SAN DIEGO: Hotel del Coronado's Rich History

Like many travelers, my wife and I always find our travels more interesting when we can learn a bit about the history of our surroundings. During a visit to San Diego's venerable Hotel del Coronado, we learned a great deal.

“There are two miracles about the Hotel del Coronado," historian Christine Donovan told my wife and me. "That it was ever built at all; and that it's still here."

This 400-room, four-star hotel was the brainchild of two investors from the Midwest U.S.: Elisha S. Babcock, Jr. and Hampton L. Story. In 1885, they set about turning Coronado Island, then essentially a desert, into a plush resort. To do that, they had to import literally everything: water, food, lumber for the hotel, foliage for the landscaping, electricity. They even started ferry service to shuttle workers and supplies from the city across the bay.

The hotel's historic buildings

The Gold Rush that began in 1849 had propelled California to statehood, and statehood propelled the expansion of the railroad. By 1885, railroad barons were contemplating two locations for the tracks' Western terminus: Los Angeles and San Diego.

Babcock and Story had adopted a philosophy similar to that of Sir William Van Horne, the first general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, who said, "If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists." The two men were betting the railroad would come to San Diego, bringing tourists with it.

Just as the finishing touches were being added in 1888, a fateful decision was made: the railroad would go to Los Angeles. Babcock and Story would have to find another way to keep their new hotel afloat. They joined forces with John D. Spreckles, son of the sugar magnate.

With its financial pressures temporarily held at bay, the four-year-old hotel suffered a different type of tribulation: a social scandal. On Thanksgiving Day 1892, a woman calling herself Lottie Bernard checked in alone - quite unusual for the late 19th century. Five days later, she was found dead on a stairway of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Ghost of Kate Morgan entering a room
Photo provided by Hotel Del

The coroner who searched the dead woman's room – then 302; now 3327 - found a suitcase, which was odd as the woman had checked in carrying only a small handbag. The parties eventually learned that the guest's real name was Kate Morgan. Rumor has it that she and her husband, a card sharp, worked the trains that crisscrossed the continent. Posing as brother and sister, she would distract the other men so that her husband could work his deceptions on his card-playing partners. Her reasons for taking her own life are lost to history, but by some accounts, Kate Morgan's ghost is not. It still reportedly makes periodic appearances in her room and on a nearby staircase.

During the Roaring '20s, the hotel flourished, thanks in part to a railroad spur the hoteliers built to stay true to their early vision of the hotel as a destination for the well-to-do who would arrive by train. The spur included a siding for parking the private rail cars of the elite few who arrived in such grand style.

Guest room situated inside one of the red turrets

The Hotel Del's amenities included hot and cold running salt water, thought at the time to have curative properties. Many a guest chose to take a salt-water soak in their room, rather in the natural salt water of the Pacific Ocean, which washed up on a beach a few hundred yards from the hotel's verandas.

Nobility visited the hotel during that time of opulence, including Edward, Prince of Wales. The popular story has it that Edward first met Wallis Warfield Simpson, the woman for whom he would eventually abdicate his throne, at the Hotel del Coronado, and certainly its romantic ambiance would seem the perfect setting. However, Donovan says credible records show that Simpson, then married to the first commanding officer of nearby North Island Naval Air Station, was away from San Diego during the time of the Prince's visit, making such an encounter unlikely. "Now," Donovan relates, "We like to say, 'If they didn't meet here, they should have!”

The hotel's magnificent Crown Room, with chandeliers designed by Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, was the setting for a 1927 celebration dinner honoring aviator Charles Lindbergh after the 25-year-old pilot completed his historic nonstop transatlantic solo flight between New York City and Paris.

The hotel's historic buildings at night

Then came the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. By contrast to the extravagance of the '20s, the '30s were years to be survived. Records that Donovan unearthed at the University of California, San Diego included an income and expense ledger showing an ever-shrinking guest registry, and ever-growing monetary losses throughout those troubled times. The low point came on October 16, 1933, when the hotel's nearly 400 rooms housed a total of nine registered guests.

World War II and the hotel's proximity to North Island Naval Air Station brought back boom times. Although the military commandeered many U.S. hotels and turned them into hospitals for the war wounded, the Del remained a hotel, and even became a de facto Officer's Club. "Many months, the bar income carried the place," Donovan says.

The war also saw the debut of the first waitresses at The Del. Until then, only men had served the hotel's customers. But, due to the manpower demands of the Second World War, the hotel added waitresses to handle the duties previously held by the men who were now serving in the armed forces.

Ironically, post-war prosperity brought new difficulties for The Del. The automobile came to prominence, and the traveling public soon became fascinated with the "motor hotel," or motel as they're known today. As a result, hotels like the Hotel Del suffered. Donovan relates, "Travelers became infatuated with the new-fangled notion of driving right up to the door of their room."

The hotel got a shot in the arm in 1958 when it was chosen as the location for the Marilyn Monroe movie, "Some Like It Hot." Since then, balance has returned to the tourism trade, with many travelers again opting for the more civilized surroundings of fine hotels like The Del.

The Coronado Bay Bridge, completed in 1969, took miles off the drive from downtown San Diego, making it much easier for many more motorists to discover - or rediscover - this fabulous old hotel.

Aerial view of the Hotel Del Coronado and the Coronado Bay Bridge
Photo provided by Hotel Del

In its history, it has hosted 11 U.S. presidents, including Benjamin Harrison who was the first to visit in 1891, William Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, and every president from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush.

Refurbished rooms offer 21st-century amenities with 19th-century charm. Guests can enjoy al fresco breakfast or lunch at the Sheerwater, have dinner at 1500 OCEAN, or gaze out over the blue vistas of the Pacific from a convivial bar named after the hotel's founders, Babcock and Story.

A number of historical artifacts are already on display throughout the hotel, and Donovan plans to add many more in the months ahead. All in all, the Hotel del Coronado is well prepared to maintain its level of hospitality into the third century in which it has served.

The hotel offers rooms, lanais and suites in the Historic Victorian Building, contemporary Ocean Towers and California Cabanas, and luxury cottages and villas at Beach Village. Numerous recreational facilities are available at or very near the hotel.

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Photos by Carl Dombek unless otherwise indicated
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