“Is today the day, Daddy? Can we pack a picnic lunch and sit on the bluff and watch the buildings go floating out to sea?” Any rainy day might bring forth that half-joking, half-hopeful question from one of our young sons. Their father, who had spent some of his childhood in San Diego, had told them what he remembered of the floods of the San Diego River in Mission Valley. And to their rather horrified delight, he had almost promised them that it would happen again someday. Since the San Diego River was almost completely invisible to them, and the great motels, office buildings and shopping centers were increasing in size and number most visibly, they were caught up in and delighted by what seemed to be a happening worthy of Walt Disney’s “plausible impossible.”
And so a shared family joke delights us still. But is there still a possibility of flooding in Mission Valley? Surely not! The great surge of building continues. The scarcity of water, not a surfeit of it, seems to be Southern California’s problem. The actual presence of a San Diego River astounds the relative newcomer who is apt to state, “I didn’t know there was one!1
A glance at the latest San Diego City map will reveal a bright blue stream flowing through the heart of Mission Valley.2 But a drive from Mission Bay six miles up to the head of Mission Valley where it narrows in
to Mission Gorge will reveal only a couple of ponds and wet places. The river, for the entire span of its recorded history, has been a “now you see it, now you don’t” vision for the inhabitants of the area. “It’s upside down now!” chuckled one old-timer.3 At present it does flow underground through the valley,’ but where do its ghostly waters originate? A much quoted passage from Smythe’s History of San Diego describes it thusly:
The San Diego River rises in the Volcan Mountains 60 miles from the city. It flows through the El Cajon and ex-mission ranchos, the pueblo lands of San Diego and into False Bay. At Capitan Grande, 35 miles from its mouth, it is joined by a branch rising to the southeast of the Cuyamaca Mountains. Fed by numerous springs on its course, it flows to Capitan Grande all year, then it sinks into the sands and disappears in the curious manner of California rivers.5
“False Bay?” “ranchos?” “pueblo lands?” ?Words from the past! We will find that the will-o-the-wisp river has played a dominant role in the settling and development of both Mission Valley and San Diego city as well.
La Canada de San Diego (1602-1846)
Mission Valley was known to the Spanish as La Canada de San Diego (The Glen of San Diego.6) The first mention of the San Diego River was in the diary of explorer Sebastian Vizcaino. In 1602 he left San Diego Bay to investigate what he called False Bay (now Mission Bay) and he reported at that time that it was a “good port, although it had at its entrance a bar of little more than 2 fathoms depth, and there was a very large grove at an estuary which extended into the land, and many Indians.?7
When the Spanish returned in 1769 with
the intent to settle the area, the San Diego River was found to be a “river with excellent water” by Captain Vicente Vila of the ship San Carlos. He also noted a village of thirty-five to forty families of Indians living along the river.8 A chart by Vila shows the changeable river entering into San Diego Bay.9 Fr. Juan Crespi told of the first exploration (by white men) of Mission Bay in his letter of June 22, 1769:
When we reached the port we found, about one league distant, a good river with sufficient water, but in a few days it ran dry. Yesterday, May 21, Fr. Viscaino, and I went
out to examine it, accompanied by the lieutenant of the troops Don Pedro Fages, and the engineer Don Miguel Costanso and seven or eight soldiers. We followed the
course of the river which runs through a canada of much level land, in places extending from a quarter to half a league. The
soil seems to be good for raising corn and wheat. In some parts there seem to be marshes and humid soil. All along the river
bed there are poplar, willow, and alder trees. We found it dry in many places. In some spots there were pools with water,
and in others there was only a streamlet. We walked about three leagues up the river bed and the valley; but conditions were the same, until we reached the sierra, where the
bed narrowed; (ed. note. Mission Gorge) but there was no running water. We do not know whether any irrigation could be done from it. However, if there be sufficient rains,
as in other parts, good crops of cereals could be produced, as there is much land and good pasture. Building stone we have
not seen anywhere.10
When the group that had arrived by ship was joined by the land party of Fr. Junipero Serra, they moved their camp up to a bluff overlooking the river (both for safety and to be nearer the source of water) and on July 16, 1769 founded the Mission and military post that was known as the Presidio.11
The first year they planted their crops near the river, and the river rose so high that it carried away all that was sown. The second year planting was done further back from the stream, but water was so scarce that most of the plants died.12
The padres recommended that the Mission be moved further up the Valley in hopes of having better luck with the crops. Fr. Serra in his first report of the Mission for 1774 stated, “It is determined to move the Mission within the same canada of the port toward the northeast of the presidio, at
a distance of a little less than two leagues. The place is much more suitable for a population, on account of the facility of obtaining the necessary water, and on account of the vicinity of good land for cultivation. The place is called Nipoguay.”13 The move was accomplished in August of 1774 and Mission Valley had its first white inhabitants and California’s first mission had its permanent home.
It is thought that in 1774 the river returned to False Bay after a period of heavy rain.14 (The San Diego River has apparently shifted its channel back and forth between Mission (False) Bay and the San Diego Bay many times in the past. Historians conflict as to the actual years of change. It would be fascinating to do the detective work necessary to try to pin down the facts, but that would be another story.) Scarcity of water was the pressing problem of the padres, their growing mission and the surrounding Indian Villages. In 1792 Frs. Mariner and Torrent discovered fresh springs and had an irrigation ditch 1300 vares long built to bring water to the fields.15
The Spanish Military forces remained at the Presidio. According to British Captain George Vancouver who visited there in 1794, the military were supported by the fields and labors of the missionaries and their Indian neophytes.16 Thus Mission Valley supported both settlements.
The marvel of the mission era was the dam and aqueduct which was started in 1807. Using Indian labor, they dammed the San Diego River at the head of Mission Gorge where the river ran the year round. An aqueduct was run nearly six miles through a rugged canyon to the fields of the mission. The padres didn’t keep many records during this time but Frs. Sanchey and Martin reported in 1813, “We are working on an aqueduct, which is to bring water to the Mission.” In 1814 they reported that 3.8 miles had been completed.17 Judge Hayes, who viewed the dam in 1867, said there was a settling basin with sand traps to clear the water before it entered the flume, and a four-inch penstock through which water was forced to turn a grist mill.18 With the advent of the water Mission agriculture flourished. Vineyards, orchards and crops were quite successful, as were herds of cattle. When the Mission was secularized in 1833, the
inventories show that it was a thriving enter
Don Blas Aquilar, an old time resident of San Diego, recalled that by 1821 there were 15 rancherias and two vineyards in Mission Valley. He said that all the crops were washed away and homes were damaged by a great flood that year, and the river changed its course back into False
A tiny town slowly grew up at the foot of Presidio hill. The years of the 1820s must have been wet ones. Early citizens like Bandini and Pio Pico reported floods and each remembered a different year that the river changed course again. There is some evidence that the channel moved southward in 1821 and completed the change in the flood of 1825 back into San Diego Bay.20
All California came under the jurisdiction of the Republic of Mexico in 1824, and the town of San Diego was officially established as a municipality or pueblo in 1834. The townspeople planted their gardens in nearby Mission Valley, and obtained their water from the river or from under its sands.
In 1842, M. Duflot de Mofra, an attache of the French legation to Mexico, visited the area and spoke of the port:
Certain areas are shallow, and some parts are so covered with sand banks that ships can easily run aground on the silt that the
tiny San Diego River brings down from the mountains in the rainy season. Within the last few years the river, through the negligence of the inhabitants, has returned to its former channel and now empties into the waters of San Diego Harbor.21
The wandering river was now threatening to choke up San Diego Bay as it had already done to False Bay, once a good deep port as reported by Viscaino in 1602.
The Mexican government sold the lands which formerly belonged to the Mission. Maria Estudillo received the El Cajon Rancho lying along the eastern San Diego River in 1845. In 1846, as the Americans were about to take over, Pio Pico gave a deed of sale to Don Santiago Arguello for “the remaining lands unsold” of the Mission San Diego.22 A new era was about to begin. The Spanish had discovered the San Diego River and Mission Valley and though peopled sparsely, the valley was used for agriculture and cattle raising. After the first few years of adequate rainfall, the valley suffered under a long dry spell until the 1820s and 30s brought more rain and several floods. The Mission, once the center of culture in the valley, was falling into ruins.
Early American Days (1846-1900)
After three hundred years of Spanish rule, and twenty-four years under the Mexican flag, the Pueblo of San Diego and all of California was ceded to the United States for $15,000,000, in 1848. Captain S. F. du Pont, U.S.N., of the U.S.S. Cyane took the port of San Diego and his officer, Lt. Rowan, raised the American flag over the plaza of Old Town on July 29, 1846.23 Du Pont later viewed the dilapidated mission and the remains of its gardens and vineyards, remarking that, “A more miserable
and naked sight I never saw.?24 The first map by an American was made in 1846 by Henry D. Fitch. It shows two channels for the San Diego River. The one to the east enters San Diego Bay, the other stops short of False Bay.25
In 1849, Major A. R. S. Canby followed the San Diego River up to the ruined mission. He wished that the library could be cared for, and found the dam and aqueduct in good repair. With that water he felt that the valley could support a population of three or four hundred inhabitants.26 Troops were stationed at the mission and were keeping it in good repair when John Russell Bartlett visited in May, 1852. They were withdrawn in 1858.27 The mission was returned to the California Church in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln,28 but remained the haunt “of wild bees and owls”29 for many years. In 1891 Father Ubach of San Diego began the first efforts to arouse interest in having it restored.30
In 1850, New Town was laid out by William Heath Davis closer to the port. But water for the ships and for the new community still had to be hauled from the river.31 The population, according to the first census of 1850, was six hundred and fifty.32 The diary of the artist Powell who came to San Diego during the gold rush days of 1850 states of the phantom river: “bed of river dry when we came in; today the water came rolling down a foot deep-strange sight.”
The first government action to imply that the San Diego river stood in need of curbing was the U. S. Coast Survey whose report of 1851 by A. D. Bache warned that the bay may be destroyed by the silting action of the river. “The only remedy for this evil is to turn the river into False Bay again. This is an excellent harbor and its loss would be severely felt.?33 Thus, Lt. George Horatio
Derby, of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, was sent to San Diego in 1853 to build what was to become known as Derby’s Dike. On his survey map he noted that “during freshets of the rainy season, the marsh south of town is entirely’ inundated as well as part of the valley and plain bordering on the river.”34 Derby wanted to create a straight channel and levees for the river but he was ordered to deepen the old channel and build a levee from a point at the foot of the Presidio hill to the foot of Point Loma (1190 yards). The old San Diego Herald, Sept. 24, 1853; noted that “sixty laborers with carts, wheelbarrows, etc., are to be put on the work at once and by carrying it on energetically it is hoped that it may be entirely completed before the commencement of the rainy season.” Derby complained that the plan was not sound, and funds were insufficient, and sure enough, the first “freshet” took out part of the dike, and in the heavy rains of 1855 the river went back into San Diego Bay.35
Derby became known nationally as a humorist and his own comment on this work at San Diego is typical:
Here I saw . . . Derby . . . an elderly gentleman of emaciated appearance and serious cast of features. Constant study and unremitting attention to his laborious duties have reduced him almost to a skeleton. . . . He
was sent from Washington some months since ‘to dam the San Diego River’ and he informed with a deep sigh and mournful smile that he had done it (mentally) several times since his arrival.36
A painting shows Derby’s Dike in 1853 and in Mission Valley beyond, there are a few farms outlined in trees, and a large undeveloped area.37 Two years of heavy rainfall preceded 1855 when 12.7 inches of rain added up to the flood that washed out Derby’s Dike and scoured out the old burial ground at the foot of Presidio Hill as it returned the river to its San Diego Bay channel.38
The great39 flood of 1862 is said to have been the largest in volume.40 (Precipitation was 15.75 inches that year.41) The vast flat between Old Town and False Bay was covered. Houses were swept out to sea; gardens, olive orchards, and a grove of trees thirty feet high were washed away. Capt. Sherman lost his horses trying to cross the stream and a Capt. Johnson was unable to get across to his home for two days. Although apparently the volume of water was vast, there was no terrible loss of property.42 San Diego was only a town of about seven hundred and fifty people, and Mission Valley was still sparsely settled.
Although a few wells were in use in the town, Mission Valley was still the principal source of water. It was known to old-timer Stephen Peters as Aqua de la Communidad and was for general use as were the community grazing lands.43 The water was obtained in dry season by sinking boxes or barrels into the sandy river bed.44 Water was carted up to the Hotel in town and cost twenty-five cents a bucket.45
In the 1860s, a road crossed the river at Old Town and went up the north side of the river to the mission. One early resident of San Diego remembers that there were several houses on the north side of the river. One man had his house and garden in the river bed and people tried to tell him he would be washed away. He would not believe them, but woke up one morning in the flood of 1867 and found that he and his house were floating down to the bay.46 Two years of heavy rains preceded the medium flood of ’67. This one, together with the flood of ’64, had washed away a twenty-four foot section of the Mission Dam although much of it remained in good repair.47
The 1870s and 80s were “boom and bust” years for San Diego. The population rose from 2300 in 1870 to 16,000 in 1890. Mission Valley (it received that name in 1870)48 was the scene of truck gardening as far up as the mission. Sheep herding and bee-keeping were practiced and the marshes and fields were used for duck and dove shooting.49 An advertisement in the Union of Jan. 6, 1893, offers 400 acres of level land in Mission Valley, five miles from town, for $60.00 per acre. A road crossed the river at the foot of Sandrock Grade and a store called C. W. Sandrock’s Tienda was located there. The farmers brought in straw during the summertime in order to pack down the damp sand to provide a firm crossing. Fording the river was impossible if the river was flowing to any extent.50
The San Diego Water Company was founded in 1872 to meet the needs of the growing town. While they had several wells in town, the people continued to rely on wells in the San Diego River bottom. The Union of June 15, 1877, described the large excavation in the river bed about seven miles from its mouth. There was a pumping station run by steam engines which pumped the water up to a reservoir on the table land
rising to the north of the city. The system served the city until 1912.51 The same newspaper article noted that two or three times during the last thirty years, the river had flowed all year, and several times it had flowed until September.
During the winter of 1873-74, the river overflowed its banks four times, in December, January, February, and March.52 For two months the stages were unable to cross the river and the mail was ferried back and forth in a row boat. In 1875, Congress appropriated $80,000 for a government dike to turn the river once more into Mission Bay. Work was done under the supervision of Lt. Weeden and the dike was completed
In 1881, the California Southern railroad was built across the San Diego River on pilings driven by steam power.54
The next great flood was in 1884. A record of 25.97 inches of rain fell that year with a long wet season continuing until June.55 The warm and wet spring produced several phenomena. In a diary kept by Mr. Crouch of Oceanside, he remembered that the grass “outgrew itself” and contained no nutriment, causing the cattle to suffer and the lambs and yearlings to starve to death on the feed.56 That spring also produced a flood of butterflies followed by swarms of cutworms and caterpillars, creating a disastrous year for farmers.57 Damages to crops
and cattle were severe, and although the pumping station was able to withstand the flood, it was moved to the south side of the river in 1805.58 The railroad to the north was out for nearly nine months and the river flowed all year.59 A flood occurred again in 1895, with its accompanying damage to crops. Bridges and railway trestles were washed out again.60
In 1887, Mission Valley had its land “boom and bust” fling in the Grantville residential project at the upper end of the valley near Mission Gorge. It was so named in hopes of attracting Civil War Veterans but it was never a success and the land “gradually became farming land as nature had intended it to be.” (Opinion of Mission Valley Improvement Association, Union, 3-11-46, 7:2.) Allen’s Dairy was developed on an old Mexican grant that was bought for taxes. Bernard started a large nursery in the valley with thousands of rose cuttings he brought from France.61
Thus Mission Valley retained its rural nature as the turn of the century approached. Floods periodically washed out the truck gardens and farms but actual property damage was slight as real property improvements were few and the population was small. The disruption of mail and rail routes through Mission Valley was a severe handicap for the citizens of the whole area during flood periods.
Dairies and Bridle Paths (1900-1950)
At the turn of the century, San Diego was a growing city of 17,700 whose interests were elsewhere than in Mission Valley. “It’s only Mission Valley,” quoted one oldtimer who complained of the marshes and mosquitos.62 An earlier visitor from Los Angeles had spoken of Mission Bay as having “No commercial value” and that the river could fill it up “with impunity.”63 To view the rural scene from above was, however, a favorite pastime of San Diegans who visited Mission Cliff Gardens at the foot of the trolley line on Park Avenue. The beautifully kept grounds opened onto a vista below of the river meandering through small groves and farms. A gazebo was perched on the rim of the cliff. This was also a favorite spot to watch the rampaging river during flood
Some concern was felt for the problem of flooding. A few people condemned the practice of burning off the brush cover along the waterway to improve the grazing areas, but many would not believe that it would affect rain run-off. The recent floods had served to further denude the valley hillsides.65
In 1901, the city sold its first water bonds and bought the San Diego Water Company. The main source of water was the reservoirs made by damming sources in the surrounding watershed areas, although an expanded well-field in Mission Valley was used until 1927. The city attorneys, in 1914, filed “An Opinion on the Rights of the City of San Diego to the Waters of the San Diego River” which was the beginning of a lengthy legal battle to prove the city’s prior and paramount rights to the waters of the entire river
The first large flood of the twentieth century was in the winter of 1905-06 after a very wet year in 1905.67 The embankment at the end of Old Town bridge washed out, the channel shifted to the north, and the river ran until late in the summer.68
The largest, most destructive, and most famous flood of recent times occurred in 1916, again following a very wet year.69 (See also Journal Winter 70.) The rainfall of the previous years was so distributed that there was little run off and the water in the city’s reservoirs was very low. In December of 1915, Charles Hatfield appeared before
the City Council. As a “rainmaker,” he said he could fill the Morena reservoir for $10,000. The city officials voted to accept his proposition and told the city attorney to draw up a contract. Hatfield did not wait, but built a platform and began shooting off chemical explosions.70 The rain began on January 16, 1916, and lasted four days. The newspapers welcomed the rain as the reservoirs began to slowly fill and noted that some people were beginning to take Hatfield seriously.71 Mission Valley flooded, quickly wiping out the vegetable gardens and homes of the Chinese and Japanese farmers, and ten of the twelve wells used by the city. The police and Navy Militia used flat bottom boats to rescue families. The city’s Isolation Hospital in Mission Valley had to move their patients up to the second floor as the water rose.72 Hundreds of people flocked to Mission Cliff Gardens to watch the spectacle below,73 and an editor in the Union (1-18-1916) stated that he felt the water in the reservoirs offset one-hundredfold the damage to property, private and municipal. He said suffering may grow, “but the run-off into reservoirs will also continue giving the city and county a wealth of water for future use and bringing with it the happiness and prosperity that is only possible through such a beautiful water supply.”
The sun came out for a few days, and then a second storm began to batter the city. The San Diego River rose six feet higher. Bridges along the river were washed out, although the railroad bridge was partially saved by parking train cars loaded with rocks on it, and opening up a spillway through the earth to one side.74 There are many tales of heroism as more people were rescued from their homes in Mission Valley. Union headlines of the 27th stated: “Dams holding against Great Flood as Wires go; City Water Supply All Right.” The Otay Dam went out at 6:14 that night, scouring out its valley to the bay and taking the lives of twenty-three people.75 The peak flow of the San Diego River was established at 75,000 cubic feet per second, with total physical damage at $565,000.76 All important highway and railroad bridges were destroyed or severely damaged, many miles of roadbeds and tracks were washed out, and telephones and telegraph lines were down. For a month all supplies were brought in by ship, and only the wireless remained as a means of communication.77
The city was soon deluged by law suits, one of which was Hatfield’s, asking for his $10,000. The city attorney told Hatfield’s attorney that if Hatfield would sign a statement assuming all responsibility for the flood and absolving the city, the city attorney would recommend that the Council pay the full claim. “Go to hell,” said Hatfield’s attorney and that was the end of that.78
1920 brought a new development to Mission Valley. The Mission Valley Oil Enterprise Company sank a well near the foot of Texas Street. Although they found a showing of oil, it could not be brought up in productive quantities.79 A medium flood occurred in 1921 and the City Isolation Hospital was again isolated. Although damage was not great, it was estimated that four billion gallons of water rushed through Mission Gorge and the Union urged that a dam be built there.80
Next to the flood of 1916, the flood of 1927 was the most damaging. The storm filled the county reservoirs and “a 10 year period of prosperity was assured for the city,” said the Union of 2-17-27. The curious were again attracted to the bluffs above the river, and one witness recalls watching a rooster ride out to sea on a box.81 This
was the flood which the writer’s husband remembers as a little boy of five. He recalls that it rained a long time, and everything was very wet and he was hospitalized for ten days with typhoid fever. It would seem to the author that the water supply must not have been too safe.
After long years of litigation, the State Supreme Court ruled in 1930 that San Diego did have prior and paramount right to the entirety of San Diego River water.82 The story of this clash between public and private interests is a stormy one, but is an interesting chapter in San Diego history. The settlement led the way to the building of the El Capitan Dam and Reservoir (completed in 1935) and the San Vicente Dam and Reservoir (completed in 1943), both of which store water from the water shed along the upper reaches of the San Diego River.
The Government Dike had been raised once in 1917 and was raised again in 1933.83 The dirt road through Mission Valley, often muddy and impassable during rainy season, was replaced in the early thirties by a two-lane paved road by the San Diego County Highway Development Association.84 There was a flood of medium size in 1937 and again in 1938. The latter was more serious in the North County. The railway was blocked; one witness on the way home from
Los Angeles was on a train that was stalled near Escondido for seven hours. Finally the train backed all the way to Los Angeles and it was four days before it could get back as far as La Jolla. Roads and bridges were still closed and her husband had to drive around the east end of the valley to meet her in La Jolla.85
By 1940, San Diego was a city of 203,341, and Mission Valley had developed twenty dairies. This was now the primary activity, although vegetable farming remained a close second, and sand and gravel businesses had existed there for many years. Early in 1940, a Mission Valley Improvement Association was organized in hopes of protecting the area from too much exploitation. They proposed to make bridle paths “wide enough for buggies and safe enough for bicycling and walking” throughout the valley.86 Horse farms were numerous and a polo club attracted much attention in the news.87
The war years brought a huge jump in population and the city, with help from the U. S. Navy, brought in water via canal from the Colorado River. The first Colorado River water reached the San Vicente Reservoir in November of 1947 just three months before the local supply was exhausted, a very close call with disasters88
The Federal Government in 1945 authorized a report on a flood control channel of 3.3 miles in length at the downstream end of the San Diego River. A hydrology report was made in 1947 by the Army Engineers and San Diego began the second half of the century with some of her flood control problems in mind.89
Commercial Explosion (1950-68)
Work on the flood channel and new channel entrance to Mission Bay began in 1950 and was completed in 1953. It consisted of 3.3 miles of rock-revetted levees twenty-five feet high forming a channel of from 200 to 250 feet in width.90
San Diego Magazine of August 1950 pointed out that Mission Valley was a horse’s paradise, another Rancho Santa Fe, containing twenty miles of bridle trails. It told how the Mission Valley Improvement Association had fought against roadside stands, an airport, and a cocktail lounge for State College students. It contained a plea
to the San Diego Planning Commission not to let the valley become a non-stop superhighway for the big trucking companies.
But such was not to be. Charles Brown was the “pioneer” of the commercial building boom although the Mission Valley Golf Club had been operating since 1947. (The Golf Club was private but dues were low, $10 a family, and it was felt to benefit most of the community.91) In the early 50s, Brown made an evaluation of the land and found that the “only alleged disadvantage seemed to be fear of flood.?92 He bought a 221h-acre site for $79,000 and built the Town and Country Hotel. He estimated shortly before his death in 1966 that the land was now worth $125,000 per frontage acre on Hotel Circle and his Town and Country Hotel was worth 2.25 million dollars.93
So began the rush to build the brightly lighted Mission Valley we see today. But not everyone was happy. “Corruption was the word applied to the City Council in November of 1957 by an article in San Diego Magazine when writing of the May Company’s buying of land in Mission Valley for a proposed shopping center. It made a plea for encouraging the City Planning Commission’s idea for a green belt policy, and felt that the Commission should tell May Co. where to go: they suggested an area near Rosecrans. The article predicted (correctly) that full-flood commercialism would surely follow.
F. F. Friend, consulting hydraulic engineer, was engaged by the City Council to report on flood control in Mission Valley. He pointed out the need for flood zones, urged a 250 foot wide unlined channel, and hoped that the valley would develop into an area complementing Mission Bay with accommodations, entertainment, a motor boat canal, scenic roadways, bridle paths, etc. Although the editor of San Diego Magazine, who commented on this, thought it was a great non-political and non-commercial (not anti-commercial) scheme, he feared it would be “buffeted by commercial pressure groups.?94
Congressman Bob Wilson said that in 1959 the heart of Metropolitan San Diego had moved northward to Mission Valley.95 An illustrated feature in the Union (6-211959) was titled “A Giant Awakes” and
noted the motels and new building activity plus a picture of the rural scene in 1953. Millions were spent in the Valley. In 1961, assessed valuation on vacant parcels had increased 17 percent in three years, and as much as 1,500 percent in six years. Freeway 80 cost 15 million for the stretch between Taylor Street and Fairmount Avenue. The $25 million May Company Mission Valley Shopping Center was opened in February of 1961.96 The First Methodist Church cost $1.6 million; $2 million were needed to renovate the Bowlero into the Masonic Temple,97 and unknown millions were spent in building the Mission Square office building, Cinerama 21, Center Theater, Mission Valley West, Mission Valley South, luxurious automobile agencies and restaurants, enough new motels to fill Hotel Circle and a $27 million stadium to seat 55,000 people.
Real property worth millions of dollars exists in the Valley, the scene of so many floods. A long series of dry years has certainly favored the building projects. In 1965 rain flooded the lower parts of Mission Valley. One motel had a foot of water over
the floor; the bridge over the river at Zion Road washed out but no serious flooding or
May Company hired engineers to study the flood problem and consequently built with the problem in mind. They’ built a riprap around the shopping center and designed the Center so that the parking area is underneath and the shops are on the second level. Pumps are needed constantly to keep the normal drainage of water pumped out and into the nearby drainage ditch. In case of a major flood they predict that the parking area would be five feet under water. City engineer Ed Gabrielson estimates that most of the motels on the north side of Highway 80 would be inundated.99
The city is aware of the flood problem. Each permit must show on the map the area of flooding clearly marked as such, and space must be left for the proposed flood control project.
In 1959 Congress authorized, and the Army Corps of Engineers completed, a report on flood control in Mission Bay.100 The proposal suggested a concrete lined, rectangular flood control channel about 5.2 miles in length reaching from Zion Avenue in Grantville to the existing channel at the Morena bridge. It would range from 200 to 250 feet wide with tributary channels extending from several canyons. At the upper end there would be two inlet levees.
Property owners in Mission Valley asked the City Council to support the narrow concrete-lined channel as they felt the wide unlined channel (850 foot swale) suggested by F. F. Friend would harm their property value.101 The Civil Defense office announced that the proposed channel would not be used as an emergency escape route during an atomic disaster.102
After being approved by the Chief of Engineers and by the Secretary of the Army, the proposed flood control project (estimated cost-$22,300,000) was approved by the various congressional committees and houses and was signed by President Johnson in October, 1965.103 Funds were refused in 1966 and thought to be a casualty of the Vietnam War.104 In 1968 the Army engineers and the State Department requested that $300,000 be budgeted for advanced engineering and design of the Mission Valley Flood Control Project. No action has as yet been taken but Mr. Lockhead of the Engineering Department of the City of San Diego said the allotment had a very good chance of being passed. If the money is appropriated, the engineering and design would begin and actual construction would be two or possibly three years away and, of course, would only follow the approval of the actual construction funds.
The Plausible Possible?
“Yes, Virginia, there is a San Diego River.” Its presence was one of the main reasons for locating the first Alta California Mission on San Diego Bay. It. was the main source of water for the slowly growing community for over one hundred years and remained a secondary source of water until the nineteen forties. The Mission of San Diego de Alcala was moved to its present location in the upper end of Mission Valley so that the water of the inconstant river might be better utilized for agriculture. The small community of Indians and priests finally began to prosper when the river was dammed and the aqueduct assured an adequate
water supply. The secularization of the Mission brought an end to this settlement, but the river continued to be the focal point for the ranchos and rancherias which developed along its banks. The land remained largely agricultural throughout the nineteenth century. During that century, the San Diego River overflowed its banks and flooded Mission Valley many times, destroying crops, pastureland and homes. But the farmers returned to plant their crops and to rebuild, for, in the dry years in between, proximity to the precious water outweighed the dangers of flooding.
The main town, however, grew up on the higher mesa lands that flattened out as they approached the harbor of San Diego Bay. Floods were not a problem here and water could be found in wells or hauled up from the river. The main commerce developed near the port facilities.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Mission Valley developed as a dairy and horse raising center. Truck farming continued as a close second in importance. Railroads, highway, and telephone and telegraph lines crossed Mission Valley as the valley lay across the City’s access to the more populous north. Floods became more disastrous as development occurred in the valley, but to the main body of San Diegans, the destruction of communication routes was the primary inconvenience caused by the flooding.
As the city doubled and trebled in size, the use of the undeveloped land of Mission Valley close to the heart of the city began to be re-evaluated. As tourism flourished and Mission Bay was developed into an aquatic park, the need for resort-type accommodations grew and the large hotels and motels were the first to see Mission Valley as a superbly located spot for their uses. The crossing of two major highways made a highly desirable location for a giant shopping center. Easy access contributed to the development of two huge sports edifices, the Sports Arena at one end of the valley and the San Diego Stadium at the upper end near the restored Mission.
Have these builders forgotten the flood problem? No, the city zoning ordinances insure that each permit for use of the land is clearly marked as to the area subject to flooding. The city of San Diego added two
zones to its zoning ordinance in 1966. The FC Zone (Flood Control) directly regulates the uses of land within the natural channel of a stream; uses permitted are restricted to agriculture, recreation, and other open space uses that would not obstruct the natural flow of the stream. The FP zone (Flood Plain) regulates the intensity of development in areas of inundation.105
There are two methods of flood control: protective and preventive. The protective approach proposes engineering techniques that encourage or depend upon urbanization. The preventive approach proposes to preserve the natural condition of the land and limit its urban uses. The protective approach seeks to keep the flood water away from the encroaching people; the preventive approach seeks to keep people out of the way of the flood waters. Protective measures are usually necessary after the fact of commercial and/or urban building, and the Federal Government agrees to improve rivers for flood control purposes if the benefits are in excess of the costs.106 This is what has happened in San Diego. The earlier Planning Commission’s dreams of a wide green belt in the valley and the voices of some of the citizens were too little and too late. According to Mr. Lockhead of the City Engineering Department, fifteen years ago something might have been done. But the city asked the Federal Government for protective measures in 1965 and the land owners of Mission Valley wanted them. That was the last time the citizens could have protested.107 The protective flood control channel is still several years from the start of construction. A conservative estimate for its completion is five years, probably longer.
What are the dangers of flooding in the interim? In 1965, D. E. Lake of the County Civil Defense office said that San Diego County is long overdue for a major flood. He said that major floods have hit on the average of every 17 years for the last 125 years and that dams in the county are primarily designed for water storage, not flood control.108 City Engineer Ed Gabrielson said that if a flood were to hit in 1966, there would be $24,835,000 damage to property in Mission Valley. He said the flood threat had worried engineers and geologists for years.109 A projected’ estimate of future flood damages from a standard project flood was
made for the Corps of Engineers’ report. Old-timer Don Stewart predicted in his book Frontier Port that the cycle of wet years will return. “If we have 2 or 3 wet years in succession, our dams will be overflowing again. I hesitate to even think of what is going to happen to Mission Valley.”110 Shelley Higgins, another long-time resident, said that the miles of pavement and terraces, fills, etc. will add to the rain run-off. To him the next flood is a certainty, and the only question is when.111
The San Diego River, it seems, now plays a lesser role in the development of Mission Valley. The forces of nature controlled men’s actions until the press of population and economic factors put man’s need for space above nature’s probability of disaster. Economic determinism forced the development of real property of great value along the river bed of a river that still offers the threat of flooding. And the threat will stand until the flood control channel is completed. Meanwhile the property owners in Mission Valley are playing a kind of Russian Roulette with the river. Do the many dry years favor their odds, or shorten them? The Federal Government, too, must play the odds in allocation of its monies. Present needs must be met before projected possibilities.
The mills of government grind slowly and the threat of floods remains.
“Is today the day, Daddy?”
1. Remark of student in Historiography class, San Diego State College, April 25, 1968.
2. Street map of San Diego. Automobile Club of Southern California, March 1968.
3. Mrs. Robert Sams, personal interview with the author at San Diego, May 15, 1968.
4. Doris Christman and Dorothy Self “Ambitious Valley,” San Diego Magazine, (August, 1950) p. 16.
5. William E. Smythe, History of San Diego, 1542-1907 (San Diego: The History Company, 1907) p. 693.
6. The San Diego Union, 11 Mar. 1940, 7:2.
7. Richard F. Pourade, The Explorers (San Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing Co., 1960) p 184. Translation of diary of Vizcaino.
8. Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, San Diego Mission (San Francisco: James H. Barrey Company, 1920) p. 11, 12. Record of Captain Vila.
9. Pourade, Explorers, p. 102. Chart of Capt. Vila.
10. Engelhardt, op. cit., p 15, 16. Letter of Fr. Crespi.
11. Ibid. p 49. Letter of Fr. Palau. 12. Ibid. p 50, 51. Letter of Fr. Palau.
13. Ibid. p 56. Letter of Fr. Serra.
14. Edward J. P. Davis, Historical San Diego.
(San Diego: Pioneer Printers, 1953) p 20.
15. Engelhardt, op. cit., p 147, 149. Report of
16. Ibid. p 173. Letter from Vancouver.
17. Richard F. Pourade, Time of the Bells (San
Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing Co., 1961)
p 20. Records of the Mission.
18. Ibid. p 121. Letter of Judge Hayes.
18a. Richard F. Pourade, Silver Dons (San Diego:
Union-Tribune Publishing Co., 1962) p 4.
19. Smythe, op. cit. p 99.
20. Ibid. p 693
Pourade, Explorers p. 45. Report of Derby State of California, Department of Water Resources, Bulletin No. 112, San Diego County Flood Hazard Investigation (Sacramento, 1964) p 11.
21. Pourade, Bells, p 230. Letter of de Mofra.
22. Smythe, op. cit. p 73.
23. Pourade, Silver Dons, p 81. Log of USS Cyane.
24. Pourade, Silver Dons, p. 82. Letter of du Pont.
25. Davis, op. cit., p 27. Map of harbor.
26. Smythe, op. cit, p 263, Letter of Canby.
27. Engelhardt, op. cit., p 303. Letter of Bartlette.
28. Ibid., p 344. Proclamation of President Lincoln.
29. Ibid., p 305. Letter of Ford.
30. Ibid. p 309.
31. Don M. Stewart, Frontier Port (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1965) p 80. Testimony of oldtime resident.
32. James Mills, San Diego, Where California Began (San Diego: Historical Society, 1960) p 37. U. S. Census Report — all further census figures refer to this report.
33. Smythe, op. cit., p 185. Report of Bache. 34. Pourade, Silver Dons, p 199. Map of Darby. 35. Ibid, p 201.
36. M. M. Sugg, Ed; Stories of Old San Diego (San Diego: Committee for the Annual Trek to Serra Cross, 1966) p 41. Writings of Darby.
37. Pourade, Silver Dons, p 200. Painting.
38. Smythe, op. cit., p 683. Report of Weather Bureau.
39. U. S. Secretary of the Army, Chief of Engineers, Department of the Army, San Diego River (Mission Valley) California (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1965). Terms, great, large and medium floods are those used by this Government report.
40. State of California, Department of Water Resources, Bulletin No. 112, San Diego County Flood Hazard Investigation (Sacramento: 1964) p 11.
41. Smythe, op. cit., p 683. Weather Bureau Report.
42. The San Diego Union, 5-23-1873, 7:2.
43. Shelley J. Higgins, This Fantastic City San Diego, (San Diego: City of San Diego, 1966) p 60. Report of old-timer.
44. Ibid., p 31. Report of old-timer.
45. Ibid., p 64. Report of old-timer.
46. Smythe, op. cit., p. 46. Report of old-timer.
47. Pourade, Bells, p. 121. Letter of Judge Hayes.
48. Union, 3-11-1942, 7:2.
49. Stewart, op. cit., p 54, 55, 64. Personal reminiscences.
50. Ibid., p 59.
51. City of San Diego, Utility Department, History of the Development of the San Diego
Water Supply, James I. Perry (San Diego:
1965) p 1.
52. Herbert Crouch “Reminiscences of Herbert
Crouch, 1869-1915” Diary, p 92.
53. Union, 6-15-1877, 1:4.
54. Pourade, Glory Years, p. 160.
55. Smythe, op. cit., p. 683, Weather Report.
56. Crouch, op. cit., p 68.
57. Ibid., p 68.
58. Stewart, op. cit., p 83.
59. Crouch, op. cit., p 69.
60. Union, 1-28-1916.
61. Union, 3-11-1940, 7:2.
62. Christman, op. cit., p 14.
63. Richard F. Pourade, The Glory Years (San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Co., 1964)
p 144. Reporter from Los Angeles.
64. Christman, op. cit., p 16, 17.
65. Stewart, op. cit., p 83, 84.
66. Higgins, op cit., p 3.
67. Smythe, op. cit., p 683. Weather Bureau.
Stewart, op. cit., p 85.
68. Smythe, op. cit., p 696.
69. Ibid., p 683, Weather Bureau.
Stewart, op. cit., p 85.
70. Higgins, op. cit., p 176.
71. Union, 1-17-1916, 1:1.
72. Union, 1-18-1916, 1:3.
73. Stewart, op. cit., p 85.
74. Higgins, op. it., p 177.
75. Ibid., p 179.
76. U. S., Op. cit., p 3.
77. State of Calif. Flood Hazards, p 11.
78. Higgins, op. cit., p 183.
79. Union, 3-11-1940, 7:2.
80. Union, 12-27-1921, 1:1.
81. Mrs. James Minor, personal interview with author at San Diego, IS May 1968.
82. Higgins, op. cit., p 119.
83. Ibid., p. 31. State Bulletin.
84. Union, 10-22-1966.
85. Mrs. Theodore Burns, personal interview with
Author at San Diego, May 18, 1968.
86. Union, 3-11-1940, 7:2; c4-21-1940. 3:4.
87. Union, 9016-34.
88. City of San Diego, Perry, op. cit., p 2.
89. U. S. op. cit., p IX.
90. Ibid., p 4, p 26.
91. Christman, op. cit., p 14-17.
92. Union, 10-22-1966, B1 :2-6.
94. Editorial, San Diego and Point Magazine
(May 1958) p 49.
95. Union, 5-27-59, 24:4.
96. “Copping,” Union Title Magazine (April,
97. Union, 10-22-1966.
98. Union, 12-12-1965.
99. Union, 7-18-1965.
100. U. S., op. cit., P I11.
101. Union, 3-29-1961, Bl:14
102. Union, 4-2-1964.
103. Union, 10-28-1965, 19:15.
104. Union, 1-25-1966.
105. City of San Diego, City Planning Depart
ment, Guidelines for site Use of San Diego’s
Floodplains. (San Diego: City, 1967, p 23.)
106. Ibid., p 27.
107. Mr. Lockhead, telephone interview with author in San Diego, 29 May 1968.
108. Union, 9-30-1965. 23:2-3.
109. Union, 7-18-1965, 28:1-2.
110. Stewart, op. cit., p 97.
111. Higgins, op. cit., p 183.
Davis, Edward J. P., Historical San Diego, The Birthplace of California, San Diego: Pioneer Printers, c. 1953. pp 120.
Davis was public relations officer for the City Harbor Commission, and book is based on his lectures. Its historical correctness has not been evaluated by the author but it contains copies of some early maps of the harbor which were quite helpful.
Engelhardt, Fr. Zephyrin, San Diego Mission. San Francisco: James H. Barry Co., 1920. Contains many primary source materials such as letters and reports of the padres in their entirety, and thus a very valuable reference for those who cannot get to the original documents.
Held, Spencer, This Is Heaven? San Diego: Neyenesch Printers, Inc., c. 1960. 55 pp. Illus. A newspaperman’s humorous description of San Diego with anecdotes within his memory. Not too helpful for this project.
Higgins, Shelley J. (as told to Richard Mansfield), This Fantastic City San Diego, Official City Policy History San Diego, c. 1956.
Higgins was city attorney and tells the city’s side of civic affairs, principally the case for paramount water rights. His bias is outstanding and it would be interesting to read the other side of the story (i.e. of those who had private interests such as “Ed Fletcher’s Memoires”). Subject matter deals with water rights and also the flood of 1916. His dealings with Hatfield are missing.
Mills, James, San Diego, Where California Began. San Diego: San Diego History Center, 1960, pp 37.
“A brief history of the Events of Four Centuries.” Contains U. S. Census figures from 1850-1959. (No other primary sources.)
Pourade, Richard F., The History of San Diego: The Explorers. San Diego: The Union-Tribune Publishing Co., c. 1960. XX, 203, Illus., maps,
Translations, chronology, Bibl., Index.
?? Time of the Bells, c. 1961. XII, 262. Illus.. maps, chrono., Appendix, translations, transcriptions, biblio., Index.
?? Silver Dons, San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Co., c. 1962, 243 pp., Illus.. maps. chrono., biblio., Index.
?? The Glory Years, San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Co., c. 1964, 274 pp. Illus. maps, chrono., biblio., Index. This series of books about San Diego History were commissioned by J. S. Copley, Chairman of the Board of Copley Press. They are beautifully illustrated and printed. The first volume is rich in primary source materials with translations from the Spanish. It is noted that some of his writing follows very closely that of Smythe’s earlier work. It has been suggested that he mentioned sources, or showed them in pictures without using them to carefully document his facts (Cordtz). It would seem that Mr. Copley was satisfied to have a beautiful format without too much accuracy from Mr. Pourade. This writer has not the experience to judge for herself and chose to use the books largely for their primary source material.
Smythe, William E., History of San Diego, 1542-1907: An Account of the Pioneer Settlement on the Pacific Coast of the United States. San Diego: The History Company. 1907. Illus. Considered an excellent historian who made good use of his available sources (opinion of Mr. Cordtz). Has many quotations from original sources. The latter half of his book has less coherence than his account of the earlier days of San Diego history. Quotes many old-timers. Has Weather Bureau statistics from 1851-1905.
Stewart, Don M., Frontier Port: A Chapter in San Diego’s History. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1965. xvi, 173 pp. Illus., index. Stewart was born in 1873 in San Diego; he served as a city councilman, City Treasurer, Port Master, and was President of the Historical Society. He writes of the “not always distinguished Late Victorian Past” and surely does not try to “prettify” the past. Helpful source both for floods and conditions in Mission Valley in the past.
Sugg, M. M. Editor, Stories of Old San Diego over Two Centuries. San Diego: The Committee for the Annual Trek to the Serra Cross, 1966. c. 1966, pp 48.
Collection of short stories by numerous authors on San Diego’s early history.
Union Title Insurance and Trust Company, San Diego County Historical Scrapbook. San Diego: privately printed, c. 1953. 32 pp. Illus.
Contains pictures mainly of buildings in the 50 years before 1953. It was of little help to this study but would aid in economic research of this area of the past in San Diego.
B. GOVERNMENT DOCUMENTS
San Diego City, City Planning Department, Guidelines for die Use of San Diego’s Floodplains, San Diego, 1967. pp. 41, biblio.
A report to examine the use of floodplains in Metropolitan San Diego, evaluate uses and discuss conflicts in occupancy. One must bear in mind that there is often a difference in philosophy between the planning department of a city and its managerial offices, and between private and commercial interests in planning for land use.
City of San Diego, Utility Department, History of the Development of the San Diego Water Supply, James 1. Perry. San Diego: 1965 MIMEOGRAPHED.
Chronological listing of development of water systems. Some dates do not agree with other sources. Would need further investigation to prove which is reliable.
City of San Diego, Water Production Division, Dams of San Diego, Facts and Figures. San Diego, 1965. 12 pp.
Each dam listed on separate page, with facts of building dates, cost, capacities, etc. No narrative. Only El Capitan Dam and San Vicente Dam are pertinent for this study.
State of California, Department of Water Resources, Bulletin No. 112, San Diego County Flood Hazard Investigation, Appendix A Regional Flood Frequency ANALYSIS. Sacramento: 1963.
Technical data published in advance of’ main study to delineate areas subject to flooding in San Diego County. A detailed analysis of the methodology of flood frequency analyses estimating peak flood discharge at 50 and 100 year recurrence intervals. Deals mainly with upper San Diego River but is helpful in understanding methodology.
State of California, Department of Water Resources, Bulletin No. 112, San Diego County Flood Hazard Investigation. Sacramento: 1964. The report of an investigation initiated by the State Department of Water Resources at request of county to delineate the areas subject to flooding along certain portions of the major coastal streams in San Diego County. Deals with San Diego River from Mission Gorge to San Vicente and El Capitan Dams, but has general information of value to subject of this report, plus maps and charts.
United States, Secretary of the Army, Chief of Engineers, Department of the Army, San Diego River (Mission Valley) California. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1965. The report on the need, feasibility, cost, and description of the flood control channel for Mission Valley which was approved by the President in 1965. Has short history of past floods and technical data proving that the cost of the proposed channel is far less than expected damage to Mission Valley in case of flood. Vital to this research project.
Christman, Doris and Dorothy Self, “Ambitious Valley,” San Diego Magazine, (August, 1950), 14-17.
Description of Mission Valley its a “horse’s paradise.” How Mission Valley Improvement Association has fought to keep Valley natural.
“Copping,” a View of the Valley,” Union Title Topics (April, June, 1961). Pictures from a helicopter of developments in Mission Valley in 1961, plus description of some of the building projects there.
“Don’t Kiss the Valley Goodbye,” San Diego and Point Magazine (No. 1957).
Cries “corruption” at city officials for planning to sell out to May Company. A cry to keep back full-flood commercialism. Opposing side to City, interesting comparison.
“Editorial,” San Diego and Point Magazine, (May, 1958) p.49.
A deliberate reprinting of the City Planning Directors report and a plea to resist the commercial pressure groups grab for Mission Valley.
The San Diego (California) Union
A daily newspaper; it has been indexed by subject matter from 1873 to January of 1968 and filmed on microfilm at the Public Library. It is published by James E. Copley Press, Inc. and is considered to be conservative in outlook. Newspaper articles when used as primary sources must be viewed with regard to sensationalism in the handling of catastrophes such as floods, and also for the bias of the editorial staff when reporting civic events. The Spreckels family interests controlled the Union when the Scripps family ran the Sun. The Union supported the City’s paramount water rights case. The Sun was on the side of the private interests.
Reminiscences of Herbert Crouch, 1869-1915 (Xeroxed from handwritten notebook loaned by his granddaughter, Mrs. Hans Starr (Mary Sawday) and owned by Mrs. George Sawday. (Bound.) San Diego Public Library, San Diego 1965.
Mr. Crouch was a sheep raiser and lived in the County near Oceanside. He kept records of rainfall and kept a diary which he later enlarged. First hand reports of floods in North County.
F. ORAL INTERVIEWS
Burns, Mrs. Theodore, personal interview, San Diego 18 May, 1968 with the author. A native daughter of a native daughter.
Lockhead, unknown, telephone interview, San Diego, 28 May 1968, with the author. Mr. Lockhead is in the Engineering Dept. of the City of San Diego and supplied up to date information on the Mission Valley Flood Control project.
Minor, Mrs. James, personal interview, San Diego. 15 May 1968 with the author. A resident for 46 years.
Papageorge, Andrew J., personal interview, San Diego, 30 March 1968, with the author. Spent part of his childhood in San Diego.
Sams, Mrs. Robert, personal interview, San Diego. 15 May 1968, with the author, a resident for 38 years.
Nan Taylor Papageorge, a native of Virginia, has lived in San Diego for twelve years. She received her A.B. at San Diego State College and her Masters at United States International University. She is presently teaching Adult Basic Education in the San Diego Adult Schools. (Ed. note: Mrs. Papageorge’s article covers the development of Mission Valley through. 1968.)