Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Yesterday’s San Diego. By Neil Morgan and Tom Blair. Miami, Florida: Seemann Publishing, Inc., 1976. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 160 pages. $9.95.
Reviewed by Gary F. Kurutz, Library Director of the California Historical Society.
Beginning in 1874 with the photographically illustrated Chamber of Commerce guide book, the City of San Diego has inspired numerous pictorial essays promoting her charm or documenting her storied past. Union Title Insurance and Trust Company produced The San Diego Story in 1953, and in 1974, the California Historical Society published Portrait of a Boom Town. The latest pictorial contribution is Yesterday’s San Diego by Neil Morgan, the well-known San Diego Tribune columnist and his colleague at the newspaper, Tom Blair.
Composed of nearly 300 illustrations selected mainly from the rich pictorial archive of the San Diego Title Insurance and Trust Company, this volume visually describes the history of the Southland metropolis from its days as a Spanish settlement to the post-war boom of the 1940’s. Rich in anecdotal material, the authors in the introductory narrative have presented the reader with a splendid psychological analysis of San Diego. Morgan and Blair eloquently reflect on the town’s efforts to surpass Los Angeles and San Francisco as the great Pacific port, its failure to achieve that cherished goal, and its happy realization that mushrooming growth would most certainly destroy its enchanting environment.
A major portion of this pictorial covers San Diego’s struggle to overtake her northern rivals. Illustrations of lot auctions, promoters, new houses, fancy hotels, elegant theaters, grand expositions, tent cities, romantic adobes, various modes of transportation, and balmy beaches depict the typical inducements city fathers utilized to capture the dollar of the Eastern health seeker. Portraits and biographical sketches of Alonzo Horton, John D. Spreckles, and E. W. Scripps, remind the reader of the powerful personalities that attempted to inject San Diego with economic success. Of course, the authors covered the tremendous impact of the navy and armed services. Particularly delightful, however, are the magnificent photographs of those early flying machines of Curtiss and Ryan that led to the development of a major San Diego industry.
Morgan and Blair tantalize the reader by interjecting vignettes of a less serious nature. The story of the alluring and exotic theosophical center of Katherine Tingley, the heart-warming account of San Diego’s faithful but alcoholic dog Bum, the debacle of C. H. Towler’s 250 foot long air machine, and the campaign to clean up the Stingaree red light district illustrate a few of the episodes that served to enrich the city’s character.
Like the other volumes in Seemann’s Historic City Series, Yesterday’s San Diego appears to have been hastily put together as a last minute Bicentennial project. The singularly poor quality of the photographs detracts considerably from the effectiveness of this pictorial history. As well, several minor errors in dating and location crop up and one photograph (Fr. Ubach’s funeral, p. 74) is printed in reverse. Moreover, Morgan and Blair did not comb the other pictorial resources of the state such as the San Diego History Center and Huntington Library in search of fresh materials. Rather, Yesterday’s San Diego strikes this reviewer as a compilation of “tired” and frequently published views. A word on the pioneer photographers of San Diego might have further embellished this photographic essay.
Overall, Morgan and Blair are to be commended for massing into a single volume the most extensive graphic collection on San Diego. It will certainly provide the general reader and specialist with a key to the visual lore of San Diego’s remarkable history.