The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1983, Volume 29, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

by Elizabeth C. MacPhail
Copley Award, San Diego History Center, 1982 Institute of History

Images from this article

San Diegans are proud of their Balboa Park — 1400 acres in the heart of the city — with its beautiful buildings and magnificent plantings, but when old timers think of a park their thoughts often go back to the little gem that was Mission Cliff Gardens, a botanical garden and animal and bird farm that was a popular attraction during the first decades of this century.

I am one of the lucky ones who grew up with the park as my playground, and it is the memory of many happy hours spent in Mission Cliff Gardens that I would like to share with you.

Mission Cliff Gardens was located on the canyon rim overlooking Mission Valley, north of Adams Avenue extending from Florida Street west to the end of Adams Avenue. The main entrance was at the end of Park Boulevard. A rock fence, which still remains, extended from the entrance two blocks west to the end of Adams Avenue. East of the entrance was a tall wooden fence enclosing the popular Ostrich Farm. The fence adjoined the rear wall of the car barns, the resting place for San Diego’s trolley cars.

The Gardens were first known as The Bluffs, the terminus of the San Diego Cable Railway, a shortlived cable street railway system that operated from 1890 until it went bankrupt in 1892.1 In 1890 a Pavilion was built on the rim of the valley. It had a large meeting hall used for dances, club gatherings and as a place where refreshments were served. A few trees and shrubs were planted, but further development waited until the Citizens’ Traction Company took over the defunct cable railway, putting in an overhead trolley in 1896. This company started service on August 8, 1896,2 and in turn was taken over by the Spreckels Brothers’ Company, San Diego Electric Railway, in 1898. Under the Traction Company the name was changed to Mission Cliff Park and by the Spreckels Company to Mission Cliff Gardens.3

The park was the place to go on Sunday afternoons, and was a popular place for church and group picnics. A merry-go-round with its happy sound was an attraction for the children at the east end of the park, where there was also a shooting gallery. Dancing parties were held at the Pavilion, gaily decorated with Japanese lanterns. The Gardens became the first outdoor location in San Diego for a Shakespeare play when “As You Like It” was performed in 1897.4 Travelling theatrical and vaudeville companies found an eager audience during the warm summer evenings.5 After considerable opposition, a liquor license was granted to the park operator by the City Council in June, 1897, and a beer garden was then opened.6

Some time in the 1890s a small wooden observatory, octagonal in shape, was built on the east bluff where there was a clear view of the Old Mission to the east and of Mission Bay to the west. In this little building was a Camera Obscura for which one paid 10c for a look. The Camera Obscura was a popular attraction before motion pictures for observing scenic points in a town. A system of telescopic lenses and revolving mirrors in the roof reflected the scene outside on a flat round table in the darkened room around which the viewers gathered. Amazingly the picture was reflected in actual color and showed moving objects. Before motion pictures and colored film it was a wonder to behold. The Camera Obscura is still to be found in Europe in scenic spots and has certain industrial uses. The Camera Obscura in Mission Cliff Gardens was removed along with the merry-go-round, children’s playground and the beer garden when the Spreckels Company took over the park.

Across the street on Adams Avenue, between Park Boulevard and North Avenue, was a Silk Factory. The building still stands at 1735 Adams Avenue. Around the turn of the century San Diegans became interested in silk culture, encouraged by the Chamber of Commerce, and housewives began raising silk worms in their backyards — confident they were getting in on a new industry. The area around the silk factory became the center of silk culture in San Diego. For years this factory was a tourist attraction for those visiting the park. Visitors watched the silk being threaded and saw the interesting colors and designs develop in the cloth as the looms clicked back and forth. Cloth could be purchased and special designs and colors ordered. Handkerchiefs, scarves and neckties were sold. Children were fascinated seeing a silkworm at work in a viewing cabinet, and left happily clutching a sample of silk. The silk industry was short-lived but the factory was in existence until the 1920s, run by a lone man who grew old with his little business and who was always glad to greet visitors.

After the San Diego Electric Railway assumed control, John D. Spreckels took a special interest in the park and visualized it as a vast botanical garden, a place where one could rest and meditate among beautiful flowers while gazing at the pastoral landscape in the valley below. Under Spreckels’ watchful eye it became more of a garden and less of an amusement park. In 1904 he employed John Davidson as landscape gardener and Superintendent of the park. It was Davidson’s imaginative vision and loving hand that developed the park into the beauty spot that haunts the memory of all those fortunate enough to remember it.

John Davidson, a gentle, quiet man who developed the park and tended it lovingly for thirty years, was born in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1855. He worked in Edinburgh as a landscape gardener on a large estate. Because of his wife’s fragile health, they emigrated to the United States in 1891 and settled in Chula Vista, a short distance south of San Diego, where Davidson was employed laying out the grounds for the San Diego Country Club. In 1892 he opened his own nursery. In 1904 Spreckels offered him the choice of caring for the grounds at Hotel del Coronado or the more challenging opportunity of developing Mission Cliff Gardens. He chose the Gardens and went to live at the Pavilion with his wife and children. Like an artist, he painstakingly planned the beautiful setting for the flowers, trees and shrubs he would set out for the enjoyment of the public.7

When Davidson took over, the only permanent planting was a few palm trees. The soil was adobe and full of rocks, but instead of being discouraged he saw a use for the rocks. He set about gathering them and then with a few helpers built the magnificent stone wall that still outlines the park from Park Boulevard to the end of Adams Avenue. At the main entrance he built a stone enclosure with benches where visitors could wait in shelter for the streetcar. There were attractive wooden gates at the three entrances, at Park Boulevard, North Avenue and at the end of Adams Avenue. He used rocks to outline the many gravelled paths throughout the park and to make low walls at the several lookouts over Mission Valley.8

At about the same time that Spreckels employed Davidson, he moved an Ostrich Farm from Coronado to Mission Cliff Gardens. The Ostrich Farm occupied a large area east of the entrance and was enclosed by a tall wooden fence with lots of knotholes large enough for children and adults to peer through to watch the ostriches without having to pay admission to the grounds.

Davidson built pergolas and arbors along the rim of the canyon with plenty of benches where one could sit and enjoy the peaceful view. He set out hundreds of new trees — palms, including the Canary Island Date, Kentia, Phoenix reclinatia, cocos plumosa and the Guadalupe fan, several varieties of pine and eucalyptus, pepper, cedar, cypress, acacia and hibiscus, all of which thrived and turned the barren land into a true park. Over the arbors and pergolas he planted colorful bougainvillea, grapevines and climbing roses. Spreckels took a personal interest in the designing of the park and frequently could be seen accompanying Davidson as he mapped out his plan for trees and flowers. Within a few years the Mission Cliff Gardens was known throughout Southern California for its beauty and its many fine horticultural exhibits, and the Pavilion became the setting for many flower shows.9

But now let me take you through the area that once was the park, and describe it to you as I remember it. We will start at the main gate and walk along the path lined with Canary Island Date palms which are among the few reminders that this was once a park. On the right was the entrance to the Ostrich Farm, and to the left were beds of beautiful flowers. Visitors usually walked straight ahead to the lookout at the end of Park Boulevard where there were benches on which one could sit and enjoy the view of the Mission Valley below. Almost directly below was a dairy from which there came sounds of cattle mooing and the rattle of milk tins being moved around. There was always some water in the river, enough for small boys to wade or fish in, but in times of flood crowds came to the Gardens to gaze down anxiously at the raging waters which sometimes flowed bank to bank. A narrow dirt road wound its way along the south side of the valley on which could be seen an occasional horse and wagon plodding its weary way carrying produce up the hill to Sixth Street. Across the valley were barren brown hills but to the west were spots of green where the hardworking Chinese and Japanese farmers had laid out their plots in checkerboard fashion. Farther to the west could be seen a strip of blue where the ocean met Mission Bay, then just a lot of mud flats.

After enjoying a bit of peace and quiet, we turned right down a rock-lined path that took us past the wooden fence that enclosed the Ostrich Farm and past benches and arbors along the rim of the valley, to the east end of the park where the animal farm was located. The deer, pheasants and guinea fowl were in wire enclosures and children were permitted to feed them. The cawing of the pheasants could be heard for blocks around. Peacocks could be seen wandering through the park and if we were lucky we might see one with its blue and gold feathers spread out in all their glory. From the farthest point, where the Camera Obscura once stood, there was another lookout and from there we could see far to the east the ruins of old Mission San Diego. It was at this point that Spreckels visualized an amphitheatre he hoped to build. The main attraction was to be a giant outdoor pipe organ. The amphitheatre was never built, and when the 1915 Exposition in Balboa Park was being planned, Spreckels and his brother Adolph donated to the city the fabulous organ pavilion with the largest outdoor organ in the world.

From here we would go back to the main entrance, past vine covered arbors and to the flower beds set out to the west of the entrance. Here Davidson planted masses of annuals, changed with the seasons. Each season he devoted a large area to one flower, selected from a wide variety of blooms, including stock, cinerarias, iris, delphiniums, freesias, begonias, dahlias, snapdragons, geraniums and many others. He became famous for his gorgeous displays of Easter lilies, and so each Easter brought hundreds of San Diegans as well as tourists and horticulturists from other parts of the country to the park to see the exhibit. One year there were 40,000 Easter lilies on display.10

To the west of the entrance, between North Avenue and Park Boulevard, was the Aviary, a large wire mesh walk-in enclosure with a curved roof, erected in 1912.11 Here could be seen a great variety of colorful birds, both common and rare, blue birds, canaries, orioles, parakeets, and to the delight of youngsters and oldsters alike, parrots. They liked especially the parrot that shouted “shut up” when anyone spoke to it. Acquisitions of birds came mostly from San Diegans who donated their pets to the aviary when they could no longer care for them. Many of the more exotic birds came from the collection of King Gillette, the Safety Razor King, who was generous with his donations because he knew that in Mission Cliff Gardens they would be well cared for.12

After leaving the Aviary we came to the Pavilion, the original attraction in the park dating from 1890.13 The Pavilion was referred to by neighbors as the “tea garden” because the two story wooden building with a shingled roof extending over a wide veranda on all four sides, looked like a Japanese tea house, especially when decorated with many colorful Japanese paper lanterns. In the center was the large room where dances were held. Living quarters for the Davidson family were located in both the east and west wings of the building with two bedrooms upstairs.14 In the large center room was a soda fountain. Here too candy, peanuts and popcorn were sold, and postcards were available. Visitors sat at tables around the veranda writing “wish you were here” messages. From the veranda looking south through the North Avenue gates one could see the elegant white building that was the State Normal School built in 1898 at El Cajon and Park Boulevard. In the valley below the Pavilion were several good swimming holes. Young boys, before climbing down the cliff, would leave their money and valuables with Mrs. Davidson for safekeeping.15

Directly in front of the Pavilion was the lily pond. The large round rock and concrete water filled enclosure was about two feet high and encircled by a low railing to keep children from climbing in and adults from picking the lilies. The lily pond was a special favorite of Davidson. He filled it with gold fish and selected only the most beautiful and exotic of water lilies, including Egypt’s sacred lotus flower and pond lily. Horticulturists were interested in the wide variety of water lilies grown by Davidson and asked for cuttings. He heard of a blue water lily that grew near Rose Canyon. He found a specimen and it thrived in his lily pond. It attracted so much attention that roots were sent to a water lily nursery in Bordentown, New Jersey. There E. D. Sturdivant, founder of the nursery, crossed it with another variety and secured a gorgeous new variety. The blooms were often thirteen inches wide and were a deep sky blue in color with a fragrance exceeding other lilies. It was given the name Blue Triumph.16 The lily pond, with the Pavilion in the background, was the most photographed spot in the gardens.

From the Pavilion we would walk down the flower lined paths along the cliff stopping at the several lookouts until we came to the miniature Japanese tea garden. This was my favorite spot in the park; here I would gaze at the tranquil scene and dream of someday visiting Japan. The Japanese garden was a raised enclosure with a low wooden fence. Within the enclosure was a scene which typified a village of old Japan with rolling hills covered with Japanese grass that looked like a soft mat. Bonsai trees and plants were set out among the hills and valleys. Mirrors gave the effect of ponds and lakes. Miniature Japanese houses dotted the landscape and tiny Japanese figures of men, women and children could be seen around the buildings, some pulling or riding in rickshaws. The scene was one of peace and tranquility and would make any visitor want to travel to Japan to see such beauty.

In front of the Japanese garden was an arbor covered with a wisteria vine that had been sent from Japan and was said to have been grown from a one hundred year old vine.17

Back of the Japanese garden along Adams Avenue, extending to the end of the park, was a large area devoted to picnic grounds and where the men of the neighborhood gathered to play cards or dominoes and throw horseshoes. The ringing sound of horseshoes hitting the stakes could be heard for blocks around. The western point of the park was where visitors enjoyed watching the colorful sunsets over the ocean in the distance.

Before leaving the gardens we should visit the Ostrich Farm. The Ostrich Farm was first in Coronado, opened in 1887 on the half block on A Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets,18 and around 1904 it was moved to the Mission Cliff Gardens. The owner then was Harvey Bentley who leased the ground as a concession and so a small entrance fee was charged for those who wanted to watch or ride the ostriches. At that time ostrich farms were at the height of their popularity as tourist attractions. By the late nineteenth century ostriches were being imported into the United States from South Africa when it was found they could be domesticated, and ostrich farms sprang up, particularly in the southwest. Bentley advertised his farm as the “Oldest in America.” It offered “the finest feathers made into plumes, stoles, boas, muffs, etc., to order. Very best repairing, remaking and redyeing of feathers.”19 Ostrich plumes had been used to decorate hats since the fourteenth century. The feathers are taken from the male bird and are naturally black or white, but the white feathers are easily dyed any color. The plumes of the female are grey so are not so desirable. Cropping the plumes is not harmful to the bird — they grow back again.

For entertainment visitors could watch the dozen or more ostriches being raced around the yard. Their running speed is faster than a horse and Bentley’s attendants were experienced in handling the birds. Ostriches are the largest of living birds but cannot fly so nature has given them speed in running. Venturesome visitors were allowed to ride the birds but not without some minor accidents. At the entrance was a little store where feathers and the large ostrich eggs were sold. Eggs were both fresh and blown. One ostrich egg is equal to twenty-four chicken eggs and the white of one egg is enough to make two angel food cakes.20 The blown eggs were decorated beautifully and made attractive souvenirs. The feathers were much in demand to decorate hats and to make boas and fans. Among good customers were Madame Katherine Tingley, of the Theosophical Society on Point Loma, and Sally Rand, the famous fan dancer who titilated audiences in the twenties and thirties and who bought some of her fans from the Ostrich Farm.21

Bentley sold his interest in the Ostrich Farm around 1915 to Henry James Pitts and Charles Mack who operated it until the gardens were closed. The ostriches at the Mission Cliff Farm included both the Australian Emu, with a pink skin, and the African with a grey skin. Both had equally beautiful plumes and could be ridden so were popular for use at ostrich farms.22

The demise of the park was inevitable. Balboa Park soon became the attraction and drew the crowds. Furthermore, the streetcar traffic to the park dwindled as more and more families acquired an automobile in which to go for a Sunday drive. But the death of John D. Spreckels on June 7, 1926, signalled its closure. Adolph Spreckels had died in 1924 and with the settlement of their estates their numerous properties and enterprises had to be sold. The Spreckels Company owned the forty-two acres comprising the Gardens and an effort was made to find a purchaser who would continue to maintain it as a park. The city was approached but at that time the Council could see no need for another park when it had 1400 acres in Balboa Park. There was a flurry of excitement when the rumor was spread that Los Angeles evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson was considering it as a site for a San Diego temple.

The cost of maintenance became too much for the San Diego Electric Railway Company. For several years an admission of 10¢ was charged, or a transfer from the streetcar. Finally in 1929 the gates were closed. Davidson, his wife and son George, continued to make their home in the Pavilion and he stayed on as caretaker. The Ostrich Farm was closed, with some of the ostriches going to the San Diego Zoo, as did the deer and pheasants. The aviary was dismantled and reinstalled on a bluff near Sixth and Ivy in Balboa Park and became the home of the remaining birds. The west corner of Mission Cliff Gardens remained open for the neighborhood men who still congregated there to play cards or throw horseshoes. Davidson continued to care for trees and plants but when the company insisted on cutting down on water expense the flowers and small plants were allowed to die. As long as Davidson was there it was still possible to slip through one of the gates and wander through the abandoned gardens. The benches were still there as was the view of the peaceful valley below. In 1935 Davidson, who had seemed in good health, failed to return one day for lunch. He had died suddenly in his beloved garden.

When Davidson was no longer there what was left in the park was allowed to die; only the sturdy palm trees survived. In 1942 the land was sold to developers who subdivided it for private housing. Today ten Canary Island Date palms outline the former Park Boulevard entrance, and ten Cocos Plumosa palms stand at what was the North Avenue entrance. The lily pond, now filled with grass and shrubs, remains and identifies the location of the Pavilion, and the rock wall that was built to stand through the years marks the site of what was once a beautiful park. For those of us fortunate to remember it, the memory of the Mission Cliff Gardens will live in our hearts forever.



1. Beverly Potter, “Mission Cliff Gardens” The Journal of San Diego istory XXIII (Fall, 1977), p. 1. Hereinafter cited as Potter.

2. San Diego Union, August 9, 1896.

3. Potter, p. 6.

4. San Diego Union, June 10, 1897.

5. Ibid., August21, 1896.

6. Ibid., June8, 1897.

7. Alice Wormington, daughter of John Davidson, interviews with author, 1974; hereinafter cited as Wormington.

8. Wormington.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. San Diego Union, October 13, 1912, p. 17.

12. Wormington.

13. San Diego Union, September 9, 1890, p. 5.

14. Wormington.

15. Elizabeth Phelps, daughter of John Davidson, interview with Edgar Hastings, April 9, 1959, San Diego History Center Research Archives.

16. Wormington.

17. Ibid.

18. Lease dated May 2, 1887 between Coronado Beach Co., and E. J. Johnson. Records of Coronado Historical Society.

19. San Diego Union. September 30, 1912, p. 3.

20. San Diego Union, December 13, 1972, p. 18.

21. Gertrude Jenkins Davis, interview with author, June 1, 1970.

22. Gloria Klocke, granddaughter of Henry James Pitts, interview with author, April 5, 1981.

THE PHOTOGRAPH on page 303 is courtesy of the author. All others are from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.