The Journal of San Diego History
June 1965, Volume 11, Number 3
Ray Brandes, Managing Editor

Rufus Choate

My father was born in Augusta, Maine, and at the age of twenty traveled to California, going by way of Panama. After a short stay at San Francisco, he proceeded to Auburn in Placer County, where he stayed for some seventeen years. He was first engaged in placer mining and, thereafter, attempted a combination of merchandizing and mining.

He then went to San Francisco and opened a place of business on the corner of Kearny and Pine Streets. There, A. E. Horton, whom my father had known in Placer County as a broker buying up gold and nuggets, told my father of the wonderful opportunity in San Diego, and that it was going to be another San Francisco. My father was so much impressed with this description of San Diego, especially its climate, that he took the next steamer to San Diego to see its potentialities for himself. He immediately wired his brother in San Francisco to dispose of the business and bring his family, my father’s family, down to San Diego. We established ourselves at about 940 State Street, almost adjoining the residence of W. W. Stewart, a very prominent citizen, in October, 1869.

My father immediately went into the real estate business. Shortly thereafter, the Texas Pacific Railroad sent in their chief engineer, crew, and ones authorized to purchase the rights of way and depot grounds. When that was done and the roadbed graded along the waterfront, these engineers proceeded east towards Yuma making a survey for the proposed road.

When the Santa Fe Railroad built into San Diego, activity increased and many changes followed. In 1880 our population was 2,600 and Los Angeles had about 12,000. As to San Diego in 1880, it had the appearance of a neglected village. The railroad began operations with its offices and shops in National City. Dusty streets soon became paved avenues. Wooden sidewalks were removed in favor of cement. A sewer system was installed. Streetcars came into existence. Two-story buildings passed on honors to four and six-story structures. The remaining water wells dug to a depth of forty feet gave way to a complete water system.

Electricity replaced the coal oil lamps. New suitable hotels and rooming houses came into existence. One hundred twenty-five foot iron masts topped with electric lights eliminated the need for lanterns on dark nights. Pedestrian and street traffic increased. Construction of elegant homes gave evidence of wealth. Point Loma, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, Coronado and Chula Vista soon were accorded rail service with the new San Diego. The equipment consisted of trains similar to the ones used by the New York elevated railroads.

The areas attracted the subdivider and builder. Within a reasonable period they became well established communities. Real estate operations became a major activity. One could rent an office, purchase a desk, chairs and maps, open an office and conduct his business void of any laws. The preparation of outlying subdivisions consisted largely of engaging a surveyor who plotted the area marking the street boundaries and lot locations, followed by brush cleaners at a dollar a day who at times cleaned only the streets while others operated on the entire tract.

My mother, born in Ohio, came to Omaha with her family and then took a covered wagon into Sacramento, arriving in 1851. My father was married about 1853 and raised a family of two daughters, Henrietta and Clara, and a son, Frank W. Choate. They were born in Auburn, California. I was born on October 31, 1870, and have continued my residence in San Diego from that day to this.

In 1875 my father was appointed the second postmaster in San Diego and he continued in that office until about 1882 when he again returned to real estate. He plotted some ten different subdivisions ranging from 20 to 1,000 acres. An area of some 1,000 acres was owned by Steiner, Klauber and Castle. Steiner and Klauber owned a grocery store in San Diego and Castle owned a wholesale store in San Francisco. They acquired that piece of land in the 1870’s and my father placed a proposition before them whereby the land would be subdivided, and that he would, after a certain amount was paid in, become an owner in the balance of the property. The property was located from Boundary Street going east to where the center of business is in East San Diego and extended from University Avenue down to Cholla Valley making it all about 1,000 acres.

After the plotting had been completed, it was placed on the market. At the same time my father made a deal with E. S. Babcock of Coronado to build a steam railroad line from 18th and B Streets up Cholla Valley and then up through the subdivision to University Avenue. The subdivision proved to be a failure due to the fact that it was put on the market about December 1, 1887. At that time, the San Diego boom was at its height. On the first day they sold $85,000 worth of property in mostly small down payments. The railroad was completed through the area and they expected to get ideal returns from the investment, but after January 1, 1888, subdivisions in San Diego in the outlying districts became nothing other than a tax burden-the boom had busted. The property was petitioned out and so forth, but it never came into its own until after the turn of the century.

The year 1888 marked the beginning of sixteen years of static local conditions. The Panic of 1893 caused three banks to close. One bank never reopened. Many attempts to return San Diego to the aggressive columns ended in failures.

The year 1897 marked the beginning of a drought which ended in 1904. Cave Couts, whose father came here in 1850, has told of the severe conditions that attended the drought from 1864 to 1872. From the real early day pioneers, I have learned certain facts concerning our droughts based somewhat on the early Mission Fathers’ statements that droughts come about every 40 or 50 years. The 1897 drought ended in 1904 with record rainfalls in 1904, 1905 and 1906 recorded as 31.26 inches.

Several railroads were built from San Diego to various places such as La Jolla, National City and Chula Vista, and Ocean Beach. The equipment on those roads consisted of a small enclosed car with a small engine and some three or four small passenger cars. Most of them were open with seats across them. They served a definite need at the time!

One railroad went into what was known as City Heights. This
operated only a few months, until there was no demand for property and
the tracks were finally torn up and sold as junk. This road went up
through Cholla Valley from 18th and B and looped around through the
district serving considerable property and then the University Heights
Subdivision induced the railroad to be built out University Avenue and a
connection was made with this road. They were separately owned but
operated as one railroad.

The University Avenue Railroad followed generally the road, the streetcar line as you see it today running out to the business section of the present East San Diego. It came on to 5th Street, down 5th Street to the business section, and then stopped. There was no connection between the downtown end of that road and the 18th and B Street end of the other road, except the Streetcar Company did own a road going out to this terminal on B and about 15th Street and connection then was made by the Streetcar Company.

During the mid-eighties a minister by the name of Rev. Chase was in San Diego. He had recently come from the east and suggested that an attempt be made to accumulate a large area of land, part of which would be sold off to build a magnificent university in San Diego. At the same time a similar procedure was taking place in Los Angeles whereby they would secure some land and build a university. That proposition was a great success and is known today as the University of Southern California and is under the domination of the Methodists.

The same attempt was made here in San Diego, Mr. Chase was a Methodist minister and my father was a member of that church. He induced my father to gather a large area of land, which he did, and is now known as Normal Heights and University Heights. That land was subdivided and to induce the building of this college, a large portion of the land was deeded over to the university to be built. The organization was formed, plans were prepared, a college site was designated. That site was occupied by the Normal School and now Is largely occupied by the City Schools Administration Building.

This piece of land was put on the market just a short time before the boom broke in San Diego. They managed to sell quite a few lots, The college campus was dedicated, the initial building plan was adopted, and funds coming from property sales built a foundation. Then came the slump in real estate, completely defeating the objective. The land was deeded back to the owners as they had not complied. If San Diego’s period of prosperity had extended for several years more, enough property would have been built whereby the dream they had pictured would come true. That dream called for a fund of some $5,000,000 and a completed college, but unfortunately the boom broke and the property became of little or no value, there was no sale for it, buyers were non-existent, and the proposition was a complete failure.

In December 1887, San Diego was believed to be a city of no less than 30,000 people. Within sixty days the entire aspect had changed.

As to outlying subdivision property, the owners where lots were selling around several hundred dollars, refused to even consider any reasonable reduction in price. The better business and nearby residential property suffered only minor losses but buyers were non-existent. This extreme reverse was charged to the Santa Fe Railroad based on rumors whereby they intended to move their shops and offices to northern communities. Los Angeles enjoyed a progressive period believing her population to be 80,000 in 1887. The census in 1890 gave Los Angeles 50,000 and San Diego 16,000. The final move of the offices to Los Angeles and the shops to San Bernardino unquestionably extended our long period of dullness.

John D. Spreckels had a special interest in yachting and during the nineties made several trips to San Diego. The Santa Fe was anxious to have someone bring their coal into San Diego and they agreed to purchase from that person all the coal used as far east as the Colorado River, so Mr. Spreckels built a coal bunker wharf at the foot of Market Street. It was a very efficient waterfront improvement.

In 1905, the spirit of aggressiveness again appeared. Groups were meeting to advance San Diego into a city of importance. Three objectives represented their program, namely, Harbor, Roads, and Water. The fundamental objective was a railroad to Yuma. During this appraisal, U. S. Grant announced the building of the Grant Hotel. As to the railroad, the initial financing called for a $5,000,000 stock issue and $100,000 immediately raised towards surveying the route.

When the San Francisco earthquake occurred, Mr. Spreckels was confined to his bed due to a very severe illness. His doctor advised that he board his yacht and go to San Diego to recuperate. He arrived in San Diego and went to the Coronado Hotel and after a reasonable period, regained his health.

At that time San Diego was going ahead at a very rapid rate and he rather caught the fever of what was going on and decided that he would make some future investments. He bought up several valuable sites on Broadway and built thereon the Union Building, Spreckels Theater Building, the San Diego Hotel, and the Street Railway Company. Then he became so identified with San Diego that he decided to build a home at Coronado. It was built right across the avenue from the Coronado Hotel.

Mr. E. H. Harriman, President of the Southern Pacific Railroad, was desirous of having a railroad into San Diego. Not wishing the Santa Fe to know about it, he asked or rather offered to place in the hands of Mr. Spreckels $2,500,000 to begin that railroad. Mr. Spreckels accepted. Previously, a citizens’ committee had planned a road and was going to issue stock up to $5,000,000 and also raise some $100,000 on the streets of San Diego for the purpose of making the surveys and obtaining terminal grounds. Mr. Harrison, fearing that such a matter as that would fall into the hands of the Santa Fe Railroad, made the offer to Mr. Spreckels, giving him an account of $2,500,000. Mr. Spreckels started to build the road and when it reached a point about ten miles east of Tijuana, Mr. Harriman died. Mr. Harriman had taken options on certain iron mines in the northern part of Imperial Valley and expected to bring that ore to San Diego and build a great machinery concern here.

Despite its failure here, today the largest machinery concern in the West is in operation near San Bernardino. That is now owned by Mr. Kaiser at Fontana, who would have built here in San Diego. After a short time, the Southern Pacific took over the road and completed it to El Centro, but Mr. Spreckels still continued here until the time of his death which was in the early twenties.

I was with a group one day when Mr. Spreckels made the statement that he had expended in San Diego $25,000,000. Since then, his private secretary informed me that after his death, they discovered that his losses in San Diego had been some $10,000,000. But San Diego had gained a great railroad to the east which had been its dream for some fifty years.

Mr. Spreckels built the Bank of America Building on Broadway between 6th and 7th Streets. Based on a loan he had made, he became the owner of the Coronado Hotel. I have observed all the investors and promoters who have operated in San Diego and I give to John D. Spreckels the honor of doing more than any other person.

At the time I started to attend school, there was only one set of school buildings in all San Diego and they were known as the old yellow school houses located at 6th and B Streets. After a certain period of time there, I went up and had the rest of my schooling at the Russ High School. Following that, my father’s minister, who had a son attending the Collegiate Institute in Hackettstown, New Jersey, advised my father to send me back there and attend that college, where his son had been for some two years. I was sent to Hackettstown and after graduating from that school, I entered Princeton and remained there for one year. The financial conditions in San Diego and my father’s business did not justify my return and that was the ending of my school days.

Merchants National Bank, Southwest corner, 5th & Broadway, c. 1904 - Granger Bldg

I came back to San Diego. My father was in the real estate business and I continued with him until 1899 when he passed away. Shortly after that, I went in as an employee of the Merchant’s National Bank on the corner of 4th and Broadway. After five years on that corner we moved over to the Granger Building, which Mr. Granger, the president of the bank, had constructed. I remained there the balance of the time.

I was unable to purchase stock in the bank, which I found I could do in some of the other banks, so I decided to quit the Merchant’s and go to another bank when John F. Forward, Jr., who enjoyed a confidential business relationship with John D. Spreckels, induced me to take over the secretaryship of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. That was In 1910. I accepted because if I could be a help to Mr. Spreckels, I would gladly take over the Chamber of Commerce. It was also because Mr. Spreckels had made the dream come true -the building of a railroad from San Diego east to El Centro-which had been the dream of my father and also myself up to that period.

About this time, Aubrey Davidson proposed the building of an International Exposition. A million dollars, of which J. D. Spreckels gave $100,000, was subscribed for the initial endeavor. Besides being a marvelous success, it promoted the development of the park and left a monument represented by a group of magnificent buildings.

Shortly after becoming Secretary, a committee was named, including myself, to go to Washington to secure Federal recognition for our Exposition. In the group were Charles Collier, two publicity men, and Captain Valentine, Speaker Reed’s son-in-law. When we arrived in Washington, I thought I had a good opportunity to discover other things that might concern San Diego, so I made the good acquaintance of a secretary to the House Secretary of the River and Harbor Committee. He turned over pages showing what other ports had received and what San Diego had received. There I learned that San Diego was way down on the list in amounts and should have certain improvements made.

I also made the acquaintance of the secretary to the Secretary of Navy and learned a good deal about their activities, as at that time the people were coming down here in the wintertime and spending the winter here just as a rendezvous. I reached the conclusion that inasmuch as other ports were getting large subsidies for improvement in building and developing their harbors due to the fact that Panama Canal would be completed in a few years, I called upon Senator Works, our senator from California, who had formerly been a resident of San Diego, but was now living in Los Angeles. He showed every desire to help me that he could as to getting an appropriation for San Diego harbor. He suggested that since I had the knowledge of conditions here it would be better for me to appear myself before the House Rivers and Harbors Committee and that he had a splendid acquaintance with the chairman of that committee and he would make arrangements.

Night picture of vessels of the United States fleet anchored in Coronado Roads when Rear Admiral 'Fighting Bob' Evans visited San Diego in 1908.

These arrangements were made, so I got a map of the harbor of San Diego and appeared before the committee and informed them that we had a depth of only thirty feet on the bar while the inner channels were adequate for ships of the larger size. Bob Evans had arrived here in 1908 and anchored outside due to the fact that there was only thirty feet on the entrance or bar (that was Admiral Evans’ Squadron on his trip around the world). I also made the statement to the Committee that other ports were getting large amounts for preparing conditions to meet the traffic coming through the Panama Canal and suggested that San Diego was the first port of call and that this barrier should be removed.

I returned to San Diego and appeared before a hearing of the division engineer in Los Angeles and within some three or four months, the bill was presented to Congress. San Diego, within a year’s time, had a depth of thirty-five feet on the bar which was quite a compliment as it about equalled the depths on the bars of the various eastern ports. That was about 1912 or 1913.

When I was back in Washington, I tried and was somewhat successful in finding out why it was that the Navy had built a coaling station near the entrance of the harbor and that it had been completed in 1904, and from that date to 1912, not one ton of coal had ever been placed on the docks. I learned that it was all due to our congressmen coming from up in the San Joaquin Valley and for years not a congressman had been elected from San Diego. It was about time to try to have someone put up and elected from here to have matters of that kind corrected.

On my return to San Diego, I learned that William Kettner, a Democrat who was in the insurance business and had been a director of the Chamber of Commerce, had announced his intention to run for Congress. I concluded that I would lend my support in his behalf. I had been a Republican up to that time, but immediately joined the Kettner forces. For years the congressmen had been elected from the lower part of San Joaquin Valley which meant a control from San Francisco. This time they nominated a man at Riverside, which, you might say, was under the control of Los Angeles.

The request was made that I appear at a rally, an outdoor meeting which was held where the Fox Theater now stands. There were some 2,500 people present. I made a talk telling of the coaling station episode, telling of the weakness that our Committee found when we visited Washington in behalf of the Exposition, that San Diego was not at that time a recognized place, that the coaling station had been built for some eight years and had never been used, that San Diego was way down the list of improvements, that the government had recognized some thirty harbors in the United States, and as to amounts, San Diego was 27th, which meant that only a few hundred thousand dollars had been spent here, and that the thing that should be done to help this harbor acquire more Navy activity would be to send a Democrat back there to work for some future appropriations.

Bill Kettner was elected the next day by a majority of 2,500 and became our congressman; Wilson was President at that time. Kettner became a member of the River and Harbor Committee and inasmuch as we had just secured an appropriation, couldn’t do very much for San Diego, but some three or four years later, became a member of the Naval Affairs Committee of the House. He sent word to the Chamber of Commerce that he would like to have me come back and aid him in a bill whereby he had offered to give some 500 acres of tide lands to the government if they would establish a Marine Base here. He said that I had a good knowledge of the harbor and the tideland conditions, that I would be of value to him in putting over the project. I was sent to Washington and found that he was in a very strong position with his associates. After working with him for some time, talking to certain ones concerning San Diego and what she would do, the bill was offered, and the San Diego item passed without objection.

In the meantime, he told me that he had sent word to the Chamber of Commerce requesting that $1,000 be sent to him. He hoped to have a large number of the members of the Naval Affairs Committee accompany him to San Diego, but he believed the greatest success would come if they had a private car and he informed me that the Chamber strongly had refused to send such an amount for this. I immediately sent word to the Chamber of Commerce that unless they advanced that money within a week’s time I would come to San Diego and solicit the money on the streets of the city. Within a week a check for $1,000 came to Kettner and he then made his final arrangements for the trip.

Immediately after the inauguration of President Wilson we left the Union Depot in Washington for San Diego in a private car. In the group were some fourteen members of the Naval Affairs Committee out of the eighteen on the committee. Bill Kettner and his group were here for at least two weeks. Kettner planned entertainments in their behalf, showed them the harbor and its possibilities as a naval base, and took them to Imperial Valley where they spent some time. The committee expected to leave here and accept the courtesies of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle where big times had been prepared for their visit, since they were interested in naval affairs. But a telegram came from President Wilson requesting the committee return to Washington which indicated that he was calling another session of Congress to consider the First World War.

During the next three or four years, Congressman Kettner accomplished many things for San Diego. San Francisco had acquired the station from Mare Island and located it on one of their islands in the harbor where it seemed to be of very little value to them. Kettner resolved to have it moved to San Diego and asked the people of San Diego to raise a sum and acquire a site, which they did. They raised some $120,000 for a naval training station. So Congressman Kettner introduced a bill which moved the training station from Goat Island to San Diego.

With war pending, he induced the Naval Affairs Committee to create a district here to be known as the 11th Naval District. Appropriations were made for a six-story building on the corner of Broadway and the waterfront boulevard to be used by the Navy. Following its construction, the city agreed to give to the Navy 75 acres in the park, and the Navy in return built there the present Naval Hospital. They also built a pier at the foot of E Street and then Kettner induced the Navy to acquire North Island for which they paid something like $6,000,000. The Navy also established a Naval Base at the foot of 32nd Street, and San Diego then was on its way to becoming a great naval port.

In recent years, by support of the County of San Diego, the San Diego History Center has tape-recorded reminiscences of many San Diegans. The staff of the Serra Museum has carefully transcribed these remembrances and indexed them for use by interested researchers.

This continuing program will in time reach many more oldtimers who have important and interesting stories to tell.

The taped interview printed here was taken by Edgar Hastings on May 7, 1957. Rufus Choate, born in San Diego on October 31, 1870 had that rare opportunity to see his city grow from infancy. He passed away on November 27, 1962, but in his own words, San Diegans for generations to come will see their town as he saw it — a wonderful region which has grown under the impetus of prime movers. For Rufus Choate, it was man who made history.