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.”
Horton offered to donate a city block (#212) for a courthouse, the records going to his hall at Sixth and F.
Whaley countered that he would sell the Brick House to the county for a courthouse, and would build a much-needed jail on an adjacent property. Louis Rose and other Old Town mainstays offered free land.
Another sign of the times: On March 3, 1870, Whaley and his partner, Philip Crosthwaite, moved their general store to New San Diego. “One by one the leaves are falling from Old Town,” wrote Rufus K. Porter. “Nothing will be left there in a short time but a few saloons and lawyers.”
On June 30, publisher William Jeff Gatewood moved his San Diego Union south as well.
Another upstart coup: Led by Horton, a group formed the first bank in the region, Bank of San Diego. Now people could deposit what they used to hide away. Elizabeth McPhail: “In those days it could be literal truth when a person said, ‘I’ll have to dig up the money.’”
On July 9, 1870, the Board of Supervisors voted 3–2 to relocate the courthouse in New Town: “All county officers must move to the new quarters by August 1, 1870.”
Old Towners fought back. The integrity of the original plaza “must be guaranteed,” they proclaimed, and the “courthouse question must remain status quo.”
Supervisor Slade urged Judge Bush and district judge Murray Morrison, two of Old Town’s chief defenders, to order that all writs from their courts must return to Old Town.
Judge Bush was a hard drinker who admitted he knew little about the law (“that was the business of lawyers”). On July 17, he and county clerk George Pendleton ordered Sheriff James McCoy to defend the current county seat, with force if necessary.
On July 21, the Union printed McCoy’s response: “I hereby command you and each of you” — i.e. Old and New Towners — “to assist me to arrest those who may attempt to remove” the county records.
The next day, the sheriff placed a cannon in front of the Old Town jail and an armed guard at the Whaley House.
The pro-move Union relished the strategy: “The Crisis is upon us: the secession of Old Town from San Diego…the cloud of which has been hanging over so long has at length broken and this once happy land is now the scene of internecine strife. OLD TOWN HAS SECEDED.”
The Union envisioned “the indomitable Bush” straddling a newly constructed earthworks, commanding the artillery, and — a virgin sword held high — shouting “Old Town…now and forever, one and inseparable!”
Then nothing happened. The posse disbanded, and Bush re-donned his judicial robes.
Late in August the five supervisors met at Horton’s Hall. Once again they demanded removal of the county records. But they couldn’t act since Pendleton, the clerk, was absent — by design. Without Pendleton, they failed to function as a board of equalization and enabled Judge Bush to pull a fast one.
Citing an old revenue act — letting him replace ineffective supervisors without an election — Bush ousted three board members and brought in Old Towners Charles Thomas, William Flynn, and J.S. Mannassee. Bush even fined the evicted trio $500 each for ordering a new county seat.
Though opponents immediately declared the act “bar sinister” (illegitimate), Bush swore in the new supervisors on September 1. At a board meeting at his home in October, Whaley once again offered to sell the Brick House to the county. Members tabled the vote.
Ephraim Morse, New Town advocate, wrote in January 1871: “The Bogus Board of Supervisors [has] finally located the Courthouse at Old Town…and the bonds are being printed. If the courts are not too slow they may be stopped before they go much farther.”
On January 27, the California Supreme Court ruled against Bush. He had no authority to make the change. The court kicked out the new supervisors and ruled that the reinstated board did have the authority to remove the county records.
Ephraim Morse applauded: “The decision of the Supreme Court…was a terrible blow to Old Town and a scathing rebuke to Judge Morrison…I don’t think they will fight any longer, but they may, and if they do, they will be crowned without mercy.”
In March, George Pendleton died. A West Point graduate (with Grant and Sherman), he came to San Diego in 1855, captained the San Diego guards, and served as county clerk and recorder for 14 years. He was “a man of capability and culture,” writes William Smythe, and “a steadfast friend of Old Town.” His passing cleared the way for change.
Supervisors appointed Chalmers Scott new county clerk. The young attorney, who sported a drooping walrus mustache, was an ardent New Towner. He would bring the county seat across the civic divide and make Horton’s Addition the real San Diego.
Accounts of how Scott made the move show that the battle between Old and New Town still rages today. ■
Next time: A Peaceful Transition, or with Shotguns Drawn?
- Grand Jury, September, 1869: “Whoever heard of a county without a Court House or public building?”
- June A. Reading: “As New Town became more outspoken in demanding the removal of county offices, the fight became one of Republicans vs. Democrats, as well as Old vs. New.”
- Daniel Cleveland: “Asked to speak at the Democratic Convention of 1873 [where he was up for reelection], Judge Bush replied, ‘Boys, I can’t make a speech, but if anyone in San Diego is fool enough to trust Tommy Bush, I would invite you all to take a drink.’ ”
Cleveland, Daniel, “Present S.D. Courthouse Dates to 1871 Move From Old Town,” Evening Tribune, October 13, 1952.
MacPhail, Elizabeth, The Story of New San Diego and Alonzo E. Horton, San Diego, 1979.
Pourade, Richard, The Glory Years, San Diego, 1964.
Reading, June A., “The Whaley House,” privately ciruclated pamphlet, San Diego, 1960.
Smythe, William E., History of San Diego, 1542–1908, San Diego, 1908.
Stanford, Leland Ghent, San Diego’s L.L.B., A History of Law and Justice in San Diego County, San Diego, 1968.
Strudwick, “The Whaley House,” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, April, 1960, vol. 6, number 2.
Whaley, Lillian, “Old Times in Old Town,” ms San Diego Historical Society.
Articles in the San Diego Union, the San Diego Bulletin, the San Francisco Bulletin, and others.
Read Part Two: "Did They Go Gentle Into That Good Night?"