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A Brief History of Old Town San Diego

The Old Town of San Diego was the site where the first permanent Spanish settlement was built in San Diego in the late eighteenth century. This was located on the south-eastern corner of what was then called Bahia Falsa or False Bay, a large matrix of wetlands and lagoons which dominated the northern banks of the San Diego River. This was a more protected site for the original Spanish mission to locate their settlement at than the bigger expanse of land to the south on the shores of San Diego Bay where Alonzo Horton would later establish the New Town in the 1860s and 1870s and where the city centre is now located today. The Old Town of San Diego is often deemed to be the birthplace of California, as this was the first Spanish and thus European settlement established in the state when it was first inhabited in the late 1760s and into the 1770s. The people here under Spanish and later Mexican rule would have considered themselves to be Californios, the term they used to described inhabitants of this new province of New Spain.

The Franciscan mission here to begin with was driven by Junipero Serra, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest who founded 9 of the 21 Spanish Catholic missions which were eventually established between San Diego and San Francisco in the last thirty years of the eighteenth century in an effort to convert the Native Americans of California. It was Serra who led the mission to San Diego in 1769 which established the first settlement at Old Town. They trekked over 1,000 kilometres from Loreto on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico and had dwindling food supplies by the time they arrived to the region between the San Diego River and San Diego Bay on the 1st of July 1769. Less than half the expedition of 300 men which started out made it to San Diego and many of those who made it were seriously ill and died there after they arrived. It’s all indicative of how remote to the centres of European settlement in the Americas San Diego actually was in the late eighteenth century. When they recovered Serra and his men built the mission and a ‘presidio’ or fortification here on a hillside overlooking what is now San Diego Old Town. The term ‘presidio’ is more widely known in San Diego today as the famous Presidio Park established in Old Town in the early twentieth century was named Presidio Park in honour of its proximity to Serra’s ‘presidio’ 150 years earlier. Serra eventually moved on from San Diego and continued to set up further missions throughout California. He was beatified by the Vatican in 1988 and has been termed ‘the Apostle of California’, but he might just as easily be called the founder of San Diego and certainly of the Old Town. His life is explored in the Junipero Serra Museum in Old Town today.

We can gain a glimpse into the early history of the settlement at San Diego’s Old Town during the period of Spanish and then Mexican rule here in the early twentieth century through the Casa de Estudillo. This is a historic adobe house which was constructed in Old Town in 1827 by Jose Maria Estudillo and incredibly is still standing there nearly two centuries later. The Estudillos were a prominent Californio family during the period of Spanish and then Mexican possession of California. For instance, Jose Maria Estudillo was the commandant of the presidio of San Diego and just a few years before he built the Casa at San Diego he led an expedition through the Coachella Valley in 1823 which discovered the thermal springs which we know today as Palm Springs, the desert resort city. The Estudillos continued to act as mayors and treasurers of San Diego throughout the period when the town was centred on Old Town down to the late 1860s.

A contemporary of Jose Maria Estudillo built one of the other famed buildings of Old Town. This was Don Juan Bandini, a Peruvian who was born in Lima around 1800, but who in the late 1810s came north to California to fight in the Mexican War of Independence. He subsequently built the Casa de Bandini in Old Town in 1829. It was possibly the biggest house in San Diego at the time, consisting of twelve rooms in a one-storey building. However, even though Bandini was a prominent figure in San Diego, he fell on hard times financially in the 1850s and had to sell the house in 1859. Perhaps this was a result of his lavish hospitality. Bandini was known to host fandangos regularly at Casa de Bandini and was said to spend tens of thousands of pounds in today’s money on elaborate dinners that he would host for visitors to San Diego at his house. After it was sold by Bandini the house was expanded in the 1860s, with a second storey added and a wrap-around porch added all around the building. It then opened as the Cosmopolitan Hotel in 1869. The appearance of it in 1869 has survived down to the present day. In the 1970s the building was converted into a large Mexican restaurant called Casa de Bandini after the house, but today the building has been made into a hotel again, once again named the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Thus, the Casa de Bandini is still standing on the east corner of what would have been the old town square of San Diego in Old Town, nearly 200 years after it was first built by Don Juan.

Another significant figure from San Diego in the time when the town consisted largely of just Old Town was Don Jose Antonio Aguirre. Don Antonio was born back in Spain in 1799. He had moved to the Americas to make his fortune during his youth and eventually ended up drifting towards California, which was still in Spanish and then Mexican hands until the late 1840s. In California he became a successful cattle rancher and a merchant, running ships out of San Diego Bay which traded as far south as Peru and even occasionally across the Pacific with China. As a result he became one of the richest men in California during the period of Mexican ownership and he built a large house in the Old Town of San Diego called Casa de Aguirre. Unfortunately this is no longer standing, but a church which he financed the establishment of is. This is the Old Adobe Church located on Conde Street which Don Antonio patronised and where he was buried himself in 1860. Thereafter it was turned into a charitable school for the education of some local Indians, but the building was in such poor condition by the early twentieth century that it had to be largely torn down. Consequently what you see today on Conde Street is a reconstruction of the building as it would have looked in the nineteenth century based on photographic evidence. This was established there by Historic Tours of America in 2002 and there is a free museum inside.

In 1822, San Diego became part of the Mexican Republic, following the independence of Mexico from Spain. By 1827, as many as 30 homes existed around the central plaza in Old Town San Diego. Old Town and the ship landing area, La Playa, were the centres of activity in San Diego. Old Town remained the largest development in San Diego County, as its architecture began to display eastern American influences as trade with foreign ships increased. Following the American takeover of Alta California during the US-Mexican War of 1846 to 1848 the influx of individuals from the US increased rapidly, particularly with the discovery of gold in California in 1848.

One of the most famous building in Old Town from the time when San Diego was centred on the town here is surely the Whaley House. This is a Greek Revival-style house which was built in 1857 and which is still standing today. Thomas Whaley was a Scots-Irishman who was born in New York City in 1823. He headed for California in 1849 during the gold rush and ended up in San Diego by 1851. The house was subsequently used variously as a courthouse as the Whaleys split their time between San Diego and San Francisco. Tragically Whaley’s daughter Violet, who was probably manic depressive, killed herself here in 1885 when she was just 22 years of age and this combined with several deaths of Whaley family members here in the years that followed from natural causes led to the house developing a reputation as a haunted house. This was compounded by the fact that in the periods when it was used as a courthouse a number of public hangings were carried out here.

Indeed shortly after the Whaley family themselves moved in they started hearing heavy footsteps which they believed to be the ghost of James “Yankee Jim” Robi

Old Town experienced a sharp decline in the late 1860s and into the 1870s as the settlement which was occurring in San Diego moved south to the Downtown area near San Diego Bay. This was driven by Alonzo Horton, a businessman who had moved to the area in 1867 and who purchased a huge plot of land around San Diego Bay. People were drawn to settle there in the decades that followed both because of the proximity of the New Town or Downtown to the shipping in San Diego Bay as the town became a major centre of fishing and also because Horton had advertised the fact that San Diego’s first train route was going to have its terminus point in the New Town, although it was years before the first railway line to San Diego was completed.

In the 1910s as San Diego saw huge investment as part of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, the Old Town was connected with some of the other larger neighbourhoods of San Diego using the San Diego Class 1 Streetcars. These trams were of a cutting edge design for their time and were retained in use until 1939.

In the 1940s the California Chamber of Commerce recommended developing False Bay or Mission Bay as it had become known on the outskirts of the Old Town into a major recreation area. To that end the marsh and lagoons here were converted into a man-made series of islands using 25 million cubic yards of sand and silt. As a result Old Town is now adjacent to a large recreational tourism industry which includes San Diego Sea World a stone’s throw away on the southern side of Mission Bay.

In 1968, the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation established Old Town State Historic Park to preserve the rich heritage that characterized San Diego during the 1800 to 1870 period. The park includes a main plaza, exhibits, museums and living history demonstrations.

Today Old Town is one of the most attractive parts of San Diego, thanks in large part to the development of Presidio Park here in the early twentieth century through the individual philanthropy of George Marston, a San Diego businessman. Presidio Park effectively occupies the site where the original Spanish mission was located here in the late eighteenth century.

Old Town is the site each year of the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. This is held to celebrate the victory of Mexico over the French at the Battle of Puebla near Puebla City in Mexico on the 5th of May 1862 in its efforts to remove European influence from Mexico. The celebration of it here annually attests to the continuing Spanish influence on San Diego both in the late nineteenth century and indeed today.



Steven W. Hackel, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father (Berkeley, California, 2013).
James A. Sandos, Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions (Yale, 2004).
Iris Engstand, San Diego: California’s Cornerstone (El Cajon, California, 2005).
Gayle Baker, San Diego: Another Harbor Town History (San Diego, 2007).
Richard W. Crawford, San Diego Yesterday (Charleston, 2013).
Catherine McShane, ‘The Estudillo Family’, in The Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Winter, 1969).
Richard Griswold del Castillo, ‘The U.S.-Mexican War in San Diego, 1846–1847’, in The Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Winter, 2003).
‘The Bandini Family’, in The Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Winter, 1969).




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