It's been called the Plymouth Rock of the West Coast, the Naples of America, and America's Finest City. San Diego is a city shaped by individuals, from the Spanish explorers who first "discovered" it to the prescient businessmen who envisioned the booming seaside metropolis it was to become, and the many colorful characters who came in between.
From Native Times to the Spanish Conquest -- In 2009, excavators unearthed a mammoth skull in downtown San Diego estimated to be 500,000 years old, but the human hunters who followed those mammoths over the Bering Straight into North America probably didn't get here until about 20,000 years ago. The area's earliest cultural group, dated to around 7500 B.C., is the San Dieguito Paleo-Indian, followed a millennium later by the La Jollan, Yuman, and Shoshonean tribes.
By A.D. 1500, some 20,000 Indians were living in thatched huts or caves in about 90 settlements, comprising five tribes: the Luiseño, Cahuilla, Cupeño, Ipai, and Kumeyaay, many of which persist today on reservations, some operating casinos. These are the people the conquistador Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo encountered when he became the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States.
In 1542, Cabrillo sailed from Mexico into what he called "a very good enclosed port"; he named it San Miguel and declared it a possession of the king of Spain. Despite this news, Spain didn't send another explorer back to San Miguel until 1602, when Sebastián Vizcaíno led a 200-man expedition from Acapulco, arriving at a port he called "the best to be found in all the South Sea." Not recognizing (perhaps on purpose) that he had stumbled upon Cabrillo's San Miguel, Vizcaíno renamed the spot San Diego, after his flagship and also in honor of a popular 16th-century saint, San Diego de Alcalá de Henares.
Apparently easily impressed, Vizcaíno went on to discover Monterey Bay, declaring it "the best port that could be desired," but Spain again failed to act on its explorers' discoveries, leaving California alone for almost another 100 years.
From the Mission Era to the Mexican-American War -- Concerned about protecting its New World territories from a potential Russian encroachment from the North, in 1697 the Spanish authorized the construction of Jesuit missions in Baja California, with designs on employing the assimilated Indians as a defense force.
In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled by California's new governor, Gaspar de Portolà, who sent the Franciscans to take over mission building in Alta California. The Franciscans' leader, Father Junípero Serra, arrived in San Diego in 1769 and founded Alta California's first mission, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, on July 16 at what is now called Presidio Hill, above present-day Old Town. Five years later, Father Serra moved the mission to an inland site, and despite being damaged in an Indian revolt in 1775, the mission remains there to this day.
Meanwhile, a military presidio at the mission's original site housed a population of soldiers, civilians, and children that numbered 200 by 1790. By 1800, ships from France, America, and Britain had come to trade for cowhide, otter skins, and beef tallow (later they would make the whalers rich by buying tons of whale oil, along with local wool and honey). In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain, and California swore its allegiance to the newly formed state. The new government began distributing land grants as compensation for its soldiers, who left the presidio to raise cattle on sprawling backcountry ranchos.
Back in town, the presidio went into precipitous decline, while epidemics of smallpox and malaria vanquished much of the remaining Indian population. Mexico, realizing it could no longer afford to support the missions as the Spanish had done, passed the Secularization Act of 1833, which resulted in the closure of Mission San Diego and the sale of its lands.
The Mexican-American War arrived on San Diego's doorstep in December 1846, when the Mexican Californios met General Stephen Kearny's Army troops in a valley northeast of San Diego. Historians disagree about which side actually won the bloody Battle of San Pasqual, as both claimed victory, but the end result is the same: California was eventually ceded to the Americans in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which relinquished the Southwest to the Union for $15 million.
From Old Town to New Town -- Having outgrown and then abandoned the presidio in 1835, settlers began building adobe houses at the foot of Presidio Hill. A few of the original adobes remain, including Casa de Estudillo and others that have been restored and preserved in Old Town State Historic Park. By mid-century, Old Town's diverse population of about 650 included Filipinos, Chinese, East Indians, and Afro-Hispanics, and the community showed early signs of modernity: An overland mail route was established; the San Diego Herald newspaper began printing; the first public schoolhouse opened; and in 1856, New York-born businessman and sometime brick-maker Thomas Whaley built the first brick structure in Southern California. The still-standing Whaley House functioned not only as the Whaley family residence but also variously as a general store, granary, courthouse, school, and the town's first theater. It's also now often described as one of the country's most haunted houses.
But some had a different vision for the city that was developing in Old Town. The British explorer George Vancouver was, in 1793, perhaps the first to wonder why San Diegans had situated their settlement so far away from what most agreed was a rather wonderful port. In 1850, San Francisco merchant William Heath Davis had a similar idea and purchased 160 acres of bayside land in what was then called "New Town" (present-day downtown), about 4 miles south of Old Town. In hopes of luring people and businesses, Davis built a wharf, ordered a handful of prefab saltbox houses shipped in from Maine, and oversaw the opening of two hotels. New Town didn't take off, however, and the experiment was dubbed "Davis's Folly."
New Town Boom & Bust -- Less than 2 decades later, another San Francisco businessman, Alonzo Horton, swooped in and picked up 800 acres in New Town for $265. Within 2 years he rebuilt Davis's previously destroyed wharf and opened a theater; thanks to aggressive promotion, his downtown lots sold like hotcakes.
The decision to move county records from Old Town to New Town in 1871 signaled the direction the city was moving. Old Town's fate was sealed when it was swept by a devastating fire in 1872, followed 2 years later by a massive flood.
San Diego's population had already quadrupled (to about 2,300) by 1870, but that was nothing compared to the boom that was coming. Gold was discovered in the nearby Julian hills in 1870, and in 1873 construction began on an eastward transcontinental railroad line from San Diego. A stock market panic put the kibosh on that project, but by 1885 the first train from the east finally reached the city.
This touched off "the great boom," as speculators realized the commercial potential of combining San Diego's unparalleled port with the railroad's ability to transport goods eastward. A rate war broke out between rival rail lines in 1887, bringing the cost of a westward ticket down from $125 to $1. This brought even more boomers out west, not only to speculate on land but also to partake of the fresh air and whatever it was in the water that was making the local Indians live to 135, as reports of the day claimed.
The 1880s were, by all accounts, a wild time in San Diego. New Town filled with traveling circuses and minstrel shows, with gambling halls and at least 60 saloons, plus more than 100 houses of ill repute, employing hundreds of painted ladies in the "Stingaree" district. (The present-day Stingaree nightclub pays homage to the old red-light district.) The boom years brought a variety of notable characters to town, including Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp, who ran three gambling parlors, "Buffalo" Bill Cody, and Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., the president's son.
New Town wasn't the only neighborhood to develop; enclaves such as La Jolla, Ocean Beach, and Pacific Beach also began to take shape. The northern village of Carlsbad boomed, too, when former sea captain John Frazier dug a freshwater well and began touting the healing powers of the mineral water. Midwesterners Elisha S. Babcock and H. L. Story bought and developed the peninsula across the bay from New Town, renaming it Coronado and opening the storybook Hotel del Coronado in 1888. The $1.5-million lodge became the world's largest resort hotel, famous for its now-iconic red turrets.
When a San Francisco sugar baron named John D. Spreckels began investing in San Diego -- notably in public transit -- it became clear that Alonzo Horton's New Town was growing into a full-fledged city.
The population soared to 50,000, but by 1888 the real estate boom had ended, and a nationwide depression sent more than half those fortune seekers back home. The railroads, meanwhile, had quietly moved their operations northward, leaving San Diego merely the end of a spur line from L.A. rather than the transcontinental terminus it had hoped to be. Ironically, in 1919 San Diego would finally get its railroad -- just in time for the rising popularity of the automobile to make it nearly obsolete.
Embracing Tourism -- Perhaps resigned to the notion that it had lost the battle to become California's industrial capital, San Diego turned its attention to tourism. Capitalizing on the completion of the Panama Canal, the city organized the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 in its newly flowering crown jewel, Balboa Park, the 40-by-40-acre parkland plot designated by Alonzo Horton back in 1868 and later developed by botanist Kate O. Sessions. The iconic Botanical Building was constructed, along with a Japanese temple, an outdoor pipe-organ pavilion, and many other buildings. The animals brought in for the exposition remained even after the fair closed, becoming the first residents of the San Diego Zoo.
A second fair in 1935 showcased curiosities including a nudist colony (now the Zoro Garden butterfly habitat) and "Midget Village," which advertisements described as a display "built on doll-house scale, where more than 100 Lilliputians will work and play." Meanwhile, the fair also showed off the newly built Fine Arts Gallery (now San Diego Museum of Art), Natural History Museum, and Old Globe Theatre.
The park's Spanish Revival architecture seen today was conceived in an effort to present San Diego as a place with a romantic European heritage. Promotional literature dubbed the city the "Naples of America" and exalted its fine Mediterranean climate.
The fairs showed the world that San Diegans were living the good life. Not even Prohibition could dampen spirits in the newly minted Shangri-La, for all the legal drinking one desired could be had just south of the border in Tijuana. With a new racetrack, golf course, resort hotel, casino, and spa, Tijuana became a playground for the Hollywood set -- and San Diego its gateway.
By the 1930s, booze was back in vogue and San Diego had its own world-class horse racing facility in the Del Mar Racetrack. Founder Bing Crosby himself was there to greet the track's first guests at the gate on opening day in 1937.
The Military Builds a Home -- Military defense, a leading industry in San Diego for more than a half-century, began at least as far back as 1796, with the Spaniards' construction of Fort Guijarros (at present-day Point Loma) to defend the port from foreign ships.
In 1911, aviator Glenn Hammond Curtiss established a flight school on Coronado's North Island and invited the Army and Navy there to train for free. With the onset of World War I in 1917, the government purchased North Island, which by then had already been in use by the Army, Navy, and Marines. The Navy relocated its Pacific Fleet to San Diego in 1919.
North Island's aviation activity continued after the war, too, most notably when a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh hired San Diego's Ryan Aeronautical Company to manufacture a special plane of his own design, called the Spirit of St. Louis. On May 10, 1927, Lindbergh left North Island for New York on a test flight, setting a transcontinental record in the process. Ten days later, he flew from New York to Paris, becoming the first pilot to make a solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic. San Diego's airport, Lindbergh Field, pays homage to the flying legend.
San Diego became a key part of U.S. military strategy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II underscored the Pacific Coast's vulnerability to attack. Giant underwater nets crisscrossed the bay to ward off Japanese subs, while nearly 2,000 Japanese-Americans from San Diego were held at internment camps such as Manzanar, at the foot of the Sierra Mountains.
Today, military history is honored at the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier museum stationed on the waterfront. Commissioned in 1945 and still active during Desert Storm in 1991, the Midway is the world's longest-serving aircraft carrier.
The Rise of the Suburbs & the Mall That Changed Everything -- With suburbanization taking root in America in the wake of the war, neighborhoods with names such as Clairemont Hills flourished outside the center of the city, while San Diego's downtown core was left to decay.
When a few national magazines suggested San Diego had again gone bust, the city renewed its attempts to restore its former glory. The next decade saw several big-city developments, including the construction of new downtown high-rises and the addition of a symphony, opera, and major-league sports franchises. By the late '60s, the American Football League's Chargers and Major League Baseball's Padres were playing at a shiny new stadium in Mission Valley, and SeaWorld had opened on Mission Bay.
The postwar years also saw the flowering of new education and research institutes, including the public University of California, San Diego; the Catholic University of San Diego; and the Salk Institute, founded by polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk. These joined the already-established Scripps Institution of Oceanography and San Diego's State Teachers' College (later renamed San Diego State University).
Despite civic and cultural improvements, downtown -- still overrun with porn theaters, strip clubs, flophouse hotels, and dive bars -- was decidedly unbefitting of California's second-largest city. But the 1984 construction of the kaleidoscopic, carnivalesque Horton Plaza shopping center, named for founding father Alonzo Horton, kicked off urban renewal in San Diego. Downtown's seedy elements were eradicated, and the quirky, colorful, multilevel mall now anchors the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter entertainment district.
The construction of a new baseball stadium east of the Gaslamp Quarter further invigorated downtown. When PETCO Park opened in 2004, the surrounding neighborhood (dubbed the East Village) began to gentrify, with restaurants, galleries, and boutiques replacing industrial warehouses.
Another downtown real estate boom spurred the construction of thousands of apartments and condos, but when the bubble burst a few years ago, developers found themselves with a surplus inventory. Though San Diego was among the economies hit hardest by the crash, it's hard not to sense the opportunity in today's downtown air, and ponder for a moment what someone like Alonzo Horton might do in this situation.