The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1991, Volume 37, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

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

Images from the Article

The role of the public librarian as a preserver of community history is often overlooked, yet even the smallest public library may have a file of neighborhood history and perhaps a treasured scrapbook. It was a wise librarian who wrote that local history for its caretakers is much like greatness: some of us are born to it; some of us achieve it by working for it; and some of us find it in the basement in dusty, unlabelled boxes.1 In San Diego the Public Library has had all three kinds of caretakers, beginning with Lydia Horton, Alonzo Horton’s wife. It was her letter to Andrew Carnegie in 1897 which started the process that gave San Diego the first Carnegie library building in California. It was completed in 1902.

The San Diego Public Library was established in 1882. By 1895, Californiana had its own classification number and twenty local authors were listed in the library catalog.2 Grace Arlington Owen, head reference librarian for twenty-five years, was especially interested in building the Californiana collection. In 1954, one year after her retirement, a new Central Library opened with a special room devoted to local history, the California Room. Zelma Locker, Elizabeth Stryker, Marion Buckner, Don Silva, and Rhoda Kruse, continued to add to the holdings and regular California Room users will remember these dedicated professionals with pleasure.

The present California Room collection includes books, periodicals, diaries, letters, memoirs, newspaper clippings, maps, sheet music, film, audio and video recordings, architectural drawings, and paintings. In 1985 with space and staff at a premium, a decision was made to narrow the collecting scope to materials about San Diego and Imperial Counties, Baja California, and counties south from and including San Luis Obispo and Kern. General county histories are still collected statewide. Selected subjects of statewide interest such as water and earthquakes continue to be emphasized and early California strengths in the holdings (the Gold Rush, missions, the westward movement to California) continue to be collected in depth. The collections now hold 12,700 volumes, about 800 periodicals, 64 drawers of clippings, about 300 maps, 2000 architectural plans, and many feet of boxed papers and government records.

San Diego references may also be found in government documents. The San Diego Public Library has been a federal government documents depository since 1895 and a state depository since 1945. There are also city and county public records in the collection. Not every government document that is published is available, but the collection is substantial. Some federal publications have information on early California, including Southern California surveys, land disputes, water debates, etc. These documents are administered and accessible through the Science and Industry Section of the Library. An interesting supplement to this collection is the California Mines Index compiled by Edith Clark, who labored as a volunteer for twenty years to complete this project after her retirement from the Library.3

While the emphasis in the California Room is now placed mostly on acquiring non-archival materials, many manuscripts and archival items in the collection provide documentation for specific events in San Diego history. Two of the oldest pieces in the collection are letters written by Father Juan María de Salvatierra in 1699 and Father Luis Jayme in 1772.

Father Salvatierra, in writing to Father Juan de Ugarte from Mission Loreto Concho in Baja California, referred to a previous letter sent to suggest how Father Ugarte “…should prepare himself when he sets out for these Missions in California…”, and went on to describe “…fertile lands for sowing crops and raising cattle, good shelters, water holes, and streams…” He also wrote contemptuously of “…some of our Spaniards…who came only to waste time and money and…made false reports about a land which they had not even explored, trembling like chickens before the Indians, and covering up their cowardice by pretending that the country is unhealthy, sterile and waterless…”4

Father Luis Jayme’s letter from the San Diego Mission in 1772 comments on the arrival of Father Junípero Serra with Captain Don Pedro Fages, the Military Commander of California, and on the shortage of food for the Indians and their ill-treatment by the soldiers.5 Father Jayme died in November 1775, when Indians burned the first mission buildings at the present San Diego mission site. This letter was published as a book in 1970.6

Among early diaries and memoirs available in the California Room are the Charles L. Kelly papers.7 In Charles Kelly’s Reminiscences he describes the San Diego he saw when he arrived with his family in November 1868 aboard the sidewheel steamer Orizaba. A fellow passenger was Alonzo Horton, returning to San Diego from San Francisco the year after he purchased the land for New San Diego. The Kelly family settled in north San Diego county around what is now Carlsbad. The Kelly papers document several generations of family history. Other early San Diego accounts can be found in the memoirs of the Crouch and the Foss families.8

The gold mines of Julian continue to be a source of curiosity for old and new San Diegans. The Helvetia Mining Letters and the Noble Mining collection provide two views of Julian mining. The Helvetia letters provide insight into the administration of a mine, and the Noble papers include the original claim and some journals.9

Newspapers are an important resource for local history and Ben Dixon’s unpublished history of the San Diego Herald documents San Diego’s earliest newspaper.10 No description of the San Diego Public Library local history archives would be complete without reference to the newspaper archives. The newspaper collection includes archival files and microfilm of the San Diego Herald which began in 1851 and the San Diego Union which purchased the Herald in 1860. The two newspapers are made accessible for research by a microfiche index which covers the years 1851-1903 and 1930-1983 [The index for 1981-1983 is on cards].11 Indexing of the newspaper articles since 1983 is available from an on-line computer system compiled and marketed, with the cooperation of the San Diego Union, by DataTimes, Inc.12 The DataTimes index dates from 1984 to within the past six days. Searches for citations may be requested in the California Room. This non-fee service is for subjects concerning San Diego County, Imperial County, and Baja California, the same subjects covered in the original San Diego Public Library index. Searches for subjects other than these are referred to DataTimes for fee-based service.

The newspaper archives include many other local newspaper files including Baja California newspapers, and are supplemented by extensive clippings files covering numerous topics from nineteenth century San Diego pioneers to historical and current San Diego business and company information.

Maps and atlases are an important part of any local history collection and a variety of these are available in the California Room. Beginning with early Spanish maps of San Diego Bay to present-day maps of neighborhoods, the collection includes maps of early California and Baja California and maps of San Diego County when it encompassed Imperial and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Notable maps of San Diego in the collection include a map of Horton’s Addition,13 Cave Cout’s maps of La Playa and Old Town,14 and George Derby’s survey of the San Diego River.15 A chronological and subject index of maps is available at the California Room desk. Topographical and geological survey maps are part of the Government Documents collection in the Science and Industry Section of the library but a few have been acquired as gifts by the California Room.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps remain an important source for historical, environmental, and genealogical study.16 These large-format maps bound into atlases indicate specific city blocks and the buildings. Often the function of a business is shown as well as the construction materials used. The Sanborn atlases in the California Room collection include 1887, 1888, 1920-1955, 1956. Atlases from 1920-1956 were continuously updated. A La Jolla atlas covers the years 1957-1962. These important maps are supplemented by microfilm of the Library of Congress collection of Sanborn maps for San Diego county and other Southern California communities. An 1888 San Diego Dakin atlas provides similar information. Thomas Brothers atlases offer another resource, including five volumes of undated Block Books which give some names of residents.17

Government publications in the California Room include the San Diego Great Registers of Voters, which date from 1866 through 1909.18 The Registers give country of origin and occupation of the registrant and are frequently used by historians and genealogists. Members of the San Diego Genealogical Society have indexed some of the Registers and the indexes are available in the Genealogy Room at the Library.19 Other local government publications in the California Room are San Diego Tax Books (1855-1861),20 and three volumes of City Attorney letters dated 1895 to 1903.21

Papers documenting the City of San Diego include Mayor Frank Curran’s Central City Association papers which document Horton Plaza from 1870, and the present Community Concourse;22 the Mission Bay Collection (1945-1954);23 the Gaslamp Quarter Collection donated by a citizen who served on the Gaslamp Quarter Project Area Committee;24 and Parks Department correspondence which documents the development of that city department, the San Diego Zoological Society, Museums and Balboa Park, with special emphasis on efforts to plant and maintain Balboa Park after the 1916 Exposition.25 Among the architectural drawing collections of the California Room, plans of Balboa Park buildings were heavily used during recent restoration projects. The plans collection also includes sketches and drawings of architectural and decorative detail.26 The Klauber Zoological Society papers (1960-1967) document the beginning of the Wild Animal Park and the “Otto Bequest.”27

The Panama California International Exposition papers (1904-1930) together with papers from the California Pacific International Exposition (1934-1936) provide a detailed picture of the organization of these important events.28 Another key event collection is papers and memorabilia of the San Diego 200th Anniversary (1968-1969).29

Probably the largest, most interesting archival collection in the California Room is the Transit Company Materials collection.30 In 1967, San Diego Transit System (SDTS), wholly owned by City Transit Systems, donated to the library records of the operations of the San Diego Electric Railway Company (SDERC), and the San Diego and Coronado Ferry Company (SDCFC)–businesses controlled by John D. Spreckels in the early twentieth century. This donation followed the dissolution of the SDCFC and the sale of SDTS to the City of San Diego. Current operating records of the SDTS (successor to SDERC) went to a public corporation formed by the City. The majority of the materials document the SDERC and the SDCFC during the 1930s and 1940s. SDCFC records extend into the 1960s.

The Spreckels companies papers came to City Transit Systems when the SDERC and the SDCFC were purchased from John D. and Adolph B. Spreckels in 1948. A finding list is available in the California Room. The Spreckels papers also contain several proposals connected with early San Diego water development.

A separate collection of San Diego trolley memorabilia documents the inauguration of the modern trolley system in 1981.31 Other transportation items are several San Diego and Arizona Railway Company and San Diego Eastern Railway Company items and pictures accessible through the Library catalog.

Maritime historians will appreciate a list of ships compiled by Captain E. B. Dunnells, a port pilot. This typewritten list was donated to the library in the 1930s by Jerry MacMullen, then covering the waterfront for the San Diego Union. He related that the only records of ships entering San Diego Bay before 1917 were “kept by interested sea faring men.” Dunnell’s list dates from October 1888 to August 1902 and gives ship name, tonnage, cargo, origin and destination, and master and pilot if known.32

For recreation and cultural enthusiasts there are the Horton House Registers from the old Horton House Hotel;33 the Ruth Ragan “Old Globe” Theatre Collection which includes photographs;34 and the Local Composers Collection.35 Several small collections document events and activities of San Diego women’s organizations.36

Sculptor Donal Hord, whose work can be seen in many public locations in the county including the County Administration Building, Seaport Village, San Diego State University, Coronado High School, the front of the Central Library building and the Library’s Wangenheim Room, has yet to have a definitive study of his work written. Homer Dana, Hord’s close friend and assistant, photographed Hord’s work and folios of these photographs,37 supplemented by the scrapbooks compiled by the Library, provide a retrospective of Hord’s work and the man himself.38 Hord was a devoted admirer of libraries and, according to Clara Breed, former City Librarian, he gave his fine collection of art books to the library because he learned more from the library than he learned from any school. 39

The San Diego Public Library papers document the acquisition of land from George Marston in 1899, the Carnegie Library, the World War II Victory Book Drive and the bond campaign for the present Central Library building which was completed in 1954.40

A especially poignant collection, in this 1991 war year, are the papers of the California War History Committee: San Diego County (1914-1925), containing descriptions and pictures of servicemen from San Diego who served during the First World War.41 Related items are the Red Cross Scrapbooks (1917-1918).42

California has been home to many Utopian communities. Two of the most interesting ones for the San Diego area are the Theosophical Society and Little Landers. The California Room has several items useful for the study of the Theosophical Society of Point Loma thanks to a generous donation of Samuel James Neill’s library by his widow. Samuel Neill was a pioneer of the Point Loma community.

An unpublished account of the Little Landers colony by H. C. Hensley describes it as a “cooperative farming colony established in that year [1908] in the Tia Juana Valley through the aims and efforts of William E. Smythe.” The colony, located in modern-day San Ysidro, reflected the back-to-the-soil movement which was popular all over the United States at that time. William Smythe’s eloquent speeches brought many new residents into the colony. Unfortunately, many of them, unfamiliar with the vagaries of Southern California climate settled their “Little Lands” too near to the river and lost everything in the 1916 flood. William Smythe died in 1922 and with his energy gone, the colony declined through the 1920s. Corporate documents, accounting books, maps and records tell the story of this ambitious endeavor. “A little land and a living…” the slogan of Little Landers, still appeals to some commuting city dwellers.43

The flood which devastated the Little Landers colony is often attributed to the enthusiastic efforts of Charles Hatfield, a professional rainmaker who preferred the term “moisture accelerator.” In 1915, during a period of extended drought, the City of San Diego hired Hatfield to fill the Morena reservoir, granting him one year to do it. By January 1916, Hatfield had supposedly “accelerated” enough rain to fill the reservoir twice. The Otay Dam broke, and bridges and railroads washed away creating havoc and tragedy throughout the county. The City Council refused to pay Hatfield’s $10,000 fee unless he assumed responsibility for the flood damage, which he declined to do. He later said it was the only time he was not paid for his “moisture acceleration.”

Hatfield’s equipment and miscellaneous papers were donated to the San Diego Public Library by his brother Paul Hatfield. The formula that “accelerates” rain remains a mystery although at a recent meeting of the Mountain Empire Historical Society, Gerald Clarke spoke about the formula and his meetings with Hatfield, but his efforts to test the formula on a large scale fell through and the mystery remains.44

The San Diego county water supply relies on dams. A multi-volume set of papers collected by Hiram N. Savage while he was hydraulic engineer for the City of San Diego documents the history and construction of dams at Barrett, El Capitan, Lower Otay, Morena Reservoir, and the San Dieguito Project: Sutherland dams. The feature history of the Sweetwater Reservoir gives a detailed report of the 1916 “moisture acceleration.” These volumes contain many photographs as well as graphs, charts, and detailed descriptions of the construction of each dam.45

The first directory published in the San Diego area was a handwritten one, made in 1807 when San Diego was still part of Spain. Authored by Carlos Fuentes, it lists eighty-four residents from Enrique Acosta to Carlos Zaragosa.46 No women were mentioned. This directory is part of an invaluable collection of directories which includes San Diego city and county directories from 1886 through 1984, and San Diego telephone directories from 1906 through the present. Community directories other than the well-known Polk books, are also included. The city and county directories are particularly useful for tracing people, their relatives, businesses, and institutions.

Pictures are usually a necessity for the study of local history. Images in some California Room books are indexed although this is not an ongoing project. Various kinds of illustrations can also be found in the vertical files arranged by subject. These contain many kinds of materials besides clippings and can often supply leads to other information.

A fine source for pictures is a postcard collection which now numbers over five thousand items, thanks to generous donations from Norma McCumber, Florence Wilson, and Elizabeth MacPhail. Many of the postcards date from before the turn of the century to 1914, the heyday of the beautifully illustrated postcards produced in Germany. Subjects are diverse and the scope is all of California, with emphasis on San Diego.

The California Room no longer collects photographs and relies on the San Diego Historical Society Archives to perform that service. The bulk of the California Room’s San Diego photographs were donated to the Historical Society because of the Society’s superior storage, reproduction, and preservation facilities. The California Room retains historical photographs of the San Diego Public Library, including branch libraries, photographs that are part of specific collections of papers or books, and some photographs of California outside San Diego county.

The Wangenheim Room houses the Library’s collection of books about the history of books and the written word from cuneiform tablets to modern private press publishing. Readers and researchers interested in the history of publishing and printing in San Diego and California, and in early local authors, will enjoy exploring this collection after they have exhausted the California Room collection. The Wangenheim Room materials are not yet listed in the main Library catalog, but are readily accessible by consulting the librarian in advance of a visit.

All materials in the California and Wangenheim Rooms, which are part of the Special Collections Section of the Library, are for use in these rooms only. Some archival or very early materials are seen by appointment only so that users can consult with a librarian. Procedures in these rooms differ from those in other parts of the library because of the uniqueness of the materials and the necessity of preserving them for the future.

California Room
San Diego Public Library
820 E Street
San Diego, CA 92101-6478
(619) 236-5834

Hours: Monday – Thursday, 10:00 – 9:00

Mary Allely, Section Supervisor
Eileen Boyle, Librarian II
Rik Gutierrez, Librarian II
Paul Bareno, Library Assistant


1. Enid T. Thompson, Local History Collections: a Manual for Librarians (Nashville: American Association for State & Local History, 1978).

2. Clara E. Breed, Turning the Pages: San Diego Public Library History, 1882-1982, (San Diego Public Library, 1983), 21.

3. California mines index.

4. Juan María de Salvatierra, Letter from Juan María de Salvatierra to Father Juan de Ugarte: written at Loreto Concho, 11 July 1699.

5. Luis Jayme, Letter of Luis Jayme, O.F.M.: San Diego, 17 October 1772.

6. Luis Jayme, Letter of Luis Jayme, O.F.M.: San Diego, October 17, 1772, (Los Angeles: published for San Diego Public Library by Dawson’s Book Shop, 1970).

7. Charles L. Kelly, Reminiscences (written 1900-1924); John Lincoln Kelly, Kelly papers, 1868-1938, 19 portfolios.

8. Herbert Crouch, Reminiscences of Herbert Crouch, [5.1.:s.n.], 1915; Foss family papers: three letters and a diary, describing life in San Diego County, California, between 1877 and 1957.

9. Helvetia Mining Company, Letters, 1874-1898; John Noble, John Noble mining collection.

10. Benjamin F. Dixon, A Yankee Journalist at the Southwest Corner of the United States, the History of the San Diego Herald, 1851-1860… (San Diego, Calif.)

11. Index to the San Diego Union, 1851-1975, 1976-1980, 1981-1983.

12. DataTimes, Inc. [database], Oklahoma City, OK.

13. Map of Horton’s addition, San Diego… San Francisco, 1970.

14. Cave Johnson Couts, Plan of La Playa of the port of San Diego, surveyed and drawn for the Ayuntamiento or Town Council, 1849, copied by M.G. Wheeler, County Surveyor of San Diego County, 1871; Cave J. Couts, San Diego (Old Town)…traced from the original by Cave Johnson Couts, 1849.

15. Derby, Survey of San Diego River and its Vicinity (New York: Ackerman, 1853).

16. Sanborn Map and Publishing Company, Insurance Maps of San Diego, 1887, 1888, 1920-1948, 1956—.

17. Thomas Brothers Block Book of San Diego, n.d., 5 vols.

18. Great Register of San Diego, 1866-1909.

19. Great Register of Voters, San Diego County, 1880-1887 (San Diego Genealogical Society, 1988).

20. San Diego (County) Auditor, Tax Book, 1855-1861.

21. San Diego (City) Attorney, Letters, 1895-1903, 3 vols.

22. Francis E. Curran, Curran Central City Collection.

23. Marion L. Schwob, Mission Bay Collection.

24. Gaslamp Quarter Collection.

25. San Diego (City) Board of Park Commissioners, Papers.

26. Architectural drawings and sketches of Balboa Park buildings and landscaping.

27. Laurence M. Klauber, Zoological Society of San Diego Collection.

28. San Diego (City) Board of Commissioners, Panama California International Exposition, Papers and records; San Diego (City) Parks and Recreation Department, California Pacific International Exposition, Papers and records.

29. San Diego 200th Anniversary Collection.

30. Transit Company materials: San Diego Electric Railway Company; San Diego & Coronado Ferry Company; various Spreckels companies.

31. San Diego Trolley memorabilia, 1981.

32. Edwin B. Dunnells, Abstract of Log of Capt. E. B. Dunnells.

33. Horton House Registers, 1875-1904, 44 vols. A separate collection of six volumes of Horton House registers is preserved in Research Archives of the San Diego Historical Society, 1872-

34. Ruth Hagan Theatre Collection (Old Globe collection).

35. Local Composers Collection.

36. San Diego County Federation of Women’s Clubs, A History of Women’s Clubs in San Diego County: A Notebook…1922-1923.

37. Donal A. Hord, Photographs of Donal Hord’s Work, 3 vols.

38. San Diego (City) Public Library, Donal Hord Scrapbook, 3 vols.

39. Breed, Turning the Pages, 167.

40. San Diego Public Library Papers, 1899-1950.

41. California War History Committee, San Diego County Branch Collection: 1918-1925.

42. Red Cross, U.S. American Red Cross, Red Cross Scrap Book…1917, 1918 (San Diego, Calif.)

43. Herbert C. Hensley, “The Little Landers of San Ysidro”.

44. Paul A. Hatfield, Hatfield Papers, 6 vols.

45. Hiram Newton Savage, Barrett Dam Construction: Feature History, (1935), 3 vols. Other volumes for El Capitan, Lower Otay, Morena reservoir dam, Otay reservoir, San Dieguito project Sutherland reservoir dam, Sweetwater Water Company.

46. Carlos Fuentes, Una lista de la gente viviendo en el Pueblo de San Diego Alta California en el ano 1807.

Mary Allely is the Section Supervisor of the Central Library Special Collections department of the San Diego Public Library, a position she has held since 1985. She has spent twenty-five years is various positions with the Library. Ms. Allely’s interest in local history began when she worked at the Birmingham (England) Public Library before attending library school at Loughborough University. She is a Chartered Librarian of the (British) Library Association.