• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

San Diego may be unique in American history as the only city that changed locations. In 1871, the county seat moved three-and-a-half miles south, from Old to New Town. The change, literally, tore the city in two.

For 100 years, Old Town was San Diego. It began as a presidio on a hill in 1769. By 1830 people had moved down to the flatlands, and an adobe village grew up around a plaza. In 1831, William Heath Davis visited San Diego, calling it a “miniature city” graced by stately palms.

In 1850, following Andrew Gray’s suggestion that land closer to the natural harbor would make a better site, Davis founded a new “American” town. He built a $60,000 wharf at the foot of today’s Market Street. The first building (a prefabricated structure that still stands) was his private residence. He wanted to call his enterprise New Town or Graytown. Owing to the economic depression of 1851, and a refusal of Old Towners to relocate, the project failed and became known as “Davis’s Folly.”

In 1853, a steamer ran blind and smashed the wharf. By that time locals had demolished most of the wooden buildings, board by board, and picked the area clean. Scrub and rabbits reclaimed lost territory.

Over the next 15 years, many visitors to Old Town weren’t impressed. “It looks as though the plat of the village had originally been stirred up with a long pole,” wrote H.N. Kutchin, adding that tiled roofs gave the buildings a “top-heavy appearance.”

Alonzo Horton said Old Town “doesn’t lie right. Never in the world can you have a city there.” According to Horton, the flatland near Davis’s battered wharf was “the prettiest place for a city I ever saw.” In 1867, he bought 960 acres and began what became Horton’s Addition.

Incoming ships unloaded stacks of lumber. Frames grew into buildings by the bay. But Old Towners scoffed: just another folly; San Diego will never leave the foot of Presidio Hill. In 1869, Albert Seeley told Horton, “Your mushroom town of New San Diego soon will peter out.”

Thomas Whaley was one of the first to believe otherwise. When he and his young bride Anna came to San Diego in 1853, a bull fight was in progress. All of Old Town watched, the upper classes from balconies around the plaza, natives and the lower class circling the fenced-in ring. Drawn by the clouds of dust and wild shouts, Anna watched a bull power across the circle, sharp horns low, determined to gore a man poised behind a red cape. She became so horrified she scurried away.

In 1857, the family moved into the newly completed Brick House, an 11-room, two-story structure 700 steps from the plaza. Later Whaley added a granary that eventually became the “big room,” where he hosted dances and town meetings. Although people called it “the handsomest…house within 150 miles,” in letters Whaley confessed he was eager for the railroad to come so he could subdivide his property, make a fortune, and return to New York.

As evidence of his unease with the area, Whaley built a seven-foot, whitewashed adobe wall around the lot.

Tragedy stalked the family: his son Thomas Jr. died, and his store burned down when a small fire ignited gunpowder. In 1859, Whaley moved his family to San Francisco. He tried to rent the brick house for $40 per month, but found no takers. Renters let the house run down, and when they couldn’t pay on time, Whaley lived up to his reputation for ruthlessness with debtors.

Whaley returned to San Diego in 1868. In October he put the Brick House up for sale. It had a “well of good water,” “substantial” buildings, a view of the harbor, and would make a fine hotel. But it required at least $1500 in repairs, he confessed, including rotted floors and leaks in the roof. Whaley also advertised “To Capitalists” that he wanted to open a store in New Town.

Since no one would buy the building as is, Whaley made improvements. He opened a general store and to create more revenue converted a large, second-floor room into a theater. The Tanner Troupe leased the room and a corral for $20 gold coin.

New Town kept expanding, “as suddenly born as if shot from a gun,” wrote poet Joaquin Miller. To lure customers back to Old Town, Whaley offered discounts for anyone paying cash.

On June 16, 1869, the San Diego Union, still publishing in Old Town, made a declaration of war: “This county is $90,000 in debt, and there is not a decent public building in it…A courthouse is a public necessity, and must be put up at once. The place where the courts are now held is not a first-class corn crib.”

Built by the Mormon Batallion in 1847, the courthouse was a 27-by-16-foot brick room so “ill-ventilated, close, and dark,” wrote the Union, that lawyers should take out health insurance.

Whaley needed revenue. On August 12, 1869, he signed an agreement with the County Board of Supervisors: for $65 a month, he rented the Brick House as the “temporary” county seat: the “big room,” a courthouse; three upstairs rooms, storage space for county records.

New Towners objected. Old San Diego was the “Rip Van Winkle of California,” they cried, on a century-long snooze. New Town should have the courthouse and the records, and thus become the county seat. Storekeepers in Old Town knew the move would devastate business.

The election of 1869 drew a line by the bay. Republicans, like Horton, based their platform on relocating the county seat. Usually Democratic, the Union sided with Horton. Old Towners, led by Judge Thomas H. Bush and George Pendleton, said Horton’s Addition would always be the “tail end of town.”

Pro-move Republicans E.D. French and G.W.B. McDonald won the election. The Democratic Supervisor, J.C. Riley, sided with the newcomers, giving them a majority. For the first time, wrote the San Diego Bulletin, New Town was “in the saddle.”

Read Part Two: "Did They Go Gentle Into That Good Night?"

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


David Dodd Feb. 3, 2011 @ 7:35 p.m.

Another outstanding account of old San Diego, Jeff, great job as usual! I love reading this stuff, keep it coming.


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

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