Two 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 Valley 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 " squatters."
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 than 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 to 37,618.
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 street.*
Below are some interesting books and publications about out history and about our past:
"The History of El Cajon - Valley of Opportunity" by ElDonna Lay
"Timeline of El Cajon Fire Department 1892-2000" by E. C. Jarell
"El Cajon California 1967" by the Chamber of Commerce
"Annual Report of 1957" by the City of El Cajon
"History of El Cajon Officials 1912- 2012" by the City of El Cajon
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 based.