Timeline of San Diego History
Local events are in black ~ World and national events are in gray
City of San Diego population is 2,637. San Diego County population is 4951. Population table
Frank Kimball of National City founds the San Diego County Fair. Kimball had been testing fruit trees here since 1869. He later serves as the State Commissioner of Horticulture from 1888 to 1898. begins operation.
San Diego Telephone Company begins operation.
The San Diego Free Reading Room Association opens San Diego's first public library.
August 15, 1882
Russ School opens, an eight room, two-story building built with lumber donated by Hon. Joseph Russ. Photo of Russ School in 1898. It is replaced in 1907 by the "Gray Castle" which remains until 1976. A new San Diego High School now stands on the same site. See Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 28, Spring 1982.
John Montgomery makes world's first "controlled flight" in a "heavier than air" craft, flying 600 feet in a glider at Otay Mesa. Photo of Montgomery with another of his gliders in 1905. Montgomery is later killed in a 1911 glider crash.
Leach's Opera House opens on July 17, 1884, with a performance by a local group calling itself The San Diego Minstrels.
Helen Hunt Jackson's romanticized novel Ramona is published, describing the tragic fate of a half-breed senorita and her Indian husband at the hands of prejudiced whites in northern San Diego County. The romantic work sells 600,000 copies in 60 years as the first novel about Southern California. Jackson may have been influenced by her visit to Ysidora Couts at Rancho Guajome (near present-day Vista) in the early 1880s, where the two had a falling out.
Kate Sessions arrives from San Francisco bay area to teach at Russ School. She founds her nursery business in 1885.
Transcontinental railroad reaches San Diego. The first train of the California Southern departs from San Diego on November 15 and on November 21 the first train arrives from the east. Photo of National City railway terminal, 1888. ~ Read more about Frank Kimball's vision.
Indiana railroad promoter Elisha S. Babcock and Chicago piano manufacturer H.L. Story buy the peninsula of Coronado for $110,000. Construction of Hotel del Coronado begins in 1886. At an auction on November 13, 1886, they sell a million dollars worth of Coronado lots to some of the 6,000 buyers on hand. With the proceeds, they establish a ferry system, water service and the Coronado Gas & Electric Co.
July 4, 1886
San Diego's first transit system, the San Diego Street Car Company is organized by a group led by Babcock and Story. First streetcars begin operating over two-mile track on Broadway. Read about and see SDHS photos of San Diego's early streetcars.
San Diego population hits estimated 35,000-40,000 at its peak in 1887. Population table
Railroad rate war leads to population boom and land stampede. San Diego's Victorian Santa Fe railway station opens downtown, built by the California Southern Railroad. Photo of original railway station.
John D. Spreckels visits San Diego on his yacht Lurline and begins investing in San Diego; he lives in San Francisco for several more years before moving to San Diego permanently just after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Nov 19, 1887
San Diego's Electric Rapid Transit Company introduces the first electric street railway system in the western U.S., running from D Street downtown to Old Town along Arctic Street (now Kettner). Photo of Electric Rapid Transit cars.
Jesse Shepard, local spiritualist, musician and author, builds his grand Victorian home known as the Villa Montezuma, now open to the public at 1925 K Street. Villa Montezuma's hours of operation.
Harr Wagner moves his Golden Era literary magazine to San Diego from San Francisco, convinced that Southern California was the wave of the future and that San Diego soon would replace San Francisco as the new cultural center of the West. Photo of Golden Era magazine, 1887.
Sweetwater Dam, a major engineering feat and San Diego County's first major dam, is completed by the Kimball Brothers Water Company, supplying water for National City and Chula Vista. Speeches and music mark the celebration on April 19. The dam measures 396 feet in length and 12 feet wide at the top, 75 feet in length and 46 feet wide at the base. Original plans for building the dam 60 feet in height were changed to 98 feet, increasing capacity of the reservoir fivefold. Photo shows concrete rim under construction, adding to height of Sweetwater Dam.
San Diego's 1880s real estate boom ends. Photo shows dozens of "for sale" signs. By the end of the decade the population has dropped from 40,000 to 16,000. Read more about San Diego's Boom to Bust. Pennsylvanians posing for photo before departing San Diego.
Entrepreneurs Elisha Babcock and H.L. Story open the world-famous Hotel del Coronado, although construction continues on much of the building. Read more about the creation of the Hotel del Coronado. Photo of Hotel del Coronado nearing completion.
January 18, 1888
Moosa Canyon gunfight takes place 18 miles inland from Oceanside, leaving four people dead in a squabble over land none of them owned.
February 22, 1889
San Diego celebrates opening of the San Diego Flume. In honor of the event the Governor, R. W. Waterman, and other dignitaries ride down the flume in a flat-bottomed boat. Photo of Waterman and dignitaries riding flume. A reservoir created at Bear Creek with the Cuyamaca Dam, completed in 1887, provides the water source. The flume is an open wooden ditch which crossed ravines and canyons by means of high wooden trestles.
City of San Diego's population drops to 16,159. San Diego County population is 34,987. Population table
June 7, 1890
Cable cars begin operating in San Diego. Photo of cable car. The San Diego Cable Railway, which had been incorporated on July 22, 1889, took over the franchise of an unsuccessful electric line. Mission Cliffs Gardens line opens September 7, 1890. Cable company goes into receivership and the last cable cars run on October 15, 1892. Photo album with more than 20 of San Diego's early streetcars includes horse drawn cars, cable cars and electric streetcars.
Coronado secedes from San Diego and incorporates.
John D. Spreckels buys city transit system, local streetcar lines, through the San Diego Electric Railroad. Spreckels installs motors and converts the horse cars to electric cars.
Fisher Opera House opens on Fourth Street between B and C, an opulent but practical house seating 1400 in the best theater on the West Coast. John C. Fisher was president of the Chamber of Commerce, owner of the Florence Hotel and active in the cable-car company.
Kate Sessions, now known as the "Mother of Balboa Park", leases thirty-six acres in the northwest corner of what is then called "City Park", on which she puts a 10-acre nursery. For this privilege, she is to plant one hundred trees a year in the park and furnish three hundred more trees and plants yearly for planting throughout the city. She moves her nursery to Mission Hills in 1903. Read more about Kate Sessions.
Wall Street panic leads to lengthy depression.
Irving Gill arrives in San Diego. Read Journal of San Diego History articles about Irving Gill, architect.
October 23, 1894
Earthquake of 5.75 magnitude hits East of San Diego
Bad times encourage Alonzo Horton to sell his half-block Horton Plaza park to the city for $10,000, stipulating that it must remain a park forever. Under the agreement, the city agrees to pay Horton $100 a month with no interest and no down payment. In the event of Horton's death, the city would acquire the property outright. The city fathers underestimate Horton's endurance. In April 1903, 89-year-old Horton cashes the final payment for a total of $16,000. Today Horton's park fronts Horton Plaza and has been renamed Horton Plaza Park.
Bear Valley (now Wohlford) Dam is constructed to provide Escondido with a reliable source of water. The Southern California Mountain Water Company is organized, to build dams in the watersheds of the Otay-Hauser Mountain area. The Upper and Lower Otay, Morena and Barrett dams are completed in the late 1890s and early in the twentieth century.
March 13, 1897
State Normal School, the beginning of what is now San Diego State University, is founded for the training of elementary school teachers. The seven faculty and ninety-one students of the first "Normal School" class meets on November 1, 1898 in temporary quarters downtown while the first unit of the main building of the campus is under construction at Park Boulevard and El Cajon Boulevard. Photo of original section of Normal School about 1900.
May 9, 1897
The Woman's Home for single mothers in City Park burns down. The three-story Children's (or Orphan's) Home and nearby Woman's Home were both built in the turreted, Victorian, "Queen Anne modern Style" and located on the site where the U.S. Naval Hospital would be built in Balboa Park in 1922.
The Hotel Robinson in Julian was built by former slave Albert Robinson and his wife Margaret Tull. It is now the Julian Hotel. Robinson had come to San Diego in the 1870s as a cook for his former master.
Andrew Carnegie donates $60,000 to build San Diego Public Library, first of his libraries west of Mississippi, opens in 1902 at Eighth and E. Photo of Carnegie Library about 1900.
State Normal School, a two-year teaching training college, opens in Normal Heights. Later becomes San Diego State College, then SDSU.
Army establishes Fort Rosecrans, named after General Rosecrans, an 1842 graduate of the US Military Academy. It remains an Army base until transfer to the Navy in 1959 for the purpose of building a submarine base on Ballast Point. Photo of Fort Rosecrans.
City of San Diego population is 17,700. San Diego County population is 35,090. Population table
Katherine Tingley moves the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society to 132 acres on Point Loma, where she established the Raja-Yoga School, built the first open-air Greek Theater in America, and formed youth and adult symphony orchestras.
John D. Spreckels opens Tent City, just south of the Hotel del Coronado. Photo of Tent City and Hotel del Coronado. Spreckels, now owner of the Del, closes the hotel for renovations from June to December of 1900, and guests are put up in tents on the beach. The tents remain and Tent City becomes a popular summer resort until it is finally closed in 1939.
Panama Canal construction is authorized in Congress.
By decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Indian inhabitants of Cupa, San Felipe and nearby villages around Warner Springs are evicted and removed to lands near the Pala Reservation.
At his own expense, George Marston travels East to hire a worthy landscape architect for the commission of designing San Diego's 1400 acre park, known then as City Park. Two months later, at Marston's invitation, Samuel Parsons, Jr., arrives in San Diego to study the park lands. Read more about Samuel Parsons, Jr., landscape architect.
University of California Zoology Professor William E. Ritter, supported by Ellen Browning Scripps, her brother E.W. Scripps and Homer Peters, form the Marine Biological Association of San Diego, later to become the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Madam Ida Bailey opens up her own fancy parlor house, the Canary Cottage, at 530 4th Avenue. In the pale yellow house set behind a white picket fence, she and her girls "entertain" downtown's well-groomed gentlemen with fat wallets, including the mayor and the chief of police. Newspaper account of police raid on Stingaree, 1912.
George White and Anna Gunn Marston move into their nearly completed home at the northwest corner of Balboa Park. This wonderful Arts and Crafts mansion, designed by Hebbard and Gill, is now open to the public. Marston house information and hours of operation.
Sixty people are killed by a boiler explosion on gunship Bennington in San Diego harbor. Photo of Bennington after explosion.
The Salton Sea is formed between 1905 and 1907, when the Colorado River breaks out of a canal dug to carry irrigation water to the Imperial Valley, pouring into the ancient, dry Salton Basin seabed that was most recently occupied by Lake Cahuilla until about 300 years ago. See photos of a modern-day Salton Sea.
April 18, 1906
Great Earthquake of 8.25 magnitude hits San Francisco. Seven hundred persons die in one of the greatest earthquakes ever to hit California. Damage increased perhaps tenfold by raging fires. Total damage estimated at over $500 million.
Following the earthquake, John D. Spreckels decides to leave San Francisco and moves permanently to San Diego. Spreckels and local businessmen form corporation to build San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railroad. Construction begins on $18 million railway line to Yuma, partly through Baja California.
Development of Presidio Park begins; Marston, Spreckels, Scripps and other investors begin buying Presidio property to preserve as a park.
Imperial County secession leaves San Diego with its present county boundaries.
April 14, 1908
U.S. Navy's Great White Fleet makes San Diego its first U.S. stop on a worldwide tour, bringing more than 16,000 sailors into San Diego Harbor on 16 battleships, 7 destroyers and 4 auxiliary ships. Photo of Great White Fleet off Coronado at night.
May 9, 1908
Race car driver Barney Oldfield establishes new world record for a mile in Lakeside: 51 4/5 seconds.
William E. Smythe founds the Little Landers colony (which later becomes San Ysidro) on 550 acres of land in the Tia Juana River Valley, with the dream of establishing the first of many utopian farm communities across the nation. Photo of a Little Landers produce wagon.
July 9, 1909
G. Aubrey Davidson, founder of the Southern Trust and Commerce Bank and president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, proposes that San Diego should stage an exposition in 1915 to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal.
City of San Diego population is 39,578. San Diego County population is 61,665. Population table
October 15, 1910
U.S. Grant Hotel opens downtown on former site of Horton House. On the same evening, Horton Plaza reopens with fountain designed by Irving J. Gill and his brother Louis. Photo of Horton Plaza fountain with Grant Hotel in background. Read about U.S. Grant, Jr in our Journal of San Diego History.
November 1, 1910
Park Commissioners give "City Park" the new name "Balboa Park". California State Legislature ratifies their decision, March 24, 1911, in the same piece of legislation which authorizes the use of the park for an exposition.
Jan 26, 1911
Glenn Hammond Curtiss makes world's first successful seaplane flight from waters off Spanish Bight, a mile-ling stretch between North Island and Coronado (now filled in). Photo of Curtiss with his seaplane. ~ Hear the story of that Curtiss flight. Curtiss starts a flying school on Coronado's North Island, inviting the Army and Navy to send officers for free instruction as pilots. North Island Aviation Camp is established by the Army Signal Corps. One of its students, Lt. Theodore G. Ellyson, USN, becomes Naval Aviator Number 1.
July 19, 1911
Panama-California Exposition groundbreaking ceremonies begin with a military mass in a Balboa Park canyon. Read more about the Exposition groundbreaking ceremonies.
Francisco Madero's revolution breaks out on mainland of Mexico. Emma Goldman, the anarchist whose speeches incited the assassination of President McKinley, speaks to 200 in Germania Hall. Magonista radicals, supported and joined by American members of the I.W.W. (Wobblies), capture Mexicali on January 29; Tecate on March 12, holding it for a few days; led by Jack Mosby, a deserter from the U.S. Marines, and later by Caryl Ap Rys Price, Welsh soldier of fortune, they briefly occupy Tijuana from May 10 until routed by Mexican Federalists on June 22. Read about the Magonistas in our Journal of San Diego History.
Construction begins in Balboa Park for the Panama-California Exposition. The Administration Building is the first to go up—begun on November 6, 1911 and completed in March 1912.
The American Film Manufacturing Company (known as "The Flying A Company"), with Director Allan Dwan, begins making films in La Mesa, eventually making over 100 films. Photo of Allan Dwan (standing 3rd from left) with his "Flying A" cast and crew in La Mesa, ca. 1912. Read about Dwan and his work in our Journal of San Diego History.
Navy establishes a base on North Island, with three airplanes and three fliers. On Thanksgiving Day, 1912, the Army Signal Corps establishes Rockwell Field with an aviation school on North Island.
March 10, 1912
International Workers of the World ("Wobblies") protest downtown, drawing a crowd of nearly 5000 people. The fight for "free speech" ends in May when Emma Goldman leaves town and Ben Reitman is tarred and feathered. Photo of police using fire-hoses on rioters.
Spruce Street's suspension bridge, between Front and Brant, was built to give residents access to the streetcars running along Fourth. The only suspension bridge still standing in the city was designed by Edwin M. Capps, City Engineer and later Mayor of San Diego.
William Kettner (1864-1930) is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from California 11th District, 1913-1921.
August 23, 1912
Spreckels Theatre opens with 1915 seats (the year of the coming Exposition). It is the first modern commercial playhouse west of the Mississippi. "Bought and Paid For" was imported directly from Broadway for the occasion.
Broadway Pier is constructed with a $1.7 million bond issued by the city. Photo of Broadway Pier in 1925.
During the "Carnival Cabrillo", held from September 24 to September 27, a cross made of tiles from an abandoned Spanish fort, is placed on Presidio Hill where it remains today. Photo of the ceremony.
Cabrillo Bridge opens on April 12, 1914. The first car is driven across with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, G. Aubrey Davidson, and Mayor Charles F. O'Neall as passengers. Photo of Cabrillo Bridge under construction (note roller coaster in background.)
Santa Fe Depot construction begins June 15, replacing the earlier Grand Union Depot. It did not open until March 18, 1915 due to a dispute over the closure of B Street. Photo of Depot demolition.
Marine Barracks is established as a model Marine camp on the Exposition grounds in Balboa Park by Col. Joseph Pendleton while the status of a permanent base is debated by the federal government. The Marine 4th Regiment, stationed on North Island, had been sent to San Diego in 1910 due to the Mexican Revolution. Marines move from Balboa Park to the new Dutch Flats installation in 1921.
John D. Spreckels presents the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park to the people of San Diego. Spreckels also hires Dr. Humphrey J. Stewart, a distinguished organist and composer, to give daily concerts throughout 1915. These concerts continued, at the expense of the Spreckels interests, until September 1, 1929. Photo of an early concert at Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
December 31, 1914
At midnight, President Woodrow Wilson presses a Western Union telegraph key in Washington, D.C. which turns on lights and touches off a display of fireworks to open the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. Photo of crowd on Cabrillo Bridge, opening day at the Panama-California Exposition .
Panama-California Exposition opens Jan 1st. Photo of crowd on Cabrillo Bridge opening day. Bertram Goodhue's Spanish Colonial architecture forever defines Balboa Park. Read all about the Exposition and take a "Postcard Tour".
May 31, 1915
Balboa Stadium opens adjacent to San Diego High School. With a capacity of 23,000, it is the largest municipal stadium in the nation at the time. Photo of Balboa Stadium.
Unusually heavy rains cause severe flooding in San Diego, washing out all but two of the city's 112 bridges and breaking the Lower Otay Dam. Twenty people drown as the Tia Juana River Valley floods and leaves 135 Little Landers settlers homeless. Photo of break in Sweetwater Dam. "Rainmaker" Charles Hatfield gets all the credit and the blame, but never gets paid the $10,000 city fathers had promised him. Photo of washed-out bridge in Old Town.
Dr. Harry Wegeforth brings the San Diego Zoo into being when animals imported for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition are quarantined and not allowed to leave. He's reported to have exclaimed to brother Paul, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had a zoo." He put a notice in the newspaper, asking for support.
January 27, 1917
U.S. Navy opens the most powerful radio station in the Western Hemisphere at Chollas Heights.
Banker Louis J. Wilde defeats George W. Marston in "Smokestacks vs. Geraniums" mayoral campaign. Read about "Smokestacks vs. Geraniums" in our Journal of San Diego History.
World War I prompts San Diego military buildup. Camp Kearny is established, named in honor of Gen. Stephen Kearny who led the Army of the West to San Diego in 1846. It costs $4.5 million to build and is closed in 1920. Photo of Camp Kearny.
U.S. Marine Base and Naval Hospital approved; government purchases North Island, its Rockwell Field shared by the Army and Navy until 1939.
"Spanish influenza" strikes, killing 368 people in San Diego. Over 600,000 Americans will die from the pandemic, over 20 million people worldwide. Photo of San Diego High School students wearing mandatory "flu masks".
Prohibition makes Tijuana a boom town as thousands of Americans cross the border to drink and gamble at the race tracks. Photo of "the longest bar in the world" in Tijuana.
United States Navy decides to make San Diego Bay home base for the Pacific Fleet.
San Diego & Arizona Railroad is finally completed. John D. Spreckels drives the final golden spike. A thousand spectators observe. After thirteen years of labor (and $17,000,000) San Diego achieves a direct link with the East. Photo of Spreckels driving the golden spike. The railway never achieves commercial success, automobiles and trucks providing competition; it is eventually washed out by a flash flood and abandoned in 1976.
City of San Diego population reaches 74,361. San Diego County population is 112,248. Population table
San Diego's Pacific Marine Construction company launches two concrete ships, the Cuyamaca and the San Pasqual. Begun during WWI but completed after the war ended, both ships serve as oil tankers. See Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 41, Spring 1995. Photo of Cuyamaca under construction June, 1920.
Naval Hospital opens. Photo of Naval Hospital under construction.
Marine Corps Recruit Depot opens. Photo of MCRD under construction. Naval Training Center on Point Loma is commissioned, manned by just 10 officers. Proposed in 1916 by William Kettner, it had gained support of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of Navy, when he visited San Diego during the Panama-California Exposition. Photo of NTC in 1920s.
Creole Palace, "Harlem of the West", opens at Hotel Douglas, popular jazz spot into 1950s, demolished in 1985. Photo of Creole Palace.
California Western begins as Balboa Law College, the first law school in San Diego.
July 4, 1925
Mission Beach Amusement Center (now Belmont Park) opens. The Giant Dipper roller coaster is a popular attraction. Photo of opening day at Belmont Park, 1925.
November 25, 1925
Southern California Counties Building burns down, just prior to the holding of a Fireman's Ball. This was one of the major 1915 Exposition Buildings in Balboa Park. It was replaced by the Natural History Museum. Photo of Southern California Counties Building in rubble, 1925.
February 27, 1927
The Fine Arts Gallery in Balboa Park, designed by William Templeton Johnson and funded by Appleton Bridges, is dedicated & opens to the public. It is now the San Diego Museum of Art.
May 9, 1927
Charles Lindbergh departs from Rockwell field, North Island, Coronado, in the Spirit of St. Louis, a custom M-1 monoplane built in San Diego by Ryan Airlines. Photo of Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh completes his historic solo nonstop flight from New York to Paris May 20-21.
April 11, 1927
Nino Marcelli conducts the inaugural concert of San Diego's Civic Symphony Orchestra (which he had organized) at Spreckels Theatre.
El Cortez Hotel opens as San Diego's "finest" furnished apartment-hotel. Journal of San Diego History.
Agua Caliente (hotel, casino, spa) opens in Tijuana (golf course and racetrack open in 1928). Photo of Agua Caliente racetrack in 1938.
The iron ship Star of India, built on the Isle of Man in 1863, is towed to San Diego but remains in disrepair for the next 30 years. Photo of Star of India under sail, circa 1916.
Lindbergh Field, San Diego's municipal airport, is dedicated. Photo of Lindbergh Field, 1935.
December 13, 1928
San Diego Historical Society is incorporated, with George White Marston as its founder and first president.
Presidio Park opens, through the generosity of George W. Marston. On July 16th, the park is expanded to 40 acres, and the Serra museum is dedicated and given as a gift to the city. Photo of Serra Museum from Old Town. Journal of San Diego History.
The 2,400-seat Fox Theatre opens during the heyday of the silver screen era, with a cost of $1.8 million; now home of the San Diego Symphony as Copley Symphony Hall. Photo of Fox Theatre marquee with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran in 1931 film.
City of San Diego population is 147,995. San Diego County population is 209,659. Population table