The story of Mary Chase Walker is recounted often at the Mason Street Schoolhouse in Old Town. Groups of fourth-graders shuffle into the little wooden classroom several times each weekday to hear about San Diego’s first teacher, as Walker is often described. They also learn something about school life in 1865. And invariably, they’re told that Walker finally got married and for that reason had to quit her job. The teachers undoubtedly believe this; they probably were taught the same story. But it isn’t true. Now, some historical fudging is understandable, and the Mary-as-first-schoolmarm notion probably falls into that category. As early as 1795 (26 years after Father Serra’s arrival), classes were being conducted in the Presidio, and over the next several decades “civil governors of both Spain and Mexico...made feeble attempts to establish rudimentary school systems," according to one historian.
All vestiges of those attempts had disappeared by the time California achieved statehood in 1850. San Diego’s early American inhabitants eventually turned their attention to education, and the first city-supported school opened (in a rented room in the local sheriffs house) in January of 1851, taught by a Mexican-American war hero named William Toler. He only held the job for five months, and by 1854 San Diego’s “ragged little urchins...the offspring of the rich as well as the poor” were still roaming the streets “in a state of [unschooled] semi-barbarism,” according to the San Diego Herald. That year, the city finally organized a school district, and a series of different teachers conducted classes from 1854 on. But it wasn’t until 1865 that the first public school building was constructed, and the first educator to preside there was Mary Chase Walker.
The town had to import her. By the mid-1860s, San Diego County (a vast entity including today’s Imperial and Riverside counties) counted only between 4000 and 5000 inhabitants, most of them Indians. Shortages of all kinds of skilled labor were common. San Diego school trustees applied for help from the state superintendent of education in San Francisco. Mary had arrived in Northern California late in the spring of 1865. She would have been about 37, a confirmed spinster by the standards of the day. The one existing photo of her, taken sometime in the 1870s, shows her glossy dark hair pulled back from her face to fall in fat coils down the back of her neck. Her face is unlined, her eyes deep-set. There’s no stiffness in her pose. Rather, the camera seems to have caught her gazing calmly and attentively at some unseen object.
Virtually the only information about her pre-California history comes from a San Diego Union article published in the 1890s. It reported she was born in Methuen, Massachusetts, in 1828, and began to teach when she was just 15, earning $4 a month and board. By 1861 her monthly wages had risen to almost $34. Around then, she decided to further her own education and in 1864 received a public school teaching certificate from the State Normal School in Framingham, Massachusetts. But by that time, the Civil War had caused Massachusetts teachers’ salaries to be cut in half, and Mary set off to improve her fortunes in the West. She paid $375 for tickets on steamers that traveled to the West Coast via Panama. (Most travelers crossed the Isthmus by railroad.) In the course of the four-week voyage, she and other passengers learned of Lincoln’s assassination.
In San Francisco, she found that 60 other people already were applying for teaching jobs there. San Diego, on the other hand, needed help immediately and was willing to pay a teacher $65 per month. So Mary embarked on the three-day sea voyage down the coast, traveling in a side-paddled steamer whose motion made her seasick. A teenaged stewardess befriended her, but Mary’s spirits sank when the boat entered the mouth of San Diego Bay on the looming of July 5, 1865. “Oh the strangely foreign look as I stepped from my state room and stood on deck, as the steamer came to anchor,” she would recall in a reminiscence written 33 years later. “The hills were brown and barren, not a tree or green thing to be seen. A most desolate-looking landscape. The Government Barracks and two or three houses greeted my sight. Simply this and nothing more.
“I said to the Capt. in dismay, ’Is this San Diego.' He replied ‘No, the town is four miles away.’ I saw a merry twinkle in his eye, which I afterwards interpreted as meaning, ‘Won’t this Yankee school ma’am be surprised when she sees the town.’ Wild-looking horsemen flourishing their riatas (lariats] were coming from different directions toward the landing. The very gait of the horses seemed different from anything I had seen before."
The steamer’s mooring point was just off where F Street now meets the waterfront. Fifteen years before Mary’s arrival, a small group of visionaries had tried to develop this area (today’s downtown San Diego), but Old Town had stubbornly remained the center of wealth and population. In fact, the downtown wharf had even been burned for fuel during the Civil War. In her memoir, Mary recorded that most of the steamer’s passengers were loaded into little boats and rowed to shallow water, then were carried on the backs of sailors to shore. “Fortunately for me," Mary added, “a little skiff was over from the lighthouse, which saved me the humiliating experience meted out to others."
“Once on shore I was placed with my trunk in the wagon awaiting me, and we started for Old Town.” Some historians have Mary being greeted at the steamer by the three school trustees who had sent for her, certainly she would have met them shortly after her arrival. But her own account omits that encounter, even though one of the trustees, Efraim Morse, would become one of the most central figures in her life.
In the summer of 1865, Morse was just short of his 45th birthday, and he must have cut a handsome figure. Later photos reveal aristocratic features, a thick head of hair, a luxuriant beard, eyes both kindly and penetrating. He too was a Massachusetts native and a former schoolteacher, one who had journeyed to San Francisco with the great wave of ’49ers. But he got sick in the gold fields and decided to make his fortune in San Diego. Here he arrived in 1850, just in time to join William Davis and the other men trying to develop a city center by the bay. Morse and a partner started a general store in “Davistown,” but bad luck dogged them. Indians killed the partner in the 1851 uprising at the Warner Ranch. New Town foundered, and in 1853 Morse instead launched into the fluid society at Old Town. For a while he ran a store with Thomas Whaley, then he opened his own modest emporium, but it took him to the brink of bankruptcy. Morse then tried raising sheep and cattle on Mt. Palomar. By 1861, he again returned to Old Town and opened another general store; he also became an agent for Wells Fargo. Throughout all these ventures, he was neck-deep in civic activism. In 1852, when he was just 32 (and had only been in town for two years), he was elected associate justice of the San Diego County Court of Sessions. (He wasn’t even a lawyer, though he did eventually become one in 1856.) He served as a city trustee, as county treasurer, as deputy sheriff, and postmaster. And he was one of the first members of the school board.
If he communicated his enthusiasm for San Diego to the town’s new schoolmistress, the memory of it didn’t survive in her memoir. Instead Mary recalled, “The prospect as we neared the town was not encouraging. But the climax was reached when we arrived at the plaza. Of all the dilapidated, miserable-looking places, I had never seen one like this before. The buildings were nearly all of adobe, one story in height, with no chimneys. Some of the roofs were covered with tiles and some with earth. One of these, an old ruin, stood in the middle of the plaza."
Mary was taken to a wooden two-story hotel facing the central square. This was the Colorado House, which burned down in 1872 and is about to reopen, completely reconstructed. “The first night at the hotel, a donkey came under my window and saluted me with an unearthly bray,” Mary wrote. “I wondered if some wild animal had escaped from a menagerie and was prowling around Old Town.” Fleas and mosquitoes tormented her, and the hotel's human denizens also clearly startled the newcomer. “I sat at table alone (being the only woman in the house) an Indian man did the cooking and an Irish boy waited on me at table, & also gave me the news of the town. A man had been shot the previous day.... The landlord an Irish gentleman kindly told me that I could go into the kitchen & cook whatever I wished, if I did not like the Indian's style of cooking. I availed myself of the privilege and while there made some interesting discoveries. The cook was sitting on a bench, in front of an open sack of flour. He was vigorously scratching his head. This brought unpleasant suggestions to my mind, as also did his stirring of food while cooking on the stove, with his long hair dangling over it.”
The very next day, Mary took up her teaching duties. “The area of the county of San Diego at that time was larger than the area of the whole state of Mass. and I was to teach the only school in the county." Her brand-new schoolhouse turned out to be little larger than a 20th-century school bus. Today this building is situated near the southern perimeter of Old Town State Historic Park, just northeast of the Machado-Stewart adobe. The schoolroom’s interior walls have been stripped of a century of paint and other coverings, so visitors can see the irregularly shaped hoards, caulked with white plaster, which the original builders evidently scavenged from other quarters. Although educational mementos fill the classroom today, the most Spartan furnishings greeted Mary. Children sat on long benches, and the building lacked any heat source, window shades, maps, charts, or clock. Any clock would have been superfluous; Mary soon found out that few San Diego families marked time with them. “Consequently tardiness is the rule and not the exception," she noted.
Her written description of the 40 or so children who faced her that summer reflected the complex class structure of her new home. The students were “mostly Spanish & half-breed...with a few English and several Americans." Ron Quinn, the park historian in Old Town, explains that by “Spanish," Mary would have been referring to those old California residents who could trace their descent from Spain. “Half-breeds" probably meant either Mexicans or the offspring of Mexican and American intermarriages. “English" would have referred to those youngsters literally born in Great Britain. And although San Diego then had been part of America for 16 years, “Americans" to Mary would have been children who had come from longer-established parts of the United States.
No armies of bureaucrats dictated curricula in those days, and Mary’s predecessors’ choice of textbooks revealed a wide range of subjects taught; beyond the basics, students at various times were exposed to algebra, geometry, history, geography, “natural philosophy,” and French. San Diego had even gotten its first taste of bilingual education as early as 1850, when William Toler taught certain subjects in Spanish—and incurred the wrath of some parents who thought this improper. But Mary avoided any such controversy, selecting an academic diet of “what would be most useful to [the children], namely reading, spelling, arithmetic & how to write letters."
As she settled into her job, she turned her attention to making a better home for herself. “I tried to find board in a private family [home] as the accommodations were so poor at tile hotel, but without success. No one would take ‘La Maestra’ as a boarder." She had been in San Diego for about a week, when a widow named Sarah Robinson finally offered to rent her “two unoccupied rooms in the second story of her house on the plaza.” (A replica of this building dominates the west side of the plaza today and serves as the present-day park headquarters.) Mary was to pay $2 a month for the two rooms, each about 10 by 12 feet, with two large glass doors opening onto a pleasant veranda. When Mary went to furnish the quarters, she discovered that Old Town then had neither a furniture nor a stove shop, but “the people were kind. One lent me a lounge, another a rocking chair. The bed came with the room. An old stove that smoked badly was procured somewhere. Thus I commenced housekeeping.”
The town did have several “general stores,” including the one owned by Morse. A local historian named Beatrice Knott who extensively analyzed a ledger from Morse’s store dating from 1863-1864 discovered that at the time, “The sale of whiskey outstripped all other items in popularity.” Morse’s customers “purchased it by the drink, bottle, demijohn, keg, and cask," Knott wrote in her 1991 master’s thesis. Tobacco, used by most men and some of the women, “ran a close second,” she found; almost all of Morse’s regular customers bought some. Food staples such as flour, onions, rice, beans, and sugar sold steadily, with spices also ranking high in popularity. Although San Diegans in the mid-19th Century ate copious quantities of meat, they apparently obtained both it and fish directly from butchers and fishermen, rather than from the general store. Knott was also surprised to leam that Morse apparently sold few fresh vegetables or fruits, leading her to conclude that families probably had their own truck gardens; they also may have bought produce directly from growers.
Besides food, Morse’s store sold other household items ranging from mule collars to saws to men’s shirts, and Knott found that the merchant served the community in other ways. For many townspeople, “he collected taxes and paid them to the correct governmental entity.” He extended credit to many families, made cash loans, even collected debts owed some customers by others. In turn, people paid Morse in “coin, greenbacks, scrip, gold dust, gold nuggets, labor, barter, and the use of vehicles.”
San Diego, it would seem, was a casual place 125 years ago, and Mary soon saw confirmation of this at her school. “At recess the Spanish girls smoked cigaritas and the boys amused themselves by lassoing pigs and hens, etc.," she wrote in her memoir. “The Spanish children were very irregular in their attendance at school, on account of so many fiestas and amusements of various kinds."
No wonder those “fiestas and amusements” distracted the local children; the parties conjured up in this remote outpost dazzled many an adult observer. “People didn’t think of anything else, then, but pleasure,” attests one old settler in the 1907 History of San Diego written by William Smythe. Smythe also quotes Doña Refugia de Bandini saying, “How often did we spend half the night at a tertulia till 2 o’clock in the morning.... Our house would be full of company—thirty or forty persons at the table; it would have to be set twice. A single fiesta might cost $1,000.... The prettiest women were to be found at San Diego.”
Travel accounts by visitors often noted how beautifully San Diego women performed such steps as the waltz, the jarabe, the jota, and the bomba (in which, Smythe tells us, “the lady would often dance with a glass of water poised on her head, or with her feet muffled in a handkerchief”). Christenings, even funerals, and certainly weddings inspired celebrations that might go on for days. Mary herself commented on some of the “peculiar” qualities of the latter, pointing out that wedding receptions were usually held in the largest room of the Casa de Estudillo. “Dancing and smoking were the principal features,” she recorded. “The bride was dressed in white silk, if the groom could afford it. If not some other white material. If you entered the anteroom before dancing commenced, you would find the bride surrounded by her lady friends, each with a cigarita between her white-gloved fingers. They would dance till daylight.” Revelers also feasted grandly. “The table was spread in the garden under the trees. A sheep, pig, or kid were roasted whole in an outside oven and served with a dressing composed largely of olives & red peppers and various savory herbs.”
Daytime activities often involved animals, chiefly horses, from whom the men of San Diego seemed inseparable. One visitor here, writing home to Ohio in 1849, noted that “with the exception of the short space devoted to [eating] and sleep, the rest of [the local men’s] time is spent on horse back—To see a Californian ride you would think he was a part of his horse—whether the horse trots or lopes—gallops or runs, he keeps the same immovable position—he never jolts—They generally, however, ride their horses in a fast gallop.”
Races provided an exceptional opportunity for the men to flaunt their equestrian skills. Contestants pounded over the flat ground between Old Town and San Diego Bay, Smythe reports, and “(Sometimes large sums of money were lost and won.” Rodeos pitted the men against cattle, as did bullfights, at least two of which were staged during Mary’s residency. For a week before each such event, all the boys in her class “were more or less absent, watching preparations, such as fencing up the streets leading to the plaza.” (In her memoir, Mary refrained from describing the bullfights on the grounds that such reporting would be “too painful.")
She doesn’t mention bull and bear fights at all, though Smythe says the Old Town plaza at least occasionally soaked up the blood from such contests, in which a foreleg of a bull was bound to a hind leg of a wild bear. “A bull and bear fight after the sabbath services in church was indeed a happy occasion,” enthused a noted California historian named Bancroft in 1888. The “soul-refreshing” battles “usually took place inside of a strong wooden fence, behind which, and at a short distance, was erected a high platform for women and children, most of the men being on horseback outside the ring, with reatas ready, and loaded guns, in case the bear should leap the barrier, or other accident occur. The diversion was kept up for hours, or until one or other of the animals succumbed, and it often happened that both were killed.”
Bears were caught in the surrounding countryside, where antelope, deer, and wildcats also roamed, along with smaller game. But Smythe says the townsmen generally disdained hunting; they were cowboys, not “pot-hunters."
On occasion, they were treated to more refined divertissements, such as the Spanish circus, which came to town shortly after Mary’s arrival. Its performers had no tent but instead set up their gear in a corral made of high adobe walls. When night came, they lighted strips of cloth that had been placed in cans of lard. “These primitive lanterns were set on high posts,” Mary recalled. Nearly everyone who could afford the 50-cent admission attended. “The Americans and Spanish occupied one side of the ‘corral’ and the Indians (admitted at half price] squatted on the ground on the other. The performance on the trapeze and tight-rope looked especially weird & fantastic, seen in the smoky light of these primitive lanterns.”
But such professional entertainment was rare; even mail arrived only once a week, borne by stagecoach from Los Angeles. Nonetheless, even daily life in San Diego could be exotic. Indian women would carry the townspeople’s dirty clothes to the nearby bed of the San Diego River. There they would dig in the sand for water and spend all day laundering in the shallow pools. From the second-story veranda adjoining her rooms, Mary witnessed many other scenes that amused her. Lumbering Spanish carts “could be seen with the wheels made whole horn a cross-section of a large log of wood and usually uttering excruciating cries for lack of grease. The tongue of the cart was fastened to the horns of the oxen with ropes. The driver walked in front, leading...while the women and children kept them moving with sharp sticks.” The schoolteacher stared at “wild Indians,” clad only in loincloths, stalking majestically across her front yard (the plaza), “their long hair streaming in the wind, or if in mourning, plastered up with a paste made of grease and ashes. The rings in their noses were equally as useful & ornamental as the rings in the ears of white ladies.”
More than just the Indians gave San Diego a Wild Western flavor. Gambling was ubiquitous, and “you can form no idea of what a desperate Country we live in—without law, order or the gospel,” huffed one visiting Midwesterner. “Things are much worse here than at San Francisco—for there they have some semblance of law—here we have none whatever.” Those words were written in 1849, but when Mary arrived, San Diegans still lived with a fairly regular incidence of frontier-style violence. Historian Knott says by the mid-1860s battles between landowners and squatters had risen in number, as had the level of animosity between cattlemen and sheepherders. Sometimes hostilities erupted in the very heart of town, as one 1865 incident illustrates. Early on the morning of February 6, a leading citizen named Cave Couts shot and killed a Mexican in the middle of the plaza. At the subsequent trial, testimony established that Couts had owed the Mexican money and the man had threatened to either make him pay up or kill him. Couts claimed his precipitous action was a form of self-defense, and jurors found him not guilty.
Other crimes inspired vigilante action. Smythe says Morse once was among four men who decided summarily to punish three Indians who had murdered the town's tailor and stolen the clothes from his corpse. One of the three Indians escaped, and another would have done so “had not Mr. Morse shot him and broke his leg.” The vigilantes then swiftly hung the two murderers, “sav[ing] the county the expense and trouble of legal proceedings.” In other matters, the people of San Diego were all too ready to take to the courts. They were “a litigious lot,” says Beatrice Knott, who found that early American residents sued each other over everything from sow stealing to selling liquor to the Indians.
There’s no evidence that any of this violence or disputatiousness directly touched Mary Walker as her months here rolled by. She was instead to fall victim to another of the town’s darker qualities—its racism.
Just 20 years before Mary’s arrival, California had been blessed with a remarkable tolerance for racial intermixing. African-Americans had accompanied the earliest Spanish explorers and helped to establish the new society; more than half the original 44 settlers of Los Angeles descended from Africans. Intermarriages were common, and by 1845 residents of the state even had a governor, Pio Pico, who was obviously the offspring of at least one such union.
The handful of Americans drawn to California before 1848 “wanted to integrate into the California lifestyle. And they did,” asserts state park historian Ron Quinn. In 1846 about half the non-Indian population had been bom elsewhere, and the overall numbers were still tiny, totaling only about 15,000 non-Indians. In contrast, by 1850, California’s population had ballooned to more than 250,000, and most of those newcomers brought along much harsher attitudes toward people of color.
Those attitudes spilled inte public discourse when the state government was being established in 1849. The “only topic that produced prolonged debate during the constitutional convention at Monterey in September, 1849” was Negro exclusion, according to Eugene Berwanger, the author of The Frontier Against Slavery. The delegates unanimously barred blacks from voting in state elections or serving in the militia, then approved a provision that forbade them even to enter the state. In the absence of such a prohibition, Californians would “find the country flooded with a population of free Negroes—the greatest calamity that could befall California,” one delegate thundered. Another predicted that Negroes would be brought “by the thousands and the whole country filled with emancipated slaves—the worst species of population—prepared to do nothing but steal or live upon our means as paupers.” Days after imposing the immigration ban, the delegates began to reconsider their action, fearing that it might cause the U.S. Congress to reject the whole constitution. Finally, they removed the provision.
For all their worries, no great tide of black settlers materialized; the number of Negroes in California rose only from 962 to 4086 between 1850 and 1860 (the same decade that brought the arrival of almost 35,000 Chinese). San Diego’s black community remained almost non-existent. Only three blacks had lived in the county in 1847 (according to the census conducted by the Mormon Company), and 13 years later that figure had grown to eight, half of whom the census described as being “mulatto."
They suffered discrimination that was almost as bad as that found anywhere in the antebellum South. Throughout the 1850s, the state continued to toy with the idea of closing its borders to all blacks, and while the legislators never actually attempted this, they did make it illegal for blacks to marry whites. In 1852 they also declared that no black could testify against any white in a California court. “This prevented black men from supporting their land claims, black women from identifying assailants, and black businessmen from suing those who cheated or robbed them,” writes the author of The Black West, William Katz.
By the mid-1860s, pragmatic considerations had forced the repeal of the prohibition against black testimony. Half of all the so-called blacks in the state were either “mulattoes,” “quadroons” (one-quarter black), or “octoroons" (one-eighth black). Since Indians, Mexican, and Latin Americans had also intermarried with whites (before the gold rush), it was almost impossible to determine any individual’s racial background.
But other laws continued to oppress Negroes in Eldorado. The state had established an official policy of educational segregation—which in practice meant that California’s black children got no education at all until as late as 1880. Blacks also performed only the most menial jobs; San Diego’s tiny black population in 1860 included two cooks, a laborer, a cowboy, a miner, and a farmer.
Finally, they faced personal intolerance. According to local historical writer Henry Schwartz, “all of southern California had become an enclave of Southern sympathizers" by the mid-1860s. Although only 23 out of the town’s 90 Americans in 1860 came from Dixie, after the Civil War Southerners began trickling into San Diego and found its overall political complexion to be overwhelmingly Democratic. (Shortly after his arrival, Alonzo Horton was warned, “This is the worst Copperhead hole in California.”) San Diego was too small to support separate facilities for blacks (such as those to be found in San Francisco and the northern mining towns). But San Diego blacks nonetheless “could not share the same room or eat at the same table with white people,” says Schwartz. “The ‘white only’ signs were all over—only invisible."
Did Mary Walker see them? Was she scornful of her adopted townsfolk’s bigotry, or had she simply failed to discern the power of that racial hatred when it became crucial for her to do so? One day late in May of 1866, when she had taught for almost 11 months, she walked into the general store owned by one of Morse’s competitors and chanced upon a young woman eating cheese and crackers there. This turned out to be the stewardess who had befriended Mary on her voyage from San Francisco the previous summer. She also happened to be a quadroon. State park historian Ron Quinn believes she was probably Anna Freeman, the daughter of a black man who had briefly operated a store in Old Town around 1850. In any case, Mary was delighted to see her and invited her to dine at the three-storied Franklin House located on the plaza. “When they entered the dining-room and sat down at the table together, a number of people who were there at once got up and left,” Effaim Morse would recall many years later. “Miss Walker and her guest had the table and the room to themselves.”
Repercussions went beyond that dining room. Parents immediately removed some 20 children from Mary’s classroom, according to the report that the besieged teacher later filed with the state school superintendent. San Diego in 1866 had no newspaper, but word of Mary’s social gaffe traveled as far as the San Francisco Bulletin. “You see we are a high toned people down here and don’t intend to tolerate anything of that kind," explained the paper’s San Diego correspondent, Rufus K. Porter. He added that Mary had also opened her classroom to the stewardess, whom he described as “a lady of respectability and of education but who had unfortunately a bit of Negro blood in her veins.” In his column, Porter warned the state superintendent that the next schoolmistress sent should be “a reconstructed one.”
In San Diego, Mary apparently aggravated the situation hy pointing out that some of the families who were complaining were darker-skinned than the stewardess. The townspeople in turn demanded Mary’s firing. No records of the trustees’ resulting meetings survive, but historian William Smythe, who inquired into the incident early this century, found that one of the trustees took the pragmatic position that “whatever the merits of the case,” it would be wrong to waste state education funds on a nearly empty classroom, so Mary should be dismissed.
A second trustee, a Republican named Robert D. Israel, saw the matter very differently. “I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t take that school money and throw it in the bay as far as I could send it,” he protested, “before I would dismiss the teacher to please these Copperheads!" He declared he would never consent to Mary’s dismissal.
Faced with this impasse, trustee Morse acted as “a diplomatist,” according to Smythe. Apparently, the merchant worked out an agreement with Mary, in which she would not be fired but instead agreed to resign voluntarily. She quit teaching June 1, 1866, and her replacement arrived from San Francisco early in September.
Mary wasn't out of work for long. Ironically, she got a job tutoring the daughter of Rufus Porter, the man who had reported on her misadventures for the San Francisco Bulletin readers. Mary moved out to Porter’s Spring Valley residence, and her pupil, Rufina, years later wrote that “while Miss Walker was living with my family, [Efraim] Morse was quite a frequent visitor. He would ride out Saturday night and sometimes spend Sunday." This courtship ended on December 20, 1866, when Mary and Efraim were married in the Porter home.
They were to live together for more than 30 years. They never had children but witnessed some of the most epochal events in San Diego’s history. Efraim was one of the first people to meet Alonzo Horton, upon Horton’s arrival in Old Town, and quickly won his admiration. (Efraim was “one of the smartest men they had here and has always been one of our best citizens," Horton declared years later.) The two men reportedly spent long hours together, talking in Morse’s store and driving throughout the countryside. Efraim eventually served as the auctioneer when Horton bought his famous 960 acres of downtown property (for about 27 cents an acre). By 1869, the Morses had decided to sell their store in Old Town and build a home on a brush-filled lot at the northwest comer of Tenth Avenue and G Streets. They reportedly were the first people to ride down Fifth Street, following workmen in their buggy as sagebrush and cactus were hacked from their path.
Pathbreaking clearly suited Efraim. He was one of the original organizers of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce and helped found the Bank of San Diego (the town’s first). For many years he lobbied ardently to bring a transcontinental railroad here, and he also worked on developing the road to Yuma. He gets most of the credit for convincing city trustees to set aside the land for Balboa Park, and he led the earliest efforts to establish a library. In his spare time, he tended a spectacular, 100-square-foot garden nurtured with water from two wells he had had dug.
Despite Efraim’s wide-ranging business ventures and his relentless civic activism, he hadn’t made much money by 1877. That year he wrote his sister that he and Mary still were living in their small, one-story house, worth no more than $300 and furnished “plain and cheap.” Mary did all her own washing and “dressed very plainly,” Efraim disclosed. Surcease from penny-pinching finally came during the boom years of the 1880s. But in the crash that followed, Efraim's bank failed and he lost most of his fortune.
Of Mary’s life throughout these eventual decades, only the most fragmentary records remain. We know she helped found a ladies’ annex to the chamber of commerce, and she served as one of the founding trustees of the Unitarian Society of San Diego. She evidently shared her husband’s horticultural vision and once raised $500 to plant ten acres of trees along the west side of Balboa Park. By the 1890s, she was an active suffragette, but her health had also begun to fail.
For her sake, she and Efraim finally moved to Alpine in 1893. But they returned to the city in February of 1899, and Mary died within three months. Her husband lived seven more years and then succumbed to pneumonia. His place in San Diego history books was by then assured, but 93 years after her death, it is Mary’s name and Mary’s story that people still invoke daily, if inaccurately.