Alonzo Erastus Horton (1813-1909)

Alonzo Erastus Horton (1813-1909)

"I'm getting tired of handling so much money."

Alonzo Erastus Horton reportedly made this statement while selling the two-hundred and twenty-six blocks of what is now downtown San Diego. And no wonder. His outlay for eight-hundred acres purchased at an auction in 1867 totaled only thirty-three cents an acre. Two years later he paid $4,000 for a one-hundred and sixty acre parcel needed to sew up the section known as the Horton Addition.

These figures surfaced in research by Dr. Robert F. Heilbron. Other historians have credited Horton with a twenty-seven cents per acre figure.

Horton started something big and it was fueled in 1885 by the resumption of railroad service to an eastward connection. "San Diego became real estate mad," according to the Federal Writers' Project book San Diego: A California City. "People lived in tents on their lots until they could clear away the brush and cactus. More frequently they sold out at fancy prices before they could settle on the land. Buyers bought from maps without inspecting the purchase, and in turn sold to other speculators sight unseen."

Local people jumped on the bandwagon. Housewives, lawyers, clerks, ministers, maids and businesssmen began buying and selling. Some speculators paid as much as five-hundred dollars for a place in line to buy property.

This became the first peak in a real estate roller coaster ride that first delighted then devastated speculators on at least three occasions between the 1867 birth of the Horton Addition and 1906. Horton counted the greenbacks, then invested in more land or new ventures. He gave lots to the Methodists, Episcopalians and Baptists for new churches. He donated land to people who pledged to build houses at once. He donated the site for the proposed courthouse. Sometimes he paid his employees with property.

Some businessmen called him "Corner Lot Horton." This term of derision came from his practice of offering smaller-than-normal corner parcels at prices twenty-five percent higher than lots next door, recalled Don M. Stewart in Frontier Port. The canny Horton, however, knew shop owners and some home buyers preferred the higher visibility on the corners. His new addition lacked alleys. People just used them for trash, Horton maintained, based on what he had seen in San Francisco and other cities, so he eliminated them.

Born in Connecticut in 1813, Horton moved near Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin, where almost single-handedly he created the city now known as Hortonville (pop. 2,000).

The lure of gold brought him West in 1849. He profited more from supplying ice and store merchandise in the Mother Lode than panning for the metal. He opened a San Francisco used furniture store, capitalizing on its booming population and the refurbishing needs caused by frequent fires. He foresaw even better returns in San Diego after hearing a speaker describe its climate, the harbor, the impact of a proposed railroad and the ample space for stores, homes and factories.

At the age of fifty-four he headed south on the steamer Pacific. Good downtown San Francisco lots then sold for $10,000 or more so Horton probably chortled when his bid of two-hundred and sixty-five dollars gave him title to those eight-hundred acres. But he also knew a major promotional effort must follow.

Horton returned to San Francisco. He gave maps, brochures and a spiel to anyone who appeared solvent and would listen. Hired runners helped spread the word and Horton collared anyone who showed some interest.

His efforts began paying off. In time tourists themselves helped. They returned home from Southern California with missionary zeal, buttonholing neighbors and writing newspapers about the American Riviera they had visited. Soon Horton could complain about handling all that money. He plowed it back: $45,000 for a new wharf at the end of Fifth Avenue; $150,000 for the one-hundred room Horton House.

0ld timers scoffed at someone loony enough to build a hotel off the beaten track at what is now Third and Broadway with the business hub then at Fifth and Market. But Horton's hunch proved right. He helped start the first library by swapping a downtown lot for books from historian Hubert H. Bancroft.

A lifelong Republican, Horton decreed that only bonafide supporters would be on his payroll. Party conversions occurred whenever real estate booms began and he hired more workers, because the town leaned toward Democratic policies. His contemporaries regarded Horton as an honest and crackerjack, if somewhat eccentric, promoter, but an ineffectual businessman, according to Don Stewart, a former councilman, Postmaster and Democratic Party leader, who was born in San Diego six years after Horton arrived. When real estate values dropped, Horton lost most of the money he had tired of counting. The bank he founded, the hotel and other enterprises passed into the control of others.

Most people regard Horton as the father of San Diego. Others point to Juan Cabrillo who was the first to discover San Diego Bay in 1542. Some nominate Junipero Serra, the padre who guided the establishment of Alta California's first mission in 1769. William Heath Davis rates the "father" title, in Stewart's view. Davis was the catalyst for the 1850 development of New Town in the vicinity of today's Broadway, Front and the harbor. The project failed miserably.

Whatever Horton's parental ranking, he stands out as a herculean promoter who envisioned the metropolis San Diego one day would become. And he possessed the courage to act upon his vision.

[biographical sketch from San Diego Originals by Theodore W. Fuller, published by California Profiles Publications, 1987]