The Journal of San Diego History
October 1968, Volume 14, Number 4
Rita Larkin, Editor

By Richard B. Yale

Images from the article

“A nation with no regard for its past will have little future to remember.”

San Diegans and Californians are preparing events and activities for celebrating the 200th anniversary of the founding of Christian civilization on the Pacific Shores of these United States. Congress has authorized and the United States mint has produced a commemorative medal; the Post Master General announced, August 7, that a commemorative stamp will be issued honoring San Diego and California; singular tributes to a great city and a great state.

The San Diego Union is preparing a Bi-Centennial edition to be published January 1, 1969. This will be a presentation of the panorama of San Diego’s past, present and future; its heritage, accomplishments and achievements to come.

To the casual observer, witnessing this activity, the question arises, “Has The Union forgotten its own important anniversary?” On October 10, 1868 Col. William Jeff Gatewood, Edward W. Bushyhead and J. N. Briseño brought their talents and a printing office to San Diego and established The San Diego Union.

The San Diego Union is Southern California’s oldest newspaper continuously publishing with no change in name. It will also be the first business firm in San Diego to attain 100 years of continuous operation with the same name.

This writer will restrict the following comments to the founding events and the tenure of The San Diego Union during its short stay in Old Town, San Diego.

Father Junípero Serra and his hardy band of followers trudged up the hill, now called Presidio Hill, and there in front of three roughly constructed jacals a cross was set up facing the port. In one of these rude jacals of branches and reeds, mass was celebrated and the grand hymn “Veni Creator” was sung, the pilgrims “supplying the want of an organ by discharging firearms,” says the old record, and with only the “smoke of muskets for incense.” Thus was founded the Mission of San Diego; and thus was laid the cornerstone of the civilization of California and San Diego on July 16, 1769.

By 1820 veterans of Spain’s military service were retiring. Capt. Ruiz was the first to be rewarded with a grant of land below the hill, where he constructed the first habitation outside the Presidio.

Shortly afterward Mexico revolted from Spain, Yankee traders were visiting San Diego’s harbor, the missions were secularized and by 1846 the United States had fought its Mexican War and the American flag was raised over California.

San Diego was growing. American merchants had moved in and by 1851 John Judson Ames had established San Diego’s first newspaper, The San Diego Herald. Publication continued until April 7, 1860 when Ames printed his last issue, packed his outfit and removed to San Bernardino where he established The San Bernardino Herald.

For eight years San Diego was without a newspaper, or for that matter any other periodical. Shortly after the demise of The Herald the country was embroiled in the Civil War. At this time San Diegans felt they were on the verge of being the terminus of a Southern Railroad route, but these aspirations were dashed by the war. San Diego was practically dormant through the war years.

It was not until 1867 that a new series of events was initiated that started shaping the town’s destiny. The coming changes would see Old Town wither and New Town prosper, at a site on the bay, approximately three miles south. This New Town would be Horton’s Addition and it would not be long until population and business would be making an exodus from Old Town to the new location.

Phillip Crosthwaite was a San Diego pioneer with business interests in Old Town. Like his fellow citizens, he was concerned with the loss of population and business. He was the one man who might be able to stem the tide of change.

His sister was married to an attorney, Col. William Jeff Gatewood, of San Andreas, California, where they resided and where Gatewood also published The San Andreas Register.

Mr. Crosthwaite reasoned that if Old Town had a newspaper a catalyst might be provided that would revive Old Town. If he could induce his brother-in-law to remove his newspaper to San Diego, Crosthwaite would be doing something for Old Town; he would also have his dearly beloved sister near him. He visited San Andreas, the proposal was made; Gatewood was interested enough that he visited San Diego and investigated the possibilities. The San Diegans made sure he was properly impressed. They gave him substantial numbers of subscriptions and advertising contracts.

Gatewood was looking beyond these tokens; he recognized the potential of a great port, the fine climate and the rich agricultural lands. Before leaving he assured the Old Towners they would have their newspaper.

Immediately upon his return to San Andreas he formed a partnership with Edward W. Bushyhead, his foreman at The Register. He also hired J.N. Briseño, a printer.

Gatewood returned to San Diego, leaving Bushyhead to pack and ship the newspaper outfit. It was freighted to San Francisco, loaded on the Steamer Orizaba and with Bushyhead as a passenger the Orizaba landed them at San Diego on September 19, 1868. An item in the first issue of The Union stated:

“MANY THANKS —Captain Johnson, especially, and the officers generally, of the steamship Orizaba will please accept the thanks of the UNION office, for innumerable substantial favors. The Captain’s generosity would not allow the proprietor to pay any freight for transporting from San Francisco to this place the press and material for this office…”

Gatewood had rented a small frame building on San Diego Avenue, from Manuel de Pedrorena, Jr., in which the printing plant was promptly installed. By the 3rd of October they had issued a prospectus, and true to its announcement the first issue of THE UNION was printed October 10, 1868.

Ninety-seven years later, in 1965 Mr. James S. Copley, the present owner of The San Diego Union purchased the historic building that was “the birthplace of The San Diego Union.”

He retained Mr. Orvel B. Johnson, one of the nation’s leading historic restoration specialists, to restore the building to its 1868 conformation. Following the restoration work the interior was furnished and equipped as nearly as possible to duplicate “The San Diego Union Newspaper and Job Printing Office” that Gatewood and Bushyhead had presided over in 1868.

“The Birthplace of the San Diego Union” was opened to the public, May 15, 1967, as “The San Diego Union Newspaper Museum.” The property is within the boundaries of the Old Town, San Diego State Historic Park. Present plans are that Mr. Copley will donate the facility to the State of California supplementing its acquisition program for the park.

To avoid repetition, the story of The San Diego Union will be left to the columns of its Centennial Edition. However the story of The Union’s brithplace and its rebirth will be narrated with the facts available.

The property upon which The Union building is situated was originally pueblo land and was purchased at the Alcalde’s sale in the winter of 1849-50 by Miguel de Pedrorena. William Heath Davis in his “Sixty Years In California” states:

In 1838 Don Miguel de Pedrorena, a resident of Peru, arrived here, being at the time part owner and supercargo of the Delmira… Don Miguel was a native of Spain, and belonged to one of the best families of Madrid.

He was educated in England. In San Diego he married the daughter of Prefect Don José Antonio Estudillo. He remained in San Diego until his death in 1850 leaving his wife María Antonia, one son, Miguel, and two daughters. Elena and Ysabel.

During his lifetime he was active in government affairs, sided with the Americans during the Mexican war and was a delegate to the California constitutional convention at Monterey. He was a signer of the constitution.

Title Insurance and Trust Company records show that Alcalde Joshua H. Bean granted Lot 2, of Block 40, Cave J. Couts Map of 1849, to Miguel de Pedrorena January 18,1850.

Pedrorena died the following March 21, 1850. However the next entry in the Old Town lot book shows a mortgage with Pedrorena the grantor in favor of Michael Sexton and A. Jay Smith in the amount of $2000, due June 30, 1850 with interest at 8 per cent per month. This was recorded April 3, 1850, after Pedrorena’s death.

On August 24, 1850, María A. E. de Pedrorena sold the SE 98-1/2′ of lot 2 to George Gaskill, who in turn sold it to José A. Aguirre on March 10, 1852. Aguirre built a magnificent adobe residence on the property. Today the adobe is gone. The property was acquired June 18, 1941 by the Roman Catholic Bishop of San Diego and is presently occupied by St. Marys Convent.

In 1868 Miguel de Pedrorena, Jr. was 22 years old and apparently controlled the remaining 114 feet and 9-1/2 inches of lot 2. It was from him that Col. William Jeff Gatewood rented the frame building for THE UNION office.

Prior to his death Miguel de Pedrorena had entered into a partnership with William Heath Davis and three other men in a venture that would later be dubbed “Davis’s Folly” This venture was for the development of the first New Town subdivision located at the area surrounding the present Coronado Ferry slips.

During the summer of 1851 Mr. Davis was in San Francisco when the “brig Cybell arrived there from Portland, Maine, loaded with lumber and carried also eight or ten houses, already framed and a quantity of bricks.” Davis immediately bought this cargo and sent the ship at once to San Diego.

During the restoration work of The Union building Mr. Johnson carefully compared the materials and workmanship of the building with the Pendleton House and the Davis house, both known to have been constructed from the Davis lumber. The woods were the same and the typical joints used in the house were the same as those in the Union building.

Records are not available to document who built The Union building However the property belonged to the Pedrorenas and it would be safe to assume that Mrs. Pedrorena obtained one of the houses from Mr. Davis and erected it on its present site, in 1851.

In that year two tax assessments rolls were made. One of them assessed a lot at $500 and improvements at $500 against Miguel de Pedrorena, strengthening the belief that the Pedrorenas did erect the building and that it was constructed in 1851.

One of the early uses of the building has been discovered. After the death of Pedrorena, and his widow soon afterward, the children became wards of their grandfather, Don José Antonio Estudillo. One of his surviving business ledgers has an entry in May of 1852 recording the receipt of $320 for ten months’ rental “of a store” at the rate of $32 per month. In all probability the building was constructed originally as a store, or business place, and not as a residence. There is nothing to indicate that the Pedrorenas ever lived in the house.

It is becoming more certain that The Union building was the first frame building constructed in Old Town. There are references that Charles P. Noel built the first “wooden house” in Old Town. Mr. Johnson had defined “wooden house” as opposed to “frame house.” His observation is that a “wooden house” is constructed of board and batten, without studding, similar to the construction of a shed. A “frame house” is of much more substantial construction, typical of the framing familiar to home construction today.

There are no more references to the building until 1868, when it became the home of The San Diego Union. A year after that The Union reported that Miguel de Pedrorena, Jr. was constructing a large adobe home next to its printing office. This would be 1869 and the house is now a California Historical Landmark, Casa de Pedrorena.

On June 1, 1869 the Old Town lot book records a four year lease, negotiated with Miguel de Pedrorena, Jr., by Charles P. Taggert who had purchased Mr. Gatewood’s interest in The Union, which was now operated under the business name of Taggert & Bushyhead.

The Union building has been known historically as the Casa de Altamirano, but it was not until 1870, in the final disposition of the Pedrorena estates, that it was deeded to one of the Pedrorena children, Ysabel, who had married José Antonio Altamirano.

Casa de Altamirano is a misnomer. The Altamiranos never used it as a residence. In the memoirs of Lillian Whaley, daughter of Thomas Whaley, and who grew up in Old Town, we find as she writes concerning the home of the Altamiranos:

“It is one-story adobe on San Diego Avenue next to the garden of the Ramona House…. Next to the Altamirano house is a small frame house occupied from time to time as a residence. It was the first office of The San Diego Union when that paper was printed in Old Town.”

Fr. John R. Shepherd, S. J., of Azusa, California, whose mother was an Altamirano, made it his business to compile family information. He retails some memories of his mother’s sister, Ysabel (Mrs. E. W. Ackerman) :

“José Altamirano and Ysabel de Pedrorena, her parents, were married and first lived in San Jacinto. There the children were born, Miguel, Dolores and Antonio.

“They moved to Old Town into the Pedrorena House where my aunt was born in 1870. My aunt is very sure of the fact that they lived in the adobe house which is the present restaurant next to Ramona’s Marriage Place.”

The family grew with the births of María, Antonia, Robert, Gertrude, Elena, José, Mary and Victoria (my mother). As the boys grew, a bedroom was fixed for them in the house next door. The other room was for sewing, more or less.

The house apparently stayed in the Altamirano family until August and September, 1907, when, in separate transactions Miguel Altamirano and Delores A. Burns transferred the title to Belle A. Ackerman. (Nee Altamirano).

As a sidelight the entries of the lot book indicate that San Diego Avenue was improved and the Superintendent of Streets filed his notice of completion on November 23, 1928. Sewers in Old Town were installed the following year and a notice of completion was filed May 20, 1929.

In 1929 Mabel A. Ackerman (nee Altamirano) transferred title to Mary Barclay. In 1943 she in turn sold to H.D. Benner. Harold W. and Beatrice C. Dempster purchased the property in 1944 and they in turn transferred title in 1954 to Thelma Fields and Carl E. Bull.

On March 29, 1961 the entries show that Thelma Bull had acquired full title to the property.

The final entry in the book, July 12, 1965, is the transaction in which the Copley Press, Inc. purchased the part of LOT 2 occupied by The Union building, from Mrs. Bull.

When The San Diego Union commenced publication in Old Town the president of the United States was Johnson (Andrew). When the newspaper office had its rebirth in 1967 the president’s name was Johnson.

The restoration and the original plants are as nearly identical as the two names. Another Johnson, Orvel B. restored the building—he is a cousin of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Another coincidence—the press and materials for the Union office were transported to San Diego by Captain Johnson on the Steamer Orizaba.

At the time the property was acquired James S. Copley said, “It is my plan to restore it and preserve it in a manner which will enrich the heritage of California.”

To achieve this goal a restoration specialist was sought and found in the person of Orvel B. Johnson of Sacramento, California. He had just retired as supervisor of construction for the State of California. Many of the State’s restoration projects had been under his expert guidance, including Columbia and the Hearst Castle at San Simeon.

Mr. Johnson arrived in San Diego on August 20, 1966 and on the morning of the 22nd met with representatives of the Copley Newspapers to set up procedures for the project. Attending that meeting, representing Mr. Copley were: Captain E. Robert Anderson, Vice president, Union Tribune Publishing Co., Richard Pourade, Editor Emeritus, The San Diego Union, Walter Swanson, Director of Special Projects, Union Tribune Publishing Co., Dayton G. Southard, Assistant Treasurer and Assistant Secretary, The Copley Press and Del E. Lisk, manager of Special Services Division of the Copley Newspapers.

A completion date was set for the restoration (5 months from December 1, 1966) which was May 1, 1967. Mr. Lisk and Mr. Swanson were to be Mr. Johnson’s contacts on business matters, working through the Special Services Division of the Copley Newspapers. Following the meeting Mr. Lisk and Mr. Johnson went to Old Town and The Union building. Here Mr. Lisk turned over the keys to the building and informed Johnson that it would be his responsibility to accomplish the restoration of the building, complete with furnishings and landscaping.

That afternoon Mr. Johnson commenced his research of the building. In his own words, taken from his daily work log of August 23rd, he states:

To do the proper job on this all important phase of work requires patience and very careful observation. One detail of authenticity lost can never be refound. This part of the work requires digging through the accumulation of a century of dirt and grime to uncover the original parts of the building. Removal of added features must be studied and carefully removed to prevent extensive damage of the original.

Many times nail holes help to tell an important part of the story of the original building…

Johnson goes on to describe removing added ceilings and discovering a “boxed cave” at the roof of the main building; sections of added wall covering and cane board were removed revealing the original siding. Added cabinets and a clothes closet were removed revealing more parts of the original building. All this time Johnson was making photos and sketches and taking down dimensions to guide in the restoration.

He cut out a section of flooring in the shed room revealing whitewash on the wall continued below the floor level, indicating the floor had been added later. At this stage Mr. Holtz of Copley Productions was making 35 mm movies recording various details.

Preliminary research revealed that window and door frames had been changed. Nail holes in the siding indicated changes. Original 4×4 studs had been cut. From these clues the original openings and their sizes was determined.

It was indicated that the siding on the building was mostly original. It had been installed with square nails and had never been removed. The clue to this was that there were no nail holes in the studding except those made by the nails removed with the siding. Step by step additional clues to the original construction were uncovered. All the time sketches were being made and dimensions recorded. The color of paint outside and inside was ascertained by removing layer upon layer of paint from boards until the first coat was identified.

On the grounds at the rear of the house Mr. Johnson found a slight depression, “about 50′ east of the north end of the building.” He made an excavation and discovered it was the location of the “outhouse,” which also has been faithfully restored.

By September 9th Mr. Johnson’s research was 90 per cent complete and he turned over his photos, sketches, notes, etc. to Jerol Moore a Sacramento draftsman in preparation for making the working drawings. On September 18th Johnson met with draftsman Moore to check work accomplished on the drawings. During this time, students at Sacramento City College had been constructing a model of the building and on November 21st it was shipped to San Diego. During the construction period the model was displayed at the building site.

On December 1st Mr. Johnson met with Mr. Copley who viewed the model at this time and they discussed the restoration at greath length.

Actual work of demolition of building parts that were not original construction commenced on December 4th. Rain hampered the work. By December 7th the first new raw materials were delivered to the job and work began in earnest.

It was found that the building was never level, square or plumb. This character of the building has been retained in the restoration. In Mr. Johnson’s log of December 12th he writes

Crew requires almost constant supervision but are doing real well. At least one carpenter may develop into a good restoration man.

Termites had riddled the original frame; however it was left in the building, being supplemented with new framing on the walls, shoring and bracing. Now the frame was raised, excavating was done for new foundation footings and concrete was poured December 22nd.

The previous day workmen had been removing siding from the northeast side of the building and discovered two letters inside the wall, probably carried to the attic by rats and dropped there nearly a century ago. They were handwritten and addressed to E. W. Bushyhead. One was dated September 23, 1868 and mailed at Stockton. The other was dated August 31, 1868 and mailed from New York. The post mark on that letter was September 4, 1868.

At about this time Mr. Johnson found soil under the building impregnated with ink. During the period The Union operated here printers used lye water to wash ink from type forms after the press run was made. This solution running off the forms had soaked through the floor to the ground beneath. This indicated the area of the press room.

Some of the original shake shingles were discovered in the attic. To duplicate them they had to be specially made by a firm in Vancouver, B. C. The San Diego Exterminating Company was now on the job and the ground area under and surrounding the building was treated for termite prevention. Various treatments were applied to all the materials in the building as the work progressed.

Adobe blocks were being made from material on the site. These would be used for the front retaining wall and steps.

Mr. Johnson stated that experience on the job showed that costs for the restoration were running about 90 per cent or more over normal construction costs. This was caused by the extra time required in duplicating the original construction, such as hand shaping the siding material and exposed beams that had to be hand hewn.

All utility lines—gas, electric and telephone were undergrounded in outside areas. Inside electric and telephone lines were run in channels behind the base boards. There are no electric fixtures in the building. Lighting, when necessary is achieved by using photo type lamps on stands. This is not satisfactory but to date no other solution has been found.

To maintain authenticity square cut nails were used throughout the restoraction. A shortage of these soon developed, but an old firm, the W. D. Hall Co. of El Cajon, located an ample supply in the dark recesses of their storage bins, a carry over from the late 1800’s.

Prior to closing up the framing a fire retardant was sprayed on all rough frame and concealed parts of the wall sheathing. In addition, a fire detection system was installed throughout the building and this in turn is connected to an alarm. Further fire protection is provided by use of heavy asbestos felt applied between the roof sheathing and the shake shingles.

By February 17th the exterior work was completed, and March 13th the interior construction was completed; painters started the interior painting which was finished by the 17th.

Mr. Johnson had been scouting furnishings for the building. By the time the painters had ended their work the collection had been rounded out. Items were secured as far east as Denton, Texas. Others came from Coloma, Lodi, Stockton, Angels Camp, Columbia, Sacramento and San Diego. Most of the furniture had to be refinished, which was done personally by Mr. Johnson,

The museum fascinates young and old alike. Older visitors commence reminiscing and nostalgia sweeps over them. The youngster are amazed when the platens of the presses close and open and they see what had been a blank piece of paper appear with the crisp imprint of the type form. Tykes and teenagers alike look out the back door, down the path to the little white house with the half-moon in the door and call out “Mom, what’s that?”

Admission to the museum is free. Visitors are welcome 9:00a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily, except Mondays. Since its opening over 80,000 persons have passed through the historic building.

Richard B. Yale is curator of the San Diego Union Newspaper Museum, editor and publisher of “The Butterfield Express,” a member of the San Diego Historical Society and of many other civic organizations. In his writing he is painstaking as to facts, forthright in his opinions and intense in his feelings regarding history and historical objects and sites. We are pleased to be able to present this article from him regarding what will be one of the outstanding attractions of the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.