Byways of Old City Park

Balboa Park - in those days called City Park - was a waste of canyon and mesa when our family moved to town in 1882. It was not entirely unused, although nothing had been done toward its improvement for public recreation: there were two powder-houses which were, off and on, the cause of worry and near-tragedy, and the City Pound was located in the canyon more recently named Cabrillo. In the early nineties, the militia companies had their target ranges there.

Another institution in the park, which may have been thought to be sufficiently distant from town, was the so-called "pest house." This was the isolation camp for any plague-ridden persons, and it lay across the divide over which Pershing Drive now passes, in that branch-canyon up which the old Park Belt Line Railway ran for a brief while. The site was where the little, farm-like clump of houses can be seen now, in the bottom of the canyon, just east of the Thirtieth Street bridge; and I rather think that one of those small buildings is part of the original isolation camp.

The place was mostly unoccupied, but during the smallpox scare of 1887 it harbored several cases of that disease, and the town had equipped and furnished it generously in apprehension of possibly more of them. There were sixteen beds, supplied with good mattresses and blankets; chairs, tables, two stoves with cooking utensils, besides picks and shovels and sundry other tools.

During the following years of its vacancy nothing appears to have been removed by the town, and the place was left entirely unguarded. It lay so far beyond the built-up part of town that scarcely anybody ever passed within sight of it.

However, late in 1892, John Palmer, who had been its last keeper, having business in that direction, was moved to go over and take a look at it. He discovered that some very enterprising person had established himself there, evidently for a protracted period, and engaged in beekeeping. Palmer found many hives stacked in the main house, together with great numbers of empty combs from which the honey had been extracted. But every article of furniture and equipment, including stoves and bedsteads, had been carried off. And they were never recovered.

When this news got about, many people who had a liking for honey were worried. No doubt the bee-keeper had sold his produce right in town and some of that honey might have dated from only shortly after the last smallpox patients checked out of the place -- alive or dead. Apparently, however, nobody took any harm thereby; nor, I believe, was the identity of the enterprising apiarist ever learned.

Incidentally, so concerned were people with the dangers of the "plague" that one citizen gave the following advice in his "letter to the editor" of the Sun: "Every person who has anything to do with smallpox patients should have a distinctive mark about him -- say, a yellow band around his hat -- or something of this kind should be worn, thus advising the unwary that the wearer has been in contact with the disease."

Another spot in the city park, not so well known then and scarcely to be located now, was the cave-dwelling of Professor LeBatt. This unfortunate man, though said to have been highly talented, apparently was brought to the pass of living in a hole in the hillside, almost hidden by huge sumac bushes, through a strange inability to profit financially from his gifts or to make a fair living in other ways. At least, that was the general understanding. He was, people said, a pianist of brilliant parts; he gave at least one concert at Horton Hall, and for a time he tried to teach. He made one brief trip somewhere up north but soon returned to his cave, and he finally committed suicide there in the canyon.