Photo by Sam Hodgson
The winter shelter shields some homeless San Diegans from the cold. Newspaper accounts from the 1913 freeze don't mention the homeless population.
Never mind our chilly nights lately. A century ago Monday morning, at 6:15 a.m. on Jan. 7, 1913, the mercury in San Diego hit rock bottom. It hasn’t been that cold since.
How low did it go? To 25 nippy degrees Fahrenheit. The “Great California Freeze” froze half the home water pipes in the city, iced bottles of milk on doorsteps and burst fire hydrants. The chill also spawned icicles, killed fruit crops and forced fishermen to stay on land due to frozen nets.
“Yes, it was some cold,” declared the Evening Tribune. “Fifty thousand new resolutions were passed to put in furnaces, coal grates, and electric heaters.”
It was definitely not a field day for Chamber of Commerce types who loved to boast about our fine climate back then too. The San Diego Union warned in a headline: “Sh! Don’t Tell Anybody — Keep it a Cold Secret!”
Nor was it a good day for a man who appeared at the Horton Plaza fountain, where kids were chipping off the ice as temporary souvenirs, and declared he was taking photos to make postcards to send back east. Even in 1913, it was not a good idea to threaten our fair city’s tourism and growth.
“The cry was taken up by the crowd and the man’s camera was smashed,” the San Diego Sun reported. “Someone took a swing at him, but missed him, and he fled hurriedly down the street. Later a local photographer took a picture of the fountain with a crowd standing in front if it, each person holding aloft a chunk of ice.”
You can find one of the photos taken that day here, on the website of the San Diego History Center. It shows ice on the fountain and a crowd of onlookers.
A century ago today, kids also busied themselves by standing on the frozen water of the Horton Plaza fountain and searching in vain for ice skates. “If I’ve had one I’ve had a dozen boys in the store this morning asking for ice skates,” sighed a hardware store owner. He was all out.
Jan. 7, 1913, remains on the record books as San Diego’s coldest day in history, at least going back to the first weather records began in 1872.
But newspaper accounts from 1913 about San Diego’s coldest day are missing a topic we’d hope modern stories would take into account: the cold’s effect on the homeless.
What did transients of a century ago do when the temperature dropped? It’s hard to know. The San Diego Public Library, where I looked through newspaper microfilm for this story, doesn’t have an index for local newspapers from the 1910s and 1920s.
But there may have been few, if any, homeless simply because there weren’t that many people in the city. San Diego’s population was only about 40,000 in 1913. (To put that into perspective, La Mesa and National City both have about 58,000 residents today.)
Things changed when the Depression hit in the 1930s, throwing countless men and women out of work. The San Diego Rescue Mission, which opened in the late 1920s, was very busy: According to newspaper accounts, it served 72,000 free meals in 1935 (about 200 a day on average). Many poor people worked in return for shelter, and none was turned away.
The San Diego Rescue Mission, which was founded in its current form in 1955, is still at it today. At full capacity, it provides more than 37,000 meals and shelter for hundreds of people each month, whether it’s cold or not.
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