Oral History Program


Housed within the Document Archives, the Oral History Collection is one of the most important in California, documenting over 100 years of regional history. Begun in 1956 with interviews of over 300 pioneer San Diego County residents, the collection now numbers over 1,800 interviews. It provides a fascinating insight into our social, cultural and political history, including eyewitness accounts of people, events and lifestyles.

The Legacy Oral History Program, launched in 2015, continues to capture our community’s first-person narratives.

For more information: [email protected] or 619-232-6203 ext.117


San Diego Pioneers

For almost 60 years, the San Diego History Center has maintained an oral history program documenting the people and events that define our region.  The original recording project began in November 1956 and followed the example set by a similar project, which was the first of its kind, recording interviews with pioneer settlers in New Mexico after the end of WWII. Recording oral histories was seen as an efficient way to capture the historically important recollections of a fast-disappearing group of local residents. The SDHC program was initiated in 1956 by former County Supervisor Edgar Hastings who received a grant from the County of San Diego to work with the San Diego Historical Society to record the stories of local residents. He completed 340 interviews from 1956-1961.

The first recordings were originally made on a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder used by Hastings as he toured the County collecting interviews. Whiles working with the Board of Supervisors, he had met many people who had great stories to tell of early life in San Diego County. The subjects he interviewed had lived in San Diego in the late 19th century and their words are a valuable source of local history. Interviews include recollections of local ranch life, mining, the 1916 flood and Hatfield the Rainmaker, pioneer family genealogy, cattle rustlers, early agriculture, mail delivery, homesteading, the Mexican revolution, schools and schooling, early transportation including personal accounts from local stage and train drivers, and much more. Of particular interest is an interview with Florence Chambers, a local swimmer who took part in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games where she won a bronze medal.

With almost half of these early interviews now available in digital form, we are able to let your hear excerpts of stories from these San Diego pioneers in their own words:


Leonore Adelina Alvarado (February 1961)

Born 1893. Daughter of Sylvestre Marron. Grew up on the Agua Hedionda Rancho near Oceanside. Married Joseph Alvarado, a farmer.

Clip: School


Clip: 1916 Flood


Ethel Banks (August 1957)

Born Ethel Tulloch in 1885. Co-founder of International Order of St. Luke (a prayer and healing organization) with her husband, Dr. John Banks. Worked for the Postal Service.

Clip: Postal Service


Clip: Outing to the lighthouse


Clip: Stagecoach trip to Ramona


Joe Brennan (June 1957)

Born in 1883. Lived at the new Point Loma Lighthouse where his father was keeper. Harbor Master for the City of San Diego.

Clip: School at Roseville


Florence Chambers Newkirk (June 1957)

Local swimmer who represented the USA at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris in the 100-meter backstroke where she came in fourth.

Clip: Tryouts for 1924 Olympic Games


Clip: Competing in 1924 Olympic Games


Frank Ellis (March 1961)

Born 1880 on Ellis Ranch near Descanso. Worked on cattle ranches. Also worked as a temporary border patrol officer and later joined the Immigration Service as a permanent employee.

Clip: Delivering Newspapers


George Miller (August 1959)

Born in 1886. Spent early life in Julian where his father had an apple ranch. Started work hauling freight between Julian to San Diego and also drove the stagecoach. Later worked in Lakeside Lumber Yard.

Clip: America Newton


Clip: Early Entertainment


Clip: Fourth of July Celebrations


Edward Reed (December 1960)

Went to school in Roseville. Started work at Ross Lumber and Plane Mill. Also worked at Ford Motor Company, and Campbell Machine Company building fishing boats.

Clip: Beer Gardens at Roseville


Clip: Canneries


Clip: Racing Salmon Boats

IMLS Grant Project 2014 – 2016

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this website do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services

In 2014, the History Center was awarded a $24,771 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to create digital preservation copies of some of these earliest oral history interviews.

Originally recorded on reel-to-reel tape, the interviews were transferred to dictabelts for transcription due to difficulties with transcribing from the tape recorder. Introduced in 1947, dictabelts are thin plastic recording belts, 3 ½” x 6” used in a Dictaphone machine as a voice recording system. The red belts that were used for this project are approximately 12” long and contain approximately 15 minutes of dictation each. As the original reel-to-reel interviews were recorded over and the tapes re-used, the dictabelts remained the only original and complete audio recording of these interviews. The original grant proposal was to complete 130 interviews, but at the end of the two- year project, 167 interviews have been digitized.


Sylura Barron (December 1993)
“The Rose Queen of Politics.” Staunch Democrat and first black woman to be sent as a delegate to the National Democratic Presidential Convention. For almost seven decades she made her mark on San Diego business, politics, and society. “Leave out no one” was one of her favorite slogans.

Catherine Bregante Ghio (April 1980)
Member of prominent local Italian fishing family. Started work in family fish market. Opened Anthony’s Fish Grotto in 1946.

Sam Hamill (March 1983)
Outstanding local architect and chief designer of County Administration Center and Del Mar Racetrack. Began his career working for the firm of Requa and Jackson.

Tom Hom (January 1985)
Local Chinese businessman who served on San Diego City Council and later as assemblyperson in the State Legislature.

Donal Hord (June 1964)
Internationally acclaimed sculptor. One of his best known local projects is The Guardian of the Water, a granite sculpture fountain funded by the Works Progress Administration, situated at the entrance to the County Administration Building.


Imam Taha Hassane (December 2015)
Director of Public/Interfaith Relations and Youth Program at the Islamic Center of San Diego.  Imam Hassane was born in Algeria and migrated to the United States during the Algerian Civil War. He moved to San Diego in 2004 to work at the Islamic Center of San Diego.

Jack Kimbrough (October 1990)
Local dentist and civil rights leader. One of the founders of the Urban League, he worked against segregation, covenant provisions and other forms of racial prejudice.

James Mills (July 1992)
Served as long-time member of both the State Senate and the State Assembly. Later became Chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board. Started his career as Curator at the San Diego Historical Society.

Walter Trepte (June 1974)
Head of Trepte Construction, San Diego’s oldest construction company, for more than 40 years. During this time, the company played an active role in every era of San Diego’s development, completing nearly 5,000 construction projects including more than 40 in the historic Gaslamp Quarter.


Kathy Hawk (January 2016)
Lead Panda Keeper at San Diego Zoo Global. Lead Panda Keeper at and thirty-year veteran of San Diego Zoo Global who has worked at ‘Panda Trek’ since the arrival of the pandas in 1996.


Pete Wilson (August 2015)
Former Governor of California, United States Senator for California, Mayor of San Diego and California State Assemblyperson. He attended Yale University as an undergraduate before spending time in the United States Marine Corps. After attending University of California, Berkeley Law School, he settled in San Diego to practice law before running for public office.