Coronado was discovered by Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino on November 8, 1602 when he caught sight of a group of islands 17 miles off the coast of Southern California. He called them “Las Yslas Coronadas.” The Spanish explorers surveyed San Diego and Coronado, but they didn’t settle in the area. For almost 200 years, the peninsula remained empty.
Well, almost empty. Whalers used the area as a safe harbor in the early nineteenth century. Still, Coronado didn’t get much action until ownership changed hands to the Mexicans when they won their independence from Spain. Then, on May 15, 1846, Mexican governor Pio Pico issued a land grant to Don Pedro Carrillo, for the “island or Peninsula in the Port of San Diego.” Shortly after, Carrillo sold the property to an American captain of a trading ship, Bezer Simmons, for just $1,000.
The History of the Hotel Del Coronado
In 1885, three men named Elisha S. Babcock, Jr, Hampton L. Story, and Jacob Gruendike bought the island for $110,000. Legend has it that while Babcock and Story were hunting jack rabbits in the area, they decided that Coronado would be a wonderful site for a resort hotel. The men decided that they would build a grand hotel that would attract visitors from all over the world. They would buy the entire peninsula, subdivide it, and sell enough lots to pay for the hotel from their profits.
And that’s exactly what they did. On November 13, 1886 the men—now known as the Coronado Beach Co.–held an auction for the sale of lots ranging in price from $500.00 to $1600.00. To promote sales, they offered free water. They also offered 120 tickets on the Coronado ferry and the railway to any buyer who would invest $1,000. By the end of the day, the Beach Company had sold 350 lots for a total of $110,000.00, which was, incidentally, the purchase price of the entire peninsula.
Construction began almost immediately. But first they had to decide…where should they build the hotel? For a while, North Island was the favored location for the hotel, because then guests could watch ships enter and leave the harbor. But they realized transportation from the ferry landing would be a problem. (At the time, North Island was truly an island, separated from the rest of Coronado by water.) They decided to put the hotel in its current location on South Island, which they described as such: “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.”
The men hired hundreds of laborers to begin construction of the water and irrigation system, as well as a railroad. (The railroad ran down what is presently Orange Avenue.) In order to accommodate the growing number of visitors to the island, Babcock and Story officially created the San Diego and Coronado Ferry Company.
In March of 1887 Mrs. Babcock and Mrs. Story broke ground for the foundation of the hotel. The bricks from the fireplaces were made from clay taken from the Coronado peninsula and baked in the kilns close by the hotel. On February 19, 1888 the doors of the hotel were opened to the public.
Tent City and Other Traditions
The island continued to grow. More than 30,000 trees were transported to the Hotel by a barge to help landscape Coronado, including the star pine from Australia on the Hotel del Coronado lawn. In the years to follow, Coronado really developed into its own community. The first school session began in 1887. A Boating Club, Athletic Club and Baseball Club were also organized.
In July 1889, John D. Spreckels became an investor in Coronado, becoming the sole proprietor of the Hotel Del Coronado. He also oversaw the building of his mansion on Glorietta Blvd, the establishment of Tent City, and the sale of North Island to the U.S. Government in 1917.
As the Hotel del Coronado turned into one of Southern California’s prime beach destinations, visitors saw the rise of Tent City, which was a make-shift city at the foot of the Hotel Del. Vacationers flocked to Tent City for summertime fun, where they enjoyed swimming pools, carnival rides, a Ferris wheel, sailing, and other family activities. To this day, Tent City remains a fond memory for many residents of Coronado and vacationers from all around the world who visited island from 1900 to 1939. It even had its own police force and fire department. Finally, it was announced that Tent City would be dismantled and the creation of the State Highway (or Silver Strand) would begin.
According to historians, many of Coronado’s most beloved traditions—such as the Horse Show, the Flower Show, and more—began in the early 1900s. Filmmakers flocked to the Coronado to shoot movies like “Some Like it Hot,” “Dive Bombers,” and “Hellcats of the Navy.”
Coronado, the Navy Town
Coronado inevitably became known as a Navy town, and quickly grew into an arena for aviation. Glenn Curtiss performed the first successful U.S. seaplane flight, as well as very first amphibian flight in the world. He also opened and operated the first military flying school. And of course, Charles Lindberg took off for his famed trip in 1927 from North Island. Eventually, the government bought North Island from John Spreckels for five million dollars. In the ensuing years, one flying record after another would be set in Coronado.
In 1944, the Army Corps of Engineers filled in the body of water separating North Island from Coronado, (known as the Spanish Bight)–to allow for more construction. North Island today is an island in name only.
The History of the Coronado Bridge
As Coronado became more populated, transportation began to be an issue. The ferry boats simply couldn’t handle all the visitors and commuters to North Island. That’s when people started talking about building a bridge.
The first plan was to construct a drawbridge from Market Street in San Diego to First Street in Coronado. This idea was abandoned in 1929. Another suggestion was a tube that would stretch the length from San Diego to Coronado. The military fought against the bridge—they thought it would be a problem for ships trying to pass underneath.
In 1967 the construction of the $50 million blue bridge began. Its distinctive towers and graceful curve helped it win “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. The bridge’s vertical clearance was approximately 200 feet, so the tallest ships could pass beneath. The award winning toll bridge became an area landmark after its opening on August 3,1969.
Today, thousands of people cross the Coronado bridge every day. To most, it remains one of the most distinctive and beautiful bridges on the entire West coast.