Balboa Park

Balboa Park: Celebrating 150 Years

Posted on July 10, 2018

Balboa Park ranks very high on the list of places to visit in California, and rightly so. Who among its many visitors does not have a special tale to relate? Those who can return do so again and again. With all that it offers, it is a truly magical place, and this year, 2018, that dream which began in the 19th century is celebrating its sesquicentennial, better known as its 150th anniversary.

Beautiful, enchanting, informative, recreational, cultural — it was not always so. Imagine 1,400 acres of dirt, rock, chaparral, cactus, a few wild flowers, and coyotes. Not much to brag about. That was the pueblo land the San Diego Board of Trustees voted to set aside for creation of City Park on May 26, 1868. There were only about 2,300 residents in all of San Diego at the time. Certainly, the vote was an act of great vision, though in monetary terms, the pueblo parcels were worth very little. A century and a half later, however, the value of what is now Balboa Park is beyond estimation.

Alonzo Horton

The recommendation for the park was presented to the trustees by city fathers Ephraim W. Morse and Alonzo Horton. That the recommendation was approved in May of 1868 is noteworthy in that only three months before, Morse had presented a much more limited proposal consisting of two 160-acre parcels. The 1,400 acres were free, part of the acreage allotted by the Mexican government when San Diego, then part of Mexico, was designated a pueblo town in 1835.

Celebrating 150 Years

Morse was a leading advocate for a city park. He was a town trustee and successful businessman. Still, historian Florence Christman cites Alonzo Horton as the first person to approach the Board of Trustees with the idea of creating a city park. That was in 1867, but as far back as 1851, Horton had been seeking fortune in California, first in the gold fields of the north. There, Horton repeatedly made money, losing some, but making more. Next, Horton traveled to the east coast, where he married for the second time—reportedly one of as many as five marriages he would enter into in his lifetime.

Horton returned to San Francisco and became a successful businessman, but it is when he traveled south and visited San Diego that he was truly captivated. Horton saw great potential in the small town and after selling his business interests up north, he moved to San Diego, where he purchased large swaths of land, acquiring much of what is now Downtown San Diego for tiny sums. Indeed, he bought prime land on San Diego Bay for 27.5 cents per acre. The year was 1866, and the area was called “New Town” in contrast to “Old Town,” which was then San Diego’s town center. As time went on, however, Horton’s new creation continued to take on greater and greater importance given its proximity to the harbor and the ships arriving on a near-daily basis from the East Coast.

Horton made a great deal of money from his investments. He also donated land to many charitable causes and organizations, and was an important member of the group that selected the park site. Again, even in this, Horton prospered as land values escalated during the 1880s, but late in the decade prices plummeted, and at the time of his death, at age 96, he was no longer a very wealthy man. Nevertheless, he is remembered as someone who contributed greatly to the city’s growth, and he is regarded by many as the “Father of San Diego.”

Ephraim W. Morse

For his part, Morse also came to California during the Gold Rush. Born in Massachusetts in 1823, he set sail for San Francisco in 1849. Like Horton, Morse ventured south to San Diego, where he would assume many roles and hold numerous positions during the course of his life. Morse’s banking connections enabled him to fill the slot of town trustee, while at the same time he was a member of the school board when the city’s first public school opened in 1865. Christman notes that some historians believe Morse “should be recognized as the founder of Balboa Park because he inaugurated the movement for the park reservation.”

In 1871, Morse traveled to Washington, D.C., as San Diego’s representative for Pueblo Lands, a role in which he was critical in bringing the Santa Fe Railroad to San Diego. In terms of railroads, Morse was also a director of the San Diego and Gila Railroad. He was an influential man, though of all his public service, it was his passion for the park that is regarded as his greatest contribution.

Morse was committed both to the park’s preservation and, ideally, its enhancement, leading some historians to view Morse as the true hero of the park movement. Because he and Horton worked well together and with others, the new city park was created in a timely manner, just one year after Horton established his New Town. Interestingly, Morse, who was a partner in an Old Town merchandise store, soon moved his office to Horton’s New Town.

Celebrating 150 Years

In addition to his business ventures, Morse devoted his energy to the park unsparingly. Perhaps not surprisingly given San Diego’s subsequent history, in 1870 the legislature had to pass an act to ensure the permanency of the park reservation to protect it from attempts to repeal the initial legislation. One of Morse’s greatest accomplishments was ensuring that park land would be set aside in such a way that it could not be encroached upon by later generations.

Morse was a friend of the park to the end, standing up for its preservation even when others faltered. By all accounts, he was full of kindness and unassuming to the degree that the true value of his service was often overlooked. He was a truly public-spirited citizen to whom no worthy enterprise or charity ever appealed in vain. Morse readily adapted to different cultures and surroundings. He learned Spanish early in life and the native population regarded him as a friend as well.

Like Horton, Morse became wealthy through his many enterprises, though, again like Horton, the economic collapse of the late 1880s deprived him of most of his wealth. Farmer, teacher, merchant, deputy sheriff, city treasurer — Morse passed away on January 17, 1906, retaining his faculties to the end.

In spite of the Morse’s efforts, over time, encroachments were inevitable, but slowed by park activists. Of particular note was the construction of Russ School on park land in 1882. Joseph Russ donated wood to build the school, thus the name. Later, the name was changed to San Diego High School, and now, more than a century later, the wisdom of the original arrangement is still being debated.

Celebrating 150 Years

Sculpture of Ephraim W. Morse and Alonzo Horton

The End of Dormancy

City Park remained in a natural state for more than 20 years until 1889, when an effort was initiated to plant trees. The long dormant period in the life of the park was ending, but water was a problem and would remain so. With support from a water company, the Ladies Annex planted 700 trees, but the following year the project faltered due to a lack of irrigation. Fortunately, another local business stepped in to provide the needed water. But the challenge to provide adequate water would persist into the future.

Celebrating 150 Years

Through beautification, City Park evolved into Balboa Park

It was also around this same time that park acreage in the city’s newly named Golden Hill section began attracting attention. Community leaders were eyeing spaces for a possible playground and rose garden and, as Golden Hill was now a highly desirable address, there was considerable motivation to upgrade the neighboring portions of the park.

The idea of beautification was taking hold. In the words of Daniel Schuyler, the man who advocated for the name Golden Hill when petitioning city trustees in 1887: “…The drooping sails of an anchoring fleet/The shadowy city at our feet/With the Mountains’ proud peaks so lofty and still/’Tis a picture worth seeing, from Golden Hill.”

By 1890, residents of Golden Hill were enthusiastically tending their gardens in the southeastern corner of Golden Hill Park, later to be renamed Balboa Park. Golden Hill was the place to be, an elite neighborhood that would be inhabited by San Diego Mayors for the next three decades. Filled with Victorian mansions and craftsman homes, D Street (now Broadway) swept all the way from Golden Hill in east to the bay in the west. With the nearby park, beautiful views, and generously sized lots, the rich and influential claimed Golden Hill as their neighborhood of choice.

Kate Sessions

It was also in this period that admired horticulturalist Kate Sessions became involved. The importance of Kate Sessions to Balboa Park cannot be overstated. For good reason, she continues to be referred to as the “Mother of Balboa Park.” In 1892, Sessions began planting 100 trees per year in the park. It was part of a land lease for her own horticultural activities, an arrangement that continued for more than a decade.

Sessions was ahead of her time in many ways — as a woman, as an individualist, and as a horticulturalist. She was born in San Francisco in 1857, graduated from high school, attended business school, and then graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1881. The title of her graduation essay was “The Natural Sciences as a field for Women’s Labor.” In 1885, following a couple of teaching stints, she became co-owner of the San Diego Nursery. She was a natural teacher and found many ways to impart her knowledge, through writing, lecturing, and “hands on” instruction.

Sessions served the park during much of her lifetime. A continuous line from 1885 until 1940 may be drawn. Her experience with the San Diego Nursery led to her involvement with other nurseries across San Diego County, and she gained considerable fame for the plants she introduced in the region. She wrote articles for the newspaper and played a central role in the creation of the Park Improvement Committee in 1902.

Four years later, in 1906, Sessions co-founded California Garden. First produced in 1906 by the San Diego Floral Association, both the magazine and the organization continue to inspire and delight more than a century later. Fittingly, the headquarters for the San Diego Floral Association are located in Balboa Park. The public is welcome to visit the offices during open hours when in the park.

Sessions, who died in in 1940 at the age of 82, continued to be a major presence in both San Diego and the life of the park through much of the first half of the 20th century. In 1915, San Diego City Schools designated Sessions teacher and supervisor of agriculture and landscapes, and 14 years later in 1939, Sessions was the first woman to receive the Frank N. Meyer medal from the American Genetic Association.

George White Marston

George White Marston, another strong civic leader and successful businessman, also played a major role in the park’s early development, investing enormous amounts of time, money, and thought into its betterment. Born in Wisconsin in 1850 and transplanted to San Francisco in 1870, Marston traveled to San Diego in search of favorable climate. His first job in San Diego was at Horton House, a merchandise store, which provided the ideal experience for a man who destined to become a legendary merchant. Ultimately he became owner of the fabled Marston’s department store, a subject worthy of a book on its own.

Over his lifetime, Marston took up many civic causes, serving on the Library Board, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Benevolent Society of San Diego. He also established the city’s first YMCA, where he served as president for 24 years. In addition, he made the most of his membership on the planning committee for the park’s future. Marston left his prints all over San Diego and, as a Park Commissioner, he personally guided the process that would lead to what we now call Balboa Park, the Jewel of San Diego.

Marston played a major role in both the city and park’s development well into the 20th century, dying in 1946 at the age of 95. His huge influence on the park will be traced in the next segment.

Celebrating 150 Years

Sculpture of George White Marston in Balboa Park by Ruth Hayward

Sculptures & Plaque: Photography by Paul Marshall     All other imagery courtesy of David Marshall