According to its website, the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was “the first Franciscan mission in the Las Californias Province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.” I recently had the opportunity to visit this beautiful, if controversial, and historic location.
This is a view from inside the mission’s sanctuary, facing the entry. I chose this angle because the choir balcony helps me visualize a part of its history many people are unaware of.
Following the Mexican-American War, in which the U.S. won control of California and other lands, the mission was occupied by the U.S. Army from 1848 to 1858. The interesting/sad part is how they used the grounds.
The Army converted this beautiful sanctuary into a two-story building. I’ve read that the downstairs was used as a stable and a docent at the mission told me the upstairs was used as an infirmary.
Though a cemetery already existed at the mission, the Army created their own military cemetery. It is rumored that they used the original cemetery as a place to conduct their drills, though I’ve been unable to confirm this.
The lovely garden picture above is located in a small courtyard just outside the sanctuary. The reddish object in the center of this photograph is the side view of one of the brick crosses symbolizing those buried on the mission grounds.
In 1862 President Lincoln “signed a document returning church buildings and some mission lands to Bishop Joseph E. Alemany, in trust ‘for religious purposes and uses.'”* Today, the mission serves as an active Catholic Church and cultural center. There are several historical displays, including an active archaeological dig and a small museum showcasing the history of the mission and the people who have lived there. If you are able, I highly recommend a visit to this incredible historical location. If time, money, or laziness are an issue for you, you can click on this link and scroll to the bottom for a virtual tour that can be enjoyed from the comforts of your own couch while lounging in your pajama bottoms.
Now you know.
Have you visited Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala? Did you know any of these things about its history? Do you know what the round gray objects are in the last picture? Which California mission is your favorite?
*Winifred Davidson in Carl Heilbron’s History of San Diego, 1936
(NOTE: If you’re a long-time reader and think this post looks familiar, you are correct. A stomach bug visited my family this week. So I decided that rather than leave y’all hanging, I’d repost one of my oldest and most popular history posts. I hope you enjoyed it! Originally published October 23, 2015. )
If you visit the McCoy House located in Old Town San Diego and wander through its museum exhibits toward the back, you will discover a hidden gem. This is where I first encountered Lt. George Horatio Derby and his humorous writings. Later, I came across his name again in doing the research for my novel, WWM, in which my main character spends some time in 1854 San Diego.
It turns out Lt. Derby went by many names including: John Phoenix, Squibob, & Professor John Phoenixiana. These were pen names which he used for writing humorous articles enjoyed by readers throughout the country. Why so many? Well in one case a competing writer had assumed Derby’s pen name without permission and as a result, Lt. Derby decided to change his pen name altogether. In true Derby form, he did so by writing an obituary for his previous pen name.
In reading about Lt. Derby I discovered that he had something of a naughty sense of humor and was rather well known for his practical jokes. One of his most famous is the time he wrote and illustrated several tongue-in-cheek suggestions regarding the new design of the army’s uniform.
My favorite of his suggestions was this:
Part of the idea was that if a soldier attempted to desert during battle, the captain could merely use a long rope to lasso the soldier by the hook on his pants and drag him back to the front line! In the meantime, it was suggested, the hook could also be used to hang a pair of boots during a march or hang a pot over a fire at mealtimes. The story goes that the Secretary Jefferson did not appreciate Derby’s sense of humor and were it not for other officials pleading Derby’s case, he might have found himself in a heap of trouble!
The story of Lt. George Horatio Derby connects with the history of San Diego in 1853. Apparently, the river which is so nicely contained today once had the nerve to wander all over the land, sometimes emptying into San Diego Bay and other times ending in False Bay (now known as Mission Bay). Occasionally it even threatened the Old Town settlement. Worst of all, however, was the fear that it would drop so much silt into the San Diego Bay the bay would no longer be usable as a major harbor. So the government decided to do something about it and sent for Lt. Derby, whose day job was a soldier and engineer in the U.S. Army, to come oversee the building of a dike which would permanently divert the river into False Bay.
Lt. Derby employed local Native Americans to do the labor and spent his off time writing and playing jokes – including the time a Miss Whaley was dared into climbing into a cask which, once she was in, somehow managed to find itself rolling downhill with her inside. His humorous stories about San Diego during this time were extremely popular throughout the country. Unfortunately, his dike was not as successful, washing out in a storm just two years later. There would be several more attempts made by the government before the river was truly contained in the 1950’s.
The dike was not Derby’s only job here in San Diego. In fact, there was a time when the editor of the San Diego Herald, Judge J.J. Ames, had to go to San Francisco for a while on business and left Lt. Derby in charge. It will probably come as no surprise that all did not continue as usual in the Judge’s absence. Derby took the opportunity to essentially revamp the conservative paper into one full of wit, satire, and political articles opposed to the paper’s usual stance. Several of the local citizens took issue with Derby’s handling of political topics, though Judge Ames, upon his return, commented only, “Phoenix has played the ‘devil’ during our absence, but he has done it in such a good humored manner, that we have not a word to say.” Derby’s role as interim paper editor was rather short lived, though it did garner him national infamy (including catching the attention of Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln).
Derby eventually moved away from San Diego in 1855. Fortunately for my story, however, he was still in San Diego at the beginning of 1854 and if you get the chance to read my novel, you’ll see he makes a significant cameo appearance or two.
So now you know a little something about Lt. George Horatio Derby and his connection with San Diego.
What do you think of Lt. Derby’s suggestions for the army’s uniform?
Has anyone ever played a practical joke on you? Or have you played a joke on someone else?
I’d love to read about your stories in the comments below!
As I have mentioned before, I am a bit of an odd duck. Fortunately, my husband is also an odd duck and we are raising a small group of odd little ducklings. (It’s a secret plan for us odd ducks to take over the world. Shh!)
Being a family of odd ducks makes many aspects of our lives easier. For example, all but one of us completely agree that mornings are best spent sleeping and the odd duck out is courteous enough to play quietly on those occasions when the rest of us have the opportunity to live out our ideal. This works out rather nicely.
Another way we odd ducks get along well is in our choice of vacations. You would think, being a history buff such as I am, that I would either need to drag my family around to historical sites and museums, or else finagle myself some time to visit them alone. This is not so. You see, my husband is almost as avid a history fan as I and we have happily bestowed this love for all things old and storied upon our children. Thus, when my husband and I excitedly announced that our upcoming vacation would include an extensive visit to Columbia State Historic Park, the 1897 Railtown State Park, and several other museums and historical sites, we were not met with groans and long faces. Nope. My odd little ducklings squealed with joy and bounced up and down in excitement. *contented sigh* Clearly we are doing something right.
Having said that, vacation or no, the historical researcher in me is never turned off, so of course, I have brought back gobs of photos and fun little factoids to share with my fellow history fanatics.
Did you know Mercer Caverns was discovered on September 1, 1885 by a man searching for gold? The first tourists were lowered in by ropes and had only candlelight with which to view these enormous caverns. Worse yet, these candles were carried on boards held in the teeth of the tourists as they lowered themselves into the cave. Hmm. Ropes and flames. What could possibly go wrong there? Later, torches and different types of lanterns (lower right) were used before electricity was finally threaded throughout the cave in 1901.
Another interesting bit of the Mercer Cavern story lies in how they came up with the money to install stairs for tourists. Apparently, Mercer Caverns is home to an extremely rare type of aragonite, so they cut off a chunk of this stuff and sent it off to the 1900 Paris World’s Fair where it won a special prize which came with a nice chunk of money. Sadly, Mr. Mercer passed on before the stairs could be installed, but his widow took over in his stead.
My family’s tour of the Mercer Caverns was exceedingly interesting and I highly recommend a visit if you’re ever in the area. Oh, and if you do stop by, be sure to eat at one of the local restaurants in town. We ate at two and both were exceptionally delicious meals served up by friendly staff.
THE MURPHYS POKEY
I came across this old time jail in Murphy, CA just off the main road on the way to the park where we found a large, modern play structure and public restrooms prior to our Tour of Mercer Caverns. I liked the humor of the story and the handmade feel of the display so I wanted to share it here.
The plaque reads:
“The Murphys Pokey was built around 1915 by Tom Burrow, Frank Kaler, Price Williams, Frank Degale and Frank Forrester and is constructed of hand-mixed concrete. The previous jail was made of wood and was located closer to the creek. It is doubted that any really bad man was ever housed in this jail, but it is said that one of the men who built it became drunk and rowdy while celebrating its completion and was the first inmate.”
1860 Schoolhouse – Columbia, California
Above you see the schoolhouse located in Columbia, Ca along with one of its two oversized outhouses. Originally built in 1860 of locally made sun-dried bricks this building has undergone a number of renovations to reach the appearance it has today.
While visiting Columbia’s main historic area you will notice signs directing you toward the schoolhouse. Do not be fooled. This building is located at the top of a hill about 3 country blocks away from those signs. Though this undertaking by foot may seem easy at the start of your vacation, attempting this walk with three young children after many days of touring and several nights of interrupted sleep (courtesy of those same 3 darlings) will have you panting for breath long before you reach your destination. On the bright side, a bench has been strategically placed about halfway to your destination beneath some trees in the middle of an empty lot. Nevertheless, might I recommend taking advantage of the parking lot we didn’t know was near the school until we got there?
Despite the unexpectedly challenging walk, the schoolhouse was a fascinating site to explore. Apparently, the elementary students used the bottom floor while older students used the upper floor. Being the writer I am, it was fun to stand inside the classrooms and imagine the classes held there in yesteryear. What shenanigans the children might have gotten up to and where the teachers may have come from wandered through my mind. Can you imagine climbing those steep wooden stairs on a snowy winter’s day? Or rushing out to the odoriferous outhouse in the heat of a sweltering summer? Would you have preferred to roast in the seat closest to the wood burning stoves or shiver in the seat farthest from it? The school was in continual use until it closed in 1937 due to not meeting earthquake safety standards.
Columbia State Historic Park – California
Above you see the photographs I took while waiting for the history tour to begin. I’m sitting on the boardwalk outside the visitor’s center, it’s early, and I’ve been up for hours exploring the town on my own while the kids and my husband sleep in, so believe me when I say that’s a smile. I truly am excited, just too tired to show it properly.
Columbia, California is where we spent the bulk of our vacation. This historic state park is packed full of fun things to do and interesting things to see and learn. I could have spent a month digging through all the layers of history the town represents.
Those green metal doors you see? They have nothing to do with thieves as one might think, and everything to do with fire. They were added after two fires devastated this gold rush town. Combined with newly doubled brick walls, it was hoped those doors would keep the fires out.
Speaking of fire, the story goes that one man, despairing of any other solution, took it upon himself to soak the wooden roof of his otherwise brick building with the vast amounts of vinegar he had on hand in order to prevent the building and its contents from being destroyed. It worked. Though his roof suffered some damage, he managed to save the rest. Today you can see the burnt beam left behind by this fire when you enter the visitor’s center, walk to the back room and look up. More interestingly it is said that on a hot summer’s day if you stand next to the building’s brick walls and smell it you will get a whiff of vinegar. I admit I was skeptical, but I tried it. I did not smell vinegar. Still, if you ever get a chance to visit and give it a try I’d love to hear about your results.
So now I’ve told you all about my family’s vacation. What about you?
Built in 1880, this Italianate Revival building is located on the northeast corner of Fifth and Market Street. Occupied first by a dry-goods store, the building is best remembered for the Ferris and Ferris Drug Store, an all-night pharmacy, which operated on the ground floor there until 1984. According to the San Diego Historical Society’s Images of America San Diego Gaslamp Quarter:
“Many [sailors] who had been in altercations purchased leeches from the store to reduce swelling and avoid getting in trouble with superior officers.”
The next stop on our tour of San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter is the Old City Hall located on the corner of 5th and G.
Built in 1874, this building was originally only 2 stories tall and housed two banks before being purchased by the city. The top two floors were added in 1887.
In an area full of interesting, historic buildings, the Old City Hall building draws your eye with its ornate window framing and the columns placed on the top floor.
Maybe I’m showing my lack of architectural prowess, but I’m used to seeing columns on the first floor of a building. Something about seeing them frame the windows that high up, for me, gives the building a regal feeling. They say, “Look at me. I’m important.” Which, with its history, seems accurate.
The building basically became a one-stop government shop in 1891 when the city’s leaders moved in. The Police Department occupied the first and second floors – complete with a jail. The San Diego Public Library occupied the 3rd floor, while the Council Chambers occupied the fourth floor.
In 1955 someone got it into their head to (in my opinion) horribly disfigure this beautiful building by covering it in stucco. They called it “modernizing.” (Picture me shuddering.) Fortunately, years later, wiser minds prevailed and the building was restored to its original beauty.
Click here to see a picture of the building just beginning to be restored. You will also find additional interesting information on the history of this building.
In 1995 the un-reinforced masonry building was retrofitted according to the seismic regulations of the time.
Doesn’t this fire escape just beg to be used in a romantic movie scene?
Today the first floor of the Old City Hall building is a restaurant space currently occupied by the Florent Restaurant + Lounge, while the top three floors are live/work lofts accessible through the G Street entrance.