One of my favorite areas in San Diego is Old Town. There’s so much to see and enjoy wherever you turn. For lovers of history, it’s a treasure trove of discoveries.
Here’s a photo taken inside the central Plaza de las Armas, the heart of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. This old Spanish cannon is called El Capitan. It was one of ten cannons that long ago protected Fort Guijarros near the entrance to San Diego Bay. The Spanish fort was built in 1797 on Ballast Point out of adobe.
El Capitan was likely fired during the Battle of San Diego in 1803, when the Spanish attacked the American brig Lelia Byrd which was smuggling otter skins. This cannon was likely fired again at the American smuggler ship Franklin in 1828, when the fort was under Mexican control. The only other surviving cannon from Fort Guijarros is called El Jupiter, and can be seen in the Serra Museum atop nearby Presidio Hill.
Old Town is all about history. The grassy plaza, containing the cannon, historical plaques, a high flagpole and picnic benches, is surrounded by old adobe buildings preserved and recreated from the early 1800’s. San Diego originated right here, at the base of a bluff where a Spanish military outpost stood. The outpost, called the Presidio, was built by Gaspar de Portola in 1769. That same year, Mission San Diego de Alcala was founded on Presidio Hill by the ambitious Spanish Franciscan friar, Father Junipero Serra. This made Old Town the site of the very first European settlement in California.
Around the Plaza de las Armas visitors can check out numerous interesting small museums, including the original one-room schoolhouse, an old blacksmith shop, San Diego’s very first newspaper office, an early courthouse, and a stable with a large collection of antique wagons and stagecoaches. Tourists can find gifts and souvenirs in a smattering of craft-filled shops. Families can dine at several colorful restaurants. Plus, there are many additional historical and commercial attractions along San Diego Avenue to the south of the plaza.
Can you guess another thing I like? Admission to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and all of its museums is free!
The Gaslamp Quarter is not only the Historic Heart of San Diego, as the iconic sign proclaims, but it has become the center of entertainment and dining for downtown’s burgeoning nightlife. The popular Hard Rock Hotel, seen in this photograph, is but one of scores of cool attractions lining bustling Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Avenues between Broadway and Harbor Drive. Pouring even more life into the Gaslamp is nearby Petco Park, the San Diego Convention Center and Horton Plaza.
This area of town, a few decades ago, had become the home to vacant old buildings, half-deserted warehouses and seedy bars attracting lonely sailors homeported in San Diego. Many say the catalyst for its modern transformation was the establishment of Croce’s restaurant and jazz bar on Fifth Avenue in 1985. The popular Croce’s was created as a tribute to legendary singer Jim Croce by his surviving wife Ingrid. As of 2014, Croce’s has moved to a different location on Bankers Hill.
The two photos above show the Louis Bank of Commerce Building. In the late 1800’s it became home to the Oyster Bar, one of four saloons and gambling halls operated by Wyatt Earp when he lived in San Diego.
Here’s a photo of an unrestored vintage trolley car. It belongs to the San Diego trolley and one day will run on downtown’s Silver Line loop!
One vintage car has already been beautifully restored and is running during special hours. I’ll try to get a good pic of it one of these days.
Five cars are scheduled for restoration. They are relatively elegant post-war Presidents Conference Committee (PCC) cars, which ran in the city until 1949. Some would like to see these revitalized cars run up a new trolley line from downtown along Park Boulevard to the San Diego Zoo and beyond. It makes sense to me. Balboa Park and the zoo would be more easily reached by out-of-town visitors.
Streetcars have been a part of San Diego history since the 1890’s. The first were open-air coaches pulled by mules and horses. Eventually, electric streetcars ran from downtown to Hillcrest and east through many local communities, including North Park, Kensington and East San Diego. With the rise of the motorcar, they vanished. That is, until the modern red trolleys began service in 1981.
This photograph was taken at the 12th and Imperial trolley station, right next to the train and MTS trolley yard. You can see the tall bayside Hilton hotel in the background.
This plaque, a memorial to our nation’s merchant seamen, is located in San Diego’s Embarcadero Marina Park North between a popular walking path and the edge of the big bay. You’ll find it just steps from Seaport Village.
Dedicated To the Merchant Seamen
Who Lost Their Lives At Sea
Donated by the Propeller Club of the United States
Port of San Diego
The Women’s Propeller Club of San Diego
Port of San Diego
A great place to watch small commercial fishermen unload their catch or load up with ice is the dock just north of Seaport Village, opposite the Chesapeake Fish Company. Folks walking past can also peer through a glass window nearby and see workers in a refrigerated room cleaning and processing the fresh fish that ends up at restaurants throughout the region. I once heard the Chesapeake Fish Company is the largest fish broker west of the Mississippi.
The sign in this photograph details the history of San Diego’s fishing industry–tuna fishing and canning in particular. At one time San Diego had the largest tuna fishing fleet in the world. Many of the fishermen were Italian migrants, which gave rise to the Little Italy neighborhood, about a mile to the north on downtown’s waterfront.
Tuna Harbor, adjacent to this dock, now is home to a ragtag group of local fishing boats. It’s also a great place to spot sea lions!
One of the best things about Seaport Village is its historic carousel. I like to buy a hot dog or onion rings from the nearby food court, or an ice cream from Ben and Jerry’s, then sit down at a shady table and watch families and kids flock to the merry-go-round. It’s also pleasant to take in a bit of live music from local artists who perform near the carousel on weekends.
This fun Looff carousel was built in 1895 and features over fifty colorful animals including a dragon, a giraffe, a teddy bear, a lion, and two horse-drawn chariots. Master wood carver Charles Looff is famous for inventing the uniquely flamboyant Coney Island style of carousels. In his lifetime he produced many popular carousels, amusements parks, roller coasters and Ferris wheels. Very cool!
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A large plaque affixed to a boulder near the House of Hungary in Balboa Park’s International Cottages remembers San Diego’s first sheriff, Agoston Haraszthy.
Haraszthy, born in 1812, was the first Hungarian to settle permanently in the United States. Before coming to San Diego, he founded the oldest incorporated village in Wisconsin and operated the first commercial steamboat on the upper Mississippi River.
After moving to San Diego, he formed a partnership with Juan Bandini and began many business and agricultural projects. He planted fruit orchards, operated a livery stable and stagecoach line, and opened a butcher shop. He was instrumental in organizing a large portion of San Diego called Middletown, which many called Haraszthyville. He imported grape vines and planted a vineyard near the San Diego River.
In 1850 he was elected first sheriff of San Diego County.