History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART SIX: CHAPTER 6: Story of the City Parks

The time has come when everybody can see that the great City Park (which is worthy of a more notable name) is destined is be one of the chief beauties and glories of San Diego and one of the famous parks of the world. For many years it looked otherwise, for the reservation of 1,400 acres in the heart of the town appeared like the most hopeless of waste places and few believed that it would be possible to command the water, the money, and the genius to develop it to the high­est advantage. Suddenly the situation changed. Civic pride was aroused and directed along intelligent lines. The finest landscape architects were employed to work out comprehensive plans and put them in the way of gradual realization. Money was obtained from private and public sources to carry on the work, and its administration was vested in the hands of devoted citizens who stood ready to give freely of their time and thought to this labor of love.

GEORGE W. MARSTON. San Diego’s leading merchant who began with the town’s small beginnings and grew with its growth. Conspicuously identified with every movement for civic progress, his great and lasting contribution to the community is his work for the City Park.

It is seldom, if ever, true that a great public development may justly be credited to any single individual. The history of the City Park is no exception, as we shall see, yet in this instance there is one man who did so much, and did it so generously and wisely, that he is entitled to unstinted praise and to lasting remembrance. This man is George W. Marston. He was one of the few who never lost faith in the possibilities of that large tract of arid land, and he was the man who came forward at the critical moment to employ the finest genius in America to translate the barren wilderness into a spot of perennial beauty by means of a well-conceived, harmonious, unified design for its artistic development. The undertaking cost him $10,000 to start with, and this was doubtless but the beginning of his benefac­tion. As in all such cases, his financial contribution was of less value than the moral influence which it set in motion, for the enthusiasm of the whole citizenship was immediately enlisted in behalf of this neglected asset of San Diego. While the history of the park reflects credit upon many individuals, as well as upon the city as a whole, it will doubtless be regarded in the future as an enduring memorial to Mr. Marston’s public spirit and civic pride.

Before the coming of Horton, there was so much land belong­ing to the city, and it was worth so little, that it did not occur to anyone that it was necessary to reserve a large tract from sale for park purposes. The trustees were glad to get rid of it, to secure settlers and pay the city’s debts. There is a record of two 160-acre tracts being sold for less than seven cents an acre. But when the great dream began to come true, when Hor­ton’s new town began to rise on the brushy mesas, and the city lands began to sell rapidly, it was seen that the best of them would soon be gone and that, if a park were to be reserved, it was necessary to act without delay.

The first official action was taken on February 15, 1868, when E. W. Morse presented a resolution to the hoard of trustees “that the present board reserve two of the one hundred and sixty acre tracts of the city lands for the purpose of securing to the inhabitants of the city of San Diego a suitable park.” The members of the board were J. S. Mannasse, Thomas H. Bush, and E. W. Morse. President Mannasse appointed Morse and Bush a committee to select the 320 acres, which it was thought would be sufficient; “but afterward,” said Mr. Morse, “when we found so much land, we concluded to lay out a larger park.” The committee certainly exercised excellent judgment in its selection. They selected pueblo lots 1129, 1130, 1131, 1135, 1136, 1137, 1142, 1143, and 1144, comprising a solid block of nine quarter-sections. In the meantime, however, on the 13th day of February, 1868, Isabella Carruthers stole a march upon them and bought the southwest quarter of lot 1144 for $175, which took a 40-acre “bite” out of the southwest corner of their tract. The minutes of the trustees’ meetings are very scanty, but it appears that on May 26th it was resolved that this tract “be for a park.” The trustees who took this action were José Guadalupe Estudillo, Marcus Schiller, and Joshua Sloane.

It was scarcely to be expected that the reservation of this large tract at such an early day would pass unchallenged. There were those who honestly thought it against the public interest to try to maintain so large a park, and, it is to be feared, others who were interested only in the profits they hoped to make out of the sale of these lands, if they could succeed in hav­ing them thrown upon the market.

The effort to cut down the size of the park began early and lasted long. On February 4, 1870, an act was passed by the state legislature to insure the permanency of the reservation, which declared that the tract should “be held in trust forever by the municipal authorities of the said city for the use and purposes of a public park, and for no other or different purpose.” After this bill had been introduced, it was discovered that an effort had been made to defeat its purpose surreptitiously by inserting a provision for the sale of 480 acres, and the restora­tion of the bill to its original form was only accomplished by prompt and strenuous action by the friends of the park. At the next ensuing session an effort was made to repeal this act, which was only defeated by a remonstrance signed by all the leading citizens, and nearly all the voters, of San Diego. Among those most active in working for the preservation of the park were Daniel Cleveland, Levi Chase, George W. Marston, E. W. Morse, Dr. R. J. Gregg, Charles Hubbell, A. E. Horton, George N. Hitchcock, James M. Pierce, Thomas L. Nesmith, Captain Mathew Sherman, Joshua Sloane, and many others. It would be impossible to enumerate all these earliest and truest friends of the park; perhaps a word for those who are dead and gone and cannot speak for themselves may be pardoned.

Besides having the honor to introduce the resolution for its reservation, and to act as one of the committee which selected it, Mr. Morse remained one of the park’s staunchest friends and in the front of every fight for it. Joshua Sloane was one of the trustees who voted to confirm the committee’s report, and in his capacity as clerk of the board was, watchful of its interests and filled with righteous indignation against its enemies.

Certainly, the slow development of the park gave aid and comfort to those who thought it too large. The first improve­ment work was accomplished by the Ladies’ Annex to the Cham­ber of Commerce. About the year 1889 they raised $500 by popular subscription and planted a strip of 10 acres along the west side of the park with trees. Perhaps a third of these trees survive and some of them have prospered fairly well. In 1892 a tract of 36 acres in the northwest corner was leased to Miss Kate 0. Sessions for use as a nursery, on condition of the per­manent planting of 100 trees, and the donation of 300 more to the city, annually. When Miss Sessions removed her nursery there was left the beginning of the first satisfactory planting in the park.

The first definite move toward the systematic development of the park began on August 15, 1902, when Mr. Julius Wangen­heim suggested to the Chamber of Commerce the appointment of a “Park Improvement Committee.” The committee consisted of Mr. Wangenheim, chairman; U. S. Grant, Jr., George W. Marston, William Clayton, and D. E. Garrettson.

It was at this time that Mr. Marston came forward with his offer to provide for the preparation of adequate plans. Thus encouraged, the work of obtaining subscriptions was begun by sub-committees. The late John Allyn had bequeathed the city $3,000 for park improvement and, with this nucleus, the fund soon reached $11,000, exclusive of Mr. Marston’s contribution. Correspondence was begun with a number of persons qualified to give advice on the subject.

GEORGE COOKE. Associated with Samuel Parsons in planning park improvement and superintendent in charge of the work; also identified with other works of landscape architecture which have beautified the city and its surroundings.

The result was the employment of Mrs. M. B. Coulston as sec­retary of the Park Improvement Committee and the employment of Samuel Parsons, Jr., & Co., of New York, to prepare the plans for the improvements. Mrs. Coulston had been for ten years one of the editors of Garden and Forest, in New York City. She arrived in San Diego late in September, and at once began act­ive work on behalf of the park, delivering addresses and writing a large number of contributions to the local newspapers on the subject, besides conducting correspondence, keeping accounts, and aiding the committees in many ways. This gifted woman went to Berkeley to pursue her studies in 1904, and died there in July of that year. Many citizens rendered important serv­ices to the park at this time, but probably no other persons gave so much of the best that was in them as did Mrs. Coulston. She was of a sincere and intense nature and threw herself into the work with a joyful abandon. Her name and labors will not soon be forgotten.

Mr. Parsons arrived in San Diego on December 21, 1902, and after a reception by the Chamber of Commerce entered imme­diately upon his work. A contour map being needed, Mr. J. B. Lippincott, of Los Angeles, was employed to prepare it, and as fast as the sections were finished they were sent to the architects in New York. The map of roads and paths for the southwestern section of the park was received by the committee in May, 1903, and in September a planting list showing the number and kinds of trees. In July, George Parsons came and spent five weeks. In August, an appropriation of $1,700 was made for laying water pipes on the west side of the park. On December 20th, George Cooke, Mr. Parsons’ partner, arrived and brought with him a sketch of the entire tract to be worked out. The grading at the south end was at once commenced under his direction. In January, 1904, the park map was approved.

On January 27, 1905, the city charter was amended with the emphatic approval of the voters so as to provide an annual park appropriation of not less than 5 or more than 8 cents on each $100 of assessed valuation, to be expended by the Park Commis­sion. In 1906, on the basis of 7 cents per $100, this amounted to about $14,000.

April 17, 1905, the first board of park commissioners, consist­ing of George W. Marston president, Ernest E. White secretary, and A. Moran, was appointed. This board is still serving.

The architects consider that their real work was only begun when the plan was completed, and expect that it will continue through all the years in which the plan is being developed. The general features of the plan include the planting of palms and other trees which flourish with a moderate provision of water, arranged in harmonious groupings as to foliage and color­ scheme, care being taken not to spoil the fine views by the growth of tall shrubbery at strategic points. Considerable planting has already been done and a few of the principal roads and paths, following the winding contour of the hills, constructed. The place offers unusual opportunities for artistic achievement and magnificent natural effects. That the future management of this great endowment will be worthy of the beginning that has been made must be the hope of every citizen of San Diego.

The first park in New San Diego was not, of course, the great park, but that dedicated to public use by William Heath Davis and his associates in 1850. This is in the block bounded by F, G, Columbia and India Streets, known as “New Town Plaza.” The flagpole now standing in this park is the one erected there in 1869. It was brought from the Territory of Washington by steamer. It was originally 125 feet long, but the lower part rot­ted and was cut off. Dr. Stockton says he paid Ed. Westcott $20 for plowing and leveling the block twice in 1869—the first time it was ever plowed. The little plot is handsomely improved with rubber and other attractive trees, is well maintained, and forms a beauty spot in a district that needs such a feature.

Golden Hill Park, at Twenty-fifth and A Streets, is a section of the City Park. There is also a park on H Street between Ninth and Tenth, another on the southeast corner of Thirteenth and K, and a very attractive one known as Mission Cliff Park, on Adams Street between Alabama and Texas, overlooking Mis­sion Valley, which is one of the chief scenic attractions of the city. The New Town Plaza is a half block bounded by Third, Fourth, D, and Witherby Streets. It is historically interesting, as it stood immediately in front of the Horton House and was kept by “Father” Horton as a breathing space for his guests. In later years he conveyed it to the city and it has been officially named “Horton Plaza.” These parks are cared for by a super­intendent under the control of the board of public works. The present incumbent is Samuel E. Webb.

In the year 1900, the city council added one more to the res­ervations of land for park purposes, by setting apart 369 acres at the northern extremity of the city’s lands, on the bluffs near the ocean, four miles south of Del Mar and one and one-half miles north of Sorrento. This was done for the purpose of safe­guarding a grove of one of the rarest of trees—the Pinus Torreyana, or Torrey pine. There are but two places in the world where this tree is found, one of which is in this park and the other on Santa Rosa Island. The trees were discovered in 1850 by Dr. J. L. Le Conte, who was then staying in San Diego. Upon consulting with the naturalist, Dr. C. C. Parry, they both became much interested in the tree, and dedicated it to their hon­ored instructor, Dr. John Torrey, of New York, by giving it the name of Pinus Torreyana. Since then, the grove has been visited by many eminent travelers and scientists, some of them having journeyed thousands of miles to see it. Among these are Bayard Taylor, Asa Gray, Engelmann, Sargent, Nelease, and others.


The tree is found on the high wind-swept bluffs and in the sheltered ravines between. Its growth is often in fantastic forms, sometimes with a trunk three or four feet in circumfer­ence, yet rising to a height of scarcely ten feet. In sheltered spots it reaches a height of fifty feet or more. It seems to delight to wrestle with the winds in exposed positions, and exhibits a tenacity of life and an ability to reproduce its species seldom equalled. The trees bear cones four or five inches long, ovate, with thick scales terminating in strong prickles. The nuts are about an inch long, flattened, and with a black wing. The shells are thick and hard and the seeds edible. The pollen-bearing (male) flowers are terete, from two and one-half to three inches long, and three-eighths of an inch in diameter. The leaves grow in fascicles of five and are the largest pine leaves known, being from six to eight inches long.

The view from these bluffs is superb. The water-worn and wind-beaten sides of the canyons show the rocky formations in many colors. On the west is the ocean, and landward the top of the San Bernardino Mountains is visible. There is a carpet of pine needles, and in the season wild flowers make a riot of color. The reservation includes the Point of Pines, the natural salt. lagoons of the Soledad, and other attractive features. Here in days to come the dwellers of the city will resort for rest and recreation and bless the care and foresight of the city fathers no less than the natural upheavals which left this driftwood of prehistoric ages upon our shores.

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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