1. Native Kumeyaay
“In the beginning, earth was woman and sky was man. The first people came from Wikamee. It is said that the place can be seen still, but Wikamee is a place of darkness and mist.” The Kumeyaay Creation Story tells of a long and mystical link to what is now San Diego. The Kumeyaay had settled the area about 2,000 years ago, but archeological evidence of earlier inhabitants supports many Elders’ belief that the Kumeyaay ancestors have been here far longer, from time immemorial. The Kumeyaay ranged from modern day Oceanside south to Ensenada, Mexico; and from the Pacific coast to the desert and today’s Salton Sea. They cultivated plants and created astronomical observatories, and their knowledge benefited the Spanish who relied on their help to navigate and to survive . The advent of Spanish – and then Mexican – rule brought social, cultural, and physical strains. In 1775, the Kumeyaay revolted, burning the San Diego Mission and killing Father Luis Jayme and two soldiers. Later American rule resulted in eviction from their native lands and establishment of the reservation system. Today’s Kumeyaay continue to be a part of our region’s cultural fabric, and San Diego County has more Indian reservations (18) than any other county in the United States, including not just the Kumeyaay but Luiseño, Cahuilla, Cupeño, and Diegueño.
2. Spanish Arrival: 1542
Spanish arrival onto Kumeyaay lands ushered in a new era. On September 28, 1542 Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into the bay and named the region “San Miguel.” Ashore near what is now Point Loma, Cabrillo and his men encountered some of the Kumeyaay whose population numbered around 20,000. In 1602, Sebastían Vizcaíno arrived to map the bay and surrounding coast. He renamed the harbor “San Diego” in honor of that Saint’s day, and a member of his expedition, Fray Antonio de la Ascensión, performed the first Catholic Mass in San Diego.
3. Mission San Diego de Alcalá: 1769
The San Diego we know today began on July 16, 1769, with the dedication of Mission San Diego de Alcalá by Spanish friars Father Junípero Serra and Father Juan Crespí. The original mission was located in what is today Presidio Park, overlooking Old Town State Historic Park. In 1774 the presidio (fort) remained, but the mission was moved to its present site six miles inland in Mission Valley. San Diego, the first European settlement in Alta California (modern day California), became the starting point for future Spanish expeditions and eventually the establishment of 21 missions and four presidios in Alta California.
4. Mexican Period: 1821-1848
The Mexican War for Independence began in 1810, and by 1821 in the people of Mexico had gained their freedom from Spain. San Diego became part of Mexico in April of 1822 when the Mexican flag was raised over the Presidio. Inhabitants of the Presidio began to relocate and settle the area that is today Old Town State Historic Park. Between 1834 and 1836 Mexico secularized the missions, redistributing them as land grants to prominent Mexican citizens. San Diego officially became a pueblo (town) in 1835. The mix of former soldiers and new arrivals remained small, and in 1838 San Diego’s pueblo status was revoked because the population had dwindled to fewer than 150. From 1838 to the Mexican War in 1846 San Diego was governed as part of Los Angeles. San Diego remained a small outpost in Mexican California, relying on ranching and the lucrative hide and tallow trade.Spanish arrival onto Kumeyaay lands ushered in a new era. On September 28, 1542 Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into the bay and named the region “San Miguel.” Ashore near what is now Point Loma, Cabrillo and his men encountered some of the Kumeyaay whose population numbered around 20,000. In 1602, Sebastían Vizcaíno arrived to map the bay and surrounding coast. He renamed the harbor “San Diego” in honor of that Saint’s day, and a member of his expedition, Fray Antonio de la Ascensión, performed the first Catholic Mass in San Diego.
5. San Diego Becomes Part of the United States: 1846-1850
The United States government pursued an aggressive policy of expansion in the nineteenth century that put it on a collision course with Mexico. In June 1846, U.S. Army Captain John C. Frémont, guide Kit Carson, and a group of California settlers calling themselves The Bears staged a revolt in Sonoma (California) against Mexican rule. Word arrived that the two nations were at war and Frémont sailed with Commodore Robert Stockton to San Diego, claiming it for the United States on July 29th as they raised the American flag in the square at Old Town. Meanwhile, on December 6, 1846 General Stephen Kearny’s Army of the West and a group of California Lancers led by Andrés Pico clashed at the Battle of San Pasqual, near what is today the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Though badly bloodied and surrounded, the Americans later defeated the Californians with the aid of U.S. sailors and Marines from San Diego. The war ended in 1848 and San Diego became part of the United States with the admission of California to the Union as the thirty-first State in 1850. The United States and Mexican Boundary Survey of 1848–1855 established the current border, dividing Mexicans, Americans, and Kumeyaay. What had been one area was split in two, and the stage was set for the creation of both a dynamic synergy and area of conflict between the two nations, and the cities of San Diego and Tijuana. The San Ysidro Port of Entry crossing is today the busiest border crossing in the Western Hemisphere. The San Diego we know today began on July 16, 1769, with the dedication of Mission San Diego de Alcalá by Spanish friars Father Junípero Serra and Father Juan Crespí. The original mission was located in what is today Presidio Park, overlooking Old Town State Historic Park. In 1774 the presidio (fort) remained, but the mission was moved to its present site six miles inland in Mission Valley. San Diego, the first European settlement in Alta California (modern day California), became the starting point for future Spanish expeditions and eventually the establishment of 21 missions and four presidios in Alta California.
6. Founding New Town: 1860s
The early American period witnessed slow growth in Old Town San Diego until after the Civil War. Old Town San Diego received its moniker when in 1867 the enterprising Alonzo Horton arrived and purchased 960 acres of what has become the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego. Horton’s ingenious division of the city into short blocks allowed him to sell more corner lots and increase his profits. His “New Town” grew a city on the waterfront, but not before reserving land for City Park (today’s Balboa Park) in 1868. San Diego was the first city west of the Mississippi to set aside land for an urban park.
7. Julian Gold Rush: 1870
Julian, east of San Diego in the Cuyamaca Mountains, was founded following the Civil War by Confederate veterans headed west to begin life anew. San Diego County’s first and only gold rush began in 1870 when black prospector Fred Coleman found flecks of gold in a creek in early 1870. By 1876, when most had shut down, mines in the area had produced over $2 million in gold. But the pioneers stayed and began farming, apples being particularly well-suited to the land. Albert Robinson, a former slave, and his wife Margaret Tull Robinson, opened a restaurant and bakery to serve the local community. In 1897 they constructed the Hotel Robinson, one of the first businesses in San Diego County to be owned and operated by an African American, and the oldest continuously operated hotel in Southern California. It stands today as the Julian Hotel.
8. Ethnic Immigrant Communities and the Tuna Industry
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, San Diego drew large numbers of ethnic immigrants, many with ties to the fishing industry. Local ordinances, de facto segregation, prejudice, and proximity to the water all served to isolate these communities to areas outside downtown. The Chinese community had little choice but to settle south of Market Street in the tidal lowlands known as the “Stingaree District,” a play on “stingray” and a reference to the area’s vice. In similar fashion, Japanese fishermen lived south of downtown, Italian migrants settled on the water just north of downtown, and across the bay in Point Loma Portuguese families established their community. These groups made much of their living from the sea, increasingly in the tuna industry. The waterfront was home to four canneries and countless fishing boats. At its peak in the mid-twentieth century, tuna was San Diego’s third-largest industry, behind the Navy and aerospace. It employed some 40,000 San Diegans, and two of the three big tuna canning companies were based here.
9. The Boom of the 1880s
When San Diego attained a long-awaited rail connection to the East in 1885, excitement about the area’s future triggered the “Boom of the Eighties.” The city’s population grew from just over 2,600 in 1880 to an estimated 35,000 in 1887, and real estate values soared. Boosters and businessmen built vital infrastructure, including telephone, gas (SDG&E), and water systems. Arguably the most important of the new arrivals was John D. Spreckels, who visited San Diego at the height of the boom and invested in real estate and wharf facilities. Spreckels eventually became a preeminent figure in San Diego society and politics. While land values collapsed at the end of the decade and the city’s population dropped to about 16,000 by 1890, the boom had left in its wake such iconic structures as the Hotel del Coronado, opened in 1888.
10. Panama-California Exposition: 1915
The cities of San Francisco and San Diego were both keen to mark the opening of the Panama Canal, offering bids to host an international exposition. Notoriety – and commerce – was sure to follow. San Diego lost out to her neighbor to the north but city planners decided to hold an event anyway. The Panama-California Exposition opened on January 1, 1915 and for two years transformed the open spaces of “City Park.” The Cabrillo Bridge at El Prado welcomed guests who explored exhibits, an aviary, rose garden, animal pens, and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ. Despite the intention to build much of the venue as temporary structures, many remain and Bertram Goodhue’s Spanish Colonial architecture forever defines Balboa Park.
11. Education and Research
San Diego began its rise as a higher education and research hub in 1897 when San Diego State University was founded as San Diego Normal School. Not long after, in 1902 the Church of the Nazarene established Point Loma Nazarene University on land owned by the Theosophical Society. In 1903 the Marine Biological Association of San Diego appeared in La Jolla and now bears the name of one of its preeminent donors, philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps (Scripps Institute of Oceanography). In 1924 she founded the Scripps Research Institute. Mother Rosalie Hill established the San Diego College for Women in 1949, and in 1972 it merged with San Diego University, a Roman Catholic Diocese men’s college, to form the coeducational University of San Diego. In 1960, the newest member of the University of California system merged with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography to create the University of California, San Diego. Jonas Salk opened the independent Salk Institute for Biological Research in 1963. Today the region is a center of education, biotech, and technology research. The newest member of the higher education network in San Diego is California State University, San Marcos, which opened its doors in 1990.
12. Boosters and Philanthropists
San Diego has had many influential benefactors over the years. Early city-builders Alonzo Horton and John D. Spreckels shaped much of the Gaslamp and Balboa Park while George Marston was involved with establishing Balboa Park, the San Diego Public Library System, and San Diego Presidio Park. Kate Sessions, the “Mother of Balboa Park”, introduced new plant species to the area and was instrumental in hiring the former superintendent of New York’s Central Park to oversee landscaping. Ellen Browning Scripps used her wealth from the newspaper industry to advance higher education and the public interest in the La Jolla community, financing the Bishop’s School, the La Jolla Woman’s Club, and the La Jolla Recreational Center, and donating her home to The Art Center (now the site of the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla). James Copley, publisher of the San Diego Union, underwrote much of the revitalization of downtown in the middle twentieth-century, and today Symphony Hall and the library at the University of San Diego bear the family name.
13. Agricultural Development
San Diego’s mild climate and abundant sunshine allows for the cultivation of a wide variety of crops, and the history of farming in the region can be traced to Spanish missionaries who cultivated grain, beans, deciduous fruits, grapes, and other crops. The Spanish- and Mexican-era ranchos also supported substantial cattle herds. Since the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, San Diego has been an important producer of specialty crops, from citrus fruits and winter tomatoes to avocados and poinsettias.
14. The Military Presence
San Diego developed its close relationship with the military in the early twentieth century. The chamber of commerce helped convince the Navy to build a coaling station in San Diego harbor, with initial construction beginning in 1902. Hoping the presence of various military installations would bring population growth as well as federally-funded infrastructure that would benefit commercial shipping, the chamber continued to pressure Congress for the creation of training stations, a shipyard, a naval hospital, and other facilities. Vital to these efforts was William Kettner, San Diego’s “million dollar congressman” who successfully lobbied for the kinds of appropriations that would firmly establish San Diego as a “navy town” in the years between the two world wars.
15. “Smokestacks vs. Geraniums”
San Diego civic leaders and citizens have long wrestled with the problem of how to balance urban growth with the maintenance of the region’s quality of life. This dilemma came to the fore in the 1917 mayoral election, which pitted George Marston – who had been instrumental in inviting the noted city planner John Nolen to prepare a report on San Diego’s future development – against the banker Louis Wilde. The local press depicted the contest as a referendum between “smokestacks” and “geraniums,” as Wilde called for more industrial development so San Diego could compete with rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco, while Marston advocated city beautification. Wilde won the election, but the battle foreshadowed later disputes over the nature of urban development in San Diego.
The sunny skies over San Diego have helped make the area the site of numerous advances in aviation. John J. Montgomery made the first successful controlled, heavier-than-air flight at Otay Mesa in 1883, but it was the exploits of Glenn Curtiss that truly established San Diego’s connection with aviation development. Curtiss began an aviation training school at North Island in 1911 and in the same year unveiled the world’s first seaplane. The close relationship between Curtiss and the Navy – the Navy provided Curtiss his first pupil at North Island and it was a Curtiss plane that landed on the USS Pennsylvania and paved the way for aircraft carriers – earned the aviator the moniker “The Father of Naval Aviation.” Commercial aviation took off, too. T. Claude Ryan arrived in San Diego in 1922, helped launch a regularly-scheduled passenger airline with flights to Los Angeles, and designed the monoplane that Charles Lindbergh would make famous in 1937. San Diego also became a major center of military aircraft production in the interwar years. In 1933 Reuben H. Fleet relocated his Consolidated Aircraft to San Diego, where the company would produce the B-24 bomber (for which Chula Vista-based Rohr Aircraft manufactured components) during World War II. Military-related aircraft and aerospace companies such as General Dynamics remained major regional employers well after the Second World War.
Sports and athletics have long been a source of civic pride and identity in San Diego. In the early-twentieth century cities such as Julian and El Cajon sponsored local baseball clubs who competed for the County Championship. Balboa Stadium, built as part of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, hosted a range of athletic events, including the San Diego Chargers from 1961 to 1966. In 1936 the establishment of the Pacific Coast League and the city’s construction of Lane Field brought the Padres, to town and future Hall of Famer and San Diego native Ted Williams joined the team. The Padres joined Major League Baseball in 1969 and soon moved into San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium (now SDCCU Stadium), built in 1967. The stadium hosted the Padres until their move to PetCo Park in 2004, the Chargers until their move to Los Angeles in 2017, and continues to be the home of the SDSU Aztecs football team. The stadium has also hosted three Super Bowls as well as the annual Holiday and Poinsettia Bowls. San Diego is also home to a few surprising sports: the Gulls hockey team occupied the new Sports Arena (Pechanga Arena) in 1966, San Diegans created the sport of Triathlon in 1974, and the U.S. Olympic Training Center opened in 1995.
18. From the Zoo to Comic-Con: Tourism in San Diego
One of the signal events in San Diego’s status as a major tourist destination was the creation of the San Diego Zoo. Concerned about the fate of the animals featured at the Panama-California Exposition, brothers Harry and Paul Wegeforth launched the San Diego Zoological Society in 1916, and the zoo flourished under the leadership of Belle Benchley, who in the 1920s became director. The city’s promotion of tourism is also evident in the development of Mission Bay. A 1958 master plan paved the way for boat launches, beaches, playgrounds, hotels, and other recreational amenities, and in 1964 the opening of Sea World added a major feature to San Diego’s growing portfolio of tourist attractions. Downtown, the Convention Center (opened in 1989) has hosted San Diego Comic-Con annually since 1991 and serves as an important tourist hub along with neighboring Petco Park and the Gaslamp Quarter. The opening of Legoland California in Carlsbad in 1999 brought another world renowned attraction.
19. The New Deal in San Diego
While naval expenditures cushioned San Diego from some of the worst effects of the Great Depression, the region nevertheless suffered from the economic collapse of the 1930s. Local leaders thus sought aid from various New Deal agencies, especially the Works Progress Administration. WPA funding contributed to the construction of a number of notable San Diego landmarks, including the Del Mar racetrack and fairgrounds and the downtown San Diego County Administration Center. Other beneficiaries of New Deal spending included the San Diego Zoo, San Diego State College (Aztec Bowl, classroom buildings, and other structures), and Balboa Park (renovations and improvement of structures such as the House of Hospitality).
20. The “Blitz-Boom”: World War II Transforms San Diego
With the outbreak of the Second World War, San Diego experienced a massive population boom. Local military installations expanded their operations and new facilities were established, including the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton in north San Diego County. Tens of thousands of civilians came to the county to work in aircraft manufacturing plants, as did local women who sought new opportunities in occupations previously off-limits. By 1943, at least 40,000 women participated in the paid workforce. The city of San Diego’s population rose from 192,000 in 1940 to nearly 277,000 in 1942. While the overall population swelled, about 1,200 Japanese Americans were removed from their San Diego homes and placed in internment camps. Yet the diversity of the county population generally increased during the war, as African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Mexican immigrants sought work in industry and agriculture. Housing, transportation systems, and water delivery infrastructure all felt the strain of the expanding population. A federal housing project at Linda Vista helped address the housing shortage with 3,000 units built in less than a year, but many found themselves living in makeshift quarters such as a trailer park in Mission Valley or abandoned streetcars repurposed as temporary housing. Population growth would continue in the postwar years, in part because of military personnel who chose to settle in San Diego after passing through during the war.
21. Water for a Growing Region
San Diego’s semiarid climate has always posed a challenge to the growth of the region. (Ironically, though, a 1916 flood that followed the activities of the infamous rainmaker Charles Hatfield devastated San Diego and destroyed road, bridges, and dams.) Through the first several decades of the 20th century, residents of the county relied on local water derived from wells and several systems of reservoirs, pipelines, and flumes. The U.S. Navy-constructed San Diego Aqueduct, completed in November of 1947, brought Colorado River water just in time to prevent shortages for a population that had exploded during World War II. Since the 1990s the region has diversified its sources of water, supplementing Colorado River water with recycled water, rural-to-urban transfers, and a desalination plant opened in Carlsbad in 2015.
22. Postwar Growth and the Age of the Automobile
San Diego’s post-World War II reflected trends seen in other American cities, as urban areas expanded outwards and automobile-based metropolises emerged. Like other Californians, San Diegans had taken readily to the automobile in the early twentieth century, but freeway development, planning decisions, and the consumer boom of the 1950s led to an expansion of car ownership and new patterns of growth. Developers built new suburbs in places such as Clairemont, University City, and the El Cajon Valley. Other features of automobile-centered urbanization came, too: Interstates 5 and 15 accommodated growing numbers of commuters, the Coronado Bridge was completed in 1969, and outlying shopping areas including Grossmont Center and Mission Valley threatened the dominance of downtown retailers. As this outward growth continued around the county, though, Downtown San Diego experienced revitalization in the 1990s and beyond, and the new trolley system (opened in 1980) offered commuters an alternative to the automobile.
23. Beach Culture
San Diego’s beaches have attracted residents and tourists alike since the late 19th century. The popularity of Coronado’s Tent City (in operation from 1900 to 1939) suggested the appeal of a beach vacation, while Belmont Park at Mission Beach (opened in 1925) offered various attractions, including the Giant Dipper roller coaster. But the importance of the beach to San Diego is perhaps best reflected in the region’s surf culture. Pioneers of the sport, including Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth spent time in San Diego, and others like Encinitas native Linda Benson, grew up in the area. San Diego has also spawned important surfboard manufacturing companies such as Gordon & Smith and Rusty. From San Onofre to Windansea to Imperial Beach, surf has been a defining element of San Diego culture.
24. Chicano Park (1970)
Just south of downtown, the neighborhood of Barrio Logan had long been home to a vibrant working-class Mexican-American community. Industrial development, the city’s decision to locate dumps in the area, and the construction of Interstate 5 and the Coronado Bridge divided the community and resulted in a slow economic decline. On April 22, 1970, Mario Solis, a student at San Diego City College, ran into construction crews beneath the bridge who told him they were there to begin construction of a parking lot for a Highway Patrol station. Residents of Barrio Logan had had enough. They occupied the land beneath the bridge and began working to create a park, reconnecting their community and the bay. Regional artists adorned the bridge’s concrete pillars with colorful murals depicting Indigenous, Mexican, and Mexican-American culture. Today Chicano Park stands as a testament to the proud heritage of the people of Barrio Logan and San Diego’s Chicano community.
25. Craft Brewing
A vital growth sector in San Diego’s economy in the last two decades has been the craft brewing industry. When Karl Strauss opened its downtown brewpub and brewery in 1989, it marked the first commercial brewing operation in San Diego in nearly forty years. Ballast Point, AleSmith, Port, and Stone followed in the 1990s. By 2016, there were over 100 licensed breweries in the county, and Stone Brewing had become the largest brewery in Southern California. San Diego craft brewers have achieved remarkable success in national and international competitions, and beer tourism draws visitors to tasting rooms and production-line tours.