While there are many small museums and historical attractions that visitors can enjoy in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, the McCoy House Museum is the best place to see an extensive series of interpretive displays that describe the complete history of early San Diego.
The McCoy House, standing on the north end of Old Town, is a reconstruction of a home built in 1869 for Sheriff James McCoy and his family. James McCoy, who lived from 1821 to 1895, like many early San Diego residents was an ambitious man, working diverse jobs, filling many roles. At the age of 21 he sailed from Ireland to America seeking opportunity. He became a soldier, then a stagehand, then San Diego county assessor, then county sheriff in 1861. He acquired substantial real estate holdings and finally won election to the state senate in 1871.
The interpretive displays in the McCoy House Museum provide a good look back at San Diego’s formative years. They detail the life of the Native American Kumeyaay who’ve lived in the region for thousands of years, the first Spanish explorers, the establishment of the Spanish mission, the Mexican period and the subsequent American period.
If you’d like to read the displays, click my photographs to enlarge them.
This blog post covers the first floor of the museum. I’ll cover the second floor exhibits in a later post. After heading up some stairs, one can find information about the more prominent residents of Old Town, plus the town’s later history as it competed with New Town, which eventually rose to become downtown San Diego as we know it today.
Anyone who is a history buff must visit the McCoy House Museum. You’ll be transported back in time and see how life was exciting, difficult, and altogether different many, many years ago in San Diego.
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I recently visited one of San Diego’s most fascinating museums. The Junipero Serra Museum is located atop Presidio Hill, in a distinctive Mission Revival architectural style building overlooking San Diego Bay and the San Diego River, just east of Old Town. It stands near the site of San Diego’s historic Spanish presidio, built in 1769. The presidio was the birthplace of European civilization in Alta California.
The Serra Museum is operated by the San Diego History Center, which is headquartered today in Balboa Park. Back in 1929, when the building was dedicated, it became home of what was then called the San Diego Historical Society. The important San Diego institution was established by civic leader George W. Marston.
Can you believe it? I’ve lived in San Diego for 15 years . . . and this was the very first time I ventured into the Serra Museum. (I can thank my blog for that!)
What I discovered was an absolutely amazing place that both residents and visitors to San Diego should definitely not miss.
Today, during Pope Francis’ historic first visit to the United States, Junipero Serra was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Father Serra was declared a saint by the Holy See at a ceremony conducted by Pope Francis at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Saint Junipero Serra played a large role in San Diego’s early history. The Franciscan friar established the first nine of 21 Roman Catholic Spanish missions in what today is California. The very first of those nine, founded on July 16, 1769, was located in San Diego. The primary purpose of the missions was to convert the native peoples to Christianity; another purpose was to solidify a claim over this valuable corner of the New World for Spain.
The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá is located in Mission Valley and remains to this day an active church. It’s popularity as a destination for tourists and the faithful will likely increase with the canonization of Serra.
Because of Saint Junipero Serra’s historical importance in San Diego, many images of him are found throughout our city. Some of the most prominent and well known representations can be seen in Balboa Park. The park’s Spanish Colonial Revival Style buildings created for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition include lavish ornamentation, with many illustrations of people and scenes important to San Diego history.
The following notable bits of art in Balboa Park depict Saint Junipero Serra during his time in San Diego.
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Sometimes it’s easy to forget that our lives will soon become history. And that the lives of people, no matter how imperfect, create a rich, varied tapestry that reaches centuries back in time, and forward into the future.
Young and old–representatives from several generations–came together this weekend in San Diego to again celebrate the Festival of the Bells. The annual event is held at Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first Spanish mission to be built in California. Food, song and dancing accompanied colorful religious rituals such as the Blessing of the Bells and the Blessing of the Animals. Everyone was welcome to enjoy the free festival.
The original San Diego del Alcala was founded in 1769–almost 250 years ago–at the site of the old Spanish presidio, near the edge of San Diego Bay. The current mission building was erected by Father Serra in 1774, a few miles up the San Diego River where the land was more fertile.
The distinctive facade and bells of this historical landmark are often used as a symbol for our city, and the ringing of the bells are like echoes from a complex, often strife-filled, but fascinating past. The youngest generation, seeing this old world with fresh, optimistic eyes, jumping free and loving life in the festival’s bounce house, will remember today decades in the future as just another small moment in the journey of history. Hopefully that memory is good.
The campanario is 46 feet high and holds the Mission bells. The crown-topped bell on the lower right is named Ave Maria Purisima–Immaculate Mary. It weights 805 pounds and was cast in 1802 . . . The bells played an important role in the everyday life of the Mission . . . They were used to announce times for Mass, work, meals and siestas. The bells signaled danger, rang solemnly to honor the dead, and pealed joyously to celebrate feast days, weddings and fiestas.
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This morning I headed up Mission Gorge Road to check out the big annual Explore Mission Trails Day event!
Mission Trails Regional Park is a 6000-acre nature reserve located in San Diego’s East County. It’s one of the largest urban parks in the United States–basically a wide stretch of rugged, rocky wilderness within our large modern city! The San Diego River runs through the very heart of the park as it makes its way from higher inland elevations to the Pacific Ocean. I often drive past and gaze at the low chaparral-covered mountains and hills, and twice I’ve climbed Cowles Mountain, but this was the first time I’ve actually set foot inside the Visitor Center.
What an awesome place! How did I miss it all of these years?
Today I limited myself to the south end of the park, including a short but super cool hike from the Visitor Center to the Grinding Rocks. (That will be my next blog post!) There were additional Explore Mission Trails Day activities up by the Old Mission Dam and Kumeyaay Lake Campground, and by Mast Boulevard and Highway 52. I suppose I’ll have to go again next year!
My photos tell the story of what I saw…
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Here are just a few random pics of El Camino Real bells around San Diego. During my walks, I’m often surprised to discover a new bell.
Many of these guidepost bells were placed in 1906 by the California Federation of Women’s Clubs. They marked the primitive roads that connected the old Spanish missions in California. El Camino Real, which means the Royal Road or King’s Highway in Spanish, led to 21 missions in Alta California, plus a variety of sub-missions, presidios and pueblos. The bells stand on tall posts in the shape of a shepherd’s crook. In subsequent years, bells have been removed or added to the California landscape.
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A month or so ago I finally visited the famous Mission San Diego de Alcala. I’ve lived in San Diego for many years, and have driven past this important historical landmark many times, but I’d never stepped inside. Writing this blog compels me to check out new sights!
Built in 1774 by the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, Mission San Diego de Alcala was first of 21 Spanish missions in California. It was constructed several miles inland of the Pacific Ocean near the San Diego River. (The very first mission was actually built in 1769 at the old Presidio, but later relocated to this more fertile location, where presidio soldiers were less likely to come. The soldiers often abused the native people who lived near the presidio.)
In 1775, just one year after it was built, the mission was burned to the ground by the native Kumeyaay people. Father Junipero Serra returned the next year to rebuild the church and mission buildings.
Over the years the San Diego Mission became very prosperous, with vineyards, orchards and thousands of cattle in its possession. Hundreds of baptized Native American Kumeyaay, whom the friars named Dieguenos, performed almost all of the labor.
History is rich here. The mission was claimed by Mexico in 1821, then used by the United States Cavalry after the US-Mexican War. As the original mission buildings have aged and decayed, they have been rebuilt and restored. Today the unique facade is one of the most iconic sights in San Diego. Unfortunately, the mission is located in a slightly out-of-the-way place that relatively few tourists visit.
In case you can’t stop by, I took a few photos!
These bells on posts mark the primitive road, the King’s Highway, that connected the Spanish missions in California.
Without realizing it, you might have read about the La Playa Trail in Two Years Before the Mast. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. would ride horseback down the trail to Old Town. With his friend, he also rode farther east to the old mission to enjoy a meal. The west end, La Playa, located just inside San Diego Bay, is the place where Dana worked for several months in 1835 drying cattle hides.
The historic church has remained active for many centuries.
Small statues of saints in the small nooks along the wall represent the nine missions that Father Junipero Serra founded.
Now we’re inside one of the various mission buildings. The self-guided tour proceeds clockwise around the central square.
The church inside is beautiful and invites reflection.
Many birds were about and almost no weekend visitors.
This and the following photo were taken in a space between the garden and a small one-room museum.
This small chapel can be found at one corner of the central square.
The local Kumeyaay provided the labor that enriched the mission. This hut near an excavation site is an example of where they lived while the friars enjoyed greater comforts.
In San Diego, those who hunger for colorful sights and local history should remember to swing by California’s very first Spanish mission in–you guessed it–Mission Valley!
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Please join me as I walk from San Diego’s Old Town up a short but very steep trail to Presidio Park. We’ll see all sorts of interesting monuments, views, and of course, the location of the old Spanish presidio, whose ruins are no longer visible. The top of Presidio Hill is now home to the Junipero Serra Museum. Follow me!
We begin near the trailhead, beside the small Presidio Hills Golf Course, on the east edge of historic Old Town.
The first interesting thing we see is this sculpture, titled The Indian. It was created by famous American artist Arthur Putnam in 1905 and placed at the site of an ancient Indian village. The small village was discovered and named San Miguel by the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542.
Up the hill from The Indian stands the Padre Cross. It was raised in 1913 by the Order of Panama and is made up of tiles from the Presidio ruins. The cross marks the strategic location overlooking San Diego Bay where Franciscan friar Junipero Serra chose to establish a Spanish Catholic mission in 1769. (The mission was moved several miles up the San Diego River 5 years later.)
Nearby among some trees we find a memorial to the mission’s friars. It’s a bronze statue titled The Padre, completed in 1908 by renowned sculptor Arthur Putnam.
Our legs are starting to feel the climb as we reach three flagpoles overlooking Mission Valley.
Turning north for a moment, we see the trolley!
Now we’re getting close to the Serra Museum, which was built in 1928 on this historically very important hill. The museum was built, and the land containing Presidio Park was purchased and preserved for posterity, by philanthropist George Marston.
San Diego was born in 1769 at the old Presidio, a Spanish fort in a desert-like wilderness very far from European civilization. It was located just below the Serra Museum.
Not many people are about at the moment. Most tourists never venture up this way.
The Serra Museum is packed with numerous historical exhibits. You can climb the tower for views of San Diego Bay, the San Diego River and Mission Valley.
Now we’ll wander along the hilltop to nearby Fort Stockton, the short-lived camp of the famous Mormon Battalion.
Decades ago, when I was a young man, I remember seeing a cannon set in this concrete overlooking Old Town. I believe that same cannon is now on display in the nearby Serra Museum. Given the name El Jupiter, it was one of ten cannons that originally protected the old Spanish Fort Guijarros on San Diego Bay at Ballast Point.
(A second surviving cannon from the fort is named El Capitan. Today it can be found near the center of Old Town San Diego’s Plaza de las Armas.)
In 1846, President James K. Polk asked Brigham Young of the Mormons to send a few hundred men to San Diego to help in the Mexican-American war effort. On January 29, 1847 five hundred men and about eighty women and children arrived at Fort Stockton after a very difficult 2,000-mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa.
I hope you enjoyed our walk!
In 2021 the two sculptures The Indian and The Padre were moved from Presidio Hill to the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park. To see my blog post concerning this, click here.