Rose Canyon History


compiled from multiple sources

by Harry Mathis

City of San Diego Brochure:

The Kumeyaay Indians originally inhabited Rose Canyon thousands of years ago. There was a seasonal village in the canyon where the Kumeyaay would camp around the waterholes and streams, hunt game, gather acorns from the abundant Coastal Live Oaks, and weave baskets from the Arroyo Willow trees.

The first recorded history in Rose Canyon begins with Juan Gaspar Portola’s expedition to San Diego in 1769, which was inhabited by Mexican ranchers. In 1853, Louis Rose, who the canyon is named after, purchased about 650 acres and built a ranch, a tannery, planted a vineyard, and mined coal deposits and clay. In 1882, the California Southern Railroad completed a track through the canyon and by 1912, the Elvira Station was a train stop near Gilman Drive. Subsequent landowners expanded on Rose’s notion of using Rose Canyon commercially and the Sawday Ranch was maintained until the 1960’s, when the last structures were removed.

San Diego Historical Society:

Louis Rose purchased ranch land in Las Yeguas Canyon, which came to be known as Rose Canyon, located a few miles north of town on the stage road to Los Angeles. Rose’s ranch consisted of 1,920 acres in 1856, according to a contemporary account. It was acquired by him “in separate quarter sections at the public sales of the city lands, [Rose] paying high in order to secure a large tract in a compact body.” Rose felt that his ranch land had appreciated tremendously from his estimated original cost of eight dollars per acre. The ranch included a four-acre garden, a vineyard, tobacco acreage, and ample pasture for the twenty head of cattle and the 100 horses and mules which he owned. Wells on the property supplied water and two creeks flowed through the ranch during the rainy season, leaving pools reinforced by natural springs as they emptied into False Bay (now Mission Bay). These constituted a constant water supply for the livestock and for irrigation.

Louis Rose was ever alert for the opportunity to turn waste to use and loss to profit. In the fall of 1853 it was reported that “Our enterprising friend Rose, has commenced a tannery on his ranch, on quite a large scale, so that the immense quantity of hides that are yearly thrown away in this part of the State, will be turned to some account.

The new tannery was located on his ranch in Las Yeguas Canyon, better known as Rose Canyon , a few miles north of town. A report on the productivity of the tannery at the beginning of 1854 stated that the “leather is tanned and finished in the most thorough and complete manner, and equals the best article in the markets of Philadelphia and Boston.” It appears that Nissan Alexander was a tanner who gained his experience in those communities. The establishment, only a few months after its inception, was “being increased in its capacity for production [occasioned] by the enterprise of its proprietor.” It was expected that when the operation was fully developed it would “give employment to a large number of men.”

Judge Benjamin Hayes wrote a description of the tannery and its operation which he observed in the fall of 1856. It was still the only such facility in San Diego County.

“There are 20 bark vats, six lime and water vats, two cisterns containing 500 gallons each, a new bark mill, an adobe house for currying the leather (each vat will contain from 80 to 100 sides), force pumps, and everything else for a complete establishment. He [Rose] now, makes 3500 sides a year, and 1000 skins of deer, goat, sheep, seal, and sea-lion. Many goat-skins have been brought from some island [Guadalupe], where goats abound, about 70 miles distant, off the coast of Lower California. Seal are abundant off our own coast. Last year he sold $8000 worth of leather at San Francisco; it was much praised there. Oak bark is obtained ten miles from the tannery in abundance; it costs from $12 to $15 per ton, delivered. He employs one head tanner at $100 per month; two assistants, at $35 each; and three laborers. at $10 each; boarding them. Indian laborers, $8, Mexicans, $10, both classes easily got here. Hides easily obtained to keep tannery always in operation; trades for them a good deal, with shoes, saddles, and botas [small leather wine bags] made here of his leather. Today I found him cutting out the soles and uppers, “having little else to do” as he said. The uppers are of deer skin. These are manufactured by a Mexican shoemaker according to Mexican style. They do well in dry weather. Sides at San Francisco bring from $5 to $8. Deerskins, goat, etc., bear the standing price of $3 apiece.”

San Diego historical accounts generally hold that Rose’s tannery was closed following the death of the owner’s nephew and head tanner, Nissan J. Alexander, in 1854.  However, as indicated by the Hayes diary quoted above, it was in full operation as late as mid-September, 1856. While the date of its closing is not clearly established, following the April 20, 1872, fire in Old Town, it is known that Rose maintained a saddlery at the same location and employed Indian silversmiths who decorated saddles and trappings and who achieved fame for their intricate workmanship.

In mid-1873, a press report told of Rose’s second venture in the hotel business: He also opened a brick yard in Rose Canyon as one of his developments.46 Two boxcars full of clay were extracted from the hillsides of Rose Canyon EVERY DAY FOR 50 YEARS and used for making 15,000,000 bricks a year.  The brick factory had its workers living in houses made of brick on the floor of the canyon. A landmark of the factory was its leaning brick smokestack which stood there for 74 years, but fell during a rainstorm January 20, 1962.  The bricks were reportedly used to build fireplaces in Rancho Bernardo. In 1965, the brick factory was sold to Bruce Hazard.  The brick homes of the workers in the community of Ladrillo in Rose Canyon were dismantled.  Many of the descendants of the Mexican-American families who worked at this factory for several generations have formed the Rose Canyon Historical Society and are trying to preserve this history.

Also, in the early 1880’s, George Selwyn, a rancher of cattle and sheep, lost 1,600 of his sheep in a freak snowstorm in Rose Canyon.

Rose was in and out of mining activities for many years. Not only did he have gold, silver and copper interests, but he also mined for coal at the mouth of Rose Canyon and at that same locale he apparently found valuable clay deposits.53

Rose’s passing occurred on February 12, 1888. He was almost 81

In October, 1933, Leroy A. Wright, president of the San Diego Historical Society, indicated that he wished to mark the site of Rose Canyon in order to honor its founder, Louis Rose, and likewise mark the location of Southern California’s first tannery which Rose had established. This was the beginning of the movement to erect the Rose monument.103

An invitation was issued to the public for the dedication of the memorial at the site, located at the head of Rose Canyon. This was on the coast highway at the intersection of La Jolla highway. The event was scheduled for the afternoon of May 30, 1934. The invitation described Rose as “a pioneer citizen of San Diego, for whom Roseville and Rose Canyon were named. He was one of the early citizens whose enterprise helped to start building in the city of San Diego.”104

The dedication of the large bronze marker which had been attached to a boulder at the head of Rose Canyon was witnessed by more than one hundred people.

In 1968, because of the construction of the University of California, San Diego, at the head of Rose Canyon, the old Highway 101 was rerouted. A local journalist, writing about the Rose monument before the site became part of the new campus, said that in those days

It would be a good wager that not 100 of the millions who passed that way, going south, knew that facing them on the center island just north of the intersection was a monument to the man for whom the canyon they were about to enter was named….No cars pass it now. A new building of the University of California here thrusts across what once were the southbound lanes of U.S. 101.106

In September, 1969, when Norton B. Stern was in San Diego gathering material for this article, he planned to take a photograph for the present study, having previously examined the bronze tablet on the boulder. As Masonic historian Orion Zink wrote, “When Dr. Stern visited the campus … he found the plaque missing, but presumed it had been removed for cleaning.” Stern apprised Zink of the absence of the plaque, whereupon he notified John E. Carroll, the engineer in charge of university construction. Carroll, realizing it had been stolen, notified the police who undertook efforts to recover it. Extensive newspaper publicity was given the theft in the hope that it would aid in the return of the bronze memorial.107 A university news release said, “In the confusion of bulldozers, heavy construction and new students, the plaque has disappeared.”108

Engineer Carroll had taken an excellent photograph of the plaque (reproduced with this article), and with it as a model arranged for the campus authorities to prepare a duplicate. In January, 1971, the replacement was mounted on the exact spot on the boulder which the original had occupied. The location is near the John Muir Building of the university. As Zink has noted, if Rose were to return today, he would not be surprised that his dreams for the development of his canyon came true.

Mountain Bike Web Site “Trail Reviews”:

(Rose Canyon) has to be some of the best Single Track left in San Diego! It’s a Fire/Hiking trail that runs next to a riverbead from 805 to the 5. I rate this ride as a medium Technical! Dont let the rolling single tracks fool ya. I’ve had freinds hurt themselvs on these tracks. From Riverbeads to 6inch single tracks this trail has got you covered. I havn’t seen a park ranger yet but keep an eye your speed.

Louis Rose

Louis Rose on one of his happier days.

“Louis Rose”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –