By Irene Phillips
Chorographers, in the days of the Spanish rule, listed the narrow strip of land which separates the Pacific Ocean from our bay as “San Diego Ysla,” but to the sailors who entered the harbor past the dangerous shoals (now North Island), the land was “The Spit.” Even as late as July 10, 1877, that name was used.
The Peninsula had been considered a worthless piece of land, and when the waves rolled across the narrowest portion, the idea prevailed that the land was insecure.
My uncle, Daniel Schuyler, in telling of the days of ’71 when he first came to California on a wedding journey, said the Strand was a maze of chaparral, shoulder high, where ducks, doves, quail and rabbits abounded. It was a favorite pastime to sail across the bay for a day’s hunting.
Along the southern portion of the peninsula great columns of smoke brought the first smog to the Bay area, when some enterprising young men burned the dry ice plant for potash. The plants had thrived for so long that the new growth rested on a thick mat of dead roots which never seemed to blend with the sand. In summer time they burned furiously. The barrels of ash were brought across the Bay, either to Kimball’s new wharf in National City, or the Horton wharf in San Diego, from where it was sent to San Francisco for further processing. The San Diego Union gives the chemical analysis of the ash as “45% caustic soda for soap making and 30% for other industrial purposes.”
Researchers tell us San Diego Ysla was another of those last minute grants of Governor Pio Pico, when he gave title to the land to Don Pedro Carrillo. It was used for stock raising.
And where did Don Pedro water his cattle? Probably at the spring in Carrillo Park, which is fresh, though but a short distance from the Bay.
On May 15, 1843, the land was sold to Bezar Simmons for the equivalent of $1,000. Ownership changed several times. The National City Record said in 1884, “Col. G. W. Gramms claims ownership of the San Diego Peninsula by patent. Thinks it would be a good place to raise sugar cane.”
On July 2, 1885, came this announcement: “Rumored sale of the Peninsula to an eastern syndicate is true. Price for transfer of Patent is $150,000. A grand hotel will be erected.” The Syndicate was composed of E. S. Babcock, Heber Ingle and H. L. Story, though all references were to “Babcock & Story.”
The Coronado boom began in 1886 with the sale of choice lots to those who liked an ocean or a Bay frontage, and we are told that, “In every deed to the land, there is a clause that no spirituous liquors are ever sold or drunk on the property.” The Record, however, tells us about the loop-hole provided: “Go to the hotel.” This must have referred to an earlier boarding house as the plans for the Coronado Hotel were not completed until later.
In 1885 the Record reveals, “There is a ferry between Roseville and San Diego and another between National City and San Diego, Fare 10c. Now the tug boat Rover of National City has been fitted up in the machine shops of the Calif. Southern R.R. Company and we have a ferry between San Diego and the Peninsula.” And in May of ’86 we find, “The creosote plant is busy with piles for the San Diego Peninsula’s new Ferry landing.” The ferry steamer Coronado began service in August of 1886. A sidewheeler of 308 tons, she was built in San Francisco, and was San Diego Bay’s first ferryboat.
In June of 1886, two months before the first ferry was named, Babcock & Story announced they were searching for a suitable name for the new town and welcomed suggestions. On June 16, “Uncle Josh” the ‘anonymous paragrapher’ of the National City Record, had ideas, “If the Peninsula was a portion of San Diego they could call it “Father Horton’s Kohlrabi” from its shape, but as it belongs to National Township, I suggest “National City’s Coney Island.”
On the serious side, there were many practical suggestions, among them Prof. Standley’s “Miramar” which was released to the papers as the name chosen. The Record was just going to press when word came the choice had been rescinded. There had been many protests, “Why give an Italian name to an area with a Spanish background.” Miramar, it seems, was the name given by Maximillian to his refuge palace on the Adriatic.
Babcock & Story then announced, with finality, “The name of the Peninsula shall be “Coronado,” not for the explorer but for the Crown Islands in the channel.” On January 9, 1887, it was announced that “Plans for the new Hotel are completed: Temecula granite, choice woods from the east and sturdy California redwood. There will be incandescent electric lights in every room.”
The cuisine of the new hotel was unexcelled and they drew heavily from National City’s back country for their provisions, “Turkey raising is the latest industry in Sweetwater Valley. Forty-five turkeys went to Coronado yesterday. The piéce de resistance were the quails that were caught in nets in the valleys and taken to the hotel.
Besides being politically allied with National City, being in the same township, Coronado’s future was to touch National City’s again when the Belt Line came around the Bay. Work began on Nov. 21, 1887, and was completed June 8, 1888. The little train traveled from the vicinity of the Coronado Hotel, down the Peninsula, over the narrowest portion of the Strand where “there are just 150 yards of sand between the placid Bay and the tumultuous Pacific,” around the Bay, through National City and into San Diego. The first train made the circuit on August 7, 1888, and the following day an announcement was in the Union “The company regrets the overcharge made on the occasion of the first trip open to the public. The real price is only 20 cents from the Hotel to San Diego.” They had charged a quarter.
Passengers from the Belt Line could transfer to the National City & Otay or vice versa, so tourists were able to get a splendid idea of our Southland. In addition to scheduled trains, there were specials, with such announcements as “The Coronado Belt Line will run a special train for the Ball. Leave National City at 6:25: Return from the Hotel at 11 P.M. Fare 70c.” The Belt Line was to see many years of service and carried much freight, including the massive boulders from Sweetwater Canyon for the breakwater and the jetty. The road, now a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific, carries freight to Coronado and North Island.
Water was Coronado’s most serious problem. At one time Daniel Schuyler, who had successfully drilled oil wells in Pennsylvania, drilled on North Island — “If he strikes oil or water, he will get $30,000; if not, he will get nothing.” He got nothing but salt water. There were a couple of springs on the Peninsula, notably the one that is in Carrillo Park, but Coronado’s “Big Day” came in June of 1888, when the Company’s well on the Otay mesa came in, “Great success! 30,000 gallons every 24 hours. Babcock & Story are piping water to their numerous possessions.”
When Babcock & Story purchased the La Punta Salt works with its fresh water spring near the bay, they used dynamite to increase the flow, but the little spring, which had been an oasis for Indian tribes through the years, merely disappeared.
John D. Spreckels, of San Francisco, one of the heirs to the huge sugar fortune of his father, Claus Spreckels, became interested in Coronado and purchased a third share of the Babcock & Story Company, then increased his holdings until he was sole owner. He also purchased the Kimball’s cement mines on Janal Ranch. Peter Kaye, in the San Diego Union, tells us that North Island was sold, at one time, for a barrel of whiskey. Mr. Spreckels later received $5,000,000 from the government, for that same land.
In the early part of the century, ‘Tent City’ became popular. According to my aunt, Lydia Schuyler, anyone who was in the Who’s Who spent a few weeks of the summer at Coronado. A simple breakfast was prepared in their tent, usually around 11 o’clock. In the afternoon there was a round of calling or card playing, then a dress-up dinner at the Hotel, followed by an evening of music, dancing or cards. Tent City is gone, but we still have the beautiful Hotel del Coronado, which reflects the gracious living of a preceding era in its present day hospitality.
That long, narrow, insecure piece of land where there were just 150 yards of sand between “the placid bay and the tumultuous Pacific” has been widened for the Amphibious Base. In fact, San Diego Ysla is quite a different place than it was in the days when Don Pedro Carrillo grazed his cattle there.