California Southern Railroad Depot, downtown San Diego, c. 1888. An imposing Victorian presence with a massive central tower impresses everyone who stands before it.
  • California Southern Railroad Depot, downtown San Diego, c. 1888. An imposing Victorian presence with a massive central tower impresses everyone who stands before it.
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In the predawn stillness of December 25, 1899, an earthquake awoke most of the 17,700 residents of the city of San Diego. When it ended, people estimated that the undulations had lasted 12 seconds. Eastern tourists who had flocked to the city's hotels for the holidays "were terrified...and rushed from their rooms in fright," one newspaper reported the next day. Later that morning, word spread that the violent jolting had damaged the tower of city hall, on the southwest corner of Third and D streets, but this proved inaccurate. In fact, no buildings suffered any harm, nor did the locals give much thought to the disturbance.

1899 clips from the San Diego Union. The city hall tower at Third and D (Broadway) was unharmed by the earthquake.

In her diary entry for the 25th, Charlotte Baker (the lady doctor) made note of the afternoon football game between the Los Angeles and San Diego high schools at Bay View Park. But she said nothing about the temblor. up in the tiny outpost of La Jolla, Anson Mills, another faithful diarist, described the high points of his Christmas: visiting with neighbors after the morning's church service, dining with a large group of friends, listening to selections on the phonograph in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Scripps, playing parlor games at his sister-in-law’s. Only as an afterthought did he mention the quake.

Electric-carbon arc lamp, Fifth and F streets, 1890. In 1886 six electric-carbon arc lamps on 110-foot towers were put up in the center of town.

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.”

San Diego flume, opening day, 1888. To transport water from the Cuyamaca Reservoir westward, the developers built a 35-mile-long flume.

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.

Ad from San Diego Union, 1899.

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.

Outside saloon, 14th and K streets. By 1888, observers were counting 120 bawdy houses and more than 70 bars downtown.

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.”

Three years ago, the Marston family erected a four-story, steel-framed building (the city’s first) on the corner of Fifth and C, a site so far uptown that it defied common business sense.

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?

The San Diego, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla Railway makes the round-trip passage between downtown and La Jolla three times daily.

Getting There

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.

Parade on D Street, downtown, 1899.

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.

From San Diego Union. By 1875 mines were closing, but gold miners continued to wrest a living from the mountains.

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.”

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