History of Coronado

by Chauncey Adams

Across the bay from downtown San Diego there lies a city, that city is Coronado. It is a city full of wonderful and beautiful things, so how did this city become what it is today? It all started on November 8, 1602 when a Spanish explorer named Sebastian Vizcaino "sighted the Islands to the west and south of the present Hotel del Coronado." He named the islands Las Yslas Coronadas which symbolized the "Crowned Four" in honor of the four martyred brothers who were given the title of saints by the church of Rome on that calendar date. Two hundred and eighty-four years later, January 1886, a naming contest was announced in the San Diego newspapers with a $50.00 prize. Many suggestions were received, the name chosen was "Miramar." No one agreed with this choice so the name was changed to "Coronado" or "Coronado Beach" from the Mexican Islands that were nearby. Coronado means "the Crowned One" which seemed fitting for what would become the Crown of Pacific resorts. Don Pedro Carrillo gained the property of Coronado and its sister island, North Island by a land grant signed by Mexican Governor Pio Pico on May 15, 1846. Carrillo, used the two islands for a year as grazing land for cattle. He then sold the islands to Bezar Simmons for $1,000. Who then sold the land to Archibald C. Peachy and William H. Aspinwall for $10,000. John D. Spreckels was North IslandÕs last owner, he sold the island to the United States Government to be used as an air base in World War I. From this beginning Coronado became the city it is today.

After the name for the island was discovered the street names began to be of question. "The main street was called Orange Avenue because orange trees were originally used for the landscaping. After jackrabbits ate all the orange trees roots the trees were not replaced."(1) Olive and Palm were also named for the trees planted along the road. The main part of the island was divided into alphabetical avenues and numerical streets. The three boulevards were named for their location; Glorietta (which ran along the Glorietta Bay), Ocean (which ran along the ocean), and West (which was on the west side). Many of the other streets were named after people.

In 1884 Elisha S. Babcock came up with the idea for the grand hotel, the Hotel del Coronado. Babcock and a man by the name of Mr. H.L. Story enjoyed hunting for rabbits in Coronado, that was before civilization was brought to the island, the jackrabbits outnumbered the people. While hunting one day the two sat down to rest and looked across the land before them and Babcock said, "What a splendid site for a resort hotel! LetÕs build one here that will attract people from all over the world, and letÕs buy this whole peninsula and subdivide it and sell enough lots to pay for the hotel from the profits!"(2) Eventually Story agreed to BabcockÕs idea and the dream was to become a reality. The two men bought the property (4,185 acres) in November, 1885. Immediately Babcock began to clear the land of its brush. The brush would be burned at night, this was BabcockÕs way of speeding up plans, having the brush burn all night, the smoke and fire would not be a problem for the men working during the day. By Spring of 1866, the Coronado Beach Company was really to produce plans for the hotel. There was a question of where the hotel should be located. For awhile, North Island was a possible site, if the hotel was near the entrance of San Diego Bay then people could watch ships enter and leave the harbor. When really thinking about the location, transportation to North Island from the ferry landing which was on South Island became a problem, so eventually the hotelÕs location was changed to its present location on South Island. In describing the final location, "Looking to the west was the vast and placid Pacific, with the Coronado Islands in hazy view; on the north the entrance to the bay, guarded by towering Point Loma; on the east stretched the level area soon to be covered with homes; beyond that the bay and city, and still beyond were mesa and mountains; on the south was Glorietta Bay, making off from the main body of water."(3) Now that the location was decided, the big question became when the construction of hotel would begin and what would the plan be. While construction for the hotel was in the works Babcock went and tried to sell land on Coronado, in order to pay the bills for the hotel. Railroad tracks were laid along what is presently Orange Avenue for the Coronado Railway. Pipe lines were laid under San Diego Bay to bring water to Coronado from wells sunk in the bed of the San Diego River.

To promote the selling of property in Coronado free water for one year was offered and they also offered 120 single trip tickets on the Coronado ferry system and the San Diego and Coronado street railways systems to any buyer that would invest $1,000. On November 13,1886 there was a land auction, the first lot of land was sold to Major Levi Chase for $1,600. The auctions were a success, $100,000 to $400,000 worth of lots were sold each month. Construction of the hotel finally became a reality. In March, 1887 Mrs. Babcock and Mrs. Story broke ground for the foundation of the hotel. Many of the men that worked on the hotel were unskilled and they received their training on the job. The Reid brothers, the architects, had these unskilled workers start on the simple north foundation of the hotel. The Reid brothers plan was the unskilled workers would gain experience as work progressed to the more difficult south foundation and other tasks that needed a little more experience. By the end of the first week of April, 1887, the first floor framework was completed. Originally almost every room contained a fireplace with a cherry mantel. The bricks from the fireplaces were made from clay taken from the Coronado peninsula and baked in the kilns close by the hotel. Each room also had a wall safe, and 73 private bathrooms were installed, later 350 bathrooms were installed. The theater and ballroom covered 11,000 square feet, and there were 399 bedrooms. On February 19, 1888 the doors of the hotel were opened to the public. "Thirty thousand trees were brought over by a barge to help landscape Coronado, including the star pine from Australia on the Hotel del Coronado lawn, that in 1904, was the first tree lighted with electrical lights."(4)

The hotel kept an excellent reputation, and that was evident by not only the people that visited it but also the acknowledgment it gained nation wide. On May 24, 1977 a letter of official recognition was sent to the Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin from Cecil D. Andrus, Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior. "I am pleased to inform you that the historic property in your District described in the enclosed brief summary has been found to possess national significance in commemorating the history of the United States. On the recommendation of my Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments this property has been designated a national historic landmarkÉ.."(5)

In 1888 E.S. Babcock found himself in financial difficulty. That is when John D. Spreckels came into the picture and loaned Babcock money, which later Babcock couldnÕt pay back. John D. Spreckels bought out Babcock. John D. and his brother purchased many enterprises in San Diego County. He moved to Coronado and built a beautiful home facing Glorietta Bay. He spent the rest of his life developing these enterprises that contributed most for making San Diego the city it was destined to be.

Soon after Mr. Spreckels took over the hotel, the Tent City came into being about 1900. This was Spreckels most popular attribution which was located just south of the hotel. The tents were for rent. The Tent City was a very popular place for the summer. "A booklet circular, the Tent City News served as a type of newspaper carrying programs about the band concerts, water sports events, hours of Sunday church services, news of visitors, and some advertisements."(6) Each tent consisted of wooden floors and furnishings. They each had one bedstand or more, a three legged "spider" for a wash bowl and pitcher, a dresser and a chair. If a visitor needed cooking facilities a kerosene stove was set up in a "cook tent" in the back of the tent for an extra $5.00 a month, it came with a few pots, some crockery, and flatware. Most of the tents rented for $4.50 per week at that time. Each year the Tent City opened with new attractions and improvements. Electricity from the hotel generators provided power for the lights that hung from the ceiling in each tent. The Tent City was very prosperous for Coronado. By 1921 it had its own police force and fire department. In 1923 the thatched roofed cottages in the Tent City were stripped off of the buildings and the cottages were given permanent roofs. Wooden sides on the houses were built three quarters of the way up with canvas drops that could be rolled up or down. These improvements were made for a permanent winter population in the Tent City. 1923-1933 the Tent City had become a year round resort. In June, 1936 the Spreckels Company to everyoneÕs surprise announced the abandonment of the Tent City as a resort and in its place the State Highway would be straightened. The Tent City was dismantled in 1939. John D. Spreckels did a lot for Coronado, not just with the Tent City, but also in Coronado banking, the Navy and much more. For this reason there is a park in the center of Coronado named after John D., it is called Spreckels Park.

In 1917 the United States entered war against Germany. A little while later a joint Army-Navy Board recommended that North Island be used by the Army and Navy Air Services. "On July 17,1917, Congress passed a Condemnation Act acquiring the 1,232 acre island as a site for a permanent military aviation school and base."(7) With North Island becoming army and navy ground, it brought more people to Coronado. On June 1st, an Army-Navy bridge was built to connect North Island to South Island. After World War I North Island became a station that trained aviators. John D. Spreckels had allowed the Army-Navy to continue to use the land, but he did not want to sell them the land. Spreckels finally decided to sell North Island to the United States Government. To this day North Island is used as an Army-Navy base. Presently there is also an Amphibious Base south of where the Tent City was located.

Transportation from Coronado to San Diego and San Diego to Coronado became a question. The result that they came up with was the ferry boat. There have been a series of ferries that have been used including the "Della," the "Coronado," the Silver Gate," "Benecia," and "Ramona." Prior to 1929 the "Della" was used. She was actually too small to carry freight or passengers so she was used more for towing a large open rowboat, which carried the passengers across the bay. In 1886 a new ferry came into use. The steam ferry, "Coronado" was powered by a single cylinder steam engine, the passengers sat in cabins on both sides of the boat. In 1888, it was evident that a second ferry was needed, a ferry with more space and carrying capacity. The new ferry, the "Silver Gate" was twice the size of the "Coronado." Next came "Benecia," she was slightly smaller than the "Coronado" and about half the size of the "Silver Gate." In 1903 the "Benecia" made her last trip and was replaced by the faster and larger "Ramona." "Ramona" was 118 feet long, 29 feet wide, grossed 417 tons and her paddle wheels were powered by a two cylinder, 700 horse power steam engine. In 1920 the "Morena" became the new ferry. She was more powerful then the other ferries. The ferries that followed these six were in 1929, the new Coronado; 1931, the San Diego; in 1939, the North Island; and in 1944 the Silver Strand. Presently the ferry used is simply called the Coronado Commuter Ferry.

As Coronado became more populated the idea of the island becoming more assessable to San Diego became an issue to people. Discussion of a bridge over the bay connecting Coronado and San Diego began. The first plan was to construct a drawbridge from Market Street in San Diego to First in Coronado. No one rejected the idea but it was abandoned in 1929. Another suggestion was a tube that would stretch the length from San Diego to Coronado. The military was fighting to say why the bridge should not be built, they believed it would be a problem for ships trying to pass underneath the bridge. In February, 1967 construction of a $50 million bridge began. Its distinctive towers and graceful curve brought the bridge the "most beautiful bridge" award of merit from the American Institute of Steel Construction in 1970. The 2.12 mile (11,179 foot) long bridge connects with Interstate 5 in San Diego and becomes route 75 in Coronado. (If you follow Route 75 you will encounter a four-lane highway that connects Coronado and Imperial Beach, which is what makes Coronado a peninsula). The bridgeÕs vertical clearance was approximately 200 feet, the tallest ships could pass beneath it (which answered many peopleÕs questions about the bridge). "The award winning toll bridge became an area landmark after its opening on August 3,1969. The distinctive curve and soaring sweep of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge was the first structural conquest of San Diego Bay, joining the island of Coronado and City of San Diego."(8)

The land where the Tent City was located became a building site for high rise condominiums. A plan was drawn which extended South of the Hotel del Coronado and included thirty-seven acres. These high rises were named Coronado Shores Towers. In June 1971, the first tower was completed, the "Cabrillo." The "Cabrillo" was the first out of ten fifteen-story condominium towers build throughout the 1970s. Due to the height of these towers, many people were not pleased. In result the people of Coronado tried to enforce a forty foot building height limit through out the village, limiting buildings to only three stories. Today the Coronado Shores are a very popular spot for summer tourists.

CoronadoÕs history makes the island sound even better then it really is, there are so many features about it that you want to learn more about. Hopefully after reading this there is more understanding about how Coronado really became the city it is today. Coronado continues to prosper and it also continues to keep its small town ways. Which makes Coronado a place that people want to come back to. BabcockÕs dream really became a reality, as he said "LetÕs continue to build a place that people will come to long after weÕre gone; we have so little timeŠitÕs up to you." That is indeed what Coronado has become.


  1. From "San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles," pg. 58.
  2. From The Coronado Story, pg. 13.
  3. From The Coronado Story, pg. 15.
  4. From "San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles," pg. 58.
  5. From Official Illustrated History Hotel Del Coronado, pg. 18.
  6. From Coronado, The Enchanted Island, pg. 90.
  7. From Coronado, The Enchanted Island, pg. 144.
  8. From Coronado Online.


Brandes, Ray and Katherine Carlin. Coronado, The Enchanted Island. Coronado, CA: The Coronado Historical Company, 1988.

Ditler, Eva. "San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles," Set Course for Coronado 19: 54-58, Oakford, Stephen S. Official Illustrated History Hotel Del Coronado. Coronado (Hotel Del Coronado), California, 1982.

Peterson, J. Harold. The Coronado Story. Coronado, CA: The Coronado Federal Savings and Loan Association, 1959. "San Diego-Coronado Bridge," Coronado Online. April 27, 1998.

This paper was written by Chauncey Adams for American Civilization 18 at the University of San Diego, May 8, 1998.