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

By Joan M. Jensen

In April 1908, the American fleet put in at San Diego harbor, its first stop in the United States after steaming south out of Hampton Roads, around the Horn, and back up the Pacific Coast. San Diegans gave the crews an assortment of appropriate banquets, speeches and toasts, and a few days later the great white fleet weighed anchor and headed for San Francisco. From San Francisco, it would spread out across the Pacific the Orient on its first cruise around the world.

One San Diegan was particularly inspired by that first visit of the American fleet to San Diego harbor, a middle-aged insurance salesman with a constantly amiable smile. He was William Kettner who volunteered at the last minute to take charge of the program for welcoming the et, handling the job quickly and effectively. He knew, however, that it would be a long time before the fleet again put into port, for the Atlantic Coast considered the fleet its own. Easterners objected when it strayed westward.

Even the pugnacious Theodore Roosevelt had difficulty sending the fleet to the Pacific Coast. Naval men bred on the theories of Admiral Mahan refused to divide the fleet on two coasts while the Atlantic Coast communities refused to be satisfied with the protection of the British fleet. So, rather than move the fleet to the Pacific Coast where he felt it belonged because of the growing power of Japan, Roosevelt planned to send the fleet right into Japanese waters to display the new naval pretensions of the United States and then have it scuttle back to the Atlantic Coast by way of Europe.

There was no visible reason why Kettner should love the Navy which stopped so briefly at San Diego, unless it was his German heritage of wanderung and his own lust for adventure. His father and mother both migrated from Germany to the United States in the 1840’s. His father sampled the excitement of the gold rush, settled down with his wife in Ann Arbor where their son was born November 20, 1864, and then moved on again to Calena, Illinois and St. Paul, Minnesota.

William Kettner was thirteen when his father died. He promptly quit school, went to work as a newsboy and bellhop to help support his mother. By the time he was twenty-one, he had saved seven hundred dollars and struck out alone for the fabulous West.

The seven hundred was quickly lost in a mining venture in the San Jacinto Mountains. He tried working the wheat fields near Hemet, then hauling logs at a Julian mine. He even homesteaded 160 acres near Pine Hills, but the urge to wander made him swap his claim for payment of his debts. Broke again, he arrived in San Diego in 1887. For six months he drove a horse car from the Coronado ferry up Broadway to Twelfth Street and then again down Broadway to the ferry. Six months was enough. He tried the hotel business in Santa Ana, and then tried a stint at newspaper advertising. In Portland he found another newspaper job. In Visalia he managed a newspaper, started an insurance business, and sampled local politics as city councilman. But he refused to settle down. At forty-one he married a businesswoman, Marion Morgan, and two years later they returned to San Diego.

That was the year before the fleet arrived. Soon after it left, Kettner became a director of the Chamber of Commerce, the most important economic and political organization in San Diego.

San Diego was out of the current of national politics in 1908. Residents gave a majority of their votes to Republican presidential candidates from the Midwest, Republican Senatorial candidates from Northern California, and Republican Representatives from the Los Angeles area. There had been one representative from San Diego in Congress from 1891 to 1897, but he was defeated by a man from San Luis Obispo. In 1908 San Diego was still part of the Eighth Congressional District which covered ten counties. The Representative for San Diego lived in Riverside.

San Diego had some political patronage, of course: a Custom’s Collector and a Post Master. There was Fort Rosecrans on Point Loma where outmoded guns installed in the 1890’s kept fruitless watch over the harbor and a small contingent of Army men moldered. In 1901, the Navy had decided to add a coaling station at Point Loma, but built no more than a wharf before abandoning the project. Coal was heaped on the ground nearby.

Kettner bided his time. San Diego really needed their own representative in Congress, he told the other directors of the Chamber of Commerce. He joked that even he could do a better job than someone from up north. The directors laughed. Kettner was a Democrat and they were all confirmed Republicans.

Two turbulent years passed. In 1911, the capture of Tijuana and Mexicali by Mexican revolutionaries from California sent rumors of filibuster and annexation through the country. President Taft ordered federal troops out along the border and for a few months Fort Rosecrans came alive. The same year Japanese battleships off the coast of Baja California and rumors of a Japanese syndicate’s attempt to purchase land on Magdalena Bay brought renewed interest in the Pacific coast and in San Diego Harbor.

The following year San Diego was the scene of a violent Free Speech fight between city officials and members of the Industrial Workers of the World. The state of California, controlled by Progressive rebels from the Republican party, sent an investigator who damned city leaders for their handling of the conflict. But city leaders were worried about their attempts to raise money for a 1915 Exposition to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. They feared IWW activities and progressive political reform might discourage investments. They needed only conservative Republicans to save the city from anarchy.

Then in the summer of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican Party, formed a national Progressive Party, and thus assured the election of a Democrat for President. In California, Progressives prepared to sweep national as well as state offices. The standpat Republican who had represented District Eight in Congress since 1905 became ill and declined to run again. Unrestricted warfare began as standpatters and Progressives battled for the Republican nomination.

Political progressivism seemed a threat to the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. If Samuel Evans, the Progressive candidate from Riverside won the primary, they could expect no support for their financial projects and opposition to their political conservatism.

Meanwhile, Kettner began to dabble in Democratic politics. In 1911 he took on a partner and in 1912 the partner attended the Democratic convention. That year Kettner went to San Bernardino to urge a friend to run for Congress. The friend said Kettner himself should be a candidate. Back in San Diego Kettner caucused with the twenty-nine Republican directors of the Chamber. Kettner predicted defeat for their standpatter. The directors seemed ready to play the Progressive’s own game. If Progressives could back reform Democrats, they could back conservative Democrats. A number of them promised to support Kettner if the Progressive candidate won the Republican primary. Kettner threw his hat in the ring.

Lewis Kirby, the Republican standpatter lost the primary. When Kettner received the Democratic nomination, Chamber members got out their soap boxes and began to campaign for him. They would have to convert over 50,000 registered Republicans to Democracy before Kettner could win.

One early means of getting out the vote.

Kettner, however, had other advantages besides the support of the Chamber of Commerce. As a San Diegan he could urge harbor improvements and promise benefits to the hinterland from a thriving harbor commerce. As a compromise candidate he could pose as a moderate. As a backer of Wilson he could capitalize on his popularity. All these advantages helped Kettner win by 3,400 votes. San Diegans and the Chamber of Commerce had their man in Congress.

San Diegans did not wait until Kettner was sworn in to put him to work. The City Council asked him to go to Washington immediately to present their case before the Board of Engineers to obtain backing for harbor dredging. In this first assignment Kettner revealed the political technique which was to make him one of the most effective representatives in the country. Kettner went to a California Senator, then to the Secretary of the Navy, then to the Army and Navy Club. With a businessman’s finesse in closing a deal, he obtained the recommendation he needed from Admiral Dewey and laid it before the Commerce Committee to obtain a $249, 000 appropriation for the dredging of San Diego harbor.

After a quick trip back to San Diego to report to the City Council, Kettner returned to Washington to get acquainted. While watching the appropriation for dredging edge through Congress, Kettner called on committee members, met representatives, and sized up the political situation. As a Democrat from a normally Republican district he had political leverage. He could argue that he would have to produce results to keep his job and to keep the Eleventh District Democratic. This was the argument he used to defeat a contender from Los Angeles for a spot on the important Rivers and Harbors Committee. By the time Kettner was sworn in he had not only helped to obtain the appropriation for San Diego, but had assured direct influence on the development of San Diego harbor by his committee position.

One of the campaign pledges of the Democrats was to reduce the tariff which no Republican administration had the courage to do. Wilson called a special session of Congress in April 1913 to redeem this pledge and Kettner’s first task as representative was to reconcile Democratic low tariff principles with the high tariff principles of his Republican backers. The Eleventh District spanned the citrus belt in Southern California and the lemon men wanted protection.

Kettner discovered that the conflict over tariff principles was more apparent than real. In Congress parties were in the process of exchanging principles on the tariff. He found Democrats from the South arguing for protection of their new industrial and agricultural products while New England Republicans advocated foreign trade and lower tariffs. Kettner saw that the lemon men received attention from the Ways and Means Committee and obtained a protective shield for California lemons.

Kettner also found his patronage powers were considerable in the 63rd Congress. Because there was no Democratic Senator from California, the Democratic Representatives had complete control over patronage matters in their districts. Kettner picked a United States Attorney for the Southern District, a Collector of Customs, and a new federal judge.

Tariff and patronage dominated the first session of Congress and when it ended in October 1913, Kettner made a triumphal return. A special train met him at Oceanside with a band and hundreds of enthusiastic well-wishers. In San Diego there was a parade and a reception at the U. S. Grant Hotel. There John D. Spreckels, the millionaire patron of San Diego, lauded Kettner’s loyalty and admitted that for a Democrat, Kettner came nearer being a Republican than anyone he knew.

A young William Kettner who promoted San Diego through expert political diplomacy...

When Kettner returned to Washington for the second session of Congress in December 1913, he was already well-known for his businesslike approach to politics. Oratory did not interest him. He told his friends he was interested in results and the gospel of hard work. If he could sit down over dinner with an official, he was sure to be able to sell his point. From 1913 on Kettner became a super-salesman for San Diego harbor. There was no argument that he could not destroy with his carefully compiled statistics and detailed facts. He would soften up the opposition with samples of Southern California produce-perhaps a can of ripe olives, a bottle of California wine, or a box of oranges. Then he administered another dose of glad-handing to the proper officials, invited them to dinner, and the opposition was routed.

This personal attention saved a seven thousand dollar appropriation to publish a series of reports on California kelp beds compiled by Scripps scientists. The Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture wanted to kill the appropriation, but over dinner, Kettner convinced him otherwise.

Kettner kept one eye on San Diego as the 1914 election approached. He released news of appropriations for a Naval radio station at San Diego and a second harbor appropriation he had pushed through the Naval Affairs Committee. Admiral Dewey jokingly accused Kettner of a double-cross for using his letter to obtain appropriations from two congressional committees but his constituents delighted in these shrewd business tactics.

He stayed on in Washington until a few weeks before the 1914 election selecting a politically adroit group of Democrats to manage his campaign. They publicized his results in obtaining appropriations and his tariff on lemons. Some old backers abandoned him for a standpat Republican lawyer who obtained the Republican nomination, but last minute research on the political past of this carpetbagger from Central California helped decide the campaign.

To counteract the defection of some of the old guard Republicans, Kettner actively sought the support of Progressive Republicans. The Los Angeles Tribune identified Kettner’s opponent as a standpat Republican affiliated with the “old gang” and urged Progressives to back Kettner. Progressive support turned his majority of 3,000 into a landslide of 24,000 votes.

Despite this landslide, Kettner was unable to accomplish as much in his second term as he had in the first. During his second term an Army commission recommended that North Island be purchased and developed as an air training station. The Army, however, insisted that the government had a right to North Island because of the previous rights of the Mexican government to offshore islands, and negotiations broke down. Kettner insisted that confiscation would endanger private property rights and that Spreckels, who owned North Island, be paid for the value of the property. No action had been taken by 1916. His main achievement was an appropriation for new gun emplacements at Fort Rosecrans.

Most of 1915, Kettner spent in San Diego playing host for the Exposition. Officials from departments and 107 Senators and Representatives visited San Diego in that year. Kettner had obtained an appropriation to help finance the Exposition and took pride in the success of the show. He also used this opportunity to explain the wonders of San Diego harbor and the advantages of the San Diego climate for military training.

One man Kettner courted most carefully was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt agreed that San Diego would be a good place for a naval training center and Kettner was able to collect $190,000 from local businessmen to purchase land for the Navy. Congress was not in the mood to develop the Pacific Coast in 1916, however, for the European war had drawn their interest to the Atlantic Coast. Nor had Wilson much concern for the affairs of the Orient. All eyes were on Europe.

Late in October 1915, Kettner announced he would not run again and local newspapers speculated about possible candidates. By this time Kettner’s support included not only Republicans and Democrats but Socialists and non-Partisans as well. When Kettner reversed himself and decided to run again, the San Diego Sun, a pro-labor newspaper endorsed his record. Samuel Gompers announced Kettner had a good record having voted with labor seventeen times. But Kettner lost some of his conservatives on this third election for his margin was trimmed from 24,000 to only 9,000.

Kettner did not need a heavy majority, however, for World War I coincided with his third term and brought more interest in military expenditures to Congress. Late in June 1917, the bill to purchase North Island for an Army air base finally passed the House and on July 30, Wilson signed it into law. With the help of Franklin Roosevelt, Kettner was also able in June to push an appropriation bill setting up a marine base in San Diego through Congress.

A third triumph was the establishment of Camp Kearny. Los Angeles and San Diego competed for an Army cantonment during the first two months of the war. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce insisted that Tijuana would be dangerously close to a San Diego training center. The feud grew so acrimonious that the Army announced there would be no establishment of cantonments in California. This decision brought the Los Angeles and San Diego Chambers of Commerce together to discuss compromise plans. Rumors that the Army really wanted to set up cantonments in California settled the issue and Los Angeles endorsed the San Diego claim. Eventually Los Angeles and San Francisco each received their own cantonments.

Kettner’s careful political diplomacy also paid off during the war when Secretary of the Treasury McAdoo who was appointed Director of the railroads allowed the completion of the San Diego Arizona Railroad although other nonessential railroad work was halted for the duration. He was able to obtain a government contract to build concrete ships for a Philadelphia firm which wanted to move to San Diego. Early in 1918, he consolidated his victories by exchanging membership on the Rivers and Harbors Committee for the more important Naval Affairs Committee.

Kettner was now in a position to directly influence the passage of appropriations for the Navy. A change in Naval policy gave him the opportunity he needed. In 1919, the Navy Department abandoned the theories of Mahan, decided to split the fleet, and to send half of the Navy to the Pacific permanently. Once this decision had been made, Kettner’s careful planning and Chamber of Commerce support combined to move the navy to San Diego. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Roosevelt were already convinced that San Diego should be the Pacific base for the Navy and that Naval installations at Los Angeles and Oakland should be reduced.

Plans for four major naval installations at San Diego — the Naval Training station, the Naval Hospital, a Naval Repair Base, and a fleet landing — went through Congress in 1919. In April a Naval Board of Inspection visited San Diego and recommended the Navy accept part of Balboa Park as the site of a Naval Hospital. The Secretary of Navy ordered that unexpended funds be used to start construction immediately. In June, with the help of Roosevelt, the first appropriation bill for the Naval Training Station passed the Senate. The following month, a bill to begin conversion of the shipyard for concrete ships into a naval repair depot passed Congress. In October an appropriation for a storehouse and fleet landing at the foot of Broadway became law. Thus within a few months the Navy came to San Diego.

Four years later the city of Oakland, suddenly realizing the Navy was leaving, sent protests to California congressman. It was a little late, one Congressman replied, explaining how the move had taken place.

During the war and subsequent thereto, up to 1920, San Diego had one of the most active Representatives in Congress. He was backed to the limit by a Chamber of Commerce that left nothing undone to help him, no matter what the cost. Together they worked so successfully that San Diego Bay has more naval activities than any other city in the country and its functions as a naval base will probably increase because of the start already made rather than decrease. Of course, it is hard to say what might have happened if some of the protests now being made had been more timely, but it is reasonable to assume that some of this activity might have been saved for Northern California.

Kettner ran unopposed during the war and the following two years climaxed his career as politician. When he retired in 1920, the Navy was permanently settled in San Diego. Kettner estimated that almost forty-four million dollars had been appropriated or spent in San Diego while he was in Congress. By 1927, the Army and Navy had forty billion dollars in holdings in San Diego and spent an estimated eighteen million a year in San Diego.


Kettner did not run a fourth time. A Republican lawyer and former city attorney at Brawley, Phil Swing, replaced him in Congress. The City of San Diego expressed their gratitude to Kettner by naming a street after him, and by presenting he and his wife with a silver tea service and an assortment of appreciative speeches. The remaining years he spent in retirement, editing his letters to publish them in 1923. He attended the Democratic National Convention in 1924, but refused to run for Mayor in 1927. In 1928, he was elected a member of the Democratic County Central Committee and the next year he made a trip to Europe. He died on November 11, 1930.

Only Marion Kettner looked after the civic remembrance of her husband for they had no children. When she died a few years later, some of Kettner’s papers went to the San Diego History Center, some went to the Chamber of Commerce and then disappeared. People began to forget who William Kettner had been. Like his papers, Kettner’s reputation was uncared for after his wife’s death. Forty-five years later, the Navy was still a financial and cultural force in San Diego, yet except for a casual mention here and there, the man who has brought the Navy to San Diego was entirely forgotten.

But Kettner’s career deserves to be remembered. Not only was he a typical example of the businessman-politician who operated so effectively in the opening decades of the twentieth century, he was an example of a man who wanted to change history. His political career spanned three major political events: the progressive movement, World War 1, and the post-war crisis. Yet there was no logical reason why these events should have had an important effect on the history of San Diego. Without Kettner, the Navy would not be in San Diego.

Kettner’s father had been a miller in Germany and for generations his family had used a small stream near Stuttgart to make their livelihood. This desire to use nature for the needs of man, Kettner brought to San Diego and with it he changed history.


Some of Kettner’s papers, including letters to Kettner from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, are in the Junipero Serra Museum. A systematic search should be made to locate the rest of his papers and add them to this collection. A search of records in Washington, D. C., for example, might reveal letters from Kettner to public officials. A few newspaper clippings on his campaigns are in the files of the Union Title Trust Company, but a careful study of the congressional elections of 1912, 1914, 1916, and 1918 needs to be done utilizing newspapers in San Diego and elsewhere in the district.

Kettner’s book, Why It Was Done and How (San Diego, 1923), taken almost entirely from previously published letters and documents, provides little background for his political activities but does give hints as to his political methods. Research into the reasons for splitting the fleet in 1919 and the role of the Committee of Naval Affairs in this decision might help clarify his influence in bringing the Navy to the Pacific Coast and to San Diego.


Dr. Joan M. Jensen is an Assistant Professor of History and Chairman, History Department of California Western University. She received her degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles.

She serves as Associate editor of The Western Explorer, Journal of the Cabrillo Historical Association, and has published articles on notable California women, and local history including Northern Mexico, Baja California and San Diego.