By W. W. Bowers
NOTE: The late Senator Bowers (1835-1917) designed and built the Horton House, located where the U.S. Grant Hotel now stands, and also the Florence Hotel, later known as the Robinson and as the Casa Loma. He served as State Assemblyman, Collector of the Port, State Senator and Member of Congress. The manuscript here printed is from the files of the Junipero Serra Museum.
I arrived with my family at San Diego September 30, 1869. At that time Horton was selling lots at a great rate. In a little iron safe in a shack at Sixth and I Streets he had $40,000 in gold coin, most of it lying loose on the bottom of the safe. He was selling lots so fast that whenever he gave the price of a piece of ground to a prospective buyer, he would add, “I don’t care whether you take it or not.” He felt he was conferring a favor on all purchasers of lots.
One day he began talking about building a big hotel, one that would occupy a whole block. He came to me and asked me to make a plan of a plain house, two stories, with a hip roof and a 200-foot front. I wanted a mansard roof, which would give three stories, but he wouldn’t have it. I went to work and in a few days made a sketch of a plan which Mr. Horton and Mr. E. W. Morse approved. The plan resembled that of the Russ House in San Francisco, where I had stopped for several days, waiting for the steamer for San Diego.
I heard nothing more of the matter for a month or so. Then one day he said to me, “Well, I am going to build the hotel.” I asked him if he had got any plans for it. He replied. “Why, your plan suits me.” I said, “But that was only a rough sketch I gave you. It must be drawn to scale so the workmen may have something to go by.” He answered, “Well, fix it up right away; I want you to superintend it.”
I was, as may be imagined, very much surprised, for be knew I was not a carpenter. However, I told him if he was willing to take the chances I would do the best I could. He said, “Get into the buggy and I will show you where I am going to put it.”
He drove up to the block where the U.S. Grant Hotel now stands. which at that time was covered with the native brush and was way out of town. Indeed, some of the citizens who had bought lots from Horton in the lower part of the village on F. and H. and lower Fifth and Sixth Streets, denounced him roundly for locating the hotel so far out of town, which would pull the business away from the property he had sold them.
After the brush had been cleared off. Mr. Horton, Mr. Morse, and I formally broke ground for the new building on January 1st, 1870. Horton had bought a shipload of lumber that had arrived for McDonald’s lumber yard. It consisted entirely of rough lumber: Oregon pine scantling and joists of all sizes and lengths, which were rapidly and promiscuously dumped on the streets around the block. Nearly all the bricklayers and carpenters in town were set to work and for a time the building grew apace.
When the studding bad all been set the building became really imposing in contrast with the few small houses near it. Many doubted that it would ever be completed, or, if completed, be filled with guests. Indeed, more than one declared that he would be satisfied if he lived long enough to see that day.
For about four months the building grew as fast as a large force of carpenters and other workmen could push it; but the summer of 1870 proved a dull one for the sale of lots. The $40,000 Horton had to begin with had been eaten up by the building, and many of the workmen were laid off. Only the men who could afford to take lots in payment for from one-third to one-half of the amount of their wages could be retained. The work dragged on until July, when Horton’s means were exhausted. The outlook for its completion was very dark. At this time I proposed to Horton that I should go to San Francisco, in the hope of finding some hotel man who would furnish it and open it on condition that no rent should be charged for the first three years. I had fears that I might not be able to put over such a proposition, but I did believe that I could find some one who would sell us the furniture on time. However, as Mr. Horton was opposed to such a plan I did not mention it to him.
Horton borrowed $150 for my expenses. Immediately upon my arrival I put advertisements in the papers. I also approached some of the proprietors of the leading hotels, but Mr. Horton’s plan had no takers. After four or five days I decided to give mine a try. I went to the office of Goodwin, the furniture man, and told him about the hotel and Horton’s situation. I explained that he owned a large amount of valuable property, all free of encumbrance, that the hotel was ready for furniture, and was paid for and free of all liens, that it was only a question of time until he would again be able to sell property, and that the opening of the hotel would answer that question. The result of our thirty minutes’ talk was that Goodwin’s agreed to furnish the hotel at once, and assigned a salesman to show me the goods.
For the next three days I was busy selecting the furniture. That done, I was taken down and introduced at Murphy, Grant & Company where I selected blankets, bedding, napery, table furniture, etc. Then I was taken to Thomas Day, one of the principal dealers in gas fixtures and plumbing material, who, without any questions, was ready to furnish all that I wanted in his line. Oddly enough I was never asked for any identification by any of these firms.
Just at the time I had got the furniture selected the Western Union telegraph wires reached San Diego. Among the first messages that went over them was my telegram to Horton telling him that there was no hope of leasing the hotel, but that I could get all of the furniture for it on time, and had it all selected. My answer came quickly and was to the point: just three words: “Take the furniture.”
Since this was two days before the steamer Orizaba would sail, I brought forty tons of the furniture with me. On the morning of the arrival of the steamer at San Diego nearly the whole population of the town was on the Horton wharf. As the steamer was made fast, and before the gangway was run out, one of the men on the wharf called out to Captain Henry Johnson.
“Captain, have you really got some furniture for the Horton House on board?”
“Yes, sir, forty tons of it!”
Then the crowd gave a great laugh. Times had been very dull, and many were despondent. Work on the hotel had been stopped and it looked as if Horton’s Addition was going to meet the fate that befell Davis’ New Town. The arrival of the furniture gave assurance that the hotel would be opened, and changed the appearance of things.
Other merchants interested themselves in the Horton House. Mr. George W. Marston of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, furnished $4,000 worth of carpets, taking lots from Horton in payment.
The hotel was quickly finished and was opened the first day of October, 1870. It was the largest and finest hotel in California south of San Francisco. Within ninety days it was so crowded that it was often necessary to put up beds in the parlor. The opening of the hotel so stimulated business and confidence in the future of Horton’s Addition that within the year Mr. Horton was again prosperous, and all the furniture bills had been paid.