his sister-in-law’s. Only as an afterthought did he mention the quake.
A few days later, the San Diego Union speculated on its cause. “Is it the pressure of gases? Of electrical forces? Of steam generated by the internal fires of the earth, the result of volcanic action, or the effect of great masses of matter sloughing off from the super-incumbent earth and falling into the vast depths of the fiery liquid below?” Whatever the scientific explanation proved to be, readers were assured that the San Diego region “is not in the world’s seismic territory.” Unlike Italy (“where the wealthy and nobility of Europe pass their winters”) San Diego “has but few of these visitors [earthquakes] and they are not destructive.”
This was the voice of optimism. In 1899, white people had lived in San Diego for only 130 years. Furthermore, those established here in 1899 had experienced some severe shaking. The quake that struck in 1892 had cracked many buildings and knocked the plaster out of many ceilings, as people poured into the streets in panic. But any suggestion that potentially devastating earthquakes were a fixture of local life was taboo. The chamber of commerce, the fledgling tourism industry, local realtors, and newspapers — all these voices were joined in chorus to lure more settlers here.
During the days between Christmas and New Year’s in 1899, a week punctuated by welcome rain, you could find signs that the town at last was recovering from the disaster of 11 years earlier. A scan of local real estate ads might still remind you of the collapse that had followed the wild boom of 1886 to 1888. (D.C. Reed’s column in the San Diego Union the day after Christmas, for example, mentions two 100-foot-square lots on the southeast corner of Hawthorne and Albatross that had sold for $10,000 in 1887 and were now being offered for $1500.) But some land was changing hands, and new structures were being erected. During 1899, the city had granted permits for an estimated $225,000 of construction. The Henry W. Putnams’ mansion at Fifth and Maple had cost $12,000.
There were other signs of an economic upturn. Furniture dealers on Sixth Street were reporting brisk sales of more and higher-quality items than they’d sold during the boom years. M.A. Luce, the postmaster, thought the Christmas mail crush had never been heavier. “The receipts of the post office will show that we have a bigger boom on at present without knowing it, than we had twelve years ago when we thought we had something,” he told one newspaper reporter. Holiday business at the Wells Fargo & Co. express office was “simply enormous,” he said, with “great wagon loads of packages taken to the uptown office of the company after each incoming train…all of the company’s delivery wagons have been kept bustling.”
If you were caught in the grip of the last winter of the 1800s in Kentucky or Maine or Illinois, and you had heard something about San Diego, you might be tempted to seek your fortune in this far southwestern corner of the country. Maybe the boasts about the salubrious climate have reached you or the claim that San Diego’s inhabitants live longer than anyone else in America. Say you believe the boosterism and bid farewell to your relatives, what will you find at the end of your journey?
How will you get there? Not by plane, of course. Although the world’s first controlled flight in a glider has taken place (flown by aviation pioneer John J. Montgomery out on San Diego’s Otay Mesa in 1883) and Orville and Wilbur Wright are consumed with the dream of making powered flight a reality, the two North Carolina bicycle mechanics won’t succeed until 1903. Commercial planes to transport passengers across America’s great distances are decades in the future.
Nor can you drive. Everyone has heard about the new self-propelled mechanical carriages, first exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair. About 8000 have been manufactured, but no roads have yet been built for them across the West. No one will dare to make a transcontinental automobile crossing until 1903. No car has yet been seen on the streets of San Diego. The lawyer D.C. Collier is about to order one of those French motorized contraptions, and for months, the sight of an automobile will be enough to cause pandemonium.
The first car won’t make the trip from Los Angeles to San Diego until this coming April. An L.A. artist named Oliver Lippincott will be the driver, and when he pulls up to the poorhouse in Mission Valley to take on some water for his machine, a few of the crippled old men will spread the word about the extraordinary mechanical visitor. All the inmates of the place will surround it, exclaiming in surprise and astonishment, and one old man, more venturesome than the rest, will inadvertently open the throttle valve. The automobile will start up and begin turning round in a circle, mowing down some old men and paralyzing others with terror. Afterward, Mr. Lippincott will be quoted in the newspaper saying it was the funniest sight he ever saw and that “a good picture of the affair would make any person rich.”
If you’re coming from the East Coast, you might travel by ship. But Congress is still only talking about building a canal across Nicaragua. So you would have to make that disagreeable passage over land or go the long way around the Horn. Sea passage from Philadelphia can take more than five months.
Instead, you’ll almost certainly take the train. The Santa Fe is advertising “entirely new and luxurious equipment” on its California Limited route. Four days a week, trains leave New York City, chugging west through Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, Los Angeles, completing the journey — when things go well — in less than four and a half days. First-class tickets from Chicago to San Diego cost $70; tourist class ones are $50. San Diego’s Grand Union Depot, an imposing Victorian presence with a massive central tower, impresses everyone who stands before it. Seeing its exuberant parapets, you might never guess at all the heartache folks in these parts have suffered because of the railroads.