The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 2002, Volume 48, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor
Michael Kelly, M.D., Guest Editor

San Diego’s Great Boom lasted from 1886 until early in 1888. Long-time residents, newcomers, investors, and land-speculators sold property to one another at escalating prices, fueled by a six-fold population increase. The opening of the railroad and the subsequent “fare-wars” made it easy and inexpensive for anyone to visit San Diego. While many came for the climate, not all were vacationers and speculators. The Chamber of Commerce and the local newspapers were enthusiastic promoters of San Diego as a health resort and “natural sanitarium,” encouraging health-seekers and “invalids” to visit and remain in San Diego. Health-seekers were targeted because they had the financial means to make extended stays in the city’s hotels and would spend their cash at local businesses. A great many of them did so.

Arthritics came for the hot sulphur springs and the warm weather; asthmatics enjoyed an atmosphere unpolluted by industry; the frail and debilitated found relief from the hot, humid summers and the ice and snow of the winters back home. Fresh air, open space and a mild climate offered the best hope for many afflicted with tuberculosis at a time when medicine had little else to offer.

The City Council and the County Board of Supervisors met the many challenges of the boom years by creating ordinances and bolstering civic institutions to serve San Diego’s growing populace. City Marshals found it difficult to maintain law and order with the huge influx of transients during the boom. Teachers and schools, streetlights, sewers, gas and electricity were needed. Plumbing and building codes were improved. The City got a new charter in 1889, along with its first Police Department and first paid Fire Department.

Businessmen and entrepreneurs did their part in helping San Diego cope with its unprecedented growth. Local wells could no longer provide enough water, so the back-country mountain watershed was tapped. The Cuyamaca and Sweetwater dams collected mountain water for distribution to farms and cities through miles of newly-built flumes, tunnels and pipelines. New housing and commercial buildings went up quickly; hotels and sanitariums opened; and the jewel in the crown of San Diego’s expansion came near the close of the boom with the opening of the Hotel del Coronado in early 1888.

Imagine what a nightmare it would be if the present population of San Diego County were to surge six-fold—from three million to eighteen million—in just two years. How could we provide housing, public safety and health care for that many people? How could we possibly build the necessary infrastructure—the roads and bridges, power and water supplies, sewer, cable and telephone lines? While on a smaller scale, this was the very situation that confronted San Diego during its Great Boom.

The First Annual Report of the Board of Health of the City of San Diego (1888) contains vital statistics and some wonderful commentary about the city’s health and the lives and deaths of San Diegans. The First Annual Report of the County Hospital and Poor Farm (1889) documents San Diego County’s early efforts at providing health care for the indigent, the cost of their care, the illnesses they suffered, and the causes of their deaths. These original documents from the Research Archives of the San Diego Historical Society, along with four city ordinances from this period, are reprinted in this issue of the Journal.

What inspired the compilation of these “First Annual Reports” remains unknown. The timing of their publication just six months apart suggests more than a mere coincidence. Nothing like them would be published throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. Doctors David Gochenauer and Joseph. P. LeFevre, along with the many other contributors to these reports, have given San Diego a fascinating glimpse into the state of the City’s health during one of its most exciting times.