The Orizaba-Part II

Last week I wrote about the role that one steamship, the Orizaba, played in the history of San Diego City and County, in terms of the number of residents, noted and ordinary, who first came here on the vessel over its 22-year history carrying people between San Diego and San Francisco.

She also contributed to the development of the local economy by delivering tons of cargo, as demonstrated by this item from the January 21, 1872 San Diego Union, datelined National City:

“J. S. Gordon brought with him on the Orizaba fifty tons of freight. The hay and grain which filled the warehouses of the firm he represents, and the large stock of goods with which their capacious store was literally packed, are fast disappearing, and indicate that another trip to San Francisco will soon be necessary.”

For eleven of the 22 years that the Orizaba made San Diego her home port, she was commanded by the same man, Henry J. Johnston, and he was as well known in San Diego as his ship. In 1878 Johnston was assigned command of a newer steamer, a command he unfortunately never took up as he died on December 28, 1878 after an accidental fall at this San Francisco home.

“The flags on all the buildings in town and on the vessels in the bay were half-masted yesterday,” reported the San Diego Union of January 1, 1879, “out of respect to the memory of the late Captain Henry J. Johnston-a token of the esteem in which he was held by our whole community.”

But that wasn’t the end of the influence of the Orizaba and her long-time skipper on San Diego.

When she came into San Diego the Orizaba docked at Culverwell’s Wharf, which jutted out into the bay from what is now the intersection of Pacific Highway and F Street. As the ship made her way toward the dock, Captain Johnson used a spot on a hill to the north as a navigational aid.

After one particular voyage, Johnston became curious about that geographic point and hired a coach and driver to take him up there. Entranced by what he saw, he bought 65 acres with the hope of constructing a home there on his retirement.

Captain Johnston never lived to carry out his dream. His widow, while remaining in San Francisco, continued to own the San Diego property until May, 1887, when she deeded it to her daughter, Sarah Johnston Miller.

Miller came to San Diego and with her husband built a Victorian house which she named Villa Orizaba. She also filed plans to develop the still-rural landscape around the house as a community designated Johnston Heights in honor of her father, for whom a street in the new tract was also named.

The good ship Orizaba, over 30 years old, had at that point been taken out of service and sold for scrap. Sarah Miller acquired some parts of the ship for the construction of her home.

Villa Orizaba, under different owners over the years and considerably remodeled and relocated, remains standing in its original neighborhood, on a street named Orizaba. The former Johnston Street is now called Sunset Boulevard, and the former Johnston Heights is now better known as Mission Hills.

Sources for this article included historic San Diego newspapers, Richard Pourade’s series of books on the history of San Diego, The Journal of San Diego History, and the website of Mission Hills Heritage.

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