The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1991, Volume 37, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

By Richard W. Crawford, Susan A. Painter, and Sarah B. West

Images from this article

Twenty-five years ago, the noted historian of the Southwest and Latin America, Abraham P. Nasatir, described the opportunities for research in San Diego history as “wide open” and “almost limitless.”1 Today, with local history sources available for research in over fifty San Diego county archives, more than ever, historians would have to agree with Nasatir’s assessment.2 This essay will briefly survey the collections, and the research opportunities, in the region’s largest repository of local history materials — the Research Archives of the San Diego History Center.

The opening of the Research Archives in Balboa Park in 1983 united several important archival resources that had been largely unavailable to researchers before that time. Since the founding of the San Diego History Center in 1928, the library collections had been stored in the increasingly cramped spaces of the Serra Museum in Presidio Park. The map collection and several large manuscript collections were stored away and unavailable for use. The public records collection was warehoused in a corner of Balboa Park. In the November 1983, all of these resources were incorporated into the new facility in Casa de Balboa, where they joined the Historical Society Photograph and Curatorial departments.

Today, the library collections of the Archives — books, serials, ephemera and other printed materials — are the most complete source of published information available for the study of San Diego history. Even larger in size and scope are the non- print materials — manuscripts and public records. Manuscript collections exceed 3,600 linear feet of material, documenting all facets of San Diego history. The rapidly growing public records collection of the Archives totals nearly four thousand linear feet — over twice the size of the collection when it was first described in the Guide to the San Diego Historical Society Public Records Collection four years ago.3 The collections of the Photograph Department, dating from 1870 to the present, now total approximately two million images of San Diego. In the past year over 3,500 researchers used the collections of the Research Archives to study family history, document local historical sites, prepare media projects, research school projects, or simply to browse the varied source material.

Printed Materials

Printed library materials typically receive the most attention from researchers. The library’s “Vertical Files” are a popular first step for study. Composed of 1,300 folders of newspaper clippings, the files are arranged alphabetically for over seven hundred topics. The Biographical Filescontain 260 notebooks of newspaper clippings arranged alphabetically by name. Both collections are continually updated by the library staff.4

Extensive runs of newspaper titles are also available in the Archives on microfilm and in bound copies. The San Diego Herald (1851-1859), San Diego Union (1868-1916), and San Diego Sun (1881-1939), are all available on microfilm.5 Bound volumes of the San Diego business newspaper the Daily Transcript is available for 1937 through 1977. The Sentinel Newspaper Collection contains 540 bound volumes of local titles including Sentinel newspapers from Kearney Mesa, Ocean Beach, La Jolla, Clairemont, and Pacific Beach. The newspaper dates range from 1922 to 1985.

A highly interesting group of newspapers preserved in the Archives is a series of “underground press” newspapers from the late 1960s. The newspapers encompassed new left issues and the birth of the Chicano and woman’s movement. The San Diego Door, (in former versions: Good Morning Teaspoon, Teaspoon Door, and Free Door), and the San Diego Street Journal (formerly San Diego Press), dominated the underground genre. Both contained anti-war and anti-establishment articles on business interests in San Diego. Underground papers that dealt with specific issues included: the OB People’s Rag (food cooperatives and housing), State College Railroad (academic freedom and anti-war), Carpetbagger Express (the Miami Republican Convention in 1972), San Diego Wildcat (labor issues), Inside the Beast (third world oriented articles), and Sunrise and Goodbye to All That (feminist concerns).6

Another unique and often overlooked source of historical inquiry is collections of ephemera. These ubiquitous non-book materials survive in a endless variety of forms: theater programs, restaurant menus, postcards, information leaflets, telegrams, advertising literature, recipes, pamphlets — all “transient minor documents of everyday life” that are usually printed for a specific short term use, and then discarded.7 Properly preserved and cataloged, these stray items of social history can be quite valuable for study.

At the Research Archives, computers have been used to index and catalog thousands of pieces of ephemera that would otherwise be inaccessible to researchers. The Information File (or “info file”) contains over ninety linear feet of ephemera. Currently, nearly five thousand items in this collection are indexed on the computer and retrievable by author, title, date, or subject.

Among the more actively used collections of the Research Archives is the map collection relating to San Diego County, the Southwest, and Baja California. Over two thousand cataloged sheet maps are available illustrating the Hispanic and American periods.8

The category of maps most in demand is of the San Diego city area (1849 to present, more than 150 items). Other subject area strengths include subdivisions (approximately 400 maps) and topographic quadrangles (450). Auxiliary collections include a county-wide file of more than 20,000 “parcel” (assessor’s) maps for 1957-58;9 a twenty volume aerial photomap collection of western San Diego County containing several hundred high elevation exposures shot in 1928;10 and a set of Sanborn fire insurance atlases updated to 1955.11

Fire insurance maps, most often created by the Sanborn Map Company, provide an interesting source of San Diego urban history. These large scale plans show detailed outlines of buildings and streets within urban centers. Textual details on the plans indicate construction components such as building materials and structural dimensions. The titles of businesses or the names of owners are shown. The Sanborn Collection of the Research Archives contains a four volume set for the City of San Diego (1955) and volumes for La Jolla, National City, Chula Vista, La Mesa, and Coronado (1959-60). A rare Dakin insurance map book shows San Diego in 1885, indicating every building and street in the pre-boom city of six thousand people.12

Architectural drawings are another important resource of local history at the Research Archives. Nearly three hundred cataloged sets of drawings represent the work of many of San Diego’s best known architects: Irving Gill, Richard S. Requa, William Templeton Johnson, Hazel Waterman, William Sterling Hebbard, Lilian Rice, Sim Bruce Richards, Samuel Hamill, and many others. Subject strengths of this collection include Balboa Park, public buildings of San Diego, and private residences designed by notable local architects.


The seventy-two cataloged scrapbooks in the collections of the Archives are a rich resource of historical comment, produced by contemporaries of the times who were vitally interested in particular events or specific aspects of local history. The scrapbooks they produced are an accurate reflection of the times, events, and attitudes.

Several scrapbook collections document Balboa Park and it’s famed expositions. Two volumes produced by Mary B. Coulston, a member of the first Park Committee which planned the future of Balboa Park between 1902 and 1905, document the early years of Park development. They contain articles covering preliminary plans, ordinances, landscaping and road development. The George Dickson/California-Pacific International Exposition scrapbooks contain daily newspaper coverage of the Exposition as well as programs, brochures, postcards, tickets, and other ephemera.13

The “selling” of San Diego has been an integral part of the city’s life, and the Chamber of Commerce Scrapbook produced by the New Industries Committee of the Chamber in 1910-1911 reflects this city’s boosterism. It documents the campaign to draw new business to San Diego with statistics on production, advertisements, and descriptions of such varied industries and companies as the San Diego & Arizona Railroad, the City Market, a hair pin company, and the local production of silk and cotton.14 Real estate development, a vital concern of San Diegans through the years, is chronicled in a scrapbook of developer and booster, Oscar W. Cotton. His two-volume scrapbook contains newspaper clippings and advertisements covering local housing developments, sales, and construction of homes in various areas by his Pacific Building Company from 1909 to 1928. This fully indexed collection is an outstanding source for architectural and neighborhood information.15

Oral History:

The oral history program of the San Diego History Center provides another vital source of local history. Eyewitness accounts of people, events, conditions or lifestyles, furnish fascinating and valuable primary sources for the researcher. The oral history collection of the Research Archives contains over 550 taped and transcribed interviews.

The program was initiated in 1956 by a former county supervisor, Edgar Hastings. Supported by county funding, Hastings interviewed 309 pioneer residents of San Diego County in the next four years. The program lapsed after Hastings’ death in 1961. In the late 1960s the program was revived by Historical Society librarian Sylvia Arden. Under Arden’s direction, oral history became a highly successful volunteer program.

It is possible for the researcher to read, in a narrator’s own words, a description of the 1916 Hatfield flood in an interview with Dean Blake. An interview with Bert Shankland describes what it was like to “eat smoke” as a San Diego fireman in the 1920s. The Montague Brabazon interview details, step by step, the early methods of processing and shipping dried and fresh fruit in the beginning of an industry which became important to the San Diego economy.

Little known aspects of 19th century life in San Diego are revealed in many of the interviews. The Alice Baldwin interview gives minute details of the mining industry in the back country. The social and economic conditions of Native Americans are described in interviews with Purl Willis and Tom Lucas, and rough frontier justice is depicted in an interview with Max J. Bowen.

City politics is the subject of interviews with former San Diego mayors John Butler, Frank Curran, and Roger Hedgecock, councilman William Cleator, and supervisor De Graff Austin. Work in the San Diego tuna industry of the 1930s is described by Edward Soltesz. Vincent Battaglia gives a detailed account of the tuna fleet commandeered for military service in World War II and cited by the President for its participation in such actions as the Battle of Guadalcanal.

A major addition to the Oral History Collection came in 1988 with a donation from the San Diego Museum of Art of fifty-four interviews (transcripts and tapes) of San Diego artists and architects. With additional interviews of artists conducted since 1986, this collection now totals ninety transcripts. The interviews document the art world of San Diego from its beginning in the 1880s, through the WPA art and architectural projects of the depression years, the war research done by artists on Point Loma in World War II, to the present day contributions to the international art world. These interviews, cited in the Smithsonian Institution’s American Archives of Art, have gained international recognition.16

Written Documents:

Besides interview transcripts, first-hand accounts of San Diego abound in scores of manuscript collections. The Ephraim W. Morse Collection of correspondence, letter-press books, and business records is a valuable chronicle of the first four decades of the City of San Diego.17 Morse maintained an active correspondence with a wide circle of friends and business partners. His letter-press books provide important documentation for San Diego’s early, abortive attempts to secure a railroad.18

Waiting for the railroad is also a theme in the diary of Jesse Aland Shepherd, a secretary to Alonzo Horton. Shepherd’s highly literary descriptions of San Diego life make his diary an entertaining look at the “Dull times” of the town in the 1870s. In a typical entry Shepherd muses over San Diego’s failing efforts to gain a railroad link: “There is a mist over our hopes which all the stirring fails to dispel. San Diego is bound with cords to a railroad corpse…”19

In less lofty prose the diaries of Ah Quin provide a rare glimpse into San Diego’s small Chinese community in the late 1800s. A prosperous and influential merchant, Ah Quin was popularly known as the “Mayor of Chinatown.” Nine diaries survive in this collection dating from 1879 through 1902. Of particular value are diary entries that document Ah Quin’s role as a labor contractor for the California Southern Railroad in 1884.20

Another set of diaries preserved in the Research Archives, the notebooks of Edward H. Davis, are invaluable to understanding San Diego’s Native-American population and “backcountry.” For over five decades Ed Davis of Mesa Grande observed and documented the culture of the Indians of the Southwest. A talented amateur photographer, Davis is known mostly for the thousands of photographs he took of the Indians of the Southwest and Baja California. Accompanying the images are fifty-two notebooks written between 1884 and 1942. These notebooks describe the social and economic culture of Southern California Indians in detail that is virtually unknown for this period.21

Several manuscript collections in the Archives pertain to San Diego “health.” Particularly noteworthy are the papers of Dr. Peter C. Remondino, a prolific writer and civic booster as well as physician. Remondino, author of The Mediterranean Shores of America, was an apostle of “medical climatology,” the concept that climate (specifically, that of San Diego!) would cure many common ills, including a scourge of the times — tuberculosis. Remondino’s notes and manuscripts are an important source for the “health seekers” phenomenon in Southern California of the late nineteenth century.22

Health is also the subject of a collection from the Rest Haven Preventorium for Children. Founded in 1913 by the San Diego Tuberculosis Association, Rest Haven was an open-air sanitarium built in East San Diego. Servicemen were treated at the camp in World War I. Later, emphasis in medical treatment shifted from adult patients to children. This collection provides insight into early social and welfare programs in San Diego.23

Two important manuscript collections in the Research Archives concern founders of the Historical Society, George W. Marston and Leroy A. Wright. The George White Marston Papers contain personal and business records from the San Diego merchant and civic leader. The collection documents Marston’s role in city planning, park development, and business. A particular strength of the collection is correspondence between Marston and John Nolan regarding the development of San Diego’s city plan.24 The business papers of state senator Leroy A. Wright, a founding member of the Historical Society and president for fourteen years, compose the Archives’ largest manuscript collection. The case files from Wright’s civil law practice, which included clients such as the Escondido Mutual Water Company, Benson Lumber Company, Aetna Insurance, and Western Metal Supply extend from 1913 to the early 1940s.25

Several other local leaders of business and government are represented in the collections of the Research Archives. One example is the papers of De Graff Austin. In a long career of public service, Austin served as a city councilman, a collector of customs, and as a county supervisor. This collection documents Austin’s varied political activities and sheds light on many contemporary issues of the 1950s and 60s such as urban planning, welfare, and boosterism. The papers also contain information about local service and social organizations in which Austin was involved such as Rotary and the San Diego Rowing Club.26

The papers of Don M. Stewart, councilman, city treasurer, and postmaster, provide important information on San Diego’s attempts to secure adequate water supplies in the 1920s. Correspondence in the Stewart papers includes information on the politically divisive El Capitan Dam project.27

Of great value to the study of water in San Diego are the papers of Colonel Ed Fletcher. In fourteen feet of correspondence, agreements, legal documents, and photographs, the collection documents the story of water and real estate development in San Diego County. The papers are an important source for information on the “Paramount Rights” legal case of 1926 which defined the right of the City of San Diego to ownership of the headwaters of the San Diego River.28

While the Fletcher Collection records the business activities of an entrepreneur, the Lester E. Earnest Collection encompasses the work of a public official. Earnest worked for the City of San Diego from 1939 to 1959, as a financial officer and eventually as the head of the Parks and Recreation Department. The Earnest Collection contains reports and publications on: demographic and financial information on capital improvements for the City of San Diego, local activities of the federal government, water issues, community planning, and flood control problems in the San Diego and Tijuana River valleys.29

Harry C. Haelsig, another member of the Planning Department of the City of San Diego has also deposited papers at the Research Archives. Haelsig started with the city as a engineer- draftsman in 1928 and retired as Director of the Department of Planning in 1964. The collection is an important source of records and publications concerning city planning. Of particular interest is information on the controversial development of Mission Valley in the early 1960s which led to a severe decline in downtown business activity.30

Records of local business are critical to understanding the role of private enterprise in the history of local communities. The Research Archives preserves business archival material from some of San Diego’s oldest firms. The records of the Klauber Wangenheim Company document San Diego’s oldest mercantile firm, founded by Abraham Klauber and Samuel Steiner in 1869. Another collection provides the history of the pioneer firm,Western Metal Supply Company, founded in boomtown San Diego in 1888 by George M. and Bernard W. McKenzie and run as a family business until its dissolution in 1971. Both collections consist primarily of financial records: business ledgers, day books, journals, and invoices.31

John D. Spreckels. Monthly inventories itemize auto expenses ($18.22 for fuel, $7.50 for oil), hotel charges from the Hotel del Coronado ($13.08 to the wine room, $2.12 for ice) and a variety of miscellaneous expenses ($25 to the dentist, $9.11 for electricity).32

Business materials sometimes provide outstanding illustrative items. Fruit can labels found in the Klauber Wangenheim Collection illustrate early commercial art as well as documenting San Diego agriculture of the early twentieth century. Printing samples from the pioneer printing firm ofFrandzen, Bumgardner & Company show a wide variety of advertising art in the 1880s through the early 1900s.33 The Frye & Smith Company Collection contains more than three linear feet of advertising cards, pamphlets, brochures, and broadsides, all outstanding examples of San Diego printing and graphic arts in the twentieth century.34

Manuscripts, publications, and records from local social and cultural organizations are a valued asset of the Research Archives. Besides offering primary source information on the organizations themselves, these collections may also yield important social history and commentary. One of the more interesting examples is the papers of the San Diego chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Founded in 1922 by Helen Beardsley, daughter of George Marston, the organization promotes international peace, non-violence, civil rights, and opposition to nuclear energy and weapons. Material in the collection includes correspondence, minutes, newspapers, photographs, flyers, and scrapbooks.35

The organizational records of the San Diego Rowing Club document a once prominent athletic and social club for local men. Founded as the Excelsior Rowing and Swimming Club in 1888, the organization sponsored a variety of programs. Materials in the collection include minutes, reports of officers, correspondence, financial records, and scrapbooks.36

Many collections in the Archives are most notable for the research opportunities they present. One neglected area of local study is the history of the Chicanos in San Diego. A source that addresses this need is the Mario T. Garcia Collection which documents the student Chicano movement in California in the 1960s and early 70s. The papers are particularly noteworthy for a variety of university campus newspapers from that era.37

An opportunity for the study of local religious history can be found in the records of the First Lutheran Church of San Diego. This local congregation has been notable for its involvement in the inner-city and social outreach programs. The collection includes minutes, annual reports, church registers, financial records, and correspondence.38

The history of Balboa Park has always been of special interest to San Diego researchers. The notes of local author Richard Amero are a useful compilation of material on the Park. The Amero Collection exceeds one hundred volumes of source material: newspaper clippings, environmental impact reports, article reprints, and research notes. Other subject strengths of the collection include Mission Bay, Horton Plaza, U. S. Naval Hospital, San Diego High School, water development, and transportation history.39

The preservation of Balboa Park is the subject of the Bea Evenson / Committee of 100 Collection. In 1967, when decaying Park buildings were threatened with destruction, civic leader Bea Evenson founded the “Committee of 100 for the Preservation of Spanish Colonial Architecture in Balboa Park.” The Committee of 100, which actually numbered nearly two thousand at one time, was instrumental in restoring the Park’s old Food and Beverage Building (renamed Casa del Prado), and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.40

In this essay we have given only a few short examples of the materials available in the Research Archives. A public card catalog provides information on many more collections available for study. Inventories provide detailed scope and content notes to most of the materials. Computer generated name and subject indexes are also available for some collections.

These finding aids are only a starting point. The real challenge lies with the researcher, to whom falls the responsibility of gathering the information and using it to uncover and interpret forgotten aspects of the region’s past. Hidden among these collections is a wealth of knowledge — much of it never utilized before. The Archives contain the material for scores of original historical essays, theses, or dissertations. Research possibilities exist not only for the history student, but for those working in the fields of sociology, business, archaeology, history of science, architecture, law, urban planning, and even fiction. The collections of the Research Archives represent a vital resource for the study of our San Diego heritage.




1. Abraham P. Nasatir, “Opportunities for Research in San Diego History” Paper presented at the Second Annual Convention of San Diego History Center, Hotel del Coronado, 15 January 1966, published in Journal of San Diego History 12 (July 1966):36-50.

2. Diane Nixon, ed., Directory of Archival and Manuscript Repositories in California, (Society of California Archivists, 1991).

3. Richard W. Crawford, Guide to the San Diego History Center Public Records Collection (San Diego History Center, 1987).

4. For decades these files were updated by pasting clippings on paper. Today, the archives staff is in the process of replacing the decaying, acidic newspaper clippings with xeroxed clippings on acid-free paper.

5. The San Diego Herald and San Diego Union are subject indexed on microfiche.

6. Underground Newspapers Collection, 1968-1972, Newsbox 10.

7. Chris E. Makepeace, Ephemera: A Book on Its Collection, Conservation and Use (Aldershot, England: Gower Publishing, 1984), 7.

8. Unprocessed and inaccessible only ten years ago, the map collection has been arranged and cataloged by volunteer map curator Howard O. Welty.

9. San Diego County Parcel Map Collection, 1957-58, 20,000 sheets.

10. Aerial Photographs, 1928, R2.124.

11. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Collection, 1955.

12. Fire Insurance Maps, Daken Publishing Company, 1886, M 887.3.3.

13. Mary B. Coulston, Scrapbooks, SB 41; George Dickson/California. Pacific International Exposition, Scrapbooks, 1935, SB 2.

14. San Diego Chamber of Commerce, Scrapbook, 1910-11, SB 70.

15. Oscar W. Cotton, Scrapbook, 1909-1928, SB72.

16. Betty Quayle, a Historical Society volunteer, has guided the Art History oral interview program since its inception” conducting interviews and supervising the transcriptions. For more information on local artists see the recently published 100 Years of Art in San Diego: Selections from the Collection of the San Diego History Center (San Diego Historical Society, 1991).

17. Ephraim W. Morse Collection, Papers and records, 1857-1889, MS 341.

18. 17 January 1871, Morse Letter-press Books” Ephraim W. Morse Collection. Quoted in Rickey D. Best,”San Diego and the Gilded Age: The Efforts to Bring the Texas and Pacific Railroad to San Diego” Journal of San Diego History 34 (Fall 1988): 256.

19. 17 September 1872, 16 November 1872, Jesse Aland Shepherd” Diary, MS 380.

20. Ah Quin Collection, Papers” 1876-1902. See also Andrew R. Griego, “Mayor of Chinatown: The Life of Ah Quin, Chinese Merchant and Railroad Builder of San Diego,” (M.A- thesis, San Diego State University, 1979).

21. Edward H. Davis Collection, Papers and photographs, 1884-1942. The fragile Davis notebooks are available to researchers on microfilm.

22. Peter C. Remondino Collection, Papers, 1890-1924, MS 398.

23. Rest Haven Preventorium for Children, Records, 1909-1971, MS 400. See also Patricia Schaelchin, “Working for the Good of the Community: Rest Haven Preventorium for Children” Journal of San Diego History 29 (Spring 1983): 96-114.

24. George White Marston Collection, Papers and records, 1870-1946, MS 219.

25. The Leroy A. Wright Papers are only partially processed.

26. DeGraf Austin Collection, Papers, 1916-1978.

27. Don Stewart Collection, Papers, 1871-1970, MS 218.

28. Ed Fletcher Collection, Papers, 1881-1955, MS 317. A large body of Fletcher materials are also available at the University of California, San Diego, in the Mandeville Department of Special Collections.

29. Lester E. Earnest Collection, Papers and publications.

30. Harry C. Haelsig Collection, Papers and publications.

31. Klauber Wangenheim Company, Records, 1872-1976, MS 231; Western Metal Supply, Records.

32. Personal accounts of John D. Spreckels, May 1912, San Diego and Arizona Railway Company, Records, MS 422.

33. Frandzen, Burngardner and Company Collection, scrapbook, SB 14.

34. Frye and Smith Collection, Records, MS 362.

35. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Papers, 1922-1985, MS 434.

36. San Diego Rowing Club, Records, 1890-1981, MS 402.

37. Mario T. Garcia Collection, Papers, 1969-1974.

38. First Lutheran Church of San Diego, Records, 1881-1981, MS 397.

39. Richard W. Amero Collection, Papers and publications.

40. Bea Evenson/Committee of 100, Papers and records, 1957-1981, MS 396.


Visit the San Diego Historical Society Research Archives

Richard W. Crawford is the Archivist for the San Diego Historical Society and the Editor of the Journal of San Diego History. He is the author of A Guide to the San Diego History Center Public Records Collection (1987). Mr. Crawford is currently an officer for the Society of California Archivists.

Susan A. Painter is an Archives Assistant for the San Diego Historical Society. She holds a law degree from Western State University and master’s degrees in geography and public history from San Diego State University.

Sarah B. West has been the Assistant Archivist and Librarian for the Research Archives since 1989. She was Technical Librarian for the University of Calabria in Corenza, Italy in 1985 and 1986, and Museum Interpreter at Historic Hudson Valley in Tarrytown, New York, from 1974 to 1981.