Wright's Field could be turned into our Balboa Park.
  • Wright's Field could be turned into our Balboa Park.
  • Image by Frank Glaser
  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

"My Get Up and Go Got Up and Went," says the legend carved into the seven-foot-tall, four-foot-wide white marble headstone of Kenneth James Amundson, born November 7, 1945, deceased February 6, 1975, "Beloved son of Ivan, Husband of Lisa, Daddy of Richie." At some point Richie used an indelible black marker to write across the headstone's base, "LOVE YOU, DAD! YOUR SON."

"There were 3000 homes when I came to town. There are now 5000 homes. That's 2000 homes in 30 years."

Amundson's headstone is perhaps the largest in Alpine Cemetery and is one example of how the place differs from the new "memorial parks" around the county, where displays of individualism are prohibited and where grave markers, placed level to vast green lawns, are almost hidden. Alpine Cemetery is a rough piece of hilly land where, among juniper, eucalyptus, and oak, graves are dug from red clay and where gravesites are often festive and where headstones tend to editorialize.

Only people living in Alpine are eligible to purchase plots in Alpine Cemetery.

"Alpine's First Doctor," says the headstone above the grave of Sophronia Nichols, born on November 27, 1835, deceased on November 12, 1903. "I Am Alone No More," spell the big block letters on the simple headstone belonging to Jack P. Fox, 1918-1966. Charles "Butch" O'Connell, March 3, 1940 - April 12, 1969, has etched into the surface of his headstone a highly detailed rendering of a dune buggy. A number of other headstones are etched with images of recreational vehicles. Not far from O'Connell's headstone, a woman who died in her 30s has the image of a girl riding a dirt bike etched into hers. The Saye family, however, has surrounded five double plots with a small white picket fence and has landscaped between the graves with redwood bark and cement paving stones. A white bench faces the graves, and along its top are painted the words "Sit. Read. Reflect. Pray."

Joan MacQueen Middle School. After middle school, said Superintendant Ryan, most Alpine kids move on to either Granite Hills High School in El Cajon or to Steele Canyon High School in Spring Valley.

Alpine Cemetery suggests a community not much interested in conformity and whose idea of a good time has centered on the desert and sand dunes 100 miles to the east and not so much on the beaches 37 miles to the west. The cemetery gives the impression of a community isolated not only from the urbanization of coastal San Diego but from the suburbanization of the county at large. On the day I visited Alpine Cemetery, this impression might have persisted if I hadn't glanced at the most recent edition of the Alpine Sun. The Alpine Cemetery Association had recently held its annual general meeting, the paper said. Only people living in Alpine are eligible to purchase plots in Alpine Cemetery, the paper explained. In other words, anyone who drops dead while passing through Alpine doesn't stand much of a chance of being buried there. Like everywhere else in Southern California, land is growing scarce. Twenty-eight miles east of downtown San Diego, even Alpine is feeling the pinch.

Alpine statistics (click to enlarge). "When I first got to Alpine in 1981, there were just two schools, a total district enrollment of 850 students. There were no traffic lights, no fast-food restaurants."

An unincorporated community, Alpine occupies the 13 miles between Flinn Springs and Descanso, a mile or two north and south of I-8. Alpine has no mayor or city council, and its self-governance is limited to the 15-member Alpine Community Planning Group that meets one night each month at the Alpine Community Center on Alpine Boulevard. The planning group's decisions on such issues as zoning and land use are purely advisory. The group's most proximate contact with county government is Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents the Second Supervisoral District, whose 535,000 constituents make it the largest of the county's five districts.

"I wanted to be in Alpine. I was free of the downtown problems. We only had 250 people or so when I came here. There was plenty of open space."

For city of San Diego residents familiar with city councilmembers and the relationships they maintain with the handful of respective communities they represent, county government can seem diffuse. Jacob's district, for example, covers about 36 miles by 54 miles, from Santa Ysabel south to the Mexican border and from Del Cerro east to the Imperial County line.

Residents of unincorporated communities like Alpine are used to government operating at a certain remove. In the absence of key political players and local elections, Alpine's sense of itself, of its distinctiveness and "community spirit," has been a volunteer effort largely fostered by personalities drawn to places where few rules apply.

"Alpine seems to have always attracted individualists," said Carol Morrison, president of the Alpine Historical Society, as she showed me a picture of Julian Eltinge, a.k.a. "Mr. Lillian Russell," who for more than 30 years was America's most famous female impersonator.

"Julian Eltinge, or Robert Dalton, which was his real name, was from Massachusetts and went to Harvard. He was in vaudeville and silent films and did a few talkies. In the films he played both male and female parts. He came to Alpine in 1923 and wanted to establish a hotel and a resort with little houses that could be rented. After the Depression, he lost his money and went back into films. He sold most of his other land holdings, but he did keep his house in Alpine. In 1941 he passed away but wasn't buried here.

"Alpine was the sort of place where he felt comfortable walking around in his overalls just like everyone else. The resort got as far as building an enormous swimming pool, but the Depression came along and wiped out Eltinge. He left. His house is still here and is registered as a historic landmark."

The Alpine Historical Society owns a small wooden house out on Tavern Road, just across the street from Joan MacQueen Middle School. On the morning I met Morrison, a sweet woman with an open, easy manner, we sat and talked in the small wooden house. Although the morning was warm, the house, built in the late 19th Century, was still chilly inside. After worrying if I felt cold and making sure I was comfortable, Morrison told me that she'd been the historical society's president for four years.

"The original residents of this area were of course the Kumeyaay Indians, and then the Spanish came through during the Mission period. When Mexico separated from Spain we had the Mexican period, and Alpine was part of a land grant that went from Harbison Canyon to the Cuyamaca foothills. And then the land grant was split, and Viejas Valley came under separate ownership, and what we consider upper Alpine, or Alpine Village, came under separate ownership and was owned by the Aguirre family. The stagecoach stop was moved from Viejas Valley to upper Alpine in about 1865. From there, the town started to develop. After the Civil War, people started heading west. People stayed in Alpine primarily for the farming. We had sufficient water. There are several creeks and streams. There are several natural springs. We had grapes, for example. Grapes were hauled from here to the railroad station in Lakeside. We had wheat, olives, citrus fruit, barley. Chickens and turkey ranches. Also, John Harbison was a beekeeper and had a big beekeeping operation at the far end of Harbison Canyon. One of our longtime resident families, the Foss family, they came to Alpine because they'd heard of John Harbison. With very little start-up money, you could make more money raising bees than raising cattle. Alpine was an excellent place for making honey. John Harbison made California the number-one honey-producing state in the nation. He shipped by rail all his honey to the East Coast.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Get $5 off any Reader event

Sign up for our email list to get your promo code