By Mary C. Morse
Editor’s note: When Mary Chase Walker (later Mrs. E. W. Morse) arrived in San Diego ninety-six years ago, she saw little to arouse her enthusiasm. It was fortunate that she decided to stay—and from the standpoint of students of history, even more fortunate that on Aug. 12, 1898, she took time to jot down her recollections of a sleepy (and somewhat untidy) little frontier settlement.
Oh, the strangely foreign look as I stepped from my state room, and stood on deck, as the steamer came to anchor! The hills were brown and barren, not a tree or green thing to be seen. A most desolate looking landscape. The Government Barracks and two or three houses greeted my sight. Simply this and nothing more.
I said to the Capt. in dismay, “Is this San Diego?” He replied, “No, the town is four miles away.” I saw a merry twinkle in his eye which I afterwards interpreted as meaning “Won’t this Yankee school ma’am be surprised when she sees the town.” Wild looking horsemen flourishing their riatas, were coming from different directions towards the landing. The very gait of the horses seemed different from anything I had seen before.
There were no wharfs at that time. Passengers were taken in the ship’s boats to shallow water, then carried on the backs of sailors to the shore. Fortunately for me a little skiff was over from the lighthouse, which saved me the humiliating experience meted out to others.
Once on shore I was placed with my trunk in the wagon awaiting me, and we started for Old Town. The prospect as we neared the town was not encouraging, but the climax was reached when we arrived at the plaza. Of all the dilapidated, miserable looking places, I had never seen one like this before. The buildings were nearly all of adobe, one story in height, with no chimneys. Some of the roofs were covered with tiles & some with earth. One of these an old ruin stood in the middle of the plaza. It has since been removed. It must be remembered that Old Town is now quite a modern town compared with what it was 33 years ago.
I was driven to the hotel which was to be my future boarding place. This was a frame structure of two stories, since burned. The first night at the hotel a donkey came under my window and saluted me with an unearthly bray. I wondered if some wild animal had escaped from a menagerie, and was prowling around Old Town. The fleas were plentiful and hungry. Mosquitoes also were in attendance. The cooking at the hotel was quite unlike the cooking at Del Coronado at the present time. I sat at table alone (being the only woman in the house) an Indian man did the cooking and an Irish boy waited on me at table, & also gave me the news of the town. A man had been shot the previous day he said &c. The landlord, an Irish gentleman, kindly told me that I could go into the kitchen & cook whatever I wished if I did not like the Indian’s style of cooking. I availed myself of the privilege & while there made some interesting discoveries. . . I tried to find board in a private family as the accommodations were so poor at the hotel, but without success. No one would take “La Miestra” as a boarder. At the end of a week Mrs. Robinson kindly offered me two unoccupied rooms in the second story of her house on the plaza at $2.00 per month. There were no furniture or stove shops in Old Town at that time. But the people were kind. One lent me a lounge, another a rocking chair. The bed came with the room. An old stove that smoked badly was procured somewhere. Thus I commenced housekeeping.
Each room was about 10 by 12 feet. Two large glass doors opened on a veranda, from which I witnessed many amusing scenes. Wild Indians, naked with the exception of a cloth about the loins, stalked majestically across the plaza, their long hair streaming in the wind, or if in mourning plastered with a paste made of grease and ashes…
The lumbering Spanish cart could be seen, with the wheels made whole from a cross section of a large log of wood, and usually uttering excruciating cries for lack of grease…
The area of the county of San Diego at that time was larger than the area of the whole state of Mass., and I was to teach the only school in the county…. At recess the Spanish girls smoked cigaritas & the boys amused themselves by lassoing pigs, hens &c. The Spanish children were very irregular in their attendance at school, on account of so many fiestas and amusements of various kinds.
For a week before a bull fight the boys were more or less absent, watching preparations, such as fencing up the streets leading to the plaza &c. A Spanish circus made its appearance soon after my arrival. It was shown off in the evening in a “corral” wth high adobe walls (no tents) which was lighted by strips of cloth laid in cans of lard & set on fire. These primitive lanterns were set on high posts. The spectators included nearly all the population of the town, who could pay the admittance of 50 cts. I think the Indians were admitted at half price. The Americans & Spanish occupied one side of the “corral” and the Indians squatted on the ground on the other. The performance on the trapeze and tight-rope looked especially weird & fantastic, seen in the smoky light of these primitive lanterns.
I was amused at the balls where the Spanish ladies smoked cigaritas between dances. They dressed showily & both gentlemen & ladies were fine dancers. Ladies 60 and 70 years of age would dance and waltz in a most graceful manner. Crowds of Indians always thronged the doors and windows and were sometimes allowed to sit on the floor in the corners of the room.
The wedding receptions . . . were held in the largest room of what is now called the “Ramona house.” Dancing and smoking were the principal features…. If you entered the ante-room before dancing commenced, you would find the bride surrounded by her lady friends, each with a cigarita between her white gloved fingers….
The dinners to which I was invited by the Spanish families were to me a novelty & very enjoyable. The table was spread in the garden under the trees & sheep, pig or kid were roasted whole in an outside oven, and served with a dressing composed largely of olives & red peppers and various savory herbs, also a sauce of tomatoes and chili peppers half & half. A small quantity of this would bring tears to the most strong eyes.
My first impressions of old San Diego gradually wore away and as winter approached and the hills were brown & barren no longer, I realized the advantages we had here over a bleak New England climate…