The Journal of San Diego History
July 1962, Volume 8, Number 3
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Irene Phillips

Images from this Journal issue.

National City will celebrate its 75th year of incorporation on September 10, 1962, but its actual history goes back much further.

The land on which it stands was an Indian Rancheria, the home of Apusquele of the Hamacha Tribe.

In 1769 the land became one of the ranches used by the Mission San Diego de Alcala, and the Padres called it La Purisima Concepcion. Twenty-seven years later, the soldiers at the San Diego Presidio wrested the land from the Mission, so that they could graze their own horses and cattle there; to them it was El Rancho del Rey, the Ranch of the King.

When the reins of government passed from Spain to Mexico, the governors of Alta California granted large tracts of land to their relatives and friends. One such grant was made by Governor Pio Pico to his brother-in-law, Don Juan Forester. The Ranch of the King became El Rancho de la Nacion. A United States Land Patent was granted by President Andrew Johnson on February 21, 1866 and it was listed as the National Ranch, of 26,632 10/100 acres. On June 15, 1868, the Kimball brothers, contractors and builders in San Francisco from 1861, purchased the National Ranch for $30,000.

The Kimball Brothers

The story of National City is essentially a Kimball story, for it is from the Frank Kimball diaries and letters, preserved in the National City Library, that the history of the town, in review, can be read.

Frank Kimball was the first of the brothers to come to the ranch, and after a survey by Pascoe, of San Diego, he began construction of his home; it was the first modern house in the County for it boasted of a bath tub and hot, running water. It was located at 21 W. Tenth Street. On August 20 ‘ 1868 he writes, “With Geo. Morrill went out to see where I will place the town.” In keeping with its background, he named the town National City.

When General Hunter, one of the backers of the Memphis & El Paso Railroad Company, asked for a contribution of land, Frank Kimball offered him “500 blocks of land, and a further 500 blocks if the terminal is placed in National City.”

There was great excitement over “the coming of the Railroad.” On October 29, 1869, more than 60 persons came to National City, planning to invest their money and work for the railroad. Transportation then consisted of the two stages which clattered through the town; there was the Yuma Stage Coach, driven by Race (Ben) Thompson, which came 60 miles through Mexico before crossing the border at San Ysidro, and there was the “Competition Line” which came through National City on its way to South San Diego, at the foot of the Bay. Fare to the new town was 250.

The railroad proved to be a mere “paper” project, and interest waned. There were many people stranded in National City and Frank Kimball gave them work, smoothing the National Road which reached the border. On January 15, 1875 this road was declared a County Road by the Board of Supervisors.

Post Office, Industry, and A Wharf

On March 4, 1870 George Kimball, another brother, opened up the first Post Office in National City. His daughter, Laura, described it: “It was in the front room of my father’s house, and consisted of a dry-goods box with a green shawl spread over the top and a set of pigeon-holes underneath, one for every letter of the alphabet.”

The first venture in industry was the propagation of silk worms, and on April 5, 1870 thousands of mulberry tree cuttings were planted in Sweetwater Valley. Though they received good care the venture was not a success. It was amusing to find, 22 years later, that there were silk worms on the Otay Mesa, feeding on the wild buckwheat.

In 1871 the Kimball brothers built a sturdy wharf reaching out to the deep channel. Said The San Diego Union, “Finished to the last bolt! It is wonderfully well constructed and is a substantial credit to the contractor, Fred Copeland.” He was the husband of Mary Kimball, Frank’s sister, and he served both the town and the county in various offices.

This wharf became very important when another railroad, the Texas & Pacific, received government aid to build through Texas to Ship’s Channel, in San Diego Bay. On September 2, 1872, the representative of the railroad signed a contract with Kimball brothers to buy the wharf and receive 11,000 acres of land which included onehalf of National City. Frank Kimball contracted to place piles and culverts for the first ten miles along the waterfront. He had just begun the work when the country was rocked by the financial crash on Black Friday, September 19, 1873, and the railroad boom ended abruptly.

After the Crash

In the Kimball letters he writes, “There remained but 1500 persons in San Diego County, the remnants of the 5000 who came on the promises of the Texas & Pacific.”

Again it was necessary to feed the jobless, as many as 60 a day, and the Kimballs started a new road to Ft. Yuma, which would be through American territory. In December of 1869, Frank Kimball had written, “Col. Grey and Mr. Fox here looking for a new route to Jamul. Showed them what I thought would be a good route.” In 1873 he developed the route he had planned for a stage road; the only remnant of this venture is the re-modeled Stage Station at 50 F Street, in Chula Vista. A nephew of the Kimballs, Levi Dimond, built the road from Jamul over the mountains to where it met the old road opened by Tomilson in 1866; his bid was accepted by the County Board of Supervisors on September 7, 1875. Ultimately, the Kimballs contributed $7600 to the road, and the county $3000.

Sheep, Wheat – and Culture

The Kimballs next went into the sheep-raising business. Sheep were grazed on the land which is now Kimball Park, and in the arroyos nearby.

The work with the sheep was a 24-hour job. The Mexican and Indian sheepherders were not dependable and often slept on the job, and Frank Kimball would sometimes walk miles to gather in the sheep, to prevent them from falling prey to the coyotes and the wolves which still prevailed.

To facilitate bringing the wheat from the canyon to the wharf for shipment, the Kimballs and a couple of settlers built a new road beginning at Hawk’s and Dimond’s Store on National Avenue and Ninth Street, to Mrs. Smith’s house at the top of the grade near Cajon Valley, a distance of 10 3/4 miles.

A Reading Club was formed by the settlers, and the extensive home library of the Kimballs provided an ample source of references for the ‘papers’ written on art, literature and music.

A Pomological Society gave the settlers an opportunity to discuss problems in the cultivation of oranges, lemons and olives. On November 26, 1874 the National Ranch Grange No. 235 was formed, with Frank Kimball as Master.

In December of 1884, he opened his library to the public. Shelves were built in a room at the rear of his real estate office and his faithful Chinese, Ah Lem, moved the books from his home; he then issued an invitation to the public. After a detailed account of the more than 1000 books, he closed his newspaper invitation with, “The rooms will be warmed in cool or rainy weather. Any person who desires to turn a leisure hour to good advantage will find, in our Public Library, an exceedingly pleasant place for such a purpose.” The library was taken over by an Association in 1887, and was purchased by the City on May 28, 1896.

In 1882 the first San Diego County Fair was held in National City, and after that there was a Citrus Fair in the Spring and the Harvest Festival in the Fall.

A Variety of Trees

From the time that Frank Kimball came to National City, he worked with the U. S. Department of Agriculture planting various items brought from other areas, such as, “Planting two olive trees from Italy,” — “Set out two Japanese orange trees sent by the Dept.,” — “Planting red oats from the Dept.,” or “Planting Goodrich potatoes which the Dept. of Agriculture sent me.” On April 10, 1875, he planted 10 acres of eucalyptus trees in Sweetwater Valley.

There had been no slacking in the work with olives, and there had been various experiments in deciding what type of cuttings should be used, old wood, new growth or suckers; whether to plant upright or at an angle; in sand or in rich earth, and how to trim the trees. There, had been experiments in getting the bitter out of the olive and after trying salt and soda Frank Kimball returned to the recipe of the Mission padres and used the lye process.

Cuttings were purchased by trimming trees at the San Diego Mission, but the largest windfall was the gift of John Forster, the erstwhile grantee of the National Ranch, who sent 4,409 pounds of cuttings which, when cut in 10 inch lengths, provided thousands of olive cuttings which were sprouted and sold for 10¢ a piece.

The Railroad Again

As more oranges, lemons, grapes, honey and olives were grown, the need for direct railroad communication with the east became apparent. So once again the Railroad Committee, composed of San Diego and National City business men, became active. As the Kimball brothers were the only persons who had anything to offer for a railroad subsidy, Frank Kimball was sent to Boston to confer with the Santa Fe. After many consultations it appeared that the Santa Fe would accept subsidies from San Diego County and build a railroad which would connect with eastern trackage soon to be laid. There was some surveying done, then silence.

On returning to Boston, he found that certain stockholders of the Santa Fe were backing the St. Louis & San Francisco, and holding out for a terminal in the Bay City.

Though the Santa Fe Company as a whole was not interested in San Diego County, there were five of the stock-holders who decided to build the railroad, independently. There were to be two companies — one the railroad company, and the other a land company which would sell subsidy lands to pay for the railroad. This time Frank Kimball offered them 17,000 acres and 5/8 of National City not otherwise deeded, along with San Diego subsidies. The largest terminal grounds in the United States were offered to the new line, the California Southern Railroad.

Kimball brothers had been burning brick since 1877, and now the brick was offered for one of the machine shops The walls were built but the rafters which lay on the ground were not placed on the roof to re-inforce the walls, and the whole thing collapsed.

Railroad Head-aches

Some of the railroad equipment was sent to Mexico, where the same syndicate was building the Mexico Central Railroad. Other locomotive parts remained in the open yards where they rusted. The whole thing was an example of inefficiency and a disappointment to the Kimball brothers, who had sacrificed most of their life’s savings to bring the railroad to San Diego County.

The route of the California Southern was surveyed to cross the Southern Pacific tracks at Colton and continue north, where the road would meet the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. The 128-milepost was at Colton, where the Southern Pacific had terminal grounds. When the last rail was laid on August 11, 1882, the Southern Pacific refused to allow the California Southern to cross their tracks.

This refusal seemed like the fulfillment of a statement made when one of the Southern Pacific owners said to Frank Kimball, ” There will never be a railroad out of San Diego County unless it is built by the Southern Pacific.”

The “Bee Line”

A long period of litigation was expected over the right-of-way at Colton, so Frank Kimball with his brother, Warren, Don Ynacio Arguello of Lower California, and judge M. A. Luce of San Diego organized the Baja California & Sonora Railroad, better known as the Bee Line, to by-pass the Southern Pacific, which had been built only as far as Yuma. Elliot’s Hist. of S.D. County, 1883, gives the route as from the terminal in National City through the Tia Juana Valley, in California, to the Colorado River, which would be crossed near the mouth, through the State of Sonora, in Mexico, then north to Calabaza, in Arizona Territory where it would connect with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. The road was dedicated on December 6, 1882, but before work began the Southern Pacific withdrew their opposition.

All went well with the railroad until February 28, 1884, when flood waters wiped out the tracks from San Luis Rey through Temecula Canyon; repairs required a $750,000 assessment on the California Southern stock-holders. Once again, the San Diego Bay area was isolated, except by ship. When the repairs were completed in January of 1885 the new road went directly to San Juan Capistrano and according to the Record, “The San Luis Rey station is now called, ‘Oceanside’ and Oceanside is the last movement in town development along the railroad.”

November 18 and 19, 1885, were “Railroad Celebration Days” in San Diego and National City. At the International Hotel in National City, the Kimball brothers received much praise for their efforts. The tributes were a farce, as the “Syndicate of Five” already was negotiating with the Santa Fe to sell out the road and remove the terminal shops to San Bernardino.

Varied Enterprises

On September 28, 1882 the first edition of the National City Record left the press; the editor was William Burgess, of Columbus, Nebraska. The complete editions of the National City Record, along with those of its successor, the National City News, are on microfilm in the National City Library.

The Paradise Valley Sanitarium & Hospital, in National City, owes its existence to Dr. Anna Mae Longshore Potts, one of the first graduates of her brother’s Female Medical College in Philadelphia. She was a relative of Mrs. William Burgess. Dr. Potts gave a lecture course in San Diego, then visited in National City. Before she left on a world-wide lecture tour to enlighten women on their physical make-up, with the help of a skeleton, she purchased land on Mount Paradise and made arrangements to build her Sanitarium. The Sanitarium was dedicated on March 4, 1888, after her return.

It was in 1885 that Kimball brothers began advertising San Diego County, by taking its best produce to national and international fairs, where it always won top honors. Fruit was taken to fairs at New Orleans, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Boston, and to many fairs in California. Shipment of olive cuttings to growers outside of San Diego County began in 1883, when 50,000 were shipped to Los Angeles. By 1886 more olives were being produced in San Diego County than could be pickled, and on December 29 of that year, work of building the Kimball Oil Mill began.

The Land & Town Company

The land development portion of the “Syndicate of Five” became the San Diego Land & Town Company. There was little effort to sell any lands belonging to the syndicate until William Green Dickinson came to National City; he had been employed by the Santa Fe to obtain subsidies for the railroad. Three projects were to be under taken: the building of Sweetwater Dam, the building of the National City & Otay Railroad which would connect the communities of the South Bay area, and the settling of the so-called Colony Lands into five-acre tracts which became Chula Vista.

By 1887, railroads had been built faster than goods were produced to make freighting a profitable business; the result was a rate-war of fantastic size. For example, one could buy a found trip ticket from Kansas City to California for $10.00. Many people took advantage of low rates and came to the coast intending to visit, but remained to make their homes here. The result was a financial boom.

The Big Boom

“The Boom!” as Frank Burgess said, “I can just see it coming. Seventh Avenue (McKinley), always a busy street, is now crowded with Land Men all anxious to get in on the beginning of prosperity. Men and horses are as thick as bees on clover blossoms.”

The San Diego Sun commented on the arrival of the ships: “Eight vessels in Port bringing 1,260,128 feet of lumber.” The Record, always alert to give a plug for National City, replied on January 13, 1887, “Yes, but 1,111,340 feet of it is for National.”

Large business blocks were built, and many imposing residences. There were so many people in town that the International Hotel placed cots on the upper veranda, and then rented the upper floor of the new Chase Block to care for its patrons. Frank Kimball built the three-story, Sixth Avenue Block, later the Hamaan, and now the Miller. It is a tall, gaunt building today, but was lovely in 1887 with its flowers, trees and fountain.

Frank Kimball’s Sweetwater Brick Kilns were working to capacity. Among the orders from San Diego were 650,000 brick for the college that was to be built in University Heights. Brick for the Ferris Drug Store at Fifth and H (Market) went in installments of 20,000 at a time, as did those for the Pierce-Morse Block, now a hotel, at Sixth and F. So much brick was sent to San Diego and towns further north that the California Southern ran a spur track to the kilns.

Jig-Saw Days

A feature of the City’s growth was the Warren Kimball Planing Mill, with machinery for dressing all types of lumber and also for making those jig-saw cut-outs which were becoming popular for house decorations.

The large George Kimball house at 1515 L Avenue is an example of the work done in the Mill. Another example of the work is the Frank Kimball Block, now known as the “Brick Row” (Ninth to Tenth Street on A Avenue). The huge $30,000 block of 10 apartments was patterned after Philadelphia architecture, and is the only one of its type on the West coast. Warren Kimball and his wife, Flora, had taken land near Twenty-fourth and Highland Avenue for their homestead; there they began the development of their estate, “Olivewood”, which was to become a nationally known showplace.

Flora Kimball was an educator and a writer of note, and a firm advocate of equal suffrage for women. She served for three terms on the National City School Board, and was the first to advocate a school savings program.

In June of 1887 Warren Kimball built the National City Bank Block, at McKinley and Twenty-first Streets. The building has had a varied career as a bank, the Ammex Motion Picture Company, a casket factory and now as a rooming house. Of the original churches built in 1887 just one remains: the priceless St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at Eight and F Avenue.

The National City & Otay Railroad was completed in June of 1887.

A City is Born

On September 10, 1887 the town voted for incorporation. It is noticeable that the olive branch was placed on the seal of the city, not only as an emblem of peace but a reminder of the part which National City played in the development of the olive industry.

The height of Sweetwater Dam was raised from 60 to 98 feet, thereby increasing the capacity of Sweetwater Lake five fold, and April 10, 1888 was “Water Celebration Day” in National City with bands, a parade, and speeches.

After the completion of the National City & Otay Railroad there were excursions which took people up to the dam, and also to see the thrifty orchards on the banks of Sweetwater Valley. Coming down the valley to the junction the engine carried the wondering crowds through the new town of Chula Vista, and other communities in the South Bay area.

The newly completed Coronado Railroad, better known as the Belt Line, made hourly trips through National City over Third Avenue (Coolidge) and carried passengers to Coronado. Quoting from the Record of July 6, 1888, “On the Fourth of July the town was deserted. Some of our people went to San Diego to see the parade. The rest went by Belt Line to Coronado to enjoy a day at the beach and see the new hotel.”

Trouble Ahead

In the midst of prosperity there came a rumor that there was trouble at the dam. The waters of Sweetwater Lake had covered the land of George Neale, and he was filing suit against the San Diego Land and Town Company. The company had purchased land from Neale at $85.00 an acre but when the height of the dam was raised to 90 feet they had neglected to purchase the extra land that would be covered. Now he asked $300 an acre for 300 acres.

The case went through various courts of the state. Justice Ross raised value of the land to what it would be worth in ten years and ordered the company to “Pay Neale $350 an acre, uncover the land, or I’ll tear the dam down.” An extra tunnel was built, the weirs were opened and the people of National City saw the crystal contents of Sweetwater Lake, over 5,000,000 gallons, flow into the Bay.

People feared the reservoir idea would provide an unstable water supply, and not only moved from National City but rolled their houses across the dike or floated them by raft to San Diego. The case was settled for $80,000 on February 19, 1891, but irreparable damage had been done to National City. The “Boom” became the “Bust.” A merchant who had pleaded for home trade, then moved to San Diego, later said, “I have met more National City people since I moved to San Diego than ever came in my store in National City.”

After the Boom

Marston’s of San Diego ran alluring ads in the Record, “Wool and serge suiting, 40¢ a yard. Satins, 75¢ a yard. Pure wool Brussell’s Carpet, $1.00 a square yard. Sole agents for the new Bissell’s Carpet Sweeper.” Stevens, of National City, countered with “No need to take the motor to San Diego. Trade at home,” but the lure of the motor trip was too great.

At the same time, the Record boasted, “Now a man can strike a match made in National City to see the time of day on his Otay watch which is set in a case made of gold from the National City Reduction Works.”

The match would have come from Frank Kimball’s Parlor Match Company, which burned after one year’s service. The Otay watch refers to the watch company at Otay in which he invested considerable money to prevent foreclosure, then found he was responsible for all of the company’s debts. The Quartz Reduction Works handled ore from Cedros Island in Lower California, and from San Bernardino and Julian. It was at 2310 Cleveland Avenue.

Besides Frank Kimball’s losses from bad investments, his name was forged on bank notes. His thousands of shares in Land and Town stock dropped from 130 to 5 during the Neale case trial, and he joined many other men who lost their fortunes during the 1893 depression. He sold property to pay his debts; the valuable lemon and orange orchards, across from Paradise Valley Hospital, were sold to Ralph Granger, a wealthy Colorado silver mining man. Mr. Granger’s hobbies ranged from racing his yacht against John D. Spreckel’s Lurline to horse racing at the Sweetwater Race track, which he built.

Tiring of these sports he collected rare violins, and built a Music Hall near his home. It is still there, in its original glory. Euterpe, a Goddes of Music, is the central figure of the murals on the ceiling, and the garlands of flowers and the chubby cherubs have all retained their beautiful coloring.

Here to this delightful setting came such artists as Paderewski, Modjeska, Ysaye and the girl violinist, Sada, to be guests in the Granger home and give concerts for a few of Mr. Granger’s close friends. The hall now is called Wegeforth Hall. In San Diego, Mr. Granger built the first modern office building, the Granger Block, on the southwest corner of 5th and Broadway.

The Recovery

After the Neale case was settled, National City resumed its civic projects. Some streets were leveled and 600 trees were planted; Flora Kimball supervised the tree planting.

A “Street Sign” entertainment provided funds for street markers in the business section. Clubs resumed their activities. The Social Science Club of the 1890’s is now the Friday Club.

Flora Kimball resigned as First Vice-President of the San Diego (Woman’s) Club to organize the Tuesday Club in National City. The Tuesday Club became the Olivewood Club after her death in 1898.

On December 8, 1898, an entry in the Kimball diaries says, “Filled some barrels with the last dribbles of water from the Sweetwater Reservoir.” It was the second year of a seven-year drought. Old wells were re-opened, new ones were bored. The Record noted, “Captain F. T. Moore defies the drought. Found good water at 50 feet.” He peddled water from a barrel which he purchased from the Daneri Winery in Otay Valley, but no one objected to the unusual taste of the water. The well remains, at 620 Fifth Street.

By 1901, after ten years of absolute poverty, Frank Kimball had redeemed some of his property by the sale of olive cuttings and olive trees. He returned to the National District School Board, and began working towards a new high school. The little, rambling, cement building which was on the site of the present Central School at Ninth and E Avenue was patterned after Mission San Luis Rey, and was dedicated on March 13,1908.

Volunteer Firemen

National City’s Volunteer Fire Department had been formed on August 23, 1888 and re-organized in 1897. It was the most interesting phase of city government, especially when the automobile first came into use. The Record commented, “Doctors Owens and Fly are old stand-bys at a fire. When they hear the whistle from the Santa Fe shops they rush towards the blaze and their autos pull the cart at top speed.”

The Fire Department was taken over, completely, by the City in 1920.

In 1910 bonds were voted to purchase 15 acres of land on National Avenue and 12th Street for the purpose of building a Fire Hall and also as a site for the $10,000 Carnegie Library which had been offered the City.

Through the dark days of the misfortune Frank Kimball had kept his oil mill for the simple reason that no one cared to spend the time which was required in managing the place. Even the great “casegoods man, Mr. Heintz” debated on buying the mill but gave it up as too big a job. The National City News, successor to the Record, said on September 3, 1911, “Messrs Bills and Antoine have leased Frank Kimball’s Olive Oil Works. Will they be able to sustain Frank Kimball’s enviable reputation for pure olive oil?”

The Flora Kimball Clubhouse, now called the Olivewood Club house at Twenty-fourth and F Avenue, was a gift from Warren Kimball, in 1911 as a memorial to his wife, Flora. Warren Kimball died on May 9, 1913 at the age of 83, and Frank Augustus Kimball, the last of the New San Diego pioneers who came in the late 1860s, passed away on August 11, 1913 at the age of 81.


On Jan. 7, 1913 a heavy frost did great damage to the orchards, especially the apricot trees which covered the hillsides of Paradise Valley.

A new shell had been placed over Sweetwater Dam, making it 115 feet high. On January 28, 1916 the reservoir was filled to capacity with the weirs and the tunnel caring for the overflow. Suddenly, the 10,000 yards of earth fill at the side of the dam collapsed and within four hours much of the contents of Sweetwater Lake, carrying trees, houses and railroad track, had poured into the bay, cluttering up the deep channel. The town was without water for a month.

National City now receives Colorado River water which runs through the new million dollar filtering plant of the California Water and Telephone Company.

In the early days of National City the main subjects concerned the railroad, water, orchards and the olive industry. Today’s interest is focused on the Industrial Park, west of National Avenue, where more than 60 diversified industries have acquired land. South Bay Plaza, on Highland Avenue, is the largest commercial center in the South Bay area. National City has 32 modern churches, 14 modern schools and a fine library where the Mizony collection of early National City pictures is on display.