Alfred Huntington Isham
  • Alfred Huntington Isham
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Depending on who tells the story, when Captain Charles Fitzallen sailed from Cardiff, Wales, aboard the Challenger in 1887, he had a bald spot either the size of a monk’s tonsure or the Great Globe itself.

By the time his steamship rounded the Horn and entered San Diego Bay — one version of the story goes — Fitzallen and most of his crew had scurvy. The captain ordered his second officer to complete the voyage to San Francisco, then consulted San Diego’s most reputable physician. Peter C. Remondino, M.D., urged the mariner to find work in the south county sunshine, eat regular meals, drink mineral water.

Fitzallen herded sheep for George Neale, an attorney who owned a ranch along the northern spur of San Miguel Mountain. Every day Fitzallen quenched his thirst at a nearby spring. On hot days, he dunked his head in the cool waters that flowed from solid rock, crowned with chalky strata. Within a month, the scurvy vanished.

And something else happened. For years Fitzallen had tried to regrow hair. He’d used every patent nostrum he could find, including the “electric process,” said to stimulate dormant follicles, and the Seven Sutherland Sisters’ Hair Loss Cure. (“If dying grasses grow strong when fed fertilizers,” asked an ad, “why not hair?”) But the 28.4 percent alcohol and 1 percent trace mineral solution failed to resurrect a single strand.

In 1889, eight weeks after Fitzallen’s first sip of spring water, the National City Record reported: “The timberline on his head was gradually ascending.” Hair! “True, it was chaparralish” at first. But it grew softer and turned a bright auburn quite unlike the gray at his temples.

Friends failed to recognize the man with “a shock of hair big as a Chula Vista haystack.”

As an experiment, Fitzallen convinced his neighbor Captain Murphy — bald as a doorknob — to take the treatment. Within weeks Murphy grew as much peach-fuzz “as the first tow-headed youngster you meet rolling in the dust of the street.”

Fitzallen tried to keep his find mum. But when another neighbor, Christian Jepson, also claimed scalp reforestation, word leaked out. And those who retold the tale, as in a game of “gossip,” now called “telephone,” may have added the part about scurvy — in 1887, on a steamship. All versions added the burning question: If the miracle water could re-grow hair, could it also retard, nay even reverse, the aging process?

The Record announced that a stock investment company was in the making “to correct the greatest evil of modern days.” There are “six million bald-headed men, and nearly as many bald-headed women in the United States. At a dollar a bottle, this would mean a working capital of nearly ten million to begin with.”

One member of that company, Alfred Huntington Isham, had come to San Diego in 1886 for the health of his 17-year-old daughter, Edith. Southern California was gaining renown as the “Great Orange Belt and Sanitarium” for treatment of tuberculosis, asthma, and rheumatism. San Diego led the way, boasting more doctors per capita than any other city. Historians estimate that at least ten percent of those who came to Southern California in the late 19th century did so for their health. Among them was Dr. Remondino, who arrived in 1874, hoping to cure his malarial fever.

Isham built a home at Kimball’s Addition — National City — because he thought that the Santa Fe railroad line would end there. He partnered with H.L. Story, who co-built the Hotel del Coronado, and Frank Kimball, founder of National City, who’d also come to San Diego for his health. They thought they saw in the gregarious Isham — who could convince atheists that paradise loomed beyond the next bend — a man of promise. In the end, he never met a promise he didn’t break.

One Sunday afternoon, Isham, a widower, and his four children went for a buggy ride out to the Neale Ranch, near the corner of today’s Sweetwater Springs and Jamacha Roads. Parched from the dusty sojourn, they drank from “Bald-Headed Spring,” renamed, of late, for its ability to grow hair. The water had a heavy mineral taste — so heavy, Isham reasoned, it had to be healthy!

Isham’s first investor was George Neale (who, when newly built Sweetwater Dam flooded much of his property in 1888, sued the San Diego Land and Town Company and almost wiped National City, then a year old, off the map). Isham painted a burnished utopia across Neale’s rolling hills: a railroad extension leading to health spas and hotels at the site; on nearby Mt. San Miguel, “the mountain of great destiny,” a world-class hotel, resort, and Southern California’s first observatory. The water will make all this possible! Neale leased Isham rights to sell the magical liquid, keeping a percentage of the monthly gross for himself.

At times, Isham claimed to own the land “in fee simple,” including San Miguel Mountain; at others, just the spring; at another, he was buying the land in installments from Neale. Frank Waddy — Isham’s British agent who called Isham a “practiced prevaricator” — tried to determine ownership. He finally decided that “Isham owned little or nothing except the right to market the water.” But over the years Isham sold shares several times, and the whole spring as well, “whenever he needed a little money, which was quite often,” since he spent twice what he made. “His rule of life seems to have been: When in doubt, sell the spring — whether I own it or not!”

Until 1892, Isham developed several projects at the same time, his pet being the Mt. San Miguel Observatory, which he tried, and eventually failed, to convince Mary Proctor to sponsor. During this period, he worked on ways to generate profits from the spring’s 15-barrel-a-day flow.

Isham started a small bottling plant. He hired Mrs. Almoneh Chittenden, who owned a nearby ranch, as a nanny for his children and manager of the business. A short woman “of ample physique,” people said Mrs. Chittenden could stack 100-pound cases of bottles six or seven high without perspiring. Captain Fitzallen became her assistant. When he wasn’t running his businesses with Story and Kimball, or courting Mary Proctor for the observatory, Isham established connections across the country for distributing the water that “promises to give back youth.”

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