The Journal of San Diego History
October 1962, Volume 8, Number 4
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Charles V. Birkett

Looking west on El Cajon's principal 'downtown' street in 1898, the tower is on the old Corona Hotel.We feel a great delight upon being privileged to add our congratulations and best wishes to two of our county’s most vigorous and enterprising cities, El Cajon and La Mesa, upon the current celebrations of their Golden Anniversaries. It certainly can now be said that they have “become of age,” and we only wish that space permitted a greater eulogy of them in this Quarterly.

Booth Tarkington once said that a person should never be allowed to write a novel until he was at least forty. We know that he meant one could only write from wisdom and experience, and if years do not guarantee the former, they certainly do the latter. So, having substantially passed Mr. Tarkington’s literary requirement, we feel a certain freedom in adding a few more words of historical narrative to the many thousands already written concerning these two outstanding communities.

The press of each city has noted the occasions, and both communities have celebrated them in somewhat modest, but befitting, manner. La Mesa has mainly confined itself to an official announcement of the fact, and the publication of an excellent brochure by its Chamber of Commerce, a pamphlet now available at the Chamber’s office. El Cajon went a step further, adding the publication on July 18 of a special supplement of The El Cajon Valley News. The city is also publicizing the event for the rest of the year, and there is a possible inclusion of the Golden Anniversary theme in November’s coming Mother Goose Parade.

From the standpoint of population, El Cajon and La Mesa are in the forefront of San Diego County communities. Although contiguous, and, in one sense, peas from the same pod, they are actually distinct opposites, not only from the standpoint of topography El Cajon being in the “box” or “basin”, and La Mesa “on the hill”but also from that of economics.

Their origins are the same. They start with the coming, in 1542, of Cabrillo’s Spaniards. This was 50 years after Columbus reached the New World. They continue with Vizcaino’s coming into the harbor in 1602, the founding by Father Serra and the Spanish military of the first settlement at what is now Old Town, in 1769, and the resultant spread of Padre dominion over thousands of acres of land, including the present El Cajon and La Mesa areas.

Rancho El Cajon

In a sense, they parted company in 1845, when Mexican Governor Pio Pico granted Dona Maria Pedrorena nearly 49,000 acres of the old Mission lands – a grant called the Santa Monica Rancho, later Rancho El Cajon. This area embraced the present city of El Cajon, as well as what is now Santee, Lakeside, Flinn Springs, and the eastern environs of present La Mesa. It was given to Dona Maria because her husband, Don Miguel, port director, was owed $500 by the Mexican government. This was in the year before the outbreak of war between Mexico and the United States. Twenty-three years later, it was sold to Isaac Lankershim, a land developer for whom Lankershim Boulevard in the Los Angeles area is named.

Pio Pico was the last of a succession of Mexican governors that began in 1823 – after Mexico’s successful revolution against Spain. After the Texans revolted against Mexico in 1836, it seemed a foregone conclusion that war between Mexico and the United States would come, and the later Mexican governors became obsessed with the idea of giving away the lands that the Church had administered, to “the people”, so that they would, at least, remain in the hands of countrymen.

And Pio – who later became a staunch American – seemed in a hurry to give away as much of the Church’s old lands as he could. One of his last grants was that of Santa Monica to Dona Maria, and, as we have said, this grant embraced the present city of El Cajon. A curiosity of this grant – one of the largest – is that it contained one of the smallest, the Los Coches grant of 28 acres.

Lankershim’s Wheat

La Mesa had no worries in 1897, when the upper photo was taken, and the little hamlet consisted of a school, a packing-house and a handful of houses; the long slope on the left is Mt. Nebo. Below is a view of ten years later. Mt. Nebo is still rather bare -- but traffic is beginning to rear its ugly head. When Isaac Lankershim, through the professional legal services of Maj. Levi Chase, a former Union Army officer, bought most of the rancho for less than a dollar an acre, he hired Amaziah L. Knox, a New Englander whom he had met in San Francisco, to plant and manage the rancho. Knox did so, and in 1877, 21,000 bushels of wheat were grown and shipped to San Francisco at $1.28 a bushel. Knox received $30 a month, but Lankershim gave him 10 acres on the south side of what is now Main Street, and 1O acres on the north side. On the south portion, where the Thrifty Drug Store is today, Knox built the first hotel in El Cajon, a 5-roomer. It was a success, and he later enlarged it. He became the first postmaster in 1876, when the valley had 25 families.

Please note that when Lankershim bought the Pedrorena grant in 1868, Alonzo Horton had just arrived in San Diego, and was beginning the sub-dividing of a new city. Its true that Old Town began in 1769, and William Heath Davis started “New Town” in 1848-50, but neither place really caught hold. So the beginning of El Cajon coincides with that of San Diego.

For many years, El Cajon – and once that was one word, “El-cajon”, until Seth Eldridge insisted that it be changed – went among sleepily producing grapes, what, citrus, cattle, and believe it or not, tobacco. Oddly enough, the tobacco grew so tall and vigorous that it ran out of quality.

The years passed slowly, and l912 came. This was the last year of William Howard Taft’s presidency, and two years before the outbreak of the First World War. And city incorporation came, with 123 of the citizens saying “yes”, and 35 saying “no”; “The Corners”, “Knox’ Corners” and “El Cajon” became the city of El Cajon.

Within the last 10 years, it has become a modern, neon-lighted counterpart of contemporary America, In the early days, mountaineers snaking the two-day jaunt from Julian to San Diego found Knox's Hotel, in El Cajon, a convenient stopping place for the night.and there is not the slightest likeness to the little, dusty settlement of the ’70s and the ’80s. The present city fathers say En Cajon’s 40,000 persons will become 150,000 by the year 2000. We do not dare deny the statement.

How La Mesa Began

We have mentioned that although of the same stock, El Cajon and La Mesa may be said to have parted company in 1845, with Pio Pico’s granting of Santa Monica to Dona Pedrorena. The present La Mesa was just outside the pane of the rancho’s boundaries, and with the collapse of Mexican rule in 1848, it remained a sort of no-man’s land between the seat of government at Old Town and the Pedrorena grant to the east. This prevailed for twenty years, when an Iowan, Robert Allison, bought 4200 acres in this buffer zone, and began raising sheep. The small settlement that sprang up “by the sheep trail,” where there were springs, became known as “Allison’s springs”, then La Mesa Springs”, and, in 1912, “La Mesa”.

These springs were the only water source for miles and miles, with the main ones being at the present eastern confluence of University Avenue and La Mesa Boulevard — the latter being Lookout Avenue until about 1930 — and at Spring Street and La Mesa Boulevard. But, as late as 1954, there were bog holes in several places near the western junction of University Avenue and La Mesa Boulevard.

The San Diego Flume came into La Mesa springs in 1886, and the water from this, plus that of the springs, gave the area water enough for a partial participation in the great land boom that was sweeping the Pacific Coastal areas. But La Mesa Springs felt the impact from it. This was one Southern California settlement that couldn’t boast of a scroll-sawed hotel and wild real estate auctions, and when the big real estate bubble burst in the early 90’s, La Mesa Springs, with its less than a hundred persons, couldn’t care less!

But the railroad — the San Diego, Cuyamaca & Eastern — came in in the late 1880s, and a very slow change began. People came inland for a look at this land that was building a reputation for agreeable climate. The real impetus came in 1906, when S. C. Grable, a San Diego investor, bought 100 acres for a home, but, having a surplus of acres, he sub-divided the rest. Later, with C. C. Park, he bought another 200 acres embodying the present La Mesa downtown area, and broke it into 1,000 lots. At this time, hardly a half-dozen houses could be seen from Date Street and Lookout Boulevard.

D. C. Collier, lawyer and land developer, and from whom Grable bought his first 100 acres, was early in a long line of energetic men who gave status to La Mesa as a desirable star in the firmament of choice San Diego County living areas. Others were Col. James Randlett, Major Roach, John S. Harbison, Col. Ed Fletcher and Wm. B. Gross, for whom Grossmont was named. Most of them were beguiled from the first by the fine climate, which embraced a 62.5 degree annual temperature and an annual rainfall of 13.5 inches.

“Came the Dawn…”

The famed Dorothy Hotel was built in 1907 at Palm Street and Lookout Boulevard, where Sexton’s is today, and soon thereafter La Mesa’s first theater was built. Will Rogers and many other stars played this theater. In 1910, La Mesa’s movie era began, an interesting account of which was printed in The San Diego Union of Jan. 7, 1962. In it, Larry Freeman told the story of Dan Woodman of La Mesa, who played cowboy roles in some of the movies made in La Mesa. Some think that the movie episode ended because of the antagonism of the townspeople toward the actors, but it seems more likely that it was because of insufficient financing in the community. Los Angeles had more of the “green stuff”.

In 1912, La Mesa Springs, about to become La Mesa, had 700 persons, most of whom agreed to incorporate the city. In El Cajon, the same year, 158 citizens out of 560 voted in the incorporation election of that community; 123 said “yes”, and 35 “no”. So today, 1962, we salute the Golden Anniversaries of the “coming of age” of both El Cajon and La Mesa, two of the county’s outstanding communities. The year 1912 marks the end of their ancient history, and the beginning of the new. This capsune narrative reveals only a fragment of the interesting history of these fine cities; we hope that it may induce the reader to delve further into a fascinating story.

Salud, El Cajon! Salud, La Mesa!