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SAN DIEGO'S HOTEL DEL CORONADO: THE HISTORIC HEART OF CALIFORNIA'S OLDEST CITY
Coronado, CA -Though San Diego boasts beautiful beaches, top tourist attractions, a dynamic downtown, and wonderful weather, this historic city – founded in 1769 by Spanish missionaries – is less well known for its fascinating past.
Spanish Settlement/Mexican Rule
Not only is San Diego the state’s first city, it was the anchor settlement for a chain of 21 missions that were established by the Franciscan Fathers between 1769 and 1823, including settlements in San Francisco, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
San Diego’s fledgling European community, which also included a military outpost or presidio, was settled by Mexicans, who served under the crown of Spain. After California fell to Mexican rule (with its war of independence from Spain in 1821), the mission system started to collapse, and the city of San Diego began to grow outside the protective walls of the presidio (in an area known today as Old Town).
Meanwhile, San Diego had become a popular stopping-off point for Yankee traders (who traveled by ship, around Cape Horn and up the Pacific coast); cattle hides were the region’s mainstay.
California Becomes a State in 1850
By 1847, the United States had won control of the area, and with the 1849 Gold Rush, Congress quickly admitted California as the 32nd state. The rush for northern California gold increased trade in this southernmost harbor, and eventually, San Diego’s city center was moved from Old Town (which was inland) to its present harborside area.
With the 1885 completion of a rail line connecting San Diego to the Southern Pacific transcontinental route, the city was opened up for the legions of tourists that would soon flock to San Diego.
The Elegant Eighties and the Hotel del Coronado
In fact it was the promise of railroad travelers from the east that prompted mid-western transplants Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story to form a syndicate, buy the entire uninhabited island of Coronado and built a resort which they believed would become “the talk of the Western world.” By the time the resort opened in 1888, the hotel’s promotional efforts had garnered the national spotlight: The Hotel del Coronado had put San Diego on the map.
According to Christine Donovan, the hotel’s director of heritage programs, “The Del gave travelers not only a reason to visit San Diego, but a breathtaking place to stay once they got here.” And, stay they did. Early visitors – many of whom came from wintry areas back east – spent months at the hotel. These well-to-do guests settled in for the season, often arriving in their own private railcars with servants in tow.
Adds Donovan, “Between the sunshine and the sea, San Diego has always had a lot going for it, but the Hotel del Coronado opened up the area early on, and in doing so, it set the stage for San Diego’s coveted image as a vacation paradise.”
Today it is the juxtaposition of this venerable Victorian hotel surrounded by a contemporary resort city that keeps The Del at the top of everyone’s wish list for “places to visit.”
A History of Sightseeing at The Del
Though the Hotel del Coronado is San Diego’s most famous historic landmark, Donovan believes that it is only the centerpiece for a city rich in history.
“The city’s Spanish mission site is where California began, and our guests have been visiting there since 1888. Our Mexican heritage is preserved in Old Town, and this, too, has been a popular tourist destination since The Del's earliest days.”
Adds Donovan, “Victorian travelers considered California a new and exotic land – not a mere extension of the United States – and these early visitors delighted in the area’s history, so different from the America they knew. California has always offered ‘new’ history, and I think this still fascinates our guests.”
San Diego’s Other Historic Sights
The Hotel del Coronado is surrounded by a variety of historic San Diego sights, all easily accessible from The Del.
Cabrillo National Monument
End of State Highway 209, Point Loma
The Cabrillo National Monument was created in 1913 to honor the 1542 discovery of San Diego by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer who sailed under the flag of Spain. Dedicated in 1935, the statue of Cabrillo (a gift from Portugal) was installed at the monument in 1959. The national park boasts a spectacular view of San Diego Bay and Coronado (including North Island Naval Air Station) and also features a restored 1854 lighthouse, as well as walking trails, tide pools and gift shop. Open every day of the year.
Mission San Diego de Alcala
10818 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego
Considered California’s first European settlement, Mission San Diego was established by Spanish priests on July 16, 1769. Originally located near the site of today’s Presidio Park [see information below], this fledgling religious community relocated to its present site in 1774. The current church was completed in 1813 (two previous buildings were destroyed in 1775 and 1812). Considered “California’s First Church,” Mission San Diego de Alcala is a National Historic Monument and includes a museum and archaeological ruins. The still-functioning Catholic parish offers masses daily.
Presidio Park/Junipero Serra Museum
2727 Presidio Drive, San Diego
Surrounding the original Mission San Diego de Alcala, the presidio (Spanish for “fortified settlement”) was a military encampment that protected the mission’s residents. Deserted in 1774, the presidio eventually fell to ruin. Fortunately, thanks to extensive excavations, many original artifacts have been recovered. Also in Presidio Park is the Junipero Serra Museum, which was dedicated in 1929 to honor the priest who established the original mission. The museum features historic items from San Diego’s Native American, Spanish and Mexican periods through 1848. Hours vary.
Old Town San Diego State Park
4002 Wallace Street, San Diego
This is the site of the first city of San Diego, established during Mexico’s rule. Today, the area pays tribute to Southern California’s early history (1820 to 1870). With approximately two dozen historic sites, including haciendas, an 1865 school, government buildings and stables, the state park is also home to dozens of charming restaurants and shops.
Museum of San Diego History
1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego
Located in spectacular Balboa Park, the Museum of San Diego History documents the history of San Diego from the 1840s to present day. Many of the park’s buildings date back to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal. Hours vary.
Maritime Museum of San Diego
1492 North Harbor Drive, San Diego
This harbor-side museum features the Star of India, an 1863 sailing ship and one of the oldest seaworthy ships in the world. Brought to San Diego in 1927, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and still gets underway for special occasions. The museum itself is located aboard another National Historic Landmark, the 1898 ferryboat, Berkeley, which served California’s San Francisco bay area. A 1904 steam yacht, Medea, rounds out the museum’s fleet. Open every day of the year.
410 Island Avenue, San Diego
This is the original site of “New Town San Diego,” which replaced “Old Town” [see above] and became the nucleus of the city we know today. Encompassing an area of sixteen blocks, the Gaslamp Quarter was designated a National Historic District in 1980. It features almost 100 significant structures, including the William Heath Davis House, built in 1857. This lively, compact neighborhood also includes wonderful restaurants, shops, galleries and theatres; tours available.
Villa Montezuma/Jesse Shepard House
1925 “K” Street, San Diego
San Diego’s preeminent “painted lady,” built just one year before the Hotel del Coronado, recalls the city’s glory days during the 1880’s boom. Magnificently ornate, this Victorian masterpiece is open for tours and specialty programs. Hours vary.
2455 Heritage Park Row, San Diego
Adjoining Old Town San Diego State Park is Heritage Park, established in 1976 as a refuge for San Diego County’s threatened Victorian architecture. Since that time, seven vintage buildings have been moved to the park and restored, some of which house shops. A couple of the buildings share The Del’s captivating Queen Anne Revival architecture.
George White Marston House
3525 Seventh Avenue, San Diego
This Craftsman-style house was built in 1905 for one of the city’s most influential citizens, George White Marston. Marston, who founded the San Diego Historical Society, also established Presidio Park and the Junipero Serra Museum. Impeccably maintained, the Marston House is thought to be one of the few surviving Craftsman homes of its type in near-original condition. Tours of the 8,500 square foot house are given on weekends.
Midway Aircraft Museum
910 North Harbor Drive
Commissioned in 1945, the USS Midway served the country for 47 years, longer than any other aircraft carrier. Decommissioned after Desert Storm, this historic warship has become a permanent naval museum, complete with restored aircraft, flight simulators, historic displays, a gift shop and café. Daily hours except Christmas and Thanksgiving.