Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Coronado: The Enchanted Island.

By Katherine Eitzen Carlin and Ray Brandes. Coronado: Coronado Historical Association, 1988. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Appendix. 312 pages. $25.00. (paperback only).

Reviewed by Gary.F.Kurutz, Director of Special Collections for the California State Library and Chairman of the Publications Committee of the Book Club of California.

Coronado: The Enchanted Island

“We are a playground and never hope to be or wish to be anything else.” These words, written by the editor of a Coronado Magazine called El Patio, best characterized the feeling of this sublime resort that juts into the Pacific Ocean. The story of this picturesque island stretches back to the days of early Spanish exploration but when sagacious land developers decided to build a seaside luxury hotel over a century ago its place as a favorite tourist attraction and residence was ensured. Endowed with an incredible location, paradise-like climate and its proximity to the growing city of San Diego, romantic Mexico, the military installations of North Island and not too far from Hollywood, the celebrity capital of the West, Coronado has enjoyed a relatively carefree history. The biggest problem, naturally, was and is how to preserve and manage “the enchanted island.”

Katherine E. Carlin, a resident since 1928, saw the need to record the story of this vacation-land back in the early 1960’s. A person of untiring energy and deep affection for her adopted town, Carlin helped establish the Coronado Historical Association. As the local historian, she assiduously gathered material gleaned from local newspapers and now rare social magazines, interviewed longtime Coronadans, and saved countless photographs and other primary source materials all with the thought of giving back to Coronado a history worthy of its appealing past. Before her dream could be realized, however, she passed away. Carlin’s research, carefully organized into a series of ring binders, deserved publication and her family kept the project alive. Fortunately, Professor Ray Brandes of the University of San Diego and native Coronadan saw the value of her “labor of love” and, after a short but intensive effort, put Carlin’s material into publishable form and brought the history up-to-date. Through the sponsor-ship of the Coronado Historical Association, this handsomely illustrated work was published in time for the centennial of Coronado’s majestic Hotel del Coronado.

The authors trace the history of their village from the Spanish days up to the 1980’s. Necessarily, much attention is devoted to the Hotel Del and its attending colorful personalities. Coronado grew up to support a luxury resort and it is fascinating how the village evolved as a result of the hotel. A yacht club, golf course, polo fields, dance pavilion, aquatic facilities, a tent city, theater, and gardens entertained guests and Coronadans alike. Noted personalities, of course, receive attention such as E.S. Babcock, John D. Spreckels, Glenn Curtiss, Thomas Edison and the many movie stars, authors, musicians, politicans that made their way to this celebrated watering hole. As noted by the authors, “The Coronado scene continued to be a veritable whirlwind of social and recreational activities.”

What makes this book a true local history, however, is its focus on ordinary, less glamorous people and events. The authors present much more than a parade of celebrities. Equal attention is given to those who managed the place and kept it attractive: the librarians, teachers, hotel keepers, law enforcement officials, city council members, newspaper editors, gardeners, beauticians and drug store clerks. The authors provide detailed coverage of the community’s struggle to retain its quality of life, the goings and comings of its citizens, transportation from ferries to Scootamotors, street naming, making of movies, activities of groups like the Garden Club and Community Chest, floods, accidents, buildings of schools, churches, other hotels, and sports championships won by the local high school. While other decades may have been more golden. Carlin and Brandes must be commended for their chronicle of the village during the Great Depression and World War II. As clearly demonstrated throughout its existence, this paradise struggled with its geographic isolation, a fear of being spoiled by over development and the debate over which way to make the inevitable physical connection with San Diego. With the completion of the bridge in 1969, the island faced new challenges as narrated by Brandes.

To say that this volume is loaded with facts is an understatement. The historical association published a book designed primarily for Coronadans and for those who enjoy the island as a second home. No effort is made to compare it to other Western resort communities such as Palm Springs, Catalina or the community that grew up around the Hotel Del Monte in Pacific Grove. What Carlin and Brandes have created is a year-by-year and sometimes month-by-month chronicling of events. This book could have as easily been called “The Annals of Coronado. “It recalls, in some respects, the community and county histories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sans biographical volume. If this approach has a weakness it is that events, at least for this reviewer, become repetitious and blurred. Much ephemeral information is packed in at the expense of smooth transitions. For example, the arrival of Edison and the opening of flower shop are given equal billing. Or, “In 1897, the city paid five cents a head for gophers dead or alive. “This is quaint but hardly necessary. Despite this, Carlin and Brandes’ compendium stands as the foundation for island history and complements the splashy tourist oriented publications.

Supplementing the text are dozens of fine photographs, maps, and reproductions of broadsides, hotel menus, invitations and programs gathered from a variety of sources. Many of these are fresh views or images that have rarely been seen. The publishers produced a special limited or collector’s edition embellished with color illustrations reproduced from paintings by Sara Rowe. All serve to convey not only the fantasy of this village but also its real life concerns. Additionally, the authors inserted a valuable appendix that has such useful information as a list of mayors, city managers, and a listing of 65 motion picture films made in Coronado and North Island from 1901 to 1972. An extensive bibliography and essential index round out the volume. In summary, Coronado: The Enchanted Island represents an encyclopedic contribution to local history and will delight anyone wanting the details one of America’s most luxurious and favored communities.