Recently Balboa Park celebrated the centennial of the 1915 Panama California Exposition and how its impact on the Central Mesa continues to define the park’s distinctive character today. The park itself, however, was actually founded almost 50 years prior to the epic world’s fair that put San Diego on the map. On May 26, 1868, the City of San Diego’s Board of Trustees passed a resolution to set aside 1,400 acres just north of “New Town” (present-day Downtown San Diego) for a large city park. Dubbed “City Park,” the newly created park space made San Diego only the second city in the United States to dedicate a large park after New York City’s 1858 establishment of Central Park.

Over the course of 2018, the Balboa Park Conservancy will post a series of articles that explore the park’s 150-year history, drawing on the latest research from a landmark Cultural Landscape Report* currently underway. We will begin our story with the region’s early history leading up to the park’s founding, taken from the historical context section of the Cultural Landscape Report*.

Historic Backdrop: Spanish Colonization of Alta California

Balboa Park’s past can be traced through layers of geologic and cultural history, from its historically native condition through the Spanish Mission Period (1769–1821), the Mexican Republic Era (1821–1848), and the subsequent American periods. The land that would become Balboa Park is chiefly defined by natural landscape characteristics specific to the region—level tablelands of hard clay known as mesas separated by aromatic chaparral covered canyons.

Well before California statehood in 1850, the West Coast of North America was regarded as the last outpost of the Spanish Empire. Throughout the 16th century, Spain dominated the New World in a fervent search for wealth, the possession of lands, and conversions of indigenous peoples. When the Spanish explorers found an abundance of resources, they laid claim to them on behalf of the crown. Some of the first explorations off the coasts of Baja and Alta California were more like reconnaissance missions in search of suitable harbors that would act as weigh stations for the West Pacific Manila Galleons returning from the trade-rich Orient. Stopping at several points along the coast, mapping and naming sites as they went, Spanish explorers encountered native peoples and peacefully exchanged tokens on their way back to Mexico.

In the mid-1700s, Russian exploration had begun along the same coast. In response, Spain exerted their presence and began the colonization of Alta California—Nueva España—in earnest. Colonization took place in three waves—the presidios (military), the mission churches (Christianization of natives), and pueblos (villages or towns)—that were meant to function interdependently. The Sacred Expedition into Alta California, led by Father Junípero Serra and Gaspar de Portolá, commenced in 1769. Between 1769 and 1823, 21 missions were built along the coastal plain of Alta California from San Diego to Sonoma, and attendant assistências were established near each mission church. Father Serra (1713–1784) personally founded the first nine missions, including Mission San Diego de Alcalá, before his death in 1784.

By 1821, the Spanish colony of Mexico won its independence from Spain, and subsequently, in 1833, the Act of Secularization was enacted, ending the mission system entirely. During the Mexican Republic period of Alta California, pueblos or villages were established in close proximity to mission churches and presidios. Mexican governors distributed former mission lands to members of the most loyal military echelon in the form of ranchos—the unintended fourth and final act of the colonization era. Following the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo, the Southwest and other territories were conveyed to the United States of America. The subsequent statehood of California in 1850 signaled the acquisition of the greater West Coast and the extension of the U.S. from “sea to shining sea.”

From Old Town to New Town, A Park Is Born

The fledgling town of San Diego developed from its Spanish and Mexican precedents at the foot of the first military encampment, El Presidio Reál de San Diego, the nexus between Alta and Baja California. The village, or the Mexican-period ayuntamiento, below the presidio served as the town center until an ambitious real estate speculator from the East Coast came to town in 1867. Alonzo E. Horton (1813–1909) immediately envisioned a western American town, but not at the current site. His “New Town” was born farther south along the shores of San Diego Bay and thus closer to the primary form of commercial transport available—shipping. Horton himself had arrived by steamship.

With the siren song of the California Gold Rush still lingering and the Transcontinental Railroad near completion, in 1868, Horton laid out a grid plan for San Diego that encompassed hundreds of acres of land, building on a previous plan generated by William Heath Davis and surveyor Andrew B. Gray. In the same year, Horton partnered with José G. Estudillo and Ephraim W. Morse, “Mr. Old Town,” to set aside parkland—a great “commons”—for the future of a growing city.

The parkland allotment was 1,400 acres in a nascent town of approximately 2,300 people. The acreage set aside, could be construed, in retrospect, as rightfully visionary, with high expectations of growth, or a bit foolhardy. The reasoning behind the generous set-aside of public land, however, can be deduced by examining the topography within the area first called City Park. The feats of engineering required to build continuous grid streets, north to south and east to west, as well as streetcar lines over and through the wide, dramatic canyons of Cabrillo, Florida, and Switzer, would pose a significant and costly challenge for residential development.

At the prompting of Trustees Ephraim Morse and Alonzo Horton, President José Guadalupe Estudillo and the Board of Trustees of the City of San Diego voted 35-1 to sell pueblo lands for a new public park. The parkland dedication encompassed sections 1129, 1130, 1131, 1135, 1136, 1137, 1142, 1143, and the remainder of section 1144 of the federal land identification system, known as the Public Land Survey System (PLSS).

The official proclamation reads as follows:

San Diego May 26, 1868

 Board of Trustees City of San Diego, Present: Jose Guadalupe Estudillo, President; Marcus Schiller and Joshua Sloane

 Votes counted according to ongoing notice allowing the Trustees to sell Pueblo Lands, Yes (35) thirty-five, No (1) one

Moved and seconded that Lots (1131) Eleven hundred+thirtyone, (1130) Eleven hundred+thirty, (1129) eleven hundred+twentynine, (1135) Eleven hundred+thirtyfive, (1136) Eleven hundred+thirtysix, (1137) Eleven hundred+thirtyseven, vacant part of (1144) Eleven hundred+fortyfour, (1143) Eleven hundred+fortythree, (1142) Eleven hundred+fortytwo, be for a Park.

The creation of the City Park reservation was one of the most significant public land gestures in San Diego history. Consequently, the pernicious battle to deconstruct the boundary by less-than-civic-minded developers and land speculators was relentless. As early as 1869, a group of potential speculators attempted to remove and acquire 480 acres from the east side of the park for private development. This aggressive action was met by the California State Legislature, which ratified the city’s park-founding resolution as

An Act to Insure the Permanence of the Reservation…. These lands … are to be held in trust forever by the municipal authorities of said city for the use and purposes of a public park and for no other different purpose.

Citizen diligence protected the boundary by exercising the first impulse toward the preservation of the park. This preservation conviction would manifest again in each generation thereafter.

Next up: A Park Without a Plan


*This is part of a series of edited installments from the upcoming Cultural Landscape Report, prepared by Vonn Marie May, a cultural landscape specialist and the report’s primary author. The Cultural Landscape Report will be presented on May 10 at the Balboa Park Conservancy’s next community meeting. Mark your calendars today!

Photographs courtesy of the San Diego History Center