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Taking Steps to Preserve Chula Vista

August 06, 1986|GORDON SMITH

CHULA VISTA — Rich with history fine and old Where each day new joys unfold With the future still to mold in Chula, Chula Chula Vista ---- From the song "Viva Chula Vista!" by Pauline Perry Millan and Bob Austin When John Rojas walks around Chula Vista--and he walks around it a lot--he sees things that most people don't.

The water pipes attached to the outer walls of the old house on 2nd Avenue, for instance, indicating the house was built before interior plumbing became commonplace.

Or the city's first sidewalk, a cracked strip of concrete on F Street inscribed with the year it was constructed--1911.

Rojas recognizes these things for what they are, clues to Chula Vista's past. And he is doing what he can to bring them to the public's attention.

In conjunction with Chula Vista's 75th anniversary this year, Rojas is leading 75 walks around the city. The walks, sponsored by Walkabout International, visit different areas, but Rojas' reason for leading them is always the same: He wants people to learn about the city's history, whether it is ancient or in the making.

Rojas, a stocky, kindly looking man of 56, works 40 hours a week as a distribution clerk at the Chula Vista post office. The rest of the time--when he isn't out walking--he is the president and newsletter editor of the Chula Vista Historical Society, which he helped found five years ago.

"We thought maybe 40 or 50 people would be interested, but we have almost 750 members now," he said. "We're interested in preserving our history and particularly some of the older homes in Chula Vista, before they're demolished. We hope to educate children, too, about why people originally moved out here and what came before the modern city you see today.

"It's something that should not be forgotten."

Sylvia Arden, head librarian for the San Diego Historical Society's collection of books and other documents, said the Chula Vista Historical Society "has done amazing things for such a young organization. Its leadership is quite dynamic, and I'm sure a lot of that is due to John."

In particular, Arden praised the society's newsletter for printing well-written, well-researched articles that "contain information important to (local historians). There are many small community historical societies in the county," she added, "but Chula Vista's is one of the best."

In addition to publishing a high-quality newsletter, the society has completed a survey of historic homes in Chula Vista and a slide show about the old Otay Watch Co. But for details on the community's history it would be hard to beat the walks led by Rojas, who is a fountain of minutiae about Chula Vista.

On one recent walk that featured some of the city's oldest homes, for example, Rojas pointed out Chula Vista's first sidewalk--built the year the city was incorporated--and the house where Chief Myers, a catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, lived during the 1930s.

He also stopped in front of the Cordrey house, an old white two-story mansion that

contrasts sharply with the modern houses surrounding it. "This house was built in 1909 by Alfred Haines, a judge who moved out here because he didn't want his kids to grow up as delinquents in the big City of San Diego," Rojas noted. "Hansen Cordrey bought it later.

"The house originally stood on five acres. Most of the city blocks you see around it now were lemon orchards, with homes spaced far apart."

Rojas--who sets a brisk pace on his walks that often has his companions huffing to keep up--explained that before California became part of the United States, Chula Vista, National City and much of the rest of the South Bay belonged to a sprawling ranch where livestock grazed under the administration of Spanish and, later, Mexican officials. But in 1868 Frank Kimball, a builder from San Francisco, purchased the 26,632-acre ranch for $30,000 and began developing it.

"Kimball needed three things: water, transportation and people," Rojas said. "To provide water he built the Sweetwater Dam, which still stands. For transportation, he built the National City and Otay Railroad, which ran from San Diego to the Mexican border."

To attract people, Kimball planted lemon trees, subdivided part of his property into 5- and 10-acre parcels, and built relatively large homes for a wealthy clientele. Many of the early residents "were retired people from the East Coast. They had to be wealthy to afford these homes, which cost a minimum of $2,000," Rojas said.

By the end of the 19th Century, Chula Vista had 60,000 acres planted to lemons--the largest lemon orchards in the world, according to a visiting journalist. The fruit was packed in a warehouse in National City and shipped to San Diego on the National City and Otay Railroad. From there it moved eastward by rail, helping to slake the nation's thirst for lemonade.

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