The San Diego Union headline read: “Death Calls Founder of San Diego. Alonzo E. Horton, Beloved Father of City, Succumbs After Lingering Illness.” The date of the paper was January 8, 1909. He looked at the headline with some amusement, for he was not dead but alive.
He found himself in his last home in San Diego. People were gathering for his funeral. There was his wife Lydia, always a pillar of strength, a characteristic that had attracted him to her. There was his youngest sister Lucy Bowers with her husband Senator William Wallace Bowers and daughters Grace and Vyne. There was George Marston, R.V. Dodge, Dr. Jackson, and others.
He recalled the day when he decided to build this house. After Sarah died, he felt lonely in his large home near First Avenue. Needing a change, he proceeded with this house in Middletown, finishing it in 1889. It was the only house on the hill at the time, and people suspected he had put it there to attract development, which was correct.
The urge to build was not accidental but something that went deep into his personal history. His Puritan ancestors had arrived in the American colonies in the 1630s, and the urge to build in them was strong. Pushed down and unable to express their religious beliefs in England, their compressed energy exploded into a drive to tame this new country. He had inherited this drive, the same drive that created a vision in San Francisco of what this city would be like in the future. The effects were now apparent as he gazed out the window on this January morning.
He recalled when his doctor told him to go west because of tuberculosis. He had ended up in Milwaukee, spent the next 15 years in Wisconsin, married two wives, buried them, and then married Sarah Babe. After he had made money in various occupations, he and Sarah had gone west to San Francisco, where he heard of San Diego for the first time. That evening, he had a vision of how to develop a new city there. The following day, he began to sell his furniture, goods, and supplies. After that, he booked passage south.
He arrived in San Diego on April 15, 1867. People wouldn’t believe it now, but laid out before him was a flat plain rising to the north, where a small village was located. The barren landscape didn’t bother him, however, for he knew he had the energy to form this place into the community of his vision.
He recalled the moment when his eyes swept over the land. From where he had come ashore, he could see the mountain range that would block the growth of the city for many years. Looking south, he saw portions of an old abandoned wharf, a few beat-up structures, and an old barracks building. He learned that William Heath Davis and Andrew Gray, two earlier pioneers to this spot, had attempted to develop the site. But they had been too early, and all development ceased in the early 1850s. Soldiers stationed at this place later tore down most of the structures, and the site appeared abandoned by the time Horton arrived.
Meeting his vessel was a man named Ephraim Morse, who offered to take him to the small village he viewed to the north. When asked what he thought of it, Horton responded that it was sited wrong, that a community needed to be near water to grow. He thus took steps to procure legal title to property near Davis’ Folly, which came to be known as “Horton’s Addition” or “New Town.”
After he had obtained legal title, he would often walk over the property to survey it and lay out lots, many times accompanied by his new friend Morse. One day, he saw some sheep grazing nearby and learned that a man named Matt Sherman owned them. He later heard that when Sherman found out Horton had purchased choice property near the waterfront, Sherman had purchased property nearby, which became Sherman Heights. Sherman built a three-story home on the heights, and it overlooked the growing new city.
Horton recalled how the new city started to develop. When he came back after a lengthy trip to San Francisco, he set about selling lots. There was a need for open space, so land was set aside for a large city park. There was the need for a cemetery, and in 1869, he, his brother-in-law, and others met to plan it. They decided to locate it on what was to be the city/county line, about three miles east of New Town. Augusta Sherman named it Mount Hope Cemetery, his final destination this day.
At this moment, he glanced at a manuscript that Bill Bowers, his brother-in-law, had written about the early days of New San Diego. As the people at his last home were preparing to go to his funeral, he read the manuscript, which would later be donated to the San Diego Historical Society. In it, Bill said in part: “I arrived with my family at San Diego September 30, 1869. At that time Horton was selling lots at a great rate. In a little iron safe in a shack at Sixth and I Streets he had $40,000 in gold coin, most of it lying loose on the bottom of the safe. He was selling lots so fast that whenever he gave the price of a piece of ground to a prospective buyer, he would add, ‘I don’t care whether you take it or not.’ He felt he was conferring a favor on all purchasers of lots.”
Horton stopped reading and looked at Bill, who seemed deep in thought. He knew that in the next several hours, Bill would be reminiscing about earlier times in this city’s history and what those times meant to him.
Horton glanced at his wife Lydia, who was talking about how she had met him. Lydia was first married to Bill Knapp, and they had moved to San Diego in 1869. Not long after, they moved to San Francisco, where Bill died. Lydia then described Horton’s promotion of the building of churches in New San Diego, where he owned property. He had donated land to the Unitarian Church, and it had been at that church that she and Bill had met Horton. Lydia described coming back to San Diego later as a widow and how Horton had asked her to marry him. Lydia fell silent then, and she spoke no more about their lives this day.