Imperial Beach was originally part of an 1846 land grant from the Spanish Crown to the benefit of one Pedro Cabrillo. Queen Victoria was on the throne and Grover Cleveland was president when the first American settlers arrived in what is now known as Imperial Beach, then called South San Diego. And since those settlers were American, and this was California, what instantly happened was commerce, particularly real estate, most specifically, subdivisions.
R.P. Morrison filed a South San Diego subdivision plot with the San Diego County clerk in June of 1867. His plan ran north of Palm Avenue between 13th Street and Fifth Street and west between Palm Avenue and Imperial Beach Boulevard from 17th Street to Ninth Street.
Maps of Imperial Beach made in 1910 show subdivision plots running all the way down Imperial Beach to the mouth of the Tia Juana River. George Chaffey purchased many of these plots, hoping to sell them, at a modest profit, to the good citizens and farmers of Imperial Valley. Another subdivider, Frank Cullen, erected several buildings on the 900 block of First Street, which remained until a municipal fishing pier was built in the 1960s.
Early subdividers established a drill. First, file for a subdivision; then, build a hotel so people would have a place to stay when they came to look at the land; then, the key part of the process, hold a land auction, and then build a community. There were no guarantees in any of this, particularly the building of the community part, and most of the early subdivisions were written off within 15 years.
Monument City was built on the U.S./Mexican border where the international boundary is today. The San Diego Weekly Bulletin reported that “the town has been laid out, buildings erected, a school started, and a post office applied for.” The United States Census of 1880 disclosed that Monumentville, San Diego County, California, had residents born in 15 American states, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, Hamburg, Hanover, Mexico and Norway.
By 1888 most of the South Bay had been claimed. The editor of the San Diego Record wrote, “At the present date, there are nine cities laid out about the south end of the bay. They are as follows in order: Otay, Tia Juana, South San Diego, South Coronado, Coronado Heights, Pacific Park, International City, and Head of the Bay. Add to these Monument City, Imperial Beach, Nestor, Palm City, and the “Little Landers” section and you will see that promoters planned to cover the area with towns.
By 1900, Imperial Beach got its first sidewalks. Dennis Orlanger was there on the 900 block of First Street, along with the Orlanger family, who owned a general store. Down the street from the post-office and soon, a branch of the San Diego County Library. Lots were going for $25 down and $25 a month.
In 1910 the South San Diego Investment Company put up the first fishing pier in Imperial Beach. This purpose was to lure investors. There was also a two-block long boardwalk and a bathhouse. Both washed away during winter storms, the bathhouse in 1949, the boardwalk in 1953.
E.S. Babcock, the man who built the Hotel del Coronado, had a channel dredged through the mudflats in South San Diego Bay in 1910. The channel was 8 feet deep at low tide and 75 feet across. The boats servicing South San Diego Landing were up to 45 feet long and could hold 50 passengers.
Ralph Chandler bought the Grant from the U.S. Grant Hotel. The boat was piloted by Captain A.J. Larseen. The excursion route went between H Street in downtown San Diego to the South Bay Landing. The Grant made two trips a day and occasionally a night foray. The following is a snappy advertisement encouraging the public to climb aboard.
“South San Diego and Imperial Beach.
Your itinerary is not complete until you visit Head of the Bay. Take a boat at McKinley Wharf, foot of H Street, at 9:20 a.m., or 1:00 p.m., land an hour later at South San Diego, nine miles distance, every minute of which has been enjoyed. You will find the motor car waiting to take you to beautiful Imperial Beach where you can enjoy yourself surf fishing, bathing, or taking in the sights until 4:00 p.m. when the car will carry you to the landing and the boat, return you safely to San Diego, making a trip of nearly twenty-five miles by boat and car besides a day of unexcelled pleasure. Take Coronado ferry car to foot of H Street. Phone Sunset 2117.
Captain L.B. Rhodimar, Manager, MCKINLEY WHARF”
It’s hard to believe how good public transportation was 85 years ago. You rode on a handmade, beautifully finished pleasure boat to the South Bay Landing. You disembarked and climbed on to a trolley car courtesy of the Mexico and San Diego Railway Company. The trolley was battery powered, the latest invention of Thomas A. Edison, who wanted to make trolleys without having to use unsightly overhead wires. The streetcar ran south on Tenth to Palm Avenue, then west on Palm to First Street and the beach, and then back to the landing.
On a dark, rainy day in January of 1916, after 44 inches of rain fell within 26 days, the Otay Dam broke and through it raged a 25-foot wall of water, which ripped through Otay Valley. Houses, horses, crops were destroyed along with the South San Diego Channel. The channel was filled with silt and never redug.
Oneonta was another subdivider’s town put together in the 1880s. Oneonta was built inland in the southeastern quadrant of Imperial Beach, about where Ream Field is now. Oneonta had wide streets, a post office, a public school, a general store, a church, a sanitarium, and a $20,000 hotel. Subdividers advertised the town as “Beautiful Oneonta By The Sea,” asking prospects to regard the “Oneonta Hotel. Rooms are all large, nicely furnished, well ventilated with provision for fire and with outside windows furnishing the choicest views imaginable of the mountains, valley, city, bay and ocean. For Healthfulness and Beauty of Location Oneonta is without Rival.” And:
“Oneonta By The Sea THE PASADENA OF SAN DIEGO COUNTY, THE TERMINUS OF THE NATIONAL CITY OTAY RAILROAD AND FOR HEALTHFULNESS AND BEAUTY OF LOCATION WITH A RIVAL. It has now: six round-trip passenger trains daily to San Diego; good water; a $20,000 hotel, a telephone line; a lovely bay; the best fishing and hunting on this coast; a rich soil; a climate unsurpassed; a combination of ocean, mountain, and valley scenery unequaled, a combination of beauties and advantages that must be seen to be believed, and it is conceded by all to be the liveliest place for a home and the most desirable as an investment in the county.”
The other big building in town was the Brewster Medical and Surgical Sanitarium. “A private institution for chronic invalids and those suffering nervous exhaustion or for surgical aid. For circulars and inquiries, address Brewster Sanitarium, Oneonto, San Diego, California.”
By 1920, the closest paved road to Imperial Beach was located in Chula Vista. Highway 101 was not built until 1933. Merchandise was brought into I.B. by train or horses. Train service ran to Coronado and Palm City. During the 1930s, the Michigan Investment Company transported houses in from Tent City, Coronado. If a citizen put two of these prefab cottages together, bingo, one had an acceptable house that fitted nicely onto an Imperial Beach lot.
By the start of World War II, the defense industry around San Diego Bay was roaring, Imperial Beach housing prices jumped, and like boomtowns anywhere, newcomers lived in shacks, tents, even airplane packing crates. Through the 1940s I.B.’s streets were paved, lighting districts formed, and a community center went up on 19th Street. A new generation of I.B. speculators began hustling the public. The following is from a 1948 poster featuring an Esther Williams clone swimming underwater next to a buried treasure chest.
WHERE THE SUN AND THE SURF SPEND THEIR CONTINUOUS HONEYMOON
Fourth of July Celebration and Bathing Beauty Contest The Largest Entry List On The West Coast Held Annually at Imperial Beach, California NORTH OF THE BORDER DOWN MEXICO WAY
You too may share the treasure chest by visiting Imperial Beach, the stepping stone to your future success and happiness HARK THE VOICE of OPPORTUNITY
In 1949, the population of the South Bay area was approximately 9600. After years of debate, at the cost of many friendships, citizens of what is now Imperial Beach voted on June 5, 1956, to incorporate. The boundaries were set by the Coronado City line on the north, a line along 13th Street going south, including Ream Field and continuing to the Mexican border, making up a total of four and a half square miles. On July 18, the California Secretary of State made it official: Imperial Beach was the 10th city in San Diego County and 327th city in California.
I am deeply indebted to Freda Compton Elliott, who wrote the only and therefore the definitive history of Imperial Beach. Elliott was appointed by the Imperial Beach Women’s Club to gather and write a history of the area. Her efforts were privately published in 1976, entitled: A History of Imperial Beach.