Before Captain Henry James “Ninety Fathom” Johnston plunked down $16.25 for 65 acres of prime Mission Hills real estate in 1869, the area was a wasteland of weeds, scrub, and chaparral; a “hopeless tangle of barren hills and ugly holes,” according to one early observer. Up to this time, only 40 Kumeyaay Indian families inhabited the land in an encampment they called Cosoy. Beyond their small village was abundant game—rabbits, opossum, deer, antelope, sheep, and raccoon—which the Kumeyaay skillfully hunted.
Ninety Fathom Johnston was familiar with this area—at least from afar. He was the skipper of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company’s sidewheeler, the S.S. Orizaba, which regularly shuttled passengers and cargo from Oakland to San Diego. As he’d steer the Orizaba into San Diego Bay, he’d look up at the towering promontory, full of hills and valleys, and fantasize about abandoning sea life to settle there. Although Ninety Fathom eventually claimed a large patch of this land as his own, he died before he could erect his dream home. His widow inherited his holdings, and she in turn bequeathed it to their daughter, Sarah Johnston Cox.
In 1872, Cyrus Arnold, a dry goods merchant, and Daniel Choate, an attorney/real estate developer, purchased their own tract near Ninety Fathom’s purchase. They called their subdivision “Arnold & Choate’s Addition.” It ran from Arbor Drive in the north to Randolph Street in the west to Curlew Street in the east and University Avenue in the south. No homes had been built in the area yet; the first major “construction job” in Mission Hills would be a vast cemetery—a posthumous “home” for San Diego’s early founders.
On the hill overlooking Old Town, Spanish-born Father Antonio Ubach (“the last of the California padres”) mapped out a ten-acre cemetery in 1874 because the Old Town cemetery in the valley below had nearly reached capacity. San Diego leaders would later divide the new cemetery into two five-acre plots: a northern cemetery for Protestants and a southern one, later christened Calvary Cemetery, for Catholics. Over the next 70 years, at least 1650 souls would be laid to rest in the Catholic section of the cemetery; the Protestant tract would never be used for burials, however.
It was not until 1886 that Sarah Johnston Cox, Ninety Fathom’s daughter, focused attention on her inherited Mission Hills acreage, which extended from Sunset Boulevard in the north to Arguello Street in the east to Witherby Street in the west, plus a few “odd-shaped” blocks in the south. She renamed the area “Johnston Heights” and the following year commenced construction on asprawling Victorian home at the highest point of her land’s southern slope. Coincidentally, at the time, her father’s beloved ship was being dismantled in San Francisco. Johnston Cox retrieved pieces of the ship, including its saloon’s sideboard and companion way railing, and used the timber and ornamentation to complete “Villa Orizaba,” her new residence.
The house was unique. It boasted a gabled roof and covered front porch and shiplap siding, stylish shingles, and lathe-turned ornaments. Johnston Cox painted it a flamboyant Tuscan red, trimmed with green. It would remain the only home in the Mission Hills area for several years.
“Commuting” to San Diego’s shopping district for Johnston Cox and her ilk was a challenging task. They traveled by horse and carriage down the precipitous grade to Old Town, then boarded a steam train to Fifth Avenue and L Street, then took a horsecar or trudged by foot through the dust and mud to Marston’s Store on F Street. This one-way trip (made by car today in ten minutes) took the Johnston Coxes over an hour. Sixteen years after Sarah Johnston Cox assumed residence in Johnston Heights, she greeted her first neighbor. Schoolteacher-turned-horticulturist Kate O. Sessions (who came to San Diego from Oakland aboard the Orizaba in 1884) had been forced to “uproot” her experimental nursery and botanical gardens from San Diego’s City Park (later renamed Balboa Park) in 1903, after the city’s planning commission, led by Julius Wagenheim and George Marston, informed her that roads and trails would soon be constructed through the park’s 1400 acres.
Hoping to ensure she would not have to move again (this would not be the case), Sessions acquired a tract of land in distant Mission Hills (north of Lewis and east of Stephens Street) and set up her sales office and yard. She would remain at this location until 1928, when she ran out of space and was forced to move again—this time to Pacific Beach.
Upon her newly acquired acreage Sessions planted poinsettias, sea lavender, bougainvillea, blue palms, magnolias, eucalyptus, and monkey puzzle trees. In the area that is now Palmetto Street, she also planted palms. At the end of Lark Street, she built lath houses and a packing house. Sessions situated her own home at the northern corner of what is now Montecito and Lark. And because she abhorred “glaring” white cement sidewalks, she persuaded city officials to tint the sidewalks surrounding her home brick red. Sessions’ brother Frank became Kate’s next-door neighbor soon after. He’d been raising performing steers that could balance on teeter-totters and do tricks before crowds. But once he’d established residence in Mission Hills, he let his steers graze among the canyons by his home.
Wealthy businessman John D. Spreckels, owner of San Diego’s electric streetcar company, was an acquaintance of the Sessionses. Kate prevailed upon him to extend a streetcar line to her nursery; at the time, only one perilous dirt road beside a canyon ridge led jittery customers to her sales yard. Spreckels agreed, provided that Sessions convince city planners to grade and widen the rugged thoroughfare. He was a staunch believer that “transportation determined the flow of population.” Over the years, he’d learned that many of his most lucrative lines ended at “attractions” like the nursery/botanical gardens of Kate Sessions.
With flower shop employee Alice Rainford, Sessions drove her horse and buggy to various property owners’ residences, gathering signatures for a petition to improve the area's road system. She collected enough signatures to spur city planners into action. Soon, Spreckels’ No. 3 Fifth Street car line’s route was extended to the juncture of Lewis and Stephens Streets, where Kate Sessions’ nursery stood. (By 1916, this line would extend even farther to Fort Stockton Drive and Trias Street.)