DECEMBER 11, 1602: MIGUEL VENEGAS, a Mexican Jesuit who wrote a history of California in 1758, records General Sebastian Vizcaino’s famous first impression.
“The general ordered several persons to survey a forest lying on the Northwest side of the bay [Point Loma]. In this forest they found tall and by straight oaks, and other trees; some shrubs resembling rosemary, and a great variety of fragrant and wholesome plants: the high grounds commanded a view of the whole harbour which appeared spacious, convenient, and well sheltered. The forest borders on the harbour towards the N.W. and is about three leagues in length, half a league in breadth. And to the N.W. of this wood is another good harbour [Mission Bay].”
NOVEMBER 27, 1793: GEORGE VANCOUVER. A British sea captain mapping the California coast, Vancouver anchored at Ballast Point, looked north, and saw “an uneven surface…some bushes grow on it, but no trees of a large size.” Where did they go? Historian William Smythe heard that a fire decimated the forest and that natives used stumps for firewood.
“The port affords excellent anchorage, and is capable of containing a great number of vessels; but the difficulty, nay almost impossibility, of procuring wood and water under its present circumstances, reduces its value as a port of accommodation.”
First impressions tell as much about the viewer as the area. Although Vancouver told his Spanish hosts the surveys were for mankind’s edification, detailed descriptions of fortifications and military strength make his ship, the Discovery, the spy satellite of its day.
“With little difficulty San Diego might also be rendered a place of considerable strength, by establishing a small force at the entrance of the port; where, at this time, there were neither works, guns, house, or other habitations nearer than the Presidio, which is at the distance of at least five miles from the port, and where they have only three small pieces of brass cannon.
“Should the ambition of any civilized nation tempt it to seize on these unsupported posts, they could not make the least resistance, and must inevitably fell to a force barely sufficient for garrisoning and securing the country.”
1829: ALFRED ROBINSON was one of the earliest of the New England traders in California: “On the lawn beneath the hill on which the Presidio is built stood about thirty houses of rude appearance, mostly occupied by retired veterans, not so well constructed in respect cither to beauty or stability as the houses at Monterey, with the exception of that belonging to our ‘Administrator,’ Don Juan Bandini, whose mansion, then in an unfinished state, bade fair, when completed, to surpass any in the country.”
A clerk for the Brookline, Robinson rode to Mission San Luis Rey to sell Father Antonio Pcyri goods from the ship. Robinson offers one of the first written descriptions of North County.
“We saw no habitations on the route, and the soil was one continued waste of barrenness, entirely destitute of cultivation. A few scattered trees adorned the road, and now and then a deer was seen running over the hills, or a hare, or rabbit sat basking in the sun, among the low shrubbery. This, with the exception of a passing traveler, or a casual glance at the sea, was all that met the eye during a ride of forty miles. The great number of hills it is necessary to surmount makes the way very tedious, and to the traveler they seem almost endless, until at length he perceives from the top of one of them, far beneath, in the centre of a beautiful vale, the Mission, with its cultivated grounds and gardens.”
JANUARY 27, 1847: PHILIP ST. GEORGE COOKE led the Mormon Battalion from Santa Fe to San Diego. After months of hardship— “half naked, and half fed, and living upon wild animals”—they saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time: “So placid was the sea that it shone a vast space of seemingly transparent light, which, by contrast, gave to the clear sky a dusky shade. What a strange spectacle was that! The earth more aerially clear and bright than the cloudless heavens.” Cooke added that his men, unaccustomed to the ocean’s roar, “had trouble sleeping”
JUNE 7, 1848: RODMAN M. PRICE A purser on the Cyatte, a U.S. sloop-of-war, Price didn’t think much of San Diego, except for its natural harbor. And he heard the backcountry was “sandy and arid, and incapable of supporting any considerable population.”
Price looked south: “Geographically and commercially, lower California [i.e. Baja] must become very valuable. It will be a constant source of regret to this country, that it is not included in the treaty of peace just made with Mexico. We have held and governed it during the war, and the boundary of Upper California cuts the head of the Gulf of California, so that Lower California is left entirely disconnected with the Mexican territory.
“Cape St. Lucas is the great headland of the Pacific Ocean, and is destined to be the Gibraltar of that coast...As a possession to any foreign power, I think Lower California more valuable than the group of Sandwich” — Hawaiian — “islands.”
AUGUST 26, 1853: CAPTAIN GEORGE H. DERBY went by several names, among them “John Phoenix” and “Squibob.” One of California’s first humorists, he was also a topographical engineer, hired to shift the San Diego River back to Mission Bay:
“The Bay of San Diego is shaped like a boot, the leg forming the entrance to the sea and the toe, extending some twelve miles inland at right angles to it, points southward to the latter end of Mexico, from which it is distant at present precisely three miles.
“The three villages that make up the great city of San Diego are the Playa, Old Town, and New Town. At the Playa [the southern shore of Point Loma from Ballast Point to the old Naval Training Center] there are but few buildings at present, and these are not remarkable for size or architectural beauty of design.
“From present appearances, one would be little disposed to imagine that the Playa in five or six years might become a city of the size of Louisville, with brick buildings, paved streets, gas lights, theaters, gambling houses, and so forth. It is not at all improbable, however, should the great Pacific Railroad terminate at San Diego...the Playa must be the depot, and as such will become a point of great importance. The landholders about here arc well aware of this fret.”
JULY 5, 1865: MARY CHASE WALKER came to teach at the recently built Mason Street schoolhouse. She lost her job, eleven months later, because she lunched with an African-American woman (whose name history has forgotten) at Franklin House. Patrons exited, as did 21 of her 36 students. She married Ephraim W. Morse, president of the school board and staunch defender.
“Oh, the strange foreign look as I stood upon the deck as the steamer came to anchor!... The hills were brown and barren; not a tree or a green thing was to be seen. The only objects to greet the sight were the government barracks and two or three houses. I said to the Captain in dismay, ‘Is this San Diego?’ He replied, ‘No, the town is four miles away.’
“There were no wharves at the time. Passengers were carried in the ship’s boats to shallow water and then carried on the backs of sailors to the shore. Fortunately for me, a little skiff was over from the lighthouse, which saved me the humiliating experience meted out to others.
“Of all the dilapidated, miserable looking places I had ever seen, [San Diego] was the worst The buildings were nearly all adobe, one story in height, with no chimneys. Some of the roofs were covered with tiles and some with earth. The first night of my stay at the hotel, a donkey came under my window and saluted me with an unearthly bray.”
SEPTEMBER 1893: KATE SESSIONS. When the “Mother of Balboa Park” came to San Diego from the Bay Area in 1884, she didn’t plan on staying long at the brown, drab locale. Though she missed the “excitement of San Francisco,” she came to love the orange and lemon orchards of Sweetwater and Bonita. Sessions may not have appreciated San Diego’s potential, however, until she went east Her first impressions of Chicago, in 1893, gave her a vision of a green San Diego: “The variety of trees in Chicago parks was very small, and the vines about the finest residences were confined to less than six sorts. Not a good rosebush did I see in the miles of driving about the city, and the one date palm on the lawn of the Potter Palmer residence was a forlorn specimen indeed. I know, of course, that Chicago has a very severe climate on plants, but it proved to me conclusively that California deserves all the praise that she receives for her luxuriant and varied flora…along this line municipal improvement should work stronger and more generously.”
JULY 7,1903: OSCAR COTTON, real estate developer and self-appointed Chamber of Commerce. “When I arrived in San Diego, the consensus in Los Angeles was that San Diego was a ‘City of Blighted Hopes’…just a little dried-up town on the Mexican border, with no capital assets but ‘Bay and Climate’ — a town that took itself seriously but could never amount to anything because it was too far from Los Angeles [five hours by either of the two half-empty trains per day].
“It became quite the thing for Los Angeles people to make fun of San Diego. Any would-be comedian at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles had only to mention that he was from San Diego, whereupon he would always get a good laugh from the audience.”
Cotton stepped off a train at 1:30 p.m. to “a glorious day, with bright sunshine and a cool sea breeze. Smog had never been dreamed of even in Los Angeles, but the air was noticeably cleaner and fresher in San Diego.”
He walked from the Santa Fe Station “up D Street [now Broadway] which was paved with asphalt, and in those days the asphalt would get soft in the warm sun, so that the occasional horse and buggy that passed had a muffled sound. There were electric cars operating on a single track on D Street, with a turnout for passing, at intervals along the track.”
In 1923, tired of L.A.’s “knocking” his town, Cotton and the San Diego-California Club ran a series of ads in the L.A. Times, extolling San Diego’s virtues. One proclaimed, “Here you will find a quality in the air that will fill you with vigor; from every vantage point is unfolded a panorama of unsurpassed beauty to charm you—the sparkling bay and ocean, the noble promontory of Point Loma stretching to the sea, the mountains nearby and in Mexico, alluring Balboa Park, its myriads of flowers and mammoth open-air pipe organ, where free concerts are given every afternoon.
“If you would spend a time where life means most in the sheer joy of living, San Diego beckons you ”
JULY 1931: EDMUND WILSON: “San Diego is situated in the extreme southwestern comer of the United States; and since our real westward expansion has come to a standstill, it has become a kind of jumping-off place. On the West coast today, the suicide rate is twice that of the Middle-Atlantic coast Between January, 1911, and January, 1927, over five hundred people have killed themselves here.
“For one thing, a great many sick people come to live in San Diego. The rate of illness is 24 per cent of the population, whereas for the United States the sick rate is only 6 per cent... Sufferers have a tendency to keep moving away from places, under the illusion that they are leaving the disease behind. And when they have moved to San Diego, they find they are finally cornered, there is nowhere farther to go. According to the psychoanalysts, the idea of the setting sun suggests the idea of death. At any rate, of the five-hundred-odd suicides mentioned above, 70 per cent were put down to ‘despondency and depression over chronic ill health.’
“These coroner’s records in San Diego are melancholy reading, indeed. You seem to see the last futile effervescence of the burst of the American adventure... Among the sand-colored hotels, and power plants, the naval outfitters and waterside cafes, the old spread-roofed California houses with their fine grain of gray or yellow clapboards —they come to the end of their resources in the empty California sun.”
JANUARY 1942, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE. An ad urging readers to “See San Diego this Year,” promised not only “rugged, beautiful shores, set in a tropic sea” but unusual first impressions of the invasion-threatened city: “EXTRA DIVIDEND. This is San Diego’s historic year! Our 400th Anniversary (celebrated Aug. 29-Sept. 9) finds us famed the country over as Defense City No. 1. Dark-painted men-of-war slip in and out of the harbor, cruising air squadrons cross the sky, anti-aircraft searchlights sweep the night You’ll have a ring-side scat for the greatest drama of our time! Come! SEE YOUR TRAVEL AGENT!”