The American Period


California's wealth had been noticed by the United States. By 1842, U.S. Navy ships were regularly cruising offshore, and by 1845 Americans were openly expounding the idea of a United States that stretched "from sea to shining sea." Mexican California came to an end within two years. After a series of battles, including Kearny's battle at San Pasqual, the United States laid claim to the territory.

By 1850, California was a state. Americans settling in California after 1848 brought their own ideas about land ownership. According to American tradition, they could settle on public land, build a farm, and then, after making some improvements, buy the land for a modest price. The Mexicans viewed them as squatters. During the American period, the land in and around Mission Trails Regional Park came under a variety of new uses, as well as new owners. Ranching, farming, mining, recreation, and military activities were initiated, but much of the land remained undeveloped

Ranching and Farming

In 1885, the former mission lands were opened up for settlement and a number of ranches and farms were purchased in the area. One of the most notable tracts was Rancho Fanita, owned by the Scripps family; dairy farming was represented by the Edgemoor Dairy. Beans were regularly planted for years between Cowles Mountain and Lake Murray.

Mining in Mission Gorge

Beginning in 1873, granite mines appeared in Mission Gorge. Light gray in color, the granodioritic rock extracted from these mines was used to construct roads, buildings, jetties, and dams. Blocks of granite from the Gorge were used in the construction of a breakwater in San Diego Bay and are still in place today. The family of Robert Waterman, Governor of California from 1887 to 1891, built the San Diego and Cuyamaca Eastern Railroad, which allowed the granite to be shipped economically from the mines. Modern mining industries, which provide sand, gravel, and decomposed granite products, evolved out of the early granite mining business. Many firms extracted sand and gravel on lands now part of Mission Trails Regional Park, including J.B. Stringfellow, the Kenneth Golden Company, H.G. Fenton, and the V.R. Dennis Company. In addition, the Morse Construction Company operated a dynamite magazine on park premises in the 1960s. Kumeyaay Lake and other nearby ponds are the by-products of these mining operations, created by the removal of rock materials in the late 1940s.

Military Presence -  Information from US Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District Fact Sheets

Military use of the land that has become the Fortuna area of Mission Trails Regional Park began in 1917 and continued to 1960 – from World War I to the Korean War. Most of the land was used for live-fire artillery and tank exercises by the U.S. Army from 1917 to 1919 and by the U.S. Marine Corps from 1941 to 1944. The munitions used ranged from 37 millimeter (mm) to 155 mm High Explosive and shrapnel projectiles. It is part of the former Camp Elliott Training Area which encompassed 30,500 acres of land including the Fortuna area of Mission Trails and extending north of SR52 through East Elliott and most of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar. With the establishment of Camp Pendleton for the Marine Corps, Camp Elliott was transferred to the Navy, and served as a Training and Distribution Center until 1960, when it was deactivated.

Nearly half of Camp Elliott was declared excess land in 1961, including the area that became the Tierrasanta community and Mission Trails Regional Park, and was sold over several years to real estate developers, private individuals, and government entities. The remainder of Camp Elliott was retained by the military and most is part of MCAS Miramar. The majority of the Fortuna area of Mission Trails Regional Park was transferred to the city of San Diego in January 1964. The deed restricted its use to historic monument/public recreational purposes for 20 years.

Unexploded ordnance was an unfortunate legacy of the military period. After Camp Elliott closed in 1960, the Navy and the Marine Corps cleared ordnance from portions of the former camp. In 1983 three children discovered a 37mm unexploded round in an open area near their Tierrasanta homes, and while playing with it the round detonated. This accident prompted action by the U.S. Navy and searches for unexploded ordnance in the area of the Tierrasanta community, extending into the southwest boundary of Mission Trails were conducted in 1984 and 1985. Additional searches and removal actions were conducted from 1992 through 1995 and the Corps of Engineers removed ordnance items, small arms, munitions debris and trash. The Fortuna area of Mission Trails is under Long-Term Management by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The site is investigated every five years to evaluate if previous removal actions and remediation activities are still protective of human health and the environment.

Learn more about unexploded ordnance

Water Issues

As San Diego grew, the need for a reliable water source became as critical to the City Fathers as it once had been to the Mission padres. In 1920, the San Diego River was the only river flowing through the city, so the choice for the source was limited. But where along the river to site a dam and just who owned the rights to the water was destined to be fought over throughout the decade and into the next. Two powerful San Diegans, Colonel Ed Fletcher, owner of the Cuyamaca Water Company which held title to a mile and a half of the San Diego River, and wealthy magnate John D. Spreckels, each championed different sides of the debate. Fletcher wanted to sell his water interests to the City for $1,400,000 and argued that the best place for a new dam was below the old Mission Dam, on land he owned. Spreckels, represented by the City Attorney, was outraged, claiming that the City already held all of the river's water rights as established under Spanish law, which subsequently passed to Mexico and then to the United States. This view was later upheld by the County Superior Court and again in the Supreme Court.With regard to a dam site, Fletcher's opponents argued for an upriver location, at El Capitan, on El Cajon Mountain.

In 1924, in a special election citizens voted down a bond measure to construct the dam in Mission Gorge, but later that year approved a bond issue to construct the dam at El Capitan by a three-to-one margin. It was ten years before El Capitan Dam was finally built. In 1930, a second bond measure was put before the voters, who were asked to fund the construction of a dam one-half mile below the old Mission Dam - it too failed, and this time by an even greater margin than the first. If a dam had been built anywhere in Mission Gorge the 1920s or 30s, large portions of the land that became Mission Trails Regional Park would have disappeared beneath its waters. By the mid-1950s the area had become far too developed and populated to seriously consider a dam project, and by the 1960s it had become impossible.

Recreational Uses

As San Diego grew, the back country along the San Diego River provided an outlet from stress and an opportunity to get away from city life. As late as the mid-1920s, enough unfenced land remained to allow unhindered treks all the way from the Cuyamaca foothills westward to the coast. Hunters, hikers, and naturalists alike shared this "wilderness" area so close to home. Climbing Cowles Mountain for the view from the top was a favorite local pastime, and for 40 years, from 1931 to 1971, San Diego State College freshman classes repainted the "S" (which stood for San Diego State) on the southwest side of the mountain.

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