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History of Balboa Park and San Diego

The history of Balboa Park and San Diego are inseparable because the location of the Park is in the middle of the city.  For hundreds of years this area was a waste of canyons and mesas with chaparral and native plants, mostly unoccupied.

On May 13th, 1846 the U.S. declared war on Mexico and in 1848 California became an Independent State.  Two years later on September 9th, 1850 California was granted Statehood by the United States of America. The population at this time was 650 in San Diego.
It was on February 4th, 1870 that San Diego became the first city west of the Mississippi to set aside land for an urban Park. A 1440-acre tract became the site for the City Park, which is now known as Balboa Park.  The size of Central Park in New York is 843 acres.
In 1870 George Marston, a civic leader became the founder of the San Diego Historical Society.
At that time the population of San Diego grew to 2,300. In 1887 it increased to 35,000-40,000. The real state boom ended in 1888, and the population dropped back to 16,000.
In 1888 the world-famous Hotel del Coronado opened.  The entrepreneurs Elisha Babcock and H.L. Story were responsible for that project.
The City Park or later Balboa Park remained mostly unchanged for over 20 years.
It was Kate Sessions, a horticulturist who transformed this arid rocky expanse of chaparral and mulefalt shrubs into a botanical masterpiece.  In 1892, Sessions received 30 acres of land for a private nursery, in return for which she would plant 100 trees a year in the park and 300 trees and other plants elsewhere in the city.  She carried out her end of the bargain by faithfully planting exotic trees and shrubs for years and thus became known as “The Mother of Balboa Park”.
In1893 the Wall Street panic lead to a lengthy depression, which affected San Diego also.
By the year 1900 San Diego’s population grew again to reach 17,700.
In 1902 the construction of the Panama Canal was authorized in Congress.
In 1906 after the big earthquake in San Francisco John D. Spreckels leaves San Francisco and moved permanently to San Diego.
In 1910 there was a contest to rename City Park.  Balboa Park was the winning entry.  The name honors Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European explorer to sight the Pacific Ocean.
The population of San Diego reached 39,578.
On October 15, 1910 the U.S. Grand Hotel opens in downtown on the site of the former
Horton House.
In 1911 groundbreaking ceremonies and construction began with a military mass in a Balboa Park Canyon to hold an Exposition for the opening of the Panama Canal.
On August 23, 1912 the Spreckels Theater opened with 1915 seats.  It became the first modern commercial Playhouse west of the Mississippi.
The Cabrillo Bridge opened on April 12, 1914. The first car to drive across the bridge carried the honored guest, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then the Assistant Security Officer to the Navy.
In 1914 John D. Spreckels presented the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park to the people of San Diego. (a reference of who Spreckels was can be found on the pages of the House of Germany) He hired Dr. Humphrey J. Stewart, a distinguished organist and composer, to give daily concerts throughout the Exposition of 1915 and beyond.
Preparations for the Panama-California Exposition continued at a feverish pace to meet the deadline for the opening date.
On December 31, 1914 at midnight, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a Western Union telegraph key in Washington D.C. which turned on the lights and touched off a display of fireworks to open the” Panama-California Exposition “ in Balboa Park.  On January 1,1915 the Exposition opened to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal.   After a slow dismal start the Exposition turned out to be a profitable one for San Diego and its economy. San Diego would be the first American port of call north of the Panama Canal on the Pacific Coast.  Its hopes to become an important trading center for the entire Pacific Coast were diminished when the ships passed right on for the busier terminals of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In 1914 the Santa Fe Railroad Depot construction began.  It opened on March 18, 1915 for service.
In January of 1916 the San Diego city fathers hired the rainmaker “Charles Hatfield” to break a severe drought that had plagued the area for many years.  This resulted in unusually heavy rains with severe flooding, washing out all but two of the city’s 112 bridges and breaking the lower Otay Dam.  Twenty people drowned as the Tijuana River Valley flooded and left 135 Little Landers settlers homeless.  Hatfield disappeared overnight and never received the $10,000 the city fathers had promised him.
In 1916 Dr. Harry Wegeforth brought the San Diego Zoo into being when animals imported for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition were quarantined and not allowed to leave.  He is reported to have exclaimed to his brother Paul, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a zoo”.
He put a notice in the newspaper, asking for support.  As a result the San Diego Zoo was born and has delighted the people of our city and county for over 80 years now.
In 1917 the Marine Base and Naval Hospital were approved.  The government purchased North Island, its Rockwell field, which was shared by the Army and Navy until 1939.
In 1919 the United States Navy decided to make the San Diego Bay the home base for the Pacific Fleet.
By the year 1920 the population of the City of San Diego reached 74,361.
In 1922 the Naval Hospital opened in Balboa Park.
On February 27, 1927 the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park was dedicated and opened to the public.
On May 9th, 1927 Charles Lindbergh departed from Rockwell Field, North Island, Coronado, for the historic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis, a custom M-1 monoplane built in San Diego by Ryan Airlines.  Lindbergh completed this solo nonstop flight from New York to Paris on May 20-21.
In 1928 Lindbergh Field, San Diego’s Municipal Airport was dedicated and opened.
It is now 1930, and the population of San Diego has reached 147,995.
In 1933 the Natural History Museum opened in Balboa Park.
On May 28, 1935 the carefully planned and anxiously awaited  “California Pacific International Exposition” opened in Balboa Park.  It ran thru 1936 and proved to be a very successful event for San Diego.  At this time the House of Pacific Relations and the first 15 International Cottage were created.
In 1935 the Old Globe Theater opened in Balboa Park.
In 1940 the population of San Diego has reached 203,341.
In February 1958 the Interstate Highway 8 opened.
In 1959  Billy Wilder’s film “ Some like it hot” was filmed at the Hotel Del Coronado, starring Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis.
In 1960 the population of San Diego was 573,224.
In 1961 the Mission Valley Shopping center opened.
In 1964 the popular Marine Amusement Park “Sea World” opened.
In 1968 the Minor-League San Diego Padres became a Major-League Baseball Team and played their first game in the new San Diego Stadium.
In 1969 the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge opened, replacing the ferry service across the bay.
In 1970 San Diego becomes California’s second largest city with a population of 696,474.
In 1971 the rebuilt Casa del Prado opened in Balboa Park.
In 1973 the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater opened to the public. Fleet died in 1975 at the age of 88.
In 1976 the fully restored sailboat “Star of India” is put to sea for the first time in fifty years, under the command of Captain Carl Bowman.
In 1977 the University Town Center Shopping Mall opens.
On March 8, 1978 the World-famous Old Globe Theater burns to the ground in an arson fire.
In 1982 after a massive fund-raising drive to rebuild the theater, a new three-theater Old Globe Complex opened in Balboa Park.
In 1983 Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II unveils a bust of Shakespeare at the newly rebuilt Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park.
In 1985 the Horton Plaza Shopping Center opens as a $140 Million cornerstone of downtown redevelopment.
In 1987 Father Joe Carroll opened the St. Vincent de Paul Village in downtown with services for the homeless.
In 1989 the San Diego Convention Center opened.
In 1990 the population of the city of San Diego reaches 1,110,549.  The county population reaches 2,498,016.
In 1997 the reconstructed House of Hospitality opened in Balboa Park.
In the year of 2000 San Diego’s population stands at 1,223,400, and the population of the country reaches 2,813,833.

Balboa Park to this day remains a popular destination for locals as well as visitors from all over the world.  The museums, the theaters, the beautiful Spreckels Organ and the Organ Pavillion offer free concerts during most of the year. The spacious park grounds are hosting many public affairs.

The House of Pacific Relations and the International cottages are always a favorite destination on Sunday afternoons when they are open to the public and serve refreshments.  During the summer months each house participates in one of the Lawn Programs, which is held on Sundays from 2:00 to 3:00 pm in the lawn area.   It is free of charge. For those houses who do not have a cottage yet, there is a “Hall of Nations Sunday Hosts Program”.  Here they have an opportunity to show their ethnic diversity as hosts to the public.
The hours are from noon to 5:00 pm.

For many years it has been a custom of the International Cottages to educate the San Diego school children. The House of Pacific Relations has a school board, which organizes a program called  “4th Tuesday Hosts”.  Here the cottages are voluntarily open from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm to allow school children to visit and learn about the culture and history of the different countries.  Volunteers are there to assist with questions and educational materials.

The following pages pay tribute to a few important people who were instrumental in bringing the Expositions to Balboa Park and thus shaped the unique architectural and horticultural character of Balboa Park and the City of San Diego.

Influential People



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