounted as it was when the frenzy reached its height.
Return to Books.
HISTORY OF SAN DIEGO
PART ONE: Period of Discovery and Mission Rule
- The Spanish Explorers
- Beginning of the Mission Epoch
- The Taming of the Indian
- The Day of Mission Greatness
- The End of Franciscan Rule
Priests of San Diego Mission
PART TWO: When Old Town Was San Diego
- Life on Presidio Hill Under the Spanish Flag
List of Spanish and Mexican commandants
- Beginnings of Agriculture and Commerce
List of Ranchos in San Diego County
- Political Life in Mexican Days
- Early Homes, Visitors and Families
- Pleasant Memories of Social Life
- Prominent Spanish Families
- The Indians’ Relations With the Settlers
List of Mission Indian Lands
- San Diego in the Mexican War
- Public Affairs After the War
- Accounts of Early Visitors and Settlers
- Annals of the Close of Old San Diego
- American Families of the Early Time
- The Journalism of Old San Diego
- Abortive Attempt to Establish New San Diego
PART THREE: The Horton Period
- The Founder of the Modern City
- Horton’s Own Story
- Early Railroad Efforts, Including the Texas and Pacific
- San Diego’s First Boom
- Some Aspects of Social Life
PART FOUR: Period of “The Great Boom”
PART FIVE: The Last Two Decades
- Local Annals, After the Boom
- Political Affairs and Municipal Campaigns
- Later Journalism and Literature [new material in second edition]
- The Disaster to the Bennington
- The Twentieth Century Days
- John D. Spreckels Solves the Railroad Problem
PART SIX: Institutions of Civic Life
- Churches and Religious Life
- Schools and Education
- Records of the Bench and Bar
- Growth of the Medical Profession
- The Public Library
- Story of the City Parks
- The Chamber of Commerce
- Banks and Banking
- Secret, Fraternal and Other Societies
- Account of the Fire Department
PART SEVEN: Miscellaneous Topics
- History of the San Diego Climate
- San Diego Bay, Harbor and River
- Governmental Activities
- The Suburbs of San Diego