Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
San Diego: California’s Cornerstone. By Iris H.W. Engstrand. Tulsa: Continental Heritage Press, 1980. Illustrations. Index. Chronology of Events. 224 pages. $24.95.
Reviewed by Susan B. Erzinger, Summa Cum Laude graduate in History from the University of San Diego and current graduate student in California history at the same institution.
How many San Diegans, native or otherwise, can profess knowledge of the ghosts that inhabit the Whaley House in Old Town? Or have you heard the story of Charles Hatfield who in early 1916 unloosed the dry skies above the city from his rainmaker towers? By the end of January the man first looked upon as a last hope for the city’s relief from the drought was being blamed for extensive flood damage.
Highlights such as the above are woven throughout the history of San Diego. That history is as diverse as it is rich—from Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s discovery in 1542 to its present position today as the nation’s eighth largest city. But as Dr. Iris H.W. Engstrand asserts, San Diego is much more than a city. A region separated from the rest of California by its geographic features, it nevertheless is the cornerstone of that state’s development.
San Diego: California’s Cornerstone takes the reader on a trip through time. He will be familiarized with the cultural development and economic progress of the city. He will learn of the Indians who lived off the chaparral and oak-covered land and of the first European ships they greeted in 1542. Father Junípero Serra, Pío Pico, Cave Couts, the Bandinis and Estudillos will be introduced as more than names from the past. Along with many others, such as Alonzo Horton, John D. Spreckels, and George Marston, these have laid the foundation upon which the present rests.
Colorful personalities abound throughout the pages of Dr. Engstrand’s book. Jesse Shepard and the Villa Montezuma, Katherine Tingley and the Theosophical Society, and all sports from sailing to football, San Diego has never lacked characters and activities to give life a new and different twist.
The appeal of Dr. Engstrand’s book stems from its simple and straightforward approach. Not meant to be a definitive history, it is written for the person casually interested in the city’s past. San Diego’s fascinating growth can be seen in the chronological arrangement of the book. In the broader span of history, the city is very young; in fact Alonzo Horton purchased downtown San Diego for 271/2€ an acre only some one hundred years ago. Yet the charm of its Spanish heritage has not been erased with the rise in real estate prices. Streets, place names, and architecture retain the tradition of San Diego’s earliest settlers.
The region’s past is not only another record unto itself. A tremendous business boom hit in the 1880s drawing people from across the country. In 1912 the I.W.W. rioted in the city and in 1926 Charles Lindbergh contracted with Ryan Airlines for the plane that would carry him across the Atlantic and into the headlines. Proud of its isolation yet not isolated—such is the paradox that is San Diego.
In writing a narrative that is concise and comprehensible, Dr. Engstrand portrays out city’s past in both the spectacular and the normal. A beautiful collection of photos likewise tell the story; from Luiseño Indian women (1893) p. 14, to a picture of a 1910 Labor Day Parade in which women are demanding “Equal Pay for Equal Work Regardless of Sex,” p. 79, to color plates of “the Chicken,” our beloved Chargers, the Hotel del Coronado, and the Presidio and Mission as they stand today.
This is a book which should grace the libraries of all San Diego homes. A general knowledge of local history ties together past and present and guides us toward the future. Such a knowledge brings with it a sense of belonging. And as the Whaley ghosts might agree, San Diego is a nice place to belong. After all, they’re still here!