The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1969, Volume 15, Number 3
Rita Larkin, Editor

by Wilmer Shields

Images from the article

If history is the story of man’s changing needs, then also it is the story of men with needs and talents who helped to fill the requirements of the times and of their communities. Wilmer Shields here sketches the mutual needs and effects of George W. Marston and his adopted city upon each other.

We have no way of knowing what thoughts were in the mind of the young man on the deck of the sidewheel steamer Senator, as it rounded Point Loma that October day in 1870. We would like to think that he was enchanted by a scene of blue bay, green hills and cloudless sky, but the facts are against us. The San Diego Union of that time reads: “Monday was cloudy all day, and early in the evening it began to rain again harder if anything than the night before.”

The young traveler gives us no account of his first impressions of San Diego’s landlocked harbor with its background of foothills and mountains. He had pencilled in a leather notebook his experiences and observations on the trip by rail with his father from Chicago to San Francisco, and by steamer to San Diego, but of his destination he wrote merely. “Arrived in San Diego in the forenoon on Monday, October 24, 1870.”

Rain clouds may have veiled the immediate scene that young George Marston saw from the paddle-wheeler’ s deck, taut if he could have glimpsed beyond the moment into the years that he was to pass in this new environment the prospect would have loomed exceedingly fair. On that October morning the man, George Marston (two days past his twentieth birthday), came into conjunction with the soil of San Diego County. Man and locality were to act and react on each other for three quarters of a century- and neither, because of the other, was ever to be the same again.

The human actor in this long drama between man and environment had, at the time of their meeting, two decades of a happy childhood and youth in Wisconsin behind him. His education had been ended by his father’s illness, and it was the quest for a more healthful climate that brought the two Marstons to California, and eventually, to San Diego.

The hills and valleys and mesas on which George Marston first looked in 1870 were still thinly settled after a century of occupation by Spaniards and Americans. On the bay shore a few miles away from the original pueblo, with its cluster of adobe houses, a new town of frame buildings and dusty streets was coming into existence. Back of the two little villages, in the valleys of the rising foothills, were widely separated ranch houses and trading posts.

This was the environment in which young Marston immersed himself that rainy morning, when he stepped from the steamer to Horton’s Wharf in New San Diego. The growth of the man and the community, and the impact of the one on the other over the next seventy-five years, is engrossingly unfolded in a two-volume biography of this pioneer, compiled by his daughter, Mary Gilman Marston, and handsomely printed by the Ward Ritchie Press, Los Angeles, 1956.

As the title, George White Marston, A Family Chronicle, indicates, part of the book is the record of an American family moving westward for over two centuries, in the pattern common to the era, until the continent had been spanned, The predominant theme, however, is the parallel and related progress of George Marston and San Diego.

From the very day of his arrival, when he found a position as clerk of the manager of the Horton House, until he transferred to his son, Arthur, the management of the Marston Company in 1931, George Marston was always linked to the business life of the area. But business was to be only one phase of Mr. Marston’s response to his environment.

In the first two years of his residence here we find him associated with the Benevolent Association, the Free Reading Room, conferences for prospective railroads, and the Excelsior Skating Club. This early beginning of participation and leadership in civic and social affairs was to continue and expand to an amazing extent as George Marston and San Diego grew older together.

One has only to glance over the contents of the biography to find confirmation of this wide range of local activities. Running down the page of contents, we discover this list of life-long interests: Church, Sunday School, Missions, YMCA, Relief, War Work, Local Welfare, Pomona College, Railroad Promotion, Development of Balboa Park, Roads, Nolen Plan, Exposition, Civic Center, Park Commission, Borrego Desert Park, Presidio Park, Junípero Serra Museum.

Most of these concernments were closely related to the growth and improvement of San Diego, and were important phases of George Marston’s own growth and enlargement. An example of this interaction, and one of especial interest to members of the San Diego History Center, is the development of Presidio Park and the building of the Junípero Serra Museum. They are the result of the thought and labor of George Marston for more than thirty years.

He it was who saw the need of worthy memorials to commemorate San Diego’s unique history; and he it was-and almost alone – who brought the park and museum into existence and virtually thrust them upon the City. Today the Serra Museum, as it rises in beauty on the crest of Presidio Hill, has become a symbol of the great city that lies below and about it.

One wonders how a young man, so occupied by business, civic duties and social activities, could have found time for marriage and the raising of a family. But in some way this, too, was accomplished and with his customary thoroughness and success. Eight years after his journey’s end in San Diego, he married Anna Lee Gunn, the daughter of another pioneer family, the westward movements of which had also ended in San Diego. Five children brought new attachments and responsibilities.

The Marstons and the Gunns were good letter writers. Without the aid of labor-saving devices and writing conveniences, they somehow found the time and the means to write long, informative, animated letters. These can be read with pleasure, aside from their local allusions, as intimate glimpses of the daily life and interests of two closely knit and affectionate American families in a new land.

These letters, freely and effectively used throughout the two volumes, are supplemented by numerous photographs that bring the faces of young members into the family groups and reveal the passing of the years on the older faces. Text, letters and photographs tell an absorbing story of interplay between a maturing man of uncommon endowments and an unformed, expanding community.

To repeat, we do not know what thoughts were in the mind of young George Marston as he looked for the first time on the little village of New San Diego in 1870, but there can be no doubt of what he thought of the metropolitan San Diego his eyes last beheld in 1946. He was wise enough to know what his energy, his talents and his ideals had done for this community – and to appreciate what the community had done for him.

Fortunate for both that chance, for fate, brought them together, and fortunate for George Marston’s fellow San Diegans that they now have this epic story in lasting form.