San Diego: History

Spanish, Mexicans, Americans Lay Claim to San Diego Region

Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the discoverer of California, sailed into what is now San Diego Bay and claimed the surrounding region for the King of Spain in 1542. The bay was named in 1602 by another Spanish explorer, Don Sebastian Viscaino. The first European settlement there was established in 1769, when the Franciscan fathers established a mission on a hill overlooking the bay, close to a large Native American village. The mission was the first in a chain of twenty-one that the sect built throughout California. The mission was burned down by the local tribes and later almost completely destroyed by an earthquake, but the determined Franciscans rebuilt each time. Today, the restored mission still conducts Mass every Sunday.

By the 1830s, a small but thriving trading village had developed on the bay, in the district now called "Old Town." The town was an important shipping point for cattle hide and quarried stone. The famous cobblestone streets of Boston are said to have been paved with San Diego stone. San Diego became the capital of Mexican California after Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1822. It was a much fought-over prize during the Mexican War, changing hands numerous times before the U.S. Army established permanent American rule in late 1846. The town was incorporated as a city in 1850.

City Thrives, Declines, Thrives Again

Throughout the next twenty years the town was an important whaling port. Then in 1867, San Francisco land-developer Alonzo E. Horton bought a 1,000-acre plot of what was to become downtown San Diego. Horton laid out streets, built a wharf and a hotel, and donated land for churches. A gold strike in 1870 and numerous land booms in the area increased the population rapidly. In 1885, when the Santa Fe Railroad and a number of eastern investors arrived, 40,000 people lived in the city.

By the turn of the century, however, San Diego was plunged into a slump. Failed businesses and unwise real estate speculations caused the population to dwindle to 17,000 people. The city began a period of slow, steady growth, helped by the Panama-California Exposition in celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal in 1915. The fledgling aircraft industry, which found the desert climate and terrain an ideal testing environment, also aided San Diego's recovery. An aggressive policy of attracting new people and industry contributed to growth, but the city remained relatively obscure, overshadowed by Los Angeles and San Francisco to the north.

City Becomes Naval Base; Rise of Agriculture and Industry

Japan's bombing of Honolulu's Pearl Harbor at the beginning of World War II forced the U.S. Navy to seek another suitable Pacific base. They chose San Diego, and almost overnight the city became a busy military center, home base for a large number of naval trainees, many of whom relocated to the city as civilians after the war. In the post-war era the city emerged as the headquarters of the Eleventh Naval District and the Naval Air Command; installations include major U.S. Navy and Marine training centers, the West Coast's main supply depot, a naval hospital and laboratories, and a large fleet stationed in the bay. Along with the military came related support industries and a large number of naval and aviation defense contractors.

Growth begun during World War II has continued unabated. San Diego spread to extend almost 20 miles in each direction, developing small, distinct communities in the nearby canyons and valleys; these areas retain a separate identity while being incorporated into San Diego. With this growth came diversity. To the south, San Diego connects with a rich agricultural area that produces much of California's famous fruit and vegetable produce, shipped worldwide from the easily accessible port. To the north the wealthy leisure class developed a resort community of hotels, spectacular cliff homes, and recreational amenities. Throughout the city commercial and industrial corridors began growing, and many corporations moved their headquarters to the region.

Downtown Declines, Revives

During the 1960s and early 1970s the San Diego downtown area declined when businesses and residents moved to the suburbs in large numbers. The city's growth continued despite these problems, and by the mid-1970s San Diego had surpassed San Francisco as California's second largest city. An efficient freeway system and a coordinated effort by the Centre City Development Corporation—a comprehensive group of developers, financial experts, and civic leaders—kept the downtown area alive.

Today downtown San Diego is revitalized with new energy and is experiencing a renaissance as growth continues: as of 2004, more than 100 residential, commercial, retail, and entertainment development projects in San Diego's downtown area were underway or on the drawing board. Thoughtful planning has produced an impressive skyline of mirrored office towers blended with innovative shopping and residential developments, parks, and historic districts, all designed to serve the people who use them. Atria, attractive public gathering spaces, and overhead walkways encourage visitors and residents alike to enjoy the downtown area.

Historical Information: San Diego Historical Society, Museum of San Diego History, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101; telephone (619)232-6203