Gilded Shams: Observatory on San Miguel Mountain (Part One)

Mary Proctor
  • Mary Proctor

They named a crater on Mars for Richard Anthony Proctor. The British astronomer (1837–1888) not only popularized his subject, he enjoyed making controversial claims: that there could be life on other planets; that the moon was dead, the Earth doomed. He predicted that, in the spring of 1897, a comet would hit the sun and destroy our solar system.

“In the English-speaking world from 1870 to 1890,” writes Michael J. Crowe, “Richard Proctor was the most widely read writer on astronomical subjects — rarely has astronomy had a more eloquent expositor.”

Proctor also penned essays about card games, especially poker and whist, chess, handicapping horse races, sea monsters, and the pyramids. Typical of his unconstrained era — what Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner called the “Gilded Age” — his mind knew no boundaries, and his critics often charged him with writing “trash” for money, vigorous self-promotion, and dabbling in the “alluring peripheries of science.”

In the popular imagination, however, Proctor may have been known more for his second marriage — and the famous “double death” that inspired it.

In 1879, Proctor’s wife took ill. To escape dank Liverpool, he made a lecture tour of Australia. At the same time, Robert and Sallie Crawley, of St. Joseph, Missouri, went to Australia for Robert’s failing health. The couples met and became friends. Proctor’s wife died. Less than a week later, Sallie’s husband died. The bereaved found consolation in each other. Before they left Australia, their friendship had grown into love. They married in May, 1881.

The stuff of romance, the story also had a practical appeal. Unlike most English-American matches, wrote the St. Joseph Gazette, this one didn’t glitter with excess: “There is no millionaire connected with it. Mrs. Proctor has only her beauty and worth as a dowry, and Prof. Proctor, although he has been very successful as an author and a lecturer, is by no means one of the rich men of the world.”

Not everyone took the sensible romance to heart. Commenting on the arrival of “Proctor’s comet,” the Sedalia Dispatch opined: “it should be remembered that Richard Proctor has recently married the second time, and is, therefore, naturally inclined to take a gloomy view of the situation.”

Proctor’s daughters from his first marriage, Mary and Agnes, joined the household. He and Sallie had two more children. Both died of diseases. To improve his health — and spirits — Proctor moved to Marion County, an expanse of lakes and mosquito-infested marshes in north- central Florida. He contracted yellow fever in 1888 and died. He was 51.

Daughter Mary — wrongly identified in newspaper accounts as his wife — took up Proctor’s crusade. She toured America, giving slide-show lectures on astronomy and advocating a proper memorial for her father. As a tribute to her efforts, a crater on the moon bears her name. And as a tribute to her father — and possibly for her attempt to build an observatory-memorial on San Miguel Mountain, the 2565-foot peak 12 miles southeast of San Diego — nearby Proctor Valley is named for him as well.

Mary didn’t plan on lecturing. Based on articles written for her father’s magazine, Knowledge, she was invited to give six talks about astronomy in Chicago. She wrote them out, but when she arrived, the podium had no lamp. She’d have to speak from memory. Mary had been a teacher, but had never lectured before such a large group on such a complicated subject — or without notes, or in the darkness necessary for her slide show. She took several deep breaths, gave her talk in unadorned English, and was a success. “Since then,” [New York Times] “her platform career has been uninterruptedly prosperous, much of which is due to her making her talks descriptive and picturesque, rather than technical.”

Mary Proctor’s tour of 1890 included a lecture at the San Diego College of Letters in Pacific Beach. The school, which opened in 1888, stood where Pacific Plaza stands today: 16 acres on Garnet Avenue from Lamont to Jewel and up the hill to Diamond. Founders chose the site for its “unequalled climate” and because it was miles from the city, “where the students would be exposed to many temptations.” The school had major academic ambitions, some brochures touting it as the Harvard of the West.

Pacific Beach was a special stop for Mary, since the college had hired her father, before he died, as its professor of astronomy.

She accompanied her lectures with a stereopticon, a “magic lantern” slide projector that beamed images of the moon and the planets onto a large screen. She spoke in quiet tones to audiences hushed by close-up views of what had been heretofore only bright specks.

Mary gave several lectures around San Diego. After each, she expressed her dream of a memorial-observatory for her father — and why it should be on a West Coast mountain.

Until this time, American observatories resided in “telescope houses,” in the heart of East Coast cities. But winter snows and growing numbers of streetlights made nighttime viewing difficult. Mountaintops became the solution. One of the first, James Lick Observatory, on Mt. Hamilton above the Santa Clara Valley, opened in 1888. Astronomers wanted a site at Mt. Wilson, in the San Gabriels. Plans fell through.

Mary chose San Diego for Southern California’s first, and most important, observatory. (At James Lick, she said, “radiations reflected from the valley cause a constant disturbance.”) She would consider several peaks. One was San Miguel.

“What is the name of that shapely mountain we have in view?” Charles Dudley Warner asked when visiting Coronado. Told San Miguel, Warner said that the conical eminence, with low hills at its base, reminded him of Mt. Vesuvius looming over Naples. Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands added to his impression, “rising like Ischia and Capri” in the Gulf of Naples.

Many others, impressed by the lofty peak, and pristine Sweetwater Dam below, dreamed of developing the area. One was Alfred Huntington Isham. Like Mary’s father and the Gilded Age, Isham blurred the boundaries between fact and fancy.

Isham came to San Diego for his 17-year-old daughter’s health. He had been a traveling salesman for the Studebaker Wagon Corporation of South Bend, Indiana, selling sash-weights, nails, and other hardware. By the time he settled in National City in 1886, on Olivewood Terrace, Isham knew the latest sales techniques: cheap appeals to greed and promises of miracle cures. “Probably no person received more publicity for his amiableness than Isham,” wrote Irene Phillips in the National City Star News. “He must have been a likeable person, though later he was proven to be somewhat of a scamp.”

On some days Isham called himself a captain, on others a colonel. Frank Waddy, who worked for him around the turn of the century, called his boss a “practiced prevaricator,” who “evidenced a natural dislike for straightforward statements.”

By 1890, Isham had formed business alliances with Frank Kimball, the founder of National City, and H.L. Story, co-founder of the Hotel del Coronado. Story and Isham Commercial Company had a warehouse at Fifth and L Streets in San Diego. They sold agricultural wares but envisioned more ornate enterprises.

Influenced by one of Mary Proctor’s lectures, on March 23, 1890, Story and Isham bought 160 acres atop San Miguel Mountain from Frank Reed. On March 26, the San Diego Union announced that they would build a “pleasure park” and an observatory on the mountaintop, making it the “Mt. Hamilton of Southern California.” Story also promised to build a hotel at the summit that would exceed his Hotel del Coronado in grandeur.

Just days before the announcement, Story planted a tree, “the first ever on that mountain.” He vowed the tree would never die. “He would carry water to it even if he had to withdraw from the firm of Story and Isham to devote his time to it.”

Isham told the San Diego Union that the multiphased project would include extending the Sweetwater Dam to the east and the National City & Otay Railroad past San Miguel to the Jamul cement works. A fork of the railroad would veer up to the summit — as would the world’s first gondola: “cable-baskets” designed by Andrew S. Hallidie, inventor of San Francisco’s cable car system, would soar over Sweetwater Reservoir, ascend Little Miguel, Mother Miguel, and finally Father [San] Miguel peaks. At the top, visitors would find the hotel and pavilion, devoted to “dances and musical entertainments,” and the World’s Proctor Memorial Observatory and Temple of Light.

In its April issue, The Great Southwest magazine extolled the project in language much like Isham's: "You are literally suspended between the heavens and the earth — and are a part of your Creator. You are moved by the sublimest thoughts, like those that moved the penning of the nineteenth psalm by King David."

The Union took up the cause. Unlike myriad scams of the Gilded Age, this project was not "Pickwickian." “The atmosphere on the mountain top is clearer, freer from moisture and more desirable in every way for astronomical purposes than any other mountain in Southern California.” Along with the gigantic telescope on the crown of San Miguel, the Union urged a "powerful electric light" beamed on the U.S./Mexican border at night. The searchlight would "enable the entire line to be watched," and would halt the "invasion" by Chinese immigrants from Lower California.

Isham, who sprinkled his speeches with biblical awe, had an ulterior motive for “The Mountain of Great Destiny.” Not far from its north-facing slope, he found a gurgling spring, which, two years later, he would declare had miraculous properties.

Story, Isham, and investors would build the hotel and pavilion, but the funding magnet would be the telescope and observatory, developed from donations. Mary Proctor was the key. If she found San Miguel suitable, Isham would give her the land. But word had it she favored Mission Cliffs.

Since she hadn’t yet been on the mountain — and possibly to sweep her off her feet — Story and Isham made Mary Proctor the centerpiece of a major San Diego event. On the Fourth of July, 1890, she and a party of local dignitaries would ride horses and burros up San Miguel. She would not only inspect the site, she would raise the American flag. Speakers would give speeches, read poems, and extol various virtues, especially hers and her father’s. No stranger to self-aggrandizement, Story would commemorate the anniversary of Gettysburg, which concluded July 3, 1863, reminding everyone that he’d served as corporal in a Vermont regiment.

As darkness fell, Mary would touch off a cannon and release hot-air balloons. Fireworks would follow, along with six colored lights spinning on a wheel at the top of a 42-foot flag pole. These Vesuvius-like eruptions would be visible, Isham swore, from Santa Catalina Island to the Yuma. “San Miguel will be illuminated in a way that will make the natives think the day of jubilee was about to arrive.”

Isham and Story weren’t done. They promised to pay $25 to a couple who would get married as part of the ceremony. Plus, the American Ostrich Company of Fallbrook, which had a branch yard in Coronado, would present the bride with a “fine white plume.”

Judging from the way they hyped the July 4 celebration, Isham and Story may have staged the entire affair to get Mary Proctor to say “I do.”

The July issue of The Great Southwest lauded the event. There were “no serious accidents.” All participants were “filled with ecstasy — brown and jolly, having had more real, genuine fun than one could shake a stick at in a week.”

Isham was the life of the party, the article claimed, “a whole Barnum’s menagerie, with the elephant thrown in.”

Less-burnished accounts tell a different story.

Twelve men and eight women, including Isham, Mary Proctor, her brother John Thompson, and Alonzo Horton, the “Father of New San Diego,” boarded a National City & Otay Railroad car in San Diego at 9:00 a.m. The couple paid $25 to be married at the summit, however, either eloped, missed the train, or called the whole thing off.

The train clacked to the line’s final stop at Sweetwater Dam, renamed “Proctor Station” for the occasion. Burros, horses, and three trailblazers called the “Annex,” awaited the celebrants. The women rode burros sidesaddle. Most of the men rode horses — including Horton, who wore a top hat while mounting his favorite white steed. Isham, who earlier had the Annex men widen the skinny path to the mountaintop — clearing it of scrub, stray boulders, and rattlesnakes — proclaimed that, “tied to their tails” the burros carried “a park, an orange grove, an observatory” to “Sammie Miguel.”

At 10:30 a.m. the group started up the trail, Mary Proctor and Isham in the lead.

Young Annex drovers Roy Roberts and Will Graham wound their way to the top in four-and-a-half hours. The rest took an extra hour, owing to burros needing “moral suasion of a vigorous nature” and an accident.

Horton hadn’t secured his saddle tightly. When his horse began to ascend a rocky pitch between Little Miguel and Mother Miguel peaks, the saddle came loose: 76-year-old Horton did a dusty tumble into a patch of poison oak. His bruises were minor, but he developed a rash. “From that time on” Horton “suffered from skin trouble, or an eczema, which gave his complexion a bright pink color.”

Since the ascent became more acute at this point, Horton, his sister Lucy, and two others decided to head back. John Thompson loaned Horton his burro, cinched up the saddle, and rode the horse to the top. The spot where he fell became known as “Horton’s Slide.”

At 2:00 p.m., after a lunch of fruit and sandwiches along the way, the party reached the top. Before them stood the flagpole, a cannon, two hot-air balloons, a picnic table, and two large canvas tents: one for men; the other, fitted out with all the latest comforts, for women.

Dressed in black, Mary Proctor raised the flag. The men, in suits, vests, and neckties, hoisted their hats.

Reverend A.B. Markle, of the Central Christian Church, spoke first. The bride and groom had failed to show, he was sorry to say, so he waxed extempore about the splendid growth of morality in the 19th century and added that “the next century will see even more wonderful developments.” All cheered.

The moment was right. The train, the mules, breathtaking views wherever one turned, Old Glory flapping in a freshening breeze: it was time for Mary Proctor to make the grand announcement.

She didn’t. Asked to speak, she declined. She was only qualified to talk about astronomy, she said.

“Speech! Speech!” the party demanded. So Mary said a few pleasant words about the occasion.

Isham, who must have hoped she’d decide at this time, jumped in. He praised the Proctor Observatory and this most marvelous of locations — and the hardihood of the party for their valiant trek (Isham’s words, Chas. W. Home wrote in a poem, “made us quite weak”). He also thanked the three Annex drovers, especially Captain Charles Fitzallen — who swore he owed his life, and a new head of hair, to Isham’s miracle waters.

Charles L. Williams recited a poem to San Miguel, “bald old peak, rock-ribb’d and bare.” Throughout, the verses assume that Mary had chosen. It concludes:

“Farewell, brave King! Thy reign is done,
Thy storied greatness just begun,
And bowed before a brother’s will,
I greet thee, brother, San Miguel.”

As evening approached, people around the county set up chairs and picnic spreads on beaches, roof- and hilltops, anticipating the fireworks display of the century.

At the summit, the party enjoyed a professionally catered dinner. As they sipped hot tea and coffee, what had been a steady breeze began to ripple the tablecloth and the womens’ floor-length dresses. When the flag stiffened to a horizontal crackle, Isham decided not to release the air balloons. He also noticed the unthinkable: contrary to the promises of “moisture-free” air on San Miguel, a giant fogbank trundled their way. Better commence the pyrotechnics before dark.

A boy named Willie launched the first rocket. It rose, caught the high wind, and nosedove down, crashing in a shambles of sparks. Smoke rose from the hillside. Then flames. The gentlemen removed their hats and coats, rolled up their sleeves, and raced to put out the brushfire before it reached the tents. According to Herbert Hensley, “They had a lively time before they got it extinguished.”

During that spell, the sun dipped behind the encroaching gloom. To the north and east the party could see moonlit campfires and celebrations with colored lights. But to the west a gray cloak not only shrouded Coronado, the city, and the South Bay, it had crept around lower San Miguel. The summit became an island in a gray, cotton sea.

From San Miguel, said the Union: “Coronado’s fireworks were only faint flashes of heat lightning.…The electric masts of the city were eight or ten bright stars near Point Loma’s revolving light, which was distinct.”

Instead of Mt. Vesuvius erupting like an irate Zeus, to anyone below, the fireworks on San Miguel resembled “a faint star-like light.”

Relentlessly chipper, Isham and the gentlemen serenaded the women before everyone turned in.

The next morning, after the party had breakfast and saluted the flag, one of the drovers noticed that a burro, christened “Little Miguel” for the occasion, was missing. During the night, the animal snuck back to Proctor Station, where it woke its keeper, asleep on a pile of straw, by pulling off his cap.

At 9:00 a.m. the party headed back down San Miguel in single file. Some of the animals liked descending even less than climbing and needed their ears rapped for inspiration. To the dismay of Isham, who’d already seen too much go wrong in his economic courtship of Mary Proctor, her burro lay down several times and wouldn’t budge.

Since “Little Miguel” had fled the night before, Mrs. C.W. Home had to ride a small, unnamed pack mule that sprinted down the mountain a half-hour ahead of the rest.

Near the bottom, the burro approached a low-hanging tree limb and — with “malice aforethought,” Roberts and Graham both swore — tried to “rid himself of his burden.” Mrs. Home lunged for a branch and clung to it as the animal sped by underneath, aimed hay-ward. Roberts and Graham rescued her. “As my lady came down from her perch on the limb,” wrote her husband, Chas. W. Home, “She whispered ‘this ends it.’ She did it with vim.”

When the train returned to San Diego, and eager reporters questioned her, Mary Proctor didn’t choose San Miguel. “It is the most desirable site for the observatory,” she said, but she wanted to return to the summit for several days, make numerous tests, and decide then.

On September 15, she made a second ascent in a burro train. For a week, she examined the “seeing qualities” of the site with a three-inch telescope. Each day, carrier pigeons flew her findings to San Diego. On the last day, she committed. She’d raise funds, she said, through lectures and other means. She’d even live on the mountain, carrying out her father’s work with a corps of astronomers, students, and — a statement that may have raised eyebrows — a board of directors, at least half of whom would be women.

After a year of campaigning for the project, however, Mary Proctor called it off in October, 1891. She never stated reasons, but during that time Isham made expensive purchases in Frank Kimball’s name — reducing Kimball to near poverty — and Story and Isham’s commercial company went into debt. Between 1887 and 1897, Isham was involved in over 40 lawsuits for corrupt business practices. “Most probably,” writes Thomas Adema, “Mary Proctor discovered Isham’s unethical behavior and withdrew her support for the observatory.”

Isham took over what was left of Story and Isham and vowed to run a “new race.” He never abandoned the idea of an observatory on San Miguel. But during the national depression of 1892, rather than repay loans and rebuild his shattered reputation, Isham shot for the stars: he’d discovered, he swore, the “Fountain of Youth.”

Next time: Alfred Huntington Isham and the “Waters of Life.”


1. Thomas Joseph Adema, Our Hills and Valleys: A History of the Helix-Spring Valley Region, San Diego, 1993.

2. Michael J. Crowe, “Proctor, Richard Anthony (1837–1888),” in John Lankford (ed.) History of Astronomy: An Encyclopedia, New York, 1997.

3. Herbert Hensley, Memoirs, Vol. II, manuscript, San Diego Historical Society.

4. Chas. W. Home, “That Trip of Ourn!: The Ascent and Descent of San Miguel Mountain, July 4th, 1890,” The Great Southwest, 1890, July.

5. Elizabeth C. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego and of Its Founder, Alonzo E. Horton, San Diego, 1979.

6. Irene Phillips, “Capt. Isham: Colorful Character of Early City,” National City Star News, September 15, 1960.

7. Lewis O. Saum, “The Proctor Interlude in St. Joseph and in America: Astronomy, Romance, and Tragedy,” American Studies International, 1999, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, February.

8. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, New York, 1873.

9. Stephen R. Van Wormer, “Alfred H. Isham: A Gilded Age Entrepreneur in San Diego County,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 66, 1984, winter.

10. Frank Vincent Waddy, “Synopsis of Facts Concerning the Discovery, Early History and Later Development of the Natural Mineral Springs Known Variously as Sweetwater Springs, Jamacha Springs, Isham’s Springs, Isham’s California Waters of Life, Baldhead Springs, Foster’s Springs, Original California Waters and Minwell, San Diego, California, Covering the Period from 1887 to 1927,” manuscript, San Diego Historical Society.

11. “An Interesting Career: How the Daughter of an Eminent Father Sustains the Family Fame,” New York Times, September 9, 1894.

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