The arrival of Santa Fe Railroad service to the city of San Diego in 1885 triggered a boom in the city and the county. Here’s one personal story of those times.
One of those arriving just before the boom got under way was a lawyer named Thomas Hayes. Hayes, then 35, came from Kansas where he’d been Brown County Attorney for a number of years. Severe health problems led his doctor to advise him to seek a cure in the sunnier climate of Southern California. After a brief time in Los Angeles, Hayes moved on to San Diego in September 1885, which he found much more to his liking.
Hayes arrived by ship. The railroad line was still being worked on and service wouldn’t begin until November of that year. When his ship arrived he accepted a ride in a horse-drawn “hack” to the Florence Hotel on Fir Street between Third and Fourth. Not long after the trip began, the young lawyer nervously asked the hack driver where they were headed.
“The Florence Hotel in those days,” Hayes recounted to historian Alan McGrew in 1922, “was then way, way out of town, or so it seemed.” After his first breakfast at the hotel, Hayes went out for a look around.
“I was indeed out in the country,” he found. “As I stood by the side of the hotel and looked about, I could see little but wild country. There was a big flock of sheep near the hotel,” said Hayes, and further on he saw “little but sagebrush and cactus.”
In a few months Hayes had regained his health (“…in a short time I had added twenty pounds to my weight and felt like a boy…”). He returned to Kansas in the spring of 1886, but not for long (“the California ‘fever’ had taken possession of me…”). He came back by train in June of 1886, and found “the town was beginning to be very active.”
Soon there commenced “the wildest boom I ever heard of in this or any other country….Almost everybody soon went into the real estate business…”
The city’s population jumped from “about 3,000 population in 1885 to 35,000 in 1888; people came from everywhere and everybody seemed to have plenty of money.”
Whether “everybody” in town had plenty of money might be hyperbole, but speculation and what we’d today call “leveraging” was stimulating business, as well as prices. When Hayes decided to jump in and buy 40 acres in “South San Diego, as it was called then, or Imperial Beach, as it is now known,” the asking price was $5,000, the terms half down, the other half due in 60 days.
He had the money for the down payment, and a letter from the governor of Kansas to a local bank president that “my name was good for any sum up to $10,000.” So Hayes bought the property and opened up a real estate office. He soon had a couple come in looking for land and told them about his original forty-acre parcel, offering it to them for $12,000.
Recounting this in the conversation years later, Hayes admitted, he only expected them to offer $6,000, and “I should have been glad at that time to get my money out of the deal.”
The couple came back and accepted his $12,000 offer. This was “exactly 30 days after I had bought the land.”
Hayes confessed to having second thoughts about the deal, feeling he had “taken more for this land than it is worth,” and feeling he “ought to look into it.”
However, “while I was thinking about the matter and how to clear it up, in came the man and his wife and told me they had just sold the land for $16,000, or $4,000 more than they had paid.”
“That’s an example of how things went,” said Thomas.
Sources for this post included the book, City of San Diego and San Diego County: Birthplace of California, by Clarence Alan McGrew, published in 1922, historic San Diego newspapers and the website of the San Diego History Center.
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I invite you all to sign up for my OASIS lecture on The History of Immigration, this Wednesday, October 8 at 1 p.m. at the San Marcos Library, 2 Civic Center Drive. For more information visit http://www.oasisnet.org/ , go to “Find A Class,” then “San Diego County,” then “Classes,” then under “Instructor” type “Vincent Rossi.” You’ll then see a button to enroll in the class.