The First 20 Years: A brief history of Pacific Beach (1887-1907)

The history of a place as colorful as Pacific Beach need not be encyclopedic, not when the quirks are more fun than the red-letter dates. It’s true enough that P.B. was founded in 1887, having been developed by R.A., J.R. and W.W. Thomas, D.C. Reed. O.S. Hubbell, D.P. Hale, Thomas Metcalf, Charles Collins and George Hensley -- all bankers and real estate operators. It’s also true that Pacific Beach’s most recognizable landmark, Crystal Pier, was originally known as Pickering’s Pleasure Pier.

Probably anyone who knows his or her P.B. lore could tell you that the bygone San Diego College of Letters opened in 1888. But bet you didn’t know that Frank Zappa attended Mission Beach High School (though he never graduated). Or that, according to John Webster, author of “Originally Pacific Beach,” the first PB Subdivision deeds “included a covenant that prohibited ‘vending intoxicating liquors for drinking purposes.’ ”

You see? Pacific Beach’s grand 129-year-history is a treasure trove of “only in P.B.” curiosities. On the subject of streets, every local knows that Garnet Avenue is pronounced “gar-NETT, “ even though tourists and grammarians will say “GARR-nit,” after the gemstone.

Originally, according to Michaela Porte of the Pacific Beach Town Council, P.B.’s north/south-running residential streets, the ones that stretched from Ingraham to Mission Boulevard, were to have been named for the States of the Union. (One, Missouri Street, still does.) But instead the state names migrated to North Park, and these P.B. streets took the names of jewels, such as Diamond, Felspar, Garnet, Turquoise, and so on.

But enough street talk. Pacific Beach’s past is indeed a storied one. If you want to explore it, the man to talk to is John Fry, co-founder of the Pacific Beach Historical Society and author of both “A Short History of Pacific Beach” and “A Short History of Crystal Pier.” Fry will tell you that P.B. really started to grow in the early 20th century.

“The Folsom Brothers – Wilbur and Murtrie – created a lot of buzz in 1906 when they renovated the old Pacific Beach Hotel on Lamont and Hornblend and sold lots throughout the beach,” Fry said. “The big boom was World War II when the population grew fivefold, largely due to the creation of three separate government housing developments.”

In the interim, Earl and Birdie Taylor, for whom the Pacific Beach Library is named, arrived (in 1923). “Earl purchased 130 acres of prime beach property from the Frost family and set about developing it,” said Fry. (While the Taylors lost most of that property in the Great Depression, the Taylor Co. in the 1950s would develop properties that included Mission Bay Market and Oscar’s Restaurant.)

Another luminary of Pacific Beach’s past is botanist and landscape architect Kate Sessions, who became a resident in 1927. “In addition to being a resident and a major commercial presence, (she) brought her enthusiasm for civic improvement, particularly landscaping, to Pacific Beach,” said author Webster. Today both the park next to Soledad Terrace and a nearby school are named for her.

These days, Pacific Beach is a bicycling or walking destination for coastal residents and a driving destination for tourists or inlanders. But it was mass transit, of the 19th-century variety, that fueled P.B.’s development.

“The completion of the San Diego Electric Railway streetcar line from Ocean Beach to La Jolla made property along the beach (in Pacific Beach) more valuable,” Fry recounted. “Crystal Pier was built to encourage people to purchase property in the adjoining Palisades Subdivision. The pier celebrated its grand opening on April 18, 1926, but only the office was complete.” The entire structure opened on the Fourth of July in 1927.

No discussion of Pacific Beach, in spite of its sun, sand and sea, would be complete without some historical reference to the traffic we all “enjoy” today. Fry’s got such a reference: “If you’re headed west on Balboa or Grand, stuck in that mishmash at Lamont, you can blame the Pacific Beach railroad,” he said. “When the San Diego & Pacific Beach Railway made its first run to the beach on April 25, 1888, it traveled along today’s East Mission Bay Drive, then headed west along Balboa, stopping at Lamont, then known as the College Station.

“It later extended its run to Bayard and, eventually, to La Jolla, changing its name to the San Diego, Pacific Beach and La Jolla Railway. In 1907, now known as the Los Angeles and San Diego Beach Railway, the company constructed a shortcut that is today’s Grand Avenue out to the freeway. That is how the intersection of Lamont, Balboa and Grand got to be a five-point mess.”

Editor’s Note: John Fry has written much about Pacific Beach. His e-mail address is mail@johnfry.com

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