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Established in 1968, the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is a living history museum that commemorates and preserves numerous historic buildings dating from the 19th century. The most visited state park in California, the attraction incorporates various aspects of San Diego’s early history and culture from 1820 until 1870 as it transitioned from Mexican to American rule. In addition to heritage architecture, the historic district features shops and restaurants offering authentic handicrafts and cuisine. Visitors also enjoy a variety of street performers as well as several annual cultural festivals, including the Cinco de Mayo, Dia de los Muertos and Fiesta Navidad celebrations.
History of Old Town
Approximately one mile long and half a mile wide, Old Town adorns the setting for the first Spanish settlement in California. In 1769, Gaspar de Portola and Junipero Serra built the San Diego Presidio and the Mission San Diego de Alcala on a hill above the San Diego River. A town was established on land at the foot of the hill because the area was protected by the nearby fortification. Although the mission moved five years later, the fort and town remained in the same location.
The town became the commercial and governmental hub for the region after Mexican independence. San Diego would be designated a pueblo, or chartered town, in 1834 and was vividly described in the classic Richard Henry Dana, Jr. memoir “Two Years Before the Mast.” It was in the plaza that the American flag was first raised over San Diego in 1848. The community was designated the seat of San Diego County when California was admitted into the Union in 1850. Two decades later, the center of San Diego was relocated to the area occupied by today’s downtown. In 1872, portions of the community burned, and New Town became the center of San Diego. Old Town San Diego Historic Park was created to protect the historic buildings that remained from that bygone era.
Must See Exhibits
In addition to the preserved structures, the park also includes several accurate reconstructions. The visitor center is housed in the reconstructed Robinson-Rose House. Originally built in 1853, the two-story structure served as the offices for the San Diego Herald and the Gila Railroad. It was also used as a schoolroom, the county clerk’s office and a jail cell. The visitor center features a diorama depicting Old Town as it appeared in 1892. The exhibits inside the McCoy House Interpretive Center offer a timeline of the American continent beginning 20,000 years ago. They include information on the Kumeyaay people who first inhabited the region as well as the area’s Spanish, Mexican and American periods.
Dating from 1860, the blacksmith shop offers live re-enactments while the reconstructed Seeley Stable and Livery houses a collection of horse-drawn carriages, wagons and buggies from the mid-19th century. The Colorado House was built in 1851. A successful hotel in its heyday, the reconstructed building is the setting for the Wells Fargo Museum that displays exhibits related to mining, banking and overland stagecoach travel.
The park contains several historic adobe structures built circa 1830. The Casa de Estudillo is one of the oldest extant adobe mansions in California. Considered one of the finest homes of its day, the mansion serves as a backdrop in Helen Hunt Jackson’s story “Ramona.” Over the years, the Casa de Machado y Silvas was a family residence, a boarding house and a restaurant. The former residence of a Presidio soldier, the Casa de Machado y Stewart boasts lime-washed walls, a barrel-shaped, clay tile roof and a lovely garden. The Little Adobe Chapel served as a parish church and kindergarten for many years. The first Catholic burial ground in San Diego, El Campo Santo Cemetery contains the graves of many of the city’s founding fathers.
The Mormon Battalion helped construct the First Brick Courthouse, which was the first brick-fired public edifice in Old Town. It served as the town hall, the mayor’s office and a schoolhouse. There was a jail cell behind the building. Built in 1855, the Mason Street Schoolhouse features vintage desks. The institution was the first public school in San Diego. Prefabricated in Maine and shipped to San Diego around Cape Horn, the wood-frame San Diego Union building is decorated as the newspaper enterprise looked when its first edition was published in 1868. Train aficionados will enjoy the scale-model toy locomotives and layout of San Diego in the Old Town Model Railroad Depot.
Know Before You Go
Admission to the Old Town State Historic Park and the individual museums is free of charge. A guided tour is available for a fee. From October through April, the museums are open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. They close at 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. During May through September, the attractions are open each day from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. The museums are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. In addition to the exhibits, you can enjoy interpretive programs, picnic areas and geocaching stash hunts. Free street parking is available. You can also reach the historic park by public transportation. The nearby Old Town Station provides visitors access to several surface bus routes as well as the Green line on San Diego’s light rail system.
There are several other popular attractions near Old Town State Historic Park.
Presidio Park is the location of the hill where the fort and mission were first constructed. In addition to acres of open space with marvelous views of the surrounding area, the park contains the Junipero Serra Museum. Designed by John Nolen in the Spanish Revival style, the museum was built in 1929 and contains exhibits related to the founding of San Diego.
Mormon Battalion Historic Site:
The Mormon Battalion Historic Site honors the legacy of the U.S. military’s only religious-based unit and their heroic 2,000-mile overland march for service during the Mexican-American War. Featuring state-of-the-art exhibits, the museum documents the impact their service had on the history of California and the United States. A statue of a Mormon infantryman was erected in Presidio Park in 1969.
Heritage Park is the setting for several wonderful examples of Victorian-style architecture as well as many other historic homes. Some of the buildings were moved from other areas of San Diego for preservation. The park also contains San Diego’s first synagogue.
The oldest brick structure in San Diego, the Whaley House was built in 1865. Its north room once housed the county courthouse until the records were moved to “New Town” in 1871. Considered one of the most haunted buildings in America, the home is furnished with period pieces and Whaley family heirlooms.