The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1996, Volume 42, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

by Abraham Shragge

Hurrah for the Radio Station in San Diego! The Chamber of Commerce deserves great credit for this, as I simply follow instructions at this end….William Kettner, January 1914.

Photos from this article

In 1870, San Diego’s leading businessmen attempted to concentrate and streamline their efforts to make their city grow by founding the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. Given the city’s small population, limited capital resources, and thorny natural problems (principally the undredged bay and a limited water supply, as well as poor railroad connections), the Chamber took on a massive task. As the organization’s records reveal, the Chamber was pledged, not necessarily in order of importance, to expanding agricultural production in San Diego County; generating agricultural and water development in the still remote Imperial Valley (which until 1907 was part of San Diego County); lowering railroad freight and passenger rates to and from San Diego; bringing a direct transcontinental railroad line into the city; fielding promotional exhibits in other cities; promoting local mining industries; improving the city’s parks; grading and paving roads; generating trade with foreign countries; increasing the water supply; supporting development of a canal across the isthmus of Central America; attracting manufacturing concerns; stimulating local consumption of local products; “encouraging the good feeling already existing here between capital and labor”; expanding tourism; establishing a presence at trade fairs and international expositions; decreasing the Chamber’s own operating deficit; supporting the establishment of a marine biological research station; mailing out or otherwise distributing annually hundreds of thousands of pieces of promotional literature; dredging the harbor entrance and middle-ground shoal; expanding post office operations; obtaining a federal office building; and attracting more and larger army and navy installations. This daunting list of activities was to be implemented by the membership, all of whom were volunteers, quite fully employed on their own.1

As would always be the case, the men who ran the Chamber had a vested interest in the city’s growth and prosperity. They were in many ways cut from the same cloth as the boosters described a generation ago by Daniel Boorstin, who were “born and bred in the [new] dynamic of American urbanism.” Most of them had migrated to San Diego — an “upstart city” — in search of economic and social opportunities. They were determined to realize a profit from their real estate investments, and they understood that in order to do so, they had to attract new immigrants by the thousands. San Diego’s boosters became “entrepreneurs of place,” who envisioned their city as a “growth machine,” to use terms introduced by sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch.2 And it was through the Chamber of Commerce that they attempted to effect their agenda, usually imbuing their objectives with the character of civic campaigns.

As astute as San Diego’s business leaders may have been in assessing the needs of the community, their early growth campaigns often appeared rather haphazard. While they devoted considerable energy to talking about the need for industrial development, for example, they consistently refused to do what their counterparts in other cities did, which was to offer inducements to industrialists to locate their factories there. The Chamber directors discussed this issue time and again, and always reached the same conclusion: there was no need to tender tax relief, grants of real estate, or the promise to purchase stock, because their city’s natural attractions were so overwhelming that the wise executive could not help but choose to move his business there. The result of this policy, of course, was that industrial growth in San Diego was painfully slow.

The Chamber’s officers did, however, cast their gaze early upon the federal government in the matter of harbor improvements, which they quite correctly believed to be a necessary step in the right direction. The type of dredging and construction operations needed to open up the bay to modern commercial shipping were the mandated responsibility of the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers, and so various committeemen from the Chamber were in regular contact with members of this body, from dredge operators all the way up to the Corps’ commanding generals. The goal of the Chamber’s Harbor Improvement Committee was to ensure that the needs of the harbor were clearly understood by those who had power to do something about them, whether the engineers themselves, merchant mariners, naval officers, congressmen, or voters. It was in this effort that the Chamber — after years of fits and starts and very limited success — began to blossom, defining its role for the next forty years while also molding San Diego’s civic culture in a most extraordinary way.

Before the Corps of Engineers could do the Chamber’s bidding, however, money would have to flow from Washington in the form of congressional appropriations, to which end the Chamber of Commerce devoted abundant time and energy. This too proved to be an uphill battle for many years because San Diego did not have its own representative in Congress, but had instead to rely on the good offices of men whose primary interests lay elsewhere. Thus the city’s main urban competitors — San Francisco and Los Angeles — were much more successful in getting what they wanted from the nation’s capital.3

In the meantime, the Chamber’s leaders had begun to develop a federal strategy that they would refine continuously over the next few decades. If they could persuade the Navy Department to make more and more use of the bay, the navy might then use its influence to persuade the Corps of Engineers to improve the harbor. The Chamber directorate found plenty of justification for this approach. The United States, after all, had recently acquired territorial possessions in the far reaches of the Pacific, and had through the recently enunciated policy of the Open Door, stepped up its diplomatic, commercial, and military missions in that part of the world. The anticipated opening of a canal across either Panama or Nicaragua further heartened the businessmen in the hope that San Diego would someday be a linchpin in the nation’s Pacific affairs, commercial and otherwise.

The Chamber directors felt that there could be no question about the benefit that would accrue to the city’s commerce once the harbor was perfected. Representatives of various cargo lines had made this point repeatedly to the organization in the most explicit terms, as was the case of an officer of the California and Oriental Steamship Company in 1900, who told the board of “the very great necessity of deepening the channel through the middle ground, also extending the jetty to a point that would so concentrate the current as to deepen the water over the bar.”4 As interstate and international trade had grown, so had the length, draft, and carrying capacity of both commercial and naval vessels. Under the most favorable combination of conditions, which included high tide, calm seas, clear daylight, and light winds, some of the new generation of larger ships could enter the harbor and negotiate the middle ground, but not without considerable danger of either striking the bar or being blown aground while attempting the sharp turns that the narrow channel required.5 The largest of the new ships, among them European and Asian merchantmen and the battleship, U.S.S. Iowa, dared not enter the port of San Diego at all. The best these vessels could do was to anchor outside the bay in the roadstead off Coronado, where they could load and unload with the aid of lighters, and then only in the calmest weather and seas.

Navy ships had been visiting San Diego since the late 1840s, and had become a welcome, if transitory feature of the local scene, as an 1898 advertisement for the Hotel Del Coronado suggested. According to the brochure, a guest of the hotel might “attend one of the weekly receptions on board the U.S. Cruisers of the Pacific White Squadron, some of which are usually riding at anchor in the harbor….” A somewhat grander pamphlet, published four years later, featured photographs of warships in several places, and presented the navy as a compelling tourist attraction, even if it did overstate the condition of the bay:

Battleships, Cruisers, or Revenue Cutters are generally in the harbor and numerous receptions are held on board these vessels. Hotel Del Coronado is much frequented by officers of the navy, their families residing there for extended periods, the perfection of Climate and Hotel, of Amusements and Society being so superior to other resorts. The Hotel gives full-dress balls weekly for the benefit of the guests.

The excellence of the harbor draws hither vessels of the Pacific White Squadron, and in addition many of the foreign warships. This adds greatly to the social features enjoyed by the guests, and is in addition an educational consideration.6



To the Chamber of Commerce, however, the naval presence meant much more, and the organization looked increasingly to the navy, not only for impetus and money to dredge out the harbor, but as a source of revenue and prestige as well. San Diego businessmen, whether acting under the auspices of the Chamber or as individuals, consciously sought to cultivate the service for many different reasons. In 1902, for example, real estate developer, water promoter, and indefatigable booster Ed Fletcher wrote personally to President Theodore Roosevelt to tell him that the city needed a “first class Naval Station, for the interest of San Diego itself and the United States as well, owing to the proximity to foreign territory and the Isthmus….”7

Two years later, with only a little action on the navy’s part in return for all the agitation, the Chamber’s board of directors enlisted the endorsement of Mayor Frank P. Frary, along with more than one hundred citizens in addressing a “memorial” to the secretary of the navy Paul Morton, in which they hammered home the theme of San Diego’s strategic importance. This remarkable document asserted that of the three natural harbors on the Pacific coast, San Diego’s was “in some respects…the most important..,” while it regrettably remained “the most neglected and the least developed.” This moment marked “but the beginning of the glorious future in store for the Pacific Coast states of our great Republic,” a future that would bloom once “the waters of the old Atlantic…eventually meet the virile Pacific,” an event that would only “accentuate the strategic value of the bay of San Diego….” It was therefore incumbent upon the federal government to step up its activities in the area. Thus the document called upon the government to establish a naval training station (“so necessary to the successful up-building of a great navy”), build a naval hospital and wireless telegraph station, and do some additional dredging in order to make available “the best site for a dry dock and repair station on the Pacific Coast….”8

The memorial also demanded that the Navy Department increase the capacity of the small naval coaling depot that was by this time operating on Point Loma. This facility was the navy’s first permanent installation in San Diego. The official record is not entirely clear with regard to the origin of the idea to establish this base, but by 1900 it had become the Chamber’s pet project. Much of the Point Loma peninsula was held by the federal government as a military reservation, and the Chamber directorate envisioned this land as the place for perhaps all the different naval activities addressed in the petition. Unfortunately, the best site for the fuel station was partly occupied by the U.S. Quarantine Service, which was not interested in moving to suit the navy. This meant that the coal depot, once started, could not be expanded for some time to come, a cause for much chagrin within the Chamber. Nevertheless, thanks to a great deal of strenuous effort from Chamber directors, the navy had driven its first stake on San Diego Bay, and its interest in the area would only grow over time.9

During the next several years, the Chamber officers continued to lobby for more dredging and more naval installations, but they found that there was much reluctance within Congress and the Navy Department to give them what they wanted. The boosters worked hard to impress everyone they could within the government with San Diego’s natural attractions, and inch by difficult inch, their labors began to pay off. An increasing number of navy ships stopped at San Diego to take on coal, and soon, thanks again to the Chamber’s powers of persuasion, squadrons began to hold their gunnery practice off the San Diego coast, and flotillas of submarines and torpedo boats spent a few months of each year in the area while they held their drills in Pacific waters.

Throughout the Republican administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft, San Diegans tried hard to influence the Navy Department to step up its activities in the area. The rewards they earned for their efforts were not nearly as great as they had hoped for, but the boosters had made some significant progress nevertheless. The coaling station was improved and expanded; a harbor dredging appropriation was working its way slowly through the congressional pipeline; and the Chamber of Commerce had established abiding relationships with some influential naval officers. When naturalized San Diegan, Chamber director, and Democrat William Kettner was swept into Congress on Woodrow Wilson’s coattails in 1912, however, the prospect for federal and naval largesse brightened far beyond any previous intensity. Never bothered by any possible taint of conflict-of-interest, “Brudder Bill” Kettner retained his seat on the Chamber’s board of directors throughout his eight-year tenure in the House of Representatives, where he made it his business to promote the Chamber’s agenda. Not only did his name remain on the Chamber’s letterhead, but at one point, the organization’s board of directors adopted a resolution to mark Kettner present at every one of its meetings, since the congressman communicated with his San Diego colleagues at least once per week.10 With Kettner in Congress, the Chamber’s program now achieved a degree of coherence and efficacy that had not been in evidence in earlier years.

Even before he was sworn into his new office, Kettner went straight to Admiral of the Navy George Dewey’s in order to attempt to overcome Dewey’s limited enthusiasm to finish out the coaling depot. An important part of that project involved some major dredging that would have gone a long way toward improving the harbor channel for commercial shipping — the very issue that was presently stalled in Congress. After two unproductive visits with Dewey, Kettner tried one last time, and to his delight, the admiral now granted his wish and wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, strongly endorsing the dredging . With this in hand, the secretary could (and did) formally ask a Senate conference committee to approve the funding, based on the combined needs of commerce and the navy.11 The net result of Kettner’s extraordinary effort was threefold. First, the harbor was thus improved for naval and commercial vessels alike, and second, Brudder Bill learned very quickly indeed how to bring home the goods (in this case a $249,000 appropriation) to his constituency. The third consequence proved at least as critical in shaping the future course of San Diego’s development — the navy was more deeply entrenched in the city than ever before, and now had its own vested interest in further development there.

In the summer of 1913, Kettner was able to persuade Josephus Daniels, Woodrow Wilson’s new secretary of the navy, to visit and inspect San Diego on behalf of the service.12 In recent years, the Chamber had instigated the practice of entertaining naval and congressional dignitaries whenever they came to town, and for Daniels, the directors pulled out all the stops. Meeting Daniels’ party at the Santa Fe station in San Diego — as had been the custom when admirals and congressmen came to town — was not nearly sufficient for such an august personage as the secretary: instead, Chamber president Fred Lea and director Henry M. Manney, a retired admiral, traveled to Los Angeles so that they could accompany Daniels on the last leg of his journey.13 Once safely in the Chamber’s clutches, Daniels was to be given the full treatment, starting with a motorcade to the Hotel Del Coronado, where a large crowd was already awaiting him in anticipation of the evening’s banquet.

The festive dinner itself went beyond any limits to which the Chamber had previously adhered. The organization’s hospitality committee had festooned the hotel’s grand ballroom with a “dreamlike panorama of the moonlit bay and city of San Diego,” and had constructed the stern portion of an imaginary battleship, christened the U.S.S. Daniels, on which was perched the table-of-honor and speaker’s platform. The room was described as a veritable “fairyland of the decorator’s art, brilliantly suggestive of the purpose of the hosts, which was…to impress upon him forcibly and appealingly the natural advantages and great naval and strategic possibilities of San Diego harbor.”14 Mrs. Daniels, who had accompanied her husband across the country, was tendered her own “banquet” in a room separate from the men — a much more modest affair, to be sure — where she was regaled by Mrs. John D. Spreckels, Mrs. Lea, and several other of San Diego’s leading ladies.

The next day, Daniels was given a grand tour of the bay and the military reservation at Point Loma; that evening, he boarded John D. Spreckels’ yacht Venetia, which would carry him and a party of boosters north to the port of San Pedro.15 While exploring Point Loma, Daniels was to “look over the site for the proposed new wireless station.”16 It was this little event, mentioned only in passing, that shortly thereafter caused the Chamber’s leaders to redefine their relationship with the navy. It would also serve to unite the Chamber’s directors to an unprecedented degree — their vision of a completed city and their sense of shared purpose in achieving it coalesced quite suddenly as the navy firmed up its plans to investigate likely locations for radio towers. Before long, a complex transaction began to take shape that would inaugurate the next phase in the naval transformation of San Diego. This would also cause the boosters to revel as they seized the high ground from their more powerful competitors, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Between 1904 and 1912, radio technology had greatly improved and proliferated. The potential utility of this medium to the navy was obvious, to the extent that the navy was “the first regular customer for radio telegraph apparatus in this country.” According to the Office of Naval Intelligence, the navy alone had provided both the demand and funding for research and development of radio communication since 1904. By 1912, technological advances had made it possible to send and receive wireless signals reliably from one side of an ocean to the other, and now the navy’s Bureau of Steam Engineering intended to establish a global network of high-powered radio stations for its own as well as commercial use.17 The first installations had already been planted at Arlington, Virginia, and then at Darien, in the Canal Zone. The next three were to be located at Manila, Honolulu, and somewhere on the coast of Southern California.18

The Navy Department had already decided that the California site should be “in the neighborhood of San Diego rather than near San Francisco,” a fact that was reported with evident glee in San Diego newspapers.19 Thus the chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering proposed in a letter to appoint a board of officers to investigate the possibilities. The board’s decision was to be shaped by five basic criteria:

(a) Military protection against an attack from sea or landing party.
(b) Electrical qualities of site.
(c) Character of site as it affects cost of construction; especially geologic conditions, amount of excavation and grading necessary, availability of commercial power, etc.
(d) Maintenance costs, communications, etc.
(e) Cost of site if private land must be acquired.

The last three were all of a piece — economy was clearly an important issue in the minds of the planners.20

The day after the letter from Bureau of Steam Engineering had been received by the Secretary of the Navy’s office, Rear Admiral B.A. Fiske, speaking for the Bureau of Navigation and for the General Board, concurred with the foregoing recommendations.21 An investigatory panel was duly constituted and dispatched to San Diego, where its members spent a presumably pleasant summer scouting the territory. Although there appears to be no official record to confirm this, the Point Loma site — on federal land, after all — was probably rejected because it was too exposed to a possible attack from the sea. Whatever the reason, by September 30, 1913, various privately owned sites around San Diego and Los Angeles had been inspected, and the first choice of the board, the bureau chiefs, and acting secretary of the navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a 73.5 acre parcel at Chollas Heights, owned by Henry F. Carling, who then resided at Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Some other San Diego area properties had been offered and examined, including one at Linda Vista, represented by the firm of Masten & Kendall, and another nearby owned by San Diego Securities (a company whose board of directors included Chamber directors George Burnham and Admiral Manney), as well as a site at Grossmont, represented by Ed Fletcher. According to the superintendent of the navy’s Radio Service, W.H. Bullard, “After carefully considering the report [of the inspecting board], it is recommended that Site ‘A’ [the Carling tract] be procured, if possible, as this possesses important and vital features which render it superior to the others as regards communication, which this office considers the final determining factor.”22

The San Diego sites offered some very slight advantage over their counterparts in the Los Angeles area, with particular regard to the ease of repelling an enemy raid on the radio station. In the end, the coaling station turned out to be San Diego’s saving grace in the decision concerning the location of the radio station, as Admiral Dewey said himself:


The sites about Los Angeles are somewhat further from the coast than are those near San Diego, and distance from the coast is an important element of defense against raids coming from the sea. They are also in a region containing a larger population, which would probably be an added advantage in repelling a raid. As against these advantages the possibilities of landing about San Diego are considered smaller for the success of a raiding force, which would have to count upon a quick return to its ships, by experienced officers who are familiar with both localities. A further advantage for San Diego lies in the probability of naval vessels being in port because of naval fuel station there; in time of war naval vessels may not be expected to be in the vicinity of Los Angeles. Taken all in all, the sites in both regions may be considered as practically on a par in security against an enemy’s raid….The General Board therefore concurs with the Special Board and with the Superintendent of Radio Service in recommending Site A [the Carling tract] as the best under all conditions.23

With Dewey’s blessing in hand, navy secretary Jospehus Daniels authorized the Bureau of Steam Engineering to purchase the Carling tract, “if possible.”24 The Navy Department, however, was not about to put all its eggs into one basket. The second choice was a parcel of 65 acres, located in Whittier, a few miles to the southeast of Los Angeles, and owned by the Santa Fe Railroad. The purchase of this land would have been a fairly complicated transaction, because the railroad would only consent to part with it “upon condition of obtaining other property in the same vicinity,” which in this case meant the exchange of holdings between the railroad and a local man, Mr. S.W. Barton. In any event, the Department was going to keep its options open, and offer proposals, not only for the Whittier property, but for the several different San Diego sites, while keeping San Diegans in the dark about the offers on the Whittier land and vice versa. Acting bureau-chief Griffin also recommended that the secretary of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce “be advised of the issue of proposals for these [San Diego] sites,” making the Chamber, in effect, the local clearinghouse for the subsequent sale. Indeed, upon receipt of Griffin’s notification, Chamber secretary William Tomkins told the board of directors that he planned to “call on these various owners with a view to getting the lowest possible prices named in their bids to the Government…..”25

A few weeks later, George Burnham wrote to Josephus Daniels to inform the secretary that San Diego Securities valued its property at $300 per acre, far in excess of the $75 per acre that the navy had proposed to all the owners. Burnham went on to say that there were “adjoining tracts equally well suited to [the navy’s] purposes that may be had for considerably less money.” For their part, Masten and Kendall were more forthcoming — they would sell their parcel for $85 per acre. Ed Fletcher, however, showed the true San Diego spirit and put his brethren to shame. Stating that although he had paid “roughly speaking about a hundred dollars an acre” for his tract, he would “let the United States Government pay us what they are a mind to for it and if necessary, we will make a donation of the land….” Fletcher also touted the additional benefits that would accrue to the navy if his property was chosen — city gas and electrical utilities were readily available, the climate was perfect, the location was “naturally beautiful,” and perhaps best of all, he would give the navy its own station on the nearby rail line that ran between San Diego and La Mesa. Fearing that he had failed to make himself perfectly clear, Fletcher wrote again to the navy department a few days later (this time to Franklin Roosevelt), repeating his offer to deed his property to the navy free of charge.26

The moral position taken by the Chamber in this transaction was an interesting one. The directors had no qualms in asking their fellow real estate developers individually to lower their prices — and reduce their profit — for the benefit of the navy. Here the organization seemed to assume that a consummated transaction would be good for the city over the long term, and that the naval participants, if well satisfied with the services they had received, might turn to San Diego and the Chamber the next time they were in the market for land. Moreover, an individual seller’s losses might be made up to him, particularly if he owned more property in the immediate vicinity, because having the navy for a neighbor would only make the rest of his holdings that much more valuable. Ed Fletcher’s ostensible selflessness embodied these principles perfectly, which explains why he tried a few more times to give a piece of his Grossmont development away to the navy. In a letter thanking Fletcher for his generosity, Lieutenant Commander A.J. Hepburn, senior member of the board of inspection that had evaluated the various properties, indicated that he understood what was on Fletcher’s mind. Hepburn also seconded the Chamber’s point of view with complete fidelity, expressing in his own words that the radio station deal would be a boon for one and all, including the seller who made a sacrifice in the short term.27 Fletcher, who with his partners owned all the land around the site he had offered to give away, no doubt grasped this principle well enough without having to be reminded.28

Unfortunately for the pukka sahibs, Fletcher’s and the others’ blandishments would go for naught, because the navy men wanted the Carling tract most of all, which did not sit well with Tomkins. So alarmed was the Chamber secretary that he now felt compelled to write to Franklin Roosevelt in order to impugn Carling’s character. In his letter, Tomkins mentioned that Carling was not even a local resident; more to the point was the fact that the San Diegans whose properties had been considered could be counted upon to be “fairminded in the matter,” and would “act justly in the premises.” Carling, on the other hand, had “not shown the same disposition,” and was not yet even in contact with the Chamber despite Tomkins’ attempts to reach him.29

Carling certainly had received the Chamber’s communications, but was apparently uninterested in using the organization as a middleman. Perhaps he had some sense that the Chamber was negotiating not on his behalf, but the navy’s; in any case, there was no love to be lost between Carling and the boosters. Thus Carling had chosen to correspond directly with Admiral Griffin, to whom he stated his asking price of $20,000, more than $272 per acre. Griffin took this news to Kettner, claiming that his bureau could not afford such a sum. Representative Archibald Hart of New Jersey somehow became involved — his main contribution, however, was to ask Kettner repeatedly if the San Diegan could persuade the Chamber to raise $10,000 to supplement the navy’s meager appropriation.30 The disreputable outsider suddenly revealed himself to the Chamber on November 25, if only by way of a curt telegram to Tomkins. Carling offered the Chamber secretary the assurance that, “if the Government accepts any site for [the] Radio Station in San Diego it will be mine.” He went on to say that since his price was a full $12,000 higher than the available appropriation, it would be up to the Chamber to raise that sum, or San Diego would not get the station. Carling was clearly no Ed Fletcher: he closed his message on a rather plaintive note, stating that it was unreasonable to ask him “to bear all the loss,” nor would he volunteer to do so. Tomkins found Carling’s communication “very peculiar,” as he described it in his transmittal to Kettner at Washington. So annoyed was Tomkins that he could not even refer to Carling by name, but as “this party,” and he suggested that Kettner show the telegram to “the proper officials.”31

It was Carling, however, who would eventually have his way, despite further vigorous effort on the part of the Chamber to discredit him. Secretary Tomkins had learned that prominent banker/developer Joseph Sefton had recently sold a tract adjacent to Carling’s for an unbelievably high $125 per acre, which in Tomkins’ words, was “considered a remarkable sale.” Tomkins had also been in touch with other “competent realty men,” who had appraised Carling’s holdings at $100 per acre or less, noting that the value assessed for taxation purposes was $40 (indicating roughly what Carling had paid for it in the first place), and that if the navy chose to initiate condemnation proceedings, “no board of appraisers would place value at over $100.” This intelligence was duly transmitted to Kettner in the hope that the congressman would use it to poison Carling’s well.32 But the New Jersey man knew just what was on the minds of the Chamber’s directors, and moreover, he knew that he had them right where he wanted them. He told Tomkins, by wire, that the letters and telegrams he had received from San Diego had led him to believe “that the radio station would be of great benefit to the town, yet it seems you cannot raise the small amount I asked for the land.” And at this point, Carling bared his fangs: “Unless I get [your favorable] answer by wire I shall allow [the] Station to go to Los Angeles.”33

Carling’s truculence prompted Tomkins to send two more telegrams to Washington, the first of which included his disgruntled assessment of the whole situation — “Say, ‘Brudder Bill,’ when did this man take charge of the Government?” The very same day, the Chamber’s board of directors adopted a motion urging the Navy Department to take Carling’s property by condemnation, while also pressing for the navy to accept Fletcher’s gift as a second choice, which resolution was then sent on to Kettner.34 Two days later, Tomkins heard back from Kettner that Carling was willing to accept a compromise price — $15,000, fully $6,000 more than the navy originally had been willing to offer. The department would hold this bid open for four days. Kettner wanted to know from Tomkins if this was satisfactory. The next day, the Executive Committee of the Chamber met in special session to consider the events at hand. By the end of their meeting the had decided unanimously to send the following message to Kettner:

We understand that the experts reports [sic] show the San Diego location to be the best on the Pacific Coast for the Radio Station which it is proposed to build here. We cannot acquiesce in any plan by which the Government or ourselves will be held up by paying an exorbitant price for the seventy-three acres owned by Carling. This land is not worth over one hundred dollars an acre. We strongly recommend condemnation of the property by the Government. Use this wire as you see fit.35

The situation was now coming to a head. The navy wanted the property, and was about to come to terms with the flinty Mr. Carling. Kettner too wanted to see the deal closed, as he informed the Chamber, but professed displeasure when president Lea deposited into escrow — above and beyond the contract price — $1,000 of the Chamber’s money, payable to Carling upon his acceptance of the navy’s terms. It took all of the next year to finalize the transaction, mainly because of some difficult problems in tracing and clearing the chain of title. But once Admiral Griffin and his bureau had made their decision to proceed, the Chamber closed ranks and contributed considerable effort to make it all work.36 It is worthwhile to note that much of the acrimonious haggling could have been avoided if only the parties had been a little more forthright with one another. The Hepburn Board had estimated the value of Carling’s land at $150-$200 per acre ($11,025-$14,700) — which intelligence should have quieted Tomkins somewhat. And although the navy claimed to have only $7,000 or so to invest in the real estate, in the end, Griffin told Kettner that the navy could in fact raise $15,000 “by doing away with something else.”37

According to an unnamed document that may have been a press release, found in the Chamber’s records, much credit was due Kettner,

who induced the Navy Department to increase the amount allotted for the purchase of a site; who defeated every attempt made by an adjoining city to secure the station during the twelve months while the deal was pending; and who, by special endeavors, won favor from the Navy Department, whereby the proposition was held for San Diego pending the perfection of the title. The success was brought about by our friends in Washington being strictly on the job….

This happy conclusion meant a number of things for San Diego. First was a further federal expenditure of $278,700 to construct and equip the station.39 Second was the quartering of “fifty families, officers, operators and recruits…at the new station.” Third was the prestige that would undoubtedly devolve upon the city since the entire volume of the navy’s trans-Pacific radio traffic would pass through San Diego. (As the above-cited document put it, “The words ‘Via San Diego’ will be found each day on the telegrams received by the Departments in Washington….”)40 Fourth was the greatly enhanced sense of friendship between navy officials, the federal government, and San Diegans. Fifth, and perhaps most important of all, was the special position that the Chamber of Commerce had created for itself — from now on, the organization would act as the navy’s exclusive broker in San Diego, while doing a much better job of promoting the interests of its members (especially its directors). This in turn would ensure that future real estate transactions involving the navy would be amicable and mutually advantageous.

Henry Carling, unfortunately, was never completely satisfied in his dealings with the navy. Shortly before the sale was to close, he wrote yet another peevish letter, this time to Admiral Griffin, in which he agonized about the impossibly low price for which he had settled. His special complaint, however, had to do with his misapprehension that he was to realize $15,000 net, rather than gross. Having unwittingly agreed to the gross amount meant that he, the seller, would have to pay for the abstract of title and other closing costs himself, which to his mind added insult to injury. Although asserting that his personal expenses in these matters had exceeded $2,000, he enclosed a bill to the navy for only $414.40, which he was sure the admiral would find quite justified. In replies that were remarkably civil under the circumstances, both Griffin and Franklin Roosevelt informed Carling that he would have to be satisfied with what he had received, and that was that.41

The Naval Radio Transmitting Facility (NRTF), as it was officially designated, became a fixture in San Diego’s landscape, and earned for itself a true place in the city’s heritage. Its first Morse-code message was tapped out on a silver key fabricated in the shop of renowned San Diego jeweler and civic leader Joseph Jessop in 1917. A generation later, due to technical circumstances, the Chollas Heights station was used to inform both the Pacific Fleet and naval headquarters of the Japanese surprise attack on December 7, 1941.42 When it was operational, the station broadcast its signals at 200,000 watts, making it for a time the most powerful transmitter in the world. It had been part of a naval communications network that covered the globe, and it provided the only direct connection between Pearl Harbor and the Navy’s headquarters at Arlington, Virginia. Its presence was indeed used to help sell real estate, just as Lt. Comdr. Hepburn had said it would: its towers were once described in a sales brochure as “majestic,…rising some 625 feet above the surrounding country, …an outstanding landmark of East San Diego and particularly Rolando — marking as they do the southern boundary of that much favored development.”43

The navy’s announcement in 1994 of its intention to demolish the station stirred the emotions of many San Diego residents. The tall structures had been a local landmark for more than seventy-five years, but the station had been closed down since 1992, “[r]endered obsolete by microchips and artificial satellites,” according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Some local citizens felt very strongly that the installation ought to have been preserved because of its historical significance to the community — “they were part of us, our neighborhood,” said Henrietta Romero, who lived nearby. Others were ready to see the seventy-three acre site cleared and put to better use.44

Having been left behind by new technology, however, NRTF went silent, and the Navy Department decided that a 412-unit residential development for sailors and their families would now fill a more pressing need. This was in answer to a long-standing problem for the navy in San Diego — how to provide its personnel with attractive and affordable homes. Navy officials had been concerned about housing in San Diego ever since 1916, and now, thanks to some events that took place long ago, they were able to seek at least a partial solution by redeveloping “Mr. Carling’s tract” — the navy’s first land purchase in San Diego.

1.These items are all culled from the minutes of the weekly meetings of the board of directors of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce between 1900-1915, hereafter cited SDCOCBOD. A significant component of the Chamber’s perennial operating deficit was due to the fact that the organization employed four salaried workers, including the all-important Executive Secretary, H.P. Wood. SDCOCBOD, “Secretary’s Annual Report, 1904.” [n.p.]

2. Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience (New York: Random House, 1965), 113-116.; John R. Logan and Harvey L. Molotch, Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 1-98.

3. Roger Lotchin, “The Darwinian City: The Politics of Urbanization in San Francisco between the Two Wars,” Pacific Historical Review, XLVII (1979), pp. 357-381.

4. SDCOCBOD, March 2, 1900, p. 1 (p. 79.)

5.. These conditions were spelled out specifically in a letter from acting secretary of the navy F.W. Hackett to George Ballou, president,, SDCOC. SDCOCBOD 1900, p. 127.

6.. Hotel Del Coronado, “Coronado Beach: ‘A Unique Corner of the Earth,’” 1898; and “Hotel Del Coronado,” 1902. The Goodman Collection, Mandeville Department of Special Collections, Geisel Library, University of California, San Diego.

7.. Ed Fletcher, letter to Theodore Roosevelt, September 16, 1902. USNA-DC, RG80, SecNavGenCor, file 10924, box 484. The president’s office routed the letter to the secretary of the navy, from whose office acting secretary of the navy Charles H. Darling responded to Fletcher on October 22, 1902, telling him that such a station would require “the affirmative action of Congress covered by appropriation of funds for the purpose..,” in which eventuality Fletcher’s suggestion would be given “due consideration.” USNA-DC, RG80, SecNavGenCor, file 10924, box 484.

8.. “The Pacific Ocean and Its Shores Are Destined To Be The Theatre Of The World’s Greatest Commercial Activity,” August 3, 1904. SDCOCBOD 1904, pp. 221-3.

9.. This complex transaction is detailed in the minutes and correspondence of the board of directors of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce as well as in the general correspondence files of the Secretary of the Navy. See, for example, SDCOCBOD, April 6, 1900, p. 2 (p. 103); George H. Ballou (president, SDCOC), letter to Secretary of the Navy, April 7, 1905. United States National Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter cited as USNA-DC), Record Group 80 (hereafter cited as RG80), Secretary of the Navy, General Correspondence File (hereafter cited as SecNavGenCor), file 10924-1, box 484; U.S. Senator George C. Perkins, letter to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, April 5, 1900. USNA-DC, RG80, SecNavGenCor, file 19024, box 484; SDCOCBOD 1900, p.135. The significance of this first San Diego navy base cannot be overestimated — it indeed marked the inception of the “metropolitan-military complex” in Southern California, a phenomenon that has been detailed in the landmark work of Roger Lotchin. See Lotchin, “Introduction: The Martial Metropolis,” in Lotchin, ed., The Martial Metropolis in War and Peace (New York: Praeger, 1984), pp.xii-xiii; “The City and the Sword in Metropolitan California, 1919-1941,” Urbanism Past and Present 7:2 (Summer/Fall 1982): 1-16; and for the most comprehensive analysis, Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), esp. chaps. 1, 2, 5, 6, and 9.

10.. SDCOCBOD, February 4, 1915, 6-7. SDCOCBOD 1915.

11.. William Kettner, Why It Was Done and How (San Diego: Frye and Smith, 1923), 12-18.

12.. “Navy Secretary To Be Told Needs of This City; Here July 22-23.” San Diego Union, July 2, 1913, p. 11.

13. “San Diego’s Welcome Overwhelms Secretary of the Navy by Warmth.” San Diego Union, July 23, 1913, p. 2. Like Kettner, Admiral Manney was a man of mixed allegiances. As chief of the navy’s Bureau of Equipment, he had been involved in the early development of the coaling station on Pt. Loma. He retired from the navy in 1906, only to be called back into the service on “special duty” to do further work on the navy’s behalf at the depot. He retired again in 1909, in San Diego. In 1910, Manney was elected to the Chamber’s board of directors; in 1913 to the San Diego city council, where he served as “superintendent of police and public morals.”

14.. “Great Welcome is Awaiting Secretary of the Navy.” San Diego Union, July 22, 1913, p. 1; and “Daniels is Coming Through Canal with Fleet of Monster Battleships, He Tells Hosts at Banquet of Beauty at Hotel Del Coronado.” San Diego Union, July 23, 1913, p. 1. According to the newspaper, “No detail was overlooked in the carrying out of the nautical effect. Painted around the entrance was a representation of a gun turret, with the big guns trained on the lights of the city in the distance. Directly in front of Secretary Daniels in the center of the long table, was a miniature battleship, a replica of the North Carolina, illumined with tiny blue and red electric lights and decorated with ferns and roses. The menus were genuine pieces of hardtack. Every guest was presented with a miniature life-preserver, inscribed with his name , to be used in case of shipwreck, or other banquet maladies. Even the waitresses were dressed in pretty sailor costumes and flitted about the tables with a nautical air that harmonized to perfection with the scene.”

15.. Earl Pomeroy credits Spreckels with “turning his millions into programs of improvement and promotion that eventually helped to bring a naval coaling station(1907),…a naval training station (1923), and hosts of families of naval personnel and retired naval officers” to San Diego, although he offers no further discussion or documentation of these assertions. The striking photograph that appeared on the front page of the Union — of Spreckels, Daniels, Mrs. Daniels, and Fred Lea, combined with the story of Daniels’ voyage aboard Spreckels’ yacht, certainly suggest the accuracy of Pomeroy’s claim. See Earl Pomeroy, The Pacific Slope: A History of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 151; and the San Diego Union, July 23, 1913, p. 1. See also, “Coaling Station and Big Naval Supply Base at San Diego, Is Daniels’ Promise,” San Diego Union, July 25, 1913, p. 1: “Going out of the harbor, Daniels stood on the bridge of the Venetia with John D. Spreckels and Admiral Manney. The latter, whose technical knowledge of the harbor probably exceeds that possessed by any other member of the party, pointed out to Daniels from time to time the conditions which exist in the bay….”

16.. “San Diego’s Welcome Overwhelms Secretary of the Navy by Warmth.” San Diego Union, July 23, 1913, p. 2.

17.. Office of Naval Intelligence, The United States Navy as an Industrial Asset: What the Navy Has Done for Industry and Commerce (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1924), 73-79.

18. R.S. Griffin, Acting Chief, Bureau of Steam Engineering. Letter to Navy Department (Operations), May 31, 1913. USNA-DC RG80 SecNav Gen Cor, file 12479-626:1.

19. “San Diego May Get Wireless Station Second to None.” San Diego Union, July 26, 1913, p. 10.

20.. Griffin, op. cit.

21.. B.A. Fiske, “Memorandum for Aid for: Personnel,” June 4, 1913. USNA-DC RG80 SecNav Gen Cor, file 12479-626:1.

22. 2nd Indorsement, from Superintendent of Radio Service to Secretary of the Navy, September 30, 1913. USNA-DC RG 80 SecNav Gen Cor, file 12479-626:3.

23. George Dewey.” 4th endorsement. G.B. No. 419, from President General Board to Secretary of the Navy, October 14, 1913. USNA-DC RG 80 SecNav Gen Cor, file 12479-626:3.

24.. 5th Endorsement, from Sec Nav to Bureau of Steam Engineering, October 16, 1913. USNA-DC RG 80 SecNav Gen Cor, file 12479-626:3.

25..Memorandum from R.S. Griffin, acting chief, Bureau of Steam Navigation, to Bureau of Supplies and Accounts, October 20, 1913. USNA-DC RG 80 SecNav Gen Cor, file 12479-626:3, 360-37. Also, SDCOCBOD, November 12, 1913, p. 3. SDCOCBOD 1913.

26.. George Burnham, letter to Josephus Daniels, November 12, 1913. Also, Frank J. Kendall, letter to Josephus Daniels, November 15, 1913; and Ed Fletcher, letter to Jospehus Daniels, November 13, 1913 (emphasis added); also, Fletcher to Roosevelt, November 22, 1913. All in USNA-DC RG 80 SecNav Gen Cor, file 12479-626:3.

27.. Hepburn, A.J. Letter to Ed Fletcher, December 2, 1913. USNA-DC RG 80 SecNav Gen Cor, file 12479-626:3.

28. In his memoir, Fletcher told the engaging story of his purchase of this and the surrounding property in 1901 — the former Villa Caro Ranch, which comprised “several hundred acres” and a beautifully furnished house. The area is now called Grossmont, after Fletcher’s partner William Gross, who put up the necessary cash to make the down payment. The total price in 1901 was $11,500. See Memoirs of Ed Fletcher, 187-203. Today, the Grossmont area is bisected by Fletcher Parkway, which then runs through the extensive subdivision known as Fletcher Hills.

29. William Tomkins. Letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Acting Secretary of the Navy, November 21, 1913. USNA-DC RG 80 SecNav Gen Cor, file 12479-626:3.

30. Kettner, Why It Was Done and How, 46-7. In this same passage, Kettner noted how the transaction brought him together with Admiral Griffin: “…I never knew a finer man in my life….I must admit that it was through the kindly feeling of Admiral Griffin that we secured this station, which was at that time the largest Radio Station in the world. We have him to thank for it.”

31. Carling, H.F. Telegram to William Tomkins, November 25, 1913; Tomkins, telegram to William Kettner, November 26, 1913. Both in SDCOCBOD 1913.

32. Tomkins, William. Telegram to William Kettner, November 30, 1913. SDCOCBOD 1913.

33. Carling, H.F. Telegram to William Tomkins, December 10, 1913. SDCOCBOD 1913.

34. SDCOCBOD, December 10, 1913, p. 3; and Tomkins, telegram to William Kettner, December 10, 1913. SDCOCBOD 1913.

35.. SDCOCBOD, Special Meeting of the Executive Committee, December 13, 1913, pp. 1-2. SDCOCBOD 1913.

36. SDCOCBOD, December 24, 1913, 1913, p. 1; Franklin D. Roosevelt, letter to H.F. Carling, January 14, 1914, USNA-DC RG80 SecNav Gen Cor file 12479-626:3; Rufus Choate, telegram to William Kettner, April 21, 1914, USNA-DC RG80 SecNav Gen Cor file 12479-626:21; SDCOCBOD, March 11, 1914, p. 1; SDCOCBOD, August 26, 1914; SDCOCBOD January 13, 1915, p. 4.

37. W.H. Bullard, Superintendent of Radio Service, to Secretary of the Navy, 2nd Indorsement [sic], September 30, 1913. USNA-DC RG 80 SecNav Gen Cor, file 12479-626:3. Also, Kettner, Why It Was Done and How, 47. In this present age of $600 toilet seats, which are standard fittings in bombers that cost $2 billion per copy, the amounts under discussion seem laughable.

38. SDCOCBOD 1914.

39 Kettner, Why It Was Done and How, 47.

40. This and the preceding quotation are both taken from the “press release,” cited above.

41. Carling, H.F. Letter to R.S. Griffin, November 25, 1914; R.S. Griffin to H.F. Carling, January 21, 1915; and Franklin D. Roosevelt to H.F. Carling, January 26, 1915. All in USNA-DC RG80 SecNav Gen Cor file 12479-626:29.

42. Steinberg, Ibid.

43. New University District Syndicate Subdividing Rolando, “San Diego: The Cradle of California” (San Diego, 1926) 14, The Goodman Collection, Mandeville Department of Special Collections, Geislel Library, University of California, San Diego.

44. James Steinberg, “Navy Radio Towers to Give Way to Housing,” San Diego Union-Tribune, editions 1, 2, 9 October 1992, Sec. 2, p. 1; and Robert Broms, Letter, San Diego Union-Tribune, 18 October 1994, Sec. 2, p. 7.

Photos from this article

Abraham J. Shragge is an adjunct instructor in history at San Diego City College and the University of California, San Diego. He is currently completing his doctoral dissertation at UCSD, entitled “Boosters and Bluejackets: The Civic Culture of Militarism in San Diego, California, 1900-1945.” An earlier study by Mr. Shragge — “A New Federal City: San Diego During World War II” — was published in the Pacific Historical Review (August 1994).