Isham came to San Diego for his 17-year-old daughter’s health. He had been a traveling salesman for the Studebaker Wagon Corporation of South Bend, Indiana, selling sash-weights, nails, and other hardware. By the time he settled in National City in 1886, on Olivewood Terrace, Isham knew the latest sales techniques: cheap appeals to greed and promises of miracle cures. “Probably no person received more publicity for his amiableness than Isham,” wrote Irene Phillips in the National City Star News. “He must have been a likeable person, though later he was proven to be somewhat of a scamp.”
On some days Isham called himself a captain, on others a colonel. Frank Waddy, who worked for him around the turn of the century, called his boss a “practiced prevaricator,” who “evidenced a natural dislike for straightforward statements.”
By 1890, Isham had formed business alliances with Frank Kimball, the founder of National City, and H.L. Story, co-founder of the Hotel del Coronado. Story and Isham Commercial Company had a warehouse at Fifth and L Streets in San Diego. They sold agricultural wares but envisioned more ornate enterprises.
Influenced by one of Mary Proctor’s lectures, on March 23, 1890, Story and Isham bought 160 acres atop San Miguel Mountain from Frank Reed. On March 26, the San Diego Union announced that they would build a “pleasure park” and an observatory on the mountaintop, making it the “Mt. Hamilton of Southern California.” Story also promised to build a hotel at the summit that would exceed his Hotel del Coronado in grandeur.
Just days before the announcement, Story planted a tree, “the first ever on that mountain.” He vowed the tree would never die. “He would carry water to it even if he had to withdraw from the firm of Story and Isham to devote his time to it.”
Isham told the San Diego Union that the multiphased project would include extending the Sweetwater Dam to the east and the National City & Otay Railroad past San Miguel to the Jamul cement works. A fork of the railroad would veer up to the summit — as would the world’s first gondola: “cable-baskets” designed by Andrew S. Hallidie, inventor of San Francisco’s cable car system, would soar over Sweetwater Reservoir, ascend Little Miguel, Mother Miguel, and finally Father [San] Miguel peaks. At the top, visitors would find the hotel and pavilion, devoted to “dances and musical entertainments,” and the World’s Proctor Memorial Observatory and Temple of Light.
In its April issue, The Great Southwest magazine extolled the project in language much like Isham's: "You are literally suspended between the heavens and the earth — and are a part of your Creator. You are moved by the sublimest thoughts, like those that moved the penning of the nineteenth psalm by King David."
The Union took up the cause. Unlike myriad scams of the Gilded Age, this project was not "Pickwickian." “The atmosphere on the mountain top is clearer, freer from moisture and more desirable in every way for astronomical purposes than any other mountain in Southern California.” Along with the gigantic telescope on the crown of San Miguel, the Union urged a "powerful electric light" beamed on the U.S./Mexican border at night. The searchlight would "enable the entire line to be watched," and would halt the "invasion" by Chinese immigrants from Lower California.
Isham, who sprinkled his speeches with biblical awe, had an ulterior motive for “The Mountain of Great Destiny.” Not far from its north-facing slope, he found a gurgling spring, which, two years later, he would declare had miraculous properties.
Story, Isham, and investors would build the hotel and pavilion, but the funding magnet would be the telescope and observatory, developed from donations. Mary Proctor was the key. If she found San Miguel suitable, Isham would give her the land. But word had it she favored Mission Cliffs.
Since she hadn’t yet been on the mountain — and possibly to sweep her off her feet — Story and Isham made Mary Proctor the centerpiece of a major San Diego event. On the Fourth of July, 1890, she and a party of local dignitaries would ride horses and burros up San Miguel. She would not only inspect the site, she would raise the American flag. Speakers would give speeches, read poems, and extol various virtues, especially hers and her father’s. No stranger to self-aggrandizement, Story would commemorate the anniversary of Gettysburg, which concluded July 3, 1863, reminding everyone that he’d served as corporal in a Vermont regiment.
As darkness fell, Mary would touch off a cannon and release hot-air balloons. Fireworks would follow, along with six colored lights spinning on a wheel at the top of a 42-foot flag pole. These Vesuvius-like eruptions would be visible, Isham swore, from Santa Catalina Island to the Yuma. “San Miguel will be illuminated in a way that will make the natives think the day of jubilee was about to arrive.”
Isham and Story weren’t done. They promised to pay $25 to a couple who would get married as part of the ceremony. Plus, the American Ostrich Company of Fallbrook, which had a branch yard in Coronado, would present the bride with a “fine white plume.”
Judging from the way they hyped the July 4 celebration, Isham and Story may have staged the entire affair to get Mary Proctor to say “I do.”
The July issue of The Great Southwest lauded the event. There were “no serious accidents.” All participants were “filled with ecstasy — brown and jolly, having had more real, genuine fun than one could shake a stick at in a week.”
Isham was the life of the party, the article claimed, “a whole Barnum’s menagerie, with the elephant thrown in.”
Less-burnished accounts tell a different story.
Twelve men and eight women, including Isham, Mary Proctor, her brother John Thompson, and Alonzo Horton, the “Father of New San Diego,” boarded a National City & Otay Railroad car in San Diego at 9:00 a.m. The couple paid $25 to be married at the summit, however, either eloped, missed the train, or called the whole thing off.