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The recorded history of both San Diego and California began on 28 September 1542, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo “discovered” San Diego Bay during the first European expedition to California. The Kumeyaay Indians had actually discovered it some 20,000 years earlier, but as usual that doesn’t count. Cabrillo anchored his ships off Point Loma, the peninsula that forms the north entrance to San Diego Bay. The Cabrillo National Monument at the end of the peninsula commemorates this event with a life-size statue of the explorer. Like much of the San Diego area, most of Point Loma is a “military reservation.” On the road to the monument you’ll pass many locked gates, bunkers, barbed wire fences, and a military cemetery. Once you reach the end of the road, you’ll get a splendid aerial view that includes (on a clear day) the entire bay, most of San Diego, and Mexican mountains stretching to the horizon.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, built in 1854, is a short walk from the statue. I can only speculate that well-meaning United States Coastal Survey officials in Washington, D.C. looked at a map and selected a site at the entrance to the bay without ever visiting it. If they had spent any time in Southern California, they would have known that a “marine layer” of low clouds and fog frequently shrouds the coast. 129 meters above sea level, the beacon was visible 40 kilometers out to sea on a clear night. But it was completely invisible when the fog rolled in. A much lower lighthouse replaced it in 1891, leaving the old one for tourists. You can’t visit the new lighthouse, but you can look down on it.
Cabrillo named the “very good enclosed port” he discovered San Miguel. We don’t call it that because sixty years later the Spanish king hired Sebastian Vizcaíno to map the California coast. Though specifically ordered not to change any existing names, Vizcaíno proceeded to rename everything Cabrillo discovered (and more) after the Catholic saints on whose feast days he arrived there. He got to San Diego on 10 November 1602, close enough to the feast day of Saint Didacus (Diego of Alcalá) on 12 November. Or perhaps he named it after his own flagship, the San Diego. Vizcaíno also named (or renamed) Santa Barbara, San Pedro, Catalina Island, Monterey, and numerous other places in California.
15th century Father Diego de San Nicolás del Puerto had a rather bizarre path to sainthood. He was renowned as a missionary and miracle-worker in Alcalá, Spain. Perhaps as a Divine reward for delivering a bumper crop of souls to the Church, his body miraculously avoided decomposition after he died. In 1562, Spanish King Philip II’s son was dying of a brain hemorrhage. When the physicians’ bloodletting didn’t help, the king’s priest decided to try alternative medicine. He fetched Diego’s century-old corpse and put it in the prince’s bed. By the next morning the prince had miraculously recovered. (Even more miraculously, he avoided death from fright or revulsion when he discovered the dead body in his bed.) Philip, an important political player in the election of Pope Gregory XIII, asked the Pope to declare Diego a saint. Gregory officially Latinized Diego’s name as Didacus, but Spanish-speakers call him San Diego.
A century and a half after Vizcaíno, both the Spanish king and the Catholic Church turned their attention toward consolidating their respective empires in California. The Church was represented by members of the monastic Franciscan Order, led by Father (now Saint) Junípero Serra. Their job was to turn the heathen Indians into faithful Catholics, and to build missions from which the Church could assert its authority while meeting the spiritual needs of a new flock. Given Didacus’ reputation for converting heathens, it was surely appropriate that California’s chain of 21 missions would begin in San Diego.
Serra founded the original Mission San Diego de Alcalá in 1769, the first European settlement in California. Its location on a hill was a bad choice. It lacked water for crops, and was far from the villages of the Indians it was supposed to “serve.” After five years the Franciscans moved the mission to its current location 10 kilometers inland, near the San Diego river and Indian villages in what is today called Mission Valley. Some of the Indians did not appreciate the Spanish conscripting them as slave laborers, eradicating their culture, and decimating them with European diseases. The resulting riots burned down the mission in 1775, and blessed California with its first Christian martyrs. Other missions would have similar troubles with Indians who lacked proper gratitude for the gifts of civilization and salvation the Franciscans so generously offered them.
Like most of the California missions, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá suffered wear and neglect during the transition from Spain to Mexico to the United States. The current building is the fifth church on the site, reconstructed in 1931. It’s an active parish church, as well as the destination of field trips for herds of nine-year-old school children. The “social studies” curriculum for the state’s fourth graders has long focused on California history, including when feasible a visit to the nearest mission. Since that’s the only time it’s taught, the educational system has effectively ensured adult Californians’ complete ignorance of state history. Those who move to California after age nine miss it; everyone else will surely forget all of it before high school.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park provides an idea of what San Diego looked like after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1822. Wealthy families started building their versions of mansions out of adobe below the hill where Junípero Serra had built the original mission. California became American territory in 1848, which coincided with the discovery of gold in northern California. San Diego was an important stopping point for prospective prospectors on their long trip from the East Coast around South America. With the end of gold rush, and after a disastrous fire in 1872, Old Town was abandoned in favor of a new waterfront development that is now Downtown.
Heir to a sugar fortune, John Spreckels enjoyed a sweet life as a real estate, railroad, and newspaper magnate. Old Town first attracted his interest in 1907. He bought the ruins of Casa de Estudillo, an adobe from 1827, and began restoring it. The automobile brought tourists, and by the 1930s enough buildings had been reconstructed to form a “Spanish village.” In 1968 the state took over the complex as Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.
The reconstructed buildings set around a typically Mexican plaza include mock-ups of 19th century business, museum displays, and shops, some of which sell recreations of 19th century wares. Although Old Town is the most visited state park in California, its relative simplicity somehow gives it less of a “theme-park” atmosphere than some historical recreations.
Though seemingly lacking in historical authenticity, El Centro
Artesano is an interesting corner of Old Town. It’s a bazaar of
artisans’ Southwestern-inspired ceramic and metal handiwork, overflowing
with distinctive and colorful tchotchkes arrayed in seemingly endless
heaps, piles, and hangings.
A short walk takes you from the Mexican Old Town to Victorian San Diego. Rather than demolishing seven 19th century buildings to make room for Downtown redevelopment, public and private contributions paid for moving them to county land next to Old Town beginning in 1971.
They arrayed the buildings on pedestrian-only cul-de-sac and named it Heritage Park. Six of the buildings were originally private houses built between 1887 and 1893. After renovation (and a fresh coat of colorful paint) the county leased them for commercial operation as bed-and-breakfast inns and shops.
The seventh building was originally the first synagogue in San Diego.
Built in 1889, Temple Beth Israel actually reflects the architecture of
late 19th century churches— with some appropriate adjustments. Today
it’s a popular venue for weddings and receptions for people of all
faiths (or of no faith— park rangers are available to perform
civil wedding ceremonies on weekends).