History Of El Cajon
historical names keynote the early development
of the modern commercial municipality of El Cajon,
"The Big Box Valley" and "The Corners". Its growth
is directly linked to its initial role as the
agrarian heartland and communications center of
San Diego County.
In the early part of the nineteenth century the
explorations of the mission padres for pasture
land led them to El Cajon Valley. The surrounding
foothills were a barrier to straying cattle as
well as a watershed to gather the sparse rainfall
for verdant grasslands along the valley floor.
For years the pasture lands supported the cattle
herds of the mission and its native Indian converts.
With independence from Spain, the Spanish Dons
began to cast envious eyes on the vast holdings
of the Roman Catholic Missions. With secularization,
California Governor Pio Pico in 1845 confiscated
the lands of Mission San Diego de Alcala and granted
the eleven square leagues of El Cajon
to Dona Maria Antonio Estudillo, wife of Don Miguel
de Pedrorena, to repay a $500 government obligation.
The grant included generally the present communities
of Lakeside, Santee, Bostonia, Glenview, Johnstown,
El Cajon, and part of Grossmont.
Recorded history affords scant evidence to establish
a beginning date for either a permanent Spanish
or American community in the valley. The Pedrorenas
continued their residence in San Diego and their
absentee proprietorship did not foster any economic
development. Scattered homes of adobe construction
were erected in the area during the mid 19th century,
but the permanency of their occupancy is open
to question. The establishment of a school for
six children in 1870 in a homestead at Park and
Magnolia offered conclusive proof that a permanent
American settlement had been established.
What were the key factors which shaped El Cajon's
destiny? First, there was a transfer of title
from the permanent holdings of the mission to
the changing hands of the Pedrorenas and their
successors. This permitted the so-called highest
and best use of the land in commercial terms.
Then there were the natural corridors which made
Main and Magnolia the crossroads from San Diego
to points east and to the gold mining operations
in Julian to the north. Third, there were the
real estate developments following the Civil War,
initiated by a San Francisco entrepreneur named
Issac Lankershim. The native instincts of a New
England emigrant, Amaziah L. Knox, for the economic
value of the corner lot resulted in the erection
of El Cajon's first commercial building at Magnolia
and Main in 1876. Finally, the phenomenon called
direction of growth laid a path of post World
War ll's exploding urbanization along Mission
Valley, through La Mesa and El Cajon.
Following the American Civil War, migrations of
settlers sought homesteads on the public lands
of the West. However, the poorly defined boundaries
and legal confusion of Pio Pico's Rancho Cajon
land grant to the Pedrorenas were to be a source
of considerable dispute. As a consequence, historical
accounts frequently refer to these pioneering
homesteaders by the less noble term of "
Lankershim bought the bulk of the Pedrorena's
Rancho Cajon holdings in 1868, employing Major
Levi Chase as his attorney. Seven years of litigation
ensued before title was cleared and settlements
negotiated with the squatters. Lankershim subdivided
his land, selling large tracts for wheat ranching.
However, It was soon discovered that the soil
and climate would support almost any crop. Within
a few years the Big Box Valley was a flourishing
produce center for citrus, avocados, grapes, and
raisins. In fact, the suitability of the clear
sunny climate for drying raisins was a major real
estate sales "pitch."
The gold mining operations in Julian brought a
steady trek of freight traffic hauling equipment
and supplies and ore between San Diego and Julian.
The natural line of drift led the teamsters down
the old Mussey grade (now covered by San Vicente
Reservoir), south to the present site of Magnolia
and Main, then west through the Grossmont Pass
into San Diego., Knox had moved into the Valley
in 1869 to build Lankershim's house and manage
his wheat ranch. Noting the teamsters' habit of
camping overnight at the present site of Main
and Magnolia, he erected a seven room building
as a combination residence and hotel on its southwest
corner in 1876. Small additions were followed
by a large two story annex In 1882.
Knox's Corner was to be the nucleus of El Cajon's
business district for the next seventy years.
By the turn of the century the two blocks of Main
Street, astride Magnolia, boasted two hotels,
a general store, meat market, post office, pharmacy,
harness shop, blacksmith shop, and sundry smaller
shops and offices.
At the general election on November 12, 1912,
123 of 158 electors voted to incorporate a 1 1/4
square mile area centering on the historic corners
of Main and Magnolia. The board of five trustees
met the following week to elect one of their number
as president and appoint a city attorney. Regular
meetings were scheduled for the first Wednesday
of each month. However, special meetings to get
the administration organized and functioning were
not infrequent. Committees were appointed for
Streets, Alleys, Water and Lights, Finance and
Licenses, and Health, Morals, and Sanitation.
In addition to the elected positions of Treasurer
and Clerk, appointments were made for a Marshal
and Tax Collector, Engineer, Recorder, Superintendent
of Streets, two Deputy Marshals, and a Fire Chief.
Ordinances and resolutions were passed to fix
salaries or other compensation, provide for the
grading and sprinkling of streets, contract for
bridge construction and mapping the City, banning
cattle and hogs from the central city, and outlawing
horseracing down Main Street.
For the next thirty years El Cajon followed the
pattern of orderly development typical of rural/
small town America. By 1940 the population had
slightly more then doubled to a figure of 1471.
In the five years following World War II, the
winds of change became apparent. While land area
increased slightly to 1.67 square miles, in-migration
increased the population to 5,600. In 1949 the
City Council began to study the feasibility of
the council-manager form of government to meet
the day to day administrative and long range planning
requirements of a growing metropolitan area.
The office of City Manager was instituted in 1950
in time to meet the most explosive decade of growth
in El Cajon's history, or for that matter, the
history of any comparable community in the nation.
By 1960 the incorporated area was to increase
five-fold to 9.8 square miles and population six-fold
However, this remarkable growth was not accomplished
without its trauma. Fiscal resources for capital
investments necessary to keep municipal services
abreast of geometrically increasing demand were
sorely strained. Substantial capital outlays were
needed in virtually every department: Police,
Fire, Sewage Treatment, Public Works, Parks and
Recreation and General Government. In 1959 the
Council and Manager commissioned a research study
to assess the present and probable future structure
of the City. Given the unforeseen developments
in double digit inflation and federal revenue
sharing of the 70's, the projections of this study
were to prove remarkably prophetic.
Integrating these research findings and projections
into its master plans, during the next decade
El Cajon moved ahead on a number of significant
projects. Acquisition of additional fire fighting
equipment resulted in much improved insurance
ratings. A dozen key street improvement projects
solved the traffic congestion problems which were
beginning to surface throughout the incorporated
area. A cross service agreement with the San Diego
Metropolitan Sewer District and construction of
a major outfall line eliminated the need to rely
on septic tanks which were saturating the subsoil
to the danger point. The timely purchase of property
on Vernon Way in the early 50's facilitated the
economic construction of Public Works maintenance
and storage facilities.
As the City nears the end of the twentieth century
its growth is considerably more measured and orderly
than that of the frantic fifties. Guided by a
prudent and fiscally responsible civic leadership.
It has weathered its rapid growth period with
a balanced economy and a governmental structure
which offers full municipal services. In 1976,
during our nation's bicentennial, a new civic
center was opened to serve the citizens of El
Cajon, lending added luster to the historic corners
of Main and Magnolia. Our most recent additions
to this area are the new Headquarters Fire Station
and the Neighborhood Center on Lexington and Douglas
Avenues, respectively. One might pause to speculate
on the thoughts of a sturdy New England emigrant
when, a century earlier, he erected El Cajon's
first commercial structure diagonally across the
Click here to read the book "The History of El Cajon - Valley of Opportunity", by ElDonna Lay.
Click here to read the book "Timeline of El Cajon Fire Department 1892-2000" by E. C. Jarell.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the late Mrs.
Hazel Sperry, former Secretary and Curator of
El Cajon Historical Society, for much of the source
material upon which this historical account is