San Diego remembers the deluge

Early history of Pacific Beach

San Diego College of Arts and Letters, c. 1880s. The college's one building, refurbished, became the Hotel Balboa in 1902. In 1910, the building housed the San Diego Army and Navy Academy. "The new owners would construct Pacific Plaza, the first shopping center in Pacific Beach."
  • San Diego College of Arts and Letters, c. 1880s. The college's one building, refurbished, became the Hotel Balboa in 1902. In 1910, the building housed the San Diego Army and Navy Academy. "The new owners would construct Pacific Plaza, the first shopping center in Pacific Beach."
  • San Diego Historical Society Photo

LATE PLIOCENE: 2.67 million years ago, continental glaciation began in the northern hemisphere. During the Late Pliocene, and episodically since then, Pacific Beach was underwater, part of a large bay extending south to Tijuana. Coronado and North Island were submerged and so was much of Point Loma. "Visualize the San Diego shoreline of today" writes Patrick L. Abbott, "then picture it with a sea level 210 feet higher." Around every 100,000 years, continental ice sheets build and then melt, which causes a major flooding of coastal areas. "San Diego was submerged beneath a broad, ocean-filled embayment akin to a miniature Monterey Bay.

"We are living in an Ice Age. Just 15,000 years ago, 27 percent of earth's continental area was buried beneath massive ice sheets; and even though we are now in an interglacial episode, 10 percent of the continental area (Antarctica and Greenland) is still beneath ice." Should they melt, the earth would return to "normal" temperatures, 10 to 12 degrees higher than today, and the global sea level would rise about 210 feet."

Like puddles after a rain, San Diego Bay and Mission Bay serve as mementos of the deluge, as do fossils, in the "San Diego Formation," of clams, sea urchins, snails, and other invertebrates "throughout the metropolitan region of San Diego, National City, and Chula Vista."

ROSE CANYON CREEK: At the corner of Mission Bay Drive and Bluffside Avenue, Rose Canyon Creek makes a gentle southwestward curve. For hundreds of years, Kumeyaay natives used the area as a semi-annual campsite. Mt. Soledad protected them from wind and fog. They gathered acorns inland and roamed the coast for food and healthful herbs (they went as far as Ocean Beach, which they called "mussel" beach, for another staple of their diet). As settlers moved into the area and a railroad connecting San Diego and Pacific Beach was completed in 1888, the Kumeyaay went east. This was their last coastal campsite.

Until 1930, travelers going from San Diego to Los Angeles had to drive west around Mt. Soledad, through Pacific Beach and La Jolla. On December 13, 1930, the Rose Canyon Highway opened: a five-mile shortcut on the east slope of Soledad bypassed the beach towns and passed close by the old Kumeyaay camp.

For decades, on almost the exact location of the campsite, the Pacific Drive-In lured cars to the area like a magnet. Historian John Fry remembers "lines and lines of cars wanting to see a movie. And people used to sit on the hill behind and watch for free."

PACIFIC PLAZA: In the late 1880s, thousands of newcomers came to San Diego. Towns sprung up across the county, among them Ramona, San Marcos, El Cajon, Lakeside, La Jolla, and Pacific Beach. The latter had an edge. A railroad, beginning downtown at D Street, went to what is now Mission Bay Drive, then "west on Garnet, southwest on Balboa to Lamont, then down Grand to the ocean."

To attract homebuyers to Pacific Beach, in 1887 the San Diego Union announced that a syndicate of millionaires envisioned a major university "in the area north of False Bay...an institution of learning that is second to none."

Sixteen acres, where Pacific Plaza stands today, became the site for the San Diego College of Arts and Letters. December 12, 1887, became the "most successful in the history of San Diego real estate transactions." Buyers purchased $200,000 worth of lots around College (now Garnet) Avenue. The sale "continued unabated during the day," the Union reported, "notwithstanding...that no band was in attendance, no free carriage, and no free lunch." Joaquin Miller, the poet of the Sierras," dedicated the college January 28, 1888.

"An idea way ahead of its time," says John Fry. "They wanted the only college south of L.A. Plus it'd be near a beach. Only people didn't go to beaches much in those days. When women'd go, they'd spend the day under grass roofs to keep out of the sun.

"They couldn't promote the idea of a college in a tourist town. It went bust almost before it got started."

Having Miller speak at the inauguration indicates another dream: that P.B. would become a major literary center. The poet Rose Hartwick Thorpe, who founded the Pacific Beach Women's Club, one of the nation's first, wrote a poem about False Bay but changed the name: she called it "Mission Bay."

The college's one building, refurbished, became the Hotel Balboa in 1902. At this time lots in the area cost $7.50 each (they were 25x125 feet, and you had to buy them in pairs). In 1910, the building housed the San Diego Army and Navy Academy, eventually the Brown Military Academy, the "West Point of the West." In 1958, the Academy moved to Glendora. Fry: "The new owners would construct Pacific Plaza, the first shopping center in Pacific Beach. Seventy years of memories came crashing down with the building."

PACIFIC BEACH DRIVING PARK: Investor Adolph Gasson envisioned another magnet. In 1887 he built a racetrack at the northeast corner of Mission Bay, near the railroad line. Although quarterhorses ran during the summer, and rumors claimed the track would stable East Coast thoroughbreds, according to Fry, "Horse racing never took hold." In spite of Gasson's entrepreneurial stunts, "It coughed and sputtered and died, almost before it began."

Not that Gasson didn't try. He staged balloon ascensions: "Miss Hazel Keyes parachuting to the ground at a Thanksgiving Day event. A Christmas program featured the monkey, Yan Yan, also parachuting." In 1889 Myrtle Peek rode two horses at once. The most ersatz was the Swordfight on Horseback of 1888.

"The combatants: Captain Carl Weidermann, fencing instructor at the college, and 'Jaguarina,' a woman who had recently beaten the champion swordsman of the U.S. Army. She emerged victorious, and one can only imagine the atmosphere when Weidermann had to teach after losing the match."

John Fry sees his hometown's layers. The day I interviewed him, his car was getting a tune-up at Mossy Ford, on Mission Bay Drive, four blocks from the Kumeyaay camp, and the exact location of the old racetrack.

STREET NAMES: No one knows who named Pacific Beach. It probably had several earlier ones. And even P.B.'s streets are a palimpsest. By 1900, north-south streets had numbers, east-west, names of states. Fry: "When the San Diego City Council started sorting out street names in 1900, University Heights, which was actually subdivided after Pacific Beach, got dibs on the states. P.B. had to change its state names to gemstones. And since the city itself laid claim to numbered streets, PB had to rename its north-south streets after 19th-century statesmen, Allison to Randall. The city's housekeeping swept our names away."


  1. Abbott: In the Late Pliocene, "Maybe the bay water would have been a few degrees warmer, and this is likely to have resulted in a bit more rainfall."
  2. Fry (smiling): "P.B.'s been cursed eternally. In historical accounts you hear La Jolla this and La Jolla that, or Ocean Beach this-and-that. But nothing on P.B. Maybe we've always been in the middle of where someone else was going."


Abbott, Patrick L., The Rise and Fall of San Diego: 150 Million Years of History Recorded in Sedimentary Rocks (Sunbelt Publications, 1999)

Abbott, Patrick L., professor of geological sciences, San Diego State University, interview

Fry, John, A Short History of Pacific Beach, Centennial Edition, 1987

Fry, john, historian, interview

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