A Page from History: Bouncing along the old La Playa Trail
The weather is nice and balmy this July, so let’s get outside and go for a little ramble down the old La Playa Trail.
By San Diego standards, where anything approaching 100 years old is considered “old,” La Playa Trail is positively ancient. We will return to the relative antiquity of the trail directly, but first, what and where is La Playa Trail? Many people refer to La Playa’s bayside path, also known as the Bessemer Path, as La Playa Trail. But is that strictly accurate? Yes? No? Maybe? Sure, it’s a trail and it is in La Playa, so what’s the big deal? Glad you asked.
La Playa Trail has been known since the earliest Europeans came ashore at Ballast Point. It is a commercial trading route from Ballast Point, along the path now known as Rosecrans Street, through present-day Old Town and along the San Diego River through Mission Valley to Mission San Diego de Alcala, continuing out to Mission Gorge and points east. La Playa Trail is the oldest such route in the West.
The river emptied into San Diego Bay in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, rendering the bay much too shallow for the Spanish galleons of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and later Sebastian Vizcaino. Those adventurers hadn’t come to stay anyway and did not stick around in San Diego. Their business was exploring and mapping the West Coast of New Spain.
The Gaspar de Portola expedition of 1769, over land and sea, was something else entirely. Portola’s mission was to establish two settlements: presidios at San Diego and Monterey. The party included Franciscan missionaries, Father Junipero Serra and Father Juan Crespi among them, who would go on to found the California mission chain. We date the settlement of San Diego to 1769, when Vincente Vila’s party went ashore at La Playa. According to La Playa Trail Association past president Klonie Kunzel, “Someone has traveled the old road, the La Playa Trail, every day since.”
Vila, captain of Portola’s ship San Carlos, was one of several members of the expedition to keep a diary of the 1769 journey. It is from Vila’s journal that we find the earliest reference to La Playa Trail. On May 1 that year, the San Carlos anchored inside of Ballast Point along La Playa, the western shore of San Diego Bay.
“At 9 o’clock in the evening, the launch returned,” Vila recorded. The landing party described a well-worn path leading north along the base of the hill. “The officers and the missionary fathers reported that they had walked about three leagues [six to seven miles, or roughly three hours’ march] along the shore, and at that distance, had come to an Indian rancheria on the banks of a river with excellent water.”
This would have been the Kumeyaay village of Cosoy (Kosa’aay), a settlement of some 30 to 40 families, very near present-day Taylor Street at the foot of Presidio Hill. In an act of charity, the Cosoy villagers shared their good drinking water with the Spaniards, many of whom were sick with scurvy and worse.
From that point forward for roughly a century, everything and everybody coming and going from Presidio de San Diego, and later Mission San Diego de Alcala and the tiny San Diego pueblo that we call Old Town, came overland from the anchorage at Ballast Point along the old road from La Playa.
About 250 years is a good round number to delineate the scope of the written history of La Playa Trail, but its story is much older. The Kumeyaay had a settlement, at least seasonally, at Ballast Point since the 1300s. But our La Playa Trail is much older still. Anthropologists believe the ancestors of the Kumeyaay had been traveling that way, fishing and gathering shellfish along La Playa, for more like 10,000 years.
La Playa Trail Association President Kitty McDaniel says she travels along Rosecrans Street almost every day. “I like to imagine the worn dirt path that has meandered through San Diego’s history for so many years,” she said. “The Kumeyaay, the Spanish explorers, the salty old sailors ...”
La Playa Trail historian and LPTA founding member Charles Best tells us that the genesis for the preservation and designation of La Playa Trail came from John Nolen’s 1926 urban plan for San Diego. Nolen had been commissioned by businessman George Marston to envision an antidote to short-sighted, haphazard, profit-centric expansion. Marston wanted a comprehensive plan for city development, emphasizing the natural beauty of our topography and preserving our canyons, beaches and waterways. Nolen’s vision for La Playa Trail was as one of nine beautifully landscaped parkways throughout the city.
“In the winter of 1932-33, the San Diego Historical Society’s La Playa chapter, part of the Point Loma Assembly, formed the committee to mark and plan the La Playa Trail,” Best said. “The nominal head of the committee was George Marston, but Winifred Davidson of the recently formed San Diego Historical Society was actually in charge.”
Davidson and the committee worked closely with architect Richard Requa. The final plan called for six evenly spaced markers and pocket parks along the old road between the beach at La Playa and the mission, a distance of roughly 12 miles. Best attributes the following quote to Davidson: “They might not appreciate the history, but the trail is sure a good excuse to plant trees!”
The markers were placed at the Fort Rosecrans gate, on Rosecrans at Byron Street in Roseville, at Lytton Street and Rosecrans in Loma Portal, at Midway Drive and Rosecrans, on Taylor Street at the foot of Presidio Hill, and at Mission San Diego de Alcala. All were erected in 1934. The local Portuguese community, the San Diego Federation of Women’s Clubs and local garden clubs all contributed to the placement of the six markers. Three of the original markers, at Fort Rosecrans, Mission San Diego and Presidio Park, remain in their original locations and have been refurbished and are in very good condition.
Kunzel described the beginnings of the La Playa Trail Association: “Midway Drive businessman Joe Manino was involved in a business improvement district for the Midway area — this was in 2005 — and he thought that a facelift for the La Playa Trail marker at Midway and Rosecrans would help to elevate the project. The marker had been moved, had lost its plaque and was in terrible shape.”
Manino got in touch with Pat Baker of the Point Loma Assembly, who contacted Best, Kunzel and several other active community members. The group soon prevailed on then-City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who found some money in the city budget for a new plaque, and the La Playa Trail Association was in business. The revamped Midway Drive marker is now by the bus stop on the Rosecrans Street side of Loma Square.
The first La Playa Trail marker, at the corner of Byron Street and Rosecrans, was lost and has been replaced by LPTA at the corner of Avenida de Portugal in Roseville. The group also is responsible for the Chinese Fisherman’s Monument at the foot of Talbot Street on La Playa Cove and the replacement of the Roseville marker and a new Roseville Hotel plaque on the Bellamar condominiums at Byron and Rosecrans.
The La Playa Trail Association presents a bimonthly lecture series and plans an open house for Monday, Sept. 20, at Point Loma Assembly. For more information, visit laplayatrail.org.
The original trail marker on the southwest corner of Lytton and Rosecrans remains lost and unaccounted for. “That was where the Old Rocks Trail diverged from La Playa Trail and headed off toward Ocean Beach,” McDaniel said. “We would love to replace that marker sometime soon. Maybe across the street by the golf course. That is our goal, our quest!”
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). Historical Society board member Kitty McDaniel contributed to this article. Basic membership in the Historical Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is $15 annually, tax-deductible.