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Balboa Park could’ve been a square.

But two days before city park leaders wrote the first resolution to set aside land for a public park, Isabella Carruthers bought a chunk of 40 acres for $175 in February 1868. The leaders eventually designated 1,400 acres for the public, with Carruthers’ plot taking a bite out of the side.

And ever since, the park’s faced pressure to be split, carved off, divvied up and worse.

The city set aside the park as natural canyons covered in dirt and native plants like chaparral. The first decades of City Park — what would eventually be called Balboa Park — featured some entertaining uses: a smallpox infirmary, a squatting beekeeper. A cave-dwelling man rumored to be a talented pianist lived in a hole in the hillside.

It wasn’t a given that the park would remain. City residents fought over whether it was too large. “Grumbling and naysaying about the size of City Park began immediately,” said University of San Diego law professor Nancy Carol Carter in a presentation last year.

“This research has been hair-raising because it shows how endangered the park has been since the day the land was set aside,” Carter said.

The city approved a new, contentious plan for the future of Balboa Park’s western entrance two weeks ago. The people behind the plan see their efforts to remove cars and parking from the park’s central plaza as continuing the legacy of the city leaders who preserved this land for people so long ago. But their opponents see a continuation of another legacy — private interests trying to control what happens there.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re panning for stories from the park’s long history of debate and big changes.

Keeping the park intact wasn’t easy. Park lovers thwarted an attempt to change state law to divvy up and sell off the park. The city sliced off a parcel for its first high school and allowed buildings for specific populations like indigent women.

But despite the late 1800s’ reputation as a “heyday of shady land deals,” as historian Gregory Montes put it, all this resulted in the park remaining generally preserved.

Even to the woman deemed mother of Balboa Park, the horticulturist Kate Sessions, the park held a chance to profit in those early years. The city wasn’t spending money to improve the park, arguing it had more pressing financial concerns.

Sessions thought the park shouldn’t languish in its natural form and laid out a vision for superlative landscapes. In 1892, the city agreed to let Sessions lease 32 acres of park land to grow plants for her nursery business. In exchange, she agreed to plant 100 trees per year in the park and donate another 300 trees to the city each year. Sessions’ arrangement resulted in the planting of cypresses, oaks, eucalyptus groves and jacarandas, many of which can’t now be separated from what one thinks of Balboa Park.

“At that time, it was 1,400 acres of nothing,” historian David Marshall told me. “They said, ‘Hey, we get some free trees. Let’s do this!’”

Sessions’ deal caught others’ attention. More nursery growers asked for the same deal. A tobacco plantation eyed 60 acres. A homebuilder wanted to carve off a few hundred acres but failed to win approval.

The early 1900s brought an idea to the city’s leaders. What if we snagged the world’s attention with an exposition, tied to the opening of the Panama Canal?

But San Francisco, a much larger city, wanted the fair, too.

The city would have to fight for its chance to showcase its giant park.

Next up: the Panama-California Exposition of 1915.


Note on sourcing: There are many great resources available for digging into Balboa Park history. I’ve used them to cobble together the tales above, in addition to interviews I’ve done with people who know lots about the park’s history.

Those sources include Richard Amero’s archive on his own website and on the Committee of One Hundred’s, the San Diego History Center and the presentation I mention from Nancy Carol Carter above.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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