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Weekend Escape

Oh, the Tales They Tell in Coronado

Walking tour of the San Diego island reveals 460 years of history in a few easy steps.


CORONADO, Calif. — The tour guide held up a 1901 photo that was instantly recognizable but nonetheless befuddling. Surely that was the Hotel del Coronado in the distance, its unmistakable Victorian cupolas rising above the Pacific shore.

But in the foreground, where 15-story condominium towers now cast a shadow toward the Hotel Del's red-roofed whimsy, the grainy picture showed something different: Tent City.

For $4.50 per week, the oceanfront view came with all the basics a vacationer needed: canvas roof and walls, bed, dresser, washbasin and flush toilets. Never mind that the sewer drained right offshore.

And never mind the Hotel Del and its guest list of the rich and famous. For the vacationing masses--more than 10,000 guests a year at its peak--Tent City defined the Coronado experience from 1900 to 1939. Before the town welcomed the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" author L. Frank Baum, this emerald city looked a lot like sixth-grade camp.

My education on Coronado's past began with a walking tour last fall. With the help of an entertaining guide and some historic photos, the town's story came into sharper focus. It's a tale of entrepreneurs seeking riches, royals chasing love and a construction crew so intent on building the West's most magnificent resort in record time that they didn't bother with blueprints.

I arrived one Friday night with sketchy plans of my own, lured by a good deal at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort. I checked in late, just in time for a full night's rest. That proved important since the next day started with my sole planned activity, a tour de force named Nancy Cobb.

Cobb leads a 90-minute walking tour of Coronado at 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays (reservations, [619] 435-5993). On Thursdays a colleague gives the same tour, which begins at the 100-room Glorietta Bay Inn, the former mansion of John D. Spreckels, son of sugar baron Claus Spreckels.

The chatty Cobb blitzed through 460 years of Coronado history for me and nine others, starting with the day Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo anchored in San Diego Bay in 1542 and ending with her commentary on the recently completed $55-million restoration of the Hotel Del. In between we heard some fact, some fiction and a whole lot of gossip.

Long before connecting swampland was filled in, Coronado was actually part of two islands owned by Josefa Bandini and Don Pedro Carrillo, who were granted the land in 1846 as a wedding gift from Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. The happy couple did what many sensible newlyweds do with useless gifts: They exchanged it. Bezer Simmons, a ship captain, got the islands, and the couple received $1,000.

Years and owners passed, as did experiments in growing wheat and establishing a whaling station. But with no fresh water and little rain, the land held few prospects.

Then the dreamers arrived. In 1885, telephone executive Elisha Babcock Jr. and piano company founder Hampton Story bought the land with partners for $110,000, certain they could turn barren soil into Shangri-La: tracts of homes and a luxury hotel, all blessed with breezes and sunshine.

At this point the island still had no name, so local newspapers held a reader contest.

Among the options presented to Babcock and Story: Shining Shore. Welcome City. Hiawatha. Belulah.

They chose Coronado, from the Spanish meaning "the crowned one," because their resort was to be king of the West. The owners then turned their attention to the jewel in their crown, the Hotel Del.

Near the hotel site, a planing mill and ironworks were built quickly, as was a kiln that turned out 150,000 bricks a day, by one estimate.

A 3,000-foot pipeline under the bay brought fresh water from San Diego. So much lumber was floated on rafts from San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest--a million feet were on site at one point--that smoking was banned.

Eleven months after construction began, the Hotel Del welcomed its first guests.

Building a first-class hotel from the ground up--as well as homes, streets, a ferry landing and recreation facilities--drove the project deeply into the red. When the finances went sour, sugar heir John Spreckels stepped in.

In 1889, a year after the hotel opened, Spreckels and his brothers bought a controlling interest in Babcock and Story's company. They spruced up the hotel, dredged a proper ferry landing and built a racetrack, an ostrich farm and a labyrinth for guests.

Camp Coronado, later known as Tent City, followed. Tents offered modern conveniences such as electricity, provided by the hotel's mammoth generator. Japanese gardens, a public library, a band pavilion, tennis courts, a Ferris wheel and a children's carousel (today turning in Balboa Park) kept the masses entertained. But 39 years after opening, Tent City closed, a victim of shifting tastes. America's growing love of cars and the burgeoning construction of roads and highways spawned an intimidating, newfangled competitor: the motel.

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