Albert Seeley ran the U.S. Mail stage line from San Diego to Yuma and Los Angeles. In 1868, Seeley bought the Bandini residence in Old Town. When Alonzo Horton heard Seeley wanted to convert it to a hotel, Horton almost begged him to build one in New San Diego instead. He even offered Seeley free land in “Horton’s Addition,” a growing collection of structures and shacks near the bay.
Seeley said no. He preferred Old Town. He added a second story to the Bandini House and named it the Cosmopolitan Hotel. (He also built a stable nearby, now the Seeley Stable Museum.) Word had it he told Horton, “Your mushroom town of New San Diego soon will peter out.”
In the next three years, Old and New San Diego fought a battle in the courts, and nearly in the streets, for the seat of power. Old San Diego had reigned for 100 years, but “Horton’s Addition” had outgrown its older sibling. New San Diegans took a vote. Everyone who cast a ballot demanded that all county records — stored at the Whaley House in Old Town — have a permanent home in New Town. In effect, the city center would make a three-and-a-half mile shift to the south. Old Towners refused to let go.
After months of legal chicanery, the district court granted the change. The fight was so heated that to this day each side has a competing version of the move.
The Official Story
On March 29, 1871, district judge Murray Morrison ordered a “convenient and proper Court Room” in New San Diego, along with space to house “all legal processes and papers” at the building. In effect, Morrison, an ardent Old Towner, abandoned his cause. County judge Thomas “Little Tommy” Bush, another faithful Old Towner, backed the mandate.
“The vexed county seat question has received its quietus at last,” wrote the Union on April 1. The order from the district judge “at once disposes of the matter and, we believe, to the entire satisfaction of the people of the county.”
Elizabeth MacPhail: “Although the move may have been made at night to avoid interference from wrathful bystanders, it was not done illegally.”
According to the official version, on the evening of April 3, 1871, newly elected county clerk Chalmers Scott drove three wagons to the Whaley House, on the outskirts of Old Town. Five or six men politely removed all the documents from the upstairs rooms and carted them to the two-story Express Building at Sixth and G.
Thus the county seat changed without incident.
“The move was not secret, surreptitious, and against a last-ditch stand,” writes Leland Ghent Stanford. It wasn’t the legendary “slapstick variety” portrayed by word of mouth. The “forthright and undramatic” shift had “none of the exaggeration that later became [the] accepted but bogus coin of conversations.”
Those who favor a silent transition claim that had it been otherwise the San Diego Union and Bulletin would have made melodramatic hay of the event. Instead, on April 4, the Union announced that “the County Records were all brought over yesterday and are now safely housed.” The Bulletin followed suit: “a peaceful transition…all the archives of San Diego County passed quietly and honorably from the oldest city in California to its young but lusty neighbor. It was inevitable.”
The Unofficial Legend
There were no firsthand accounts of the move, and even today, pro–Old Towners contend that the official story is bunk. Though Scott had legal sanction, his methods were anything but peaceful. And claiming that things went smoothly means that the city of San Diego was born on a lie.
The move, Old Towners still argue, was actually a raid.
According to the legend (based on word-of-mouth accounts and reenactments), Chalmers Scott wanted to avoid a confrontation. The previous summer, angry Old Towners had borne arms in defense of their county seat. So Scott chose a day when Thomas Whaley would be out of town on business.
Around midnight of April 3, Scott and three others drove two express wagons north. On the rise half a mile from Old Town, they stopped. Scott had his three henchmen wrap the horses’ hooves in gunnysacks and grease the wheels. (“If not properly greased,” Lillian Whaley wrote years later, “the screech made by these wheels could be heard for a long distance.”) The express wagons — a wide flatbed in back, removable wooden slats up the sides — trudged the rutted, two-lane road in near silence.
They passed the rough-hewn wooden cabin of well- and grave-digger Don Ravel Mamudes, and the old jail, its cobblestones like rows of gray teeth with cavities. Just before the road angled left, they tiptoed past El Campo Santo Cemetery, which housed the bones, among others, of Antonio Garra, the Cupeño chief who wanted to rid California of white people (Thomas Whaley was one of Garra’s 12-man firing squad), and of Yankee Jim Robinson, who was hanged, where the Whaley House now stands, for allegedly stealing a boat.
Up ahead, moonlit behind a shield of trees, the two-story brick house. Surrounded by open lots, as if deliberately aloof, the classical structure was almost 300 yards from Old Town plaza. A seven-foot whitewashed adobe wall ringing the property added to the sense of isolation.
When the wagons reached the building, the men abandoned precaution. Scott banged on the northernmost door of the courtroom with the butt of his shotgun.
An oil lamp flared upstairs. Curtains parted in a window. Then the lamp blew out.
Scott banged again.
Fed up, he slammed his shoulder at the door and split it from its hinges. The door reeled like a drunk and crashed onto the wooden floor.
Two men hauled courtroom furniture out to the wagons.
Scott and a man carrying a torch clomped down the hallway, yellow apparitions flickering on faux marble walls. They climbed the stairs.
On the fourteenth step — some accounts say the ninth — stood a horrified Anna Whaley. On the landing above, her five trembling children and their domestic, 16-year-old S. Yow, wiped sleep and acrid smoke from their eyes.