The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego Historical Society Quarterly
July 1959, Volume 5, Number 3
Jerry Macmullen, Editor

By Jerry MacMullen

Of all of the merchant vessels which have called at San Diego, it is unlikely that any left her mark more indelibly on the city than the Orizaba, which came in from San Francisco for the first time on Jan. 10, 18651 and ran until, old and outmoded, she left here early in 1887 to be broken up.

Orizaba and Johnston

A Famous Ship and Her Commander
A photo taken in the late 1880s shows Orizaba with her altered super-structure, at Fifth Street Wharf. At the right, Henry James Johnston, master mariner, who commanded the old side-wheeler for many years.

Her first master on the San Diego run was Capt. John S. Batters; best known of those who commanded her, however, was Capt. Henry James Johnston—affectionately nicknamed “Ninety-Fathom Johnston” and “Uncle Henry”—who first brought her into port on Nov. 7, 1868, fell in love with San Diego, dreamed of a home on the hills overlooking the bay, and was posthumously, if only temporarily, honored by the name of a street and a subdivision.

In a small way, Orizaba is to San Diego what Mayflower is to New England. “I came here from San Francisco in the Orizaba—” or “My folks came here in the Orizaba—” are familiar statements to anyone talking to old-timers.

Statistically speaking, she was a wooden, side-wheel steamer of 1244 tons, on dimensions of 246 feet statutory length, 35 feet beam and 18 feet depth of hold, with oak frames and chestnut planking; her vertical beam engine had a bore of 65 inches and a stroke of 11 feet, and she was built in New York in 1854.2 Data in the files of the Smithsonian Institution list Jacob A. Westerveldt as her builder. She was engined by the Morgan Iron Works, her wheels were 32 feet in diameter, and her cost was $240,000. She was, of course, a coal burner, and her boiler pressure probably was around 55 pounds. Like all ocean-going steamers of the period she carried sails “just in case”. Her paddle-boxes were of graceful construction, each with 32 wedge-shaped louvres; there was a sort of cat-walk atop each one, running athwartship, which constituted her bridge. The lunettes were flat, and decorated with a conventionalized carving.

A painting of Orizaba by Joseph Lee, a San Francisco artist famed for his scrupulously accurate “ship portraits”, shows her with her forward shelter-deck, paddle-boxes and superstructure in dark colors, and flying the house-flag of Goodall, Nelson & Perkins, the firm which later became the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. In 1912, however, a painting attributed to Lee came to light in a Seattle sail-loft which shows her with the shelter-deck above rail level, as well as the houses and paddle-boxes, in white. This painting, said to have been done in 1876, shows her wearing the familiar house-flag of P. C. S. S. Co.—the red Maltese cross in a white diamond, on a blue field.3 A close inspection of the two pictures—comparison of wave-forms, angle of walking-beam, etc.—reveals that they are basically identical. The original painting probably was copied by Lee with the colors brought up to date; the original one is reported to have been destroyed in the San Francisco fire of 1906.4

At a later period, a hurricane-deck was added above her deck-houses and her life-boats were raised to this new level. It is probable that this was done in 1885 when alterations were made in her construction to permit the carrying of cattle—an ignominy suffered at the same time by the larger and much newer Santa Rosa.5

Built originally for the New York-Vera Cruz run, she came to the coast in 1856 for Pacific Mail’s San Francisco-Nicaragua-Panama service. She was sold to the California Steam Navigation Company in 1865. Holladay & Brenham bought her in 1867; in 1872 P. M. got her again—and sold her to Goodall, Nelson & Perkins in 1875.6

Many old sea-captains dream of a home on a hill overlooking the sea and Captain Johnston, although not old, was no exception. There was a high point of land above Old Town on which he used to take bearings, as the Orizaba paddled sedately up to Culverwell’s Wharf. According to a story handed down in the family, one voyage south had been particularly trying, and the captain, to get away from it all, hired a horse and went out for a long ride. He decided to have a look at the point which he used as a navigational aid, and rode out to the spot. One look at the inspiring view, and he decided that this was it. To “Ninety Fathom” Johnston, to think was to act; on Feb. 2, 1869, a deed was recorded, showing that he had purchased from the City of San Diego 65.1 acres of Pueblo Lot No. 1121, for which he paid $16.25. Possibly fearing that he had plunged too heavily, he turned around and, on Mar. 13 of the same year, sold 32.55 acres of it for $50 to the Orizaba’s First Mate, Mr. Ormsby Hite. 7

The Orizaba continued to plod back and forth between here and San Francisco. The normal voyage took three days each way and, with the lay-overs at each end, she made port here every 12 days. Meanwhile Captain Johnston no doubt continued to dream of his hilltop home—a dream he was never to realize. Beloved by the travelling public and high in the esteem of his employers, he was selected in 1878 to go east land bring out, via the Straits of Magellan, the company’s new ironhulled propeller steamship State of California. But this honor, too, was to be denied him. An unidentified newspaper clipping in the family’s records relates that “while passing along an unusual place on the roof of the cabin” he stumbled and fell, sustaining a rupture. It was not believed to be serious, and an early recovery was anticipated; he died, however, on Dec. 28, 1878, in his home at 9 South Park, San Francisco, and was buried in Lone Mountain Cemetery. He was 51 at the time.



Apparently, no plan of Orizaba is in existence today—and a plan was needed for future use in building a model of her. There was, however, a copy of a painting of her by Joseph Lee, and old-timers along the San Francisco waterfront used to say that “You could rig a ship from one of Lee’s pictures.” With an opaque projector, the Lee picture was flashed onto a large sheet of paper on which the vessel’s statutory length had been laid out to appropriate scale. Adjusting for slight perspective, the outline was sketched in with a pencil, to be finished with ruling-pen, T-square, compass and spline.

The wind continued to whistle through the sagebrush, and the coyotes to howl, where Captain Johnston had planned his retirement home; the Orizaba, now definitely feeling her years, shuttled back and forth between here and San Francisco. It is unlikely, however, that those who waved a cheery farewell to her as she let go her lines and backed down from the wharf on Jan. 12, 1887, realized that they were not to see her again. Now under command of Captain Ingalls, she reached San Francisco five days later, and was scheduled to start the return voyage southward on Jan. 21; on that day, however, it was announced that she would be laid up for repairs, and that the Ancon (a side-wheeler of similar appearance) would take her place.8

Apparently, it was decided that repairs were uneconomical. On March 31 the San Francisco Call stated that she was lying at Broadway wharf, “where her owners will break her up, she having outlived her usefulness.” On May 28 an item in the same paper announced: “The superannuated steamer Orizaba is being dismantled at Broadway No. 1. Her paddle wheels and machinery have been taken out, and now her deckhouse and interior fittings are being removed.” The dismantling of Orizaba was not to be accomplished without incident, as the Call reported on Aug. 13, 1887:

“Some few evenings since, at Broadway dock, four 2 1/2-pound giant powder charges were inserted in the old machinery of the Orizaba and fired off for the purpose of breaking up the metal…but the iron and steel withstood the assault…The next morning there was but a half-pound cartridge to be found on the dock, and this was placed in a piece of machinery and fired…to the surprise of the men, it was found that the piece had been blown to fragments, and ex-Governor Perkins was just congratulating the foreman on the work done, when a Teutonic gentleman, doing business some five blocks distant, looking wild-eyed and white in the face, carrying a big chunk of iron, came on the wharf in a high rage… Several more residents of the vicinity by this time were carrying iron back to the wharf from various quarters, and the foreman beat a retreat, leaving the ex-Governor to pacify them… “

Shortly thereafter she was towed away to just south of the old Arctic Oil Works Pier. There they beached her—”… a great ocean paddle-wheel steamer made of wood… She had been a side-wheeler but there were just empty sockets where her giant wheels had once been…She made a favorite swimming platform for the South of Market Street boys.”9

It may well have been the lingering death of the old steamer, as reported in the San Francisco press, which prompted Ellen Johnston to dispose of the San Diego acreage, willed to her by her seafaring husband. At any rate, on May 31, 1887, she deeded it to their daughter, Sarah Johnston Miller, for “love, affection and $1.”10

And so Johnston Heights came into being, named by Mrs. Miller for her father. A map on file in the City Engineer’s office shows the area as extending for several blocks in a southerly and easterly direction from what now is the intersection of Witherby Street and Sunset Boulevard, which then was designated as Johnston Avenue. Running easterly, the streets were named William, Miller, Leverett, Henry and Howard; Johnston was paralleled on the south by two streets, Dunkirk and Jerome. About in the center of the block bounded by William, Miller, Johnston and Dunkirk, construction was started in the summer of 1887 on a rambling mansion in the wilderness, Villa Orizaba. It is significant that, as carpenters in San Diego began this project, the house’s namesake was getting a San Francisco version of “…Down swooped the wreckers like birds of prey, tearing the heart of the ship away.”

Villa Orizaba

Then and Now, at Villa Orizaba

Orizaba Villa, striped awnings and all, as it appeared in 1889. Below, left, the bannister and newel-post (still in place) and the acetylene fixtures and lincrusta panels. Center, a corner of the ship’s sideboard, incorporated into the house. Right, the twice-remodelled house as it appears today


Work on Villa Orizaba—or Orizaba Villa, as it was also known was suspended during the winter of 1887-88, when the family went to San Francisco for an extended visit. Obviously, they were there at a time when what was salvageable of Orizaba‘s woodwork was available—and who would have a greater claim on the choice pieces than the heirs of her beloved captain? In the summer of 1888 they came back to San Diego; once more the stillness of Johnston Heights was broken by the sound of saws and hammers. Villa Orizaba, into which went at least the saloon sideboard and probably the railing of the companionway from the saloon up into the social hall, at last was finished.

It was a picturesque place, with its ship-lap siding, fancy shingles and lathe-turned ornaments, painted Tuscan red with green trim. Its wide porches gave a commanding view of Point Loma and the lower bay—as well as the tracks, far below, over which puffed a tiny locomotive and its toy-train cars, bound for far-away Pacific Beach.

The interior was marked by fine panelling, moulded trim and lathe-turned headblocks around the doors, and lincrusta ceilings, accented with gold-leaf. Illumination was by acetylene gas. The late Mrs. W. B. Davis, who lived there at the turn of the century, used to recall the gas-generator in an outbuilding, its agitator driven by a system of failing weights, which at times emitted groans and squeals scarcely less eerie than the howls of coyotes in the nearby canyons. When she was alone in the house with the children—her husband was a mining engineer, and frequently away from home—these sounds, in the middle of the night, were distinctive, if not soothing.

For many years Orizaba Villa stood in solitary splendor among its cactus and its eucalyptus seedlings, now grown into sizable trees. Gradually, the slowly growing city reached out for Johnston Heights. In 1909 it was re-subdivided as Inspiration Heights by Captain Johnston’s grandson, Henry Leverett. Its original street system was widely altered, names were changed, and fine homes began to appear. In a display of sentiment which is all too rare in modern times, Captain Johnston’s ship—although not “Ninety-Fathom” himself—was honored. A new street, directly in front of the old villa, became Orizaba Avenue.

About this time the house received the first of its remodellings. A pen sketch by Virginia Goodrich, for the promotional brochure on the new subdivision, shows what is unmistakably Orizaba Villa at that time, although it is captioned merely “A Residence on Inspiration Point”. Rebuilt again some thirty years ago, it now is completely unrecognizable, from the outside, as Orizaba Villa. Inside, however, the story is different. That fine old stair-railing is intact. Some of the lincrusta is visible. Here and there are stubs of small gas-pipe, for the old acetylene system. The place has stood there for 71 years, now—and the way it is built, it probably is good for another three-quarters of a century. It is gratifying that some physical tie with a grand old ship remains—and in it a tie with a sea-captain whose impression upon the community may best be summed up by a brief item which appeared on the front page of the San Diego Union for Jan. 1, 1879:

The flags on all the buildings in town and on the vessels in the bay, were half-masted yesterday, out of respect to the memory of the late Capt. Henry J. Johnston—a token of the esteem in which he was held by our whole community.


  1. San Diego Union, Dec. 31, 1878
  2. American Lloyd’s Register, 1882
  3. San Diego Union, Sept. 9, 1912
  4. Kemble, John Haskell, Orizaba on the California Coast, 1876, in the California Book Club’s Series, Early Transportation in Southern California, San Francisco, 1954
  5. San Diego Union, Mar. 29, 1885
  6. Kemble, op cit
  7. Abstract of Title, Middletown Addition, Vol. 1, pp. 2, 7, in files of Serra Museum.
  8. Alta California, San Francisco, Jan. 12, 18, 21, 1887
  9. Warde, F. E., interview in files of S. F. Maritime Museum
  10. Abstract, op cit, Vol. 1, p. 67


The story of what has been called “The Sacred Steamboat of San Diego” never could have been brought together—photos and all—without the help of Dr. John Barr Tompkins of the Bancroft Library; Dr. John Haskell Kemple of Clairmont College; Mr. Howard I. Chappelle of the Smithsonian Institution; Mrs. Latham L. Brundred, great-granddaughter of Captain Johnston; Mr. Karl Kortum of the San Francisco Maritime Museum; Mr. Norris Bostwick and Mrs. Geneveive Hamlin Varnum of Los Angeles—and Mr. and Mrs. Jerry L. Goss, who now live in “Orizaba Villa.”