The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1986, Volume 32, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

About the book
Part 1 ~ Native People
Part 2 ~ Spanish Rule
Part 3 ~ Mexican Interlude
Part 4 ~ Yankees Move In
Part 5 ~ Boom and Bust
Part 6 ~ A New Century
Part 7 ~ Modern Times


In 1905 occurred one of San Diego’s great disasters, the explosion of the boilers of a gunboat, the U.S.S. Bennington. Sixty men were killed; they were buried in the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, which is still called informally the Bennington Cemetery.

The United States Naval Coaling Station was established on the bay side of Point Loma in 1907. The significance of the new facility was not appreciated then, but the fuel depot was the beginning of the permanent Naval stations here which have been a major support to the economy ever since.

A citrus fruit and truck gardening boom commenced in all earnest during the early years of the twentieth century. Towns like Chula Vista expanded as places where an orchard went with every home. The livestock industry continued to bulk large in the agricultural back country.

World’s Fair – and a Flood

The strong will to advertise the city flowered in 1909 into plans to hold an exposition here in 1915, to help celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. The town’s forty thousand inhabitants pushed forward the Panama-California Exposition, against every obstacle, despite the competition of another exposition at San Francisco. It was housed in the most beautiful buildings San Diego had ever seen, ornamented by plaster workers brought over from Italy. The old city park which held the new buildings was extensively landscaped and named for Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first white man who crossed the Isthmus of Panama and saw the Pacific.

San Diego got the publicity the fair’s backers hoped for. Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford came in 1915. The world’s largest municipal structure, Balboa Stadium, got a great deal of mention. The first battleships to enter the harbor put in. Navy men marched in parades and assisted in many ways with the exposition. The result of the fair was that the city became known for its climate and location as an ideal residential community.

In 1916 San Diego’s publicity was adverse. The city hired Charles Hatfield, a rainmaker from Glendale, who guaranteed to end a long drought and fill Morena reservoir for $10,000. He set up towers near the lake, and on them he installed mysterious equipment which produced periodic explosions of vapor. In a few days it began to rain. Before it finally stopped, the floods that descended from the heavens washed out Lower Otay Dam, killing a score of people in the valley below and carrying houses to sea on tossing waves. Hundreds were left homeless, in communities isolated by the destruction of most of the county’s bridges. San Diego was an island cut off from the world, without road, rail, telephone, and telegraph. Steamers calling at San Diego took away news of the disaster and came back bringing food and emergency supplies. The work of cleaning up and repairing widespread damage and destruction required years. Claiming that the flood was “an act of God,” the city refused to pay Hatfield his $10,000.

Camp Kearny, the Navy, and a Zoo

Like the Spanish-American War, World War I brought military construction contracts. Camp Kearny was established on the mesa north of Mission Valley. At Camp Kearny most of the men who went from this area to serve in France were trained. Six million dollars were spent on Fort Rosecrans and North Island, making the port safer from attack. San Diego’s desirability as a center for Naval activities was being better appreciated on all levels. In 1919 the Marine Base was dedicated. In 1921 the Naval Training Station came into being on land given to the Government by the city and Chamber of Commerce. The Eleventh Naval District was created in 1922, with San Diego as its headquarters.

Another development was taking shape. A menagerie of animals left by the 1915 exposition was the core of the new San Diego Zoo, which Dr. Harry Wegeforth was coaxing into existence. No one imagined then that city cooperation in the form of a tax to support the Zoo, as well as private contributions and patronage, would build it into the largest in the world.

The Aircraft Industry

Few paid much attention on May 10, 1927, when a young airmail pilot took off from St. Louis in a monoplane which the Ryan Aeronautical Company of San Diego had built for him. Eleven days later, although he was now six thousand miles away, San Diego – and the whole world made a great fuss over him. Charles A. Lindbergh had landed in Paris after the first solo transatlantic flight in history, and San Diego was on the aviation map in a big way.

October 25, 1935, was an even greater day in local air history. On that day Consolidated Aircraft Corporation – now Convair – moved here from Buffalo, N.Y., and dedicated its new plant. It soon became the city’s largest civilian employer. Its growth, together with that of Ryan, Solar, and Rohr Aircraft, has been a vital intluence in the city’s life.

A Second Fair

What occupied the interest of every San Diegan in 1935, however, was the California Pacific International Exposition. Twenty years after San Diego’s first World’s Fair the second one opened to a crowd of 60,000; the date was May 28. Theodore Roosevelt had visited the 1915 fair, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the second, to address a capacity crowd in Balboa Park stadium. The fair was a tremendous success and served to advertise San Diego’s charms to another generation.

The depression slowed the city’s growth, which had been based largely upon people who were in a position to move into an area of their own choosing. The decade following 1929 was one whose economic conditions permitted far less of such growth. Census figures for 1930 and 1940 reflected the first ten-year period in the twentieth century in which the population had not doubled.