By John Cash
IN 1867, only two years after the end of the Civil War, the visionary Alonzo Horton purchased 960 acres of land in what is now downtown San Diego and proceeded to build a “new” city. By 1881, his “New San Diego” had increased in population to over twenty-five-hundred inhabitants. No doubt there was also an increase in the number of school-age children, because on May 15 an election was held and a bond issue passed to provide funds to construct a new school house. Mr. Joseph Russ, the president of the lumber firm of J. Russ & Co., donated the necessary lumber, amounting to $5,000, to help construct the new building. In appreciation of this generous donation, the City Council voted to name the new school building Russ School in his honor. Construction was started and completed in 1882, and the new school opened in August of that year. At the time probably no thought was given to the fact that this would be an educational institution that would endure and remain in the same location for a century to come.
As San Diego moved into the 1880s, many changes took place. In the middle of the decade a land boom began and the population increased dramatically—as did the requirement for higher educational courses at Russ School. Therefore, in 1887, a course of study for a “public” high school was adopted and started in the Russ Grammar School facilities. This was the inception of San Diego’s first high school.
During these early years, Russ Grammar School and later San Diego High School were an important part of life in the city. Activities at the school, such as graduation exercises, dramatic club productions, receptions and dances, along with sporting events, were newsworthy and often covered by the local press and documented by professional photographers. Many of the photographs taken by individuals such as Herbert Fitch and other early San Diego photograhpers have provided a visual documentation of San Diego’s and the school’s historical past. Photographically speaking, in the mid-1890s, the reproduction of photographic images by the then new halftone process made photographs available almost on a daily basis to a wide audience through newspapers, magazines, and books. At the school in May 1899, the first Russ “Commencement Number” (annual) was published and for the first time this new process of reproducing photographs was used in a school publication. This first yearbook was illustrated with pictures of the graduating class, faculty, administration, and the football and baseball teams. Although the first Russ School newspaper—actually a magazine—had been issued the year before, in December 1898, no photographs were included in its contents. However, from this beginning most of the visual information, past to present, relating to the school’s history has been derived. This is the happy result of the school’s librarians and others who have collected and maintained these yearbooks over the years.
The limited number of images collected and selected for the following photographic essay are not intended to present a complete pictorial history of San Diego High School. That would be impossible, although many of the pictures shown are of historical significance. However, the main objective is to provide some insight into the school’s most interesting and fascinating background, not heretofore shown visually. The collections and selection of pictures from the many hundreds available has been a formidable undertaking, limited by the number that can presently be displayed here. The photographs used have been obtained from a number of sources—the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection, the San Diego High School Alumni Association’s picture collection, alumni donations and loans, and from yearbooks. Caption information, for the most part, has been taken from information accompanying the photo; however, in some cases comments have been added along with historical information or alumni remembrances.
Nevertheless, for those who have attended San Diego High School, from distant to recent past, these images will stimulate happy (or sad) memories of days on campus. Furthermore, they may also remind some former students of how little they know about the school’s past and therefore help them appreciate its rich historical heritage. For students today these pictures may provide an incentive to study the school’s history and research into its past. In any event, almost everyone should enjoy looking at the portraits of students and teachers, scenes of the cam-pus, and documentation of events at one of San Diego’s most outstanding educational institutions—San Diego High School.