When the dank mist spirals in from the Pacific Ocean and the gulls shriek
mournf ully, you may possibly—just possibly—encounter an
apparition in Old Town San Diego's Whaley House.
The house, various visitors and psychics have attested, is chock full of
apparitions from "Yankee Jim" to a long-haired girl in a longish
dress, and even a terrier named Dolly. Yankee Jim—actually James
Robinson—was hanged on the site where the house stands.
But even if the spirits elude you in Whaley House, it's still worth a visit
if you are a history buff. The same goes for all of Old Town San Diego, which
lies north of today's downtown San Diego and was the first Spanish settlement
It all started in 1542 when the Spaniard Juan Cabrillo sailed into San
Diego Bay and claimed the land for Spain. In 1769 a Spanish missionary arrived
in the area; he established a mission and dedicated the first Spanish fort in
California. By 1846, there were 250 Spanish settlers in the area, constituting
a small town.
This town was under Mexican jurisdiction from 1822, when Mexico won
independence from Spain, until 1846, when it was captured by a U.S. naval
force. In 1850 the town was incorporated as a city, with government activities
centering around the Plaza Viejo.
In 1868 a rival subdivision sprang up further south. The new subdivision
became what is today known as downtown San Diego, and the town became Old Town
San Diego—a historic site.
There are a number of restored original buildings as well as reconstructed
buildings in Old Town that you can visit. Among them:
Casa de Carrillo, the oldest house in San Diego, was built between
1810 and 1820 by a settler named Francisco Ruiz. Ruiz planted a pear orchard,
the first private planting of fruit trees in Southern California.
Casa de Estudillo was constructed about 1825 by the Spanish
aristocrat Jose de Estudillo, a man of considerable influence. The adobe
mansion, which is built around a garden courtyard, is considered one of Old
Town's outstanding show-places.
Casa de Pedrorena was the residence of the Spanish aristocrat Miguel
de Pedrorena, who made his home in San Diego from 1838 to 1850. Pedrorena
sympathized with the Americans during the American-Mexican War of 1846-48 and
became a captain in the U.S. cavalry. He was also one of the authors of the
Colorado House was built in 1851 by a man named Cave Couts,
originally from Tennessee. It became a successful hotel, saloon, and gaming
parlor. The house is now the Wells Fargo History Museum, which focuses on
banking, mining, and overland travel in the early American West. A major
exhibit is an authentic 1867 stagecoach.
Mason Street School was built in 1865. It was purportedly the first
public school in San Diego.
Old Town Surf Shop is only one of the four retail buildings
remaining in San Diego with a false storefront. The false storefront was
common in Western towns of the mid-19th century. A wooden rectangle containing
a door and shop window was attached to the front of a small, pitched-roof
Whaley House was built in 1856 by a successful businessman named
Thomas Whaley who had moved from New York with his new wife, Anna. He
constructed a two-story, Greek-Revival brick mansion on the corner of San
Diego Avenue and Harney Street. Besides being the home of five generations of
Whaleys, the building has served as a dairy, general store, Sunday school,
courthouse, theatre, saloon, and funeral parlor.
History and an architectural lesson are just part of what Old Town San
Diego offers. You can also enjoy good food and drink. For example, La
Pinata is the oldest restaurant in Old Town and is renowned for its
fajitas, tamales, Mexican-style lobster, and margaritas. Creole, Italian,
Japanese, Peruvian, and seafood restaurants can also be found in Old Town.
Whaley House in Old Town San Diego was the home of five generations of
Whaleys and went on to house businesses, a Sunday school, and a
Credit: Sande Lollis of SOHO
And once you've satisfied your thirst and palate, you can venture into Old
Town shops to purchase some unusual items. For instance, books about early
California and historic cookbooks can be found next door to the Whaley House
in the SOHO Museum Shop and Information Center, American Indian jewelry
and art in the Covered Wagon and Four Winds Trading.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, which is owned and operated
by California State Parks, is located at 4002 Wallace Street. More information
about Old Town is posted at<www.oldtownsandiego.org>.
Information about Whaley House is posted at<www.whaleyhouse.org>.▪