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Preservation & Sustainability

From boom to bust, San Diego framework laid 125 years ago
By JENNIFER McENTEE, Special to The Daily Transcript
Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Daily Transcript was launched in San Diego in 1886, during a time of unprecedented growth and prosperity. San Diego had just joined the ranks of other major California cities with transcontinental train service. Businesspeople from across the country saw the newly chartered San Diego as a place of untapped potential.

The population swelled from a few thousand people to more than 40,000, necessitating goods and services, public utilities, schools, parks, mass transit, building construction and tourism.

"What was created was amazing. I don't know what it would have been like to see this small village in 1885, then this major city in 1886 ‹ the growth was more dramatic than anything we've ever seen," said Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation. With the arrival of transcontinental train service, "One day it took weeks to get across the country, and the next it took just six days. This was a time of excitement for a town that wanted to be the next San Francisco or Chicago," he said.

While the California Gold Rush might have drawn people West, it was a different kind of California gold ‹ the "sunshine of the South" ‹ that brought people from San Francisco to Southern California cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, according to Christine Donovan, director of heritage programs for the Hotel del Coronado.

"Southern California was a magical place with beautiful weather, exotic landscapes and no sickness. That was important because sanitation was a big problem in cities like New York," Donovan said. "Southern California was considered a healthy place and was exotic in a way that was as impressive as European sightseeing.

"People came out as visitors and would never go back. There's a vacation state of mind here that permeates. You could be outside year-round. Just like now, there was an ease of life here that didn't exist elsewhere," Donovan said.

The land boom of the 1880s was one of the largest real estate rushes in San Diego's history, Coons said. So-called "boomers" bought large swaths of land to build businesses and housing subdivisions.

"Boomers bought land for two and three times what it was worth, then sold it for four and five times that," he said, noting that the names of those early entrepreneurs are inextricably woven into San Diego's history: including Frank Kimball, Alonzo Horton, E.W. Scripps, Elisha Babcock Jr., Hampton Story, John D. Spreckels and even Wyatt Earp.

"They laid out most of the towns that we know now, including landmarks like the Hotel del Coronado and the Gaslamp Quarter, which was changed from a frontier town to a city with multistory brick and glass buildings," Coons said.

According to Donovan, "This was back at the time when men wanted to build cities."

Beyond train service ‹ historians at the San Diego History Center say at least five independent railroad lines were organized and constructed in the period between 1885 and 1890 ‹ the population surge gave rise to a new infrastructure and economy. It was the beginning of San Diego's public transportation (the San Diego Street Car Co.), utilities (the San Diego Flume Co. and the San Diego Gas and Electric Light Co.), banks (including San Diego Savings Bank), merchants (including Klauber Wangenheim Co., Marston's and Jessop's Jewelers), schools (the San Diego Normal School), parks (city visionaries devised plans for sites including Balboa Park and Presidio Park), tourism (such as the Hotel del Coronado and Old Town's "Ramona's Marriage Place"), and even San Diego's Navy presence, with Spreckels' contribution of land on North Island.

"Spreckels made this a really welcoming, accommodating climate for early aviation," Donovan said. "Had he not been so generous ‹ he told the early aviators, 'You can use this land practically rent-free' ‹ I don't know that Naval aviation would be what it is today in San Diego."

But the time of rampant prosperity was over in just a few short years.

"It turns out, like a lot of real estate booms, there wasn't much to sustain it," Coons said. "The millionaires who didn't get out lost their shirts."

The population declined by about one-third by 1889. Businesses shuttered, banks failed, and houses were abandoned.

"We had been attracting people from back East. A lot of them just went home. There were these huge, vacant Victorian mansions," Coons said.

Even the Hotel del Coronado, so promising when construction began in 1886, suffered under the strain of a weak local and national economy when the doors officially opened in 1888.

"By then, the boom was over, and people weren't flocking to The Del," Coons said. "They thought, 'People will come back in the spring.' And then they thought, 'Well, then maybe this summer.' After a while it was clear people weren't coming back."

Despite the apparent recession, many of San Diego's early civic leaders kept going, buying up failing businesses and building even more infrastructure, right down to the concrete sidewalks, according to Coons.

"They weren't afraid to continue investing," Coons said. "They knew it was going to come back. They knew that growth would eventually happen."

By the turn of the century, the city and the nation seemed to be coming out of its economic depression. For San Diego in particular, the promise of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition was a boost to the local economy. Architects were selected in 1911 for what would eventually be known as Balboa Park.

"It would have been a really exciting period to live," Coons said. "We still have tangible benefits of that time that we see every day: the Gaslamp, the Hotel del, the water systems. They were making it possible for growth. We're finally reaching the size of the city they envisioned then."



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