Otay Watch Works, c. 1890. They hoped to sell pocket watches to Mexican Indians.
  • Otay Watch Works, c. 1890. They hoped to sell pocket watches to Mexican Indians.
  • San Diego Historical Society photo
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

An early weekday morning in Coronado. A pair of schoolboys about 11 years old are slowly skateboarding down the sidewalk making that clattery train track noise — clack, clack, clack, clack as they cross each crack in the cement. One of them has a pack of Marlboros in his hand; neither carries a book. We’ve been walking parallel to them.

“‘Scuze me,” they call out to us. We look. “What time is it?” “Quarter to eight.” A pause. “Are you late yet?” They mumble something we don’t catch as they skate away. We are New Englanders, bred in the bone, out here in San Diego to look at clacks, and watches too; and to think about time and how it is measured, and why.

My husband, Bob, is the collector — of clocks. I am the chronicler; every family could use one. At least, this arrangement has worked out well for us – for 25 years.

A couple of weeks before we got here, I woke up one morning and told Bob about my dream in which I’d asked an adult — a woman — what time it was and she told me she had never learned to tell time.

“That wasn’t a dream,” Bob informed me. “I read that to you last night, before we went to sleep. That was Emily Dickinson.”

I picked up a book on his nightstand, and read, myself, in Van Wyck Brooks’ New England: Indian Summer 1865-1915 (1940): “At fifteen she could not tell the time: her father supposed he had taught her, but she had not understood him, and she did not dare ask him again or ask anyone else who might have told him.”

But if she didn’t understand clocks, she understood time well enough. “Look back on Time, with kindly eyes --” she wrote.

  • He doubtless did his best –
  • How softly sinks that trembling sun
  • In Human nature’s West –

Eighteen ninety, the year that Dickinson’s first volume of poetry was published, was also a historic year for clocks — and watches too — in San Diego.

In the middle of sagebrush and coyotes, about ten miles southeast of the city, a three-story New England-style brick factory had been built by Sab Diego real estate man J.H. Guion and others who were developing the 27,000 acres surrounding it. With their Otay Watch Works, they hoped not only to attract land buyers but to make some money selling pocket watches to Mexican Indians. The San Diego Union pronounced it to be “the only watch factory west of the Mississippi” and “the newest watch factory on earth,” neglecting to mention that another West Coast watch factory had recently failed, in San Francisco.

“The operatives have come from crowded, murky cities,” the reporter wrote of Otay’s employees. “They can look out upon beautiful scenery and the ocean perpetually,” he added with poetic license. “They breathe as pure air as wafts the fragrance of flowers to the nostrils of man anywhere on the globe. They are citizens; they will have a voice in the community as property owners and taxpayers; they will be respected because they are self-respecting.”

The reporter continued in the exalted style of the day: The factory “will surely father a community of honest, sober, self-respecting people, thrifty, gradually accumulating; it is good to have them; they will help Southern California, as the Otay Watch Works will become known wherever the industry of men is to be found.”

Conditions in Otay Mesa were promising if unhyperbolically so. The climate was good for metal work. And, despite the factory failures in Northern California and elsewhere, the demand for the product was undeniable. Back East, as more and more workers left farms and natural time — measured by the sun — and went to work for wages by the clock, the premier watch works were turning out literally millions of these ingenious little devices, particularly in Waltham, Massachusetts, and Elgin, Illinois. In 1892, the $1 Ingersoll pocket watch — “the watch that made the dollar famous” – would be introduced by U.S. mail-order and chain-store entrepreneur Robert Hawley Ingersoll, while Henry Ford would decide not to get into mass production of watches, having concluded that they “were not universal necessities, and therefore people in general would not buy them.”

“It is a very simple thing to make 10,000 watches,” that same San Diego Union reporter wrote in his article about Otay, “but it is a great undertaking to get ready to make one watch.” He was more or less correct. But Otay never made nearly that number. In existence for less than a year and in operation for barely six months, the factory closed on October 13, 1890, having failed to convince many Mexicans that they needed a personal timekeeping machine. Otay’s attempt to sell to the American market a line of “railroad-grade” watches — the extremely accurate kind that were used by engineers to avoid train wrecks — fizzled too, despite the evocative names it chose for them: “Golden Gate,” “Silver Gate,” “Native Son,” “Overland Mail,” and, simply, “California.” To assist in paying back wages, the sheriff came and auctioned off some of the watches, equipment, and land. As for the building, it was later used for a dance hall.

So much for Otay, a collectible watch today – collectible, that is, if you can find one. Though the factory’s daily average capacity was advertised to be up to 250 watches, only about 1200 of them were ever made.

Jon Hanson, a noted watch collector who is based in Wellesley Hills and Beverly Hills – Massachusetts and California, respectively – claims to have the largest Otay watch collection in the world: about 50. He estimates that they are worth between $1000 and $4000. These aren’t vast sums for antique pocket watches. “Here’s the deal about them,” Hanson says. “The basis of interest of those things is the California connection. It was a peculiar place to make watches, when the whole industry was in the East and Midwest. It’s the romance of that place out in the middle of nowhere, with the little railroad station and tumbleweed.”

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader