San Diego is one of the most culturally diverse cities in America, with people of all ethnicities making a huge impact on its history. From its early beginnings to present day San Diego, we take a look at the people who shaped America’s Finest City.
1. Ronald Reagan
On August 3, 1969, Ronald Reagan opened the Coronado Bridge. He received a standing ovation as he began his principal address.
As Governor of California, Reagan played an instrumental role in the construction of Coronado Bridge. Today, there are calls to rename this major San Diego landmark in honor of the former US President. Reagan also considered San Diego his “lucky city” in elections—he consistently won the county and often ended his campaigns there.
2. Frank Kimball
In 1868, Frank Kimball and his brothers, Warren and Levi, purchased Rancho de la Nación, a ranch that became San Diego County’s National City. Kimball quickly started construction, building the first modern settlement in the county, complete with a bathtub and hot running water.
It was through his work establishing road and rail networks that Kimball helped the region to flourish. He and his brothers introduced modern transportation to the community. This facilitated sea-bound imports and the area’s first post office.
They also imported trees from Asia and Europe, which still stand today as a testament to the Kimball family’s impact on San Diego’s history.
3. Albert Halfhill
In the early 1900s, Albert P. Halfhill was one of the first people to start canning tuna in California. The industry would become a huge driver of the economy in Southern California, especially in San Diego.
Initially, canned albacore tuna was unpopular locally. Halfhill began shipping his product to New York, where he found instantaneous demand.
In the early part of the 20th century, San Diego’s tuna fishing and canning industry grew rapidly. Today, Americans consume nearly a billion pounds of tuna every year. Bumble Bee, America’s largest canned seafood company, is still based in San Diego today.
4. Kate Sessions
Kate Sessions is one of San Diego’s most celebrated horticulturalists. Born in 1857, she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a science degree at a time when women seldom pursued a university education. Together with her friends, Mr. and Mrs. Solon Blaisdell, Sessions established the San Diego Nursery.
As the owner of several flower shops and nurseries throughout San Diego, Sessions gained both local and national notoriety in horticultural circles. She experimented with plant introductions, landscaping, and teaching classes for both children and adults. In 1939, she received the Frank N. Meyer Medal from the American Genetic Association.
Her greatest legacy lives on in Balboa Park, where she planted more than 100 trees every year. Her work earned her the moniker “Mother of Balboa Park.” In particular, she is known for importing and popularizing the jacaranda, a sub-tropical tree with pale bluish-purple flowers that is now found throughout San Diego. Today, a bronze statue of Kate Sessions stands in Balboa Park in her honor.
5. Father Junipero Serra
In 1769, Catholic priest Father Junipero Serra established Mission San Diego de Acalá—the first Spanish mission in what would become California. Over the ensuing years, Mission San Diego de Acalá would form the nucleus of European settlement in the area.
Ultimately, Father Serra founded eight more missions along a route extending north to San Francisco. He devoted his life to evangelizing and is attributed with introducing Catholicism to California. In 2015, he was canonized as a saint by Pope Francis I.
6. Robert Oscar Peterson
This famous San Diegan entrepreneur is best known as the founder of the fast food chain Jack in the Box. The son of a dairy salesman, Peterson was a talented organizer and promoter, founding the Collegiate Club in Balboa Park and using the revenue to fund his San Diego State College education.
Peterson established Topsy’s, a drive-in restaurant in San Diego, before serving in the Navy during World War II. When he returned from the war, he renamed his restaurant Oscar’s, changing the concept of “drive-in” to “drive-through.” This idea revolutionized the fast-food industry, influencing the way millions of people eat all around the world to this day.
Peterson opened his flagship Jack in the Box restaurant in San Diego in 1950. By 1967, when he sold the chain, he had seen his company grow to more than 300 restaurants nationwide.
7. Leon Williams
Leon Williams was San Diego’s first African American city councilman, as well as the first and only African American supervisor in San Diego County.
During his many decades of public service, Williams championed forward-thinking initiatives. He advocated for needle-exchanges to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, and the provision of freeway call boxes to help stranded drivers long before people had cellphones. He championed civic rights and pushed for downtown revitalization, better transit options, smart growth, and tougher anti-smoking laws. In 2017, the city council named a block of E Street in his honor. Some 70 years prior, Williams was the first African American person to own a home on that block.
8. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo
Cabrillo is the Spanish explorer credited with the European discovery of California. He set out from Mexico, sailed north, and landed in San Diego in September 1542, seeking refuge from a storm.
The Spanish explorer is the namesake of San Diego’s Cabrillo National Monument. The “very good enclosed port,” as Cabrillo described it, is now San Diego Bay. His namesake monument is located near the spot where he is thought to have anchored his flagship, the San Salvador.
Cabrillo and his men next sailed north to Monterey Bay and possibly as far as Point Reyes, north of San Francisco Bay. They did not find the bay itself, however. Cabrillo later died following a skirmish with the Native people of the Channel Islands in 1543.