The San Diego Union-Tribune -By KARLA PETERSON COLUMNIST --OCT. 18, 2020
'Empire Builder' explores the legacy of John D. Spreckels, the man who built San Diego
Sandra Bonura's new book, 'Empire Builder: John D. Spreckels and the Making of San Diego,' reveals the man behind the city
He died in 1926, almost 30 years before she was born. But like many native San Diegans who came before and after her, Sandra Bonura grew up in the world John D. Spreckels built.
Bonura's mother worked on Coronado Island, where — at one time or another during his late 19th- and early 20th-century heyday — Spreckels had owned North Island, the San Diego-Coronado Ferry System, the Coronado Beach Company and the Hotel Del Coronado. As a girl, Bonura often spent weekends with her grandmother at the Hotel Metropole boarding house, where she could see the marquee of the grand Spreckels Theater from the lobby window. From her grandmother's second-floor room, Bonura had a fine view of what used to be D Street, which Spreckels renamed Broadway and developed into a thoroughfare worthy of six of his own buildings.
But before he was the man who gave San Diego electric streetcars, its first skyscraper and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, John D. Spreckels was the son of a hardworking German immigrant, a rebellious son who left the family's booming sugar business to make his mark on a nowhere town that he loved at first sight. It was that John D. Spreckels — the man with the humble German roots and the immigrant work ethic — who convinced author Bonura that the story of the other John D. Spreckels — the powerful, ambitious man who put San Diego on multiple maps — was a tale she could tell.
With her new biography, "Empire Builder: John D. Spreckels and the Making of San Diego," Bonura hopes to do justice to both of them.
Born in 1853 in Charleston, S.C., John Diedrich Spreckels was never going to be a man who thought small. His German-born father started his American life working in a New York grocery store. He moved his family to San Francisco, and after opening a few breweries, Claus got into the sugar-refining business. By 1880, the Spreckels California Sugar Refinery was producing 50 million pounds of sugar a year, and Claus Spreckels was on his way to being named one of the richest men in the world.
In "Empire Builder," Bonura shows that one of costs of being Claus' oldest son was a shortchanged childhood. At 10, John was pulled away from school and his beloved piano lessons to accompany Claus on a fact-finding trip to New York. By the time he was 13, John was listed as the company's vice president.
"Originally I thought, 'I'm not going to like this guy at all.' He seemed so brutal and antagonistic," Bonura said from her home in Del Cerro. "But the more I learned about him, the more I saw what he sacrificed. He didn't want to be in the sugar business, but he was the vice president of his father's company at 13. Where was his childhood? "
John may have preferred a different career, but as his brothers Adolph B., Claus A. (nicknamed "Gus") and Rudolph also found out, being part of the Spreckels sugar empire was not optional. And as the family embarked on a lucrative and controversial expansion into Hawaii, John honed the aggressive, uncompromising business style that would serve him well once he found something that he really wanted.Just one month before his 34th birthday, John D. Spreckels found that something. And it was us.
Spreckels' first glimpse of his future came in July of 1887, when he sailed his yacht into San Diego Bay to find a small town in the midst of a frenzied land boom. With encouragement from brash young developer Elisha Spurr Babcock Jr., Spreckels built San Diego a new wharf and coal bunker, which would help spur San Diego's growth while fortuitously benefiting Spreckels' thriving shipping business.
Thanks to his ability to ride out the land bust of 1888, the sugar prince used the family's power and his own considerable wealth and business prowess to make San Diego his own.
And in the process, he made San Diego.
"If you are looking at the period from the 1880s through the 1920s, Spreckels was the single most important person in driving growth in the city," said Andy Strathman, a lecturer in Cal State San Marcos' history department and the co-editor of the Journal of San Diego History, which is published by the San Diego History Center.
"One way to envision what Spreckels meant to San Diego generally is that he could get up in the morning in his home on Coronado, take the Spreckels ferry to San Diego, disembark at the Spreckels wharf and walk down Broadway, which was his little stretch of San Diego. He owned the San Diego Union and the Tribune. He was responsible for naming Broadway. That is how much he was responsible for that growth."
In keeping with the title of her book, Bonura chronicles the building of Spreckels' San Diego Empire, which came to include the San Diego Union and Tribune newspapers, the San Diego Electric Railway, the San Diego and Arizona Railway, and Belmont Park. He helped bring the 1915 Panama-California Exposition to Balboa Park. He created the zoo's first elephant enclosure.
But a formidable subject like John D. Spreckels deserves an intrepid biographer, and if anyone was going to get to the heart of the man behind the buildings, it was going to be Bonura.
Bonura is also a history buff and a writer, two loves that she combined to write her first two books. Her 2012 book — "An American Girl in the Hawaiian Islands: Letters of Carrie Prudence Winter, 1890-1893" — looked at life in Hawaii during the last years of the monarchy through the letters of a young teacher. Her 2017 book, "Light in the Queen's Garden," told the true story of Ida May Pope, an Oberlin College-educated teacher and activist who played a surprising role in Hawaiian history during the 1893 Hawaiian Revolution and beyond.
While Bonura was doing her deep-diving research into Pope's life, she discovered that John D. Spreckels — the man from the theater marquee of her San Diego childhood — had been a close friend of Hawaii's Queen Lili'uokalani. In the process of satisfying her curiosity about this unlikely connection, Bonura amassed enough new research — diaries, oral histories, many personal photos and records from Spreckels' surviving family members — to curate a 2018 exhibit for the Coronado Historical Association's museum.
That exhibit kickstarted what would become "Empire Builder," a 440-page book that looks at both the empire and the man. In addition to Spreckels' many achievements, we hear about the cutthroat deals, the lawsuits, the brawling family dramas and the controversial power plays that only a man with his outsized influence could pull off.
We also hear about Spreckels' love of family and music. We hear how he gave Coronado its first library and San Diego its first Japanese gardens. We see him as the philanthropist who avoided the spotlight and the titan who was deathly afraid of public speaking.
Ultimately, we see the many sides of the man who saw San Diego as town with the potential to become so much more. The man who was determined to get us there.
"People would be amazed at the lengths he went to to build San Diego and to employ its inhabitants and to give people are reason to get up in the morning and do things. Everything he did made life easier for people. He even gave them Mission Beach, which made life fun." said Spreckels' great-granddaughter Virginia Wilson, who lives in Napa County and provided Bonura with many family records and mementos.
"He gave his life for San Diego, and I don't want his legacy to be forgotten. That is what is so important to me about this book."
2020 Book Endorsements for EMPIRE BUILDER.
"Every San Diegan, who is into local history, will love reading about the most powerful and influential person to have ever lived in our city. At last, here is the definitive book on John D. Spreckels, a titan who came here and ended up seeming to own or control everything in town. His financial, real estate, railroad, newspaper, utilities, and hotel empire was simply staggering, and to this day his legacy is everywhere in San Diego. To read Sandra Bonura's biography of John D. Spreckles is to understand how many of the very foundations of America's Finest City came to be."
Creator and Host of Ken Kramer's "About San Diego" on KPBS-TV
"If you've never heard the name John D. Spreckels, buckle up. With exhaustive research and a storyteller's flair, historian Sandra E. Bonura offers a sweeping narrative of one of the nation's most important and unjustly forgotten industrialists. Emerging from the shadow of his sugar baron father, Spreckels mastered what is now called "vertical integration," controlling sugar production, steamships, railroads, and water. He built a major city and bought up the newspapers that dared to question him. From Hawai'i to California to the boardrooms of great companies, Bonura weaves a tale that is at once epic and intimate. At the heart is an unapologetic capitalist who passionately believed he was a force for good. More than just fascinating history, Empire Builder provides a valuable case study for our current debate over the place of capitalism in American society."
Award winning Author/Historian/Editor/Journalist and recognized expert on America's Founding.
"A sweetly told story of not only an important figure in San Diego – and California – history but of a fractious family that helped give America its sweet tooth."
Roland De Wolk
Award-winning investigative journalist and author
"Sandra Bonura is an award-winning author for her Hawaiiana research, and she breaks new ground exploring John Spreckels' escapades and incredible accomplishments across the Pacific. Bonura has a penchant for finding obscured truths in history and retells them vividly and honestly. Our film on Queen Liliuokalani credits Bonura's scholarship and illustrates her love for storytelling. The Empire Builder's story does not disappoint."
National Award-Winning Documentary Film Writer & Director
"Bonura here takes a deep and satisfying dive into the history of one of the leading families of the West's
Gilded Age. Heir to his father's sugar empire, J.D. Spreckels added steamships, urban construction, and civic activism to a San Diego-centered fortune that helped define the peculiar shape of American capitalist development. The narrative is accompanied by fascinating narrative tangents, including Spreckel's bailout of both Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani and Ted Williams's mother as well as his engagement in women's suffrage and the elite pleasures of Bohemian Grove."
Distinguished Author/Historian/Editor and recognized expert on labor unions and immigration.
"At last, John D. Spreckels is presented in a thorough and well written narrative based upon journals, documents, and private papers of the famous Spreckels Family. Through source materials formerly unavailable, masterful research, and clear writing, Sandee Bonura has allowed readers to more fully understand the motives and genius of J. D. Spreckels. The book, definitely a page turner, should appeal to a wide audience seeking to learn the role of the powerful Spreckels family in business and transportation during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "
Recognized authority on San Diego's history
"Today's San Diegans encounter the name of John D. Spreckels on a regular basis, but few realize the massive role this scion of a sugar magnate played in creating modern San Diego. Sandra Bonura's book is a must-read for those who wish to understand how a Gilded Age entrepreneur came to exert such an influence on the economic and political life of the city. The aptly titled Empire Builder provides an engaging account of Spreckels' role in infrastructure development, real estate, and local media. Bonura expertly conveys the passion and drive of a man who invested his fortune and energy in building San Diego, a sometimes herculean task that earned him praise but also the enmity of those who resented his dominance."
Theodore "Andy" Strathman
Co-editor, The Journal of San Diego History
As a railroad historian and lecturer, I am delighted to finally see the publishing of Ms. Bonura's accurate biography of "Mister San Diego" John D. Spreckels, undoubtedly the most influential figure in the early history of that city. Although best remembered as a transportation magnate and builder of the final link in the transcontinental rail system, the "Impossible" San Diego & Arizona Railway. he led in almost every aspect of a developing southwest region including water and agriculture. This work is long overdue and should be a "must read" for anyone with an interest in our history."
Archivist/ historian, Pacific Southwest Railway Museum.
"Bonura is a noted researcher of Hawaiian history and the winner of the Hawaii's Book Publishers Association nonfiction award, Ka Palapala Po'okela for "Light in the Queen's Garden." In her research, she discovered J.D. Spreckels' historically ignored place during the final decade of the Hawaiian kingdom. This book will not only guide you to a world of business and wealth but will tell you the fascinating story, private until now, behind Spreckels' success."
Author/Historian/recognized expert on Immigrant Entrepreneurship
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Light in the Queen's Garden: Ida May Pope, Pioneer for Hawai'i's Daughters, 1862–1914 is an historical account of a woman from the heartland of America who landed in the Kingdom of Hawai`i at the end of the 19th century. When young Oberlin graduate, Ida Pope accepted a "temporary" teaching job in a boarding school for Hawaiian girls, founded by American missionaries and led by Queen Lili'uokalani, she couldn't have imagined it would become a lifelong career of service to Hawaiian women. Nor could she have envisioned she would become closely involved in the greatest political turmoil the Hawaiians had ever experienced.
Newly discovered primary sources are used to flesh out and enliven the historical account of the 1893 Hawaiian Revolution that happened literally outside the school's windows. A day-by-day accounting of the events surrounding the coup d'état through the eyes of Pope's young pupils is offered for the first time. Lili'uokalani's adopted daughter's long-lost oral history recording, many of Pope's teaching contemporaries' unpublished diaries, letters, scrapbooks and photos tell a story that has never been told before.
Towering royal personages in Hawai`i's history, King Kalākaua, Queen Lili`uokalani, Princess Ka`iulani and others, appear as Pope sheltered Hawai`i's daughters through the frightening and turbulent end of their sovereign nation. Pope was present during the life celebrations of the king, and then his sad death rituals. She then had the extraordinary opportunity to travel with the queen on her controversial trip to Kalaupapa's "Leper Colony" to visit Saint Marianne Cope and afflicted pupils.
Pope became a source of inspiration for Hawai`i's educational leaders and with the endorsement of Lili`uokalani and Charles Bishop, established the Kamehameha School for Girls in 1894 funded by the estate of Princess Pauahi Bishop, the last of the royal Kamehameha line. Pope furthered her own education with courses at the University of Chicago. Inspired by John Dewey and others, she shaped and reshaped Kamehameha's curriculum through a process of conflict and compromise. Fired up by the era's doctrine of social and vocational relevance, she adapted the curriculum to prepare her students for entry into meaningful careers. Lili`uokalani's daughter, Lydia Kaʻonohiponiponiokalani Aholo, was placed in the school and Pope played a significant role in mothering and shaping her future, especially during the years the queen was fighting to restore her kingdom.
As Hawai`i moved into the 20th century under a new flag, Ida tenaciously confronted the effects of industrialization, the growing concentration of outside economic power and worked tirelessly to attain social reforms to give Hawaiian women their rightful place in society. But, the male-dominated society and their Victorian view of the female role sought to thwart her efforts. Undaunted, Pope, the pragmatic activist, achieved on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, what other extraordinary women like Jane Addams, Ida Tarbell and Lillian Wald did concurrently in her homeland.