The South Pacific Hotel in Oceanside burned down on June 13, 1896.
When the Hotel del Coronado opened in 1888, Oceanside already had two “grand” hotels, the St. Cloud and the South Pacific. They faced each other, just two city blocks apart, separated by the California Southern railroad tracks. Competition to snare customers made them livid rivals.
They say Oceanside got its name either from the townspeople of San Luis Rey, just west of the mission, or from the inland ranchos. People went to the “ocean side” to escape the summer heat.
In 1881, when Andrew Jackson Myers learned the railroad was surveying land on the Pacific slope, he applied for a homestead grant. He edged out Thomas Whaley, Jr., and acquired 160 acres on the treeless, windswept bluff overlooking the Pacific. Railroad tracks would pass directly through his property.
In 1883, Myers had Cave J. Couts plan a 1675-acre township. That same year, the inland railway from San Bernardino to Oceanside was completed. By 1888, the Santa Fe, connecting Los Angeles and San Diego, and the Escondido-Oceanside converged at what became “the railroad center of San Diego County.”
Myers’s brother, John Henry, built the St. Cloud Hotel in 1885. It was, wrote the South Oceanside Diamond, “centrally located, one block from the depot” — just a wooden platform at the time — “the post office, beach, and bath houses.” The three-story, all-brick building stood near the northeast corner of Cleveland and Third Street. The “headquarters for tourists and summer guests,” it had a western-style false front and an unobstructed view of the Pacific.
The St. Cloud charged $1.50 a day for a single and $2.50 “en suite.” Weekly rates ran from $6 to $9. Meals cost 50 cents.
In keeping with the temper of the times, the hotel served no liquor. Oceanside was incorporated July 3, 1888. Long Beach (incorporated March 2, 1888) originally wanted to be alcohol-free as well: no saloons or “blind pigs” — bars with no liquor license.
For two years, the St. Cloud reigned supreme. A path crossed the tracks and led to a thick-planked stairway down to the handsome bathhouse A. J. Myers built in 1884. Although the beach had no riptides or undertows, few visitors swam. Most preferred a soak in the bathhouse and then sit on shore, often fully clothed, under wide umbrellas.
A.P. Hotaling, the largest liquor wholesaler in San Francisco, specialized in “quality” stock: “J.H. Cutter’s Bourbon,” “OK A No 1 Bourbon,” and “Hotaling’s Special Reserve.” His company’s motto: “Death to Imitators.”
When completed, the South Pacific was four stories high and cost $70,000.
Like many speculators, Hotaling heard of the land boom in San Diego and bought property directly between the St. Cloud and the ocean. He had W. H. Van Slyke build a hotel. As wooden frames grew into thick walls and the walls stretched upward, it was clear the South Pacific Hotel would be far more “grand” than its neighbor across the tracks.
When completed, the South Pacific was four stories high and cost $70,000. Although Hotaling made his fortune from liquor, he banned its sale on the property.
The St. Cloud looked like an upscale frontier hotel. Sunsets shimmered off its shiny white façade and always polished windows. By contrast, the South Pacific looked as if towed intact from one of California’s few enclaves of wealth. Assertively Victorian, the structure featured ornate carvings, a bulging cupola, and broad veranda. There were 80 “sleeping apartments,” and 120 rooms in all. Every suite had brass and copper fixtures and thick, color-rich imported rugs, even both billiard parlors: one for the men; another, smaller one, the women.
Locals noticed an anomaly from the start: the front of the South Pacific didn’t face the ocean, as expected. It faced east, toward the railroad tracks and the St. Cloud.
“Midway from Santa Ana to Coronado,” wrote the San Diego Union in 1888, “Oceanside is the only seaside resort possessing all the requirements necessary to perfect enjoyment for a sojourn by the sea.” The beach was “smooth, hard, and level as a floor, making a delightful boulevard over which buggies and other vehicles can be driven for 20 miles in either direction.”
Until 1888, trains didn’t “stop over” at Oceanside. They pulled in, added and dropped off passengers and mail, and moved on. At the insistence of Colonel Daniel H. Horne, co-founder of Topeka, Kansas, and Oceanside’s first mayor, the California Southern and California Central railroads gave trains “stop over privileges” on local tickets one way, and round trippers.
“This is important to our town,” wrote J. Chauncey Hayes, irascible editor of the South Oceanside Diamond (also justice of the peace and town’s number-one realtor). “Tourists can stay with us a day or as long as they want and not be hustled by as heretofore.”
The Hotel War began with guest lists. In 1888, C.A. Stephens, lawyer for the tony firm of Lacy & Bailhache, stayed at the St. Cloud. Isadore Loventhal of Los Angeles “left his grip” there. And Mrs. Erastus Wells, whose husband owned all the street cars in St. Louis — “and is very rich” (Diamond) — “was at the St. Cloud during the week.”
The South Pacific riposted that Don Pancho Estudillo, of the historic Estudillo clan, “and his estimable wife are guests” of the hotel closest to the ocean. Not long after, the South Pacific announced all guests and where they came from: Kentucky, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Los Angeles, England. Surely the South Pacific had become “Oceanside’s most popular destination.”
Until 1889, passengers could eat wherever they wanted during their short stop-over, or order food onboard and have a “hotel runner” fetch it. In November of 1888, Dr. E. A. Doc” Tuttle took over management of the South Pacific. The “old hotel keeper” had a reputation as a scrapper, be it cutthroat poker or financial control. Tuttle and Colonel Horne were in cahoots. Early in January 1889, Horne told the city council that the railroad named the South Pacific as the official “eating house” at Oceanside.
“Whether the traveling public wanted to stop there or not,” Hayes editorialized in the Diamond, “the trainmen have been notified that even if they look at the St. Cloud Hotel their heads will be chopped off.
“It is acknowledged by all who have ever stopped at the St. Cloud that the table cannot be beat on the coast, the meal being furnished at 50 cents.” The South Pacific charged 75 “for an inferior one. The railroad company by unfair means [is] trying to crowd Frank Knowles [of the St. Cloud] to the wall. In this they will fail. Go to the St. Cloud if you want a good meal!”
Because passengers had no choice, Hayes continued, they “must starve at the South Pacific and pay an exorbitant price. We believe in fair play in all things, and think that merit should control the passengers as well as the railroad, and that the train men should not be made ‘hotel runners’ in addition to their other duties.”
A hotel runner was a jack of all trades: carry food to the rooms; do repairs; solicit clients on the street. At Oceanside, the porters doubled as runners. They waved signs and placards and, often in language far too blue for starch-collared tourists, regaled arrivals about their hotel’s cuisine. Fights broke out. The local constabulary arrested many a runner for disturbing the peace.
When he announced his edict, Colonel Horne told the city council to hire informants to squeal on “railroad boys” working for the St. Cloud.
Since Knowles couldn’t send porters to meet the trains, he changed tactics: his men boarded them at the nearest stations up the line. Just before arriving at Oceanside, they strolled down the aisles and made mouth-watering descriptions of the food at the St. Cloud.
These spontaneous commercials happened so often, Horne ordered conductors to stop trains on the spot and “put off any man…heard recommending the St. Cloud.” Barkers who worked for the railroad lost their jobs and stood stranded beside the tracks as the train disappeared from view.
Even Knowles boarded trains. As if just another tourist headed for Oceanside, he told his fellow passengers, by then tired, hungry, and jounced by the rails: “from what I hear, St. Cloud food’s the best.”
Chauncey Hayes applauded the tactic and attacked Horne in the Diamond: “[Knowles] claims this as his privilege! Just so, Danny! And we claim it as our privilege to criticize a bank and city council president and railroad right-of-way man and a living failure, who cannot find any better employment, or even mind his own business!”
By the end of January, the railroad changed the rule. Passengers could eat where they chose, and runners could no longer hound them at the depot.
By spring of 1888, the “Boom of the 1880s” — a real estate frenzy brought on by the coming of the railroads — was busting. Wealthy speculators, eager to unload, became “land poor.” The cry rang out to “save yourself!”
Walter Gifford Smith: “The suffering that followed, not only among the poor but among those who had never known what it was like to be without pecuniary means, makes a gloomy chapter of itself in the annals of the town.”
Even tourists in search of ocean breezes, or a sanatorium for invalids, stayed home. By 1896, aspiring townships from Oceanside to La Jolla had “grand” hotels but few patrons. As communities thinned, the mammoth structures stood out like morose white elephants from a bygone era — and the Hotel Wars went up in smoke.
A kind of lunacy
In 1885, newspapers to the north had to stop calling San Diego the “brush patch” and “the little flea bitten city by the sea.” The railroad finally came. For the next three years, over 2000 newcomers arrived each month. Real estate prices rose daily. The “Boom of the Eighties” was a land-frenzy so rabid, most thought it couldn’t end. By 1887 the population shot from 5000 to over 35,000.
“Excitement became a kind of lunacy,” writes Walter Gifford Smith, “and businessmen persuaded themselves that San Diego would soon cover an area…larger than that of London.”
An added incentive: the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroads fought a “fare war.” In 1885, a one-way ticket from Missouri to Los Angeles cost $125. For an edge, the Santa Fe reduced theirs to $100. So the Southern Pacific slashed to $12. The Santa Fe dropped to $8, the SP, $6. When Gerhard Schutte moved from Nebraska to Carlsbad in 1886, he and his family, combined, rode the rails for one dollar.
By 1887, San Diego’s hotels accommodated only 2000 guests. Even hastily built rooming houses couldn’t handle the spillover. Many speculators spent their nights in makeshift tents.
“New stores, hotels, and dwellings are arising on every hand from the center to the farthest outskirts” (Union). “It is impossible to keep track. No one seems to know or care who is putting up the big buildings.”
The railroad made San Diego an accessible destination for the first time. As town sites sprouted near the tracks, the question became: which destinations would be the most popular?
The La Jolla Park Hotel burned to the ground on June 14, 1896.
As a magnet, competitors would need a “grand” hotel. Along with the now-aging Horton House, San Diego added the elegant Brewster Hotel in 1888 and the New Carleton a year later. By April of 1888, Oceanside had two major hotels: the St. Cloud and the South Pacific; the Carlsbad Hotel stood next door to its famous mineral spring; and the luxurious La Jolla Park Hotel was completed (but didn’t open until 1893). Lakeside, Del Mar, National City, and El Cajon built resort-oriented structures.
All were defiantly large and ornate for a reason. The owners wanted Easterners to feel “comfortable” with something familiar, writes historian Susan Gutierrez. What went unsaid: the big wooden edifices were the opposite of adobe — the Spanish revival was a long way off — and stuck out on barren bluffs and hills like territorial claims.
Add to these the “Crown.” The Hotel del Coronado cost over $1 million. Owners Elisha Babcock and Hampton L. Story insured their property to the skies and didn’t skimp on fire safety: a freshwater pipeline from San Diego Bay, water tanks and gravity flow sprinklers installed at regular intervals, two concrete cisterns in the basement. Other new hotels, even those in the $50,000–$60,000 range, paid far less heed to disaster prevention and paid the ultimate price for their negligence.
Eden in flames
The Hotel Del’s nearest competitor lay 40 miles to the north. In 1883, John A. Frazier dug a well on his property. At 400 feet, he found water; at 450 feet, beneath a sub-stratum of rock, mineral water. The contents almost matched Bohemia’s famous “Well Number 9,” discovered by King Karl IV in 1347. Originally called Karl’s Badt (“Karl’s Bath”). So people wouldn’t confuse their well with the original, the Carlsbad Land and Water Company renamed the area “Carlsbad.”
Railroads scheduled so many excursions to “the American Karlsbad” that a “grand” resort was a must. The Mammoth Hotel — later called the Carlsbad — was completed in late 1887. Its four stories faced the ocean on a 600 foot east-to-west slope. Wide balconies wrapped around the first two floors like gingerbread sashes. On the mansard roof, a cupola could accommodate 100 sightseers. Said to cost between $50,000 and $75,000, the hotel charged $1.75 per day, $7 to $9 per week for its 85 guest rooms. Mineral water, in the tower next door, was free.
When the Hotel Del was completed just a few months later, Carlsbad took dead aim. The Sea Lion said the Mammoth would be “the grandest coast resort hotel north of Coronado.” Why take the train “all the way to Coronado,” they asked, “when you can have a first-class experience at ours?”
In the Coast Commercial Herald, Paul Kemble wrote: “Are you ailing, are you failing/Have you ills you cannot tell?/There is healing past revealing/In the waters of the well./Coronado in the shadow/Of its fame will sigh alone/Escondido must recede, oh;/With the valley of El Cajon./What are money, words of honey/What are all the gifts of wealth/If in the choosing, you are losing/That one blessed Boon of health?”
As part of its promotion, the Mammoth Hotel claimed immunity from conflagration: along with 150 incandescent lights, it had numerous fire alarms and a water tower next door.
The Hotel Del opened in February 1888. The “Boom of the Eighties” went bust in April.
“A mighty slump followed,” writes Ellen Browning Scripps. “The property stakes rotted out in time, and the hotels became the abode of bats and mice until they became a liability on insurance companies.”
By September 1888, over half of the population left the region. Hotels emptied, as did rooming houses and saloons. When land values hit “hard-pan,” the remaining speculators held inflated deeds they couldn’t unload.
Along with the mass exodus, between 1888 and 1896, a severe drought parched the county. Ranchers switched from cattle to “dry farming” beans, corn, and hay. “Once as near as Eden as the world has seen” (Oceanside Blade), Carlsbad shrunk to 155 citizens; only 6 could vote.
Hotel Carlsbad in 1888. It went up in flames on April 4, 1896.
On Saturday, April 4, 1896, shortly after 6:00 p.m., a small fire broke out in an unused, third-floor room of the Hotel Carlsbad. It snaked through the bone-dry walls and exploded out the roof on the northeast corner. Soon after, the whole structure was an inferno.
People as far south as Del Mar saw a giant candle-flame cast bright orange ripples across the water.
Few had ever seen such “a grand spectacle” (Blade). Even fewer fought the blaze. As timbers cracked and white-hot embers flickered down, a handful of men salvaged furniture on the first two floors. By 7:30 p.m. the building was a smoldering, charcoal skeleton.
“There were no guests in the house at the time” (Blade). The owner, C.D. Place, was insured for $10,000; the property valued at $47,000.
“Mr. Place was doing well” (Blade). That he would burn his hotel for the insurance “is not in any sense considered a factor in the fire or the cause of its origin.”
The rumor persists to this day that a “disgruntled employee” started the fire. “No one was ever convicted,” says historian Kristi Hawthorne. And no one rebuilt the hotel.
“Some of us thought it was the South Pacific at Oceanside,” wrote the Blade. “While we do not wish anybody else trouble, we were glad to learn later that Oceanside was not the sufferer.”
On June 13, 1896, 15-year-old William Harley Scott worked as an apprentice at his father’s barber shop across the tracks from the South Pacific Hotel in Oceanside. Around noon, he heard an odd sound, like three or four iron triangles clanging at once. Then he remembered: “fire alarm!”
Word spread “from lip to lip” so fast it seemed everyone in town dashed past hitched horses and parked buggies toward the South Pacific, where columns of dark gray smoke rose from the roof like horns.
Before the alarm sounded, a Blade reporter saw thin white streaks rising from a third-floor window on the west wing. He raced upstairs with several others. They found a small fire in the corner of a domestic’s room. They quickly formed a line and passed pitchers, washbowls, and buckets of water hand-to-hand to douse the pesky blaze. They became so efficient they knew they’d put it out.
But it burned through the clapboards, got inside the wall, and twisted toward the roof as if desperate for air.
When the alarms sounded, the volunteers relaxed. “It did not seem possible for the fire to get much headway,” wrote the reporter, “before…the big three inch hoses would be turned on. With the water available, the flames were almost extinguished.”
Firemen connected the hose to a plug next door at the Opera House. They erected a ladder and aimed the nozzle at the third floor, but the stream fell 20 feet short.
Then the wall erupted like dynamite. A massive gust flung the volunteers backward. Thick smoke charged down the halls and invaded the rooms so fast the men had to creep toward the stairs, one hand over their mouths, the other feeling for the railing in the dense, choking fog.
As at the Carlsbad Hotel two months earlier, the volunteers tried to salvage what they could.
The building slowly burned to blackened rubble. There were no injuries. Melchior Pieper, the proprietor, told the Los Angeles Times he lost between $1500 and $2000. His insurance only covered $600. The owner, A.P. Hotaling, a San Francisco millionaire, never commented about insurance, though the Blade speculated that he had “ample.”
On July 4, 1896, Pieper sailed to San Francisco to see Hotaling about rebuilding the South Pacific. “His trip,” the Blade reported, “was not satisfactory.”
Cursed from the start
The La Jolla Park Hotel seemed cursed from the start. Frank Botsford and George Heald had it built in 1888. Though it cost $33,000 and promised to rival the Hotel del, it didn’t open until 1893, when a new rail line reached the property.
Queen Anne in style, the La Jolla Park Hotel had a steeply canted roof and a conical tower. Its three and a half stories stood at the top of a slope — on today’s Prospect Street, at the end of Girard — and stood out amid low pockets of scrub and sage. But even with the railroad spur — which had to be extended to reach the building — the 80 rooms were never full. When the proprietor’s lease ended, in mid-April, shortly after the Carlsbad Hotel was incinerated, the owners shut the hotel down.
The South Pacific burned on Saturday, June 13. The next evening, Frank Gordon smelled smoke coming from the third floor of the La Jolla Park Hotel. The watchman and sole occupant, Gordon ran upstairs. A good-sized blaze crackled in a rear room above the dining hall. Gordon grabbed a fire hose (every floor had one)and went to work. But the flames outflanked him and forked away.
Neighbors saw the windows glisten with gold — a sunset reflecting off the glass? At 8:45 p.m.? Fire!
Neighbors helped Gordon drag two bedroom sets and the dining-room furniture outside before the structure slowly crumpled into itself.
The hotel was valued at around $30,000. The owners, Hamilton and French of New York, were in San Diego at the time. They collected $10,000 in insurance. Though they vowed to rebuild “immediately,” they never did. Instead they built 12 cottages on the site, ranging in price from $250 to $2500.
“The fire fiend is getting in his effective work on the boom hotels in the county,” wrote the L.A. Times the next day, “in a way that must be very unsatisfactory to the insurance companies.”
It could have been an arsonist. Earlier on Sunday, a small dye shop caught fire on lower Fifth in San Diego. Gustave Rangod was burned to death. The two fires could have been related. So could all the major fires that year.
On October 10, 1896, a blaze flared in an unoccupied room on the third floor of the Mira Mar Hotel — formerly the St. Cloud — in Oceanside. The volunteer brigade, which probably drilled regularly since June, doused it “with almost regulation dispatch,” wrote the Blade, “but not before the roof, partitions and floor of the attic were practically destroyed.”
Not as “grand” as the other three, the Mira Mar was made of brick, which probably saved its life. After October it changed to a rooming house.
“This is the fourth hotel to take fire this season on the coast from this point to La Jolla,” wrote the Blade, “and it is a strange coincidence that all the fires originated in the third story and their origin a mystery. A firebug is certainly abroad in the land and needs looking after.”
Fires were regular occurrences in that time of prolonged drought and massive wooden structures. Shortly before the Carlsbad Hotel went down, flames leveled William Borden’s ranch house near San Marcos. But four major hotels in six months?
“Arson is a strong possibility,” writes historian Kristi Hawthorne. “When the building boom went bust, a lot of investors lost a lot of money and land values plummeted. Was insurance fraud involved? A way to recoup an otherwise worthless investment?”
A lone pyromaniac? Maybe. Insurance fraud? Quite possibly. But it’s also a fact that, as of November 1896, all the “grand” competition north of San Diego went down in flames.
- Chauncey Hayes (South Oceanside Diamond, March 1888): “In June 1885 our town had only about ten citizens and eight houses. They had little to do except ‘whittle sticks,’ whistle, and talk of the future.”
- Rudy Carpenter: By 1889, “the open and sparsely populated area of Oceanside was recognized as a location with unparalleled opportunities for potential speculation.”
- Hayes (South Oceanside Diamond, Feb, 1889): “‘Danny’ Horne has gone to whittling and will quit hotel-running and devote his time to meddling with other people’s affairs.”
- Neil Morgan: “San Diego had its railroad, but it was never more than a spur line.”
- Susan Gutierrez: “I find it interesting that the [Carlsbad] hotel would have fire alarms, and was located near two sources of water, the famed wells and the ocean, and yet it burned.”
- Paul Kemble: “What is climate/though you rhyme it/To all tunes the gods may give?/What are scenery and sea breeze,/If they cannot help you live?”
- Carpenter, Rudy, “Historic South Pacific Hotel Days of Glory Told,” The Oceanside Report (June, 1959).
- Frazee, W.D., Oceanside (Oceanside, 1888).
- Griego, Andrew, “Rebuilding the California Southern Railroad: The Personal account of a Chinese Labor Contractor,” Journal of San Diego History (Fall, 1979).
- Gutierrez, Susan Schnebelen, Windows on the Past: An Illustrated History of Carlsbad (Carlsbad, 2002); interview.
- Hawthorne, Kristi, Oceanside: Where Life Is Worth Living (Virginia Beach, 2000); Oceanside California: Celebrating 125 Years (Oceanside, 2013); Interview.
- Howard-Jones, Marje, Seekers of the Spring: A History of Carlsbad (Carlsbad, 1982).
- Lowell, Douglas L., “The California Southern Railroad and the Growth of San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History (Fall, 1985).
- Morgan, Neil, and Tom Blair, Yesterday’s San Diego (Miami, 1976).
- Orton, Charles Wesley, Carlsbad: A New Unabashed History (Scottsdale, 2014).
- Price, James N., “The Railroad Stations of San Diego County,” Journal of San Diego History (Spring, 1988).
- Scripps, Ellen Browning, “La Jolla Then and Now,” speech for La Jolla Women’s Club, 1919, Journal of San Diego History (Fall, 2011).
- Smith, Walter Gifford, The Story of San Diego (San Diego, 1892).
- Articles from the San Diego Union, San Diego Herald, Oceanside Blade, South Oceanside Diamond, Carlsbad Plain Truth, Carlsbad Spirit of Love, Los Angeles Times, and others.